Riding the last wave

San Sebastian really has done its best to keep its secrets from me. A combination of December weather and Covid closures have limited our experiences and so, with just a couple of days of our lengthy Spanish sojourn remaining, I’m determined to at least walk the coastline and enjoy some of those famous views.

It is clear the rain is not going to let up and for all of my explorative tendencies I know M isn’t going to pass up on Christmas shopping for a day at the mercy of the elements. It’s just me, my camera and a wide angle lens that I want to fill with that definitive panorama of the bay. How hard can that be?

The view I would like to capture!

It turn’s out that it’s really quite hard. I have heard that the best views of the world famous crescent bay are to be found atop Monte Igueldo, the elevated peak at the south of the bay.

There’s a funicular railway up to the best viewpoint but I believe it is closed and there is some doubt how easy it will be to access the viewing platform. No worry, I will walk the bay and climb the peak of Urgull at the other end of the bay. With dreadful light conditions flattening out the landscape today isn’t going to be great for photography but I’ll do my best…

Urgull in the distance

Concha bay (every rounded bay in northern Spain seems to be named Concha) is deceptively wide. Attractive old flats line the bay and a wide promenade bustles with pedestrians and cyclists, one peddling tentatively while gripping a surf board. There are a smattering of surfers and hard-core bathers on this December morning, with a high tide obscuring most of the luxurious sandy beach. Low tide in the summer must resemble the Copacabana.

Views all year round

I stop to watch construction workers digging a hole in the beach. What can they be doing? Are they making a sandcastle with the mini digger? An elderly gentleman shares my curiosity, sidles over and speaks with passion about the (apparently bad) thing the council are doing, gesticulating angrily. He’s speaking Basque which is of no help to me and I explain to him in fluent Spanish that I do not speak Basque or Spanish. He nods his head, pauses and then continues to engage me in Basque for a couple more minutes until he has got “it” out of his system. Glad to be of service. In these times of social isolation perhaps it’s enough just to babble incoherently at somebody. It certainly made me feel a little more human.

High tide and low clouds. Better in black and white

The sizeable rocky outcrop of Isla de Santa Clara is unmissable from any point along the bay. I walk through a concealed harbour adjoining the old town from where a popular summer ferry service departs for the isle. Visitors can climb to the lighthouse on the summit for panoramic views in all directions. One more treat I’m going to have to save for my next visit.

The Bay of Biscay can be notoriously rough

A service road follows the coast at the foot of Urgull and regular signs highlight the dangers of being swept out to sea by powerful waves – a warning or attraction depending on your disposition. I veer off up the hill along a windy path that looks like it might not be officially open, eventually breaking out into the grounds of a castle.

A military past

Old steel field guns point impotently into the bay to threaten some imagined foe. They would probably lose in a knife fight these days but provide a little insight into former times.

A view of sorts

I still don’t have the elevation to do justice to the view across the bay but there are more steps to climb yet. The view begins to open up nearer the summit but still I can’t quite nail that iconic wide angle picture I was aiming for.

View of Isla de Santa Clara

The drizzle is falling and there are only few people out today exploring the hilltop fortress. It is hard to make out the profile of this structure due to dense woodland and a lack of signage leaves me retracing my steps on several occasions. There is some kind of statue at the peak but I’m out of patience and so descend back down a hairpin footpath down into the medieval old town.


The river Urumea dissects San Sebastian and I stop awhile on the iron bridge to watch a captivating battle between the outgoing waters and the incoming tide. This is an attraction of its own and I have to drag myself away and on towards the fabulous imposing Kursaal concert hall that looks out over San Sebastian’s other beach – Zurriola.

Surf school in front of the Kursaal

This overlooked sibling to la Concha has a lot going for it. A rocky breakwater curls out into the sea creating a protected inlet that channels the surf onto another expansive sandy beach.

The last land before North America

The surfers are here in sizeable numbers on a day where, to the untrained eye, the surf is challenging without being treacherous. I wonder how Covid restrictions have affected sea-goers. On the face of it not at all.

No social distancing in the sea

I’m always drawn to surfers and I can’t resist trying to capture the action on my zoom lens, despite the low light. I could watch this for hours. In fact I do.

A timeless attraction

There always seem to be a minority of boarders trying to catch a wave. Many of the neoprene clad youngsters seem content to bob together in groups just chatting. There are worse ways to spend a day

Man vs Nature

As daylight recedes the water is streaked by lights from seafront properties yet there is no exodus from the ocean

Still time to catch that last wave of the day

Very gradually people emerge from the surf and drift off up the beach to, well who knows. There must be somewhere for surfers to rinse and change. The beaches I have seen in northern Spain have generally been very well equipped with facilities.

Surf’s up

I like to imagine people heading off together to relive the action somewhere over a steaming coffee, though presently only takeaway drinks are permitted.

Time for a hot drink

It is dusk by the time I haul myself off the beach and onto the promenade. It’s still raining but I haven’t really noticed it since arriving at Zurriola. Nor have I dwelled on my failure to capture that perfect view of la Concha. My senses have been filled with the raw power of the sea.

There is a hum of early evening traffic as people finish work. The bay is illuminated in an evocative crescent of light culminating in the soft welcoming glow of the Kursaal. I would love to return here for some live music on my next visit.

A welcoming sight

This lengthy Spanish odyssey is almost at and end. I have traversed the arid flatlands, explored nature in the Costa Brava, navigated through a blizzard in the Pyrenean foothills and sampled a taste of muli-faceted San Sebastian. Not bad work during a pandemic.

Adios España y gracias por todo el pescado. So long and thanks for all the fish.

Donostia San Sebastian

San Sebastian, or Donostia as it is known in the Basque dialect, is a city with an enviable reputation and I have long wanted to experience everything it has to offer. In the morning I want to enjoy the large natural bay that is home to a beach voted the best in Europe. In the afternoon I should be tempted to flit in and out of the many high class independent shops to be found in this affluent city. In the evening I really must hop between hostelries in the gothic quarter where the pinxtos and tapas have attained legendary status, even by Spanish standards.

Our December arrival has coincided with a stormy weather front that will hover over the city for precisely the 4.5 days of our visit. The pandemic has closed most bars and restaurants, plus many shops. We are going to have to find some alternative aspects to appreciate this week. The truth is that we only have the opportunity to be here thanks to a quirk of ferry re-scheduling so just being here at all is a bonus.

Our gratitude starts with our accommodation. We have exchanged a hilltop Costa-Brava flat which was all about the views and outdoor space with a city centre apartment that is all about the luxury and indoor space. There are things that need to be said about our latest rental…

This 2 bedroom 4th floor apartment with its high ceilings sits bang in the centre of the main thoroughfare, 2 minutes from the bay and 10 seconds from the shops. It has been beautifully renovated and modernised to a high specification and the owner has made some bold choices of decor. It has style as well as substance.

