Girona


I’ve had something of an irritating itch this last week.  The diagnosis was a need to write a few lines for the blog, something that didn’t happen last week due to an enforced leave of absence…..50th Birthday.  Uncharted territory and all that.   Thursday and the 365th day of my 49th year, so what!  Just another day, normal routine, blah!  Friday 25th and a clutter of metaphysical questions reveal themselves; highly anthropocentric.  Half a century gone where and what now? Kind of Janus like, looking forward and looking back.  Back on family and friends and the many threads which together have made for an interesting tapestry of  life.   Forward to a future yet to reveal itself, but one which in the greater scheme of things looks more uncertain and unpredictable than one might have foretold a short while back.  But then again that might be a ‘punto de vista’  formulated as a result of the onset of the next age in life.

In short, I was treated  to a most memorable birthday weekend spent in the company of a very special friend and having dinner at one of Spain’s best restaurants, El Celler De Can Roca.  Five hours of ruminating over 12 courses, not including canopes, chocolates with dessert and a very special birthday cake.  I won’t wait another 50 years to repeat the experience.  Once bitten, not twice shy!

Back to reality and one week on, by the end of today I was smelling like a mobile barbeque.  The day was spent burning material collected from the garden – branches from the pruned hazel trees, bamboo roots and other pieces of organic detritus.  The hope is that we get the area to the west and north of the house sown out in grass in the next two or three weeks.  The ground is moist and in the main it is getting warmer, although driving to the house today the Pyrenees have more snow on them now than they have had all winter.  We have been itching to get some of the external building work done and plans for a garden shed, pergola and lean to for bikes are rapidly coming to a conclusion.

Inside, the first hints of finishes are beginning to appear.  A major surprise was to see the first bathroom tiles being fitted and looking good too.  In  our two ‘premium’ bedrooms, where the beds are situated in the middle of the room, the stone bedheads have been constructed.  On the main floor we have been presented with a couple of options for varnishing the beams and wood finishes.  The neutral option was not one of them and I guess it will be the preferred one.

Finally, in line with our desire to maintain the idiosyncratic character of the place something of a mystery has been installed on the wall of the main hall.  A tile bearing the neat and flowing inscription ‘Be Be Cueta Cueta Nial Nial’ was found by our builder.  It means nothing in Catalan or Spanish as far as we know, but it was there in the house and someone at some point took the time and effort to score it indelibly into the stone and so it will remain.

The schools in Catalunya broke up for the summer holidays five weeks ago and since then many of the kids have been occupied in Cases de Colonies (summer camps) of one form or another.  Our five year old son spent three weeks attending what could loosely be called a tennis camp…..swimming, tennis, gymkhana, water fight, tennis, clay workshop…..I am not a fan of the long Spanish school summer holidays (the primary reason given being the summer heat), but the one clear benefit is the opportunity for children to try a sport or some other such past time and should they get hooked pursue and hone those skills in future years.   It might be something of an oversimplification but there must be some correlation between the current crop of Spanish world champions – football, basketball – and individual winners – Contador, Nadal….Alonso aside and for another day.

And now the feel good tsunami that comes with the warmth of summer engulfed the weekly visita d’obres at La Rectoria today.  A cheery throng of owners, builder, aparellador and architect opened diaries and noted holiday dates and duly swapped vacation plans.  The  subcontractors sandblasting the wooden beams brought something of the seaside feel with the odd shower of black silicon dust finding its way toward us. 

Work continues on the roof and the second of three sections is now being reassembled.  The reinforcing cinturon, a belt of concrete and steel rods is firmly in-situ and the newly sandblasted beams and joists are being put back in place.  Some have been replaced as required from a stock Pere has, but all are of a considerable age in this section of the roof.  One had a distinctly different grain and hue, darker with black circular lines in places.  This I was told was fusta de riera, wood from a tree by the stream below the house.  Naively I then asked if timber for the original beams had been sourced locally.  If you could see the location of the house you’d realize what a dumb question that was, built as it was in an isolated valley long long ago.  

So these beams have been given a new lease of life and if they had a tale to tell I guess it would involve many man hours of sawing, chopping and cleaving.   Being hauled to the site by donkey, ox or horse and then cut to size and hoisted skyward and fixed in place until disturbed by Pere, Viçencs and Josep.

We were in turn joined by the Alcalde (Mayor) of Sant Feliu de Pallerols who seemed impressed by the work being undertaken.  He proceeded to recall childhood memories of time spent at the house with the then incumbent priest and housekeeper Paquita.

And so the visit drew to a close.  Holidays are at hand and we are about one month behind (our) schedule.  If this was an end of term school report I think the pupil would be getting ‘A’ grades, congratulatory back slaps and a chorus of well dones.  And so it should be for our team  and especially my wife Goretti who has kept one and all in check and monitored progress with I guess a sense of excitement and has learnt a good deal along the way.

This time next year and the finish line will be in sight…and the start of the next stage will be upon us.

