Friday, 31 August 2012

Webcam woes

This morning I accompanied Les and Brenda on a trip to Alcossebre to take Ray's car to his place and visit El Camino drop in centre for an hour of meeting and greeting. Afterwards, I took Les and Brenda home, and spent an hour trying to get Skype working on Les' desktop computer. Restoring sound wasn't a problem, but getting a standard Logitech web cam to work was the stumbling block, as Windows 7 couldn't find the correct drivers. Things like that have become so much easier to achieve in recent years. It was most annoying not to complete a relatively simple task. 

The rest of the day was spent cooking, writing a sermon for Sunday, talking on Skype and catching up on the Paralympics. I'm thankful Skype works so well on my little laptop. It's such an invaluable resource for keeping in touch when family and friends are spread far and wide.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Hospital visit

Last night Brenda phoned to tell me about the hospitalisation of Ray, a member of the congregation at Alcossebre, who is a choir conductor, keen on church music. We met at the El Camino drop in a couple of weeks ago. Earlier this week he was referred by his local medical centre for tests at Vinaros hospital, and this led to his admission for treatment in Castellon, where he was taken by ambulance, leaving his car in the Vinaros hospital car park.
After this morning's drop in session at 'Portico' I accompanied Les and Brenda in retrieving his car and moving it to their place for safe keeping. Then we drove together to visit him in Castellon, using a newly built highway which by passes the congested N340 for twenty miles, rising up into the hills behind the coastal plain in a spectacular way. The by-pass links the city with a recently completed regional airport serving Castellon. It has yet to come into use however, as it has been refused an operating license. Somehow, what project designers and constructors created doesn't meet airport safety requirements. How could they be so careless? There's no queue of budget airlines bidding for landing rights here. I bet lawsuits surrounding this fiasco are a major industry. At least the new road shortens the journey time between hospitals significantly.

Ray has had a distressing time getting appropriate treatment, but now he has the medical attention he needs, and his friends are rallying to support him. It's going to take a few days before he starts feeling well. At the moment he is just tired and weak. At least we were able to sort out a few practical things for him, and pray with him during our visit. He's in a fifth floor room with a spectacular view across the north of the city and the mountains beyond. I reckon he'll appreciate that as he recovers.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Strange swim

Cooler and cloudy is the best way to describe today, an occasion to open all the doors and windows and let fresh air flow through the house from top to bottom. This afternoon I cycled into town, and swam from the beach there. It's only the second time since I've been here. Swimming isn't one of my favoured  activities, but I felt I needed a different kind of exercise today, and the sea here is comfortably warm after months of high air temperatures. 

I swam for a quarter of an hour, and as I did, I kept getting an elusive sensation in my hands and arms as if I was being touched by something in the water. I looked out for little fishes and seaweek, but there was nothing visible. I kept swimming until at last I something passed through my fingers substantial enough to catch hold of. It was a formless blob of clear gelatinous substance - but what was it? A jellyfish or part of a jellyfish? Or some other kind of marine pollution to add to the ubiquitous tiny fragments of plastic bag now choking the world's oceans?

Needless to say, I didn't stay in the sea much longer, but cycled home and cooked a paella for the first time since I've been here, using a new non-stick pan I bought on my way home yesterday. And now, the Paralympics opening ceremony .....

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Delta Rice Harvest

A drive to El Perello this morning to attend a local church committee meeting, mostly taken up with plans for the Harvest Festival celebration and supper. It seems this is something that our Spanish hosts at St Ioan Bautista Parish Church, L'Ampolla take an interest in, as it's not part of their custom. Since my last visit Brian has put up the new Bona Fe sign above the door way. Putting the sign up was, apparently far less challenging than getting the printed sign off its backing material and on to the supporting board, but a fine job has been done, nevertheless.
After the meeting, I drove home via the Delta, first visiting Camarles, a village which is on a ridge less than forty feet above the level of the sea plain, allowing views over a great area of the Delta, though not quite as far as the sea.
The colour of the rice fields let by the afternoon sun is hauntingly beautiful. The plants retain their green colour, but the rice itself goes pale yellow, giving the overall colour an infinitely variable texture, which the camera cannot really do justice to.
I drove on past Deltebre, the main town of the region, strung out along the banks of the river Ebre. On the roadside out of town I got my first glimpse of rice harvesting, just starting.
The huge mowing machines are built to drive through a metre of mud as they mow. A couple of farm labourers accompany the vehicle on foot to trouble shoot any problems arising from stalks bunching up and jamming the rotary blades. I watched them emerge for a break. They were shirtless, and the shorts one of them was wearing were covered in grey silt up to the waist. He jumped into the irrigation canal with relief to wash it off. Not a pleasant job, even in the heat. Only the gulls, egrets and terns seemed to be enjoying a good day out.
I drove on to Riumar, and saw the new Deltebre municipal marina for leisure craft and fishing boats. All along the river bank here are boats of various sizes offering differently themed excursions down river as far as the sea - a great way to see the wild-life above and below the water-line. I parked just outside the nature reserve and followed a well groomed trail along the water's edge. There are two tall observation platforms, an iron one of 10 metres and an ingeniously designed wooden one of 15 metres, which reminded me of those school book drawings of a Babylonian ziggurat.
As I was about to climb and take in the view, I had a welcome text message from Clare back in Cardiff to say that her cataract operation this morning had been successful. How much she'd love this view, and now enjoy it that much better. Happily I'd uploaded them so that she could view then on-line just before we Skyped after supper.

The views in every direction are spectacular, but it was difficult to capture a sense of the vast open space surveyed by the moving eye. I watched a flock of a dozen black herons fly across the river mouth, but they were too far away to photograph. Just below the horizon, a couple of kilometres away, the waves of the Mediterranean fall on a sand bar where the river enters the sea. It's a such a complex and diverse landscape, perhaps the best way to enjoy it would be by hot air balloon.
I admit to being less than pleased with the photos I took with my Sony HX5 - most of them using the wide angle lens configuration with zoom. Perhaps that's pushing it to the extreme of its effectiveness as a camera, I'd love to do better.

Monday, 27 August 2012

Leisure space

After a day of inertia I decided to go for a bike ride. Neither of the tyres on the bike I've been using so far would inflate to the right pressure. I tried the other bike, but discovered that the frame was too small to be a comfortable ride for someone my height, but as its tyres were sound and the right size, I decided to swap the wheels over, and deal with repairing tyres at leisure. I've not had much experience at fixing bikes. We couldn't afford one when I was young, so I bought my first second hand bike when I was an undergraduate with a proper grant and a scholarship, back in the good ol' days of state education. To my surprise, the wheel swap-over went without incident, so I rode the coastal path to Les Cases d'Alcanar and back in a pleasant evening breeze - nothing too challenging, an 18km round trip, but it left me more tired than I expected. That's what happens when regular exercise slips down the priority list.
It's hard to imagine this vast long beach ever being full of people. I wonder if there may be a particular class of holiday makers that doesn't want sandy beaches, with their miles of sun-shades and frenetic youthful activities, preferring, rather than getting sand in their eyes? 

Over the weekend, I came across a BBC news article about an Italian sandy beach resort of Riviera Romagnola on the northern Adriatic coast between Ravenna and Rimini where there are 140,000 beach umbrellas in 110km. People go there not to swim - the water isn't that pleasant - but to socialise and amuse themselves. It made me think of Peñíscola, but that's altogether more classy, and the sea is nice to swim in. Many holidaymakers come from densely packed high rise cities to an equally packed seaside. It seems to be their precondition for having a good time.

