Monday, 24 September 2012

Mission accomplished

After a short night's sleep, the alarm clock jerked me into life at six, allowing just enough time to have breakfast, start the washing machine, and pack some food for the journey home. Michael took me to the station to catch the 7h10 to Barcelona. This departure time, it was completely dark, and I didn't see first light until the train reached Tortosa, what a difference in the six weeks since I last made this journey. For much of the time, I dozed - first on the train, then during the two hour wait in the departure lounge at El Prat airport, then on the plane, and on the train back to Cardiff, so the late departure and arrival of the flight, and a late train from Bristol didn't have much impact on me. The big surprise was that the sun was shining in a cloudy sky when we arrived. A brisk wind was blowing, and everybody groaned when the aircraft door was opened and it gusted into the cabin. 

I arrived home exactly twelve hours after leaving Vinaròs. Despite a pile of mail to deal with, and unused computers to update around the house, I'm glad to be back again, with happy memories, not to mention photos, and all the reminiscences posted in this blog over the past three months. When I shut my eyes, vivid colours of the Costa Azahar landscape and seashore swirl in my imagination like a kaleidoscope. The region has made a great impact on me with towns and villages boasting a history that stretches back into antiquity, and high limestone crags, eroded for millennia by just wind and rain creating dramatic vistas and challenging mountain roads. Just my sort of country. 

But for me, the fresh discovery of my sojourn has been the Delta de l'Ebre, its running waters, its salt lakes, its foreshore, and its fields of rice growing through summer into autumn harvest time, with all the many subtle changes of colour that entails. I won't forget the flamingos, herons and egrets, but it was the terns, hovering over water channels a few metres away from the road, or offshore equally, diving for fish, which touched me, perhaps because it connected me with the Severn Estuary close to home.

It wasn't an easy time to be a locum pastor, with so many people in the three congregations either coming and going over the summer, or inevitably preoccupied with their own visitors. They were all so much looking forward to their new chaplain arriving. I didn't expect to turn from sharing their joys to sharing their disappointment and uncertainty about the future when he had to withdraw quite unexpectedly. News of his arrival meant that I re-arranged my autumn plans to make way for him. It meant I was no longer be available to stay beyond two extra weeks, and accompany the chaplaincy through the next stage of interregnum. A part of me regrets not being able to be there for them. But two things I have learned about ministry - nobody is indispensible, and conscientious missionaries work themselves out of a job when the time is right. And the timing is never in their hands.

The faithful Anglicans of the Costa Azahar chaplaincy are a credit to their church, supporting and caring for each other, building community with an unusual Christian identity, respected and valued by an indigenous church with historic origins even older than those of the church in Britain. I hope arrangements for a new locum can be made and the process of making a fresh chaplain appointment is expedited without further delay. With declining numbers available to recruit from both serving and retired clergy, this cannot be easy for those in authority. To people on the ground, delay can feel like a matter of life and death overshadowing all they've strived so hard to create over the years. But the Spirit of God has already breathed life into this emerging church. 

Where the Gospel is still preached, by whomsoever is able to preach it, others will gather to listen and pray, and the Spirit will continue to move in times of vulnerability as much as in times of confidence and success.  "I will not fail you or forsake you ...."  (Hebrews 13:5, quoting Deuteronomy 31:8) is one of those promises of scripture to hang on to in times like these. 

Tomorrow, it's back to College to meet new students, acclimatising, and slipping back into routine, not quite the way I was three months ago, but imperceptably richer for the experience and the story I have to tell of my Spanish Sojourn.

Thanks to all whose curiosity has drawn them to this page. My regular blog resumes as soon as I have something worth writing about.

From here you can reach the page 'West of the Centre'

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Last weekend

Yesterday was a day for household tasks, washing, cleaning and tidying the office to set everything in order for the next locum priest. There will be a gap of a couple of weeks unfortunately, so this week I've had to restrict food purchases to ensure that by tomorrow morning the fridge is empty of perishables, and make sure everything else is stored where it can be easily found. That was quite a culinary challenge. We always tend to buy more than we think we need. Draft sermons from two lay worship leaders arrived for me to look over. It's great they are so eager to do things well.

In the afternoon, while visiting the bottle bank, I made time to stand and stare at the waves pounding on the beach, counting three people and a dog enjoying the sea. All the Costa Norte beaches are pretty quiet now that it's not quite so warm and overcast for much of the day. I wish I could take the beach and the music of the waves home with me to Pontcanna. The roar of the river Taff passing under Blackweir Bridge doesn't quite do the same for me. I struggled to stay awake to the end of this week's episode of 'Inspector Montalbano', not because it was un-engaging, but because I felt tired after my excursion to Tarragona, tired anticipating my journey home and a change of routine.

This morning the intense humidity returned, with overcast skies. It was most unwelcome after a few cooler windy days. I felt as if I was running a temperature, but not so. There were good congregations for the Eucharist. Twenty in Vinaròs and over fifty in Alcossebre, more people are returning from summer vacations elsewhere or arriving for late holidays. Former Chaplain Paul Needle and his wife Linda joined us at Vinaròs. Paul played piano, duetting with Ken on his  Euphonium. I was surprised at how few people seemed familiar with the last hymn I chose: "Go tell everyone the news that God's kingdom has come." I'd hoped would cover the subsequent farewell with a note of exuberance. People were very warm and appreciative as I took my leave to get to Alcossebre in good time. 

I really had to keep checking my speed as I drove through Vinaròs and then Benicarló, something I don't usually find a problem, and I wasn't late. Nervous about making my final journey? Taking my final service? It was, in any case, a day to remember and reflect on journeys of discovery made over the past three months, and how much I've enjoyed this particular experience of gap-filling ministry. I've had no trouble finding my way about in a new environment or making myself understood. The only thing that has caused me trouble is the high level of humidity. Does any in-comer ever get properly ascclimatised I wonder? How long does it take?

