Monthly Archives: December 2015

A Catalan Christmas

DSCF0535When I think of Christmas, my mind turns to a big fat Santa, a school nativity play, roast turkey and mince pies, a decorated tree with colourful gifts underneath and the Queen’s speech at 3pm.

In Catalonia, they do things a little differently. As I passed through the region and stumbled upon Christmas fairs, I wondered why there were so many funny looking logs for sale. These cute little wooden beings with red hats and noses are called Tios. Children are supposed to feed them during advent and on Christmas Eve they then beat the Tio to make it defecate presents. Outside Barcelona Cathedral I saw lines of tiny children approaching a huge Tio to be rewarded with a lollipop from its backside!


Meanwhile, in most Spanish towns you will find a Belen, a nativity scene, and most Spanish families will have a smaller version in their homes. I have always enjoyed visiting a Belen and especially trying to spot the local influences and the more unusual characters.


DSCF0489Sometimes there is a woman falling down the stairs with a basket of eggs, and I have also seen a mother breastfeeding, but my favourite has to be the man, caught with his trousers round his ankles, having a shit. He’s known in Catalonia as the Caganer and is traditionally dressed as a Catalan peasant in a red hat, white shirt and black trousers. However, in the 21st century he has now been replaced by famous politicians, celebrities and sports stars.




Catalonia – Origins and the Fight for Independence

Everywhere I go in Catalonia I see the regional flag, four red lines on a yellow background, a recently I read an interesting story about the origins of this flag, also known as the Senyera.

DSCF0439One of the oldest flags in Europe, it first appeared on the tomb of Ramon Berenger II, Count of Bracelona, who died in 1082. According to legend, the origin of the flag is even older, dating to the 9th century and the siege of Barcelona. During the siege in 897, Count Wilfred I (also known as Wilfred the Hairy) was mortally wounded and King Charles the Bald dipped his hand into the Count’s wound and drew his four bloody fingers across Wilfred’s golden shield as a mark of gratitude. This may be a nice tale, but the fact is that the King had actually died 20 years before the siege.


The Kingdom of Catalonia was united with the Kingdom of Aragon in the 15th century due to the marriage of Isabella of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon. The combined nation was then taken over by the Spanish during the 1714 War of Succession. Catalonians have recently been attempting to regain Independence and unlike the Basques in the north, this has mostly been done in a peaceful way through demonstrations and political voting.

catalan wayIn 2013 the Catalan Way promoted independence through the creation of a human chain which was 240 km long. Then in November 2014 a referendum was held and the people overwhelmingly voted in favour of independence (well, those who actually voted did – it is estimated that 6 million of the people living in Catalonia are actually of immigrant or non-Catalan Spanish origin). On 27th September 2015 the 11th parliament of Catalonia was formed following elections but the Spanish government had other ideas and Prime Minister Mariano Rey threatened to suspend the political powers of the key Catalonian politicians if they proceeded with a legal battle for independence.

But in the hearts and minds of the Catalonian people, the fight continues.


Colonia Guell

I’m sure many people have heard of Parc Guell and Palau Guell in the city of Barcelona, created by the artist and architect Gaudi and paid for by his greatest patron, Count Eusebi Guell. However, few will know of Colonia Guell, situated west of the city in the town of Santa Coloma de Cervello.


DSCF0335The Guell Colony was established in 1890 by industrialist Eusebi Guell on his property outside Barcelona. He built his new textile factories with all the latest technology and provided houses close by for his workers. He was keen to improve their social conditions and so included a school, cultural centre, theatre and doctor’s house enlisting some of the best architects of the time.


Gaudi was commissioned to design a church and work started in 1908. It was an ambitious project incorporating many new architectural techniques and featuring many recycled materials. However, after only completing the lower nave, work ceased in 1916 leaving a small but usable church, more commonly known as Gaudi’s Crypt.


After civil war broke out in 1936, the factory became a collective. The Guell family later recovered the property but sold it in 1945 to another industrialist who continued to produce textiles until the factory closed in 1975.

DSCF0407Today, the workers colony is a peaceful but popular place. The original school and schoolmaster’s house is surrounded by fencing and in need of some repair but a new school up the hill is full of excited children. The locals sit outside cafes in the main square and the cultural centre is still used for community functions. The old cooperative building is now a tourist office and interpretation centre offering audio guided tours of the colony, while the old factory buildings are being renovated and a modern business park established within them.