I remember once looking at pictures of people cross country skiing with Laura my Italian secretary. Photos of the northern Alps portrayed individuals and small groups making their ways in the vast outdoors. One photo of the Italian Alps showed a huge crowd of skiers all starting off at the same time, and it wasn't a race. I remarked on it, and Laura commented "Well, that's just how we like it to be."  It takes all sorts to make a world. Others like to have space, to spread out for their recreation and bunch up only with those whom they choose to be with. I guess that's where pebbly beaches and vast snowy wildernesses come into their own. 

Interesting to reflect that the semitic origins of the word 'comfort' means 'to make space for'.

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Blessed re-assurance

After yesterday afternoon's rain, last night was pleasantly cool with a gentle breeze necessitating use of a pyjama jacket and sheet cover to sleep comfortably for the first time since I arrived. First sign of autumn on the way I wonder? This morning I was at Vinaròs, then Alcossebre celebrating the Eucharist preaching a sermon revised in the light of the news about Fr Clem to disappointed congregations, wondering what's going to happen now to maintain continuity of ministry. In fact, the Sunday after I leave, the Area Dean will come for a united chaplaincy Eucharist and congregational meeting. It's the date when he was meant to be licensing Fr Clem, so arrangements for his travel and weekend stay were sensibly retained.

Just as I was about to start the Alcossebre service I was accosted at the sacristy door by a woman whose halting Spanish made it difficult for me to establish what she wanted. Then others appeared, an entire family, and I tried to explain that I was not the regular Parish Priest who'd already gone, and that this was an English service. One of the daughters tried to explain their problem in halting English, and then I heard others speaking French behind her. Relief ! In a few moments I established they were all disconcerted by what they thought were paranormal phenomena in their apartment. They wanted a priest to go around to bless the place and sprinkle a little holy water.

Although I'd fielded the pastoral problem, I couldn't deal with it, nor felt I could, as this would be what the Parish Priest would normally deal with. Instead, I made an attempt to reassure them that however real these things may be, there was nothing that could harm them. The worst thing was their own fear. The most important thing is to remember that as baptized people they share in Christ's victory over evil, and can claim his protection. I reminded them how to bless themselves and the rooms of the apartment with the sign of the cross and prayer, and encouraged them to think they could do without a priest for this. The penny seemed to drop, for they went away smiling wanly, leaving me to get on with the Eucharist.

My view is that you don't tell people there's nothing to be afraid of in inexplicable events, but recognise there could be a good reason for them to be anxious. Then, remind them of Christ's victory over evil, of  perfect love which casts out fear, and encourage them to claim their baptismal birth-right with simple confidence in prayers they know. It's not so much 'blessed assurance' as the blessing of re-assurance. On times everyone can get rattled and un-nerved by events, and a little forgetful of the fact that God is in the thick of it with us, waiting to be asked to give what He wants to give. Although that little intervention before the service seems bizarrely different on the surface, what I had to say to that family was much the same as what I had to say to worshippers. It's the Good News, after all.

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Riu Cervol country explored

This afternoon, with Sunday preparation behind me and weather that was cooler and cloudy, I drove inland to explore the countryside to the west  of L'Ermita de Vinaròs, following minor roads first alongside the riu Cervol, and then following roads on impulse, only vaguely sure where they would lead, into territory where olive groves are more common than orange orchards and the soil appears more pink than brown. I wandered for ages in the general direction of the mountains. Villages, and signposts to villages seemed few and far between, away from the main highways, I hardly saw another soul, driving for three quarters of an hour. The roads and landscape generally give the impression of being well cared for. All is given over to farming, with the exception of the Cala Montero golf resort, which appears a gleaming new urban complex surrounded by manicured greensward in the midst of this vast agricultural plain. The incongruity is quite striking. I wonder if it profits more per hectare of land occupied than traditional farm land? Eventually I came to an intersection with a battered old sign pointing southwards to Canet lo Roig, and I took the road, not knowing what to expect. I stopped to look at the map and with difficulty located the place. A team of cyclists came in the opposite direction, up a long road, giving me time to get out my camera and snap them, which brought a thumbs up from one of the riders. 
Before arriving at the village, astride a hilltop, the road crosses a deep barranco flanked by a spectacular sand coloured cliff. Although I'd lost it several times in my meanderings, this was still the riu Cervol I'd started out following.
These ancient dry water courses can be broad and deep, filled with rich vegetation. The largest contain orchards, but most partly, cultivation with exposed bedrock is impracticable, although it does provide a source of stone for attractive dry wall enclosures. There are more dry ravines closer to the mountains, feeding into the larger river beds, like veins supplying an artery. They bring elements of rough texture and dramatic wildness into an otherwise ordered agrarian landscape.
Canet lo Roig is a farming village of less than nine hundred souls, set on a low hill against a backdrop of mountains. Streets are still decked with festive bunting from their week long Assumption fiesta. As well as olive trees, almond and carob trees are cultivated hereabouts. Like many similar places it suffered de-population, and its homes sold for holiday accommodation. Recently however has seen an influx of Romanian settlers to work on the land. Even a modestly poor standard of living here is an improvement on peasant life back home.
As elsewhere throughout the region, the village church has fortress like high walls, domed nave with tiled roof and tall steeple, surrounded on all sides by four storey houses, packed into narrow streets, unusually without opening out directly to the main square and the Ajuntament.

From here I drove north across the plain to find La Senia, a town seven times larger than Canet lo Roig, located a few kilometres from foot of the limestone massif of Ports de Tortosa-Beseit which rises dramatically a thousand metres above the plain, presenting a marvellously jagged western skyline as a backdrop to the town.
The riu Senia which gives its name to the town rises in the mountains and the dry river bed runs at the foot of the cliff on which the town is built. The approach from the south is quite spectacular. Sitting on the north bank of the river, La Senia is the southernmost town of Catalunya.
The typical mediaeval church here does open on to the main square. Preparations were under way to stage an evening festive event there. Because of its location the town has since ancient times been a stopping place in the movement of people and animals between mountains and plain. There was even a strategic aerodrome here during the Spanish Civil War, built by the Republicans, later it was taken by the Nationalists and used as a base for the infamous 'Condor Legion' of Luftwaffe volunteers. I imagine the town was fought over and suffered much. Olive trees now cover the site of the airfield, as they did for centuries before its construction. It's not so easy to cover the painful memories of that era, however.

The  return journey to Vinaròs only took half an hour on the quiet main road. It rained briefly, only the second time since I've been here, conveying the blessing of fresh cooler air to moderate the heat of the day. A new series of 'Inspector Montalbano' started on BBC4 - one of my must-watch entertainments, exploring the lighter as well as the darker side of Sicilian life with restaurant and cuisine cameos as a regular plot features. Preparation for my forthcoming Advent locum duties I call it.

Friday, 24 August 2012

Maintenance day

I drove up to El Perello this morning to visit the Bona Fe church drop in centre there, aware conversations about the chaplaincy news might be necessary, especially as there is no Sunday service in L'Ampolla this Sunday. Walking to Bona Fe after parking the car, I noticed several on the main street several pastelerías with chairs and tables in the main street, with conversation as much in English as Spanish. Carol was looking after the place, and her husband Brian was making preparations to put up the long awaited drop in centre sign over the door. I met a couple hailing from the south eastern valleys of Wales, who've retired here. It was lovely to hear their accents, as they originated just a valley away from where I was born.

