The grape vines that we helped to prune last year were now due for harvest (vindimia), so we flew back to Extremadura in Spain to see if our efforts had been successful. It was a long drive from Madrid and we didn’t arrive at John’s finca until the small wee hours, but there was still time for a nice glass of wine before bed. In the morning we met the rest of the crew and headed out onto the slopes.
We’d heard that the vines had had a bad year, and at first we were a bit nervous that this was down to our pruning efforts, but it soon emerged that it wasn’t just “our” vines that had suffered, and indeed all the other local vineyards had also been hit by the dry growing season.
Last time we’d seen these vines, they were little more than gnarled stumps dotting the hillside. It was fascinating to see how they had responded to our pruning, with two leafy stems springing a metre or more from each carefully selected nub. Some stems were bare of fruit, many held only a bunch or two, but some were weighed down with grapes.
A few of the bunches had been attacked by fungus, and could not be harvested. A badly timed frost had wiped out many of the tempranillo buds, while leaving the other varietals intact. Up on one slope, a surprising quantity of fruit had sustained some kind of physical damage despite being protected by nets, so we cut out the bad ones before tossing the good fruit into the basket.
Soon our hands, clothes and tools were dripping in sticky juice under the hot autumn sun. Pausing occasionally to snack on fresh figs or swig water from bottles, we laboured on until the tractor trailer was crammed with sacks of fruit.
Friends arrived from a neighbouring finca, bringing still more friends, and we tucked in to a table groaning with food, washed down with cold beer.
Then we needed all hands on deck to unload the grapes from the sacks into buckets, pour them into the crusher, tote away the buckets of stalks, ensure that each grape made several passes through the machine, and finally convey the buckets of sweet juice to the wine vat.
Everything depends on getting this right, and so it is intense and focussed, but also great fun. In the short breaks between unloading each sack of fruit, I looked around the sunny courtyard filled with busy smiling people, and it seemed that I could feel the presence of generation after generation of winemakers, all meeting in this place at this time of year to begin the magic.
Five hundred litres of grape must later, it was time to make up a batch of yeast and start the fermentation process. The vats would now need to be stirred every two hours for the next couple of days, so John wouldn’t get much sleep but it’s worth it to get decent quality wine.
WIth the main tasks completed, it was time to take the children on a tractor ride while we started to tidy up and hose down. When the kids returned, they took over the clean-up, although possibly the dogs and children may have ended up wetter than the equipment.
Later that evening, the neighbours threw a party which went well into the night, drinking wine and chatting under the stars. We didn’t emerge from our beds until the following afternoon, briefly considered clearing up the nets from the vineyard, and then put that off ’til tomorrow in favour of a hike up to the old Roman dam. On the way back down, we collected blackberries to make jam, and set them boiling while we settled down to yet another sumptuous meal. There isn’t anything quite as relaxing as a lazy evening at the finca.
We needed to find a hotel somewhere between Seville and Malaga, and stopped off half way at a town called Antequera. This was an almost random choice, but we liked it so much that we stayed on. It’s a lovely town, founded by the Romans as Antikara, we infer as a midway garrison between the olive groves of the centre and the trading ports of the coast. There are few Roman remains there now, but there are a plethora of city walls, churches and cathedrals, all clambering picturesquely up the steep hillside to the castle.
The hotel were keen to direct us toward a nearby restaurant, but we were put off by the coach parking and English menus. Instead we located a couple of nice little bars, cafes, and a superb Michelin recommended restaurant, the Restaurante Reine. This latter is part of a Hospitality School, and when we arrived early and off season there was only one waitress on duty. As far as we could tell, the three of us were the only people in the restaurant, and yet she not only cooked seven impeccable courses but also appeared with the decanter at perfect intervals, and by the time we’d finished our coffees, the kitchen had already been scrubbed clean.
The most popular tourist destination in the area is El Torcal, a wide area of Jurassic limestone that has been eroded into classic and picturesque karst formations. There are two circular hiking routes through the system, and we took the longer 4.5 km one. The sign said that it would take two hours to complete the circuit, and – perhaps uniquely in the history of national parks – it actually did. This is because there is no real path, just markers sticking up as you scramble from rock to rock, and there are innumerable side tracks, tunnels, caves, and high points to be explored.
