A Travellerspoint blog

Spain

What Bibs, Plastic Gloves and Spring Onions Have in Common

sunny 16 °C

I’m perched on a wobbly chair swigging from a cup of woody, red wine, eagerly anticipating what is to come. February has arrived and the Calçotada season is in full swing across Catalonia. I don’t really understand what I’m doing here, or what’s about to appear in front of me, but I’m resoundingly assured that it is something which is not to be missed, that it is a true celebration of Catalan cuisine. I glance around me, inquisitively taking in my surroundings. I’m at what appears to be some kind of farm/factory. Outside there are barrels filled with calçots, giant spring onions and a local delicacy, queuing up ready to be tossed onto a giant charcoal-smothered barbecue. Smoke and flavour billows through the air and weather beaten men stand around with pitch forks and shovels, prodding the prized veg and attending to their every need. Around me, are long tables filled with families and friends clamorously chattering, debating, gossiping, their cups and plates permanently brimming with whatever the waiter bestows upon them. I ponder whether the scene being acted out before me is indeed the definition of rustic?

Before long I’m presented with a giant bib and a pair of plastic gloves. I’m perplexed. I thought we were going out for a traditional Catalan meal? But I’m fervently advised that these items are not some kind of bizarre fashion statement, but a vital tool if I’m to avoid a disastrous outcome to the day. I process the information, but confusion still leads the way. Suddenly, the feast begins. Mountains of pa amb tomàquet, the famous local tomatoey bread, are brought to the table along with piles of robust, steaming artichokes. I mirror those around me and decorate my helping with a dash of salt and oil, not forgetting a dollop of hearty romesco sauce – the epitome of Catalan accompaniments. The starters are fantastic, abounding in simple, delicious homemade flavours, and naturally I help myself to seconds.

Soon the moment arrives to don my bib and gloves and I sense, that it’s show-time. There in my protective gear I feel like a surgeon about to start work on a patient. I look around at my friends – we all look ridiculous. Before long heaped silver platters piled high with calçots are noisily and ungracefully brought over by the waiters and plonked down in front of us. Suddenly it all makes sense. Suddenly I understand the need to dress up as some overgrown plastic baby – the calçots are filthy! Smeared in blacker than black charcoal from their barbecue expedition, they indeed could do some serious damage if they were to come into contact with my clothes. I begin to worry that they could even stain my face! And I inquire as to how you even go about attempting to eat a calçot? I’m told to watch and learn.

I copy the Calçotada veterans around me who are professionally and smoothly stripping the sodden outside layer of their chosen calçot away. Then, as if it were a perfectly normal way to eat, they raise their arm and dangle said spring onion from above, then nibble away from bottom to top. “You can’t be serious!” I utter. “What’s the point in that? Why can’t I just use a knife and fork?”. I receive bellowing laughter in response. I don’t get it. So, I try it their way. Impossible. I nearly poke myself in the eye with my calçot, and escape with a mere cheek splatter – which now means it’s smeared in charcoal. Seriously, how can the others chomp away so effortlessly? Maybe it’s just me being an idiot? By now my friends are on their second. I give up, and utilize my plate and cutlery. Gasps of horror and jests are thrown my way, but I’ll be the cleanest at the end of the day.

I have to admit, I wasn’t so sure about this whole barbecued spring onion business, and had severe doubts as to their tastiness. But, I am pleasantly surprised – they really are delicious! And along with the endlessly flowing cava they are going down a treat! Soon the waiters bring over trays of butifarra sausages, sizzling lamb chops, mounds of chips, and forests of salad, not forgetting the typical mongeta beans. There is literally no room on the table or my plate for any more food. But on it goes finding spaces wherever it can. The feast is overwhelming – a quintessentially rustic, country banquet, and I’m loving every minute of it! But I am so, so full that by now I feel like the Michelin man, as though I’m going to have to be rolled home, and when I’m offered desert and coffee I give a dazed shake of my head. It has been a fantastic and unforgettable experience, really giving me an insight into true Catalan culture. But if I eat anything else, I really am going to burst. So I bid thee farewell Calçotada, and shall see you again next year!