Afterwards, I visited Isa and John again. This time, after lunch I did some update maintenance tasks on Isa's Windows XP computer, installed anti-virus software and Skype, and showed her how to make calls, and I'd promised on my last visit. I enjoy the pastoral challenge of making sense of computers' operating quirks and deficiencies to those who aren't well versed in technical matters. Admittedly, the problem with getting older is retaining the information, whether understood or not. The less frequently you use a machine the harder it is to remember. It's a year or so since I last worked on a 2005 XP laptop, so simply recalling some procedures as well as explaining them took a while. I'd forgotten how time consuming machine minding can be with a decent older machine, even with a fair speed broadband connection delivered by satellite to a house in the countryside. By the time all was accomplished, the sun was heading toward the horizon, and it was dusk when I arrived back at the Vicarage. 

I supped watching a ludicrous sci-fi movie about the next supposed generation of intelligent war planes. An excess of CGI animation and special effects to no good purpose, and an implausible plot made this an utter waste of time. Just as bad as machine minding while XP does fifty Windows updates.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Unexpected news

My visit to the Vinaròs church drop-in centre this morning brought some news, which caught everybody unawares. It had just been learned, that Fr Clem and his wife have had to cancel all the arrangements made to come here in September, for personal reasons. What this means for the immediate future of the chaplaincy ministry now has to be reconsidered, with an extended period of locum pastors. This is a disappointing blow for everyone looking forward to a new beginning for the church's mission here this autumn. Now it will be a challenge to the resilience of all three communities.

Originally, I was going to stay until the end of November, but once the appointment had been made, I made arrangements to go home the day before Fr Clem was due to arrive and resume work as a voluntary tutor at St Michael's College. Although I planned to be away for the whole of the autumn term, circumstances in College changed over the summer vacation with the announcement of the departure of the Vice-Principal, Dr Stephen Roberts. Replacing him will take time, so there'll be gaps to fill, and maybe a new team member needing support. I was glad to be in a position to help out in tackling the change there.

The most I can do now is offer to stay on for the two Sundays remaining until students arrive for induction week. And pray for a creative solution to emerge.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Listening to the sea

A quiet day, avoiding the heat, writing next Sunday's sermon, working out my availabilities for next term's college chapel duty rota at St Michael's, and waiting until it was cool enough to cycle into town for food shopping. I guess, no matter how easy travel can be (and yesterday's trip was really good) nowadays it takes me another day to recover, catch up on things and adjust to a different pattern of life. When dusk fell however, I was back on the beach again, listening to the irregular rhythm of waves crashing on the pebbles - such tranquilising music. 

A few months ago a professional sound technician talked on BBC Radio Four about the uniqueness of the acoustic profile of waves arriving on beaches anywhere in the world. He played some examples and talked about their differences. It has made me listen more intently to the sea ever since. Except last weekend, when the tide was so far out, the sound of  tiny waves lapping the estuarine mud was inaudible from where we stood on Penarth promenade, 300 metres away.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Comings and goings

Yesterday, while Clare did some errands, I spent the morning updating various computers at home, knowing how much machine minding this would entail after nearly two months away. In the afternoon we went to friend Andrea's seventieth birthday party at her chalet down on the Lavernock Point holiday park. It took us ages to find the place as I made a directional error when we arrived in nearby Penarth, so we ended up visiting and enquiring after her on two other sites before finding the right one. Fortunately the weather was good, so wandering through the lanes of coastal South Glamorgan was not unpleasant, even if slightly annoying.

This morning, we woke up early, before the alarms went off, and after breakfast Clare drove me to Cardiff Central station for a seven thirty train to Bristol. The 'Bristol Flyer' airport bus connection came within five minutes and in a surprisingly uncongested rush hour run, we arrived in twenty minutes. By ten to nine I'd cleared security and was dozing in the departure lounge until the Barcelona flight was called. This took off punctually and arrived five minutes early, giving me enough time to get from the arrival area in Terminal 2 sector B to the RENFE station - a fifteen minute brisk walk. With only hand luggage, there was no delay, and this was essential given my plan to catch a three o'clock from Barcelona Sants station. I still had a twenty minute wait, and the train was packed when it pulled out, making me more than glad I wasn't pulling a case through the crowd when I got off the train.

With some trial and error I found correct the 'book on the day' ticket booths (#25-30). Only 'Preferente' tickets were left (1st class), and rather than wait several hours for a train with 'Turista' seats available, I upgraded my 14 euro ticket for another 20 euros. The total round trip for a trip equivalent to the Bristol-London journey still only cost a total 48 euros. You'd be lucky to get an equivalent second class single trip for that amount of money on British Rail. It was well worth it. The seating is comfortable and not cramped, the trains are smooth and swift, stopping three times before reaching Vinaròs in one hour and fifty minutes. This was a real treat to conclude my long weekend at home.

Michael picked me up at the station and handed back my keys, reporting that Fr Hywel had got away early this morning, and would be in the air on the way back to Cardiff as we spoke. Then I received a text message from Kath to say she'd was on her way home following their flight home from Alicante. We must have been in the air at the same time.

Now all that remains is to get acclimatised again - I had to wear a pullover for half a day when I got back home, while I adjusted to the change in temperature and humidity. It didn't take me long to weary of slate grey skies however, so it's great to be back under blue skies again.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Weekend on home turf

We had a quietly pleasant catch-up day yesterday, including lunch in Penarth and a stroll on the pier and the promenade. The Newport town band was playing beautifully outside the pier entrance, and the sun made an occasional appearance between the clouds. The August moon rising to fullness in the middle of the night means that the tide is out at its furthest point currently, a good hundred yards out beyond the pier end, exposing every submersible sandbank and mud-flat, the length and breadth of the estuary, seventeen metres below the highest tide level. It's so different from the Mediterranean, which barely rises and falls a metre without a backing wind. There's such a wonderful rich difference between the Delta de l'Ebre and the Severn Estuary with their hugely diverse ecosystems. What they have in common though are the species of migratory birds that can make a home in both places.

This morning I drove up the A470 and into Merthyr Vale on the slow minor road at Quaker's Yard, following the river Taff northwards, towards its source in the Brecon Beacons.

The main highway by-passes all the villages for five miles above the valley, rising high along the steep green hillside contours, sparing the inhabitants the noise of one of Wales' busiest roads. My first stop was at the St Mary & Holy Innocents Parish Church Nixonville, just outside Aberfan. It was rebuilt with a modern design in the 1960's following the demolition of the original building due to subsidence. I believe the Holy Innocents were added to the dedication in the wake of the tragic collapse of the coal tip on to a school and houses in 1967, killing 116 children and 28 adults. 

The last time I preached here was 27 years ago when I was working for USPG. Taff Merthyr colliery was still in operation, just across the road from the church, and the river Taff ran past behind the church. Then, it was black with coal dust and lifeless as a result of pollution. Today salmon and trout can be fished along the river's length. There are herons, and otter sightings have been reported near Aberfan, competing with local anglers. The colliery was closed in the late eighties. The site has been cleared and leveled. It was zoned for housing, but none has been built, so at the moment all you can see is acres and acres of coarse grass, a field of pale gold fringed with trees. A pleasure to the eye in a quiet verdant valley. 

