A bright and cold start to 2015.  Just what winter should be like.  With our party of Hogmanay guests sated, cheery and on their way having spent two evenings of great merriment with us we locked up and made the five minute drive to the village, Sant Feliu de Pallerols.  Tired after two late nights (and early mornings) we wanted to clear our heads and do something to mark the 1st of January 2015….a wee climb up to the Santuario de Nostra Senyora de la Font de la Salut perched on the escarpment of Collsacabra at 1,030 (about 600m above Sant Feliu.

A huff and a puff up past some donkeys, a friendly robin and with short breaks to take in the view down over the Val de l’Hostales with the brightly snow capped Pyrenees beyond, it was beautifully clear.

We marked our arrival at the Santuario with the accompanying family snap.

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So here is to a happy and prosperous 2015 to you all and here’s to more writing!

 

 

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On the building site and in the classroom it was back to work this week.  Hods and grammar books in hand, the summer was over and work commenced.  The workforce on site has been doubled – from two to four – and the difference is self evident in what has been achieved this week alone.  Already much of the final part of the roof to be renewed has been stripped off, with ‘scaffolding’ in place and work on the reinforcing belt started.

Today is La Diada, L’Onze de setembre, in recent times 9/11 in the rest of the world, thereby submerging this Catalan National day with something of a contemporary calendarial tsunami.  This morning started bright and sunny, but admittedly sleepily on my part and I needed an extra nudge and poke from Silvestre and the words ‘Papa’ to summon me from my bed.

A holiday day, you bet ya.  When we joined the C17 just south of La Garriga the traffic was nose to tail until we got to the plain of Osona.  The small restaurant on the carril bici just passed St. Esteve en Bas was doing a roaring trade with cars and cycles packing the car park.  We arrived at La Rectoria and immediately walked a few hundred metres up the cycle path.  Our mission today, to inspect the work and pick some brambles (where I left you last week).  What struck’, however, was the volume of cycle traffic.  Blokes in groups, families, lean, fat and thin, lycra clad cyclists of all ages packed the cycle path and whirred and fizzed passed with the customary  ‘adeu’ or ‘bon dia’ until the sacred lunch hour and then with the odd exception silence descended.  An hour and a half or so later with a purple, thorn impregnated left hand and two containers ladden with brambles we headed back for lunch.

Thankfully we are on the last (biggest third) portion of the roof.  This north facing side of the house has the chimney and overlooks the garden.   As with the roof restoration that has gone before, scaffolding has been, I hesitate to say, erected.  More accurately a combination of metal girders and beams have been thrust through the outer wall on to which other beams are placed as a walk way, with a hand rail fitted and held in place with what I would describe as clamps.  One variation of this is the use of jacks which are used to support the walkway at an angle from underneath.  These in turn are held perilously in place by being wedged into the main wall of the house forming a triangle of wall, walkway and jack.  It all seems to work and I’ll leave that there. The chimney it would seem is in good order and apparently only needs a good clean and pointing and otherwise will not be interfered with.

This last week I have been teaching away from home and entertained a fellow teacher and our two students to the autumnal comfort of ‘bramble and apple crumble’.

6/7 sour apples (pomes àcides)

300g brambles

½ teaspoon cinnamon

180g flour

120g butter

60g sugar 

Peel, core and dice the apples.  Place in a pan with the cinnamon over a moderately high heat and cover.  Stirring occasionally, the apples should start to soften and disintegrate.  If the apples are very dry add about 100g of brambles at this stage – enough to release sufficient liquid to help the cooking of the apples.  When the apples are almost ‘stewed’ add the remaining brambles and take the pan off the heat and put the mix in an ovenproof dish, filling it to a depth of about 4cms. 

In another bowl, sift in the flour and add the diced cool butter.  Rub with your fingers until the mix is homogenous.  Then add the sugar and mix to a ‘breadcrumb’ consistency.  Place this mix loosely on top of the stewed fruit to a depth of up to 1cm.  Dotting the top of the crumble mix with a few small cubes of diced butter adds to the rich ‘crumbly’ nature of this pud.