I understand that it is often too hot to visit in summer, but in January the temperature was only just above freezing. We soon warmed up, and made it round just as dusk was falling and the clouds were moving in.
Just down the road from El Torcal is Lobo Park, which is a collection of wolves from around the world. All of them are captive-bred, often cubs taken from zoos that don’t have enough room for them. The owners then bottle-feed them so that they become accustomed to humans, although not domesticated. Once released into one of the many large enclosures, the wolves range freely in packs. Our guide explained that they had already fed this week, but she brought a bucket of meat scraps with her and – although wild – they were happy to come close to the fence for a snack.
When we were about half way around the park, all of the wolves in the entire valley suddenly started howling, an explosion of joyous sound to which it was impossible not to grin in response. It reminded me of the excitement of sled dogs when they realise that they’re about to go for a run, but what were these wolves so interested in? Our guide, also grinning, explained that the park’s owner, Daniel, had just entered the property. Because he has bottle-fed every one of them almost from birth, he has a very special place in their psyche.
A chance meeting at a party, and we found ourselves driving to the Extremadura region of Spain to help prune grape vines. Extremadura lies to the centre of the country, butting up against Portugal. It is effectively a desert, with high summer temperatures and frequent droughts. These conditions are excellent for the production of wine, particularly dark reds from tempranillo and garnacha grapes, and our friend John needed a hand pruning his vines ahead of the spring growing season.
John has thousands of vines, and a competent person can prune about ten an hour, so there was a lot to do, especially as Bronwyn and I were complete beginners. However, John was a patient tutor and we soon got the hang of it.
There is a lot more to vine pruning than just hacking off the old growth. You have to evaluate the state of the vine, try to figure out what the last pruner was trying to achieve, make your own decision about what you want to achieve in terms of the number of branches and the direction that you’d like them to grow in, and then cut away everything that gets in the way of your chosen result. This includes cutting away useless suckers and last year’s stumps, sawing off failed branches, stacking stones under the trunks so that they don’t sit in ground water, and judiciously knocking off any tiny buds that will ruin the final shape. It’s not physically hard, but mentally more taxing than you would think, and sometimes we found ourselves sitting down next to a plant and talking to it while we tried to figure out the best way of encouraging it to grow a good crop.
The days quickly formed a pattern which went: Drink wine from the vat and laugh until the small wee hours; sleep til midday; prune vines til dusk; repeat.
John also makes some excellent olive oil, but some of the eating olives had been sitting in brine for too long, so Bronwyn spent a pleasant afternoon rinsing and re-packing them.
We did also find time for some long tramps around the countryside, and for foraging trips to the local markets. On one rainy day when pruning would have been a chore, we climbed up to a Roman dam that had been built at the top of a local creek. Despite the soaking wet foliage, we attempted a cross-country route which took us hiking through ancient olive groves and clambering over fallen rocks, discovering on the way an old embankment which might just have been the Romans’ original construction road. After some laughs and spills, we did finally make it to the dam, which is in remarkable condition considering its age. There is a slot that obviously used to contain a sluice, which has been slightly widened out at the bottom by thousands of years of erosion.
Deep in the heart of the Extremadura desert, the little town of Trujillo is famous as the birthplace of Pizarro and other conquistadores. Far from being the cream of Spain’s military forces, the invaders of the Inca and Maya nations were often penniless Extremaduran farmers who had been suffering from years of drought. Although a few were poor gentry or at least soldiers, many had no experience of either sailing or war, and few either survived or made their fortunes. Those that did return, spent their gold prodigiously, building castles and palaces on the hill above Trujillo, with fountains and pleasure gardens. Sadly those that returned were also ignorant of the ways of wealth and investment, and after a very few years the gold ran out, and they moved out of their palaces and back down into their farms.