There were fifteen at St Mary's. Afterward, for the Eucharist of the day at St John the Baptist Troedyrhiw a couple of miles up the road, thirty were present. They were friendly and hospitable with a cup of tea after both services. It was lovely to hear people talk and joke together in the accent I grew up with in another mining village Ystrad Mynach, not far away in the next valley. St John's is a larger building built further up the hillside in the mid 19th century. It has an interesting Victorian organ which, like the building itself has been renovated since I was last here, a credit to the commitment of congregations and pastors. 

Merthyr Vale suffers from high long term unemployment. Anyone who does work must commute to Cardiff, Pontypridd or Methyr Tydful, a town which was as big and important as Cardiff in the heyday of Victorian iron and coal. Now it struggles to survive economically, and suffers population drift, as do all the former mining valleys. The imaginative development of holiday accommodation and leisure activities cannot really fill the void left by heavy industry, despite the vast improvement of infrastructure since the pits and iron works closed.

My round trip to take these two services was much the same as it has been these last few months in Costa Azahar, where some church goers also travel considerable distances to worship. The majority of the congregations in Merthyr Vale belong to their villages and are deeply rooted in them, although the presence of people with non local accents was also detectable, families moving to the region to work, rather than retire. In both settings, it's people's dedication and the bonds of mutual regard and affection which make them alive and active as members of the Body of Christ. 

This morning Fr Hywel replaced me at St John the Baptist L'Ampolla, as I was ending my morning at St John the Baptist Troedyrhiw, Merthyr Vale. Churches dedicated to the Forerunner are to be found everywhere, co-incidence weighted by frequency. In so many and different situations of Christian witness, all we can and must do is prepare the way for the Lord to come. Just like St John.

Friday, 17 August 2012

Home for the weekend

I admit that I was a bit nervous about making the journey home for this weekend. I didn't sleep well, and only remembered to set my phone alarm for six at three fifteen in the morning. Fr Hywel conscientiously set his alarm, but forgot to change the time on his phone, so it bleeped then we were driving to the station for the ten past seven train for Barcelona.

It's a RENFE stopping train that diverts from the main line on a 'spur' line to Tortosa, and this adds an hour to the journey. The train leaving an hour later and arriving much at the same time cost nearly twice the price, but the early start was worth the effort to see this other section of the rail network, even if I was nodding off every now and then as we travelled. I noticed that several of the stations in the first part of the route, before the railway begins to follow the coastline beyond L'Ampolla, are well outside towns, and station signs carry the names of neighbouring places served - even Vinarós for that matter, unlike other coastal towns on this route has its station outside the main conurbation. The further north you go, the more the railway hugs the shore-line and holiday resorts and occasionally, where cliffs descend into the sea, even hovers above it.

The further north we travelled, the more travellers got on until the train was packed, standing room only. One inexplicably curious thing I noticed was that for every man there seemed to be ten women on the train. When we came into the Llobregat coastal plain, the airport control tower was visible on the horizon, closer to the sea beyond many square miles of market gardens, with their rich dark brown fertile soil. El Prat airport and the commercial zone area around it were constructed on land reclaimed from less productive salt marshes.

The train runs right into the south eastern corner of the Barcelona to Sants station. I quickly found a ticket machine for the airport shuttle train, with its instructions in Catalan (I couldn't find the language option button). Thanks to the universality of the machine's operating system and its user interface, I had no difficulty getting what I needed, and as luck would have it, boarded an airport train which immediately left for the 17 minute journey to Terminal B.

I was amused during the journey to hear the strains of an accordeon playing 'Besame Mucho', and observe the amused smiles of other passengers, as the busker, an older man, moved down the car soliciting donations of appreciation, oblivious to the fact that everyone has heard it before and can live without it as they strive to chat to travelling companions. It reminded me of walking down Trinity Street in Cardiff, and Geneva tram rides. 'Besame Mucho' seems to be the universal anthem of enterprising unlicensed buskers wherever they are, scraping a living as they dodge enforcement personnel. 

It's a quarter of an hour's walk from the train station to the check-in through sections A and B of Terminal 2, and the last part of the route to section C where EasyJet has its base is badly signposted in comparison to the others. All that was left to do was doze and wait three hours until the flight was called. The flight and connections the other end were just right, and I was home for the weekend by half past five.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Out and about

Fr Hywel and I visited the railway station this morning and booked tickets for our forthcoming journeys, then went on into town to the church drop in morning. We lunched at el Garrofer on their famous Thursday menu del dia, starring Valencian paella, then drove up to L'Ampolla, so that I could show Hywel how to find the church, in preparation for this Sunday coming, and get used to driving the car.

On the way back we went out across the Delta de l'Ebre as far as the sand bar, and paddled in the lagoon. Over the past couple of weeks since my last visit, some rice fields have started to turn a pale yellow, while others remain different shades of green. I was annoyed that I  forgot to take my camera, as it's now becoming a beautiful patchwork of colours. It must look marvellous in the autumn. We ended a hot day with an evening swim in the lukewarm waters of the town's main beach before supper.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Assumption fiesta Vinaròs

At last this morning, the second bike I acquired came into good use. Fr. Hywel and I cycled around Vinaròs,  for a couple of hours to get him started on finding his way around. We ended up at the Archiprestal church just after midday, where we found a couple of hundred people worshipping in the Mass for the Assumption of our Lady. The day was marked by the fact that on the right at the front near the sanctuary, a glass coffin was placed on a high bier, containing an effigy of our Lady at rest. As this church is dedicated in honour of the Assumption, the image on the east wall above and behind the altar is of the soul of Mary being received into heaven and crowned by angels, so the temporary image of the day is linked with the other permanent one. During the service 'Nearer my God to thee' was sung in Spanish. Fr. Hywel and I hummed along, bass and tenor.

I picked up from the announcements at the end of the service that there'd be a procession after the evening Mass. We resolved to return and join in, and so we did.

We walked back into town arriving punctually to a cacophany of bells being rung from the tall fortress like church tower. The place was full, about 500 people in all, and more outside, where a band of drummers and shawm players played traditional folk tunes. There were four 12 foot tall mannequins, and eight life sized ones each playing large castanets as they did a stately dance in front of the large figures.

The sung Mass with a homily and several hundred communicants was over in 55 minutes - impressive - and then the congregation filed out and the procession formed in the plaza outside. It started with the folk performers, followed by a dozen young girls in black lace bedecked with high mantilla head dress and sashes, bearing flowers - symbolic mourners. They'd been sitting next to the glass coffin during the Mass. Then came our Lady's glass coffin, (the beir was on wheels, pushed by just four men), then the clergy, accompanied by a group of women women d'un certain age, as the French say, and then among the throng of parishioners, the smartly attired members of the town council, each wearing a discreet lapel badge with the town's coat of arms. At the end, a fine town marching band with reed and brass instruments. Over half of the musicians were under 20 - not surprising when Vinaròs has its own music school on the promenade.

The procession did a circuit of streets in the main pedestrian shopping area adjacent to the church before returning for the final devotions. It was very much a local community event - not done for the tourist market, but because of a particular relationship between the faith community and the traditional culture of wider civil society, in which there's a special role for everyone at different stages in their lives. The priest who had presided at the two masses of the day, with the backing of older clergy, looked so young that he might only have been ordained within the last couple of years. Important for him to have that experience of holding together a major event of great value and meaning here, as in many other Spanish towns.