Cook in the oven at about 160°c until the top is golden brown and……crumbly.  Serve with cream, custard, ice cream or whatever pops your cork!  Yummy, it’s autumn.

School day memories have come back over the last few days.  Tucked away in the corner of what is our store room in Cardedeu is an old wooden desk of the type we had at Lathallan all of 40 years ago.  At the front is the wooden furrow where pens and pencils rested and sitting in the right hand corner the one inch round hole where the china white ink well once rested.  Set three inches or so from the front are the hinges of the lid, which when lifted from the back of the desk opens to provide ample space for school books, paper etc.  We have now placed this desk in Silvestre’s bedroom, as functional as when it was first made 50 years or more ago.

Lifelong friendships were forged sitting at desks such as this and inspirational men taught us maths, history, science and more.  I can’t and won’t lay any claim to being a model student, but I was fortunate to share with my friends the pearls and inspiration that were presented us by the Headmaster, Mr Burton and his wife, Winnie.

Why this outpouring of nostalgia and what is the connection with La Rectoria?   Pere’s men have this week opened up the five bricked up arches in what will be the dining room for the house.  Since our first visit as prospective buyers three years ago the distribution of the house has all but been self evident.  The ‘basement’ was to be our home.  Many of the existing rooms with minor modifications are to be en-suite bedrooms and the old ‘economic kitchen’ with its open fire, the ‘snug’ whisky totting, post dinner salon.   Of all these rooms however, it has been the ‘dining room’ that has retained the greatest secret.  The five arched windows have been blocked up either with stone or perforated red bricks which allowed light to filter in but made any sense of what was beyond impossible.  This room latterly had been used as a classroom.  Painted a light duck egg blue, walls and slanted wooden beams.  The only suggestion of its final purpose is a blackboard painted on one wall.  Largely broken, but still bearing a few illegible scribbles.  Here a priest would have taught boys and girls from the local parish.  Reading, writing, maths and no doubt the word of God.  All in a little valley largely isolated from Spain, if not the outside world. 

The opening of the arches to the dining room totally transforms the experience on entering the house.  What was warm but dark it now radiant and bright as light now floods in.  I can’t say what the trigger was that brought about this cascade of sentimental memories.  Old wooden desks and ink wells have been a catalyst.  But light, vision and education do go hand in glove.

And what a difference a week makes.  Grey and rain ladden clouds have been replaced by blue skies, hazy horizons and light clouds of cotton wool.  Mud is now baked earth and in the relatively brief time I have lived in Catalunya I doubt I have seen the vegetation so green and lush.  My agricultural eyes pick up erroneous beauty.  Fields of wheat obscured by a blanket of red poppies.  Unproductive but pleasant to the eye.

Today we tested out our latest garden gadget to great effect.  A strimmer, brushcutter (in American parlance) or desbrozador, I am wary of such tools, for the simple reason that they are bloody dangerous.  But needs must, given that the garden is taking on the appearance of an unmanageable jungle.  Petrol mixed, visor fitted and harness attached and two or three hours later much of the ‘lawn’ has been laid flat.  Result!

Moves are now underway re-finalizing quotations for the kitchen – oven, canopy and extraction, dishwasher.  Bon profit!

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!

Patron Saints.  So What!  In Scotland Saint Andrew’s Day passes most people by and at best it is celebrated as a ‘dinner, dance’ or has been hijacked by Scots politicians to enable them to go on junkets to the US in an attempt to sell tartan and scotch.   Hardly the stuff of mass participation and inclusion. 