The singing at Alcossebre was vigorous and enjoyable. I had time to chat with the worship leaders about preaching and service taking, before and after the service. Then I went to visit and pray with Ray, now back at home in nearby Las Fuentes after his spell in Castellón hospital. I'd only been to his place once before with Les and Brenda. This time I had to find the apartment with only the address for a guide. I was pleased my memory served me quite as well as it did, and arrived just as Ray was entering the building, having gone out to bar for Brunch. The exertion made him quite tired, so I only stayed a short while before heading home for a late lunch of paella, prepared last night to give me a head start. Then, more washing and case packing. Early start tomorrow. 

Friday, 21 September 2012

St Matthew's Day in Tarragona

After a couple failed attempts recently I finally took a train to Tarragona for sightseeing. The excursion using the RENFE Regional Express cost less than fifteen pounds. It meant changing trains at L'Aldea-Amposta, with a short wait in between trains. Most disconcertingly there is no signage of any kind on the platform five where we were deposited and picked up from. The train announcements were clear, but I'd hate to be deaf in a situation like that. By the looks of it, the station although complete, is not yet fully furnished like others on this line. I was aware of the anxieties of other travellers, in both directions.
Tarragona station is just north of its busy shipping port (a counted ten ships at anchor waiting off shore), close to the sea shore. It's about a kilometre walk following the shore line north, but going up hill toward the town centre, ancient and modern. From the brow of the hill is a marvellous view of the the bay, and of the remains of the Roman amphitheatre, sitting just behind the beach and railway line.
Its surroundings have been made into a park, and behind the park inland is a large restaurant on a terrace, taking advantage of the view. I couldn't help noticing a stylish glass and chrome lift installed to give access from street level above to the restaurant. 
The other side of the street is the intact Praetorian Tower, the ruins of the Forum and Circus, surrounded by a mixture of buildings both modern and a few centuries old. Remains of the century Roman colonial city built of golden hued limestone appear all over the town centre, some times cordoned off for paying customers, other times, just there in the middle of one of several plazas as a decorative feature. Right in the heart of the old Roman quarter stands the magnificent 11-12th century cathedral.

In the plaza outside its gothic decorated west front is an imposing ancient house (now somewhat dilapidated and in need of restoration), said to have been a residence of the Archdeacon of Tarragona, built on the site of a Roman Temple. Across the road, in a mediaeval house with a modern entrance extension is the Tarragona biblical institute. I got the impression that the city doesn't rest on its laurels, but remains a cultural dynamo for the region.
The church building complex is entered from the north side, where a fine gothic cloister is situated. It is unusual in having a series of chapels built in to its perimeter.
Several of these are still used for current devotional purposes. Large ancient rooms off the cloister belonging to the Chapter, plus the old Sacristy house a remarkable collection of high quality mediaeval religious art, beautifully displayed, well conserved, a collection any national  museum would be glad to possess. 
The Cathedral nave has a romanesque high stone vaulted ceiling and octagonal lantern at the crossing between nave and chancel, and a beautiful gilded gothic high altar reredos. I think there were a dozen side chapels in all, but I may have miscounted. The fine baroque organ case is but a shell at the moment, as the organ has been taken out for restoration. Work on a building of this majesty is never ending. It's quite encouraging to see how much of it is in good repair, well looked after, and well used for prayer.

All around town there was an abundance of portable toilets, like Cardiff on an international match day, only much more generous provision. A bit late for the tourist season, I thought. But then, I noticed the festive banners in honour of St Tecla the Virgin, said to have been one a St Paul's travelling companions. Her feast is this coming Sunday, she's patron saint of both the city and the Cathedral. I imagine the entire weekend will be one of celebration, to judge from concert stages being erected in plazas, and in the cathedral. Banners of the saint, mixed with the Catalonian flags flutter in the breeze everywhere.
After three hours of walking and photographing in the sun, I was pretty tired, despite fortification from pizza and beer en route. I returned to the station, but found I couldn't get a Regional Train connection until five forty, so I made the circuit again, and took some more photos. I was glad to get on the train, even if it was so full I had to stand until it got to Salou. A lot of young people with holiday cases in tow are on the move this weekend. Some coming into Tarragona for the fiesta, others heading for the beach one last time before the start of a new academic term, no doubt.

I was glad to get home and eat, but thrilled with most of my pictures. You can see them here


Thursday, 20 September 2012

Deaconing day

Today is the forty third anniversary of my ordination to the diaconate and the beginning of my public ministry as an Anglican cleric. I'm amazed to think of places I have been and things I have done over the years since,which never would have happened had I not been called to ministry. I never think about what might have been if I hadn't said 'yes'. I can only be thankful for the wonderful experiences that have been mine, right down to this day.

The neighbourhood had a power outage for 45 minutes, just at breakfast time, but it came back on in time for a cuppa, before heading out to El Portal drop-in centre on my bike for the last time. A fairly new brick built apartment building in the vicinity of the church is being demolished, causing disruption to traffic and gathering an audience of spectators to watch the demolition machines at work.

Nobody seems to know why the building has to come down or what will replace it. Standing there wondering was for me a case of deja vue. It was like being back in Cardiff city centre in the first weeks after redevelopment work started, and not a single notice had been put up to advise the public of why 'new' (i.e. 30 year old) town centre shops and library were being visited by bulldozers. This time, if I knew why it, would be a bit of a challenge to explain to passers by with my primitive Spanish.
Several Moroccan women came in to look at autumnal clothes, recently extracted from storage in the Vicarage garage. I had an impromptu in situ session with Brenda on the liturgical texts she is preparing to preach on in a few weeks time, sitting with other visitors chatting, drinking tea and catching up. It was nice to see Robert and Kay, back again briefly from Belfast. The last time I saw them was when we waved to each other from our respective Easyjet boarding queues at El Prat airport in mid August. I learned that Ray, whom I visited in Castellon hospital is now back home in Alcossebre. I'll get to see him after church on Sunday. It's all part of the everyday richness of ministerial life I'm glad I can still enjoy in retirement. 

I rode home for lunch, refreshed by light rain. Cloudy autumn skies and cooler winds are now making a regular appearance. Quite sorry not to be staying on and enjoying this kinder weather, not to mention church community life.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Sea food anniversary

Today is the forty second anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood. This morning I met with chaplaincy worship leaders for a session to prepare them for the month ahead, as there may be a couple of Sundays before a new locum chaplain arrives. The overall decline in available clergy numbers makes it difficult to find replacements at short notice, if at all. My generation was when the first sign of decline in congregations and numbers of vocations to ordained ministry began to be noticeable across the church as a whole. 