You can see all the photos I took of the procession here

A day in the car

Another trip to El Prat airport yesterday, to collect Fr. Hywel Davies, flying in from Cardiff to cover services for me this weekend when I make a brief return trip home. The Vueling flight from Cardiff International Airport is due to arrive early evening, but I left mid-morning to allow me to call in on Isa and John in their place out in the olive groves near El Perello. I left them at half two with plenty of time to spare, so I took the N340 through the Penendes wine growing region again, this time in the opposite direction. The traffic wasn't nearly as bad this time, perhaps because I was on the road during siesta time. I arrived at Terminal 2 just before five and visited the EasyJet desk to see if I could change my return flight for next week, having botched the booking and committed myself unwittingly to an overnight stay in Barcelona, due to lack of late transport in a southerly direction. Making the change was easy, but cost me as much as a night in a hotel with meals and subway fares on top. Never mind, now I'll be home on the same day that Fr Hywel leaves, and I feel more comfortable about that. 

With my mission accomplished so quickly I had two hours to spare, so I drove around the commercial zone adjacent to the airport, and failing to find an air conditioned shopping centre to bemuse me, I found free parking in a shady spot and took a late siesta until it was time to make my way to Terminal 1 to collect Fr. Hywel. By eight we were on the road, and arrived home in three and a half hours. A decent journey, except that roads and for that matter road signs for most of the distance were unlit, making it quite demanding on the eyes. Having prepared a meal before we left, we were able to sit outside in the cool and eat supper Spanish style, until well after midnight.

Monday, 13 August 2012

Alcanar by a different route

Today's been slightly cooler here in Vinaròs, but still horrible humid. Still rather be here than in Britain waking up to the sound of public back-slapping, and well intended reflections in the wake of the Olympic closure ceremony. This endless wittering of the 'didn't we do well' kind gave a strong incentive to switch off the news and get on with preparing next Sunday's sermon early, as I have a busy week - first fetching Fr Hywel from his flight, to stay here for the week, then getting myself back to Wales for a Olympic free long weekend at home.

By lunchtime the sermon was done, so I went into town during siesta and shopped for fruit and veg in the Mercadona to prepare for the coming week. After I'd unpacked the shopping, stowed everything and had a drink, it was already six o'clock. Rather than slump in front of the news, I went for a bike ride, this time following the unmetalled road running alongside the Barranco de la Barbiguera inland. At the crossing with the N340, the unmetalled road dips down into the river bed and follows it for some distance until it rises up and weaves through the orange orchards. 

A kilometre further on it meets one of the minor roads  linking Alcanar and Vinaròs, near the point where the road itself dips down and fords the river in the rainy season. Throughout its length, the barranco is lush and green with tall bamboo and flowering oleander bushes, suggesting that water cannot be far below the surface here. Perhaps when it rains hard in winter, water re-surfaces and brings a whole lot of new life to this river bed. The one local barranco with standing water on the surface at this time of year is the riu Senia, at Vinaròs' Valencia-Catalunya border.

I cycled to the outskirts of Alcanar, seen here below, then returned by another minor road taking me past more orchards and several tree nurseries.  Here and there across the plain are industrial sheds containing animals to judge by the stench - sheep, goats, pigs, chickens are all raised hereabouts. This is very much food production country.

I noticed too for the first time the rather plain unimposing structures housing pumps to deliver water from artesian wells (I think) direct to the fields  by means of ubiquitous black plastic irrigation pipes in use nowadays.

The road led back to the N340 junction where the road crosses the aforementioned riu Senia. This meant that I had to cycle a kilometre along the generous hard shoulder, with big lorries whizzing by.  Many cyclists use this road, so that's why the hard shoulder is wide. It was a little nerve-wracking, but for my trouble I got a photo of a defaced road sign on the Valencia-Catalunya border which I spotted in my first few days here. It so reminded me of Wales, and issues of identity politics which are now a vigorous component of debate in many corners of our grand European Union.

I crossed over the N340 at the point where the coast road along the Costa Norte begins, and cycled along the cliff path most of the way back to Zona Saldonar. A satisfying round trip of about 15km on quite a pleasant early evening.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

A fine day

Eucharist this morning, first at Vinaròs, and then Brenda travelled with me for the service at Alcossebre. We were so busy chatting when we got out of the car that I forgot to put any money in the parking meter. I remembered this finally, just as I was about the begin the Eucharistic prayer, which was the worst time to come to my senses. Anyway, I got a parking ticket, plus a little envelope and a message whose words I could understand, but required a little help to make sense of. Fortunately others at church were familiar with the procedure. 

If you press a yellow button and put small penalty sum €4.25 into any ticket machine in town, it prints you a receipt with 'fine cancellation' written on it. This goes into the envelope with the parking ticket, which is then posted into a small letter box atop the machine. This is all you pay if you pay the same day. Pay any time after that over a month and the fine is €20. Pay after a month and it's €40. It's quite a decent system really, giving an incentive to rectify your mistake speedily. I imagine it saves the town council a tidy sum in fine collection administration too.

I had it in the back of my mind as we were arriving a little early, to drop off Brenda and move the car up a couple of streets to where parking is unregulated. Thursday last, I found a free spot which remained in the shade throughout my stay. I'll have to be more alert next time.

In the evening I watched most of the Olympic closing ceremony. It wasn't really my kind of spectacle with far too much emphasis on British fashion and pop music performances from several generations of star musicians. Although the whole spectacle was brilliantly organised and demonstrated mastery of all kinds of electronic technologies, there wasn't enough celebration of Britain's new generation of science and technology innovation, delivering so much more to the world than ephemeral consumer music and clothes. Anyway, I'm glad its all over. The sport was thrilling and inspiring at every level, but the level of  media commentary throughout was banale, formulaic and repetitive. Hardly a great showcase for the BBC which showed the way how to broadcast to the world in the first place.

Only two weeks to the paralympics now, which promises to be equally if not more inspiring and thrilling to watch. It's only the drivel from the commentators I dread - what sort of job will they make of avoiding unintentionally patronising remarks or attitudes, and what sort of row and reprisals there will be if anyone makes a boo-boo live on air.

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Fortaleza de Peñíscola on St Clare's Day

After lunch today, I walked to the bus station to catch the bus to Peñíscola, a fifty minute journey through Benicarló. I was impressed by how many people used the bus for part of the route, given I was travelling at siesta time, and even more impressed by how cheap the fare was, €1.55 for a 20km journey. The bus dropped me off at the end of Playa Norte closest to town, leaving me to walk along the promenade to the old town. Near the promenade in several places along the beach, there were elaborate sandcastles, built in a range of architectural and mythical themes. I've seen a few on the main Vinaròs beach too. Sand sculpture seems to be something of a feature in these parts.

Every way you walk through the streets up to the citadel you pass restaurants of every kind and at this time of day they are packed with holidaymakers eating lunch. The air is delightfully, enticingly charged with the mouthwatering aromas of food being freshly prepared, and there's a buzz of conversation from open air dining tables, Spanish, French, German, occasionally English. It's attractive, despite being very crowded. Because it was lunchtime, the flow of visitors into the citadel was much reduced, and this made for a relaxed inspection of a remarkable and well looked after collection of historic buildings. When I paid the modest admission charge and said I was retired, the lady taking the money said that I had to be over sixty. After I took my hat off and announced that I was 67 and thanked her for the complement. We laughed together as we parted.

