The song title from the 90’s UK group The Style Council seemed apt for this blog article as I had spent six weeks away at the height of summer. Initially I was glad to escape the heat and the crowds, decamping to the UK and Ireland.
If you reside here in Catalonia or on the Costa Brava then you will feel accustomed to summers arriving early, meaning earlier than usual and the double whammy being higher than average temperatures. It’s been like that in recent years.
There’s little doubt that climate change is impacting most of us worldwide and Spain has not escaped its share. It’s been experiencing prolonged drought conditions that are no joke. In recent times we’ve had highs of 40 degrees in early June, that’d be considered unbearable even during August.
We now spend much of our free time in L´Escala, just 45 kms from Girona, a popular Costa Brava resort for many nationalities, not just Catalans. The French are here big time as second home owners and tourists, and by my reckoning are followed by the Belgians, Dutch and Germans in equal measure. I still see a few English number plates but I reckon Brexit put paid to a lot of what are referred to as ´swallows´.
For anyone unfamiliar with the term it was applied to those Brits who migrated to sit out the winter months in sunny Spain. No harm in that but Brexit changes mean that if you’re British you can only stay within any EU country a maximum of 90 days before having to return home. Luckily for us we have resident status so different rules apply.
So, for the first time in ages I was absent during the peak times on the coast. Glad of the lower temperatures in London, I forgot how quick the weather can and does change. Showery days can quickly change your mood and limit what you can do. Shopping trips to the preponderance of high street charity shops and nipping into the local ´spoons´ (an abbreviation of the pub chain Wetherspoons) became the norm.
I still feel a bit nostalgic about UK pubs, but not about the prices of alcohol.
One uneventful month later it was time to move on to the Emerald Isle. Our brief trip was part holiday, part tracing family history. The inclement weather seemed to be following us but it’s no surprise, Ireland is green for a reason.
I tried not to feel too homesick for a clear blue sky, the warming glow of the sun on your face- and not having to pay five times more for a bottle of wine than in Spain.
It might be the last hot gasps of summer but no need to put away your flip flops just yet, there’s still plenty to celebrate during the first weekend of September.
Like the proverbial London red bus, when it deems to arrive there are three of them all at once. So it is with three festive morsels on offer, all on the same weekend, the hard part is choosing.
The first is L´Escala´s own three day town wide party or´festa´and seems the obvious choice as we are holidaying here anyway. Then there’s the Fira d´Indians in the quaint hilltop village of Begur, a 3 day celebration with a Cuban theme that’s hugely popular.
Lastly there’s a medieval weekend in the pretty village of Besalu, near Banyoles. We went there once many moons ago. The one common theme amongst them all is the dreaded problem of finding a parking space.
The clincher for us was the promise of an overnight stay from a friend in Begur, which meant we could stay much longer, enjoy the festival and not have to worry about driving home. We’d been to the Fira d´Indians back in 2019, and then Covid put a stop to future years until it restarted last year.
I’m sure I’ve written about it in a past blog post somewhere within the archives. It’s been going for about 20-odd years and has its origins in some past citizens of Begur who emigrated during the last century. They made their fortunes from such things as sugar plantations in Cuba. Many subsequently returned and built large colonial style houses. which are dotted around town.
That could be a touchy subject nowadays, amongst those who take a dim view on such colonial activity and exploitation.
I’m not sure if the organisers have a view on all that and it doesn’t seem like it detracts from visitors looking at just dancing the night away. Who even knows what the average visitor thinks, and I don’t want to go down some cultural cul de sac.
Getting back to having fun, the balmy Saturday night we were there was rammed full of people, the majority dressed in white, the de rigueur attire. As always with such summer events things don’t kick off until late. Feeling hungry then forget about getting a table as the wait would melt your mojito. There were numerous street food stalls and pop up bars dotted around its buzzing centre.
Although salsa beats were permeating the myriad of narrow streets, the big draw seemed to be the local park. A large sound stage with an open area for gyrating couples, surrounded by food / drink stalls. Don’t expect a peaceful night’s sleep as a succession of bands and DJs pump out Latin sounds into the early hours. It’s easy to get caught up in the energy and vibe in this Cuban enclave.
Living in Girona and exploring the Costa Brava has been a delight, but there’s lots more to see elsewhere in Spain, a hell of a lot more. We’d been lucky enough over the years to have visited many places, but this time it was the northern regions we had a yearning for.
