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.

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?

World Cup – Sunday 11th July

…It Is Now!

 This win for glorious homeland Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea will show the imperialist west that we are superior in every way. The lads will be welcomed home as heroes for an open-top tank parade. All hail me!


No – hang on. That’s not what happened…

Result – Sunday 11th July

  Final Spain 1 – 0 Holland


View From The Hotel Room

 Tonight we are going to do things a little differently. I watched the final in a hotel room so my normal colleagues are not around and it’s just me. Here are the match highlights as I saw them…

1 min: Referee Howard Web has polished his head in an attempt to look like Pierluigi Collina.

9 mins: Nothing happenend.

17 mins: Ohh – ahh – no, almost! Throw in.

24 mins: It’s good to see some proper fouling. In too many games up to now we have seen yellow cards given for soft fouls but Van Bommel’s deliciously crude tackle from behind that took out his man plus the mans dog was a joy to behold and much better value for yellow.

28 mins: Just when we thought that was good along comes De Jong and applies his studs to Alonso’s chest a’la Gazza. Again – excellent value for a yellow.

30 mins: BBC commentator Cliche Watch: “There will be a new name on the trophy whoever wins“. REALLY?!

42 mins: Sneijder shows consumate skill to jams his studs into a Spanish midfielder without getting booked. Now that’s how you do it.

44 mins: Cliche watch: “Van Persie has fed on scraps in the first half“. Perhaps if he would stop eating and concentrate on the game he might have been more effective.

HALF TIME
Alan Hansen bemoans the fact that the game has been tight with lots of fouls and little flair on show. Yes Alan – it’s the World Cup final. This coming from a dour central defender whose playing career (and subsequent punditry career) was hallmarked by dull thuggery.

56 mins: Johnny Heitinga receives Hollands 5th yellow card – not for shooting as the felled Spaniard would claim – but for a something-and-nothing challenge. Not in Van Bommels class.

62 mins: Arjen Robben through on goal finds his shot saved prompting the commentator to spout yet more predictable cliches

66 mins: Capdevilla clips the heels of advancing Van Persie to get his name into the book. Snidey and not nearly dangerous enough.

69 mins: David Villa picks up a loose ball 2 yards out and with the goal at his mercy manages to win a corner.

73 mins: Cliche watch: After a promising Spanish move is brought to a halt by a foul – “If Spain score from this it will be poetic justice“.

76 mins: Sergio Ramos fancies an extra 30 minutes judging by his open goal miss from a corner.

79 mins: Quote of the match – Spanish winger Jesus punts the ball over everyone’s head and out of play. Commentator: That’s not his greatest cross. True, but a little insensitive on a Sunday!

82 mins: Robben is through again and with just the goalkeeper to beat manages to emerge with a booking.

84 mins: Cliche watch: “We are at the stage where one goals means you’re world champions“. Erm, no actually.

FULL TIME and Gary Lineker is clearly distracted – If it goes to penalties it’s going to be a knee trembler. I’m not sure if he’s talking about his own circumstances or whether FIFA have introduced a new way to settle tied matches.

92 mins: Three Spanish forwards dive simultaneously in the box. It’s beautifully choreographed.

94 mins: Fabregas wants penalties and so decides to miss when clean through.

95 mins: Mathaison also fancies pens so heads over from a corner when well set.

102 mins: Cliche watch: “We are still no nearer to finding out which of these two nations will be crowned world champions

EXTRA TIME – HALF TIME
Commentator to Clarence Seedorf – “How can Holland win this game now?“. Go on Clarence – just say it, please!

106 mins: Cliche watch: Torres comes on – “It’s the story often told – a substitute comes on and wins the match“. Name one of these stories…

109 mins: Heitinga sent off for second yellow card. Nothing too malicious unfortunately.

110 mins: Van Der Weil booked for allowing Iniesta to blatantly dive.

114 mins: Cliche watch: “You have to score to win a world cup

116 mins: INIESTA SCORES! Two more bookings.

117 mins: Cliche watch: “Holland are losing

120 mins: Xavi booked for kicking the ball away.

121 mins: Torres makes his only contribution to the world cup by pulling his hamstring.

122 mins: The ref blows – it’s all over! Dutch players crowd around the referee to dispute something or other in an attempt to get some late-late bookings but it’s to no avail. Just the 14 yellow cards this game.

EXTRA TIME – FULL TIME
It’s cliche heaven. Here we go…
Commentator: “Spain have won the world cup 1-0“. Really? Thanks for that – none of us had been watching.
Alan Hansen: “The goal was scored by Iniesta – the best player of the tournament“, which seems odd since Hansen hadn’t mentioned this up until this point.
Gary Lineker: “A victory for football I think“. Bingo!
Alan Shearer: “Iniesta has got magnets in both feet“. If only the ball were metal…
Perry Groves: “There was only one team that wanted to win right from the start
Commentator: As Spain alight the stairs – “Iker Cassilas was bred for this moment
Commentator: As the trophy is lifted – “Spain are the kings of world football
Perry Groves: “Spain play football like we all want to play it in our heads

Loose Ends

Let’s wrap a few things up before I call time on my world cup blog. The blog banner graphic includes the following footballing folk, in case you hadn’t already worked it all out.
WC Banner

From left to right…

  • Ray “the crab” Wilkins
  • Hoddle and Waddle in their Diamond Lights phase
  • Glen Johnson in his Stealing Toilet Seats phase
  • “Big Ron” Atkinson
  • Jimmy Hill. No seriously!
  • Statto, aka Angus Loughran, who was declared bankrupt in 2008.
  • Saint & Greavsie
  • John “Motty” Motson
  • Carlton Palmer – former England international in all but ability.
  • John Barnes – famous for his rap song and shiny suits. And failed management career. And crap punditry. He used to be a decent footballer mind.
  • Stan “The Man” Collymore & Ford Cortina. Unfortunately his dogging notoriety is far from the most shameful incident in his career.
  • Paul “Daft as a brush Gazza” Gascoigne. Just when you thought his life couldn’t get more screwed up he arrives in Rothbury to provide his good friend the deranged murderer Raoul Moat with his last supper. Pity his agent who he shares with Roger Mellie.

