Sunday, 26 July 2009

Contrasts of Catalunya

A slice of Mediterranean Sea on the Costa Brava

Our biking holiday was described as “Contrasts of Catalunya,” and I suppose it was meant to refer to that combination of mountain and Mediterranean Sea that you can find on Spain’s Costa Brava. The intense blue of sea and sky contrasted with green pine forests and palm avenues and a palette of yellow, which varied from brilliant sunflowers to the dull gold of haystacks and scorched grass.

Our accommodation was various, too. Nearly every day, the Headwater representative conveyed our luggage to a new dwelling, and after hours of biking we would discover that evening’s surprise lodging: a hotel set into the hillside, and so vast and winding that my daughter named it “Pan’s Labyrinth;” a beachside hotel whose décor hadn’t been touched since the early 1960s; a traditional farmhouse; and best of all, a converted castle as stylish as anything you might found in Northern California.

A bicycle still-life

We cycled through holiday trailer parks, a nature reserve, the occasional crowded highway, lots of farm land, orchards, modern cities and medieval hilltop villages. The views did change, but the smell of Catalonia was disturbingly consistent. Although there were brief whiffs of salty air and fresh pine, you could never really get away from the fact that the pork industry is central to Catalonia’s economy. We never actually saw any pigs, but we saw the signs of them everywhere. It must be said plainly: the smell of pig shite was, at times, overpowering.

I didn’t find biking to be very conducive to photography. Frankly, my biking skills weren’t really up to the no-hands approach and it was a bit much to ask eight other people to stop riding every time I spied something scenic. I wanted, so much, to take a picture of our long and colorful single-file of bikes . . . but I had to be contented with the posed line-up here.

The cycling (and occasionally singing) von Trapps

Indeed, I’m sure that I missed lots of gorgeous scenery altogether – as my eyes tended to point downwards, always inspecting the terra-not-so-firma for rocks and potholes. (Despite my vigilance, I got two flat tires – one of them conveniently near a pizza restaurant, but the other on a busy highway.)

Most of my best (and worst) memories didn’t get recorded on film, and already their intensity is starting to fade. I wonder what, after a few years, will remain in my memory file of Catalonia? So many of my favorite memories have to do with appeasing my appetite: eating the most delicious chocolate cake for breakfast; discovering that I like fresh sardines; smearing rustic bread with crushed tomato, olive oil and salt, in the Catalan way; sharing a seafood paella at a beachside restaurant; slugging down cup after cup of café con leche.

It always seems like mealtimes are erratic on holidays, either feast or famine. We ate three-course dinners late at night, and massive breakfasts early in the morning, before we wanted them . . . but we never seemed to get to lunch before a ravening hunger took hold. One afternoon, after a long, hot morning walking through Barcelona and playing tourist at Sagrada Familia, we stumbled upon a stylish tapas bar. I’m sure the food would have been delicious no matter what, but with the keen edge of hunger, the combination of meltingly hot seafood croquettes and chilled rosé wine was absolutely memorable.

My worst memories were physical, too – not so much about the belly, but more about the aching legs, back and neck. We were staying at a farmhouse the night before our longest bike ride, and I spent a sleepless night tossing and turning under an oppressive blanket of heat and raucous birdsong from the open windows. The next day, I was full of anxiety about 44 kilometres of “undulating landscape.” Undulating turned out to be a rather euphemistic word for hilly . . . and the scary thrill of hurtling down hills really, really was not worth the shuddering effort of forcing my bike up them. I took the following picture whilst taking a breather from climbing that very hill. I’m sure that the scenery was beautiful that day, but I spent most of my energy trying not to cry.

The undulating Catalonian landscape

Occasionally, we had such steep climbs that it was necessary to shift down to the dreaded 1:1 on our bike gears. We dubbed this the “Coco the Clown” gear, as it felt as silly and ineffective as a clown on a tricycle. You could push your bike by foot just as quickly, as I proved on more than one occasion.

A rather piercing memory is of biking slowly, ever so slowly, up a long hill which passed by a primary school. Some young boys hung on the wire fence and jeered at us. My friend, who speaks good Spanish, said that they were calling us donkeys. It haunts me still. Was that just a generic insult, or did it have something to do with our awkward, plodding progress? Perhaps I misunderstood their tone and they meant to be kind. Perhaps they were suggesting that we would be better off with donkeys, as did my dear friend Fantastic Forrest.

In this picture, my friend Bon Bon and I are smiling because her gung-ho husband had run over a patch of stickers. It’s not that we enjoyed his misfortune, but we were rather pleased to get an extended break as he patched his tire.

Bon Bon and me:
a rare sighting,
as we were usually on the other side of the lens

The mothers laughed the most; whined the most, too.
The children were quite stoical and mostly enjoyed the biking, I think. They were topped up with ice cream as often as possible.

Our gung-ho male companion – fearless leader, map-reader and general chivvier of lazy lasses – was philosophical about the ups and downs of hilly landscapes. Apparently, he subscribes to the idea that you have to take the rough with the smooth. I think that it says a lot about my character that I would just prefer to stay on the flat all the time. I’m obviously a Dutch biker by temperament.

Despite this claim, I did opt to climb to the top of the observation tower in the nature reserve. Anyone who has voluntarily agreed to wear padded lycra shorts might as well be a good sport.

Sigmund and me: looking all-pro

Saturday, 11 July 2009

It's Not About the Bike

I've never read Lance Armstrong's autobiography, It's Not About the Bike, so I cannot say what conclusion Lance makes as to what it IS about.