The result of this curious historical legacy is that the little town is architecturally much grander than it might otherwise have been. The last time that I was here, most of the palaces were still in ruins, but since then Trujillo has been visited by relative prosperity, and many of them have been restored.
Despite my many perambulations across the length and breadth of Spain, I have always avoided visiting Seville. This was not because I didn’t want to go there, which I emphatically did, particularly because I wanted to see the site of the 1992 Expo. I wanted to do the city more justice than a day trip while on my way to somewhere else. Serendipity tossed in a few days to kill while driving from Trujillo to Malaga, so we thought that we might as well spend them in Seville.
On our arrival by car, we got thoroughly lost in the tiny alleys of the old town, a warren of one-way systems and dead ends. As we reversed out of yet another pedestrian walkway, We swiftly realised that if we indulged our usual plan to take a hop-on hop-off bus, we would miss all the interesting old parts of the city, because there was no way a bus would fit down them. Once we eventually ditched the car in a car park that was more expensive than our city-centre hotel, we decided instead to rent a bicycle tour guide.
We arrived at the bike store to discover that we were the only clients that morning. Because of this, and because “you are young and can cycle”, our guide Antonio decided that instead of simply doing the normal city tour, we would also tour some of the lesser known sights and take in the 1992 Expo. This would mean stepping up the pace a bit, but he thought that it was probably do-able.
The 1992 Expo
The Expo was pivotal in the formation of modern Seville. Until then, the city was a bit of a nowhere place, with no particular crop or market to distinguish it from its neighbours. In fact, through its long and chequered history, there have been periods of hundreds of years when the city didn’t exist at all, particularly after the river port silted up and all the excise business moved to Cadiz.
Then Seville hosted the Expo. The government co-opted the rather beautiful premises of the local ceramics factory and issued invitations. Hundreds of countries built pavilions to showcase their wares. The French brought an Ariane rocket, the Japanese built the largest wooden structure in the world, and the Australians opened a bar. The Expo was an immense success, and kick-started Seville’s tourist industry in such a way that it never looked back.
Although many of the pavilions were taken home after the festivities were over, some were left behind. One notable case was the Australian pavilion, a bar with one month’s licence which had been such a success that the owner skipped town with all the proceeds, leaving behind all his staff with no wages or tickets home. They petitioned the government, and received permission to continue operating the bar for a full year, so that they could recoup their losses.
There are also some buildings dating back to the 1929 Expo, which was a showcase of all the Spanish nations, plus a couple of extra invitees such as Israel (which did not then yet exist as a country). Plaza de España is a tremendous edifice built in a mixture of styles including Mudéjar, which is a beautiful faux-Moorish architecture popular in the city. The Plaza is now largely used as government offices but the canal is a popular spot for rowing. Antonio told us that, when he was growing up, this was a good first date where you could attempt to splash water on your girl’s top to make it more transparent.
Everybody we met told us that a visit to Seville was not complete without a visit to the Alcázar (Royal Palace), so we spent an afternoon poking around in it. Originally a Moorish fort, the Alcázar consists of many Arab courtyards with water features and mosaic tiling, surrounded by extensive gardens. Even in winter it is quite a lovely space.
Sevillians have an interesting theory about the history of their city. They maintain that it was founded by Hercules, who was a refugee from Atlantis (Tharsis) which had been flooded with sand by a tidal wave. The story goes that Hercules set up twelve trading centres around the Mediterranean, which became entangled in the Twelve Labours of legend, with the founding of Seville somehow related to cleaning out the Augean Stables. Sevillians also recognise that much of their infrastructure was implemented by Julius Caesar, and there are statues to both of these founders at one end of the Alameda de Hercules.
The cathedral is sometimes touted as the largest gothic cathedral in the world. However, it was pointed out to us that (a) only a small part of the cathedral is gothic, and (b) since the Vatican is by definition the largest cathedral in the world, Seville was not allowed to consecrate the whole building. Still, it’s an impressive pile with a great tower.
But what about the oranges? Seville’s name is inseparable from the orange fruit, and the trees are everywhere. However, none of them are edible. It is alleged that they were introduced during a period of Arab rule, when the pith of the sour oranges was used to provide acid for the production of gunpowder.