In a way we've been preparing in different ways to cope with the impact of decline ever since then, and training lay people to participate in and take responsibility for continuity of pastoral care has always been a feature of ministry for me and my contemporaries. So, I was glad of the opportunity do do something which is a key part of my experience, to support and encourage them. They are keen to work together to make the best of a situation that has emerged for them unexpectedly.

After the meeting I drove up to El Perello to be taken to lunch by John and Isa at a quayside restaurant in the fishing port of Ametlla de Mar (pronounced 'Ameya' de Mar in Catalan). It's the next place along the coast to the north of L'Ampolla to boast a railway station. It was one of those memorable meals, entirely of fresh seafood. 
The first course was a huge dish of mussel, shrimps and razor shell clams from the Delta all perfectly prepared, which we all shared with relish. Then I had lubina a la plancha on a bed of steamed sliced potatoes, followed by melon. As we ate we could see large tuna fishing boats as well as smaller craft arriving and queuing up at the quay next to the fish depot on the other side of the harbour to deliver their day's catch before they berthed elsewhere. Every now and then, someone would go past in a vehicle or on foot, carrying containers with which to carry away their purchases. You don't get fish fresher than this.
It was a noteworthy occasion for Isa, her first proper outing after more than half a year of confinement following medical treatment. As it was six months after a planned birthday meal she didn't get to go out for, we proclaimed it a halfth birthday celebration, as happens among Hobbits.

After the meal we went for a walk up and down the quayside and promenade, glad that the rain held off while we did so. In fact it rained for a while as I drove home in the dark, after a very special and pleasant afternoon of food and table talk. Elsewhere the rain was much heavier, the streets of Valencia reported as being flooded by sudden a downpour. Even so, it will take a lot more than this break in the weather to fill the empty reservoirs in the Tincada de Benifassa.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Ascent to Morella

I meant to go to Tarragona on the train this morning, but didn't have enough energy to make an early start, so I did some shopping and cooking, then finally broke out my my lethargy mid-afternoon with a drive up the N232, all the way over the Querol pass (1080m) to visit Morella. I stopped at the Carlos VII hotel and restaurant at the top. It was closed, but the gates were open so I went in and took some photos.
Above the restaurant on a rock platform 30 metre above is a statue of Christo Rey looking East. It was inaccessible, part of a grazing enclosure. The reason the domain had its statue of Christ was obvious, as one of the buildings had once been a chapel, now converted into an attractive dining room, with glass doors looking eastwards. No longer an Ermita, but still active in the hospitality business. 
From the escarpment behind the restaurant I got my first glimpse of Morella, illuminated by afternoon sun on the western horizon.
The town is wrapped around a mountain sitting in a confluence of valleys. It's in a strategic position in relation to two mountain passes on the route between the Ebro river valley and Valencia. At a distance the mountain looks conical, flat topped like a volcanic table mountain. This flat top is part of the huge fortress, built by El Cid in the eleventh century, commanding  heights so steep there's no need for a protective crenellated perimeter wall to shoot from. As you approach the town from the south below, the view is reminiscent of old bible engravings of the 'New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God'.
Mediaeval walls in pale golden limestone 150 metres below the fortress summit are intact and in good condition. The town buildings sit comfortably within them. I say comfortably because the streets are just that bit wider than other hill towns, it doesn't feel as cramped. It's home to just 2,800 people, but gets lots of visitors. Views of town and countryside on all sides are breathtaking. I was fortunate to find a parking place near the Torres de Sant Miquel - the north gate, one of seven.  From there I walked up as far as I could. In a cul de sac above the town's Basilica de Santa Maria la Major, is a old franciscan convent now being converted into a Parador hotel. You can access the fortress grounds from here for a few euros, but I resisted the temptation to climb the last hundred metres, as closing time was near, and this is a place to be savoured, not rushed!
The convent buildings and huge chapel will be renovated and converted to offer hospitality, modern style, as a business like the Hotel Restaurant Carols VII down on the Querol pass. There was another old church building in the town, and it has been converted into  health centre. How appropriate. I'd wager there was a time when the church authorities and town council would have worried over these buildings, no longer sustainable in use by a population which has more than halved in a century - especially as they began to show signs of neglect. It's good to see their re-purposing reflects their original values and use. There's a large empty 18-19th century school or college building on the hillside adjacent to the basilica. I wonder what use will eventually be found for it?
The basilica, named after one of the main Curial churches in Rome, is big enough to serve the town's present population, and is interesting in its own right, with a huge stone choir loft supported by gothic vaulting in the western penultimate bay of the nave.
It has a decorated spiral staircase, perfect for processions up and down. In the next bay along on the north side at loft level is a remarkable organ case. The organ console is in the choir loft. I couldn't find out anything about the church's music programme, but such a superb environment must be an inspiration to musicians. The apsidal sanctuary is covered in gold baroque ornamentation from floor to ceiling, in contrast to the thirteenth century gothic of the rest of the building. The church isn't well served for natural light, but its tranquility makes it more numinous than gloomy. I noticed rice underfoot in the plaza outside. There'd been a wedding earlier in the day.

Humans have occupied this mountain since the bronze age. Greek, Romans, Visigoths and Moors in turn occupied this mountain and built on it. On the north side are the remains of an aqueduct. In its present form it's a fourteenth century construction, but who first had the idea and built the prototype? It appears the Moors named the town Maurela, after conquering it in 714. There's so much to understand and absorb about this place, it really merits a stopover visit. Perhaps we can do that when the Parador opens.

You'll find more photos here

Monday, 17 September 2012

Power outage

Somewhat lacking in sleep, after Saturday's late night out, I summoned enough energy to preach on a favourite theme, the mystery of the Cross at Vinaròs yesterday, as Friday last was Holy Cross Day. Then drove to L'Ampolla to celebrate the Eucharist and preach the same again. I enjoyed it more the second time around, not least because the Parish Church of Sant Ioan Bautista has a life sized crucifix in mediaeval Spanish realist style mounted behind the altar, and I was able to turn to this when I referred to it, so my preaching perhaps contained a little more footwork than usual. 