Is writing a blog good for your health?   A demonstration that most of us do not know how to, or should not be allowed to write for public consumption?  Some collective therapeutic self cleansing exercise? Or, simply a desire to be heard?

As we the 7,000,000,001 members of humanity currently bumble about our daily tasks I do firmly believe that the best is behind us as a race.   And if someone/thing does come to mother earth, blogs might cast some light on the plight of us mere mortals who otherwise would be forgotten below the hubristic cacophony of our ineffectual leaders.

As I was saying!  It has been very busy week at the rectory.   Professional kitchen suppliers have come and gone to discuss the in and outs, whys and wherefores of extraction systems, salamanders, fridges and freezers, hand washing, food washing and dish washing sinks and more.  The carpenter to discuss windows and doors, dining table.  A ‘team’ have been on site sandblasting wooden beams with a silicon based powder and gear last seen on the set of ‘Ghost busters’….bulging steel bottles and lengths of rubber tubing, masks and visors.

And whilst all of this was going on a handsome, plump toad was found quite literally holed up in a corner of Silvestre’s bedroom.  Sadly, I did not witness this dear creature’s presence and all I know is that he was released unharmed.   More beautiful than any Gucci bag and certainly with greater poise than the weekly exhibitionists featured in ‘Hello’, this guy at least has style and purpose.

So what?  I hear you say.  Well, ask that question of the Madagascan Alaotra Grebe confirmed extinct this week and news that Polar Bears are nearing a ‘tipping point’ – meaning that their fragile survival is rapidly reaching a point of decline that is irreversible.   So our grandchildren will grow up with one less species of bird and probably Polar Bears confined to zoos at best.

And from one hopper to another…..I guess they broke the mould when Dennis Hopper came around.  ‘My, my, hey, hey…..it’s better to burn out than it is to fade away’ Amen.

Our visit to Sant Miquel this week was by way of a detour to the City of Girona.  A forty five minute drive up the AP7 motorway from Cardedeu to Girona, and then about another forty five minutes cross country to our house via Anglès, Amer and Les Planes d’Hostoles. The Catalans must be beginning to believe that the weather patterns common to Britain – rain, cloud and cool temperatures – are taking up permanent residence here.  The top of Montseny to the north of Cardedeu was carpeted in snow on Tuesday and much of Catalunya has been saturated this week.

So as we drove up the motorway the skies looked pretty ominous.  Low dark clouds hanging over the verdant green of the Pla de L’Estany.  Fields of newly sown corn, orchards of apples and pears and stands of poplar trees surrounding the grand masias all set against the hills and mountains to the west and north and the frontier with France. As we approached Girona the skies cleared and the stone flagged streets glistened with the recently departed rain.

Girona has a gem of a historic centre and one we have to get to know better.  The skyline of the old quarter “El Call” is dominated by the Cathedral from which runs a labyrinth of streets and alley ways down to the El Ter (The river Ter).  This part of the city yesterday played host to the annual ‘Temps de Flors’, flowers as art and artistic installation.  Public and private buildings and spaces are taken over for nine days by explosive floral creations. Patios are opened to sculptures of floral imagination which in turn bring smiles of delight.  Carpets of flowers cascading down the flights of stairs from the churches of Sant Marti and Sant Feliu. One needs no excuse to visit Girona, but ‘Temps de Flors’ would make it that much more memorable.

So we continued to La Rectoria.  The ground next to the house continues to look like a ploughed park, partly covered with earth and rubble.  Suddenly, however, with ample moisture and now with a modest increase in temperature, grasses and wild flowers have leapt upwards and the browns and greys of the surrounding wooded hillsides are now freshly green.

Now we have a damp proof membrane being installed in the basement.  On the uppermost floor preparations are nearly complete for the ‘compression layer` – concrete poured among and over mats of steel to strength the floor and house in general.  Word has it that the roof will be removed in June, to be replaced by something altogether more watertight and robust.

This week work on La Rectoria has been at a standstill .   Due not to some national strike in reaction to centrally imposed budget cuts, but instead to approximately half a metre of snow alighting on the roof and the surrounding area.  Yes, La Garrotxa received quite a dumping of snow.

Apparently the local village of Sant Feliu de Pallerols was without electricity for 24 hours and temperatures in the area fell to -14⁰c over the preceding days.  As a result we have not visited the house ourselves, but the builder and aperallador have, ensuring all is O.K. with a view to recommencing work on Monday.

This glitch in progress is nothing to what many thousands of Catalunya’s residents have had to endure since the blizzard on Monday.   Much of the Province of Girona has been without electricity, depriving people not only of light and heat but ultimately water in some cases as electrical water pumps have been rendered useless.

Although weather forecasters warned of the impending storm 48 hours or so in advance, little or no action was taken to help ameliorate the effects of any potential problems (sounds a little like another country I’ve lived in).   As a consequence Barcelona almost ground to a halt on Monday afternoon in only two or three inches of wet snow as drivers headed home on mass.  Some 3,000 trucks were stuck on the south side of the French frontier as the border crossing at La Jonquera was closed for two days.  And rail commuters (me included) had a difficult if not impossible journey home on Monday as trains were cancelled.