Every year England on the other hand celebrates Saint George’s Day like a visit to your New York shrink.  “Why is it not a national holiday? “Why aren’t there more flags flying?”  “Are we ashamed to be English?” “What does it mean to be English in Europe?”and more…..I can only guess at the collective angst and psychosis.  Our Irish cousins meanwhile have transformed the holiday of their patron, Saint Patrick, into one of their finest exports and in doing so succeed in getting a significant percentage of the world’s population bladdered every March 17th.

Little did I know when I started going out with my now Catalan wife ten years ago that Catalunya and England share the same Saint; along with Greece, Georgia and Russia among others.   Since when did the Vatican start to franchise Saints?   But here the Catalan’s have been very shrewd.  A small state flanked by bigger neighbours.  Having lost its independence in a very violent civil war and having had its language and thus much of its identity stifled for the subsequent  40 years, has since democracy found a clever and pleasureable way in which to rejoice Sant Jordi and bolster both its culture and identity. 

Sant Jordi is celebrated as the day of the Rose and the Book.  Generally, but not exclusively, a man gives his partner a rose and a woman gives the man a book.  An equal exchange?  That is open to debate, although one that is of little or no relevance here.  The success of the collective celebration of the day, however, cannot be argued. 

As I got off the train from Cardedeu at Passeig de Gracia yesterday morning and stepped out onto the same said street I could hardly move.  Up and down the street as far as you could see the pavement was lined with stands selling books or roses.  Tables decked in the red and yellow stripped flag of Catalunya.  The enthusiasm of the people was palpable.  Books being bought for young and old.  Roses too.  It was a picture to see octogenarian gentlemen buying red roses for their loved ones.  Gypsies trying to flog roses, blaring out “Una rosa por tres euros!”

I suggest the great success is the simple fact that the Catalans have married the celebration of Sant Jordi with the joy of the written word and most importantly Catalan.  What better way to foster your aural tradition and language.  Days before the 23rd April publishers are marketing their wears on radio and TV and on the day you can seek out your Catalan writer of choice to buy your own personally signed copy. 

As for me.  Well, I have yet to get passed the stage of reading TEO…a collection of stories for early readers.    In these days of cynicism it gives one heart to witness the energy of a nation spent in a simple act of national pride which is both benign but yet binds its people together with a type of epoxy super glue.

La Rectoria.  Much as ever, more foundations, with the added excitment today of having witnessed the first internal down pipes installed for the euphemistically named ‘grey waters’.  Also, piping from our bathroom for the shower, loo and sink.  And the arches on the north facing side of the house are being opened up.  

Finally.  Today the Carril Bici (cycle path that runs in front of La Rectoria) was very busy, conveying a steady stream of cyclists up and down the route.  Bellies full in many cases with breakfasts of butifarras, pastries and coffee.

Two weeks have been a long time and I have missed putting these ramblings down on paper.  My inability to do so can be explained by way of a fun packed previous weekend with Old Friends from England, Will, Sara and family. Like millions of others like them they have experienced firsthand the unsurpassable power of good old Mother Nature.

Arriving from Diss on the Thursday before last, they were staying in an apartment near Banyoles, just north west of Girona.  Nicely appointed gaff…..large living/dining area with balcony overlooking L’Emporda and small but adequate postage stamp sized kitchen, plus two ample bedrooms and a very well  finished shower room/loo.

One glaring design fault was the glass entrance door to the apartment building, largely invisible at a casual glance open or closed and an accident waiting to happen.  Point noted for our project!  The other ‘design fault’ was the proprietor.  Cold towards kids and quickly cottoning on to the fact we were friends of paying guests, made the comment that he hadn’t taken too kindly to previous customers having friends around the place – people skills not great!  Little did he know we had sleeping bags etc. for our sleep over to catch the Barça-Madrid match that night.   A warmer welcome was to be had from the neighbouring Donkey and Cockrell providing us with a somewhat discordant dawn chorus at ‘donkey O’clock’.