Yes, people say the weather can be a bit wetter and the Atlantic coast might feel a bit colder to swim in, but it’s high summer so let’s go. I’m not a great fan of long distance driving so we plan the trip in short stages, for me that’s driving about 300 kms or less each day.
With hindsight it was a trip we´ll remember for a while as it was done in the summer of 2019 pre-covid, so because of travel restrictions we did very little in the way of holidays for the following two years.
The timeline was two weeks and I’ll break it down below. The accommodation was a 50/50 mix of AirBnb´s and regular hotels. First stop was Zaragoza, about a 4 hour drive from Girona, for a one night hotel stay in the old town area. It’s a big city and a bit tricky to navigate but we arrived early in the evening.
For supper we head to a popular thoroughfare of bars and restaurants called El Tubo (the tube/pipe). It was super busy, it is August by the way, but we found a reasonable looking spot inside a place serving upmarket tapas.
The city has a grand cathedral and we enjoyed a stroll around the city’s more touristic old parts. The one night stay feels like enough, not a place to linger and we drive on towards San Sebastian, about 3 hours away.
Our route took us past Pamplona so we decided to stop for a brief look and lunch. This place is famous for its San Fermin bull run in mid July, which attracts over a million visitors and lasts several days. We wander into Cafe Iruna, a cavernous old mahogany clad place which we discover was a popular haunt of Ernest Hemingway.
Lunch over we take a stroll through nearby streets, we seem to be in the middle of what appears to be some kind of South American themed carnival. Numerous colourfully clad groups stream past a central avenue, some waving country flags that I don’t recognise, accompanied with music. It’s a nice surprise but we need to get going.
We reach San Sabastian by evening and enter via the wide sweep of its beach that’s La Concha (the shell). It’s a stunning looking view down below. The more mundane issue of parking is a different challenge that means the eventual parking spot is a 15 minute walk from our apartment.
We appear to be in close proximity to a few bars and proper sleep becomes nigh on impossible, as constant noise continues until the early hours. Our fault for arriving at the weekend. We’re in the Basque region of Spain and the architecture is different. There’s money here and it shows.
La Concha beach is bereft of any beachside bars, not something we are used to seeing. Our walk takes us to a promontory which is home to a famous sculpture ElPeine del Viento (the comb of the wind) by Eduardo Chillida. It’s actually a collection of three steel sculptures, each weighing over 9 tonnes, and an emblem of the city. If time allows there’s a funicular that takes you to a hilltop offering far reaching views of the coast.
Evening looms and we wander into San Sebastian’s busy centre. This is tapas or more to the point pintxos-central and we enjoy the local fare.
It’s a relatively short hop to our next port of call Bilbao, another centrally located bnb apartment. We´re met by the charming owner who also helps me find a parking spot nearby. Big cities, height of summer, tourist season equals parking hell. We hit the jackpot here, the apartment has the look of a New York loft with a wall mounted front-end of a motorbike, and all the mod cons.
The city is host to the world famous Gugenheim museum, which we visited the next day. Visually stunning inside and especially from the outside with its looming spider statue and a floral puppy by American artist Jeff Koons. It easily consumes a whole day.
Next stop is Santander, about 300 kms from Bilbao, the road follows the coastline and we decide to stop for lunch in Castro Urdiales. The streets here are busy and the place reminds me of a Cornish fishing village in the UK, not what I’m used to seeing on the Costa Brava.
On reaching the outskirts of Santander, first impressions are that it’s a bit industrial. Our Airbnb flat looked inviting from the indoor photos. Its outdoor location looks somewhat different-decidedly dodgy. Certain dodgy-looking characters loitering on street corners, it has the appearance of an area of social housing that begins to ring alarm bells. This over reaction however is proved unfounded.
Walking downhill towards the seafront we wander into a bustling bar area. The next day we devote the entire day to discovering the city. Santander extends up from the coast, so steep in places that there are outdoor escalators that help reach its upper regions.. It even has a funicular that we took downhill. The areas facing the coast have a more upmarket feel from where we were staying. We walked along the coast, stopping off for lunch at a former fire station.
Although the sandy outcrops look enticing, I’m not keen to jump into the sea.
Next stop westwards is the region of Asturias, much smaller, our destination is Oviedo, its regional capital. We passed through a constant green undulating landscape, very uplifting. Our hotel choice is a sprawling white behemoth of a place. Architecturally white and futuristic looking, a bit of a step up from the last place.
