There are tons of things to see and do in Catalunya, and I always do my best to get out and to explore.
One of the places that I have enjoyed visiting and taking visitors to is the wine cathedral which is in the nearby village called Pinell de Brai.
The wine cathedral at Pinell de Brai
In a small village close to the River Ebro stands a large ostentatious brick building inlaid with a beautiful coloured frieze, yet the biggest surprise of all lay inside. Debs and I took the self-guided audio tour and wandered around listening to the history of the place.
We learnt that the cathedral was constructed between 1919 and 1922. At this time in its history. the region was prosperous from wine and olive oil production and the government, wanting to put Catalan culture on the map authorized the building of large modernist cathedrals to house the newly formed wine and oil cooperatives and the farmers’ unions.
Cesar Martinell, who studied under Gaudi, was the architect who designed the cathedral in the village of Pinell de Brai. He wanted to dignify the workers’ work and build a grand place but he also listened to them and their needs and he incorporated state of the art specialist equipment inside.
Beginning outside we learnt that the frieze had been completed at the same time as the cathedral but with mounting debts it was thought to be a little inconsiderate to flaunt the 42 metre long art work so the tiles were hidden away ; and were kept hidden during the Spanish civil war, until they were finally added in 1950.
Inside, the main hall is dominated by 46 giant cement tanks. There are a further 25 tanks underground – the wine cathedral can hold up to 2.5 million litres of wine. On the tour tourists can interact with a sensory game and try to identify different wine-related aromas in a bouquet tunnel which was good fun.
Climbing the stairs to the top floor you really get a feeling for the grand scale as the largest brick arches in the world dominate the space – at 19 metres high they parallel the great cathedrals, which was of course, Cesar Martinell’s plan.
As I said previously, Cesar designed more than just a pretty building. A`long beam stretches across the top floor containing an endless screw used in the crushing process. Much of the wine production here uses gravity in the process which ensures that the grapes are minimally affected.
The building was also home to an olive oil mill. 3 huge conical stones would have once ground the olives to a paste before it was put into the crushers. The original equipment is still here and although it is no longer used but looks in pristine condition.
At the end of the tour in the little shop you can have an optional wine and oil tasting which Debs and I were more than happy to trial. I am happy to report that the oil was delicious and the wine excellent. There is also a restaurant upstairs which serves lunch and while we didn’t eat here, the business owners also have a Michelin star restaurant nearby so I suspect that the food would be good.
The Menu del Dia
Food and drink feature highly on any visit to Spain. Of course, when you can buy a very acceptable cava for under £2.50 (that is for a whole bottle not a glass) it is always going to feature highly.
Wherever you are in Spain, the menu del dia is your food friend. This concept was introduced by Franco who wanted to ensure that all labourers had access to good, wholesome, affordable food and he and his government insisted that restaurants offered this alternative cheaper option alongside their a la carte menus.
The small village of Benifallet is blessed with several restaurants and bars which all serve excellent food but time and time again I return to Xiringuito’s. The atmosphere is relaxed, even during the hectic August lunch times, due in part to the fact that its family owned and it all runs like a well-oiled machine. The food that comes out of the kitchens is always of high quality and is usually based on local recipes, and there are no half measures when it comes to the drinks on the table either.
You do have to book a table on the days when they serve up their paella, but for me, their black rice is the best. Salty and ever so subtly squidy this is my personal measure of a good restaurant in Spain and Xiringuito wins hands down for their version of it.
The Menu del Dia in Spain typically consists of a starter or an aperitif, then you have a first plate and next a second plate, all of which are usually accompanied by bread, olives and alioli (garlic mayonnaise). There will be a postre (desert) and the optional coffee to finish up and all is usually washed down by wine or water, one of which is included in the price. Quality and prices vary around the country but the best by far are in the local villages and even in the restaurants that are attached to the petrol stations.
Each of the nearest gas stations as they are known to Benifallet offer good food; one offers food cooked over open coals and the other at the Tamoil station offers home style cooking from its Bulgarian owners and you are hard pressed to find a table here as it is frequented by lorry drivers, workers and locals alike.
People also travel an awfully long way to dine at the local hotel in Benifallet which is called Pepo’s. This hotel boasts a restaurant with an incredible choice of dishes, many of them of local origin but also some with more adventurous twists from further afield. The wine menu is extensive and the restaurant cool and calm; again you will often need to book in advance as it is so popular here.
Hiking to the Cruz de Santos (Saint’s Cross)
One evening when the temperature was still thirty something degrees a group of about thirty people gathered in the road outside the bars of Benifallet. Piling into cars we drove up into the mountains to the abandoned Cardo Monastery. The road hugs the side of the mountain and has spectacular views across the valley and as you emerge through a tunnel cut into the rock you can see the impressive abandoned monastery standing on its bluff of rock which hangs over the valley.
