So you don’t ski…..

The idea of winter sand and sun doesn’t ring your bell…

….and you just want to get away from days of perpetual rain or snow and freezing temperatures.

Well, there is an alternative……La Garrotxa, Catalonia.

In the last couple of weeks we have welcomed two British couples that have taken advantage of our Catalan winter weather……if that is what it can be called.  OK for two months we have regularly awoken to hard frosts, but as the day unfolds it is typically bright and sunny.   With the arrival of February and ever lengthening days you can walk with the warmth of the sun on your back.  This week we have seen our first primulas and other spring flowers.  A pair of yellow butterflies were cavorting in the garden a couple of days ago and the our early morning walks with our Giant Schnauzer, Bismarck are accompanied by the sound of birdsong chattering across the valley.

Our guests this week enjoyed a Monday morning cycle ride through the Val d’en Bas and on to Olot in bright sunshine and 20ºc.   Alternatively you could take a walk along the via verde or on one of the many signposted walks or for the more flush amongst you, what about an early morning hot air balloon trip taking in the snow capped mountains to the north.  Want a break…..there is plenty to do here in La Garrotxa in the middle of winter!

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 ‘Cycling on a winters day in the Val d’en Bas’ (phot0: consorci del vies verdes)

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‘Winter walking’ photo:(Turisme Garrotxa)

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‘Hot air ballooning over La Garrotxa’ (photo: Vol de Coloms)

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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.

Before this week’s blurb, two brief apologises.  First, for not posting a blog last weekend; over hectic schedule with the family which was great.  Second, keep the blog focused.  Well, the occasional emotionally skewed rant a la football etc. should be excused.

Summer is here and it’s official.  In Catalunya it is trumpeted in by La Revetlla and Sant Joan on the 24 June.   La Revetlla takes place on the night of the 23rd.  Coca de Llardons is eaten, a flat catalan bread topped with lardons and pinenuts accompanied by a glass of cava.  Fireworks and bangers are set off and the evening has a real party atmosphere, more akin to New Year’s Eve.   All this used to be accompanied by bonfire – bonfires made of old furniture.  Sant Joan was what we British euphemistically call a spring clean.  A thorough top to bottom cleaning and clear out of the home.  It was time for renewal.  Old chairs, tables were tossed on the fire to be replaced by the new.   Now this symbolism has been lost, largely due to the wider risk of forest fires and the alternative provisions made for the disposal of household items.  Never mind, the sentiment is still there.

Sant Joan and the Catalan public holiday was on Thursday; the Spanish don’t move their public holidays to the nearest weekend, as a consequence people often take the Friday off work as well, which makes for a long weekend.  Me, I had no choice, no classes on the Friday.

So with car packed we left Cardedeu on Thursday afternoon and pitched our tent next to La Rectoria.  A makeshift kitchen was put together under the arches of the house and with a near to full moon that bathed the Vall d’Hostels in a silvery light we settled down for the night.  I was first awoken by the dawn chorus, a cacophony of bird song.  Then it was a couple of early bird ladies out for a morning walk.   And it was only just after 07.00 when I got up.  Cup of Earl Grey and armed with strimmer I set to work on the ‘feixa’, the raised ground to the west of the house.   My senses quickly focused on the smell rising from the carpet of cut vegetation, chamomile.  It was a lovely awakening to a beautifully sun soaked morning. 

The carril bici was soon conveying a steady stream of cyclists and walkers passed La Rectoria and if I had a euro for every one that passed during the day I guess I would have earned 100.  And so the feixa has been cleared of chamomile and more noxious weeds.    We will have to gen up on our botany.  The small patio adjacent to the church is sporting a colourful array of plants and flowering shrubs and trees and the family returned with wild flowers and grasses gathered on a summer walk to the Ermita de Santa Cecilia.  The start of another colourful season in La Garrotxa.

Who better to draw on today for a suitable metaphor than Noel Coward and his ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’.  For so it was today.  Better prepared for hot beating sun –  30°c in the shade – armed with strimmer, visor, wide brimmed peasant style fedora, factor 50 cream, bottles of iced water I set to like a mad thing cutting down knee high weeds, wild flowers and silvery velveteen cabbage type plants.  It was tough work and it would have been good to have done more but the sheer density of the grown and the occasional rasping grate of blade on stones prohibited more speed.   Able assistance was given by Goretti and her sister Judith raking up and removing the thick mat of material.  By about 2 O´clock and under  an unremitting sun it was time to ‘draw stumps’ and head for some shelter and shade for a well deserved lunch.

The roof has been removed this week, from what will be the dining room.   The tops of the exposed walls have been filled with a layer of  concrete.  This exercise will in due course be repeated right around the top perimeter of the external walls further strengthening them and thus the entire structure.  Many of the beams in this part of the house will have to be replaced as the exposed ends were rotten in the most part.  These will be replaced with new ones of Catalan ‘Roure’ (oak) instead of ‘Pi’ (pine) – less robust and tends to lose its shape etc.

