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


Pamela Terry and Edward said...

I am so impressed! The scenery looks gorgeous, but I can certainly imagine the sore legs. I could probably take that, but a sore neck would indeed alter my mood. I am off to visit your lodgings! I care much more where I stay than what I eat!!!

Welcome home!

blackbird said...

I don't know where to start... You do certainly look all-pro and very fit and happy. I'm glad that you're all back safely and with many memories.

You are much braver than I to have gone on your adventure- I think that we are sisters under the skin. I'm afraid that I would have bribed the tour rep to carry me along with the luggage. I think that I've become a little less of a good sport as I've gotten older. At least about some things.

But, to have your memories of close comradery with your friends and family, good food and beautiful scenery. Maybe the bad parts will fade in your memory like childbirth.

dogimo said...

You're looking sharp in the mandatory getup, Bee!

What pain missing those rolling photo ops, but you're right - worse to keep holding up the rolling moment!

Some kind of photohelmet setup maybe?

ArtSparker said...

Terrific post. I think the lack of access to camera reference may have forced some rather splendid verbal compensation. It's so odd what we choose to do - the physical punishment with the delicious meals and extraordinary accommodation. I have a feeling I've been in those situations in which I was trying not to cry due to some physical demand.

In any case, after reading this, I am happy my lunch will be ready shortly.

spudballoo said...

SQUEEEEEEEK, you're back....Spud sobs pathetically on to her Macbook. I really missed you (is that possible, given I've never actually met you?)

Sheesh your 'holiday' sounds like torture but also wondeful at the same time. Perhaps wonderful that it's over?

I'm completely crap at anything remotely sporty, but the high I got from climbing Table Mountain on my honeymoon (why? it's not like I had anythng to prove anymore?) stays with me to this day.

Fabulous photos and beautifully written as always.

I am pathetically excited about BC 1.5....we must plot and plan methinks?


♥ Boomer ♥ said...

What a wonderful trip! And such beautiful countryside. Surely you prepared yourself beforehand to have been able to accomplish that...but I'm also certain you are sore!

Elizabeth said...

Beautifully written and sounding rather as I had imagined it would be -- though I hadn't factored in the pig-poop. Oh dear!

Yes, I can quite imagine crying when biking up hill. I am not an intrepid adventurer. Well done you.
The bike outfits were very bike-outfit-like.

Such wonderful descriptions ---especially of the FOOD

Chocolate cake for breakfast......
So glad you're back safe and sound.

Shauna said...

The scenery is beautiful and what a fabulous vacation! I'm glad you documented it so well...what great memories.

Sarah Laurence said...

Welcome back! It sounds like you might need a vacation to recover from this one.

You bring back memories of renting (gearless!) bikes in French wine country as a teen. It sounded like a good idea but was more effort than pleasure.

The meals in Spain must have been divine, plus guilt free. I love the group shot by the sunflowers and finally seeing a shot of you and Sigmund together. You look happy and healthy despite the label of “misguided holidays” ha!

Delwyn said...

Hello Bee

this adventure sounds just wonderful to me...but the best part of all I imagine is the company of lovely friends in the adventure. You will be sharing biking stories for years to come...

Happy days

Anna said...

OMG Bee you really did it, wow, all of you look great. I am sure you will remember this trip very well. Sometimes we go into this blank mode, but it will be back, and if not then all you have to do is to read your blog... Anna :)

jenny2write said...

I love cycling but don't go on organised tours for the reasons you hint at - never being able to stop because of holding everyone else up, having to cycle more than you really want to etc. We've found that in France at least you can book ahead via a local tourist office for a b&b or hotel. The only thing is that you have to be good at map reading, or travel with a partner or friend who is.

Just a Plane Ride Away said...

Wow, Bee, I am in awe. You and yours should get gold medals after that trip. Well done! It sounds like a vacation you all will never forget.

