I guess you could include F****** A in the above but the F here alludes principally to the façade, floors and other fixtures and finishes. But firstly, the finishing and the closure of yet another chapter in my working life. The teaching year in Barcelona is beginning to wind down and I have started to say my goodbyes to ‘students’ some of whom I have known since I started teaching four years ago. Goodbyes uttered on a scale starting from the very poor English, to Spanglish and through to the very good. Along the way I have inadvertently picked up some good friends, got a good insight into Spanish and Catalan life and culture and would say that it has truly been one of the most enjoyable work experiences in my somewhat chequered career. The life of the peripatetic teacher is coming to a close. For my part, the teaching was largely learnt ‘on the hoof’ and one quickly learnt that students initially knew a sight more than the teacher about grammar and its associated terminology. Ultimately, the teaching was the easy part. It has been the 70km round trip to Barcelona on each working day and the getting about the city by metro, bus or tram between classes that proved tiring. Leaving the house just after seven in the morning and returning around nine at night, with the following day’s material to be pulled together after dinner. I’m not grumbling. It has been a bag load of fun and has provided me with a reasonable income in an alien country where I can still hardly string a sentence together in the local lingo, be it Catalan or Spanish. So to one and all thank you and “Fins aviat!!”.

Back at the site. Having seen numerous samples of differing renders applied to the outside walls, a recent trip to Girona and a visit to see a project Pere is working on sealed our decision. Thus that same texture and colour is now being applied with the customary aplomb of Vicents and the others that we are now almost taking for granted. The swirl and movement of their arms is almost discernable in the finish, key stones are left exposed and these contrast wonderfully with the mottled grey render finish.

On the basement floor intricate coils and lines of red plastic piping have been laid over sheets of expanded polystyrene which in turn look like giant pieces of white lego. Concrete is now being poured on top of this and when finished this will be our floorcovering – a continuous sheet of satin smooth concrete set against stone walls and white ceilings, cool in summer, touchy feely “calentet” in winter.

The tiles we purchased some weeks ago in Castelló are now in place in three of the bedrooms as bed heads, helping to underline the individuality of each room.  Elsewhere terracotta tiles – tova – are being laid. The dining room looks superb and we have all but chosen the tables and chairs. Easy one might think but trying to put the finishing touches to the rooms has been anything but.

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The sun is high in the sky during these weeks and if you are fortunate enough a walk may occasionally be accompanied by a light warm breeze.  Not surprisingly, mornings are the freshest part of the day and if I feel up to it I go for a short run around Cardedeu. As rapidly as the sun ascends, temperatures rise accordingly and by midday are reaching the mid 30’s.  Barcelona is a very hot and sticky place to be at this time of day and remains thus until early morning the following day.  I’m stating the obvious because one quickly hears puffs and pants and complaints about the heat…..can’t say I’m a natural sun bunny, red hair, freckles and the facial complexion of a ripe tomato.  But hey, it seems only a month ago folk here were moaning on about how long, cold and wet our winter had been.  It only goes to remind me of bus rides through Leith with auld wifies ga’in on aboot ‘the heat’ after one week of a Scottish summer.  Us humans, we are hard to please and rarely are happy when it comes to all things climatological.  Long live the seasons.

And so to the house, taking advantage of the fine weather the first phase of making good the roof is well underway.  On our visit last week the oak beams (bigas) and purlins (cairats) over the dining room were largely in place and the rajols (first layer of terracotta tiles) were being fitted.  Above this will be laid the insulation and ultimately the roof tiles.  All this is hot and thirsty work conducted in the full glare of the hot summer sun.  The Paletas are not complaining, sporting what many would consider an enviable suntan.

Monday this week, Goretti and I conducted a foot slogging exercise around Barcelona to see firsthand examples of what the floor in our part of the house will look like when finished….wall to wall concrete.  Being a relatively inquisitive soul I largely enjoyed our tour of two private loft apartments, an office/warehouse and shop.  The resultant outcome – a nod in the direction of a light grey concrete will most likely be the preferred finish to our floor.  Our walls are a dark natural stone which will be touched little by direct sunlight, so it will be necessary not to further darken an already dusk like space.  On the contrary, light must be channeled in wherever possible.

We have also been making progress with regards to the kitchen, final finishes to the guest bathrooms and wardrobes.  August is almost upon us and the summer recess.  We are also starting to give more thought to the final product and how to get you ‘the guest’ to come and stay with us.

Meanwhile, Spain are World Cup Champions and deservedly so and the Spanish Constitutional Court put paid to any sense of genuine national euphoria with a well aimed kick in the Catalan ribs and an anti-Catalan ruling.  A long and on-going story is set to enter another chapter.  Enjoy the summer.

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.

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.

 

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.