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Last few months in L’Estartit

Our winter experiment is coming to a close as we have to vacate our rental apartment by late June. The idea was to see how we fared wintering on the Costa Brava as we’d never done anything like this before. 

As with most people who reside in Girona, the coast is always viewed as either a day trip or a summer holiday destination. Whole sections of our former neighborhood La Devesa, decamp to second residences. Those lucky enough to have had savvy grandparents who bought way back when prices were affordable are reaping the rewards.

Once the tourists leave and winter sets in there’s little attraction to remain, especially for the whole winter and into spring. Empty streets, closed shops, bars and restaurants add to the ghost town feel. The few places that decide to stay open here in L’Estartit aren’t always the most inviting, and the odd few that you’d prefer to go into tend to open only at weekends.

Some days you might have the whole beach to yourself but the damp cold or windy climate will mean your stay is short. November, December and January were the bleakest.

That’s not to say that you won’t experience periodic outbursts of fine weather, a nice respite when it happens.

For some, this type of voluntary solitude is no problem, for me it felt a tad strange moving from busy little Girona. When I had a reason to visit the city I felt elated, a nostalgic pull. 

Still, we had to wait until around Easter in early April to notice a distinct rise in reopenings of shops and bars, with a symbiotic increase in tourist visitors. Now in June, the hot weather spell is back with a bang. The beach is buzzing, welcoming and ready for the summer onslaught. Can’t walk the dogs on the beach anymore, but there’s a fenced-off beach area in nearby Els Griells urbanization.

I might venture back in early July to check out their long running Beatles Festival, highlights will include the band’s former barber. The one from Penny Lane?

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Time for music-Summer festivals in Catalonia

Summer festivals are plentiful here and cater for all tastes and pockets. Pop, rock, classical, opera, contemporary dance, even poetry. Indoor and outdoor venues small and large. The choice is yours and it all happens during the long summer break. A fair number start late in the evening, so won’t interrupt your sun-bathing or siesta. 

Some have been running for a very long time and attract audiences from near and far. Whilst many take place in Girona and the Costa Brava, I’ll also mention those near Barcelona and other parts of Catalonia.

El Grec (late August) Home grown and foreign theatrical and musical talent appear in this Barcelona based festival. www.lameva.barcelona.cat/grec

Festival de Torroella de Montgrí (August 1 – 19)

www.festivaldetorroella.cat

Classical music is the order of the day, in what is considered one of the three main classical music events that take place in the Emporda region every summer. A few international names with some recitals held inside churches.

Cap Roig Festival (July 12 – August 21) www.caproigfestival.com

Cute, chic Calella de Palafrugell must’ve felt like the cat that got the cream when it landed this gig. Set in botanical gardens overlooking the sea it bangs out beautiful sounds over 26 nights. A mix of Spanish stars and from abroad. Big international names like Sting, Elton John, Tony Bennet and Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli have graced the stage. That usually means big prices, like about 200€, but I saw George Benson for about 50€ and Texas the same. The programme is released about early March so early booking is advised. My tip is to dress up and come early for pre-concert drinks and snacks. Cava by the bottle is a bit steep, 30€ last time.

Festival de Musica de Begur (July 27- August 24) www.festivalbegur.cat

Begur, a vibrant, well kept village lends itself to a music turn, like its Placa de la Vila. Long running established music festival, since 1977, promising quality, different music styles at accessible prices. In the past that’s included anything from pop to flamenco-that’s nice, but about as Catalan as cheese-on-toast.

Festival Castell de Peralada (July 4 -August 17)

Another firm favourite that crosses our radar to book early when its programme is advertised. An outdoor auditorium is erected in the grounds of this pocket-sized private castle. Posh patrons walk through the mature gardens, past its sauve lake with white swans. Same mix of national and international stars as Cap Roig, but with an extra dash of classical music, opera and dance. Bar and dining options are available, but we prefer to come early and choose somewhere else in the village. Cavas del Ampurdan is a wine shop with an outside terrace that also serves acceptable tapas dishes, just a stone’s throw from the castle. Post concert there’s an outdoor bar area with live music that we stop at to avoid the exit rush. Artists we’ve seen include Earth Wind and Fire, Roger Hodgson (Supertramp), Kool and the Gang and Simply Red.