In conversation afterwards I discovered that one of the worshippers knew Ty Mawr Convent in Gwent because an aunt of hers had been a nun there all of her adult life. Sister Sheila Mary, someone I'd known and taken communion to in her cell, during my visits there when I worked for USPG 25 years ago. Ty Mawr also has a life size crucifix on its east wall, but no other decoration, unlike the frescoed Sant Ioan Bautista Parish Church.

We picnicked in the Sant Jordi campsite after the service, then I made my font farewells to this kind and welcoming group of faithful people who had made me feel at home with them. Then I drove up into the hills below El Perello to visit Isa and John, drink tea and talk spirituality with them one more time. It's always stimulating, and time passed effortlessly, despite my sleep deficit.

I woke up at three o'clock in the morning to a buzzing sound which was hard to locate given how sleepy I was. I discovered that there was an electricity outage, stumbled around the house in the dark, learned that no fuse switch had been thrown and concluded it was an external fault about which nothing could be done. The buzzing I discovered was emanating from a socket mounted electronic device which broadcasts inaudible sound waves repellent to mosquitos. Its internal battery was draining without a power source, reducing its emission to an audible sound, which woke me up.

Power had not returned by the time I got up, so I consulted neighbours John and Maureen. They had power, but knew of a problem which has afflicted groups of houses in this vicinity in turn, kicking some of them off-line. He checked the distribution box to confirm it, and then very kindly rang the supply company on my behalf. They also boiled a kettle for me so I could make a pot of coffee. Thankfully I have not had occasion to use the freezer for food storage since I've been here, so there was no anxiety about food melt-down. 

By eleven thirty, the repair crew had arrived and were on the job, sparing me the worry about how I would charge my mobile phone. I brought my solar charger with me, but not the proprietary USB cable to connect it up, only the plug charger. I'm puzzled about why I left it behind, having fussed so much over the bits and pieces of tech kit I did bring with me. If only there was a single universal standard for such equipment - but that would reduce the money making potential for all these gadgets which now rule our lives with their not so convenient conveniences.

Quiz night again tonight at Vinaròs camp site. I hope I don't return to find the 'leccy has gone off again.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Moors & Christians Masquerade in Peñíscola

Yesterday afternoon I was invited with four other members of the congregation to lunch at Les and Brenda's in Peñíscola, prior to going down the the north beach promenade to watch the annual 'Moors and Christians' masquerade, a parade celebrating the re-conquest of this part of Spain in the fourteenth century by the army of King Jaume I. The lunch was a most enjoyable triumph of good food and conversation, putting us all in festive mood for the evening's events.

The north beach promenade was lined either side for a kilometre by green plastic chairs for spectators available for the evening at €5 each. We arrived about seven, allowing us time to park, and then wandered up and down looking for an advantageous place to sit, close to a bar selling drinks to clients to outside customers. An hour of waiting amidst the gathering crowd was occupied by the passage of town and village marching bands heading up toward the starting assembly point.
I counted nine bands, six of them coming from villages inland on the coastal plain, several of which I've visited. Each band had between thirty and forty musicians. Over half of the players were under 20. All, without exception played to a high standard, and marched with pride. Each band had a standard bearer, and there were a variety of transport devices for the accompanying percussionist, as the big bass drums were too big to be moved any other way. I estimate there were around four hundred musicians involved all told. Moorish and Christian bands each played a shared theme tune. The Christian one I didn't recognise, but the Moorish one was the theme tune from the move 'Exodus', about the creation of the state of Israel. Was this something of a tongue ion cheek musical tease, I wondered?
It was an impressive testimony to the strength of local community life in an agricultural region, not least because of the participation of people of all ages. Some masqueraders walked to the start line, and among these were kiddies in costume pushed by mums or dads in buggies. When the parade eventually sauntered past, I noticed two babes in arms being carried in slings on a costumed masqueraders mum's tum, right in the middle of the ranks of soldiers.
Saturday's parade has groups of those dressed as Christian knights, backed by their village band, leading the procession and the Moors coming behind, 'chasing' them towards the castle. On Sunday there is apparently another parade in which the Moors go first, 'chased' away from the castle by the Christians. I was amazed at the splendour of the ranks of knights, each village with their own variation of costume design. The ages of participants spanned four generations, and despite playing at mediaeval soldiers, there were more women masqueraders than men. 
In any other European country at this time of political tension generated by the islamist 'protest' attacks on US embassies in the wake of the latest You Tube insult to the Prophet Muhammad, one could imagine anxious consultations and security risk assessments nervously carried out. There were thousands on the streets, and the best part of a thousand in the parade. The only Guardia Civil officers we saw were two in a patrol car, who seem to have mis-timed their return to base, driving carefully against the flow of people walking to the start point. The only raised voices were those cheering on the paraders or greeting friends exuberantly. The masqueraders and crowd were a sea of good humour and good will.
After sunset lighting conditions, even under extra floodlights and street lamps made good photographs difficult to obtain, even with a decent modern point and shoot digital camera. But by late evening, with a lot of flash usage, the battery was low and sensor reaction time noticeably diminished. Nevertheless it was great fun to try and capture such a special occasion.
It was an unique expression of community cohesion and voluntary enterprise, rooted in local history and civic pride. People having fun with their differences, not fighting over them. People enjoying being together, being part of their village and their family. After the parade finished just after 11.00pm, Peñíscola's hundreds of bars and restaurants were all packed with people eating out together. It took us a quarter of an hour to find a place with an empty table for a drink and bite to eat before the fireworks began at 12.30pm, another spectacular show, and not surprising since one of Spain's premier fireworks factory is located in adjacent Benicarló. I was pretty tired by the time I got home at 1.15am, but so glad to have witness such superb festivity.