But this evening we were not there to see the monastery. We were there to hike to the summit of the Cardo mountain and to the Cruz de Santos. With the high temperature it was never going to be an easy hike but the group set off at a fast pace. Trying not to puff and pant too much, both my friend and I kept up the pace! The hike covered 7.5 kms and we climbed 581 metres. I have done worse hikes but the terrain was tricky in places with loose rocks and steep sides along the path although the views were worth it. We passed several of the many abandoned hermitages along the route that were a spin-off from the monastery, some of them perched impossibly on sharp needles of rock.
I learnt how the monks used to live alone in each of them and as a safety precaution they would all ring their bells at a designated time of the day. One day, one of the bells was silent so a rescue party went to investigate, only to find the monk enjoying the company of the local prostitute! The enraged rescuers banished the monk and they set the hermitage on fire as it had been desecrated by the monk’s actions.
As we climbed we emerged from the tree line and had views far out and over to the coast and the Ebro Delta as well as to the mountains which rolled on and on. And then came the event that we had climbed for. As smoky grey cloud billowed up from below us and crept up to the peak on which we were standing and sitting, the sun set in the west bathing everything in its golden glow whilst opposite in the east, a full moon rose in the darkening lilac/blue sky.
We all took photographs and settled down to eat our picnics on the rocks with the view surrounding us all around at 360 degrees. And then, in the dark, we put on our head torches and set off back down the mountain.
Making and meeting a new friend.
I am a great believer that strangers are simply friends that you have not yet met and this story proves that.
On one of my visits to Spain I was in the queue at Bristol airport waiting to fly out to Barcelona when a lady in front of me turned and struck up a conversation. We continued to chatter away, even though by now I was kneeling on the floor and holding up the queue because my suitcase was overweight. The weighing scales that I had used before leaving home were not exactly accurate and I had to ‘lose’ several kilos of stuff. Anyway, I was choosing which stuff to dump (airports – PLEASE provide special bins and take this stuff to a charity instead of landfill). The honey-nut cornflakes had to go and sadly several books but Louise and I continued to chat. I told her how I was planning to eventually head to Peru and as she had once been married to a Colombian we swapped addresses.
But instead of never getting around to it like happens so many times, we actually wrote to each other. Granted, we didn’t get around to it much, but we did occasionally write and we swapped news. And finally, after four years we were in the same place at the same time and Louise treated me to a glorious lunch at a Michelin star restaurant in Cambrils.
We had a lovely meal at the Rincon de Diego in Cambrils which comprised of a whole table of tastes of the the delicious food then later Louise gave me a tour of the area in her neat little red sports car before we went back to her home for a drink.
We had a lovely afternoon and didn’t stop talking about all sorts of things, which goes to prove my point that there are no strangers, just friends that you have yet to meet.
We could have just smiled at each other in the queue at the airport and we certainly didn’t have to exchange email addresses. We never had to write or to take the time to find out a little bit about each other, but I am so glad that we did. And the next time that a stranger strikes up a conversation with you somewhere, make an effort to reply. Who knows, you may become very good friends one day in the future.
We had a lovely meal at the Rincon de Diego in Cambrils which comprised of a whole table of tastes of the delicious food and then later Louise gave me a tour of the area in her neat little red sports car before we went back to her home for a drink.
We had a lovely afternoon and we didn’t stop talking about all sorts of things; which goes to prove my point that there are no strangers, just friends that you have yet to meet.
We could have just smiled at each other in the queue at the airport and we certainly didn’t have to exchange email addresses. We never had to write or to take the time to find out a little bit about each other, but I’m so glad that we did. And the next time that a stranger strikes up a conversation with you somewhere, make an effort to reply. Who knows, you may become very good friends one day in the future.
Catalunya has many customs and traditions and one of the most adrenaline fuelled must be the Correfoc which incorporates, dragons, fireworks and drums. Click here to go to my article with more information on this crazy, crazy custom and I will bring you more articles about the customs and traditions in future articles.
This article was originally published in September 2015 and was rewritten and republished in August 2023.
This article represents my personal views on events during the (unofficial) Catalan referendum in 2017 – written whilst waiting to check in for a flight at Barcelona airport and is a reminder that travel isn’t all sandy beaches and cocktails. It can be gritty realism and immersion in the lives of real people which puts a whole different perspective on things. Whilst originally written several years ago and now updated in 2023, I hope that it shows how making an effort to understand what you experience on a personal level can affect you beyond any spectacular Instagram location
I always do my best to learn about the history and to understand about the different cultures and customs of the places that I visit and that summer was no different. I had visited Catalunya and Spain many times over the years so it was time that I researched and investigated the history of the Spanish Civil War. As a result, the political events that I found myself in the middle of, held even more emotion for me.