Eusebi Guell’s original colony may have dispersed but his vision of a happy and healthy community and successful business venture still exists.

Barcelona on a Budget

Accommodation: There are many campsites and several secure parking areas for motorhomes in the Barcelona area but they are very expensive. A much cheaper option is to park in the free Aire at Colonia Guell. You could also visit Gaudi’s Crypt, the incomplete church which Gaudi designed for the village. (€9 including audio guide tour of the church and village).


Transport: Rather than catch the train from the closest station of Colonia Guell, walk 10 minutes down the road to Moli Nou which is within zone 1. A day ticket for the train and Barcelona metro system costs €7.60.

Sights: A lot of the main sights in the city are very expensive but it is possible to spend a day in the city without spending a lot of money whilst still seeing a lot of interest.


In the old town you can visit the Cathedral and its cloister for free. The interior is very impressive and the geese can be very entertaining.


The remains of the Roman Temple of Augustus are well hidden by the surrounding apartment blocks but, if the door is open, they are worth a glance.


The courtyards of the Casa L’Ardiaca and the Frederic Mares Museum are very beautiful and free to enter.


Boqueria Market is a riot of sounds, smells and sights. The fresh food on offer will make you salivate and if you are lucky you can dine out on a few free samples. If not, then there are plenty of bars and food stalls around the market to keep your stomach happy.


Placa Reial and Placa de Sant Jaume are good places to soak up the Spanish atmosphere with a coffee or a beer.


Get some exercise by walking down the busy La Rambla to the port or visit the Parc de la Ciutadella where you can marvel at the many sculptures, the huge mammoth and the cascading fountain.



Close to the park, the former Born Market is now a cultural centre with exhibitions (some free). Recently they have uncovered the ancient city beneath the foundations and it can be viewed without paying. There is also a very nice café / bar if you need refreshment and a bookshop to nourish the mind.


Many people visit Barcelona for the art and, while it is expensive to enter many of the wonderful museums and houses, it is free to gaze at the exteriors. There is a good value Art pass and some places are free to visit between 6pm and 9pm on Sundays.


Lunch: Avoid the expensive restaurants and cafes on La Rambla and in PLaca Reial and take a few steps into the side streets for a better value meal. I ate at La Crema Canela, at the entrance to Placa Reial. 3 courses, bread and a drink for only €10.45. Good value meal and speedy service but cold plates and small portions.



The Legend of Count Arnau

As the weather was good, I decided to take the scenic route from the South of France into Catalonia. The roads took me high up into the Pyrenees to the Col d’Ares where cowbells tinkled and cool winds blew across the mountain tops.


Descending into Catalonia, I came upon the interesting town of St Joan de les Abadesses, where a Christmas fair was taking place in the main square. I also discovered the beautiful abbey and the legend of Count Arnau.


MontgronyIt is believed that the story originated as a song in the 16th century, which relayed the conversation of the dead Count and his grieving widow. As often happens with oral stories, the tale changed and grew over the years incorporating other historical events and associating them with the Count.

Count Arnau was supposedly a wealthy landowner in Catalonia. One day, he decided to build a chapel in the mountains near his home. He promised the local labourers a heaped measure of grain per day in payment for their work, carving steps into the rock face to lead up to the chapel entrance. However, when it was time to pay, he only gave them a level measure and because of this fraud he was cursed by the village.

DSCF0173The Count was also a shameless philanderer who supposedly carved a tunnel through the mountain in order to reach the Abbey of St Joan in order to have an affair with the abbess, and possibly several of the nuns too. Because of the supposed licentiousness of the abbess and the nuns, the Abbey was closed down in 1017 and given over to monks instead, though it is more likely that this was due to religious reforms at the time rather than a secret tryst between the Count and the abbess.

DSCF0306After visiting the Abbey of St Joan and a wonderful exhibition about the tales of Count Arnau above the local tourist office, I decided to seek out his possible castle home and the church of Montgrony where the villagers carved the steps. They were in a remote area of the mountains, north of the village of Gombren. The church perched high up on the cliff and the castle in a valley down below. Although fenced off and locked up, I was able to gain access to the ruins of Mataplana Castle through a cow field. It was not a scary place, especially as there was a small chapel next to it, but I didn’t hang around for nightfall, as it is then that the Count is said to roam the hills on his black stallion, chased by howling hounds.