Oviedo’s quite big and appears busy, its downtown is a mix of old and new, the region is noted for its cider and Avenida de Sidra is where the action is. We watch as waiters pour it into a glass with left arms outstretched high, so cider pours feet away from the glass. We’re in the mood to try some.
On day two we take a 30 minute drive north to the coastal town of Gijon for a walkabout, a boat trip and of course the inevitable lunch stop, sardines this time and yes, more cider. The town is buzzing and just by the port there’s even a large sculpture made entirely from empty green cider bottles.
The final leg of our two week foray means we are taking a different route back to Girona, and stop at Burgos. Our hotel is a stone’s throw from its emblematic Saint Mary Cathedral. It’s quite a sight and seems to change different shades of colours as the sun pans across its mighty spires.
Full of old town charm, by evening the whole populace looks to be enjoying a ramble through tree lined avenues with plenty of culinary options. We pull up at a place with tall bar chairs and barrels for tables to enjoy a selection of local cheeses and dried cured hams. There’s no hairs and graces involved as fingers came first.
Next day we took the cathedral tour. It’s a real tourist draw but I’m finding the audio tour a bit heavy so skip a few bits. The famous El Cid who defeated the moors way back, is buried here. For us though the trump card is the Museum of Human Evolution, a high tech looking edifice that traces our Homo Sapien ancestors and more. I’m reminded that we are not a million miles away from the limestone caves of Atapuerca where important discoveries of early humans were made in the mid-1970’s.
The following day I’m faced with a 700 km hike back to Girona where we arrived back late. Nowadays we look back fondly at our road trip and vow to repeat the journey back to this Spanish region, to venture further west to include Galicia and maybe even southward into Portugal.
Spain’s capital city is a far cry from home. What brings me here? Simply a visit to a friend and a yearning for a change of scenery.
Spain is a country that surprises curious travellers. I’ve been lucky enough to have visited many parts when time allows, I still have a good few places on the list yet to be ticked off.
It was time to revisit Madrid. We’d been before as a family trip, one Easter way back when Ryanair still flew there from Girona (not anymore). Just about one hour flight I recall but you still have to catch a cab into the city. It was early April and cold, so I ended up buying a warmer jacket and scarf. We saw many of the colourful Easter celebrations and numerous religious processions. A very different affair from what you see in Girona.
I took the fast train AVE service (Renfe.es) from Girona, which takes just under four hours to cover the 700 kms. Buy them online as tickets are cheaper if you book a few weeks in advance. Plus, if you’re living here, over 60 and travel a lot on trains it’s worth getting the Tarjeta Dorada (gold card) at 6€/ Yr (2023 price). Purchase them at the train station ticket desk, just have your passport/TIE for id purposes. Simply input your personal number when booking online to get 25% to 40% discounts depending on which day you travel.
I should also mention that this route has opened up to other competitors and I keep hearing of ridiculously cheap Barcelona to Madrid fares so do your research.
Back in the UK there used to be an old advertising slogan ´let the train take the strain”, and in this case that’s true.
With the national carrier Renfe you get an assigned carriage and seat (or choose your own + 5€) which is comfy enough, and even has a charging point for phones or laptops. Most services also have a buffet car or you may have a trolley service too. Stops from Girona are few and include Barcelona, Lleida and Zaragoza. There’s even a digital display which shows you the speed of the train, at times reaching almost 300 kms an hour.
The big plus point is you arrive smack in the centre of Madrid, at Atocha station and there are plenty of taxis outside. This must be my third time here, each time staying in a different part of the city.
The advantage of having a friend who lives here as a guide is a big plus, as well as speaking better Spanish. This time I’m in Chamberi, an upmarket residential area that is walkable from downtown or a 10€ cab ride. It also seems to have a sizable student population as they inhabit many street bar terraces. My apartment is a stone’s throw from a noisy music bar nightclub that remains noisy until the early hours. Patrons congregate outside, people coming and going
How do these places coexist in a residential block defies comprehension, surely they get endless complaints. I mustn’t forget that Spaniards are noisy a lot in general and that’s not a complaint.
If you’re here on a Sunday then you ought to visit the popular El Rastro street market, a real cornucopia of stalls and then proceed onto La Latina area. Look out for an Argentinian bar/cafe that serves yummy empanadas washed down with a mojito or margarita.