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Why did I cry when I left friends behind in Colombia or why did I bawl my eyes out as my plane took off from Rio after travelling for a year in South America. On a travel day, I usually sit quietly at bus stations or at airports reflecting on why I feel driven to leave the people that I care for and whom I know that I will deeply miss.
As a travel writer and a blogger I was always very excited to be travelling again, but moving on from a place where I have begun to put down some roots will always be tinged with sadness. Friends tend to be made quickly when you are backpacking and I guess the majority of us are looking for connections and meaning to our lives. I have made many good friends from all around the world but I always know that the chances of meeting again will not happen in the majority of cases.
But as another hot summer drew to a close in 2017 the leaving felt different. I felt as if I were abandoning my friends. I was leaving behind a country that’s very uncertain of her future. I had been in Spain for more than twelve months (with many side trips around Europe) learning about Spanish history and I’m proud to say that I was becoming quite proficient in one of her languages. I’ve travelled through some difficult regions in the world but this was the first time when I had been a part of a disturbing situation unfurling live and as it happens. Looking back I wonder was it that dramatic compared to say, experiencing the Covid pandemic, but it was dramatic because I had an inkling that this part of Spain had far more to offer me in the future and as I have already said, many people that I cared about were on the front line and involved. (Click here to find out how that turned out)
As I left for the airport I could only hope that things would settle down and quickly, common sense and dialogue will prevail and no side would lose face. But especially now, we must all be aware of how seemingly overnight a small disagreement can erupt into a full blown argument followed by hatred and divisions. Since then, there have been unbelievable conflicts in the Ukraine, Syria and Sudan and I am moved to tears when I think of how my friends in the beautiful country of Myanmar are suffering.
But coming back to that day in 2017 and without any Latin blood in my veins I could only try to imagine how deep the feelings of mistrust, past wrongs and a sense of national pride can run. It seems whilst all around the world many people want the benefits of a globalised planet, many individuals are turning back to their ancestral roots, embracing languages, customs and cultures and wanting to highlight their self-identity within smaller communities.
My grandmother was punished
My grandmother was banned from speaking Welsh in her school as a child and she was beaten by the teachers when she was overheard speaking anything other than English. Catalans, under Franco suffered an even worst fate if they were heard speaking their language in public. I understand the need to claim an identity: I am Welsh, British and European but never English despite having long forgotten the Welsh language that I learnt in school and that my grandmother spoke to me. I also know that to force a people to abandon their own culture and to adopt another is only done in an attempt to subdue and to degrade them. It usually only harbours resentment and it can become a ticking time bomb.
the awesome Welsh flag
Over the years there have been calls for Welsh independence but for now those voices are in the minority. Wales is not a wealthy region of the United Kingdom and it used to receive a lot of European money (I still cannot for the life of me understand why, apart from in Cardiff, the majority voted for Brexit), and the region is better as part of the larger unit of Great Britain. The people from Cardiff which is the capital city of Wales are among the friendliest and most accepting of other cultures that I have met all around the world.
I do understand some of the Catalan people’s call for independence from Spain and I also understand the reluctance of the Spanish government to let them vote for change. But I will never understand how, in a democracy, a government can instruct its police force or army to turn on peaceful protesters with violence. I was there on Sunday 1st October. I witnessed first hand the feelings of horror, shame and disbelief that shook the region.
The (illegal) Catalan referendum.
On 1st October many of the Catalan people wanted the right to cast their vote for independence. This election may have been illegal in the eyes of the law but the people were putting a cross on a piece of paper. They were not marching in the streets or planting bombs. They were not screaming offensive racial obscenities, burning down banks or looting shopping malls. They were simply entering schools and village halls to put a cross on a piece of paper in an attempt to pursuade the Spanish government that the majority of people wanted independence.
Under Spanish constitution the vote and therefore the result of it was illegal. In the run up to the election, because it was deemed to be illegal, no proper organised debates could take place although local newspapers and Catalan television and radio stations did their best, and everybody in every bar had an opinion one way or another. Many people may not have had access to all of the facts BUT at the end of the day, they were queuing up to put a cross on a piece of paper not to cause anarchy.
And then the Spanish government threatened to send in the ‘storm troopers’. There were rumours that tanks would even be deployed and polling stations would be closed down.
History must not be repeated
I have friends on both sides of the ‘border’. I have friends in Madrid and friends in the Basque Country. I have Catalan friends and Spanish friends who live in Catalunya. People were worried and they had a deep mistrust of the mainstream media which many believe are manipulated by the government. They were starting to remember the past. Modern day propaganda in the run up to that Sunday showed images of tanks on the streets in Tarragona. People became angry until they realised that the photographs had been digitally altered. Whilst facts are circulated immediately, false images are just as quickly made and fake news is pumped out. It is hard to guage the level of public feeling unless you get down at street level and speak to the people which is exactly what I wanted to do in order to fully understand what on earth this was all about.