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Posted by lauracerys 07:03 Archived in Spain Tagged food spain catalonia rustic calçots cava Comments (0)

The Piste Novice

La Molina

snow -3 °C

A swirling gust grazes my ice-kissed cheeks and provokes an unnerving wobble and sway as I dangle from above. Beneath my bizarre-feeling over-sized feet lays a sugary quilt stretching far and high, and trimmed with snow-dusted conifers. Slowly but surely the distance between myself and the picture perfect flurry below becomes troublingly greater and I grasp my poles tighter, for dropping one now would be disastrous. As beautiful as the views from my seat are, the realization hits that I will soon have to attempt a smooth exit from my current position, and horror sets in as I realise I have now idea how to go about it. I begin to ask myself why on earth learning to ski seemed like such a good idea.

I approach the unloading station and try to position myself correctly with my equipment in the right places. But confusion and panic takes over and the confounding challenge of getting off the ski lift in one piece becomes overwhelming, and ultimately impossible. I tumble into a frosty heap and my jacket fills with snow. Brilliant. Scrambling around like a new born foal I try to stand up again, but it is frustratingly difficult when your hands and feet suddenly have two-meter-long attachments! Eventually I am gallantly helped to my feet by a monitor. He sees people like me coming a mile off, and deep down is no-doubt thinking to himself, ‘idiot’.

As I take a glance at the blizzard-blasted surroundings, the reality of my situation dawns on me. ‘I’m at the top of a mountain’. ‘There’s only one way down.’ ‘And I don’t even know how to start… let alone stop’. I shuffle and drag myself to the threshold of the piste and my stomach knots as I gaze downward. Oh God. Save me now. I slowly push off and try to remember what the instructor told me. Pizza-pizza-pizza-pizza! That’s the shape I need to make with my skis isn’t it?! That’s how you’re meant to control your speed isn’t it!? I can’t slow down! Why isn’t it working!? Bang.

‘Maybe this is what the face of a snowman feels like’, I think to myself as I lay amidst the snow. ‘Frosty. Drippy. Blurry.’ Great. I check all my limbs are intact and notice that I am now only wearing one ski. Weird. I could have sworn I was wearing two…? Suddenly I notice one a few meters further up the piste. Shit. That’s mine. One - how the hell am I going to get to it? And two – how am I going to stick it back on to my boot? I look around me, in the hope that some form of a solution will jump and out rescue me. And luckily it does. One of the pros sees me in my snowy heap and takes pity on me, smoothly picking up my ski and handing it to me without a falter, and then coolly swooshes on down like a slalom racer.

I try to push myself back up onto my feet, a seemingly impossible challenge whilst stranded on an icy slope. My knees begin to shudder and a tremble takes over my arms with the pressure of trying to lift myself from such a strange position. I eventually force myself up and my joints unleash a throb from the effort of such a physical feat. I lay out my abandoned ski in front of me, itself tricky thanks to my position on a slippery slant, and it nearly escapes and takes a long slide down to the bottom of the piste. I rescue it just in time.

I try everything to get my ski back on… pushing, forcing, crouching, shimmying. Why won’t it work? I get frustrated and impatiently slam my foot down. Click. I’m in. Success. But the glory is short lived as I look out at the long slope ahead. Slowly, cautiously, and no doubt with a ridiculous posture I attempt my descent once again. I’m trembling with fear and have no doubt forgotten to breathe. Meanwhile, a group of five-year-olds whiz past me, elegantly turning and curving without a care in the world. Embarrassing. How come they know what to do? How come they don’t fall? How come none of them will ever make a complete knob out of themselves? I’m picking up speed and attempt to turn myself into some kind of snow plough. Nothing seems to work. I can’t stop! It seems the only option is to just go with it, try to keep upright and hope for the best.

The wind howls as it crashes past my face and giant snow flakes bounce off my goggles fogging my vision. But there’s no time to worry about being able to see. I have to focus on staying alive! I’m accelerating no end and my joints rattle as the clattering contact between skis and slope sends ripples through my body. I feel like a kind of George of the Jungle meets Yeti character, propelling though the snow without a hint of grace. ‘Don’t fall! Don’t fall! Don’t fall!’ I say to myself, maybe even out loud.

Suddenly, and finally, the end is in sight. I can see the bottom of the piste. And the slope seems to be evening out. Yes, it’s getting flatter! And I’m slowing down! I pizza, I snow plough, I do whatever my legs are willing to and attempt to bring myself to a halt. And eventually, I stop. With incredulity I look around me. I glance back up at from whence I came. I did it! I actually made it down! I’m still quivering from the stress, but I feel like a legend. I! Me! I skied! I am officially cool! And surely if I did it once, I can do it again. Surely I can only get better!