If the music didn’t float your boat there’s a swanky casino next door to drown your sorrows. www.festivalperalada.com

Festival Nits de Classica (June 26 – July 30) Classical music, held in Girona’s modern venue next to La Devesa park. www.auditorigirona.org/nitsdeclassica

Festival Jardins de Pedralbes (until July 15) www.festivalpedralbes.com

Relatively small scale music festival in the Pedralbes area of Barcelona.

A temporary auditorium is set up inside these fine, landscaped palace gardens which also feature numerous food and drink areas. Again, a mix of domestic artists and from abroad. It all makes for an enjoyable night out, we saw the Gipsy Kings here back in 2019. British band Madness were billed for 2020 but postponed till the following year (Covid).

Portalblau festival (July 11 – August 9) www.portlblau.cat

Various venues around the seaside town of L’Escala are used for this event, even the Greco-Roman ruins at Empuries, for extra effect.

Festival de la Porta Ferrada (July 4 – August 20) Long running music festival held in St Feliu’s port area with some concerts in its football stadium. 

Spanish artists and a fair few international bands and solo artists, with most concerts at reasonable prices. We almost made it here one year to see UK pop band Spandau Ballet, until they cancelled last minute.    www.festivalportaferrada.cat

Pau Casals festival (July 12 – 23) www.auditoripaucasals.cat

Celebrating the music of Pau Casal, so classical performances from various soloists.

Estereofonics (June 1 – September 21) www.estereofonics.com

Largely free concerts and lots, the 5th edition had 82 over the span of 113 days. All happening in Castell-Platja d’Aro and S’Agaro. 

Jornades Musicals a l’Ermita de la Petat d’Ulldecona (June 2 – August 25)

Festival Internacional de Musica d’Altafulla (August 5 – 27) www.altafulla.cat Another long-running classical music festival.

Sons del Mon (July 5 – August 3) www.sonsdelmon.com

Small and large venues  in Castello d’Empuries and Roses. Some of the smaller performances take place in wineries.

White Summer (August 3 – 25) www.whitesummer.es 

Near the medieval village of Pals. We went here when it first started, as an upmarket outdoor retail event with food stalls and music acts peppered throughout the month. Back then the entry fee was a few euros and the music acts so so. As its popularity grew the entry prices increased, for what we thought of was a predominantly retail event. It’s 8th edition offered a lot more shows, almost 80, a mix of music, theatre and dance.

Sonar (July 18 – 20) www.sonar.es

Barcelona based, electronic dance music, promising 140 shows spread over 9 stages.

Festival Pau Casals (July 25 – August 13) www.prades-festival-casals.com

More of this Catalan composer’s classical output from a festival that’s been running for almost 70 years. (Northern Catalonia).

Festival Internacional de Musica S’Agaro (July 20 – September 21) www.associaciopaucasal.cat

Classical music concerts held inside churches in S’Agaro and Sant Marti d’Empuries, no doubt for their acoustic appeal.

XXIII Festival Ple de Riure (July 23 – 27) www.plederiure.cat

Comedy festival in Mas Nou, a municipality in the province of Barcelona.

Planestiuja’t (July 6 – August 31) www.planestiuejat.cat

Saturday night concerts and food through these two summer months in the La Garrotxa region.

Festival Cambrils (July 25 – August 11) www.festivalcanbrils.com

International music festival with well over 45 editions, set in this coastal town in the county (comarca) of Baix Camp. province of Tarragona.

Festival Anolia (July 13 – 20) www.igualada.cat

Local artists feature in this programme of free concerts in Igualada, in the province of Barcelona

Bachcelona Festival (July 16 – 21) www.bachcelona.com

Classical music dedicated to German maestro Bach with inaugural concerts held at Barcelona’s Palau de Musica.

Festival de Musica de Sant Pere de Rodes (July 13 – 25) www.festivalsantpere.com This Romanesque monastery plays host to various classical pianists from home and abroad.

Festival Internacional de Guitarra (July 24 – 28) www.guitarfesthospitalet.cat Classical guitars galore in this part of Tarragona province.

Jazz Festival L’Estartit-Costa Brava (July 25 –28) www.jazzestartit.cat

Just 4 days and several performances is all the jazz you’ll get, in front of the Medes Islands next to L’Estartit.

San Miquel Mas i Mas Festival (July 30 – August 31) www.masimas.com

Held across five venues this Barcelona festival began in 2003, a mix of jazz, blues and soul, backed by the brewer San Miguel.