There are plenty of tourist-trap restaurants in Seville, but by ignoring any place that was on a main street or advertised an English menu, we managed several respectable crawls of lovely little bars. We drank copious copas of good Rioja, and ate innumerable tapas of (usually) Iberian ham and cheese. The locals were always welcoming, and obviously proud of their place in their blossoming city.
One of the delights of travelling in southern Spain is the architectural contrast caused by repeated waves of Arab and Christian colonisation. For instance, the Arabs might hold sway for a few hundred years, incorporating pre-existing Roman stones into their mosque. Then the Christians might arrive, knock down the mosque, and use not only the pre-dressed stone but also enslaved Arabic stone masons to rebuild a cathedral. Of course, the Arab stone masons only know how to build in their own style, they know nothing of Gothic architecture, and so inevitably the cathedral gains an Arabic flavour. A few hundred years later, the Arabs might return, knock down the cathedral, enslave all the Christian stone masons, and build a mosque, with the same result. Some of the most wonderful examples of Spanish architecture, such as the Alhambra in Granada, are the product of this kind of history.
The history of the Mezquita Mosque-Cathedral in Cordoba is probably unique. When Christians invaded the currently Arabic city, they appreciated the beauty of the current mosque, and instead of demolishing it wholesale, they decided to incorporate much of the original building into their new cathedral. They kept the outer orange gardens, and also the inner courtyard. The courtyard was open to the outside world in the Arabic style, so they filled in the external arches with chapels in the Catholic style. Finding that they were unable to conduct Christian worship with all the sight-lines blocked by arches, they knocked out the centre and added a cathedral-style tower, dome and choir. The result is a gorgeous blend of the two architectural styles.
The most obvious feature of the Mezquita is the outer courtyard of double arches. The 856 columns of jasper, onyx, marble, and granite (constructed using pieces of the pre-existing Roman temple, plus others from the nearby Mérida amphitheatre) are connected with red and white striped arches. Much of the striping derives from the use of differently coloured of bricks, but in some of the outlying areas, where money was tighter, the stone has been painted instead. Either way, the result is stunning.
The original mosque had a really beautiful mihrab or prayer niche, which has been retained in the current cathedral.
In the middle of the mosque, the Christian invaders then built the heart of a cathedral, retaining many of the original mosque’s features.
Photographs don’t really do this place justice. You have to visit and soak up the ambience. A beautiful corner of the world, one of those true architectural delights.
The January weather in England was typically dire, and neither of us were working, so we rented a flat in Malaga. The idea was to spend a relaxing few weeks just hanging out in the sun and learning Spanish. We got a cheap flight and before we knew it we were ensconced in a nice little apartment in the centre of the city.
Although we’d only recently been in Malaga on another jaunt and still remembered our way around, we thought that we’d take a guided bicycle tour of the city with Malaga Bike Tours, which proved to be a lot of fun. Coincidentally it was also a bank holiday, el Dia de los Reyes, which is the day that Spanish children open their Christmas presents, and so the town was empty and quiet. Our guide, Izzy, was very relaxed and more than happy to sit around waiting in the sun while we nipped off to examine the inside of churches or explored the botanical gardens.
Malaga and indeed much of southern Spain was Moorish territory for hundreds of years before the Christians pushed this far south, and so the architecture is often a blend of the two architectural styles. When Mosques in particular were captured, they were often simply re-purposed as churches with little amendment. The result is that the churches are often a lot more colourful and intricately carved than is usual even in Catholic Europe.
On the other hand, Malaga’s cathedral was built from the ground up, the project taking long enough that it embraces the Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque styles, until finally the project ran out of money when building the second of the planned two towers. The cathedral quickly gained the affectionate nickname La Manquita (the cripple), and when much later the authorities planned to finish the tower, there was an outcry and she was left alone to this day.