Thanks to all of my guests. BTW: Who’s going to pay for the massive biscuit and cake bill? And this poodle is going for a walk “down by the canal” tomorrow.
No thanks to the jobsworth “celebrity” agent who tried to close down my blog on the grounds that it somehow posed a threat to his D-list client.

Apologies to my non-footballing readers for the last months output – normal travel/baking service will be resumed forthwith.

As my grandfather would have said – “That’s yer lot

World Cup – Tuesday 29th June

Misery has a name – Alan Green

We are down to the final eight now. The match schedule is thinning out and any respite is drowned out by the sound of punditry. At least we might have time to cheer ourselves up between Alan Green commentaries…

Results – Tuesday 29th June

  Second
Round
(pens) Paraguay 0 – 0 Japan
    Spain 1 – 0 Portugal



Duncan’s Dive Watch – Spain vs Portugal

 Who hasn’t been looking forward to this competition between fierce Iberian neighbours Portugal and Spain! It promised to be a feast of falling but did it live up to it’s billing? Here are the highlights…

16 minutes: After a slow start we have our first dive – and who else could it be but Ronaldo? He raids down the right, cuts in between two players and it’s a classic legs together full length dive. No marks awarded by the referee who waves play on. I think that lacked a little commitment.

 34 minutes: Ronaldo again. Left flank run across the halfway line. He over-runs the ball and a defender gets there first. Ronaldo launches into the defender and executes a passable mid-air half twist culminating in a traditional arse landing, garnished with quizzical hands in the air. Still no marks from the referee, which seems a little harsh.

49 minutes: Man muppet Carlos Puyol – the sort of character parents tell their kids lives under a bridge – gets tickled from behind and slumps to the ground wearing the expression of a slain samurai. It’s disappointing fare with no technical merit and a lack of expressive arm movement so once again no points.

 57 minutes: David Villa plays a one two with Iniesta on the edge of the Portugal box. He’s not going to make the return ball and pulls off the imaginary trip with some aplomb. The ref waves away his appeals but I’m giving him 3 out of 10 for fake boyish innocence. “What me – diving?!”

74 minutes: Controversy! Substitute Pedro Mendes thinks he has pulled off a majestic fouled-from-behind back flip with an exquisite double leg slide. It’s a high scoring move, but what’s this? The referee actually awards it as a genuine foul! What a shame, that would have been a lovely dive.

 84 minutes: It’s Ronaldo again – you can’t keep a good man up. This time it’s an innocuous mid-air collision with Capdevila which Ronaldo free-styles into an awkward landing. It’s desperate stuff now with just 5 minutes left and once again there’s nothing given

88 minutes: The stroke of genius we have been waiting for Capdevila brilliantly pulls off a text book ghost slap in the box. He rolls around holding his head and Costa is shown a red card! Video replays confirm there was no contact – it’s a brilliant deception and that’s a full 10 to the Spaniard!

The whistle blows and it’s a Spanish victory despite Ronaldo’s bravest efforts. The king of collapso has his head in his hands and knows he will have to work hard on the training pitch to work on those polished cons he is famous for.

View from the sofa
You may think from my (seemingly) endless reportage of the World Cup that I catch all the games live on TV. Alas, my up-tight employers weren’t amused when I asked if I could spend a month at home on full pay watching every match live. I thought I was being reasonable as I had intended to go to South Africa and pass on my costs as expenses, but it seems you can’t get away with anything nowadays.

Anyway, the upshot of my workplace incarceration is that I have followed a fair few matches on Radio 5 (you see the BBC let their employees go to the world cup on full pay and expenses) while commuting. One of their principal commentators is Alan Green and if you have heard him you will probably know what I am about to say.

There can never have been such a negative, permanently dissatisfied football commentator in broadcasting history. He can suck the joy out of any occassion. The man must be a rain god because I can only imagine he walks under a continuous heavy black cloud of negative energy.

To repeat myself let’s just remember – he is paid to go to sunny South Africa and attend the worlds biggest sporting event. All he has to do is talk for a couple of hours, and yet even this can’t bring any light into Mr Green’s dark and burdensome life. He watches every game with disdain picking fault with everything he beholds. The games are all unremittingly dreadful and the players on show were born under a bad sign because they can do no right. The officials are always a disgrace and woe betide anything distracting him off the pitch because whatever it is will be a sham.

I can imagine his response to accusations of misery. “I’m not here to dress things up, I tell it like it is“. Let me put if to you Mr Green, there have been a few tense matches with little beauty on show but I have been listening to your commentaries for years and they are ALL THE BLOODY SAME. Driving home today you described Paraguay vs Japan as if it were some personal slight upon your unworldy standards. Well I got home and caught the end of the game and what I saw was an admittedly stuttering affair with plenty of honesty, grit and no shortage of half chances. It had an enjoyable tension that real football fans would recognise. When the stakes are high that’s what you get – if it makes you so unhappy pack in your job.

And on the offchance that you have children I would like to offer them my support and say that they must cast off the burdens of your impossible expectations and realise that nothing they could ever do would be good enough to warrant fatherly praise. It’s just your way.