Park Retiro is a well known green oasis with lakes and rowing boats, but I realise that I’m near Parque del Oeste which is huge. While it may be a bit hilly in places it’s a welcome retreat on a hot day in May with large shady trees to rest under. I’ve got time to visit the nearby Museum of the Americas, although it closes mid afternoon I get time to whizz through it all just before it shuts. Covering the whole of the Americas, art and archaeology from the distant past to today.
Another cool, vibey fun area to visit for drinks and eats is Malasanna, and close to the city centre. Tourists and locals stream through here constantly, streetlife at its busiest every night and more so at weekends. It was here that my friend introduced me to tinto de verano, a popular refreshing summer tipple made with red wine and lemonade.
It’s a vibrant city where you can turn a corner and a new experience awaits you.Just popping into a normal looking bar for a drink will more than likely result in being offered a free tapas, sometimes so plentiful it can negate the need to have supper.
An abiding memory is the fact that you can eat out very late here, 11pm is not a problem, unlike Girona where a funny look is more likely.
(part 3) We’re fast approaching the xmas festive season (late in publishing) and I’m trying not to resort to those expressions we use when places are so quiet, like ‘would the last person turn off the lights’.
Solitude sucks for some, others lap it up, I may be somewhere in the middle for now. At least there’s us two and the two dogs, a reason to go out. Sure, the long morning beach walks are uplifting, especially when the sun’s out.
The sea view here in L’Estartit is dominated by the Isles Medes, a series of rocky outcrops a mere few hundred meters out. Now a nature reserve and popular diving spot. To my left the coastline disappears, slithering its way to the next resort, L’Escala. To the right there are distant views of inland Pals, the jutting headland of Begur and those upmarket beach resorts like Sa Riera .
Much longer beach walks are possible in a southerly direction, about 45 mins will take you to the mouth of the river Ter (la gola de ter). That’s about as far can go, as there’s no bridge across here, as the soft sandy banks shift too much. During the summer you’d just wade across or for fun walk up river a bit, jump in and drift slowly down with the current.
However, this is winter and there’s no ferryman.
Life in L’Estartit slowly develops at its own pace, our daily beach walk encounters may include other dog walkers and even the odd metal detectorist. I’ve heard they’re illegal to use on a beach here but then this is Spain. People’s attitude to rules are different-seen more as guidelines and not to be strictly adhered to.
On windy days when the sea is rough you see small groups of surfers, but this isn’t exactly dramatic ‘wipeout’ territory. Even when wearing wetsuits it looks too cold. As I traverse the vast expanse of sand I still continue with my ‘good dead for the day’ by picking up rubbish whenever I see some.
On days when the wind really whips up the sand to sandpaper proportions you appreciate the might of nature. I’m starting to realize what it feels like inside a wind tunnel.
Okay we’ve been living here in Girona for fifteen years and I’ve never done a looking back type of blog post before, so here goes. It may well even stretch to a second part.
When people say time flies it’s true, as it doesn’t feel like that long. I’m even mildly surprised to be honest.
Where do I start I ask myself. In general terms I think that Girona’s charms have been noticed by more outsiders who’ve made this place their new home. We’ve been lucky to have met a wide range of people, not just other Brits.
One such story comes to mind. In the early days having very young kids meant you often bumped into other parents with similar aged kids of their own. Especially in kids playgrounds. On one such occasion we found ourselves in the tiny Catalan village of Monells. By the way, if you’ve never been there do yourself a favour and put it on your list.
Our kids could never pass a playground without stopping and trying out the slides and swings. It was here that we struck up a conversation with a young German couple with their baby. It turned out they were living nearby in a converted farmhouse that was split into smaller apartments. A friendship kind of developed and we’d meet for a coffee whenever they came into Girona.
He was quite jovial and entertaining, ruining my preconceived stereotype that Germans lack a sense of humour. They too were here in Catalonia, Spain living the good life. Curious as we always are as to what people do to survive here, he told me he was working for an American company.
The twist was that the US bosses always believed he was working from his home town in Koln, Germany. To mask this charade everytime he had to speak to them, he’d have to check what the weather was like in his supposed hometown, just in case they’d ask. If memory serves me right they went back to Germany to have their second child, and we lost contact.