But as for my own upcoming cycling adventure, which consists of four middle-aged friends and their five teenage daughters attempting to cross Catalonia by bicycle, I can say that it is about nine suitcases, padded bike shorts, lots of granola bars, many bottles of suncream, sunglasses, water bottles, about 30 swimsuits between us as a rough estimate, maps, moaning, whining, fear, teasing, nicknames, lycra, chamois butter for our bums, sandals and smelly trainers, several cameras, a copy of The Shadow of the Wind, and hopefully, lots of Rioja at the end of each day.

It should have been more about the training. I went on exactly one bike ride, and had to push my bike up the steep hill. Sigmund has trained by drinking red wine almost every night; my teenage daughter has been on a strict "resting" program; and little daughter thought about taking a bike ride, but discovered that she had outgrown her bicycle . . . probably a few years ago.

Wish us luck.

And by the way, does anyone know the word for "taxi" in Spanish? Or is it Catalan?

Thursday, 9 July 2009


Stormy weather

The weather has been extremely unsettled lately, and so have I . . .

On Monday, I was driving across the broad Oxfordshire Downs and it was like some weather god was bowling black clouds. Every time he made a strike, the car shook from the impact.

Yesterday, a friend and I made the trek to the Hampton Court Flower Show and the moody sky glowered at us all morning. Although we managed to duck into the Rose Tent for the first downpour, the second one caught us on the way out. I took this picture just minutes before the smooth surface of the water was disturbed by a million angry raindrops.

The day was more silver than gold, except for these roses.

This display of Absolutely Fabulous roses
won a gold medal

It was the first time I had been to the annual show, and it was all a bit overwhelming. I think that it is probably better to go with a plan, instead of being buffeted about by the crowds. All of the serious gardeners had brought trolleys, which made the paths a strange sort of obstacle course.

That's been a bit of a theme with me, lately, as I seem to have overcrowded my schedule to the point of lunacy. Instead of relishing the long summer days, I feel like I have been running the gauntlet -- somehow worse for being largely self-imposed.

Some people like being busy, but I've realized in the last couple of years that I require a slower pace. I tried to cram in a lunch with old friends today, but I was time-crunched on both sides. I felt like a babbling, bubbling pot that was about to boil over.

We've been in England for three years now, and I wonder if I am feeling unsettled partly because we have always tended to move by the end of this cycle. My husband has a new boss, and unsurprisingly he want to re-organize. It's a story that has a predictable conclusion, even though this is still only the beginning of the a still-uncertain end.

One of our closest family friends will be moving soon. The other day, my daughter said that it feels like a wind of change is blowing through . . . which is exactly what I have been feeling, too.

Henry and his Birds

King Henry the VIII: a man who knew all about regime change.

Sweetpeas in the fruit and veg bed

At least all of this rain is good for the garden . . .

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Love in Idleness

Please visit Barrie Summy
for a complete listing
of this month's book reviews

Frank Cadogan Cowper, Titania Sleeps in A Midsummer Night's Dream (1928)

Summer is lying heavily on us right now, and the oppressive heat does seem to stir up all sorts of mischief and mayhem. I long to retreat to Cowper's shaded wood, but instead I must find my refreshment in the pages of novels.

I rarely read (or do anything else, for that matter) with much method . . . instead, I tend to flit from book to book as fancy dictates.

But I was so entranced by Hearts and Minds last month that I immediately resolved to read all of Amanda Craig's novels -- in the order that they were written. It was the easiest of tasks, as they are just the sort of fiction that I like best: well-written, intelligent, and peopled by interesting, complex characters.

Craig has a penchant for unlikeable protagonists, and there is something slightly sharp and sour in most of her novels. She tells a fast-paced, often episodic, story in a manner which reminds me of Jilly Cooper (but more highbrow). Like Cooper, she links the novels together with recurring characters. Now that I am well-acquainted with her fictional universe, I can't wait to see whose story will be continued.

As the briefest of synopses, and in chronological order:

Foreign Bodies -- the coming-partially-to-age story of a young woman who flees from England to Italy to learn about love and art

A Private Place - an unlikely romance is a catalyst for adolescent anarchy in a "progressive" English boarding school

A Vicious Circle - love and ambition in the fiercely cynical world of London journalism

In a Dark Wood - a middle-aged actor, dissolute and newly divorced, learns more than he bargains for when he starts delving into his past

Love in Idleness - when family and friends go on holiday together in Tuscany, romance and confusion ensues -- a la A Midsummer Night's Dream

As happenstance would have it, I started reading Love in Idleness -- the last of my stash of Craig novels -- at the height of the summer solstice. Descriptions of languorous summer days and the sensual Italian landscape seemed as appropriate as Insalata Caprese for lunch.

If you've ever shared a holiday home, you will readily recognize some of the inevitable conflicts: differences in expectations and budgets, clashing parenting styles, and perceived inequalities in sharing the work-load. Into this prosaic mix, Craig introduces love and lust and a few otherworldly elements.

In some sense, we always abandon our workaday selves when we go on vacation. Being in a less defined, less restrained environment allows for all sorts of possibilities. Like Shakespeare before her, Craig understands that love is transformative, too . . . and that sometimes we suffer from delusions and, yes, make asses of ourselves. If you know the story of A Midsummer Night's Dream, you will enjoy finding the parallels between characters and plot, but it is certainly not necessary for an appreciation of this delightful story.

At the moment, as so many of us are packing and preparing for our summer holidays, we are also casting about for the perfect summer book. Love in Idleness manages to ooze heat, and yet it is as light and bubbly as a glass of good Prosecco.

So now I've been to Italy, but does anyone have a good suggestion for Spain?