And just like that the overwhelming fear of taking on the piste disappears, and I can’t wait to try it all over again!

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Posted by lauracerys 05:36 Archived in Spain Tagged mountains snow skiing ski catalonia piste la_molina Comments (0)

When The Bizarre Becomes Real

sunny 7 °C

When a giant feather-bower-embellished willy drives past, you know that Sitges Carnival is finally in full swing.

Spectators line the streets, packed against shop fronts donning inappropriate fancy dress, excitedly awaiting the big event. Suddenly soul-shuddering drums explode into blazing, palpitating rhythms and a grand display of the burlesque and the bizarre pulsates through the heart of the town. Radio-hogging tunes of the moment are blared out and clouded with tropical, salsa beats, and for a moment we forget that it’s winter and pretend that we are in a far off balmy destination grooving under exotic coconut trees. But alas, it’s cold and we make a mental note that next year our costume should be more weather appropriate. That will no doubt be forgotten though, as the exuberant fun and spirit of carnival will surely lead us astray.

Eccentric and fantastic floats squeeze through the brimming and awkwardly narrow streets with flamboyant confidence and ease. Booming with vivaciousness they wobble at times with the insatiable party spirit of carnival-goers. Truly impressive artistic feats pass before our eyes with theatrical flourishes and thunderous energy, and house a multitude of striking, vociferous characters. Glittering, sensational, outlandish and lurid they dance the night away, posing for cameras and rousing the atmosphere. As we take in the extravagant, celebratory surroundings colourful costumes excite and delight and leave us wanting more, eager to see what else will make its way down the street… and you can bet your bottom dollar, it’ll be increasingly ridiculous and outlandish. Mermaids, Mad-Hatters, Freddy Mercurys or peacocks, who knows what you may behold – at Sitges Carnival, it would seem that anything goes!

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Posted by lauracerys 12:55 Archived in Spain Tagged barcelona catalonia party carnival sitges Comments (0)

Los Reyes Magos

sunny 12 °C

When the decorations are boxed up again and the January blues well and truly kicked in in many countries, festivities are still in full swing across Spain, with the highlight of the season still to come – the Feast of the Kings, or Los reyes magos, to many, more important than Christmas Day and traditionally the time for exchanging presents. The eve of the 5th of January for Spanish children must be the most anticipated time of the whole year, where a magical parade of drama and spectacle, vivacious colours, and booming characters bring to life a century’s old tale in true flamboyant style. The spellbinding arrival of the gift-baring Three Kings to their town, accompanied by a dazzling entourage sometimes a thousand strong, must be overwhelmingly exciting for them, and provides a glittering and extravagant finale to the Christmas period.

A buzz of activity hums through the air all day long in preparation for the evening’s festivities, and excitement bubbles away reaching boiling point at around 6pm. Friends and families great and small choose their place wisely as they line the streets to await the theatrical parade of the Kings, the children’s fizzing enthusiasm and intrigue by now uncontrollable. Suddenly, the faint murmur of a drum is heard in the distance harmonising with rumours that they are finally on their way. Gradually the beat grows stronger, slowly developing into a grandiose, regal rhythm, announcing that royalty is indeed approaching. Trumpets galore break into a flourishing fanfare, and from around the corner appear the forerunners to the kings’ infinite party.

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Richly robed choruses file by at a triumphant pace, the endless members acting out well their royal duties. Colourful messengers carry the Christmas letters written by the children of the town. Horse riders try their best to look majestic whilst controlling their vessels amidst the crowds of people. Brass bands, wind bands, and troupes of drummers keep the momentum going and rouse the festive spirit of all around. Flag bearers tell us of the exotic origins of the kings and flame jugglers delight and warm us as they pass by.

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Soon the streets explode into a roar of excitement – the Kings are here! The hoards fervently cheer and applaud as the lively, glittering carriages approach, a true show on wheels. Their royal highnesses, Balthasar, Melchrior and Gaspar, wave to their fans like superstars showered in glory, embracing the emotion of their subjects with joyous, festive outcries. The locals go wild as the Kings hurl sweets into the air, stretching their finger tips up high to catch some or scrambling to the ground to scoop up any that escape them. Filling your pockets with as many as possible is a must. Some even go as far as hanging upside down umbrellas over their balconies for maximum sweet-catching potential.

