What triggers a memory?  What is it that occasionally transports you back to that different time and place where the common thread seems so infinitely insignificant?  With a little thought the answer is perhaps quite obvious – a smell, a situation, an image.  Any number of things provide that link with the past to the present.  So it’s kind of funny that today I managed to squeeze in two such back to the future moments.

Today was beautifully hot.  The first such day we have had this summer and I’m not complaining.  For the simple fact that millions of Britons skimp and save 50 weeks a year to board a plane and head south for a slice of sun, sunburn and the odd beer.  So, sitting in our guest dining room at La Rectoria having spent a few hours tending the garden with grease and dirt on my shirt and trousers, accompanied by the honest glow and sweat of that work, I was contemplating our potential choice of dining chairs when I was teletransported back to an anonymous hotel in Edinburgh on a Saturday afternoon like countless others when I would have been preparing for the dinner service that evening or a banqueting function for 400 odd similarly anonymous persons.  The link – simply that I would be doing much the same thing all too soon, but for me and maybe 14 other guests.  A pitifully small number in comparison but with the relish that they will be our guests in our home.  

The second flashback took me back 40 plus years to something of an enchanted childhood – the enchantment being a castle shared with some magic friends.  The trigger this evening was the shrill scream and swoop of some 30 swifts as they dived over the houses and gardens in Cardedeu as the swallows had filled the skies at Brotherton Castle in their pursuit of flies and other fluttering insects.  Here the swifts and swallows salute the onset of dusk and the bats see out the setting of the sun and it is a majestic summer evening scene.  At school they symbolised freedom in both time and space.  I suppose the underlining thread to all this is our invitation to celebrate the wedding of school pal, Patrick and his wife Mandy.  Now that will be something to remember. 

So much for nostalgia.  The future is looking pretty damned good up the road where many cyclists voiced their approval of our endeavours as the passed to and from on the carri bici adjacent to La Rectoria today.  The ‘Opening Soon’ sign will be up ‘pronto’.  And if those are our choice of dining chairs, they’ll give your aitch bones some darn good comfort.

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Of late we have turned our backs on La Rectoria and have for some of that time been home.  By home I mean the land of my birth, my spiritual home, Scotland. ……’you can take the man out of Scotland but you can’t take Scotland out of the man’ kind of thing.  Nationalism, that feeling of home, identity, is a funny quirk of humanity.

Holidays, time off are for recharging batteries, stepping back, chilling out.   Thus far we have accomplished all three.  What with work – teaching English – and the reconstruction of La Rectoria, our regular routine is pretty full on and incessant – house, work and vice-versa. On and on.  If it was solely building a house that would be simple enough, but as is self evident the end result of all of this is the establishment of a business, a casa rural.

Thus, during our time in Scotland, having left our son with my sister in Aberdeen, Goretti and I drove to Crieff.  Destination Yann’s, the creation of Yannick Grospellier my old head chef and friend and his wife Shari.  This guest house, come restaurant has become something of a destination since opening two and a half years ago.  Having eventually taken the plunge to open his own business Yannick has created something of a Mecca to the rustic fare of La Savoie –  La pierrade,  La raclette –  and other bistro classics that utilize the best of Scottish ingredients, beef, lamb, scallops, langoustines and more.  Apart from visiting old friends the raison d’être of our visit was yes to possibly crib ideas, but also to identify potential problems, clarify ideas and explain our plans in the hope of eliciting constructive criticism.  Bedroom design, restaurant layout and kitchen equipment were poured over and the daily work was observed.  For me it was good to blow off the dust of what is involved in the working day of a chef.  It did not seem like four years since I last dawned chefs whites although I realized that I’ll have to get back into shape vis a vis cooking, but more than that remembering to work cleverly as well as with skill.  I helped with little bits of mise en place but did little during service itself except keeping out of the way.  I think some sort of stage somewhere might be in order before we open next year.  Over the piece our two days with Yannick and Shari were very useful and a big thank you must be extended to them and we look forward to receiving them and the girls here in Catalunya before  too long.