I count 27 light switches and 7 electric roller blind switches. Over the course of our stay I will totally fail to work out what controls what. Our neighbours will wonder why there is a constant flickering of lights and partial blind movements as I curse from room to room trying to work out how to activate any particular device. Perhaps the owner controls everything via Alexa over the superfast broadband that my tablet measures as 300MB/s.

It is clear that the kitchen has been designed and equipped for people who subsist on champagne and canapes rather than anything that might have been prepared on site, let alone actually cooked in the oven. Presumably anyone who can afford 500k euros to live here isn’t going to be fussed about cooking when surrounded by an entire industry dedicated to producing award winning meals. This is a flat for the instagram generation.


Cosseted in this luxury it is hard for us to mask up and drag ourselves down to floor level where an interminable rain is raging in off the Atlantic. We need food supplies and the shop opening hours are as medieval as the city. We spy an endless queue and join it in the hope it is for the bakery and not the hat shop next door. It is indeed for the bakery and it’s a relief to discover that the queue attests to the quality of the bread and is not simply because everywhere else is closed.

Give us our daily bread. Ooh, and a slice of chocolate cake please

Our exploration of the old town is not limited to queuing in the rain. We also get to walk in the rain, past all sorts of beautiful things. Here’s a snapshot of the bay looking moody when I want it to look cheerful. I’m going to explore the seafront more intimately in the coming days once the weather has finished beating me up.

Cheer up, it’s almost Christmas

One of the highlights we have been looking forward to since our arrival in Spain is a traditional Christmas market. We have swept into town just in time for the opening day and so we stroll (through the rain) along the tree-lined banks of the river Urumea that winds down out of the Pyrenees into the Bay of Biscay, only find ourselves pretty much the first visitors to the festively intentioned wooden huts. Only a sleigh ride with Noddy Holder and a crate of mulled wine could make this feel Christmassy, but hey – we’re here!

I’m dreaming of a wet Christmas

By mid afternoon the sun has decided it’s not even going to bother trying anymore and a gloom descends forming a seamless transition into the night. At least this accentuates the lights on the river. It’s all very classy.

Wet and subdued but always classy

I try to imagine how gorgeous this colonnaded square must be in the heat of summer. There is no bad architecture in this part of town

Right place, wrong time

You can live very well in this city if you are blessed with wealth and many high end independent shops will do their best to relieve you of that wealth. The shop fronts are all decorated tastefully to tempt you into the dry.

Attractive all year round

The evening is already upon us and the main streets are extremely quiet. It’s not clear whether this is due to the weather or the pandemic. Either way our damp day of curtailed exploration has run its course. I have tracked down one of the few bars that has remained open for takeaway food. We step out of the rain into a space that should be throbbing with people talking and laughing over a drink and a bite. Some chairs are up on tables and the joint looks closed except for the bartender who appears to be cleaning glasses in preparation for some version of normality in the middle of next year. We order some dishes to take home and enjoy a conversation with – another human being!

Back in the flat we dry out and I spend 15 minutes flicking various switches until I find a balance of mood lighting that might improve the grumpy mood that the last 15 minutes of switch flicking has incurred.

We eat fabulous take-out food. We enjoy a dessert every bit as exquisite as the ones we sampled recently in Catalonia.

The final word on today.

With all alternative options involving us getting wet, we opt to sink into the comfortable furnishings with a drink of choice and truly relax for perhaps the first time in 3 months. The full San Sebastian experience has so far eluded us but I feel that we have a little insight into Donostia. Not every visitor could say that.

Trans España

Back in early October it was a relief simply to arrive in Spain amid the uncertainty of travel at the peak of Covid. Since then we have appreciated every single day of our “workation” regardless of any local restrictions. We recognise our good fortune.

With a week left on our Costa Brava apartment lease it’s time to plot the trip home to the UK – and things are getting messy. Our inward ferry route via Bilbao has ended for the season and the alternative departure from Santander isn’t a road trip we want to make in one day. To further complicate matters long distance travel within Spain is currently forbidden at the weekend.

In keeping with our current mindset we look to turn this cloud into a silver lining, with a rather wonderful solution. We will travel to San Sebastian on Monday and then make the short hop to Santander the following Saturday. We have ALWAYS wanted to visit San Sebastian…

Booking the ferry was simple enough but accommodation is in short supply and the parking prices are insane. Eventually we fall lucky and find a stellar apartment right in the centre of SS at a good rate. Let’s just not talk about the parking tariff. Fingers in ears – I can’t hear you!


In the days before our departure my only stress is witnessing all of the shopping we are accumulating for our trip home. Where is it all going to fit? I’m doing mental gymnastics through to Monday morning where my former elite level of Tetris accomplishment finally pays off. In one of the greatest achievements of my life I manage to pack everything into the car. The space under the seats is crammed with wine and olive oil. Door pockets are full of chorizo. I’ve filled the narrow space under the boot liner with computer gear. A little crevice beneath even that, where the battery sits, is now stuffed with bags of rice harvested in Pals just up the coast. The rest of our capacious boot and rear space is crammed to the hilt with everything you can imagine and some things you cannot.

Remarkably we leave by 10am as planned following a quick exchange with our landlady who has driven up from Barcelona. The car feels heavy! My thoughts turn to travel psychology. Instead of a depressing 9 hour drive to catch a ferry home we have 7 hour drive to go to an actual holiday destination following the end of our working stay. A serendipitous solution.

It’s a little sad to say goodbye to our sunny home from home but we are onto the next adventure. The forests and foothills of Catalonia roll by in a slow farewell eventually giving way to an undulating agricultural landscape that is greener than the arid plains we crossed on the way in. That’s because we are taking a more northerly route on toll-free roads that run the length of the Pyrenean range.

Road trip!

It has been raining for a while when our route juts off to the North and we begin a gradual ascent into the foothills. Roads become narrower and windier as they carve through an increasingly rocky landscape. We stop to fill our lungs with cold mountain air next to a steeply banked river that looks so fresh and inviting.

Fresh air!

A towering mass of rock looms into view. Two improbably vast stone pillars dwarf a village settlement. They beg to be carved into kingly middle-earth figures from Lord Of The Rings. Any sense of travel fatigue is left behind as each corner unfolds some new rugged beauty

Into the mountain kingdom

I’m forced to check the route as we traverse a river on single lane bridge. There’s a dusting of snow. Can this be right?

Well this is getting fun

Soon the road sides are white and still we continue up hill, stopping briefly to feel the icy flakes on our faces. This is a dream inside a dream!

We weren’t expecting this when we set off

The snow is coming down harder now and is beginning to settle on a road that has seen almost no other traffic in the past 30 minutes. Do not break down here. Do not slide off the road here. Fortunately with 4WD and heated seats there is nothing much to do other than crawl along and enjoy the ride.

OK, this is getting serious

The road eventually turns out onto the beginning of a new looking mountain highway that weaves us west-bound quickly and efficiently, through tunnels and over wooded valleys in a long gradual descent into the heart of Basque country, toward the legendary city of San Sebastian. We emerge into Donostia as it is known here with the sun receding and navigate our way through busy streets into the heart of the Old Town and directly to our underground car park. Thank you Google Maps.


