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.

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.

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.