The wealth of Scottish culinary ingredients was exemplified during our time in Scotland.  A visit to the Loch Fyne Oyster bar and shop provided us and Uncle Eric with a superb picnic – smoked salmon and mackerel, duck pate, succulently perfumed strawberries, oatcakes all washed down with a bottle of ‘Fyne Ale’ a hoppy locally brewed beer.  And whilst parked in Eric’s motor home on the banks of the loch a bounteous supply of wild raspberries provided the basis of the dessert that night ‘cranachan’ – that Scottish dessert of whipped cream, toasted oat flakes, whisky, honey and raspberries.  A ‘Pick Your Own’ farm offered up a rapidly picked selection of blackcurrants, brambles, tayberries and rasps which in turn were used to make that most underrated of British puddings ‘summer pudding’.   Mussels for moules à la marinière,  sautéed scallops, haddock and chips.  Try good british food before you knock it!

Meanwhile back at La Rectoria it was a joy for us to show my sister what we have been up to over the last few years.  Besides the house and its surroundings it was good to demonstrate again the wide variety things to see and do in central and northern catalunya – Montserrat, old Girona, Santa Pau and much more. 

So enjoy your summer holidays wherever you are and when the time comes we will be more than ready to welcome you.

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!

On Friday I was meant to go into Barcelona first thing to meet up with a colleague, but leadened skies and heavy rain put paid to that.  Goretti had an appointment with a serraller (blacksmith) and  Albert our aparellador (surveyor) at La Rectoria to discuss the ‘finishes’ to the periphery  of the windows, arches and doors. So I took the opportunity of accompanying her.  In our limited experience of working with architects (the extension to our flat in Edinburgh and this somewhat larger project) we have learnt that they can be prone to flights of fancy which can then be converted into items of not inconsiderable cost.  This is not to diminish their art and creative bent and both Goretti and I have thought on occasions that given a bottomless pit of money, the opportunities open to us re-the design of La Rectoria would be mind boggling.  Therefore I guess, there is nothing quite like a budget to keep you focused.

Thus it has been with the metal finishes of the house.  The initial idea was to ‘mark’ (frame the profile) the outline of the windows, arches and doors with bands  of steel 10 to 20cm wide and 6mm thick.  In time these oxidise to russets and browns.  Kind of nice.  The shear cost of 6mm steel has put the kybosh on using it on the facade of the arches but we are intending to use it as intended elsewhere.  So the serraller produced his weighty sample of steel, the colour of Heinz Tomato soup.  When darker it will provide a good counterpoint to the stone of the house.  Prudence has also led us to the decision of plastering as opposed to pointing exposed stone walls on the main floor, as originally intended.  The pointed stone might have  aesthetically been our choice, but at three times the price the decision was something of a no brainer.  So, these are the types of decisions we are having to weigh up on a weekly basis as alternative options are thrown up to us.

As we arrived at La Rectoria under grey skies and low cloud, a large cement mixer was already at work supplying another truck with funnily enough, cement, which was being pumped into the top floor of the house.  Inside, Vicenç and a colleague armed with some kind of electrically operated scraper were smoothing out the liquid mass across the floor.  This operation was to be repeated in the basement as well.  In total some six or seven truck loads of cement.  When finished this should help reinforce the overall structure and provide a layer on to which to put the floor finishes.

Meanwhile outside the garden and carri bici immediately leading to La Rectoria has taken on the appearance of a ploughed park.  That will be rectified in good time.  But in the short term we are going to have to pay some attention to tidying and maintaining the garden in the coming months.  Mechanical means will have to be employed to tackle the majority of the work, but we are considering a biological/organic four legged option.  On frequent visits to Barcelona Zoo with Silvestre we have seen African Pygmy goats frolicking gaily in their pen.  These playful wee beasts could provide us with mobile weed and flower munching garden maintenance machines, reaching the parts lawnmowers cannot reach.  I’m looking forward to erecting the sign- ‘Caution – Exotic Pets’.

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!

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.

 

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.