The city is bisected by the Guadelmedina river, which in common with most of the watercourses that descend from the mountains of Malaga is really a dry wadi, particularly since it has been dammed to form a water supply. An attempt has been made to turn the dry river bed into a recreational area with grass and fountains, but unlike the rather splendid linear park in Valencia, the architects haven’t really pulled it off. All that remains is a beaten-up and graffiti-strewn strip of rubble that is largely used by dog-walkers and skateboarders.
Of course two of the wonders of Spain are the meat and seafood. Pictured below is a meat platter that we ordered in a little roadside bar, and a squid platter that we ordered in a cabana on the beach.
High above the city are two castles or palaces, the Alcazaba and the Gibralfaro, joined by a slender double-wall that snakes up the ridge between them, a little reminiscent of the Great Wall of China. Originally built by the Arabs, they have been repaired and rebuilt many times across the centuries, resulting in an interesting mish-mash of styles. Even the original builders incorporated pillars and dressed stone from an earlier Roman amphitheatre.
The palace, now only a shell, must have been stunning in its day. Even now, little fountains play in the courtyards, and tiny artificial streams run in channels down the centre of every mosaic path. It is a very beautiful and relaxing place.
Although originally you could walk along the defensive wall between the two castles, that path (Le Coracha) is now closed to visitors. However, a switchback of marble tiles takes you along the south side of the wall, with views out over the port and bull ring.
There isn’t too much left of the palace itself, but a walkway along the fringing wall is worth it for the views.
Jardin Botánico-Histórico La Concepción Out beyond the northern suburbs of Malaga lies La Concepción, the world-famous botanical gardens created back in 1855. Climbing up the side of a steep hill, the gardens comprise a network of little paths and streams crammed with biological specimens from all over the world, all luxuriating in the balmy Malaguese climate.
It took us a while to get out there, because rather than take either of the direct buses, we inadvertently chose the slow stopping bus which eventually dropped us in a nearby suburb, but local buses are always an adventure, and we happened to get off outside a farmer’s market which allowed us to buy cherries for lunch.
We spent the whole afternoon wandering around the gardens, enjoying the different collections and relaxing in shaded corners to enjoy the views.
Hammam al Andalus
And finally, what better way to recover from a hard day’s tourism than to relax in an Arab bath house? We visited the Hammam al Andalus several times. There are hot, warm and cold pools, hot stone slabs, and a steam room. The interior is just beautiful and there’s nothing quite as relaxing as lying floating in a hot pool while gazing up at the intricately carved domed ceilings.
We also indulged in a few kessa massages, which involve a series of gentle and relaxing sensations. First hot water is gently poured over you body, then you are covered in an enormous lather bubble which pops gently against your skin, before finally being scoured by an exfoliating glove… and repeat. It is superbly relaxing. If we lived here, we would go every week.
The Queen Elizabeth pulled in to Malaga dock, and we hopped off to explore the city. Most of the passengers jumped into the line of waiting taxis and buses, but we chose instead to stroll along the sea defences to the old lighthouse that marks the beginning of the town.
Underneath the lighthouse, a cheerful man had lit a fire in an old rowing boat – a tradition along this coast – and was cooking fish for sale in the neighbouring cafe.
I had vague childhood memories of tower blocks and traffic, so I was prepared to be unimpressed, but in fact we both instantly felt at home in this happy, vibrant town. The visitor from the sea instantly finds himself in the exotic gardens of Malaga Park. This was built at the end of the nineteenth century when it was realised that most of the citizens of the city could not afford to visit the wonderful Botanical Gardens that are situated to the north of the town. To this end, the local ship owner instructed his captains to bring back trees from whatever part of the world they found themselves in, as they shipped their cargoes across the seas. The result is a lovely strip of very exotic trees, scattered with mosaics, fountains and sculptures.
The most obvious building in town is the cathedral, known locally as ‘The Cripple’ because it was never finished and is missing a tower. Built over such a long period that each facade is from a different architectural era, the interior of the cathedral is awe-inspiring. There are dozens of altars and chapels, and an incredible ceiling that just makes you want to lie on the ground and stare.