The losing contact with good friends we made here who returned to the UK was a recurring theme amongst the many British expats we knew. Their reasons were many. Family, friends, frustration with the education system here, health are all part and parcel of the why’s.
Another common thread we found was that once they’d left, future contact was minimal or non-existent. People who we’d got to know very well, mixed socially many times at each other’s places and then nothing.
Maybe I’m being too sentimental but life moves on and many other long term resident friends are still here. They include Americans, Dutch, French, Ukrainian, Italian with a sprinkling of Catalans and Spanish too.
I even met an elderly Dutch lady who had read my blog and decided to move to Girona. A lot of the bonhomme involves long liquid lunches, sharing stories of what made us move here, and how much better it is for the kids.
Ours were quite young when we arrived in 2006 at 6 and 8. They deserve some credit as far as what we’ve made them endure. Jumping from a small quaint village primary school in the English countryside to a foreign land where they understood zilch.
Kids are quite resilient though, and get on with it. We didn’t have the funds to place them into an international school, so the local state school would have to suffice. The rarity of being the only English kids in class soon wore off too. However, their ability to pick up the language meant that nowadays their Catalan is indiscernible from local natives.
They’ve also grown to appreciate the many plus points of living here, including being fluent in 3 languages (English, Catalan and Spanish). As parents we fare less better in the language stakes, calling them into service when needed.
I even get a bit cagey when Catalans ask me how long I’ve been here. I think they expect me to be a fluent speaker by now, more forgiving if I’d only chalked up a few years. I can’t deny that I find it harder to learn than Spanish, and that Catalan is so dominant in Girona. I keep telling myself that I must try to improve.
The other big story over the last decade has been the surge in popularity of all things cycling. Though popular long before we arrived it’s been boom time for property rentals, and even ‘cycle-themed’ cafes and coffee shops. Those international cyclists are big fans of not only the surrounding topography, but also the climate and cuisine.
The restaurant scene within Girona’s old town area has certainly edged slowly towards the more expensive end. The culinary kings of Girona, the Roca brothers have added to this exclusivity be extending their empire with a hotel, ice cream parlour and a rather oddly named restaurant, Normal.
That new normal is if you can wait a few months and prices are anything but normal.
As our adventure in L’Estartit enters into early November the recent winter time change has meant it’s dark by about 6pm. As long term residents we know the score, begrudgingly accepting this annual change.
It always feel like a major step change, a cut down version from balmy long summer days. There’s the reassuring compensation that sunny days can still hit 20C by about lunchtime, enabling outdoor pastimes.
In our Girona apartment it was always a running joke that we didn’t turn on the central heating until November. A red line not to be crossed.
Cooler days and nights have meant digging out warmer clothing, a gentle but firm reminder of seasonal change. Jumpers, scarves and hats that haven’t seen the light of day for several months are resurrected.
We’ve replaced urban living for big skies and XXL wind, boy does it blow up here. Not all the time mind you, and if I’m honest friends had mentioned it before in passing. Night time requires lowering the persianes as howling gusts of wind rattle them, reminding me of the film ‘The Shining’. I’ve heard Catalans mention that the Tramuntana winds here do affect some people’s psyche.
We’re surrounded by a sea of boarded up holiday apartment blocks. A few show signs of year-long residency, as window and balcony shutters stay up. Visually there are a few parked cars, and a passing car is evidence that we’re not completely alone.
At long last we get to try the heating options here. Remember these places are mainly summer residences and heat insulation is largely an afterthought. Bedrooms have an electric wall-mounted radiator, and the living room’s AC unit pumps out toasty levels of hot air.
The missing link is the bathroom with its stone floor tiles and large window. We’ll just have to wait and see what can be done. The other bugbear is the limited amount of kitchen worktop space, and dim lighting. We’re reaching the minimum requirements for the formation of a to-do-list.
The daily morning walk to the beach with our two dogs continues regardless of the weather. One visibly loves it, tumbling in the sand, while the other gives the impression of do I really need to be here. Occasionally we stumble across a dead fish or seagull, why do they always want to rub their faces in such dead detritus.
As I walk along the windswept pristine shoreline I can’t help picking up rubbish, mostly the odd tin can and bits of plastic. On one outing some kids saw what I was doing and added to my bounty, well done to them.