A lift takes us up to street level where we emerge into frenzied gusts of salty wind that blow in off the Atlantic just a stones throw from our base in the old town. The massive crescent bay opens up right in front of us. White surf stands out in the early evening gloom as sea-front lights begin to form an arc around the bay. I want to inject this but there’s a host to meet and a car to unpack.

The world famous bay

It’s a mere 2 minute walk from the bay to our block where we meet Edu who is stylishly mummified beneath a long coat ruffed up scarf and brimmed hat. He leads us up out of the squall to our 4th floor luxury apartment – home for the next 5 nights. There’s a well-rehearsed canter through the formalities with Edu promising some recommendations before disappearing into the night. I make a couple more trips to skim the surface of our packing from the car and then we sit with a drink relishing the warm metropolitan comfort that we have signed up for, and in particular beds that will allow us the first truly restful sleep since our arrival.

With food on the mind (when was it not) we head out for a little exploration in the dark, wrapped up warmly for the first time since setting foot in Spain all those weeks ago.

The cold diagonal rain is a shock to the system after the polite weather of the east coast. It’s not just the weather that is smacking us in the face, it’s the change of pace, from our sleepy backwater bang into the heart of a bustling city. I’m reminded of my first blast of Manhattan back in 2010, exiting from the subway straight into the shadow of the New York Times office and yellow cabs. In this case we are transported into a hive of shoppers holding onto their hats as they navigate the busy streets lined with high class shop front windows, each tastefully decorated for Christmas.

From sunshine to Christmas in one day

An extensive nativity scene sprawls across one of the squares accompanied by piped carol music. No caganer in sight here for we have most definitely exchanged Catalonia for the Basque country. We have become unaccustomed to such crowds of people and it is a battle to keep our distance. Everyone wears masks but I don’t sense anyone thinks it is more than a formality. The restaurant recommendations ping onto our phone from Edu but we have neither the time or energy for further exploration and decide to make a dash to an unnervingly busy supermarket for food and retire to our nest for the evening.

What a surreal day. From autumn in Catalonia through dramatic snow covered wintery foothills of the Pyrenees and into the stormy bay of San Sebastian wearing its festive clothing. Tomorrow a new adventure begins…

Tramontana

Catalonia has exited Covid lockdown and with it a slew of cafes and restaurants have re-opened their doors. Many of them were previously invisible to the unfamiliar eye and the transformation of streetlife in Sant Feliu is remarkable. Even in the rain the outdoor covered terraces are abuzz with warmly coated groups who are catching up on life over a coffee or lunch. It is as though blood has returned to the arteries of the town.

Getting into the spirit

With the curtailed tourist season a distant memory the cultural calendar has been in limbo until now as thoughts turn toward Christmas. Shop fronts have gradually acquired more glitter and a platoon of the Council’s sizeable army of workers has been assigned to prepare street illuminations. I’m pleased to say that none of this has taken place before late November which makes a refreshing change to the October Christmas marketing that assaults one’s senses in the UK.


Some things haven’t changed regardless of the season. Mademoiselle Sonia (a Belgian ex-pat) in the flat downstairs continues to host her weekly piano social every Thursday afternoon. Her mystery visitor arrives around 1pm and the door buzzer heralds the start to proceedings. This has become a highlight of the week and we like to identify her flowery interpretations of classic songs. There is a little variation from week to week although the Godfather theme is assured.

A foggy Thursday at our apartment – the stage is set…

It’s Thursday 26th November and the opener is Don’t Cry For Me Argentina – a new track. As usual I provide a running commentary of the playlist to my sister in the UK via WhatsApp (perhaps the novelty of this is wearing thin for her by now). She messages back with a football emoji. Of course! This is being played in tribute to Maradona who died yesterday and who played for Barcelona just down the coast. I wonder what Sonia would think if she knew that her upstairs neighbours were so engrossed in her performances, and sharing them with an international audience. I’m listening to the recital from my workstation when M suggests that maybe the visitor is the pianist, not Sonia. After all we don’t hear piano music at any other time of the week. The logic of this is hard to resist yet it threatens the bubble of reality I have conjured up in my mind. I’ll stick to my prior delusions thank you very much.

Another constant since we arrived has been the “work” being carried out at a house down the hill that we pass on the way out. The garage door is always open, with a maintenance van parked outside and anywhere between 2 and 4 workmen in various poses of non-work. Over the course of 3 weeks they have combined their collective might to empty the garage of a few shelves, give it a good old sweeping and then apply some white paint to the walls. With the advent of the rain they have taken to sheltering in the empty garage and drinking coffee. Nothing happens fast in Sant Feliu.

Tramontana

The last Saturday of November is a washout. There has been thunder and sheet lightning almost non-stop for 24 hours. I have been watching from the balcony as ominous layers of dark cloud have rolled off the hills, eventually obscuring Sant Pol. The line between sea and sky became indistinguishable at some point. Now things have settled a little and I can see the street below awash with wet pine needles that have been beaten down from the trees, The army of council workers will have yet more cleaning up to do.

We are seeing a changing of the seasons on the Costa Brava. The relentless northerly wind shaking up the weather system is know here as the Tramontana. I wonder if this is the same as the French Mistral? Other Mediterranean winds are available. Regardless, this heralds the addition of yet another layer of clothing on the streets. Every Catalan dog walker wears a thick coat, a hat and sometimes also a scarf. Their chubby pampered dogs are also wrapped up in some form of blanket. For our part we are forced to carry a light jacket in case our thin long sleeved tops aren’t enough.

Not bad for a first attempt

The season also brings with it the trappings of Halloween. This tradition has no place in Catalonia but it is gradually gaining traction and a few stores apologetically put on a display. This is certainly not our thing, but we do have a small pumpkin from the allotment that we harvested the day before we travelled and it has failed to ripen on the balcony. Can you believe that I’ve never carved a pumpkin before? It is more fun than I expected, especially once a tea light is inserted and lit. It’s just going to be embarrassing if it gets blown onto Sonia’s balcony that juts out below.


The storm has abated overnight – just a light scattering of rain remaining. There is no damage on our balcony despite the rearrangement of some of the furniture. Everything looks the same. Down in Sant Feliu there are some deciduous trees and these are looking very bare today, The wide sandy thoroughfare that runs parallel to the seafront is dotted with piles of crisp golden leaves. An advertising sign has blown over in front of a shop. This will probably make the local news.

Reflections on last night

There’s not much more to report but it’s not always this way. There was serious flooding in the region last January while previous extreme weather claimed lives last year. I have noticed flood barriers installed at the base of some town centre doors. There must be an ongoing threat from the nearby storm surge channel. I wonder if the gradual rising of the seas may prove a greater threat in the long term.

Today nobody is looking alarmed. A few hardy souls are bathing in the November swells. I have no doubt the sea is much colder than they make it appear. One dog is hesitating on the cusp of the waterline, conflicted as to whether he should gallantly retrieve the ball his owner tossed into the surf, or preserve itself from certain hypothermia. This is what you end up with if you wrap your pooch in blankets and take it to a canine hairdresser.