Festival de Sant Pere de Casseres (until July 27) www.santperedecasseres.cat Poetry every Saturday in July, in this old Benedictine monastery.

Notes al Parc (until July 27) www.girona.cat Girona’s parks and gardens provide the venues for free concerts throughout July. A nice range of music from pop, hip-hop, electronic, rock, rap and folk.

BioRitme Festival (July 22 – 25) www.bioritmefestival.org Set in the Sau reservoir and billed as ‘a space to share committed music for a better world’. This means all the stalls and bars are 100 percent organic, with workshops and talks on environmental conservation.

Festival de Musica Antiga Poblet (August 16 – 18) www.fundaciocima.org

Five baroque music concrete, over three days in the Santa Maria monastery.

Arts d’Estiu (July 27 – August 25) www.artsdestiu.com Music concerts next to the beach, spread between the municipalities of  Pineda de Mar and Santa Susanna, near Barcelona.

Sant Cugat al Descobert (until September 27) www.cugat.cat A well to do satellite town near Barcelona which hosts about 35 cultural events, in various areas. Not just music, but visual arts and theatre.

Festival de Musica Antiga dels Pirineus (unti August 25) www.femap.cat

A large scale affair with over 35 towns in the Catalan Pyrenees hosting various Baroque music.

Garrigues Guitar Festival (until August 24) www.garriguitar.com A guitar festival started in 2012 to honour the memory of classical guitarist and composer Emili Pujol. Guitar workshops run alongside, and it also promotes local gastronomy and heritage.

Poesia I + (until July 14) www.poesiaimes.cat A festival devoted to mostly poetry, with a bit of music.

Sons Solers (July 17) www.sonssolers.cat Held in the natural surroundings of the Sant pere de Ribes estate it’s very much a celebration of music of Catalan origin.

Tempo Sota les Estrelles (July 18 – August 11) www.tempogirona.com

Loosely translated as ‘time beneath the stars’. A small-scale, top quality food and music festival in Girona’s old quarter, opposite the Arab Baths. Large outdoor terraces are transformed with a small stage surrounded by seating, bar and food stands. Free and paid concerts with home grown talent, and from abroad. On balmy, summer non-music nights just come for a drink and a bite to eat.

Festival Jardins de Terramar Sitges (July 19 – 04 August) www.festivaljardinsterramar.com Another large garden area is used as a temporary outdoor arena to host a mix of international and Spanish artists, and groups. Take a relaxed stroll through the manicured grounds with plenty of food and drinks stands, plus various retail stalls. We went in 2019 for George Benson and spent an extra few days here. Sophisticated Sitges, near Bacelona has good beaches, very lively and popular with the gay community.

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Barcelona for culture vultures

Living in Girona we often take the train down to Barcelona for a day out. I don’t fancy driving either, too much hassle and parking is expensive. Let the ‘train take the strain’ was an old TV ad message.

Girona’s train station is just a short walk from our flat and we tend to get off at Barcelona Passeig De Gràcia station. That’s nice and central  for most things. With so much to see and do we’d go to one place then stop for lunch, then visit another location in the afternoon. There’s no real rush, we can always come back another time. We mainly get around using taxis or an Uber / Cabify (some ridesharing apps may or may not be still operating).

Here are a few places to start with, probably too much to do in just one daily visit so take your pick.

If you have kids a good place is CosmoCaixa C/d’Isaac Newton, 26. It’s a sort of mix of natural history and science, ‘designed to stimulate people’s knowledge and opinion of science’. Low entry price, it covers many various topics, from an indoor jungle to ancient humans. With many interactive exhibits, roomy cafe space and a large outdoors. A leisurely visit would easily take up half a day.

La Sagrada Familia 

Designed by the famous Catalan architect Antonio Gaudi this grand basilica has been under construction since 1882 and is still unfinished. 

That’s obvious from the cranes towering above, and the current estimated finish date is 2026. That hasn’t put off tourists who flock here en masse. Yearly visitor numbers are in the region of 3 million, so book your tickets online in advance.

I’ve always been a bit underwhelmed when visiting churches in general, but this is something so different. Sure there’s plenty of the usual stained glass around, but it’s when you enter and start to look up.This is the moment your lower jaw drops. Those spires reaching for the heavens, that impossibly high crafted ceiling, and all that cascading light. Rooted to the spot you become hard-pressed on where else to cast your gaze. Stick around a bit more as daylight tracks the sky and that colour show resembles looking through a kaleidoscope.