I eventually took a train to Mataró where Goretti collected me at 22.15.   The normally straight forward half hour drive from there to Cardedeu took SIX HOURS on roads largely bereft of snow.  Why?  Ask the Police who were largely ineffective and conspicuous by their absence.  No explanation was given to the several hundred car and truck drivers at the Tunel de Parpers.  Ho, hum.

So, nevermind.  Let’s look forward to next week.  Warmer weather and sunshine are forecast for the beginning of the week  and if that is the case we will be greeted by progress at the house and signs of spring in the surrounding countryside.

 

So what is there for ‘us’ to do at La Rectoria each time we pay a visit?  The most obvious thing now is to see how the past week’s work has progressed.  Given that we are now at the end of week four, Vicens the site foreman and his young colleague have not been hanging about.  Old plaster has been chipped from the walls on some ground floor rooms and the wall of main arch to the front has been broken through.  This has permitted a small Bob the Builder type digger access to the lower ground floor to remove about half a meter of soil and in the process reveal the depth of any pre existing foundations…..or not as may be the case.  Among other things the local building code requires some 2.40m of ceiling height, thus the need to remove so much soil.

So having nosed around to see what had been done, we set about our task for the day; some gardening.  Well hardly…a bit more like, ‘slash and burn’!   The majority of the ‘garden’ is what could loosely be called a lawn, a mix of grass, weeds and other things green.  To south and west this is bounded by a thickly wooded steep hillside.  To the east lies the house and small chapel and the pine tree (pineda) , which lends the house its name.  The northern edge of the lawn is marked by three or four hazel trees.  Here the land falls steeply away for five metres and is taken up in large part by some highly invasive BAMBOO.

Now I did have some prior knowledge as to what a nuisance bamboo can be.  But having bought this place we have discovered we have quite a job on our hands getting this little lot under control.  Much of it has grown to a height of four to six metres high.  So what? You might ask.  The bigger issue is that it has taken a liking to creeping beneath the soil and popping up three, four, five, six meters onto the lawn.  And boy does it feel at home.   Last summer we arrived after an absence of some four weeks to find new shoots standing a meter high in the grass!!  No need for triffids here.  I subsequently spent a sunstroke inducing afternoon trying to hack the stuff back.

The roots form a thick lattice across the garden, spreading like nebulous fingers beneath the soil.  I guess some mechanical solution might be needed in the longer term to break up the roots.  But for now we want to make a start in cutting back the main stand.  Thus the afternoon was spent gathering some old dead bamboo and burning it along with other garden waste. 

So can I make an appeal to any gardeners out there.  Is there a simple solution to bamboo management or is thermo nuclear warfare the only simple solution?  I would like to know your thoughts on the subject.  I await a reply from a well known tropical botanist in particular….

As a footnote I would like to add a wee thank you to Oscar, one of my English students who helped us on the way with our blog.  Take some time to visit his website www.enlamolchila.com.

Over the last two years or so the majority of our weekends, Saturdays at least, have been spent going from Cardedeu to the ‘Rectoria’.  This trip has been made markedly shorter over the last year by the completion of the new road from Vic to the Val d’en Bas, a not inconsiderable feat of engineering. 

The drive to Vic up the C17 from Barcelona becomes increasingly tortuous as you pass La Garriga.  The dual carriage way cuts through the steep valleys which divide the comarques (counties) of El Valles Oriental and Osona.   The orange and grey sandstone hillsides are covered with pines which run down to the boundaries of the villages shoe horned into the valley floor.   The road climbs steadily for about 10 km or so opening out on to the valley floor of Osona.  In winter your view might invariably be obscured by the ‘pea souper’ of a mist which envelopes the countryside and magnifies the chill of a cold winter day.  Sunny weather brings with it the early morning balloon flights over Vic, a welcome distraction for our wee passenger in the back of the car.

I guess I could be blindfolded, bundled into a car and driven up the C17 and I’d know when I was at or near Vic…..the giveaway is the smell of pig SHIT.  Yes, Catalans like most Spaniards love all things pork and the dear things have to come from somewhere.

So what about this feat of engineering!  That manifests itself twenty minutes or so after Vic in the form of five or six tunnels – Bracons – which now connect Osona and La Garrotxa.  The penultimate of which is 4500m or so long.  Leaving the last tunnel you are welcomed by a vista of snow capped mountains to the north and nearer to hand the dairy farms of the Val d’en Bas bounded to the west by the magnificent rocky mountain peaks of the Collada de Bracons.   You then only have a further 10 minutes drive before entering the Vall d’Hostoles and on down to the La Rectoria.

Yesterday was my first look at the house for about a month, previous weekends being occupied by Silvestre’s 5th Birthday Party and other matters.  My reaction I guess was a calm eek, jings and jeepers!   Walls had been knocked down and concrete applied on top of the stone arches to provide a ‘compression layer’.  We occupied ourselves tidying the garden.   Yes, there is quite a bit to do there as well.