After the storm

The pomp of the storm may have passed, yet the change is undeniable. There is a smell of pine in the damp air. Everything green has turned a little greener. Everything golden has fallen to the ground. The cloud unexpectedly breaks and the sun is back, burning away the puddles. I find it uplifting, at least compared to the oppressive fog that could be chilling my bones right now in the UK.

Back at our apartment I hear Sonia on her balcony downstairs. She is cooing the birds that perch in her fig tree before fluttering down to peck seed from her patio table. A moment of alarm – where is my carved pumpkin? It must have blown downstairs! No, it’s there amongst the flower bed on my balcony wall. Anglo – Belgian relations have survived the Tramontana.

Girona – Not Barcelona

In the geographically dysmorphic world defined by airlines like Ryanair the typical visitor from northern Europe may conclude that Girona Airport exists purely to serve tourism in Barcelona. Now I love Barcelona as must anybody who has visited the Catalan capital, but over the years I’ve absorbed a drip feed of accolades about Girona and now, with my home from home a mere 30 minutes drive away, it’s time to right a wrong. Our first post-lockdown trip to a big city will be Girona – not Barcelona.


Our drives throughout Spain have gone smoothly most of the time and Google Maps takes a lot of pain out of our travel, although it cannot do much about the lamentable standard of driving here. People don’t generally speed but neither do they signal, look where they are going or show the merest courtesy toward other road users. Today’s drive is mercifully uneventful.

Girona is a great sprawling city and we have to pass through most of it to reach the compact old town. It is market day and this means that precious parking opportunities are at a premium. Many drivers have creatively invented parking spaces where none actually exist. Coming from the old school of motoring I cruise around until I see a car sized space between 2 painted lines.

Colours of autumn


If it wasn’t clear where the market was one only has to follow the groups of people trailing towards the park. And what a park this is! After weeks of short fluffy green pines these towering lines of deciduous trees provide quite a contrast. The long straight path of crisp golden leaf-fall might be the prelude to some fairly tale.

There is such a thing as too many nuts

The market feels familiar with the kind of stalls you would expect to find. Regional produce has arrived by the lorry load. There are barrels full of freshly harvested nuts which sound great until you consider the effort of shelling them. We pick up some bags of oranges for juicing and drop them off at the car.

Pilchards and the ubiquitous salt cod

You can’t visit Spain and not enjoy freshly squeezed oranges!
My assumption is that every Spanish kitchen is equipped with some form of motorised juicer given that the long-term alternative is chronic wrist strain.

My daily intake of olives!

A pleasant stroll over the river brings us to the medieval centre. Every building is hewn from stone. The streets packed between the river and hilltop are narrow and windy. The gothic looking cathedral looms from a distance yet becomes obscured by tightly packed buildings until we are right next to it. This town is a film makers dream, indeed a reality. I would recognise the scenes from Game of Thrones that were filmed here, if I had watched any of it. That’s one more for my watch list.

Built to last

We loved the many and varied shops and stalls selling artisan produce and hand-made goods. A scattering of covered stalls dot the streets and we stop to buy a hand made scented heat pillow from a stall on one of the bridges over the river. The lady who hand crafted all of these goods is generous with her time and we are unsurprised to learn that Covid has badly affected tourism and sales. The hope is that Christmas markets will be allowed to go ahead and rescue at least some of her income.


It’s time for refreshment and boy do they know how to make coffee here! I’ve seen several tempting looking independent coffee shops and am finally seduced by the heady aroma of a roastery situated beneath the stone arches. For the first time I heard not one but many foreign voices.

Life in the old town

Girona has a large student population and there is a cosmopolitan vibe that would be fun to embrace with a longer stay in non-covid times. I envisage myself spending an evening sipping wine and discussing philosophy with worldly types at a nearby book-cafe/jazz-bar, at least until I let my mask slip with some ghastly non sequitur. With most premises only offering takeaway service I’m left to hold onto that thought for the time being, taking scant consolation with one of the many craft-beers that have gained immense popularity in Catalonia.

Supporting local businesses

I have a frustration. On one hand I don’t like the Christmasification of November. On the other hand I really wanted to visit a Christmas Market while we were here. It seems the markets don’t start until mid December. Specifically I wanted to pick up a truly unique souvenir specific to Catalonia – the Caganer.

The Caganer is traditionally the figurine of a peasant taking a crap amidst the nativity scene. Why? This is too wonderful to require an explanation, but if you really must have further details… https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caganer

Caganers on the throne

Nowadays you can buy all variety of famous people depicted as Caganers. Lionel Messi, Gandalf, even Queen Elizabeth is depicted squeezing one out “on the throne”. I need one – but I can’t get one. Remarkably they are not generally available. The tourist office suggests they are only available at Christmas markets. This is the same tourist office that has a website that fails to mention the dates of any Christmas markets. The Costa Brava is really backward in many ways, for good and for bad. Why would a visitor want to know about events? Why might a visitor want to buy a unique regional memento outside the last fortnight of December?

A colonnade encloses this beautiful square

Like everywhere else we have visited on the Catalonia the shops close between 1:30 and 4:00pm. I pity the shop worker who starts work at 8am and finishes at 8pm, with this awkward long gap in the middle. Presumably this stems from the siesta days but it’s not clear what shop workers do in this break. You can only spend so long over lunch.

Something to catch your eye around every corner

The mandatory break from retail poses no dilemma for us as we seek to explore more of the old town. We pause awhile on another of the bridges that span the river Onyar. The clear water is busy with large carp. Various birds of interest wade around the shallow banks. Old flats line the river sides. I can see colourful wooden shutters, some with laundry airing in the window. It all feels a little Italian for some reason.

The banks of the Onyar

I’m keen to walk the city walls and enjoy some spectacular views. I can see them on the hillside above, but where are the entry points? As we ascend the steep narrow streets they become steeper and narrower stone stairways. It becomes apparent that the entry points to the tall city walls are all blocked off. A covid measure? A frustration. Regardless, the views would be great even without the sunset. No trip to Girona would be complete without walking randomly through the ancient streets on this hillside. Nothing much appears to have changed in 100s of years.

Game Of Thrones

We are pretty high up even at the base of the walls. The sun is setting through the early evening haze and I hear a church bell clang bluntly from some close quarter. The gothic setting feels timeless and evocative as the evening draws in.

Remains of the day

I leave Girona Caganerless yet buoyed by the sights, flavours and smells of the old town. When we see a return to less restrictive times I will surely stay for longer. Maybe I’ll also fit in a trip to Barcelona. If there’s time.

Living The Dream?

I’ve been a visiting resident of Sant Feliu De Guixols in Catalonia for several weeks now on an extended workation – a word I just made up. Novelty has become the norm. I’m on nodding terms with various faces in town. I nod at them and they have no idea who I am or why I’m nodding at them. Things have settled down. What is it like, living and working in one of the most up-market tourist destinations in Spain?