Catalan referendum and the flag of Catalunya
On 1st October I was sitting in the sun outside a bar and chatting to an eighty eight year old lady from the Catalan village where I have been living. She had struggled along the road on her walking sticks to go and cast her vote. I don’t know which side she voted for but she told me how worried she was for her son and her grandchildren who were sitting outside the fire station which was hosting the ballot and who were all nervously wondering whether the riot police would descend on them and when.
Each of the bars had pulled large screen TVs out onto the street and had been broadcasting events since the early morning so my friend’s fears were very real. Dressed in black, with riot shields, batons and guns, the national police first threatened and then began beating people indiscriminately. The elderly and the women did not escape either. If you were in the wrong place at the wrong time you could be beaten with truncheons or shot at with rubber bullets. We all watched horrified as the televisions showed two strong soldiers physically drag a woman out of a building whilst kicking her and dragging her down a flight of stairs by her hair.
My elderly friend described to me with tears in her eyes how she was sadly re-living the day when as a nine year old she, her mother and other female members of her family walked to Barcelona – a distance of more than two hundred kilometres. Her father had gone to fight in the Spanish Civil War and she was just one of a steady stream of refugees fleeing the battle zone. She was afraid that things were once again beginning to unravel because the rhetoric was so similar and the speed of which the hatred was growing was getting out of control.
Voting day in the Catalan referendum
So that Sunday on 1st October, myself and my friends felt drawn to the village centre to stand with our good friends – both Spanish and Catalan – watching and waiting for the possible arrival of the troops. We were standing with people who were not violent or aggressive but who simply wanted the right to express an opinion. Others, higher up on the political spectrum may have had a bigger agenda but in a village of less than eight hundred inhabitants almost half turned out to mark their piece of paper one way or another.
Whilst both sides were spreading their propaganda on the day, most people were getting their news as it happened via social media. As the ‘storm troopers’ got ever closer to our village and the network of informers telephoned and advised us that the Guardia Civil weren’t too far away it was decided to close the ballot box and hide it. The police had already tried to gain entry to one of the town buildings late the previous night but had only found people camping there as a decoy to the real location and now a series of messengers were manning radios and motorbikes and keeping one step ahead of the National Guard as they rolled along the road networks.
It was just like a scene from a film outside the bar opposite the fire station which was where the voting papers were being collected. Drinks were ordered, the bar staff brought out plates of crisps and children played under the trees. Everything looked normal but there was an undercurrent and a nervous tension. The children ran around playing and thankfully blissfully unaware but the adults nervously eyed the main street from where the Civil Guard could come. The music from the bar was turned up, changing from pop music to Catalan songs and the Catalan news channel transmitted scenes of the violence in other towns and cities on the television screen.
It was not thrilling or exciting to be in the middle of this scene. It made me sick to my stomach that this was happening. My friends and I were not there to be voyeuristic but to watch and to bear witness to whatever might happen. The villagers had already decided that should the national guard enter, that they would all sit on the ground with crossed wrists held in frong of their faces, but as we had already seen, this passive stance would not necessarily prevent a beating. Then a motorbike came into the village in a panic and as alrady planned several tractors took off down different tracks, one containing the ballot box.
Thankfully, in the end, our small village avoided the wrath of the soldiers but half of the villagers didn’t turn out to cast their vote. Whether they were afraid to vote, had no interest in the vote or were ‘no’ voters who boycotted the event because it was illegal we shall never know. But because of that, the vote cannot count nor should it be claimed to be representative of the majority.
Coming together in solidarity
On Tuesday 3rd October most of Catalunya ground to a halt. As I understand it, this was not a general strike or action against Madrid, but a day of reflection, a day of solidarity, a day to come together in protest and to acknowledge the heavy-handed violence that had been a feature of the previous Sunday and to try to show the rest of the world that the Catalans wanted to bring about change without aggression.
People swarmed onto the streets with many carrying red carnations (this flower was also the symbol of the Portuguese freedom movement) and waving the Catalan flag. People stood, shoulder to shoulder with hands in the air and the bars that had chosen to open attracted people who simply wanted to come together. Many of the national chains of supermarkets and shops were deserted as people boycotted them in a stance of togetherness.
And now three days on we were playing an uneasy waiting game. Whilst the European Union may not be able to order Spain to allow its regions to vote on the independence issue it could (and should, in my opinion) speak out against a nation that unleashes its Civil Guard on innocent and unarmed people in such a vicious way.