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Los reyes magos is a truly magical evening where the whole town seem to come together to celebrate what for them is perhaps the most important part of Christmas. The awe-inspired look on children’s faces as the Kings float past is enough alone to create a wonderful atmosphere. But, the whole thing really is great fun for adults too, letting out the child in all of us. If there’s one thing Spain knows how to do well, it’s celebrate!

Posted by lauracerys 09:27 Archived in Spain Tagged spain catalonia christmas parade kings reyes_magos Comments (0)

The Catalan Castells

A fine balance between bravery and insanity

sunny 24 °C

So it’s that time of year again, and La Mercè festival takes over the city I now call home, Barcelona. A whole weekend of spectacular events showcases the city at its absolute best, and quaint old squares are crammed full of performances and party-goers alike, delighting in the unmissable excitement and revelry. Perhaps none more so than Plaça Sant Jaume brings to life the passion, fervour and unique traditions of Catalan culture with its breathtaking display of els castells, in other words, human castles.

Now, for a British person, the first time you find yourself at a castells demonstration, the effect is none other than jaw dropping. Your thoughts range from “They can’t be serious!” to “What about health and safety laws?” and finally to “Is that a five year old climbing up there?!” You would have thought that this reaction would have somewhat diluted over time, but I can firmly declare that it hasn’t. Are the castellers courageous heroes or just mad? I really can’t tell.

So, the aim of the game (it seems) is for teams to construct a specially designed human tower by standing on each others shoulders and making it as high as they possibly can – and believe me, the heights they reach are astounding!

Hoards of supporters and unexpecting foreign tourists fill Sant Jaume square ready for an unbelievable show. The competitors, who have come from every corner of Barcelona, gather in the centre for pep talks and last minute adjustments, eager to undertake the seemingly superhuman challenge ahead. Then finally the moment arrives, and the first movements are made by the structural members of the groups. A blanket of silence gradually covers the spectators. Nervous tension spreads throughout the square and a wind band starts up with traditional music that seems specifically composed to increase the feeling of anxiety in the air.

The castells grow, rapidly gaining height, and concentration is deep – one foot wrongly placed, even a split second loss of focus could lead to disaster. A tremor of muscles from the castellers and a wobble here and there releases a gasp of horror from the crowd, and the hair on the back of our necks stands on edge. Incredibly however, teams remain calm. The towers, now seven or eight levels high, are nearly complete, but the dramatic pinnacle is yet to come. Suddenly, small children, surely no more than five years of age, begin climbing each construction like monkeys, with petrified though determined looks on their faces. Their task is to reach the top of their tower, climb over the heads of the two highest members, raise their hand into the air and successfully descend the other side. And whilst this is taking place, the castles must remain intact – truly a gravity defying feat!

Excitement and fear grows in the crowd - foreign tourists tearing out their hair in incredulity, local aficionados wondering if teams will reach their personal bests. With a sigh of relief all children have made it down the towers. In one corner a team is successfully and meticulously deconstructing their castle, one by one detaching themselves carefully, as if it were a game of Kerplunk. And finally, a roar of euphoria as all members reach the ground in one piece. Arms shoot into the air ecstatically, in awe of the team who in the eyes of the crowd are superheroes. Suddenly however, something catches our eye. Another castle still stands. But something is wrong. It begins with a hint of doubt. A quiver nervously follows, leading to a slight shudder of a knee which dominoes the slip of hands and heels. A cry of panic from the crowd and the castle turns to ruin, painfully collapsing. Bodies tumble on top of one another forming a mountain of limbs and the audience hold their breath in despair. But, it is revealed that everyone is ok, and the fans cheer in admiration for the fallen. Then it is determinedly announced that they shall attempt the castle again! And the crowd are delighted.

Every time I see groups of castellers creating their human towers I am blown away. They truly are amazing. Crazy yes, courageous no doubt. And so perhaps it is fair to say that the Catalan people have invented with their castells the perfect balance between bravery and insanity.

I won’t be joining a team anytime soon.

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Posted by lauracerys 06:08 Archived in Spain Tagged barcelona spain catalonia catalan els_castells castells sant_jaume la-merce Comments (0)

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