We have settled into a routine. I work Monday to Friday with hours flexed to accommodate a walk or trip out most days while the sun is out. Weekends we may travel a little further afield unless forbidden by Covid lockdown. This is a good work life balance. I am also getting some interesting perspectives as an outsider.

Dog tie rings. Normal in SF
Dog tie rings. Normal in SF

A visiting alien would assume that every human has a dog. Everyone has one. There is a whole industry dedicated to dogs (dog hair dressers, dog clothing, etc), though not quite rivalling the howling insanity of San Fransisco (dog bakeries).

Pampered pooch
Pampered pooch

Sant Feliu appears to have a wealthy but aging population. I didn’t see any kids for weeks until I visited another part of town. Maybe they are just being reared until they are fully trained for the main focus of activity here – taking dogs to the shop, spending 20 minutes buying one thing very slowly and then chatting in the street until nightfall.

Not everybody can be a full time dog walker. Some people have jobs. In fact a great many people are employed as gardeners and pool cleaners. There’s a massive industry here supporting second home owners who, for the most part, rarely seem to visit their second homes. More perplexing is the fact that, while pretty much any decent property will rent for a sky high fee over the 10 weeks of summer, people are not particularly bothered about trying to rent their properties during the rest of the year. Something to do with tax maybe? Either way it means that some suburbs are verging on ghost towns in the out of season months, which is a shame because there are some beautiful homes in stunning locations sitting idle for 10 months of the year.

Boats moored out of season
Boats moored out of season

Another sizeable proportion of the population appears to be employed by the local council. Every day I have seen innumerable workers out cleaning, clearing and maintaining some aspect of the civil landscape. Taxes may be sky high but at least people get something in return for them.

Masks for all
Masks for all

Everybody from pensioner, white van hombre or solo school kid wears a mask, with no exception. At first I thought this demonstrated a really impressive social cohesion with everybody looking out for each other but then I realised it was not that simple. People are very good at unconditionally following rules but there can be a disturbing lack of thought process. Acquaintances shaking hands. People congregating in close groups to chat. People using bare fingers to key in pin numbers, then rub their noses. But it’s OK because they are all wearing masks…

Wine from the barrel
Wine from the barrel

One thing I love about SF (and the surrounding towns) is the sheer proliferation of small independent businesses on every street, even in very central locations. Tailors, printers, picture framers, book shops, florists and any number of small enterprises seem to eek out livings that would be totally unsustainable in the UK, where they would have to commit to sky high rates over a long term contract. Affairs are managed much more equitably here with the net result being that a strong fabric of local business ownership and employment is not only possible but sustainable. Long may that continue.

Wax papered parcels tied up with string...
Wax papered parcels tied up with string…

Something else that the UK could learn from would be sustainable packaging. Shops here tend towards paper bags over plastic ones. Best of all are the cake shops where wrapping is an art form. The chosen cakes are placed on a cardboard tray. Long thin strips or cardboard are wrapped loosely around the tray like a rib cage and then wrapped in decorative paper, which is secured with waxy string and a bow. So pretty, yet practical and ecologically sound. I’ve evaluated a large number of cake shops in SF and can confirm this is standard practice across the town.

...this is one of my favourite things
…this is one of my favourite things

We shop here on pretty much a daily basis as per local custom, buying fresh, small and often. I enjoy our forays into Sant Feliu where there is always something to steal your attention, whether it’s a raucous parrot marking its territory in the trees or just the town architecture. On one occasion I spend a full 5 minutes watching an elderly lady buy a lottery ticket from a street booth. There was no impatience in the (growing) queue behind her as she chatted with the seller and made a mountain out of every aspect of the purchase. Perhaps modern life has made me impatient.

Distinctive architecture
Distinctive architecture

Speaking of patience I diligently learned Spanish every day on Doulingo for weeks prior to travel only to find that every spoken and most printed word is in Catalan. Make no mistake, people here identify themselves primarily as Catalan.  Then Spanish or possibly instead European. My standard response to any question throughout my stay in Spain was “Lo siento, yo no hablo Espanol” which, despite what Doulingo told me, translates as “I speak fluent Spanish/Catalan/Basque – please engage me on a lengthy conversation”.

What day is the fish waste bin collected?  = Quin dia es treu el peix?
What day is the fish waste bin collected?  = Quin dia es treu el peix?

It was several weeks into my stay before I briefly flicked through the TV channels to see what passes for evening entertainment. There’s a Ramsays Kitchen Nightmares rip-off where a rotund Spaniard rips pieces out of dysfunctional restaurateurs – that’s entertaining. But nothing quite matches Wheeler Dealers dubbed into Catalan. I could switch to the English audio but really its better in Catalan. One new found joy was watching Handball on Catalan TV. Why don’t we play this in the UK?


The past few weeks of discovery have presented an unusual dilemma for me. Normally I would want to share my rich experiences with others in real time (whether they want this or not) but this time I have been much more reserved in my output. For one thing I didn’t want to tell the world my home might be unoccupied, hence publishing this series of blogs after returning to the UK. Also I felt bad about the idea of shoving continuous sunny carefree images at my social circles as they contend with frost and fog.

It hasn’t all been plain sailing. Rocketing Covid in Catalonia (mostly in the cities) has prompted a lock down across the entire province. This curtailed some of our travel plans, for instance to visit Barcelona, or the medieval city of Vic, though we did make it to Girona and later to San Sebastian – which will feature in forthcoming blogs.

Covid: Eating in is the new eating out
Covid: Eating in is the new eating out

Even so, with such beauty to discover on our doorstep it hasn’t really felt like a lock down other than when it comes to eating out. Food, cookery and eating is everything here. We should be sipping coffee in outdoor cafes during the day and dining out in the evening but that simply hasn’t happened. Establishments have either been closed, offering a takeaway service only, or open with limited capacity. Either way we have opted not to risk infection. On one hand it feels odd to be here and not enjoy this facet of living but equally we are just grateful to be here at all. 

Home made comforts
Home made comforts

Want a drink out? Take a thermos flask of home made iced coffee and sit by the beach. Want to eat well? Cook for ourselves. Want entertainment? Wait until Thursday afternoon for a free piano recital. More on this in a future blog – it’s not what it seems

San Feliu De Gweejols
San Feliu De Gweejols

So what have I learned so far? Guixols is pronounced Gweejols. Residents dress two seasons colder than tourists. Octopus is an everyday food. Coming to this blog soon: walking through Game of Thrones, the storm arrives, a week in surfing paradise…

Into The Woods

Another week working from my retreat in Catalonia and the plague ridden chill of England’s autumn doesn’t enter my thoughts. The view from my balcony atop the hill of Les Bateries, overlooking Sant Pol and Sant Feliu, is one of the sea and of pine. There can be no better region in which to walk, breathe and absorb the great outdoors. At home now it would be a struggle to break up my working day for fresh air and exercise but here there are no excuses. One moment I’m signed into a remote terminal session hosted somewhere in the cloud, working alongside Canadian and Indian colleagues for an American company. The next minute I can be out there…

View from the balcony
View from the balcony

The woods across the road from my flat conceal a remarkable pristine environment that feels untainted by humans. Massive rounded rocks bulge up from the ground. They glitter with tiny specks of mica formed under great pressure many millions of years ago. Some of the expensive villas on this hillside are creatively built around these rocks to great effect.