We didn’t really have time to visit the Alcazabar (castle) on this occasion, but we did nose around in the Roman amphitheatre below it, and the recent archaeological discovery of enormous stone vats that were used for brewing a famous fish sauce, the recipe for which has since been lost to antiquity.
With only a day to spend in Malaga, we finished our trip by visiting the striking group of buildings known as the ‘ABC’, for ‘Ayuntamiento, Banco, Correos‘ (Town Hall, Bank, Post Office).
Then, as was normal for this whistle-stop voyage, it was back to the ship for dinner.
Since Adam had secured himself a contract in Mallorca, it seemed rude not to visit him, so one weekend I packed a toothbrush and set off for Palma. After an initial foray around the bars of the city and a few hours of kip, we ate some painkillers, bought some sunglasses, and headed off to explore the island.
Despite the hordes of English and German tourists that line its shores, Mallorca is still very much a Spanish (or, in view of its somewhat partisan nature, I should say Catalan) island. Tourism is highly concentrated in a few definite areas, leaving the rest of the island relatively unspoilt. Only relatively few visitors bother to hire a car and explore the interior, which is a pity. Or not, depending on your point of view.
The island itself consists mainly of a flat plain, edged along the western seaboard by a small mountain range. Scattered here and there across the flat portion are little isolated outcrops of rock, each standing high and proud above the terrain, and each equipped with a lonely castle, hermitage, chapel or convent. Many of these buildings are exquisitely decorated, and a privilege to visit.
Palma itself, the capital of Mallorca, retains a strong local flavour. The old town, although replete with restaurants and the inevitable Irish bars, has a genuinely busy Catalan night life that remains largely unaffected by the huge parties and clubs in the nearby resort of Magaluff, although you’re as likely to meet a resident ex-pat as a true local. They go all night, too. At five in the morning, street life resembles mid-evening in any northern European city, apart of course from the comfortable temperature and the universally happy faces.
In the daytime, the castle-like cathedral dominates the Palma skyline. The inside, however, somehow disappoints, even though all the right ingredients are there. Intensely coloured windows high up in the walls refract coloured light onto the ceiling, but it only seems to plunge the many monuments and chapels into gloomy darkness. Having said that, the altar major is exceedingly impressive, a Woodroffe-esque flight of oil lamps circling above the altar amid a sculpture of sails and reeds.
We pretty much circumnavigated the island over the weekend, and were presented with a continuous barrage of breathtaking views. Here are couple from the northern coast.
Hidden away in one corner of the western mountain range is a spectacular road. Aptly named Sa Calobra (The Cobra), it plummets via a knot-work of switchback hairpins from the heights down to the sea. There isn’t much to see at the bottom, but that isn’t important, it is the road itself that is the whole point of the journey. This area is made from a brittle white limestone that is scarred by rainfall and sculpted into the most amazing shapes. Sadly for this record, we descended in the gathering dusk and so I don’t have too many pictures, but if you’re ever on Mallorca with access to any vehicle at all, my advice is simple: drive it down The Cobra. You won’t regret it.
The taxi arrived at five in the morning, but most of us had been partying all night so we were already awake. Showing few signs of life, and in some cases far from sober, six smelly blokes were decanted onto the Boeing 767 to Barcelona, and three hours later were shambling down La Rambla, Barcelona’s main drag, in search of beer.
After a fairly extensive bar crawl into the late afternoon, we grabbed a couple of hours kip and then headed out for the evening’s entertainment. It was, we discovered, fiesta time in Barcelona. La Rambla was packed, not only with tourists and locals but also with musicians, buskers and street performers. Most impressive were the various sets of stilt dancers, performing complex rhythmic manoeuvres while dressed in outrageously coloured costumes. Followed by cunningly contrived mobile music machines (imagine a cross between a stage sound system and a bicycle), they swept through the crowd, terrorising passers-by with their demonic appearance and scattering firecrackers and confetti with gay abandon.