Thursday is Estartit’s market day which stretches out along a handful of streets a few blocks back from its seafront. I’ve been twice and there’s little to get excited about, a lot of clothes, bric-a-brac and bags, with a sprinkling of fruit and vegetable stalls opposite the church. I spot red chillies so grab a few, plus some red peppers and a dozen figs, all for less than 2€.
I keep hearing a lot of French spoken so it’s no surprise that I come across a French bakery in town. El Pa de l’Anna is small with an adjoining workspace where two bakers were hard at work. I managed to buy two small tarts, one chocolate, one lemon, two croissants and two small filled baguettes, one with chorizo, one with blue cheese and walnuts.
I walked out a mere 10€ lighter but was pleased with my choices, let’s hope they don’t close for winter.
I have to remind myself that this is a small town with equally small expectations given the time of year. Its ‘life and soul’ has retrenched until at least the spring, or a little later.
My next foolish quest is to find somewhere that offers an all day English breakfast.
A lot of people from Girona ship out to the coast at the height of summer. This familiar annual migration creates sparsely populated neighbourhoods that are eerily quiet.
Some of the lucky few are fortunate to be able to make use of a property bought by their parents, or shared between the families.
Prices were so much cheaper and affordable back when the Peseta ruled. The unlucky ones make do with renting for a week or two. Holiday rentals generate a substantial income for owners, albeit for a short period, chiefly July and August.
Canny regulars are known to book the same place year after year to ensure they get their slice of the sun. Those of us looking for something last minute are often disappointed with what’s left.
We’ve done it in the past, and you can expect to pay 700 to 800€ for a 2-bed flat for 1 week. That’s not even on the seafront, those frontline properties are naturally the first to go.
The other great bugbear is car parking, which can be extra or as happened to us one year, meant parking a 5-10 minute walk away. If you’ve got pets like us then that narrows the field even more.
The vacation agony is also compounded by long traffic queues waiting to get into resorts too. The summer of 2021 may have seen less Brits but a large influx of Northern Europeans made the season a much better turnout than the year before.
Kids decamp to the coast when the summer term ends in late June, with mum and dad commuting into Girona daily. Places like St Antoni de Calonge are like Giron-by-the-sea as we always bump into someone we know 90% of the time when we just go there for a day.
A good many 2nd residence owners are stuck in their ways, and tend not to visit their places out of season, even when it’s fine weather. In the thick of winter, coastal towns are so quiet you begin to feel like the last person on Earth.
So, being British and used to cold, windswept, barren, grey-skied seaside places we decided on a bit of reverse psychology. Let’s rent a seaside flat or apartment for the winter period and see if we like it.
The good wife was also keen on living a more relaxed lifestyle, and as long as the internet connection was good enough, she could still work remotely. Oh, and we also needed a place which accepted dogs, as we have two.
Recovering economies seem to focus people’s minds on ways to earn extra money, especially after the Covid experiences of early 2020. Trawling the popular Spanish property websites like Idealista, or checking local Facebook groups yielded a few results. Our net was cast wide and we didn’t have a firm favourite location.
Anywhere like St Feliu de Guixols, L’Escala or Platja d’Aro would be okay. We also started asking people and friends we already knew, and we were offered a flat in L’Estartit.
I’d always admired the wide expanse of beach here and the ease of free parking just next to the beach itself. True, it doesn’t feel as posh as somewhere such as S’Agaró or Calella de Palafrugell, more like a poor relation.
L’Estartit is a little grittier, with few hairs and graces, happy to have sand kicked into its face.
So what did we get?
A cosy sunny 2nd floor flat with 2 bedrooms, 2 balconies, a 10 minute walk to the beach. The front balcony looks out onto a large campsite, closed for the season. It catches the sun for most of the day, has ample seating, a top spot for a morning coffee.
Being late October the walk into town is a largely lonely outing. We’re near a motorhome site so bump into the occasional winter tourist. I see a few French cars in town and hear a lot of French spoken. Hardly surprising as we’re so near the border, even restaurant menus have French translations-at the expense of English ones.
Walking haphazardly around it’s no surprise seeing so many shops and restaurants closed for the winter. But, a good few are still hawking their menu del dia which I’ll be reporting upon more. The town even has two Indian restaurants open all year-if you’re not from the UK this fact is a reassuring slice of home.
This solitude thing may take a while getting used to after having lived in a bustling, noisy Girona ‘barri’ (neighbourhood).
On the other hand the fun part of any new location is checking it out. Not just where to eat or shop, but good places for a coffee, or a sunset drink.