The Hunter and the Hunted

DSCF0074Personally, I’m not a fan of hunting unless the prey is going to end up on the kitchen table. Hunting and fishing for sport is simply not that sporting. However, the French like to hunt and during autumn and winter it’s not that unusual to come across groups of men wearing Day-Glo vests with a shotgun over their shoulder, and as I like to go out hiking there’s always a chance I’m going to run into some hunters.

DSCF9811My first reminder to be cautious was while walking in a nature reserve close to the walled town of Aigues Mortes. As I started out on my walk, armed with a pair of binoculars for a bit of bird watching, I found my first specimen. Unfortunately it was not alive. The large dead cormorant was laid out on its back, not far from the path. I took a closer look and it was amazingly unmarked, so I doubted if an animal had attacked it. There was a tiny bloodstain on its chest which to me indicated that it may have been shot. The receptionist at the visitors centre was not that surprised when I told her, and we discussed whether it may have been a case of mistaken identity or the result of a jealous fisherman.

DSCF9845 (2)The next day, I was following a footpath around the old salt pans near Frontignan in the South of France. I’d passed a few cyclists and a couple of horse riders but as I neared the Aresquiers Forest I saw two dogs bounding around in the low scrub. Not far behind them was a man with a shotgun. I could only assume he was out hunting ducks and as I continued along the path I heard a few shots fired, though luckily not in my direction.

DSCF0076A week later, I was enjoying a morning out in the Clape Massif, a beautiful wooded limestone plateau not far from the port of Gruissan. I’d just completed a stunning, but demanding section through a narrow gorge when I found someone sitting on a chair in the middle of the path. He was wearing a bright orange vest and holding a large gun. When you are out in the sticks alone it kind of makes your heart skip a beat.

He gave me a friendly wave and greeted me with a smiling “Bonjour!” as if there was nothing extraordinary about our encounter. I asked if it was okay to continue and he indicated that it was. Further along the path stood two of his colleagues, also in bright orange vests and holding guns. I became very aware that I was wearing mostly brown and my rucksack was olive green in colour, so I quickly added my bright yellow rain cover in order to make myself more visible.

DSCF0061The rest of my walk up to the chapel of Notre Dame des Auxils was accompanied by dogs barking and men shouting from within the forest. The final part of the path is along the winding, climbing Cimetiere Marin (Marine Cemetery) which is marked by gravestones of those lost at sea.

At the chapel I sat and reflected on how easy it is for the French hunters to take the life of an innocent animal yet how appalled they are of anyone who takes human lives (i.e. terrorists) but also how fragile and short life can be. Many of the missing mariners were only in their 20s. I decided to descend via the roadway as wandering back through the woods didn’t seem like such a good idea while the hunt continued.



Who is Pierre-Paul Riquet?

DSCF0033Pierre-Paul Riquet was born in 1609 in Beziers, the son of a solicitor and prosecutor. At a young age he was keen on mathematics and science so it was no surprise when he became interested in engineering. In 1630 he was appointed as a tax collector for the salt tax which enabled him to become very wealthy.

The main trade route between the north and south of France at that time was predominantly by sea around Spain. However, piracy was common during the 17th century and so Louis XIV was happy to support proposals for an alternative route. Where the Roman engineers had failed, Pierre-Paul Riquet succeeded in creating a 240km long artificial waterway between the river Garonne in Toulouse and the Mediterranean Sea.

It took 16 years to complete and Riquet used much of his own money to pay for it. However, the result included some major engineering marvels in the Beziers area:

The Fonserannes Lock Staircase: consisting of 8 chambers and 9 gates, this set of locks overcame a height change of 21.5m over a length of 300m and linked the canal to the river Orb. In the 19th century, the lowest lock of the set became redundant as the canal was diverted over the river via the Orb aqueduct.


The Orb Aqueduct: built in 1858, this 28m wide, 12m tall and 240m long aqueduct enabled the canal to be diverted over the river Orb.


The Malpas Tunnel: in order to overcome a lengthy diversion around the Ensérune hill, Riquet carved a tunnel through it. Completed in only 8 days, the tunnel is 8m high and 165m long.


Another of Riquet’s engineering achievements can be found further north, not far from the town of Revel.

Lac St Ferreol was created to provide the canal with the year-round water that it needed in order to operate effectively. The lake can contain up to 680,000 cubic metres of water when it is filled to capacity and the dam was completed in 1671.

by Simounet

by Simounet

Unfortunately, Riquet never got to see his final masterpiece in use. He died 8 months before it was opened in 1681.



Who is Paul Ricard?

Who is Albert Camus?

Eiffel – More than just a Tower