The rest of the photos I took can be found here


Friday, 14 September 2012

Home visions

After breakfast yesterday I wrote a sermon for next Sunday. I had a visit from two house painters engaged by the owners to do maintenance tasks on the external walls, in odd spots where the paint has degraded due to salt efflorescing from the cement mixture of the surface rendering. I imagine this happens not infrequently in this environment.  Then I cycled into town to spend an hour or so in the drop-in centre chatting to visitors. The rest of the day I spent catching up on domestic tasks, doing the week's shopping, writing, uploading photos, catching up on news back home.

Today was somewhat similar. The house painters visited again and stayed a short while. They don't seem to have finished, to judge from the state of the patches they've been treating on the walls and balcony ceiling.  It was a beautiful afternoon with a brisk wind coming off the sea. While I was hopping channels on the TV, trying to make up my mind about where I might go for the afternoon, I alighted on the channel showing the Tour of Britain cycle race - the stage from Welshpool to Caerphilly, just over the mountain from home. I just had to watch, to try and figure out the route being followed. It was less than easy, due to advertising gaps, and reluctance of the commentators to pronounce place names visited.

I then spent ages re-arranging Costa Azahar photos uploaded to easily identifiable Picasa web albums - ages because the internet connection speed here is a third of that at home. Pictures can be seen here. Before supper I walked down to our local beach to absorb some fresh air. The wind off the sea created huge breakers which spilled surf right up to the beach wall, and under the cliff on the south side.  I sat for ages and marvelled at the spectacle.

It's easy to see on days like this how coastal erosion can be such a persistent and expensive issue to deal with. I wonder how far this is a product of changing weather patterns. The Mediterranean sea level has dropped ten metres over the last era of geological history, to produce current cliff erosion. Eventually, through global warming, sea levels will rise, and the shape of the coastline will inevitably change again. Coastal defences may become as essential to the national economy of Mediterranean countries as they are now to Holland, one day.  I wonder how many years from now?

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

An evening in the Delta

Today Les and Brenda invited to attend a Beetle Drive, lunch, followed by a session of this simple dice game which drives sane and normal people into a competitive frenzy. We were hosted by John and Jenny in the function room at the new marina in Sant Carles de la Rapita, where their boat is moored. It must be fourteen years since I last attended a fundraising Beetle Drive (like a whist drive for those who are no good with cards). This one was to raise money toward buying an ambulance for the local branch of the Spanish Red Cross. The last I took part in was held in the basement church hall in Geneva's Holy Trinity Church. The contrast couldn't have been greater, eating and playing in a room with windows overlooking the marina and its swimming pool. But it was every bit as much fun for the two dozen people taking part.

When it was over, I took advantage of the marina's proximity to the Delta to drive down to the sea past Poblenou. On the way, I stopped to photograph scores of herons and egrets as they stood in rice fields churned up by reaping machines, ostensibly mesmerised, staring into the evening sun. The air was pungent with the stench of waterlogged mud and decaying vegetation - the smell of the rice harvest.
Then, for the first, I time drove the five kilomtres of un-metalled road along the sand-bar  enclosing the lagoon, as far as the entrance road to the Salines de la Trinidad, and the conservation area beyond it, the Salinas de la Rapita, prohibited to ordinary traffic. This is nothing like any other place I know. There is water and sand as far as the eye can see in three directions. The lagoon shore is so distant, it appears as a thin line. In the light of the setting sun, the Montsia mountains behind the coastal plain beyond the Trinidad salt works are a haze covering a shadow.
Not since I travelled across Northern Mongolia back in 1999, have I experienced the exhilaration of being in such a huge uncluttered open expanse of landscape, except that here the power lines work, and supply the industrial installations of the salt works.
It's curious how the sand darkens away from the sea shore and looks like the colour of soil in some places. High salt concentrations ensure that little grows in the sand, except in clumps where it gets blown into little mounds, and rain leachs out enough salt to permit hardy species of vegetation to colonise. I saw a bird of prey patrolling off shore in the lagoon. Why so far out here I thought? Unless it was an osprey. It looks so tiny in the photo I took, it's hard to tell. At the other end of the sand bar, several people were kite-surfing on the lagoon, their 'chutes dancing at crazy angle sin the evening breeze. 
I stopped to take flamingo photos opposite the salinas of the Tancarda Lake conservation area, but the pictures with the new camera were disappointing compared to the one I lost.

Then I got stuck behind a rice harvester being taken home on a low loading trailer, and actually enjoyed the 3 km crawl back to Poblenou, as it gave me time to notice birds in the fields as we ambled along at a brisk walking pace.

What an enjoyable day!

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Valencia visit

It's four years since I first visited Valencia with my sister June to see the architectural public works of Santiago di Calatrava. It's taken ten weeks of being here to get around to making the return visit, to look at the Cathedral, and check on a couple of works in progress. Today I woke up at six thirty and made a supreme effort to get to the station and catch the 7.20 regional express to Valencia Norte. It was still the pre-dawn twilight while I was waiting on the platform. There were a couple of dozen people also waiting, chatting loudly and sociably at this early hour. That's how I could be certain with my eyes shut that I wasn't waiting for a train back in Britain.

We were in the plain south of Alcossebre before the sun came over the horizon. The first colours of day, in the changing soil and vegetation of the landscape were remarkably rich. This serves to explain why Spain's artists and designers  work so happily with vivid colour - it's such a dominant environmental influence on the way they see the world. The train stopped half a dozen times en route, running inland for the most part 5km from the sea. This meant that when we entered the conurbation of Valencia were were close to the large commercial port, with its forest of lift structures for handling shipping containers, and occasional cruise ship in sight. The route then crosses the riu Turia and heads inland on the south side of the city to reach Valencia Norte station, which is more west than it is north.

It's but a short walk from the station into the oldest part of the town, past many high quality 19th century civic buildings which advertise the city's prosperity as a regional capital. I had my sights set on visiting the Cathedral this time around, with its fourteenth century gothic nave, gothic and baroque portals, and a Lady chapel so big it's a separate building close by, linked by a corridor bridge to each other.