I’m struggling to make sense of this situation and Paul Mason does this much better than me in this article for The Guardian:
I can’t cover the entire political history in this short article. I can’t comment on whether the ‘yes’ or the ‘no’ camps have the answer; but I feel strongly that I should speak out and condemn the violence. There is a saying: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” I remained neutral and I didn’t speak out against situations in my past but I now mentor many survivors of domestic abuse and I tell them to stand tall and to speak out.
I stand up against the violence in Catalunya on 1st October.
My wish as I flew out from Barcelona airport was that the politicians talk constructively and quickly for the sake of this wonderful country and its amazing people. I am not qualified to voice an opinion on whether there should be an independent Catalunya; after all I am still trying to come to terms with the fact that the majority in my country voted for Brexit, but I am qualified to condemn the violence that was meted out to people who were standing or sitting with their hands in the air and posing no threat to riot police armed with shields and guns.
I hope that common sense and calm prevail. I hope that neither side are too stubborn to negotiate. I hope that the Catalan people manage to retain their dignity and their control and do not retaliate and resort to violence. I hope that when I do return to my friends and the country that I have grown to love, you are all unchanged by these events.
For now, adios Spain, adeu Catalunya and good luck to all of my friends that I leave behind.
Paz a todos, pau per a tothom.
Thankfully, the situation diffused although the political problem hasn’t gone away. In 2018 there was a period of unrest when roads were blocked with burning tyres and protestors in an effort to bring the political situation back into the spotlight again and I am sure that this won’t be the last time. I remember that I had to get home from visiting a friend and the trip which should have taken be forty minutes took three hours mostly detouring around the small country back roads.
Now, with residencia status, I feel even more a part of this beautiful country and a love and a respect for its people and I simply hope that common sense and dialogue prevails whatever the outcome.
For an excellent insight into the history of Spain, its regions and its people, the author and reporter Giles Tremlett has many of the explanations in his book Ghosts of Spain
Below are some more of the most haunting images and video clips from the Catalan referendum that had an entire region stunned on Sunday 1st October, together with the Catalan anthem – both the original and the modern rock version (the Catalans LOVE their rock music)
I knew next to nothing about naturism in Catalunya until I began setting myself personal challenges. I had never taken off my clothes off in public but I felt that I needed to give it a go. I am a mentor to people with low self-confidence and low self-esteem helping them achieve self belief through a series of personal challenges – and as it’s only right to practice what I preach I am always looking for ways to stretch myself.
Make sure that you continue reading to the end of this article for the tale of a very funny incident that happened on the nudist beach at Playa del Torn in Catalunya last summer!
Getting naked at Playa del Torn
The first challenge that we set ourselves that summer was to visit a naturist beach.
Playa del Torn
Close to the town of Hospitalet de L’Infant on the Costa Dorada in Catalunya there is a large naturist resort – i.e: naked people as opposed to a naturalist site where you go bird-watching and such-like. It is important that you do not get the two words confused!
This resort, complete with pools, restaurants, and campsite attracts naturists from all over Europe and it’s on a wonderful position up on the cliffs behind a long stretch of soft golden sand. Playa del Torn (or Platja del Torn in Catalan) is a large public beach with a lively xiringuito (beach bar) down on the sand where people from the local area mix with the campers. During the summer months a little gazebo is set up on the beach where you can get a fabulous full body massage from Albert who normally works in Barcelona and the occasional beach vendors wander along selling artisan jewellery or sunglasses. The beach has a lovely friendly family atmosphere in the locality of the campsite and the beach bar whilst further along the beach is gay friendly.
Debs and I parked the car near the beach of Playa del Torn and we set off along the cliff path which runs next to the campsite. We had not taken more than 10 steps when a woman came out of a gap in the low hedge from among the camper vans and walked along in front of us wearing absolutely no clothes and carrying a loaf of bread under her arm. Walking past the caravans and the tents I could see that everybody was carrying on their daily business – playing cards, standing and chatting around the barbeque, reading or cooking BUT the majority of them were stark staring naked. Toddlers chased each other around yelling enthusiastically and groups of teenagers hung around looking cool (most of the teenagers were wearing bikini bottoms or swimming trunks for modesty.)
I suppressed my giggles as we walked down the steps to the beach where a volleyball game was in progress, feeling like I was in a Carry On film. Reaching our chosen spot with as much space around us as possible Debs and I stripped off our clothes – and I promptly lay down flat and stayed flat for as long as I possible.
As the day went on I progressed to swimming in the warm sea – what a fantastically liberating feeling that is with no bikini – and I had a massage from the wonderful Albert. The massage was a piece of cake after the trauma of booking my session with him.