We’re here until June 2022 so I’ll be adding to the winter rental story periodically.
There’s a plentiful supply of quaint Catalan villages worthy of a visit. Many of them are located in the Baix Emporda ‘comarca’ or county.
Drive out of Girona for an hour or even less in any direction-except maybe south. Not that I’m being snobbish about it, it’s just that I scratch my head when I try to think of a nice place to visit going in that direction.
What I’m looking for is perhaps a nice stroll, admiring the views, sights and points of interests. To cap it off, resting or relaxing in a cosy cafe or restaurant is a bonus.
What I’m not too keen on is what we might call a ‘commuter town or village’, too modern with plain looking houses. You often come across ‘urbanizacions’, a catch all word for a housing estate. These solely residential areas devoid of any character have zero appeal. Every second home owner has a noisy barking dog and there are no shops. Some might have a local cafe or bar, which I’m guessing would have heads turning as soon as a stranger walked in.
You won’t go wrong within the Baix Emporda, inland or on the coast.
Pals itself is about a 45 minute drive from Girona, it has a long medieval heritage with stunning views over the surrounding landscape. A verdant landscape that’s largely flat, famous for its rice fields.
We’ve been here a few times and not only during the warmer months. Between Christmas and early January it hosts an annual ‘pessebres vivents’, a living nativity event.
Pals’ narrow winding cobbled streets are a perfect stage for numerous locals dressed as peasants and the various tradespeople of 2,000 years ago. Butchers, bakers, basket makers and more are all represented. All silently toiling away in the background, while present-day visitors walk on by or stop to gaze a while.
Those who know what to expect and eagle-eyed viewers try to single out the Caganer character-the ‘shitter’ Yes, you too can volunteer to stick your naked butt out and crouch down in a corner of a field on a cold December night. One year I took my American nephew to one nearer to Girona (in Brunyola). He burst out laughing upon seeing the caganer, which is also on sale as a model figure in local souvenir shops.
At other times, the restored Gothic period old town is a joy to wander through. Welcoming pathways lead to pretty floral cul-de-sacs, or to a small quiet square with a bench. As with many such places there’s always a church to be found. The 13th century Romanesque church of Sant Pere has commanding views of farmlands below.
Modernity is never too far away with several bars and restaurants to choose from, where you can try a local dish,’arros negre’ black rice made with squid ink.
Though being inland it also gives its name to a fine long stretch of beach a few kms away, Platja de Pals and a nearby golf course.
The CorreFoc is a feature of Girona’s annual city festival known as the St Narcis Festival in late October. It’s several days of fun, festivities, various cultural activities and the mayhem that’s Correfoc. Loosely translated into ‘fire-runs’ but charmingly referred to as ‘running the devil out of Girona’. They pop up in various forms in many Catalan and Valencian festivals. Participants dress as devils and light fireworks which are fixed onto devil’s pitchforks. Spectators also follow them closely, maybe too closely.
Visitors and onlookers might like to reinterpret that as something along the lines of ‘I’d better get out of the way of this ensemble of amateur arsonists’. No one it seems throughout the whole spectacle has probably ever heard of the ‘Firework Safety Code’ that we abide by when messing around with fireworks in the UK.
An unmissable event in my opinion, it starts late, around 10pm within the confines of the old town, and charts a route that eventually ends up near the university buildings (the old part). We usually catch it somewhere just after the starting point, like near the steps of the old convent La Merce. Street lights are extinguished, which signals the beginning. As part of the large participant/spectator entourage, drummers start a slow rhythmic beat. Also in a pyrotechnic tandem joined by loud bangs, and red and white flashes.
Seeing this marauding band approaching you along the dark, narrow, cobbled alleys shrouded in a red haze is quite a sight. It’s also wise to move away, to retreat up the steps of La Merce to a safer vantage point. Thinking we were okay up here we were joined by this guy in green.
The official participants are dressed in various devil-themed overalls, masks, headgear and goggles, for obvious protection from the sparks and the smoke. A necessity but with such little attention to the safety of the constant whirring fireworks, bangs and booms makes it look wholly unorganised and unsafe. Here are another two characters who look like they’re enjoying themselves.
This riotous smoke-filled rabble continued on their merry way for at least another 45 minutes. Long after passing, the old town alleyways still reverberate and echo to their distant sounds.