Inside the main entrance, rooms are devoted to historical and audio visual presentations, also several art exhibitions. Just one of these caught my attention, a collection of more than two dozen 'portraits' of doors, gates and portals from buildings in in various parts of Spain, reproduced with photographic detail in coloured glazed terracotta. These are the work of Valencian born potter and painter Vicente Barreira. To produce such detail in such a demanding medium requires a high degree of craftsmanship, a most admirable enterprise. Here is just one example.

There are some lovely 13-15th century rooms, including a large plain stone vaulted chapel fitted out in the simply tradition of monastic use. The castle was a power base for the Knights Templars in the Middle Ages, as well as home to one of the Avignon Popes, Benedict XIII, who came from Zaragossa, known as 'Papa Luna'. There's a bronze statue in his memory on the way up to the entrance. Best of all, however are the extraordinary views from the ramparts of the town below the citadel, and the coast both north and south. Here we look north across the bay over the roof of the Parish church of the Virgen de Socorro.

And here, we look southwards over the roofs to Peñíscola harbour and beyond to the Finca del Moro.

The upper reaches of the citadel's towers are paved and accessible. On each a plastic beach chair bearing the stamp of the Ajuntamento de Peñíscola, not as far I could see for any guardian or guide, but anyone fancying a sit down after climbing the steep steps up to them. I am grateful that I can climb stairs these days without complaint from my knees, breathlessness or fatigue, but as there was a breeze and it wasn't too hot, I took advantage of the chair for ten minutes pure enjoyment of being in that wonderful place, without so much as a thought for Charlton Heston and 'El Cid'. With a site history going back over three millennia, it's one of the best castle visits I've ever made for both interest and beauty. I wound my way back from the heights through the strees and along the promenade, and happily within five minutes of finding a bus stop, I was on my way back home for supper.

Friday, 10 August 2012

Back road to Benicarló

I visited El Camino in Alcossebre this morning, and enjoyed hanging out and drinking tea with the people who were there. On the way there and back I shopped for heavy items, trying Eroski in Benicarló for the first time. It has a varied selection of goods, but unhelpful signage to identify where things are located. It wandered around for ages trying to find clothes washing liquid, once I remembered at the end of my trek around the place that I needed it. Ah well, at least it was cool in the middle of the day.

After a late lunch and a pointless hour in front of the TV, I went for a bike ride. This time I rode south to the far end of Vinaròs, and this time succeeded in finding the minor road which crosses the Barranco d'Aiguadoliva, just below the bridge the busy N340 runs across. It doesn't exactly wind its way across the coastal plain, but makes right angular turns now and then, reflecting the field layout in  the coastal plain. For a distance of about 3km from the Barranco to the port of Benicarló, where the built up area effectively begins, the road passes through quiet open countryside, dotted with modestly opulent residences, and the homes of smallholders. Some are tumbledown and up for sale. 

A few sections of road are flanked by high bamboo grass. Here and there are colourful oleander bushes, and the occasional fig tree, but for the most part, the landscape is a patchwork of cultivated dark red earth and vegetation. Right down the the edge of the cliff, or beach depending on the land elevation, there are neat furrowed fields growing vegetables for market, or else left fallow, standing waist high with pale yellow grass. I was told that few smallholders can now earn enough to feed a family. They take factory jobs, but still cultivate the land. The neat and orderly way in which this is done suggests the value growing things still holds for them.

I was amused to see a couple of brightly coloured iron work structures sitting in fields - human sized cages with an array of seats on top of them. They looked like they belonged in an arena, but were disconnected from it. Then I remembered where I'd seen these structures of this kind before - in the main square at San Jorge - many such structures assembled to form an arena for bull-baiting. As these events are part of community tradition, stakeholders must agree to provide storage for when they are not needed, rather than them being kept in a local Council depot. For people with plenty of land it's a cheap solution, and makes this 'health 'n safety' investment less vulnerable to changes in political mood.

I rode right out along the arm of the port at Benicarló, to take in the full perspective of the holiday urbanisation of the bay from here to Peñíscola, another 8.5km further on, but I felt I'd done enough for the day and turned for home.

An interesting ride, and by my reckoning, it was 25km there and back.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Clare's Olympic year victory

This morning, Clare was taking part in the Welsh learners' poetry recitation competition at the National Eisteddfod in Barry back home. I texted her to wish her good luck and not long after received a message to say that she'd survived the elimination round, and was due to appear in the stage competition at 11h00, midday here in Spain. So, I delayed going to the drop-in centre to watch the competition live on the S4C satellite channel. I caught the tail end of one performer reciting on the big stage, and was infuriated that programme switched first to a commentator's discussion with some bigwig, then went into the advertising break. So I didn't get to watch, and lost the opportunity to record TV with my camera.

Much frustrated, I cycled into town later than anticipated, and helped tidy up and lay out chairs for next Sunday at the end of the session. Then, a little later as I was leaving the market with my shopping, I had another text bearing the magic words: I WON ! We talked when I got back home, and Clare was still a little amazed at her success. She gets a free Eisteddfod ticket for Saturday, and gets to perform again in the learner's concert. I feel so proud of her. I just hope there's a review of the day's activities on S4C tonight, or I shall be doubly fed up to have missed her special achievement.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Alcanar by bike

It was time this morning to prepare a sermon for this coming Sunday. Then I cycled around the district to check that my legs were OK from yesterday's resumption of activity before lunching on green salad with an experimental hummous, made using lentils as well as chick peas, olive oil, a whole lemon, plus a lime which had remained hidden from sight for several weeks and was quite tough to peel. I was pleased with the outcome, and resolved to get some more limes to go with the lemons I bought yesterday. None in the local mini-market, however.

After an hour or so of TV Olympics, the bike called to me again, so I road up the Costa Norte, on through the Jardi de Sol de Riu, carried the bike across the barranco to Catalunya on the other side, and rode the  well appointed Cami de la Costa (replete with both cycle track and jogging path) from there into the holiday resort of Las Cases d'Alcanar. The beach along this 2km stretch is entirely limestone pebbles and in the middle of the day, not well populated. In a couple of places on the beach war-time pill-pox defense installations sit. They have been overwhelmed by coastal erosion, and look incongruous, albeit intriguing.

After a couple of kilometres of coast road lies Las Cases d'Alcanar, a big village with a small harbour serving as a marina for a few hundred boats, and a wide promenade with a scattering of attractive looking restaurants. They were all full, as it was Spanish lunch time. The village has a campsite near the N340, and numerous holiday apartment blocks, but it gave the impression of being less densely packed, smaller and more spacious than Vinaròs. I also noticed how few advertising hoardings were visible around the streets, making for a relaxed appealing townscape.

With 10km behind me, I called at the Spar mini-market to get drinks to carry with me, then headed out of town towards the N340 highway, whose very busyness isolates the village. You can turn straight off the road to get to the town in either direction, by there's no modern junction of flyover to make this safe. As I couldn't see if there was a road on the opposite side which I could take that would end my on my way towards Alcanar, it took me an age to figure out how to cross safely, and find the country lane I needed. No tunnel, no flyover to cross the N340. I guess few people bother to cross here.