Fools gold
Fools gold

A soft deep red sandstone provides more level ground between the boulders. Pine trees grow from this surface and also out of every conceivable (and some inconceivable) crevice in the boulders. I also come across some gnarly old cork trees. There is a long standing cork industry in this region of Spain as evidenced by the former cork factories in Sant Feliu and Pallafrugel up the coast.

Cork tree
Cork tree

Great clumps of cacti sprout naturally in any clearing, often accompanied by densely fragrant wild lavender in some kind of symbiotic relationship. These plants are under a protection order to prevent people from taking the red cactus fruits. I tried one (bought from the market) and let me tell you there is no need to protect these in the wild. Nobody is going to want to eat them.

Not for eating or sitting on
Not for eating or sitting on

This little paradise provides fertile grounds for an abundance of wild mushrooms. A couple of weeks back I spotted a group of French visitors picking and bagging them up in great numbers. Judging by the price these can fetch at market we could probably pay for our 2 month stay with a few days of endeavour. I just wouldn’t have the confidence in what I was picking.

Pristine
Pristine

My evening walks in this woodland have been restorative in every way. The wind doesn’t penetrate the trees, nor does any outside sound. The sunsets are memorable. The low light casts long shadows through the vegetation. The baking sandstone appears to glow red.

A special place
A special place

Wild bushy grasses shine with a pearlescent glow. In places a rocky outcrop opens up with an uninterrupted view down to the sea. Time seems to stand still. Absolute tranquillity. Not bad for a 2 minute stroll from my apartment. Aside from the outstanding beauty it’s also a place to forget about the worries and limitations imposed by Covid. I wander with my mask down – an act that seems rebellious in a region where compliance is mandatory. Just occassionally the spell is broken by some other rambler or dog walker and I raise my mask for a while. The moment passes, then it is back to these views.

No better place to watch the sun go down
No better place to watch the sun go down

This wonderland may be just a footstep from my flat but the entire region is full of woodland and walking routes if you know where to find them. I downloaded a walking app for my phone and tried a couple of routes that were badly translated from Catalan.

My favourite was a route up into the hills above the adjacent village of Castell d’Aro. This little town delighted me straight away with its old buildings, centring on the church which now serves as a museum. The fountain at the summit of the route was anticlimatic to say the least but the scenery, views and clear air were well worth the exertion, not to mention the many signs of the wild boars that live abundantly in these hills.

Wild boar tracks
Wild boar tracks

I have read that they come out at night to feed and drink from the many streams that channel through these hills so there is almost no chance of seeing one. My research also indicates that the nearest bears live far away to the west in the mountains towards the Basque region, which is simultaneously a disappointment and a relief.


Three months later and I am revisiting my memories for this blog post on a bright and frosty English January morning. I miss having such easy access to the outdoors. I would need to drive half an hour to reach the outskirts of the peak district, and besides a journey of this length would be forbidden under lockdown rules. Instead we popped out for a walk around a local park – pleasant enough but no sea views, no wild boar prints and plenty of other people.

As we get in the car to drive home I notice a collection of acorns trapped beneath the windscreen. This unlikely harvest dropped from a tree onto our parked car 3 months ago and has migrated 1000 miles north. If you can’t go to the forest can the forest come to you? How long does it take a tree to grow from seed?

Cami De Ronda

My home town sits broadly as far from the sea as anywhere in the UK and visits to the coast are a treasured rarity. In contrast my rented Costa Brava hilltop apartment overlooks the Mediterranean so it’s natural that I am drawn towards it on a regular basis throughout my stay. At one point out of principle I dragged a camping chair to the beach and plonked myself down in the sand with a book, but after 20 minutes of shivering beneath a beach towel I ticked that one off and resolved to find other ways to enjoy the coastline in these cooler months.

The Cami De Ronda coastal footpath may originally have been conceived to help detect smugglers but today it opens up stunning scenery to ramblers, joggers and dog walkers, if you don’t mind negotiating the ascents and descents that define this stretch of rocky coastline.

One of the better maintained sections of the coastal path

It’s not entirely clear where the path officially begins or ends although I believe it stretches at least from Blanes up to the French border far to the north. My exploration started in the cliffs south of Sant Feliu de Guixols. A hillside settlement I expected to be quiet turned out to have its own little community including a hotel, posh school and some multi-million euro grand designs overlooking the sea. There wasn’t any access to the water along this stretch aside from a rickety path down to the cliff bottom. I saw a couple of scuba divers here flapping precariously down to the water, one with a harpoon gun. Go figure.

Grand Designs

The path south evaporated so it’s fortunate I was walking north towards Sant Feliu. You can only envy the families with houses that cling to the coastal road into town. Only one patio was occupied on this sunny day. Three folk were enjoying the views over a glass of wine. They were English. Most houses inevitably were shuttered up, their owners maybe returning for the odd weekend break before the height of summer next year.

The views!

A breakwater of colossal stone blocks protects the sandy crescent of Sant Feliu. One side is preserved for swimmers, paddle boarders and kayakers. An array of expensive vessels moored up in the harbour on the opposing side. This view would barely be recognised by sailors of yore who set sail for the Napoleonic wars on ships crafted in this bay.

A promenade divides the beach from a tree lined pedestrian boulevard where a weekly Sunday market draws in many hundreds of shoppers. I love this stretch of path because there is always something going on. Kids play beach volleyball, Fisherman cast out and wait patiently. Couples sit together on benches sipping coffee gazing out to sea. Elderly folk congregate, watching all of the above while silently judging. My kind of people.

Beachball

The path curls out over the harbour and up into the hill of Sant Pol beyond some desirable villas, cliff top apartments and a few hotels. The hotels are mostly empty while the apartments look to be semi occupied. The views remain incredible thanks to the ever changing light that re-imagines the sea through a kaleidoscope of colours over the course of a day. The ubiquitous pine trees end abruptly where the red rocks plummet down to the ocean. It’s all rather intoxicating.

Worth the climb

Beyond the headland the high class beach of Sant Pol is very quiet with only a scattering of visitors at this time of year. The few upmarket beachside restaurants are closed due to Covid restrictions which is a shame because it would be lovely to sit at an outdoor table while sipping a drink and watching world go by.

A boardwalk follows the bay. There are shower facilities on the beach for swimmers. There is even a chrome hand rail descending into the sea, as if it were just some vast swimming pool. Only the lack of any significant tide can make these static facilities viable.

The tempting waters of Sant Pol beach

The boardwalk continues through sea grass topped dunes toward the exclusive gated community of S’Agaro, home to 1200 “residents”, a 5 star hotel and a Michelin starred restaurant.