We paid extra to go up one of the spires. As you ascend, the narrow spiral stairway does make you feel a touch dizzy, like you’ve just jumped off one of those fast spinning kiddies roundabouts. At various points there are small outdoor viewing points that just heightened my feeling of vertigo. Perfectly safe of course as they are covered with a wire netting, and the views of Barcelona are sensational. I didn’t fancy doing all that in reverse and upon reaching the top was glad to see there’s a lift down. 

No wonder it’s the top sight to visit and rightly so, packing a true eclesiastic punch.The only time I wasn’t in a rush to leave a place of worship. 

Chocolate Museum (Museu de la Xocolata) C/del Comerc, 36.

Here’s something more up my street and a welcome distraction to other more formal museums. We owe it to the Spanish explorers who brought cocoa beans back to Spain in the 1600’s. We English have the less envious reputation of stumbling across the humble potato. Discovering tobacco was down to us too, so maybe that makes us equal.

This private museum housed in a former barracks is in the lively Born neighbourhood. Entrance prices are low with an option of paying for various workshops that require pre-booking.

Explanatory notes for exhibits are presented in 3 languages (Catalan, Spanish & English). My general impression was that they were largely staid, and left me thinking it could all be displayed with a more imaginative stamp. If you’ve ever visited the York (UK) Chocolate Museum you’ll know what I mean.

It won’t take you long to go round to see everything, being relatively small. It explains the history of the plant, but not interactive enough for kids I thought. You finish up at inevitably the best part of any museum visit, the gift shop. Of course take your pick of the plethora of chocolate bars on display, and leave a comment if so inclined on a large blackboard. 

If you exit at lunchtime there’s a cracking Vietnamese restaurant just opposite.

Parc Guell

This is not your normal run-of-the-mill park but another of Gaudi’s creations for a rich industrialist client. Forget about formal lines and pretty flower beds, this is more garden design on steroids. I’ve been here twice, the first time was about 20 years ago when it was free entry. This time, we’d booked a few days in advance as it’s a popular stopping point for Barcelona visitors. 

Peruse at your leisure and be sure to pick up a paper map, as you work your way towards the exit point. Extensive use of curves, arches and oceans of coloured tiles adorn the handful of buildings. The use of coloured tile fragments continues within a large seating area, that boasts fine seaward views of the city. A long wide stairway down to the gatehouse is decoratively served with the same panache. At its base a large green-tiled lizard awaits.

Gaudi even applied his artistic flair to the ironwork of the entrance gates (above).

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Girona day trips-Barcelona

A lot of tourists and visitors do it the other way around. Finding themselves in Barcelona and looking for a day trip away from the city. This one assumes you’re already in Girona. The obvious bit is that the earliest you can get away, the more time you’ll have in the Catalan capital.  While there are many cultural points of interest this informational guide excludes such delights-we’ll cover those in another post.

The quickest and least stressful way is to go on the TGV / Alta velocitat fast train service. Just 38 minutes from Girona without any stops. Buy your ticket and exit the station building (the side facing parc Central) and a short walk over to a stand-alone building (image below). Take the down escalator as the platforms are underground, and give yourself enough time to go through security. This is also the way down to the underground bus station.

If you prefer to drive down the roughly 100 kms distance this is best done using the AP7 motorway toll road (approx. return cost 15€). The free alternative is to use the N-II route but this will probably double your travel time. Once in Barcelona there are plenty of car parks, mostly underground but they aren’t cheap. You can try to find a good deal via a parking app, and the city traffic is busy most of the time.

For me the downside to using the AVE travel option is that you arrive at Barcelona Sants station, which isn’t too bad but I’d prefer to be nearer the centre. Plan B is to take the ‘media distancia’ train from Girona, 1hr.15m  and get off at Passeig de Gracia station-better situated for shopping. That train departs from the platform above ground

Passeig de Gracia is a long wide avenue full of swanky upmarket stores that wealthy tourists flock to. Its famous crowd pulling landmarks include Gaudi’s Casa Batllo, which wouldn’t be out of place in a Shrek movie. Gaze upwards and marvel at the sheer effrontery to normal straight line architecture. Don’t imagine you can just walk straight in, pre booking is highly advisable. 