I stopped off here to say morning prayer, as I had been too sleepy to read on the train. There was an elderly priest in cassock and cotta (with sunglasses) installed in the place set aside for private prayer, ready to hear confessions. He seemed to be hovering in the background while I read the divine office. I hope I didn't make him nervous, but I did pray quietly, albeit using a book instead of a rosary. Both edifices look out on to handsome plazas. The Cathedral plaza is the more interesting of the two.
I walked from the Cathedral to the 14th century gothic arched gateway the Torres de Serranos across the road from the former river bed of the riu Turia. Once part of the city walls, long disappeared, it stands majestic in isolation, like a monument to some long dead potentate.
Then I went looking for the Gran Mercat, navigating successfully all the while from memory, and homed in on it without difficulty. It's a wonderful building, like a huge temple dedicated to food at its very best, filled with people shopping, sightseeing and enjoying the incomparable buzz of the place, if not all of its smells and riot of colour. Opposite is the city parish church of the two St Johns - Baptist and Evangelist. Last time, it was closed for all but essential pastoral activities during an interior resoration. Also the plaza outside contained a gigantic 20 metre deep hole (and accompaning traffic jam), for the building of a new underground car park.

Four years on, the construction is still incomplete, but work is now going on at normal surface level, and it won't be too long before new street furniture reappears. The two St John's was open to visitors, and its sixteenth century 'renaissance' now looks very good indeed. Apparently there were a couple of earlier churches on the site which burned down. Let's hope the precedent is broken.
I was wondering about getting a runabout bus ticket, but the directions I was given to find out where I cold get one yielded nothing. I couldn't even remember what a Metro station entrance looked like, where I could get a ticket, so I determined to walk for as long as I could, and maybe end up seeing more. I went back to the riverbed park the Jardi Turia and strolled all the way down to the amazing Calatrava bridge shaped like a lyre, past the opera house the science museum and other Calatrava masterpieces familiar from my last visit. Next to the bridge, no longer clad in scaffolding and plastic wraps is a dramatic dark blue building shaped like a clam shell sitting on its edge.
 There's no notice up to say what it's eventual function will be. It's still not open, the interior is being fitted out. In such a progressive city for two major building projects to have taken so long to complete is an indication of the recession which bites hard into the well being of this creative country.
By now I was beginning to tire, so I re-traced my steps to a Gran' Via (a road which intersects the grid street plan diagonally) where I recalled there was a good restaurant for lunch. I had a large cool beer and a paella with snails, rabbit and chicken, a royal treat for a special day. Then I made my way slowly, feeling very tired, back towards the station, sent a postcard to June, and arrived uncommonly early to await the departure of the express back to Vinaròs, arriving just as the sun began to set. The ninety mile journey there and back cost me the same as the fifty mile journey from Cardiff to Bristol.

Monday, 10 September 2012

Ulldecona - town & reservoir

This afternoon I made my first visit to Ulldecona, a town about 15km from home west of the Montsia mountains. In the valley north of the town there's an important site where paleolithic cave paintings were found. Like so many settlements in this area, this place has a history both ancient and modern. The area's paleolithic heritage is certainly promoted in the presentation of the town's identity, but there's more to it than that. Like nearby Alcanar, it's been a primary wealth creating place for centuries due to limestone quarries in the vicinity. These produce huge vivid scars in the local landscape.

It was a place won from the Moors in the fifteenth century, as one of the town elders told me in conversation, using whatever words we could find in common, after I photographed a former Dominican convent at the north end of the main street. The church and domestic buildings opposite were taken over for the use of the municipality in the mid nineteenth century and have had an interesting renovation in the late 20th century. The former is the Casa de Culture (library and performance space), the latter is the Casa de Ville (Ajuntament).

The Parish Church, dedicated to St Luke, sits in a square which has arcaded buildings on two sides which harbour bars and restaurants. Last weekend was the fiesta of our Lady of Sorrow & Love hereabouts, and banners proclaiming the mystery fluttered in the breeze throughout the town. I was thrilled as I stepped inside the church to hear the senior choir practicing in a grand side chapel - as if the main 14th century Valencian gothic nave and sanctuary were not enough liturgical space to manage! Religion in Spain may be on the back foot because of secularisation in the past few decades, but continues to strive vigorously to make its case to the world, unconcerned about being a minority pursuit. There's something which is both ancient and authentic about that.

From Ulldecona, I drove up to La Senia, and from there up the valley to the reservoir which bears the name of the town, but is in the valley leading to the village of Benifassa. Here the magnitude of the drought afflicting Spain takes on dramatic proportions. The bridge belonging to a hamlet submerged beneath a hundred metres of water after the dam was built is now plainly visible. This forested region exhibits a profound pale yellow scar in places where only blue water was visible until a few years ago. 

From the road bridge which crosses the once submerged valley giving access to 'Poblat de Benifassa' - the main village, I saw a deer foraging for new vegetation on the valley floor a hundred metres below in the pale yellow monochrome desert of a waterless reservoir. A crisis for humans maybe, but be a small opportunity for animals meanwhile. 

I wish there had been time to linger, but I had to return and get ready to go out for the evening, for a quiz session at the Vinaròs camp site, just 15 minutes walk from home. It's twenty years since I last took part in a quiz, when I was Rector of Halesowen. Once more tonight, I found myself part of the winning team, and again walked home - this time under a warm clear starry sky - with a bottle of Catalunyan wine as prize, laughing with incredulty at the sheer co-incidence of this occasion.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Ermita de Sant Lucia y Benet

After the Vinaròs Eucharist I drove to Alcossebre for the second Eucharist of the morning, where the congregation is returning to its usual strength after the summer. There were people to greet whom I first met when I arrived, before they went away on holiday. Refreshments were served on the terrace outside the church for the first time since July. Among the visitors was Judy Phillips, the widow of John Phillips, whose church planting ministry in Alcossebre laid the foundations for the Costa Azahar chaplaincy.