For us the point of focus for the week has been what we call the service area – a small room in the basement which will be the ‘nerve centre’ for the majority of the services of the house – heating, electricity, water etc.  In short,  we are almost but not quite trying to get 2 or 3 quarts in the proverbial pint pot.  Yes, it all fits but my passion, namely ‘swing cats’ will not be performed here.  As this space provides direct access to the garden, it was hoped that it might afford the luxury of offering some room for garden related paraphernalia.  Now the answer is no, only welly boots and jackets.   The issue of the garden shed is beginning to crystallize.  By that I mean it is becoming more immediate.  The crystallization of the idea has never been that much of a problem for me and so far we have only been offered somewhat overdesigned solutions.    We need space for a lawn mower of some description, wheelbarrow, garden tools and other bits and bobs you wouldn’t expect to litter your house.  To one side of this is needed a simple lean-to for guests to secure their bikes.   Adjacent to this we envisage a small ‘hort’ (fruit and vegetable patch).  Here I would like to try and grow some of the stuff that is either difficult, expensive or downright impossible to get here – raspberries difficult (only seen occasionally at local markets and stupidly expensive; rhubarb impossible to get here although I have seen tinned stuff in Perpignan.  Blackcurrants are also on my radar.  We have been nurturing a horseradish plant in our garden here in  Cardedeu.  By rights, is should have landed up on some German’s plate as we bought it three years ago at a market in Aschaffenburg.  We flew it down here in ‘vegetable class’ – like most Ryan Air passengers and having encouraged it to produce roots by immersing it in water, duly planted it.  Now we have four or five horseradish roots which in time will find their way from our garden to your plate!

We can at last allow ourselves a small sigh of relief.  The foundations have all but been completed and much of the initial structural work has been completed downstairs.  So it was this week that the focus of attention moved to the upper floor.  Pragmatism and prudence also played their part as the pest control team arrived to fumigate the basement and thus halt any threat of termites.  Well, there is no point in rebuilding the place if it is going to be gnawed, ingested and turned into some kind of ‘Happy Meal’ for insects.  In due course the timbers throughout the house will be treated to rid the house of any incumbent mites.

Until this week two of the south facing rooms on the top floor had had their windows bricked up.  On removing these barriers to light the upper level has been flooded with light.  The sense of space has been magnified.  The whitish grey plaster of the walls is dotted occasionally with wooden pegs from which once hams hung in the cool air.  Straining your neck back and upwards you can see more clearly the symmetry of the wooden beams and purlins that support the terracotta tiles above.  Many of these have been partially painted white leaving the remaining red of the terracotta exposed in diamond form.

It is our intention to retain as much of the original character of this old house, however due to constraints of one kind or another it is not possible to keep everything one would like.  Thus it is in this case that wooden floor of the upper hall will be lost from view.  A ‘compression layer’ of concrete is to be applied throughout the upper level, thereby strengthening it.  The upside is that the ceiling of the hall below will be retained and with it it’s thumping great cross beams.  Finally, re-all things structural, as the arches on the north facing side have been opened and the earth that accumulated against them is removed, that façade of house appears to stand ever taller. 

Goretti and myself first visited La Garrotxa five years ago, when Silvestre was all of four months old and we were on holiday staying with Goretti’s family.  The visit to the area was half business, half pleasure.  Prior to this we had done a little spade work on the internet, trying to identify properties that might fulfill our dream of a ‘Casa Rural’ (guest house).   We drove first to the neighbouring conmarca (county) of Ripolles and then to La Garrotxa.  It was june and swelteringly hot.  About 35°c, no air conditioning in the wee Renault Twingo we had borrowed from Goretti’s Mum.

We were shown around half a dozen properties over three or four days.  A mix of old farmhouses, inelegant newer buildings and those that were little more than edifices of stone and timber delicately holding one and the other up and together.  One I remember fell into the latter category.  Just north of Olot this place had lip smacking views.  The fields around it fell away into the surrounding woodland and the horizon to the north and east was nothing less than the Pyrenees.

It was then we recognized the potential of this area as a destination for those that wanted more than a vacation on the Spanish Costas.  So I guess here we are putting our money literally where our mouths are. 

A while back, one of my Sisters kindly gave us a 1978 edition of Guia Turistica Michelin, España as part of a ‘clear out’.  A cursory flick through the pages and La Garrotxa  gets a few brief mentions.   Banyoles and Olot are about it.  And so your late 1970’s discerning travelling gourmet would I guess have given this corner of ‘España’ a body swerve.

This week same said Sister posted us a newspaper cutting from the ‘Guardian’ Travel section, headed with the punbascious title ‘Destined for crater things’ (27.03.10 for those of you interested in tracking it down).  BINGO, the author of the piece could hardly have painted a better picture of La Garrotxa and the surrounding region.  Thanks Sister and thanks Gruaniad!