Boardwalk

A stone path winds around the coast beneath the arches and floral planting of mansions beyond the financial reach of the innocent. I’ve observed a luxury yacht moored in the bay from my balcony over the past couple of days. From close quarters it appears the type that has its own full time chef, security detail and accountant.

Nice if you can afford it

The path jinks inland taking me past a private tennis club and through an enclave of unaffordable mansions. I wonder whether some of the owners are even aware they have a property here amidst their portfolio. It’s no surprise this little community has long been a destination for the rich and famous, including, Liz Taylor, Dirk Bogarde and Sean Connery.

On the rocks

The coves are becoming progressively smaller. The beach of Sa Concha is only accessible by foot unless you can blag your car past one of the two the security gates that protect S’Agaro from visiting mortals.

Sa Concha. Small but perfectly formed.

The path continues over a section of, as yet, undeveloped headland onto the long sandy beachfront of Platja d’Aro, to Palamos and beyond. But not for me. This short stretch of the Cami De Ronda has packed in such a variety of scenery – rich views for rich people. The smugglers have bought up the coastline.

The New Normal

We all know that experience of waking up somewhere different and taking awhile to grasp where we actually are. I wake for the first time in my Costa Brava bolt hole knowing where I am but not truly comprehending it. It’s barely light as I shuffle stiffly out of bed and across the living room instinctively towards the light from the balcony.  I slide open the doors and enter the cinema screen that will leave me every bit as dumbstruck when I see it in the weeks to come.

Sunrise


I’m just in time to catch the dying glow of sunrise as the low sun begins it’s ascent from sea level and rakes long shadows across the fluffy green canopy of pines that proliferate the slopes beneath our balcony. There is no sound or motion except for swifts that dart by acrobatically on their morning mission. The sandy bay of Sant Pol to my left is calm and inviting. A small boat is heading into the harbour town of Sant Feliu to my right. I can just about make out the bulk of a container ship far out to sea, perhaps on its way to Barcelona down the coast. I will never tire of this view.

Good morning Sant Feliu

It’s mild even at this early hour and in just a few minutes the sun has asserted itself fully and blindingly off the coastal waters. Time to unpack the coffee machine.



The first day after any arrival is usually an eye popping affair. In time I will no doubt become oblivious to some of the sights that today fill my senses. The drive to Palamos along the C-31 dual carriageway is pleasing on the eye. Hill top towns rise out of the wooded slopes, every one topped by a stone church spire. The few clear areas of land are given over to agriculture of some sort. Having just put our UK allotment to bed until Spring it’s disconcerting to drive through a landscape where crops are still ripening up in the sun.


We almost plumped for a home rental in Palamos. On first appearances I’m glad we didn’t.

Palamos high rise

The long beachfront is overshadowed by high rise apartments that you like to think would not be given planning permission in these times. It’s a rarity along this northern stretch of coastline where development has on the whole been more subtly managed. The beach is undeniably impressive but it is the fish market that we have come to visit. In the UK the trawlers tend to return to port in the early hours but we have learnt that they unload here in the late afternoon.

Bringing home the fish

We are the first customers at 5pm and half a dozen long ice counters are submerged with a catch that has only just been lifted off the boats and been sorted. There is too much to take in. Where to start? It is inevitable that we buy too much. It’s who we are. Fish is a way of life for people on this coast. The quantity and variation of seafood available in any town or village exceeds the best we can expect in the UK so we are obliged to make the most of this during our extended stay.

Fruits of the sea

There is a complete change of scene a mere 10 minute stroll up the coastline beyond the commercial moorings. A pleasant harbour is ringed by tasteful low rise apartments, in contrast to the tower blocks we left behind. The entire Costa Brava coastline is well served by walking routes and we follow one bordering the harbour, past a campsite and up into the woods. Camping is very popular here and with this climate is makes a lot of sense.

Our chronic lack of fitness is exposed by the modest slopes. I’m determined to walk myself to fitness in the coming weeks, if I can resist the patisseries that whisper to me on every street corner. I feel it’s going to be a case of 2 steps forward, 1 cake back. The effort is totally worth it as the route unveils itself gradually, culminating in a breathtaking reveal over the next bay. I’m minded to return with a folding chair and just sit here in the sun, except it would be late by the time I returned to the car. And I don’t have a folding chair.

A view worth standing for, though I managed to screw up the photo

We stand awhile silently, overlooking the sea in the mottled shade of pine trees warmed by a temperate breeze, with not a soul in sight. I’m going to bottle this memory and save it for one of those damp grey bone chilling days that the British winter will inflict on me when I return to home shores.

It’s getting dark early now as we head into the depths of autumn. My favourite part of any town is the old centre, with its winding streets and charismatic old buildings. Palamos is no exception and we wander around a pedestrianised area taking in the early evening buzz as people finish work and pick up their groceries on the way home. There are enough people going about their business to lend a sense of normality in these strained times, with only the prevalence of face masks and hand sanitiser a reminder of the bigger picture.

North-south streets are in shadow while east-west streets are ablaze with dazzling low sunlight. In fact we don’t even attempt to walk west on account of not being able to see anything. Fortunately there are delis in all directions and we feel duty bound to pick up all sorts of goodies in one of them. It is becoming clear that Catalans appreciate good quality produce. Did I mention the cake shop? Did I need to?

This feels like home

By the time we leave Palamos I’ve adjusted my view of the town. It has plenty of charm and character to offset the excessive beachfront construction that looms over the beach. We drive home with minds full of sun and scenery. This evening will involve doing something exciting with fish. It’s hard to imagine that we have several weeks ahead of us in this bubble of adventure. Will we tire of exploration? Will the fish run out? Will our exercise outweigh the calorific destruction that is sure to follow us home every week? I’m pretty confident I know the answer to the first 2 questions.

An Unlikely Honeymoon

Road trip!

To say 2020 has been a strange year for all of us would be an understatement but we can at least rest assured that the period we are living through will feature prominently in history books. We have all heard about the fall of Rome, 1066 or “discovery” of the Americas but if you lived between, say, 1400 and 1500 the chances are that most people won’t know anything of your time. Scant consolation for lockdown, plague and death but you have to take the positives where you find them.

My consolation in 2020 began with the onset of autumn. The small but perfectly formed wedding we had planned for June fell the way of Covid restrictions and several months later we ended up at the registry office. It was more delightful than it sounds. Then a couple of days later we drove to Portsmouth and boarded a ferry for Spain – the culmination of speculative planning that, coincidentally, turned out to be our honeymoon. The crossing was uneventful unless you call bringing your own coffee machine into the cabin an event. 

Not getting off here. Ever.
Not getting off here. Ever.

After 2 nights at sea broken only by a stop at Roscoff we docked in Bilbao and, after a friendly temperature check and the most cursory of glances at our passports through the car window, we were en la tierra de España. Just like that.

