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 roll 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 Tramantana.

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 take 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 trout. 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?

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.

Setting the right example

Have you ever visited the perfect holiday destination and wondered where the locals go on holiday? Barcelona presents this dilemma.

If you haven’t been to Barcelona then you should go as soon as humanly possible – jump on the open top tourist bus and do some tourist things because they are great! If you have already been to Barcelona then you should go back and do the many exciting things you didn’t get to do last time. Nobody who goes once doesn’t want to return. But what if you have already been three times – why would you want to go back and what would you want to do?

I chose to visit Barcelona for a fourth time because I wanted to relax on beaches and in parks but then have the option to get cultural when lying and sitting down started to wear thin. How many other places can offer you such depth of opportunity for sun, sea, sand and sights at the end of a two hour budget flight from central England?


This time I wanted to live like a local away from the tourist mass and what better way to do this than to live with a local. My first experience of room renting website AirBnB is a positive one. For a week my home is a nice double bedroom in the Dreta de l’Eixample district. My room leads onto a 5th floor balcony and I’ve a modern kitchen and bathroom at my disposal.

A view at breakfast
A view at breakfast

My host Alex was born in the city and is a true Catalan, speaking Spanish as a second language and English as a welcome third. As if to underline these credentials he informs me that he inherited his FC Barcelona seat from his father who in turn inherited it from his father, who bought the seat when the Nou Camp stadium was originally opened in 1957. Alex alludes to the intrinsic link between FC Barcelona and the Catalan people and this article attempts to explain these political and social relationships.

Catalan pride
Catalan pride

For sure there are plenty of Catalan flags draped from balconies but at street level I just get the sense of a very strong socially cohesive community where residents know their neighbours and make the time to chat with them.

Nothing is secret here
Nothing is secret here

This district attracts all generations. Retired folk stop a moment to smile doe-eyed as an unbearably sweet crocodile chain of pre-school kids are marched down the street to morning play group. After all, what’s the hurry?

There are any number of small local businesses within very easy walking distance, such as (fabulous) fresh fruit and vegetable shops, cafes, bars and restaurants. Yes there are plenty of small supermarkets but nothing to threaten the local businesses. Alex points out that people here shop for fresh food each day, in contrast to the British trend of a huge weekly shop at some out-of-town superstore requiring the use of a massive fridge/freezer.

Selling like hot cakes
Selling like hot cakes

…and the local bakeries are just divine! Perhaps the most bewildering sight is the sheer number of little café/bar establishments that seem to carve out a living alongside each other, selling coffee, beer and tapas all day long. There are a few tourists in the streets near my flat but the majority of business does seem to come from locals. Young people in particular seem to flit from one social gathering to the next.

Socially mobile
Socially mobile

Even with all of these facilities on your own street you sometimes need more from your shopping trip and a fifteen minute stroll to the Mercat de Santa Caterina presents yet more culinary opportunities.

Choice and quality
Choice and quality

While not quite as immaculately presented as the more famous and touristy Boqueria market on La Rambla this market has an abundance of attractive fresh food stalls and most of the shoppers are stocky old ladies towing wheeled shopping bags behind them.

Still flapping
Still flapping

I find it a little incongruous to hear Dexys Midnight Runners over the tannoy but that has to be a sign of authenticity, right?


One of the advantages of living in this area is access to public open space. Within two blocks I’m at the Arc De Triomf…

Arc De Triomf - no relation
Arc De Triomf – no relation

… which provides a spectacular gateway to some of the finest open green space in the city. A slow amble down the leafy promenade that starts here provides some welcome shade from the fierce sun. Most of the benches are occupied with people talking, reading, glued to headphones or just watching the world go by.

Walk of life
Walk of life

There’s plenty to watch here with a procession of joggers, dog walkers and inline skaters. One enterprising guy sails past on his skateboard with his dog in tow. Then I come across the old boys immersed in a game of Petanca. You sense they have been playing for 50 years – perhaps against each other at this spot. It’s a close game but one player excels with precision placement drawing cries of olé olé olé from one enthusiastic onlooker.

Old friendships and rivalries
Old friendships and rivalries

At the end of the palm lined avenue and across a road is the picturesque and expansive Parc De La Ciutadelle. The grand fountain here is famous but there is more to see amidst the blossoming gardens including a boating lake.

Oldest park in the city
Oldest park in the city

The birds love this park and none are more vocal than the parrots – their piercing squarks as ugly to listen to as their green plumage makes them attractive to watch. They look similar to the Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill that I encountered in San Francisco earlier this year but there are many more of them here.

It’s hot. Anybody not walking finds shade on a bench or on the ground beneath a tree. I spend hours here reading a book while eating cherries that taste twice as sweet and cost half as much as those at home (on reflection I reckon I must have demolished 4kg of cherries in a week). I’m a little ashamed to say that I also spent hours listening to the test cricket on internet radio. This was possible due to the extensive network of free public WiFi stations that benefit residents and tourists alike.

Cherries & cricket commentary in the park - sublime!
Cherries & cricket commentary in the park – sublime!

This initiative is typical in a city where Big Society is a reality and not an empty soundbite. A cheap integrated transport system lessens the need for car usage while the Bicing bike rental scheme – akin to the Boris Bikes in London – is popular with locals, including Alex.

As the evening draws in the night air remains hot and humid. Cafes in the street below my balcony show no signs of shutting up for the night until gone midnight. There is plenty to reflect on over a chilled beer.

Cold beer on a hot night
Cold beer on a hot night

In so much as a visitor can get a feel for a place I can fully understand why people would want to live here and put down roots. For me Dreta de l’Eixample sets the right example – gets the balance right. To me it seems that to live here is to have everything one needs. Life in a bubble perhaps…

Life in a bubble
Life in a bubble

Returning to my opening question, where do you go on holiday if you already live in the perfect holiday destination? As I ascend the escalator at Arc De Triomf Metro station I double-take at the “Visit Wales” tourist poster. Now that sets me thinking…