Tickets needed to be bought at the bar in the xiringuito – and my personal challenge was to buy mine without covering up and wrapping a sarong around my body. All well and good and I was feeling quite pleased with myself as I crossed the hot sand – until I wove through the tables to the bar (it was lunchtime and busy) and it dawned on me that my bare bottom was head height to the diners faces. Of course there was a queue at the bar and I had to wait there, standing with my naked bum just inches from a poor man’s dinner and feeling the insides of my stomach curling up with embarrassment!!!!
I managed to relax later on as Albert kneaded all of the knots out of my tense muscles whilst I lay in the shade of his gazebo. He told me that he worked as a masseuse in Barcelona but that he decamped to the beach for his work during the summer. When I confessed to Albert that it was my very first visit to a naturist beach he replied how brave I was to actually have a massage (naked) right out there in the public eye and I realised that I was beginning to enjoy myself.
Personal challenge achieved I felt great as Debs and I returned to the car – in fact we returned to Playa del Torn many times throughout the rest of the summer and we progressed to drinking in the bar and then making friends with groups of both campers and locals. It was idyllic standing and sitting around chatting as the sun went down and the moon came up over the horizon and looking back, it was always gratifying to realise how relaxed I had become with my own body image.
A naturist beach is a great leveller. Without clothes on people usually soon realise that not even the elegant couple who turns heads as they walk across the beach lives up to the media driven image of perfection once they remove their clothing. Cellulite, flabby bits, scrawny bits and dangly bits are everywhere. Bodies are decorated with both tattoos and scars, boobs may be missing and piercings glint in the sunlight. It all seems less important somehow. Smiles, facial expressions and laughs become what define beauty and we can all wince together at sunburn in delicate places.
Scarlet Jones naked at Playa del Torn
Snorkelling in the dark
My second personal challenge that summer was to attempt a night time snorkel.
I am not at all confident out of my depth in water and I am terrified of waves in the sea. Debs and I had already spent the day snorkelling around the rocks in the little bay of Sant Jordi d’Amalfa on the coast of Catalunya and the sea was lovely and calm as we made our way up to the beach hut at dusk where Plancton have their base.
We were given our equipment – a wet suit, snorkel and mask, an arm band with a flashing light and a waterproof torch while the instructors told us how we should conduct ourselves and pointed out some of the things that we could expect to see. And we set off BUT we turned left instead of right and walked down to the next bay where the sea was anything but calm.
I had already told one of our instructors how nervous I was and she (Eli) stayed by my side as I got into the water. I was only waist deep but the waves were crashing over my head, and whilst terrified I pushed through beyond the breakers until I was out of my depth. The rest of the group struck out for the sea while I attempted to sort out my mask which kept on leaking. Eli took my hand and we swam slowly out – and then I panicked. I had a vision/premonition/past experience – I don’t know – but I KNEW that if I continued I would surely drown. I can swim but all of a sudden I lost the ability to keep my head above water and I just had a dreadful recurring feeling that I was going down under the waves. I panicked even more as I noticed Eli backing away – I could hear a little voice from my swimming lessons as a child saying that you keep your distance from a drowning person – but Eli pushed the dive float to me and waited patiently while I got my act together talking calmly to me, but I knew that the overwhelming fear that I was feeling wasn’t going to go away. I had to get back onto dry land immediately or I would be feeding the fishes.
Clutching the float as if my life depended on it we made our way back through the crashing breakers. I was so relieved to be back on the damp sand and promising Eli that I would now be fine she went back to join the others while I sat and watched the shooting stars above me in the dark sky and thought about my experience.
Had I failed at my personal challenge? No. Of course not. I had pushed myself to get into the rough water in the dark in the first place and whilst I had failed to snorkel in the dark I had given it a go. Would I do it again? Probably not! I had tried my best and I can see no real reason to attempt it again.
Driving on the wrong side of the road
I was initially nervous about driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road in Spain, but it didn’t take long before I was zooming around everywhere. I got lost plenty of times (no surprise there) but I enjoy driving and it’s a dream in Catalunya because apart from in the town centres there is very little traffic.
I used to be very afraid of heights until my year in South America.In Peru I eventually got used to careering around the Andes in chicken buses with the drivers high on the coca leaves that they chewed, both to stay awake and also to counter the altitude sickness, but I was still very nervous the first time that I had to negotiate a truck down a narrow track from the mountain in Spain where I was staying. In fact, I put the trip off for ten days until I ran out of food. A friend offered to deliver me supplies but I stubbornly declined – this was just another challenge which would prove to me that I was capable of coping by myself.
So early one morning I set off down the mountain. Nope, not in the truck but on foot! I wanted to see for myself where the ‘dangerous bits’ were as well as the passing places. Because I could take my time and look where the dodgy bits were I began to relax although it did take me nearly two hours to hike back up to the house.
To celebrate my epic hike in the heat I opened a bottle of wine – which of course also had the effect of postponing the inevitable until the following day – but I am pleased to say that I eventually made it down the hairpin bends and now I hammer up and down the mountain like a rally driver!