Except of course that it wasn’t just like that. All of our bookings were subject to possible cancellation. We ourselves could have come down with Covid despite our hermit like existence. The subconscious release of worry we had been harbouring for many weeks is hard to explain. Our 7 hour journey from the Bay of Biscay across the plains of Spain to the Mediterranean was not the drag it might otherwise have been. The Basque mountains and greenery soon gave way to semi-arid flatlands, dotted with innumerable vineyards and olive groves. The roads were quiet. The sun – the SUN! And just as fatigue was setting in an outrageously improbable Pyrenean mountain spiked out of the Eastern horizon like some dreamily painted backdrop from a 1950’s western film set.

Road trip!
Road trip!

The Catalan county of Emporda heralded a return to greenery and the briefest flirtation with traffic around the periphery of Barcelona, before we rolled into our scantily researched destination of Sant Feliu de Guixols. We stopped by a supermarket and even that was exciting. Freshly squeezed orange juice. So many olives. A fish counter to shame any in the UK.

Side note: Sant Feliu, population 20,000 has over a dozen fishmongers. The average village in this region has more (and better) fish supplies than most English cities. Go figure.

With the shopping squeezed on top of our already saturated payload we navigated the final 5 minutes to our hilltop base for the coming weeks where our hostess greeted us with a twilight tour of the facilities before heading back home to Barcelona. She, like so many other homeowners in this district, is a city dweller with a second home here for weekends and the occasional longer escape.

This is promising
This is promising

We are here. We are alone. I stand awhile on the balcony looking out at the sea a mile away. There are lights in the harbour of Sant Feliu to my right. The air is mild. A light breeze ruffles over the pine trees that form a green cloud like canopy on the lower slopes. Bats flit noiselessly between the branches. I can hear nothing save for the odd cricket.

What can we expect while we are here? Will a Spanish lockdown curtail our adventures? Will working remotely dampen this feeling of escape? We have steadfastly agreed not to think in these terms.

The important questions are: Will it be warm enough in October to take a dip in the pool or in the sea? How soon can I stuff my face with fish? Will Duolingo make me proficient in Spanish? How do you pronounce “Guixols”? Only time will tell. Until then, buenos notches y hasta luego.

Carnival

Carnival !

It is an eerily quiet Saturday afternoon in Funchal, balmy capital of the Portuguese isle of Madeira. Most businesses have closed early and the few people I see on the streets march by with unusual purpose. Everyone who lives here knows what is coming.

I walk into one of my favourite restaurants near the harbour without a reservation. Yes, they have free tables. The place should be packed with tourists who arrived this morning on the gargantuan cruise ship docked in the harbour a few hundred metres away. They know what’s coming.

Taxis, lights, flags: Things are ramping up
Taxis, lights, flags: Things are ramping up

The sun has set by the time I leave the restaurant and Funchal is transformed with pretty street lighting, raised flags and a steady stream of people walking towards the promenade. Everyone has gathered to see the main parade of the Madeira carnival.

Jostling for position
Jostling for position

This well established annual event is a highlight of the year (there are many) although none of the official publicity has suggested a time for proceedings to start. This is a laid back culture after all.

Fuelling up
Fuelling up

Street vendors are doing a steady trade. There are queues for coffee (Madeiran’s are fuelled by caffeine) as well as Poncha – the brilliantly simple island hooch, consisting of Madeiran rum, freshly squeezed fruit juice and honey.

Elevated viewing points are in demand
Elevated viewing points are in demand

People have arrived early to grab a prime viewing position.

Some will go to any length
Some will go to any length

Everyone seems to be wearing more than me on this mild evening which shouldn’t be surprising since this is the “winter” period for residents (a mere 18 degrees Celsius today), while the older tourist demographic would no doubt have their thermostats turned up were it the same temperature at home.

I hear the leading parade float long before I’m able to see it above a sea of heads. It looks like all of Funchal’s young people are in the parade and they aren’t the least over-dressed.

Setting the tone
Setting the tone

At this point I should confess that I have only previously watched carnival parades in colder climates. The Grassington Festival for instance was a wonderfully fun example of a British carnival but this evening’s Latin blooded affair has more in common with Rio than Yorkshire.

Funchal or Rio?
Funchal or Rio?

The Funchal carnival is all about passion, colour and sequins. Nobody is going to call you out for wearing too much bling.

Centre of attention
Centre of attention

It’s hard to get a good view with so many enthusiastic party goers in front of me, but who cares – I love it! The crowd love it!

Carnival !
Carnival !

The guys and (mostly) girls in the parade love it too.

Hold on to your hat
Hold on to your hat

Massive effort has gone into preparations for this year’s event. The floats are magnificent and the glamorous costumes remind me of some 1930’s broadway production

Putting on a show
Putting on a show

The parade consists of numerous themed floats, each with an accompanying ground force of performers – be it dancers, drummers or both

Leading Lady
Leading Lady

The floats are never ending, which might explain why town was empty a few hours ago.

Stayin Alive
Stayin Alive

Every float is pumping out it’s own music. There’s a Latin theme with the Bee Gee’s Stayin Alive thrown in for variation

Music and rhythm
Music and rhythm

This is not a night for introverts.

Everyone is a star
Everyone is a star

The whole of the island is represented by tonight’s parade, although the carnival itself is running over a couple of weeks across the island.

Capturing the moment
Capturing the moment

I love the inclusivity of the parade. A wide variety of people from across the island are involved and their joy is infectiously transmitted to the crowd.

A alegria da vida
A alegria da vida

The sheer effort that has gone into the costumes, body painting and choreography is spectacular.

For one night only...
For one night only…

It’s hard to imagine that all of these exotic performers have day jobs or attend school. Today they have come together for a cabaret that will live long in the memory.

Life is a cabaret
Life is a cabaret

I walk to the end of the parade where the performers have broken formation into social groups. The buzz of energy is receding as people catch their breath. If the parade has been poncha then the aftermath is definitely coffee.

All good things come to an end
All good things come to an end

For some revellers the evening is winding down as they head back to other neighbourhoods

Taking flight
Taking flight

Others will head off into town to party all night long. Their celebrations have only just started.

For me the night is over and I have loved every minute of it. I would return again just for this event, although there are many other must-see festivals in the Madeiran calendar, such as the remarkable Flower Festival I was fortunate to attend on my last visit.


Needless to say there is a hung-over feel to Funchal on Sunday. The parade route has been meticulously cleared and cleaned but there are clues of last night’s party. A couple of costumed paraders sip juice at a bar (have they even slept?). A waitress still shows signs of face glitter. Even my cable car ascent to Monte captures the aftermath of last night’s events…

The morning after
The morning after

The parade may be over but the carnival goes on. Madeirans, generous in spirit, welcome the outside attention that their festivities attract and there will be regular representatives at the iconic fish and flower market over the coming days

Until next time...
Until next time…

Madeira may be a mound of rock poking out of the Atlantic 600 miles south west of Lisbon and 300 miles west of the Moroccan coast but it has a vibrancy that belies its size. There are many other annual highlights to attend such as the Atlantic Festival, the Jazz Festival or the Wine Festival, though I’m sorely tempted to return for the Carnival. When else might I get to wear face paint?