Before I headed for home, I drove up the steep winding road to the Ermita di Sant Lucia y Benet, perched on a high promontory overlooking Alcossebre, 312 metres above sea level, with breathtaking views  south along the coast and inland. Visibility was far from perfect as the weather was cool and cloudy.
It was built in the 17th century on a site which may once have been a coastal watchtower. There were only half a dozen cars up there, and one family, enjoying a picnic lunch in the shade of church building. In such a remote place, it must be kept locked. 
The presence of graffiti on its walls suggested good reason for this. Next to the church overlooking the sea is a building on a terrace, which could have been a snack bar, but was empty and in a state of disrepair. I noticed a couple of septic tanks half buried on the hillside just below, and wondered if  was looking at a renovation project which had failed for lack of funds.
This was the first time I could get a good impression of the size of Alcossebre and how it stretches around the bay, although it would all fit into one photograph.
The views inland present a beautiful patchwork of cultivated areas in every direction, intersected by arteries of public transport.
There's also a view up a valley behind the coastal mountain chain, part of the Sierra d'Irta nature reserve, with the castle overlooking Alcala de Chivert barely visible on a distant ridge.
A signpost pointed to the 'Capiletta de Sant Benet', down a steep narrow stony track. I followed this down the mountainside with little idea of how far away it was, still wearing less than adequate Sunday shoes. After about a kilomtre's walk, the track ended at a viewing platform in a small clearing, which contained a modest shrine in honour of Sant Benet (aka St Benedict, Father of Western Monasticism and Patron Saint of Europe), co-patron of the Ermita, along with Saint Lucy, one of the early Roman virgin martyrs whose name is mentioned in the ancient form of a Canon of the Latin Mass.
Benedict began his spiritual journey as a solitary hermit monk at Subiaco, before others began to be attracted to his way of life and request his guidance. No doubt he'd approve of little hard to reach places like this, and recommend them to his followers.

On the road leading to the Ermita at about 250 metres above sea level are two modern urbanizacions with some very smart expensive houses. I wondered if these were exclusive regular residences or holiday homes. It was noticeable that the road quality in the section giving access to these dwellings was greatly inferior to that of sections above and below. I imagine the land owner or the developer of the urbanizacion is meant to be responsible for the section in between, and the road condition is doubtless subject to ongoing dispute with the local Council.

The Paralympics closure ceremony is happening, but I'm not watching. After a few hours spent with nature's mountain grandness, human spectacular events feel contrived and tiresome.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Exiles feast

Still with a heavy heart, I drove to Carrefour this morning and dithered for an hour as I shopped for other things about buying a new camera. The new improved version of the one I have was not in stock, so what I ended up buying was a slightly smaller Sony W690 with approximately the same specifications as the one I lost. The price was about 20% less than I paid for the HX5 over 18 months ago. I paid more for it than it would have cost me in Cardiff Camera Centre, but to have a lighter more pocketable version of the one I lost, now, and without hunting around all day was worth the extra. After all, today is the Feast of the Birth of the Virgin Mary, and I hope there will be something special happening at the Archiprestal Church of St Mary in Vinaròs to require having something more than a camera-phone to hand - we'll see.

A few days ago, I noticed a banner attached to some tall pine trees on the N340, near the town boundary, advertising the presence of a Romanian Orthodox Church the other side of the trees. It wasn't visible or easily accessible from the main road. Driving past the church compound this morning with my window open, I caught the sound of liturgical singing issuing from loudspeakers. Why not? It's a feast day of the Virgin Mary observed as widely in the East as it is in the Latin Church, even if it commemorates an event of which there is no biblical record. It's the ancient church's way of stating dogmatically that the mother of Jesus wasn't a supernatural being, but someone like us, born into a human family, just like her son. It's not about worshipping Mary or regarding her as an extension of the godhead, but celebrating her as one rooted in our common human history, who accepted God's grace in faith and shaped her life by it.

I learned to see it this way as a youthful Anglican student coming into contact with the Russian Orthodox Church when I was nineteen. The Bristol Orthodox pastorate was dedicated in honour of the Nativity of Mary. Some of my earliest ecumenical experiences were in dialogue with Fr Nicholas Behr, the priest there. So with these memories and reflections arising from my unconscious as I heard sacred singing on my way shopping, I resolved to go to the Romanian Church on my way home. I had to park across the main road and dash across in between traffic. 
The brick building isn't very big. Half of it contains the sanctuary, the rest is the nave and a narthex which opens into the grounds, where worshippers may stand during the service on crowded busy days, entering only to greet the icons of Christ and the Mother of God, and receive Holy Communion.

I could still hear singing from the road outside. This time a recording of a man singing an unaccompanied hymn in Romanian - if my memory serves me right this would be an ancient 'Akathist' hymn in honour of the Blessed Virgin - Akathist means 'not sitting', you either stand or kneel. Such hymns are long and require stamina. But that's historic custom. Today it was just background music to what we'd regard as a social event after church. The Orthodox regard this as 'The Liturgy after the Liturgy'. When the communion part of the service finishes, bread, cakes and other food and drink are blessed and shared by the congregation. It varies according to occasion. 

People eat and greet. The priest circulates, though not for small talk. He stops and prays with people. Mothers with newborn babies come and kneel at his feet for thanksgiving prayers after childbirth, and the tiny one is taken into the sanctuary of the church for a blessing. All very informally, normally, life and prayer mingle. I stood inside, on the fringe of the gathering. It wasn't long before a woman presented me with a small plastic cup containing rice soaked in chocolate milk with piece of chocolate on top. Then a man gave me small picnic beaker of wine, then biscuits were offered by small children circulating with trays. No conventional greetings were uttered. The offer of food was its own kind of welcome to a stranger. Just as it was fifty years ago when I first visited Bristol's Orthodox church.

I went into the church to greet the icons, as I learned to do all those years ago. I gave thanks for this community of exiles, living in the most natural the spiritual and social tradition at the heart of their Christianity three thousand kilometres from home. As I left, I felt blessed, moved to tears by this unpretentious communal expression of faith. It reconnected me to experiences and learnings made in my youth which have had untold influence on my life and ministry in all the time I spent living and working among people making themselves a home far away from home.

I walked into town this evening, but apart from the regular Saturday Evening Mass anticipating Sunday, there was no special observance of the Feast of Our Lady's Nativity. Out in a few of the country villages I visited recently, I saw fiestas advertised for today. I really should have planned to go out of town instead of assuming a uniform pattern of celebration. Each community has its own history of observances which stretches back centuries if not millennia, even in an age when secularisation threatens to level everything to dull monochrome uniformity of events.