Since that summer I have also ridden my motorbike over to Spain crossing the English Channel on a twenty four hour channel ferry and riding solo down through Spain during an epic storm. On that journey I was so glad that I had been perfecting my Spanish because I got horribly disorientated in Bilbao and I needed to ask directions. My phone had stopped working, the name and address of my hostel had disintegrated and my map was in soggy pieces. I squelched into a bar where half a dozen men leapt to my attention and helped me before sending me out into the rain again, this time in the correct direction.
Facing my fear of heights in Catalunya
Immersion in a foreign language
Catalan is the first language of the majority of the people in this region of Spain which is great for me and others who are learning to speak Spanish. Because Spanish (Castilian) tends to be the second or even the third language here, people often speak slower and can use simpler vocabulary.
I loved speaking with Andres who farmed close to the place that I was living that summer. He was extremely patient with me, rephrasing words or acting out verbs so that the conversation flowed as best as it could although I did have one hilariously epic language-fail one evening.
I was a bit flustered as I answered the door and invited Andres to sit and wait while I finished up my conversation with a technician in the States. My laptop was open on the bench as I was in a ‘live chat’ with the other guy. In my best Spanish, or so I thought, I explained to Andres that my website was broken but there was a man in the States who was going to look at it and mend it remotely from his end.
I didn’t really understand why Andres abruptly stood up and shot out of the door mumbling something about going to check on his plum trees in his field however I returned to my conversation with the expert on the other end of the chat window. Twenty minutes later there was a tentative knock at the door and Andres hesitantly poked his head into the room. After assuring him that I was finished and my computer was now functioning perfectly I got on with the business of cooking dinner, wondering why Andres kept giving me strange looks.
Halfway through our meal Andres began to chuckle as something obviously dawned on him. It turned out I had mispronounced the word for webpage. I had put the stress in the wrong place which totally changed the word and therefore the meaning.
I had apparently informed Andres that my VAGINA was broken but there was a technician in the US who was looking at it down the camera on my computer – and I just needed Andres to wait for fifteen minutes whilst it was mended!!!!!
It’s always a bit daunting when you don’t speak the same language and you need to communicate. It is the easy option to only mix with people who are the same as you and avoid difficulties; but we also communicate via body language, facial expressions and sign language and the results when you make the effort can be so rewarding. Learning another language is another way to stretch your comfort zone.
the Catalan countryside
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And now for that funny story that I promised you.
Our friend Toni and his partner make lovely artisan jewellery from natural products that they sell at Playa del Torn and we have got to know them over the last couple of years. In keeping with the naturist element of the beach they wander up and down selling their products whilst wearing no clothes.
One day after spending some time chatting to Debs and I, Toni and his partner continued walking along the beach – Toni was holding a tray with some little shell anklets on it.
A sudden gust of wind blew the jewellery into the sand – with one piece ending up between the butt cheeks of a guy who was lying face down and asleep.
Toni was in a quandary. Everybody watching held their collective breath as Toni made several attempts to pick the anklet up from the guy’s crack. He decided to go for it but just as his grip tightened around it, the guy woke up and rolled over onto his side.
A dozen or more of us who were watching collapsed with laughter at the frozen tableau. As the guy rolled over his bum cheeks had gripped the anklet tight – he froze as he looked up and saw a naked guy bending over him and holding whatever was trapped between his buttocks.
The guy’s wife was also laughing too hard to explain to her husband straight away as Toni backed away and his own partner was creased with laughter as she collected up the rest of their jewellery.
If you would like to know more about my time in Catalunya you can read some of my other posts here:
Two and a half years ago I quit my job and I went exploring.
I thought that I may be gone for no more than a year before I satisfied my wanderlust and I settled back down again.
How wrong was I! I really threw myself in at the deep end that first summer in Europe.
I went to to my first ever proper festival (in Lisbon),
I worked on a farm in the Algarve,
I was house sitting in Italy
I looked after (sort of) 7 golfers in a gite in France
I went to a wedding in Gibraltar
A year in South America
Scarlet Jones Travels – Brazil
And then I fulfilled my childhood dream (thanks Paddington Bear) of going to deepest darkest Peru. I was in South America for 364 days but I hardly scratched the surface. I usually travel slowly and I try to integrate with communities so I didn’t cover half of the ground that I had planned to, but I did manage to get to
After a month or so in the UK over Christmas and the New Year I spent nearly a week in Tampere in dark snowy Finland before heading back to Spain for a break and I prepared for my next adventure – which was…..
Blasting through the Baltics.