Anyway, by riding around the area, I identified my country lane opposite, waited for a quiet moment and ran my bike across to the other side, From there, it was mostly uphill through orange orchards, and past quarries and chicken farms for 5km to get to Alcanar itself, a hill town with a mediaeval heart overlooking the plain with a view of Vinaròs, about 10km away. The town revealed more of interest than when we'd driven through it to L'Ermita de Remei nearly three weeks ago.
There are lots of narrow streets and an historic town plan dating back to the 16th century if not earlier, for that is when the Parish Church of San Miquel was built. It's a town which has changed its appearance as well as expanding its boundaries, thanks to the wealth created from limestone quarrying on the east side of the Montsia mountains which define this coastal area.

On the 8km ride back to Vinaròs on the straight roads that intersect the vast orchards of the plain, my left pedal worked loose, making me nervous as I rode down the busy N328, unable to effect a repair. Mercifully I spotted a side road which followed a barranco down towards the sea. This enabled me to limp the last few kilometres of the journey, down to an intersection with the N340 which was less of a hazard to cross, and this landed me back in Zona Saldonar where I'm staying. A 22km round trip, much enjoyed, and enough energy left to cook paella for supper.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Locum's locum

I had a quiet 'do nothing' day after yesterday's excursion to El Prat (BCN). Just some essential shopping to do, a lot of Olympic TV, and compiling a hymn list for the rest of my stay. After the cycling triumphs it suddenly occurred to me that I hadn't had a bike ride since Clare and my in-laws arrived. My plan to take Clare out bike riding foundered once she sprained her ankle. Ah well, never mind - she's well on the mend now. and getting ready back at home to participate in the National Eisteddfod poetry recitation competition for Welsh learners. Anyway, I got the bike out, adjusted the saddle with an adjustable wrench brother in law Eddie found when he was investigating tools in the garage, and cycled a couple of miles with great pleasure in the afternoon sun. A more taxing ride tomorrow maybe?

Early yesterday my friend and colleague Fr Hywel Davies confirmed that all is on track for his visit here next week. He's coming to have a taster of chaplaincy life in Spain, to satisfy his curiosity, and covering services for me while I go back to Wales for the weekend, to fulfil a commitment from before I knew I was coming here, to do holiday locum duty in the Parish of Merthyr Vale with Aberfan, in the Taff Vale, not far from my birthplace in Ystrad Mynach. It's 25 years since I last preached in the churches of that Parish on behalf of USPG. I knew at some stage I'd need a home visit to regulate my affairs, so rather than ditch this commitment I retained it. Valleys parishes are challenging places, and it's a privilege to support clergy who make their homes and work there.

My only worry about this visit is how easily I will adjust to driving on the left again, after seven weeks of driving on the right. This time around I took to the change with ease, and have been driving here in Spain far more confidently than on previous occasions. Perhaps I'm simply more relaxed and better able to make such adjustments these days - thanks to retirement.

Monday, 6 August 2012

Cava land diversion

We were out of the house and on the N340 going north the Barcelona's El Prat airport for Clare's return by eight o'clock this morning - quite an achievement, but well worth the effort. Throughout the journey the air was crisp and clear and the mountains were vibrant with colour from the early morning sun. How I would have loved to stop and take photos! We made good time and by 10h20 we were hunting for section C of terminal 2, where the EasyJet fights come and go - not as well signed as it should be, when it stands an extra quarter of a mile from the main departure terminal.. Two hours early - that makes a change. We had a coffee together, then made our fond goodbyes - today is our 46th wedding anniversary, celebrations interfered with by travel schedule, unfortunately.

I set out for Vinaròs at 11h40, blinked at the C-32 junction and unwittingly drove past my turning to the motorway along the coast. The highway took me west and south of Barcelona, up the Llobregat river valley, but still with promises of a turning towards Tarragona. Ten minutes later, I picked up signs for the N340 south, and followed them, not knowing what the outcome would be. We'd been warned against following the N340 all the way, massive delays, an extra hour's journey time, but back tracking was out of the question. The road began to wind up into the mountains up a narrow valley, through towns without a bypass and long slow traffic processions. 

The road climbed higher over a 495 metre col. The road was so busy and had no lay-bys, so stopping and reading the map was out of the question. I just had to trust and keep going - quite a familiar life stance really. Over the top of the col, suddenly I was in a different world of wide open rolling plains covered with vineyards. There was little that blatantly promoted the region I was driving through, but I worked out that this was Penedès, and recalled that I had bought the odd bottle or two of red at Lidl's in the UK. Only later did the penny drop. This is the homeland of Cava production, and only last night did Clare and I drink an excellent bottle of the pink brut Cava, a farewell thankyou present from sister in law Ann. This is one of Catalunya's premier products. But the region doesn't exactly rub your face in the fact of its great assets as happens in the Champagne region of northern France.

Despite the heavy traffic, and the extra hour's road endurance, I was glad to have made this unexpected journey. Penedès is worth a longer visit in its own right - not just its bodegas, but also its towns and villages. One that caught my attention at a junction on the road was L'Arboç. The thousand year old village is set on a hill. Its somewhat austere church is a 17th century rebuild of a much older romanesque building, visible above the houses. Close to it, however, towers a grand, ornate building in the islamic architectural style. It looks like a palace with a mosque attached. It was ancient in style, but oddly seemed to have survived the depredations of time. How come? Was it modern, was it perhaps controversial? Speculation was inevitable.

 La Giralda de L'Arboç, I later discovered is a nineteenth century folly. The house was built as a private dwelling by the wealthy founder of the Teatro Romeo in Barcelona, Joan Roquer i Marí, as a gift for his wife following an inspirational visit to Andalucia, between 1877 and 1889. Its fake minaret, 52 metres high, is a half size replica of the Giralda of Seville, (minaret turned into bell tower). The internal decor  is a copy of the Patio de los Leones in the Alhambra in Granada and the Hall of the Ambassadors of the Alcazar of Seville.  In the past decade it has been restored, explaining why it looks so fresh. It is used now for tourism promotion and as a convention centre. 

It all goes to show that the Brits don't have a monopoly on rich eccentrics with 'Grand Designs'

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Shades of the past

We began our last day together, the day before our wedding anniversary, celebrating the Transfiguration, our special feast day (tomorrow) with the congregations, first at Vinaròs and then driving up to L'Ampolla. After the Eucharist there, we joined the congregation at a picnic lunch under the carob trees in the Jardin San Jordi campsite down by the beach closest to L'Ampolla port. It was a most enjoyable opportunity for Clare to meet with people in a different context. 

I was interested to learn from Pru in conversation over lunch that Poblenou del Delta was constructed in 1956 under the Franco regime - a new town to remedy the social problems and devastation caused by the Civil War, as part of agrarian reform. Later I discovered that it was originally named Delta Villafranco, but was changed after a referendum in 2003 to Poblenou - 'our town'.

As ever, Clare went for a swim after lunch, and I found a shady spot to doze for an hour before driving back. The high level of humidity rather than just the heat made today more taxing than usual.

As I was parking the car outside the Parish Church of Sant Joan Bautista before today's service, I noticed a plaque on an external wall which stated that the church had been rebuilt in 1946 through the agency of what I guess to have been a national war damage commission. A third reminder in two days of the 1930's Civil War, in which Catalunya suffered badly.