Friday, 7 September 2012

A sad loss

I spent this morning preparing my Sunday sermon. After lunch there was a movie on TV about Mussolini, and I watched it in an effort to improve my sketchy knowledge of Italian politics before and during the second world war. Then I went out for a bike ride along the roads through the orange groves on the west side of the N340 to enjoy the cool of the evening breeze. 

As I slowly climbed a gentle incline I heard a dull thud close to me, like the sound made as you ride over a stick or something flat lying loose on the road. I didn't stop to look, as I was expending effort going uphill at that moment. And that is how I lost the Sony HX5 camera which goes everywhere with me. It was in a detachable pouch on my belt, not on the back where I usually mount it, but on the front, where the velcro fastening slowly, silently worked loose until it slipped to the ground. The sound ignored was that of the camera bouncing on to the edge of the road in its case. 

I cycled another three kilometers before noticing, then turned back and rode furiously, checking the one place I'd stopped, where the bike chain had jammed, and I'd failed to notice that the camera was no longer where I'd put it. I searched the stretch of road where I recalled the strange sound occurring, but to no avail. It's a road much used by cyclists and horticulturalists white vans, with a low speed limit, so the camera case would have been fairly visible, so I'm pretty certain someone will have picked it up. 

There's nothing on the case to identify its owner. The several hundred pictures on the memory card tell the story of a visitor to the region interested in churches, villages and landscapes. I doubt anyone would be bothered to do the detective work to narrow it down any further than that. Despite the GPS data held by the photos, none of that would lead back to the Vicarage as I haven't taken any photos close to home for a couple of months. I did read of someone in Canada losing a digital camera overboard on holiday and getting it back over a year later because the person who found it rescued photos from the memory card of the ruined camera and published them with a query 'Do you recognise this family' using the Google + social networking facility, eventually producing a response.

Thankfully I haven't lost any photos. After a normal day's camera use, I habitually copy them to my hard drive and upload the best to my Picasa web store, linked to this blog. Now the only camera I have with me is on my phone. It's OK for an emergency, but has no zoom, limited sensitivity and it's so fiddly to use, I don't know how anyone can believe camera-phones will supplant a versatile compact digital. So tonight I'm mourning my loss. It's travelled with me everywhere in the past 18 months. I've taken over three and a half thousand pictures with it, and it still looks as good as new. I hope whoever found it will enjoy it as much as I did.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Holiday shadow

Vinaròs is not so busy now that that holiday season is drawing to a close. Spanish schools don't start back until next week, so it's mainly the German, Dutch and French visitors who've gone. There are still some younger children on the sandy beaches, and their voices can still be heard as they play around swimming pools in our neighbourhood. At the church drop in centre this morning were several English residents just returned from spending the summer in England, exchanging the fierceness of the August heat for British rain.

The news today has been dominated by the shocking murder of four British holidaymakers on a mountain road just above the southern end of Lac d'Annecy in Haute Savoie. When I looked the map of the area, I realised it was a place we knew well, having passed several summers with the children at 'Camping Ideal' a few kilometres from there. The last time was exactly 20 years ago, just after I'd accepted to go to Geneva as chaplain. In fact Bishop John Satterthwaite interviewed me a couple of days before we set out and sent my formal letter of appointment to the campsite address. When we lived in Geneva we'd often drive to Annecy for tea, and on one occasion we cycled right around the lake. This terrible occurrence must cast a dark shadow over visitors and locals alike in this tranquil beautiful region.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Traiguera and Sant Mateu

To avoid overdosing on Paralympic TV broadcasts I escaped into the countryside this afternoon keeping a promise to myself to visit the hill town of Traiguera, alongside the N232 to Morella, which I've passed on several occasions without stopping. It's an interesting place to visit, yet again with a mediaeval church hemmed in by houses in narrow streets, but also significant because it is mentioned in the first century writing of Ptolemy, associated with the ancient Iberian tribe of llercavonia which inhabited this region for centuries even before his day.

Towns and villages in this region seem far apart by criteria set by experience of the overcrowded British Isles, but in many places, theirh known history goes back more than just one millennium. It reflects the size of the territory and lower population density. It also reflects the value of each settlement to those who farmed the land, traded and made their home there over several millenia. The size of the church is an indication of the status of the community in times of past prosperity. 

I couldn't find a notice giving Mass times. Clergy shortages are a fact of life in Spain as elsewhere in Europe I couldn't find a notice giving local Mass times. Clergy shortages are a fact of life in Spain as elsewhere in Europe. If it wasn't for the community good will and appreciation for its heritage, such edifices would be ruinous and a social liability today. I can't help thinking there's a message to the inheritors of the Gospel message which is embedded in the value given to our common past - but we have yet to decode it properly.

From Traiguera, I drove across country to Sant Mateu (or San Mateo, take your pick), a small town rather than a village and named after its patron saint. It's larger than Traiguera and has an an industrial estate attached to its ring road. Signposts for San Mateu are evident on the coastal road from the outskirts of Castellon to Vinaros, but is this just to do with its economy? When I arrived there I discovered that its beautiful 14th century Valencian gothic church was designated a National Monument as far back as 1931, and justifiably so. 

The west doorway is of the simplest romanesque character with carved heads on its pillars.
The hundred foot bell tower, stands apart from the church. The plain vaulted sanctuary and nave in pale grey limestone is worthy of a Cistercian foundation. The interior lancet windows are 20th century, as is the liturgical furnishing of the nave - just beautiful to look at. I didn't mind paying to get in and go up the tower. So few churches are open during the afternoon in this part of the world, sad to say. 
It's such an inspiration to see a building of this quality so well cared for - and, there's an organ building project, set to install a new-build instrument in a side chapel, interesting in its own right, as it contains 14th century inscriptions to commemorate dialogue between rabbis of Tortosa and clerics of Sant Mateu. The view from the bell tower was spectacular.
On the return journey, anxious to re-fuel with filling stations few and far between out in the countryside, I drove through the Sierra del Maestre, past the hill towns of Cervera del Maestre and Calig, heading for Benicarló where I was finally able to fill up on the last leg of my journey. This is Calig from outside with the Montsia mountains in the background on the other side of the plain.