For the less culturally inclined, exit the station and go towards the large Apple store in Placa Catalunya to restore your capitalist beliefs. Once here you ought to move on to the famous Las Ramblas, a short walk away. A big tourist attraction, this pedestrianised tree lined avenue stretches all the way down to the port area. Be sure to check out the La Boqueria food market, it’s predominantly tourists who funnel through its myriad stalls. Plenty of food and snack options here to tempt you. Locals prefer to shop elsewhere as it has sadly succumbed to the vagaries of mass tourism. I tend to agree.

Aimlessly wandering has its attractions but can lead to a haphazard experience. If you fancy a dip and weather permitting you can make your way by taxi or subway to Barceloneta, the city’s go to place for a beach day. Summertime this long stretch of beach is heaving with visitors. Stretch your legs along the long promenade and chill out in one of the many beach bars.

Feel like you might want to spend the night here then further up along here are two cool 5 star seafront hotels. The Arts Barcelona and the W-Barcelona have the perfect sea views that are hard to beat. This lengthy seafront is a popular evening spot with cool music and cocktails as the big pull.

Feel like you’ve had enough then walk back towards the trendy El Born neighbourhood. It has a laid back hipster approach and youthful vibe. Narrow lanes filled with small boutiques for the curious shopper, and characterful bars to rest your weary legs. 

Keep weaving your way through and you’ll find yourself in the old quarter of Barcelona, Barrio Gotico. The quaintness continues but it’s time for a cautionary word of warning. 

This area, especially at night, requires a degree of alertness as regards petty street crime. Plenty of forums have stories of how tourists have had their bags and backpacks stolen or picked in Barcelona. It even happened to me once. 

I was walking along the street in the old town on my way to a comedy club. Two strangers approached me and my wife, cleverly separating us. They started handing out various business cards for local restaurants. The guy high-fived me and I responded. As I lowered my hand I felt my front pocket and instantly realised my wallet was missing. At the same time the two strangers quickly departed running off into the maze of alleys. I ran after them but to no avail as they disappeared into thin air. 

I started to rustle through nearby trash bins as I’d read that these pickpockets often take the cash and dump the wallet. I flagged down a passing police car who looked unsurprised and told me that I should go to my local police station to report the crime. Alas my comedy club evening was devoid of any laughter.

If you came here by train then I’m sorry but there’s no enjoying any night time fun as the last train back to Girona is at about 9.30pm. Catch it from Sants station or Passeig de Gracia.

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Christmas time in Girona

The latest lockdown restrictions have eased and the locals are out and about in force Christmas shopping. Good job too, and Girona’s city hall has been advocating that Gironians spend their hard-earned in local shops to help the local economy. That doesn’t necessarily mean packed streets full of jostling shoppers, as the whole Xmas season is a more downbeat affair. 

Being from the UK I’m used to a more bustling, shop till you drop, last minute shopping experience. After moving here I used to look forward to returning to the UK for the Xmas break, ostensibly to be with family and see friends. But after enduring the stress of what that entailed I quickly returned to the idea of spending it being here in quiet, sedate Girona. Even the lure of mince pies, pigs in blankets and brandy butter wouldn’t change our minds.

The Christmas lights are part and parcel of it all too. Girona’s lights are often a bit of an understatement but this year’s attempt appears to be an improvement over previous years. The street lights go up during November and are switched on early December. 

Over many years we’ve sea-sawed between a home cooked xmas lunch and eating out. Well, eating out in Girona on Christmas day is akin to finding a needle in a haystack. It requires diligent research and forward military style planning. I even went to the Girona Tourist Office in La Rambla thinking they might have all the places open on the 25th. Not so simple, as lists are haphazard and produced too late. One place stood out.

We ate at Casa Marieta in Pl. de la Independencia one year, but I had to make a booking in late November. Even then it appeared to be a bit touch and go as she leafed through the diary. I was thinking please find me a table as my options were too few. 

On Christmas day it was unsurprisingly busy and while we waited to be seated a tad too long it was an acceptable, stress-free lunch. We even took our own Christmas crackers-some traditions are hard to discard. Who knows what the other Cataln diners thought of that. Other Christmas day lunches have been spent eating local fried-chicken,  and another year to an out-of-town country restaurant. Fine but no drinking and driving meant expensive use of taxis.

Homespun equivalents have just resulted in domestic food meltdowns in our tiny kitchen, and emotional explosions that I swore never to repeat the experience. I think I need to re-examine that ‘what’s open on xmas day restaurant’ list. Back we go to the tourist office.