Saturday, 4 August 2012

Tortosa city - layers of history

Today we drove to to the ancient city of Tortosa, up the Ebro river valley, about fifteen miles away from the Delta. In mediaeval times the agricultural wealth of this fertile region was controlled from here. It is a cathedral and university city - like Oxford. We concentrated our attention on the mediaeval heart, with a fortress on a promontory overlooking the river, dominating the river plain and conurbation. We parked on the opposite side of the riven and walked across an imposing high road bridge across the river into the old town.

We soon discovered the restaurant Paiolet in one of the ramblas of the barrio and treated ourselves to a menu del dia for lunch - our last opportunity before Clare's return home. The meal was as Catalan as the language used to describe it. The setting was superb, just across the road from the river bank, with air conditioning to relieve us from midday heat and humidity outside. Those who served us were friendly  charming and patient with our linguistic puzzling. The cuisine was superb with a bottle of local wine and an apertif glass of gaspachio on the rocks thrown in for good measure, at a reasonable price. 

Then we got some exercise by making the steep half mile climb 180 feet up to the fortress to enjoy breathtaking views in every direction of town and countryside. 

There was an iron age settlement up here first. The Romans fortified this high vantage point, but it was when the Moors ruled much of Spain that the present buildings were constructed. Today fortress has been transformed into an attractive Parador hotel welcoming guests from around the world. During hotel redevelopment work a mediaeval islamic cemetery was uncovered on the site. Inscriptions on tablets written in arabic are embedded in the walls, not only up here but also in some walls of the old town below. In 1148 the city fell to Christian conquerers, who found a sophisticated urban environment, after 400 years of muslim rule - a place long active in regional trade thanks to the immense river Ebre.

By the time we'd walked back down to the old town, the Cathedral was open to visitors, with an attractive modern welcome area and gift shop. We paid €3 to get in and were given a map and an explanation of the building's complexities. We could have walked straight in through the entrance in use if we'd simply wanted to attend the Saturday night Mass, but this was a building with so much to see apart from its main 14th century gothic sanctuary. The first part of the tour took us around a large section of the brick built undercroft, used in ancient times for archive storage, rather than for the dead. 

It was plain, mostly uncluttered, not all that interesting if you didn't recall from the introductory talk, that this crypt was a place of refuge during the 1930's Civil War air raids. Dull if you didn't recall that the Cathedral was built on the site of a mosque, demolished after conquest. Maybe these brick arches were a Moorish foundation for a Christian building. But it doesn't stop there. There was Christian basilica on this site during the late Roman Empire. The line of Bishops of Tortosa goes back to the time when the New Testament was still being compiled. Visigoths invaded and controlled the region prior to the Moors. The Christianity of the Visigoths was Arian rather than Orthodox. So many layers of history still hidden. Who knows what was here in pre-Christian times?

The visit then took us up into the sacristy/treasury above ground, with a goodly collection of images, sacred vessels and vestments and wonderful illuminated manuscripts on display, carefully conserved in the right environment. Then, it was on to the Chapter House complete with original furnishings, wooden choir stalls in semi-circular array, then the cloister, before entering the nave of the Cathedral. The priest saying Mass in a large side chapel had just started the Eucharistic prayer, so we stopped and joined in prayer for a while, before quietly walking around the sanctuary ambulatory, and taking our leave. Each great church building of this period is unique, even if the essential gothic layout does make them all look much the same superficially. What makes Tortosa Cathedral special is the story of how to comes to be the way it is, much more than how it looks and functions today.

Friday, 3 August 2012

Village contrasts

We went to the railway station this morning to book seats to travel to Barcelona on Monday, when Clare returns home. To our surprise, the booking office was closed. A notice explained that station staff were on strike over proposals to privatize the network. Trains were still running apparently, and people were waiting for the next arrival. There was nothing we could do, so we went off to Carrefour to do the weekend shopping, and plan a car journey instead. We had no additional detail about the strike, its duration, or frequency of other days when stoppages are planned. With a flight to catch, the risk cannot be entertained.

After shopping, a visit to the beach and a siesta, we went for a drive, following the N232 main road west towards the mountains towards Morello. The road is good and not too busy, winding gently uphill up a river valley, revealing lovely mountain scenery perspectives with endless neatly laid out groves of orange and olive trees in every direction, and the occasional hill village perched above the main road, with buildings which, if not white painted display their pale honey coloured stone fabric, reminiscent of Britain's Bath stone. In each village, above the houses, the outline of the church rises, with interesting tower and baroque parapet giving a distinctive feature to the place.

After only ten miles, curiosity compelled us to stop in La Jana, as it was just about to awaken from siesta at half past five. It was cool and still in among the tall buildings in narrow streets. Once more we were struck by the lack of commercial advertising hoardings around the village. It was big enough to have a modest variety of shops and cafes, a bank, a town band, and this huge church, dominating the central square, with two finely crafted sets of burnished bronze doors. They were clearly new, but executed in a simple traditional style with images of Christ and the saints.

Opposite in the square was the stylish new-build ajuntamento. When the clock struck six, the fountains between the two resumed playing. We had a good humoured chat in basic Spanish with three old people sitting in chairs on the pavement in the shade outside their house, enjoying the evening hour. We attracted their curiosity as, it was explained to us, they had few tourists there. Indeed, to judge from vehicle traffic we saw, it's a normal agricultural village, still earning its keep from its traditional way of life healthily preserved. Modernity was there, but not allowed to degrade the quality of the public domain - apart from the inescapable multitude of parked cars. I noticed how few traffic control sign posts there were around the place. Did they feel they didn't need them, as they could rely on mutual good will, care and common sense? It reminded me of the world I grew up in, albeit a lot more colourful.

After drink in the main cafe on the square, we started our return trip, and on impulse we left the N232 for a brief look at the hill village of San Jorge or Sant Jordi in Catalonian. Again the restraint on public advertising was noticeble, even if there was more traffic signage, and a car park at the bottom of town. We walked up the main street in search of the main square and church we could see from the N232, and discovered more than we had imagined at this evening hour. The square had been transformed into an arena with viewing platforms above and barred safety cages at ground level for spectators and participants in a bull-baiting fiesta. It was crammed with people, and at one end, the local town band was installed on high, providing live music for the occasion.

It's impossible to see any value in cruelty to animals. An event like this gives a few young athletic men an opportunity to flirt with danger and show off in public - proving what? Many greater risks are taken daily by reckless driving, or carelessness at industrial work places, also due to showing off. But making a sport out of being cruel, just doesn't connect with me. The tradition goes back millennia, but when you look at ancient images, these are of - yeah OK - men performing gymnastic feats, vaulting over the beast's horns or hind quarters. All I saw and recorded these young men doing was taunting an animal, arousing its fears and self defence reactions. A huge section of this village community, people of all ages merely watched them with some measure of approval. How will explain how this adds value and dignity to life together?

I walked around the edge of the main square to get to the church square. Each street exit was blocked with safety barriers, as the truck transporting the beasts was parked there, also the ambulance. I'd only just begun to take pictures of this square when hubbub from the arena died to a hush. Within minutes, the ambulance was no longer on stand-by, but taking off with lights flashing. I don't know what happened, who got hurt or how, nor whether the spectacle would continue. For us it was already time to head back home.

The photos I took are posted here