At the seaward end of La Rambla is a pontoon that leads out to an artificial island in the harbour, a colourful line of bars and clubs known as La Moll d’Espanya. Entry is free, the atmosphere is friendly, and you are practically encouraged to wander from club to club, in an extension of the traditional evening perambulation. However, I wasn’t in the mood for dance music, so I left the others to it and headed off down to the quayside, where live bands were gearing up for the evening. After a little wandering, I settled on one band that interspersed creditable renditions of rock classics with traditional Spanish flamenco songs. An unusual mixture, but it really got us dancing.
Much later, I grabbed a few hours of sleep at the hotel, and then was awoken by the others returning from their raving at around 6:30am. I took the opportunity to get up, grab a coffee , and head out on foot to the Sagrada Familia.
For those who have never been there, this is Gaudi’s crowning masterpiece. They have been building this weirdly organic cathedral to his original plans for around a century, and it is the most truly impressive piece of modern construction that I have ever seen. Each individually shaped stone is hand-moulded on site from concrete, and then winched into place. The first seven towers already grace the skyline like the arms of a stone octopus, and millions of tourists regularly clamber up the labyrinthine stone staircases, emerging onto trick balconies and buttress bridges high above the city.
It had been five years since my last visit, and a fair amount had been achieved. The central space in what had previously been a bare shell now contained many floors of construction, an extra crane, and more scaffolding than I have ever seen in my life. At two points they had built high enough to incorporate what looked like the first supports for the central dome. For the first time, I began to believe that the cathedral may be finished in my lifetime.
From the central Cyprus Tower my eyes once more followed the tree-lined Avenue Gaudi to the impressive building standing at the end. Usually it has been mid-summer and I’ve been wearing bike leathers, and so I’ve never actually walked up the avenue to see what it was, but this time it was below 30C and I was equipped with T-shirt and shorts, so once back at ground level I set off to find out. It was well worth it. The Hospital de Sant Pau is a genuine working example of Catalan architecture, beautifully embellished with multicoloured mosaics. There was something immensely pleasing about the juxtaposition of gothic architecture and modern ambulance equipment.
I was now in a mood for walking. Clear across town is Gaudi’s last civil project, the apartment block called La Perdera. I had never been inside, so I spent a happy couple of hours exploring the apartments and clambering round on the roof before repairing to the building’s coffee lounge for a restorative sandwich. As I paid my bill, I heard firecrackers outside, a sure sign of a fiesta parade. Hurrying outside, I came across a huge construction like a hamster-wheel with a brightly dressed gnome inside. Various parts of the structure were wired to a drum machine, which he played by jumping around and hitting them. Two more gnomes high up on one of the Perdera balconies acted out a play about Father Time, and a band of black-clad men pushed oil drums in wheelbarrows while their partners beat enthusiastic percussion with hammers. They were the vanguard for another gnome standing in an enormous head constructed of white polypropylene bottles, pushed along at the top of a small crane by a group of struggling men. As if this wasn’t enough, a silver-clad girl floated by suspended from a big white helium balloon. When they do a parade in Spain, they do it in style.
Having crossed half the city, I decided to finish the job and go to the park which sits on a hill overlooking the south-western suburbs. I had heard that there was another Gaudi church there, and this was as good as an excuse as any. When I arrived in the Place d’Espanya, it was clear that something was going to happen. All the way up the long series of steps leading to the palatial National Catalan Art Museum, engineers were scurrying around preparing thousands of fireworks. Halfway up the avenue, the concert speakers hanging from every lamppost emitted an ear-shattering crash and then launched into mind-numbing rock music. This was a sound-check as sound-checks are meant to be. There were a couple of dozen passers-by strolling along the enormous avenue, and none of us could resist a bit of a dance as the music swept irresistibly through our small frail bodies. After establishing that they were laying the groundwork for a son et lumiere spectacular the following evening, I continued my search for La Poblo Espanya, which turned out to be an artificial mountain village.
For the 1929 Expo, copies of buildings from all the different regions of Spain had been crammed together into one place. Each region had shops selling crafts local to its area, and although it was all a bit Disney it wasn’t a bad rendition of a genuine Spanish village. The Gaudi church was nice too.