The initial plan was to travel from Finland to Morocco in a camper van with a friend who I had met in Colombia but stuff got in the way and I had to fly back to the UK from Warsaw. However I did manage to see Helsinki, and then the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and the top right-hand corner of Poland. Those few weeks were crazy and emotional for many reasons (you will have to wait for the book) and the weather threw everything at us from the most idyllic winter weather ever in Helsinki and Estonia to blizzards, icestorms and biting winds at other times.
Scarlet Jones Travels – Estonia
I spent my third summer away from my 9 to 5 job…
Cavorting in Catalunya
I worked hard and I played hard. I spent HOURS tapping away at my keyboard, designing an on-line course (watch this space as it will be launched very soon now). I would often put in more than 10 hours a day writing content but luckily I found plenty of time to explore the region led by my willing accomplice Debs.
And that brings me to now. Two and a half years on I am just beginning a new chapter – this time in South East Asia. I have a very loose, tentative plan, an idea of a route around the region, but if travel has taught me anything it’s to not over plan so I’m not going to set it out in print at this stage.
What I do know is that I will spend some time in Bangkok where I am very excited to be attending my second TBEX (Travel Bloggers Conference), and then…..well, you will have to wait and see.
I will also be launching my on-line course very soon and as a result of that I may have to rent a room somewhere and base myself in a place with decent wifi in case there are any last minute glitches with the launch.
And I don’t know why, but dramas always seem to follow me around and this trip so far has been no exception. Getting to Thailand was always going to be a bit of a slog but I had managed to buy an excellent value ticket with a decent travel time and just a 2 hour transfer in Mumbai. And then, just 17 minutes in to my overnight coach journey to the airport I received an email which told me that due to ‘an incident’ over Turkish airspace my flight had been seriously delayed and I would miss my connection.
Yes – things are back to normal!
If you would like to receive my blog articles directly by email and read what other dramas are going to befall me – you can guarantee that there will be many – make sure that you go to my site and sign up. You will also get a free copy of the ‘Top 10 things that you should know before travelling’ and you will be one of the first to learn about my course when it launches.
And after all the work that I told you about in my previous article, you must agree that the Catalans certainly deserve to party.
Everyday, somewhere in Catalunya there will be a fiesta happening. Celebrating the birth, life or death of a patron saint, a religious day or a national day, there will be a reason to party. Rows of trestle tables covered with white paper are set up under the trees next to the river and clouds of mosquitoes dance and hover in the fairy lights which are strung between the branches, or village-sized marquees are thrown up overnight and the entire population stuff themselves inside for up to a week of celebrating.
Scarlet Jones Travels: preparing to party
For a very reasonable price you can be served three plates of food, with the offerings usually including the local delicacy of blood sausage and the flaky pastissets and of course, plenty of sangria or wine. There might be a band or a DJ or a mixture of both and people will dance together, cha cha cha-ing or later salsa-ing or grinding away to reggaeton.
Claire serves the sangria
I have described the Corrofoc in a previous article – the adrenaline fueled fire running event (click here if you missed it) which a lot of the towns and the villages host, but there are also parades of gigantes (those massive ‘It’s a Knockout’ style puppets), medieval festivals and Corpus Christi. And as a birthday bonus, you get extra celebrations rained on you on whatever birth date you share with the saint that you were named after.
Scarlet Jones Travels; the crazy correfoc
One evening almost the whole village decamped to the opposite side of the river and went up into the hills to the Old Station Fiesta. Years ago a railway line was built up into the mountains but later fell into disrepair. Now restored and converted to the Via Verde (the Green Way) you can cycle or walk along it for miles, over spectacular stone viaducts and through long, pitch black, bat inhabited tunnels. A group of local businessmen restored one of the old station buildings and during the summer they open the terrace on the old platform to diners and hold live music events.
The old station building
The fiesta at the old station is a relatively new event which is rapidly becoming absorbed into the timetable of local customs. A shuttle bus ferried people up and down to and from the village, there were the tables crammed together, cauldrons of food bubbling away, buckets of sangria of course, and music. I watched and then I was later invited to join in with the local dance called the jota which, believe me, is much trickier to do than it looks. Men and women dance in snakelike lines moving deceptively slowly while doing some frantic and complicated footwork and elegantly twisting and turning in tune with each other (apart from me of course). The men wear spotless white shirts with bright red sashes and the ladies wear black, delicate embroidered lace shawls
Scarlet Jones Travels: letting the amateurs loose on the dancefloor
Films and slides were projected onto the side of the station building, some documenting the history of the station and its connection with the village and there was much cheering and shouting as the villagers recognised themselves or their friends and relatives in the pictures.
And then we danced until dawn; spinning, salsa-ing and bouncing until the cry went up that the final shuttle bus was about to depart, and we fled the dance floor at 6am and got back into the village just as the sun came up over the mountains.
The end of a perfect night. And the start of a perfect day