And you are right about taking photos while biking. Nearly impossible. Before I moved to Holland, I had fantasies of biking everywhere, camera in tow, stopping when I wanted to take a photo. What a joke! Photography is much better on foot.

Welcome back, dear friend. Hope you get some well-deserved rest before school starts up again.

Bee said...

Pamela - I highly recommend that castle! I would definitely go back there.

Blackbird - I did consider asking the tour rep if he could drop me off with the luggage, but despite my whining I found myself doing extra bike rides on all of the supposed "rest" days. And the bad parts? Already fading . . . Physical pain does, of course.

Dogimo - Yes, it would be wonderful to have a camera (or video recorder?) in one's helmet. What a good idea.

ArtSparker - I didn't get a single picture of any of the delicious meals we ate. Perhaps because I was always too eager to tuck in?

Spudballoo - Full agreement from me on "it's good to be back," the strange euphoria derived from physical exertion, and the need to plot/plan Blog Camp.

Boomer - Well, I was reasonably fit . . . but don't you find that being able to do one thing doesn't mean you can do another? I'm sure the hill climbing did wonders for my cardiovascular being.

Elizabeth - The pig poop permeated everything! I think that they must have spread it over the fields or something. Mind you, the farm next door is giving off quite a stench at the moment as well.

The food at the farmhouse was just amazing! Fresh local cheeses, homemade jams, and homemade pastry/cake every morning for breakfast.

Bee said...

Shauna - Well, I have a very odd assortment of pictures but I hope that I don't forget the best things.

Sarah - Quite right about needing another vacation! We came home exhausted, and have barely gotten out of our pajamas in the last couple of days. Bikes without gears? Oh dear; not fun at all.

Delwyn - We went with friends who we've known for 16 years. One night we were entertaining our children with funny memories of a skiing holiday taken many years ago. You are right about that being the best part!

Anna - Yes, I do feel like that my blog has become a sort of journal/photo album . . . and I'm much better about keeping it up than I've ever been with any other sort of journal.

JAPRA - Lots of summer adventures to go, still. I'm having a Blog Camp here, the girls are going to Texas, and Sig and I may visit the Lake District. It's only the weather that has gone all fall-like! When does Roxi start school again? You know, the friends we went with are the ones with a daughter Roxi's age who is about to start at TASIS.

Nimble said...

What an achievement. Glad you had good weather. Enjoy your post exertion vac! (I definitely would have cried if I had to pedal past my lunch time. I would also have growled at the urchins.)

@ Blackbird, I love your picture tag.

Fantastic Forrest said...

You are the cutest little donkey Spain has ever seen. I love the variety of lodgings you experienced; the homogenization of accommodation with all the chains is very disturbing to me.

Pity about the porcine poop. I can relate to what that must be like when I visit my Mom in Arkansas; chicken crap smell hits your nose with a vengeance.

So glad you loved the scenery and the culinary delights. I do wonder, though, if you and Bon Bon had anything to do with planting those stickers? ;-)

Fantastic Forrest said...

Hey - what's this about Blog Camp?

I want in.

kristina said...

wow, I'm extremely impressed by your very active holiday! it looks like a beautiful landscape - the sunflower field is lovely :-)

B said...

Yay! You are back!
I'm very impressed at how much you've done! I'm sure in years to come, you'll remember the good moments with the group, the food, the sense of achievement but not the sore legs!
I kind of like that you didn't take photos, I've been taking lots and wondering if I'm missing something because I'm always looking through the lens.

Anne said...

Gorgeous! Both the pictures and the writing. I love your descriptions. And I'm impressed with your persevering with the sore back and neck--those two are guaranteed to turn a pleasant ride into a suffer-fest. I start wishing for red lights just so that I can stand up straight and stretch out.

Speaking of things that can turn a nice ride into something unpleasant, that's too bad about the pervasive odors of the countryside. I don't think we noticed them when we were in Catalonia, but we stayed on the coast, which I suppose gets relief from fresh Mediterranean breezes.