So with our ‘tourist hats’ on we started out late on Saturday morning to sell La Garrotxa to Will and Sara.  And the gods were with us.  In bright sunshine and a cloudless sky, the best day of the spring so far, we drove to Santa Pau via Mieres.   Santa Pau does not have to be sold to anyone.  A gem in its own right.  Set on a rocky outcrop, flirting its not inconsiderable medieval charm from a distance.  Perfectly small, you can stroll around it in half an hour…..longer would be better.  Narrow stone covered streets and archways surrounding the as yet to be restored central ‘palace’.   The perimeter walls offer picture postcard views over verdant green fields to the surrounding volcanic oak covered hills.  Here you are in the heart of the ‘Parc Natural de la Zona Volcànica de la Garrotxa’ (phew, time for an acronym!).

Suitably impressed and with time pressing we drove the remaining 10 minutes to El Hostal dels Ossos, an old favourite of ours.  Great for local food and superb for those of you with young families with its large play area for kids to let off steam.  This place is Catalan through and through.  The signature statement being made by the not inconsiderably sized dolls house structure made entirely of snail shells sitting conspicuously in the middle of the restaurant.

Sitting outside we guided our friends through the comprehensive Catalan menu.  Kids can have the seemingly banal but excellent ‘macarrons’ with meat and tomato sauce.  For starters we ordered for our guests, ‘Pa amb tomaquet’ –  toasted bread on to which you rub garlic, drizzle oil and then rub on a halved tomato, ‘Escalivada with anchovies’ and ‘Mongetas de Santa Pau with cansalada’ (white beans with pork belly) completed the starters.  For the main course we chose between, rabbit with aioli, mushroom omelette, beef and mushroom casserole and cabbage stuffed with potato.   Mel and mató  – honey and cottage cheese – was the modest but tasty pudding.

Suitably fuelled up we set off up the nearby extinct volcano of Santa Margarida.  A most enjoyable way to burn off the calories of a volcanic menu, such is the cuisine of the region labeled.  With its wee chapel nestling in the crater, this makes for a superb family walk.

And so back to Banyoles for the night……Barça 2, Real Madrid 0.    Long satisfied pause………

La RECTORIA?  Yes, yes, yes.  Keep your hair on!   We went there on Sunday morning and I think having seen it at first hand, Will and Sara appreciated the enormity of the task in hand.  Yet more underpinning of foundations and concrete being poured. 

The position of the house in relation to the cycle path 10 metres from the front door and running some 135km from the town of Ripoll in the foothills of the Pyrenees to Sant Feliu de Guixols on the Mediterranean coast cannot be understated.  Cyclists come and enjoy the ‘Ruta del Ferro’.  We will be open next summer.

We then went on to our neighbouring town Sant Feliu de Pallerols and Can la Matilda for an immensely impressive mixed paella for six..or more!  And then said what were intended to be our goodbyes to the H-S family.

With something of a massive twist of irony, volcanoes were to play an even larger part in the events of the week.  A somewhat considerably larger and more active one let forth its awesome power in Iceland. 

So what, we’re in Spain!

Thursday morning and a neighbour in Cardedeu informs me that Aberdeen and several other Scottish airports have been closed due to some volcano. Eeuhh!? 

Next thing I get a text from Will. 

“Back in Banyoles, flight to Stansted cancelled due to Volcano” etc. 

And so it is three days later they are still Stranded in Catalan Paradise.

We met up again this afternoon on the coast at Calella de Palafrugell.  Bright blue skies, a relatively quiet little beach set against an exquisite seafront of houses perched on rock and stone.  The H-S kids bravely went for a dip, Sly fell in.  All had great fun.

Will and Sara hope to make good their escape on Wednesday.  Mankind has again been humbled by the power of good old Mother Nature.  Don’t you love her?

As a footnote I dedicate the 1977 Punk classic ‘Stranded’ by The Saints to our dear friends and castaways.   The connection between that song and others, and one which is kind of fundamental to our being here will become apparent later in the year.