I'm sure I'll be coming back to read this post again and again--part loving the post itself, part nostalgia for my trip to Spain, and part wishing to go on a similar bike trip (through Spain, France, Italy... I'm not terribly picky). Thank you for sharing the ups and downs of your adventure!

herhimnbryn said...

You are back!

Am so impressed with your 'tour de force', though not with the smell of pigs!!

Celeste Maia said...

How wonderful to have you back and best still to read your reactions to "contrasts of Catalunya", seeing your photos, and especially the ones of you looking so fit and Contador like!
Loved your descriptions, your writing certainly compensates the photos you did not take. I am so impressed that you did it, congratulations!

Lisa said...

What an adventure. I was wondering how the trip went. I'm going to use the word undulating today. Somehow.

And I, of course, had to look up the tomato bread recipe right off. Looks fabulous.

Kelly H-Y said...

Glad to hear you survived this bike trip and returned safely! What an experience! Gorgeous pics ... sorry about the smell, though!

Reya Mellicker said...

Reading your report (fabulous post, Bee) has convinced me that a biking holiday is definitely NOT for me.

However - chocolate cake for breakfast? Yum.

Too bad about the pork smell. Ewwww.

Hope you'll tell us a few more tales about your journey, as you remember them, of course.

Maggie May said...

I am IMPRESSED. WOW. The bravery of this is physical and mental- to trust that you could do this! That your legs wouldn't collapse ( mine surely would...? ) and those hills..ach..i love biking and this is a tremendous accomplishment. I love that your notes say 'misguided holidays' And nothing to do with anything but you are so pretty!

Bee said...

Thanks, friend, for all of the moral support. About the smell of pig poop: it completely put us of pork -- one of the specialties of the region. We ate lots of seafood, though!

Reya - I'm kicking myself for not asking for that chocolate cake recipe!!

Barrie said...

I loved reading about your holiday. I'm with Just a Plane Ride Away--you all deserve medals! I don't think I would've made it!

La Belette Rouge said...

You live such an adventurous and beautiful life. I hope you got massages everyday. Your poor legs. I can't imagine how you must have ached. But, now that the trip is over I am sure you will quickly forget the pain and treasure all the beautiful memories.

My Castle in Spain said...

oh my..this is quite exciting indeed and a good exercise for your legs!
too much exercise may be...
i was just in Barcelona last week and really wanted to stay more!

Alyson (New England Living) said...

You are so adventurous! I don't think I would sign up for that, but I think it's sad that I wouldn't. It's best to try different things, even if they make us uncomfortable at times.

I love that some of your fondest memories are of the food you ate. I believe I recall you saying that when you came to the northeast U.S. too. I'm the same way. My vacationing schedule often revolves around what food I'd like to eat and my family humors me.

I love that you are a Dutch biker at heart! Very clever!

Lucy said...

When we were primary school age and somebody plodded by laboriously on a bike we would call out 'Get off and milk it!'.

I am enormously impressed with you Bee. Cycling is good for the appetite isn't it?

Bee said...

Barrie - Oh, you would have!

La Belette Rouge - Strangely enough, no masseuse presented himself!

My Castle in Spain - I wonder if we passed each other on the street?

Alyson - I think that a few physical adventures are probably quite good for us, (but that doesn't mean we necessarily want to repeat them!).

Lucy - I am torn between laughing and grimacing! And yes, we ate HUGELY. No wonder I mostly remember the food. Although, as Alyson points out, I'm always most interested in the food anyway.

Polly said...

I've just realised I'm a week late with commenting on your post, but I'd still like to say - this sounds like a fantastic holiday.

I was in the same area (Catalunya, but more of the Pyrenees end of it) on a rock climbing holiday last year and loved it. Loved the food, loved the Spaniards and completely fell in love with Barcelona.

A Modern Mother said...

What a wonderful holiday. Don't you just love summer?