From La Poblo Espanya there is a path that runs along the hillside to a cable car down to the seafront, but as I was ambling along I bumped into a couple of lost American ladies who gave me the return half of their ticket on the funicular, an alternative route down which I took with an Australian couple who were on month three of a two-year round-the-world trip.
Once back on La Rambla, I was suddenly at a bit of a loss. I sat in a pavement bar for a while, waiting for something interesting to happen, but eventually decided that what I really needed was a good meal. After some searching I found a decent restaurant in a large square, and ordered myself a good feast washed down by some Faustino 1.
Another lone guy sat down at the next table. He turned out to be a German called Ralf, an oil-worker in Aberdeen on his way back from an off-road motorcycle tour of Andorra. We got on pretty well, so after dinner we set off together to check out the quayside bands and bars, finally ending up outside one of the bars on the Moll d’Espanya drinking half-pints of whiskey and watching the girls go by.
Unfortunately, at 2am I realised that my bag had disappeared from beneath our feet, containing my camera, phone and, worst of all, the last two rolls of exposed film. A trip to the police station revealed that the English-speakers didn’t work nights, so I headed back to the hotel for a few hours of bed. The others rolled in again at 6am, so I got up and after a much-needed coffee returned to the police station to give my statement. The waiting room was full of people who’d had their bags and cameras stolen at the same time and the same place; so there must have been a gang of streamers operating on the parade that night.
Back at the hotel, the others were just getting up, and since they’d spent the previous day shopping rather than sightseeing I took them on the metro to the Sagrada Familia, borrowing a camera to re-take some of the shots that I’d lost. We then moved on to the Park Guell and spent a pleasant sunny afternoon ambling around Gaudi’s structures before heading back to the hotel for a change of clothing.
It was now that we discovered that the lock had jammed on our room’s safe. Sealed inside were our passports and plane tickets, and since it was now Sunday night and we were due to check out at 8am Monday morning, we were understandably perturbed. However, with a little effort I managed to get reception to arrange for a locksmith to turn up at 7am, hopefully giving us enough time to catch our plane, and we set off for the Place d’Espanya and the promised firework display.
The square and the avenue were packed with people. The music began, and the large fountain complex in front of the museum, bottom-lit by coloured lights, began to dance. Music of many different styles was mixed together higgledy-piggledy, perfectly traced by the finely controlled fountains. This was all rather impressive, but it was only a taster for the main event. After a long pause to sort out some technical problems, the music began once again. Starting with early classical tunes, the show moved through the years with medleys of musical styles from each period, concentrating on a Catalan theme, while the fountains danced and above them the fireworks flamed and exploded in time to the music. It was a huge spectacle, with all sorts of unusual fireworks, and enough different styles of music to keep everybody happy.
Marshalls had been moving through the crowd giving out sparklers to all and sundry, and round about the nineteen-sixties a Catalan anthem began, and everybody lit up. Unfortunately, my sparkler turned out to be defective, and exploded into an eighteen-inch fireball. No sooner had it started then it was over, leaving me with two naked sticks and a hand that looked like a barbecued trout. I made a beeline for the ambulance. The packed crowds magically parted before me; clearly the expression on my face brooked no argument. It felt like the charring had gone deep, but there was no pain as yet and I wanted to get treatment before it started.
The paramedics smothered everything in cream and bandages as the fireworks climaxed and the next victims began to arrive. Clearly there was a bad batch of sparklers out there. I was sent off to find the hospital, trailing the rest of our group behind me; walking fast to take my mind off the pain.
The surgeon poked about, removed the worst bits of charred flesh, and after pronouncing that I would live, I was back on the street with an enormous bandage.
Two fingers were badly blistered, the end of my thumb was charred, and my middle finger had a big hole stretching for a couple of joints but on the whole I was in one piece. I had got off more lightly than one other guy, whose entire hand looked like a piece of flame-grilled chicken. I desperately wanted a beer, and would have been happy with the nearest bar (it was after all 2am) but the other guys had been sitting in a hospital waiting room for an hour and a half and wanted to head back down to La Rambla. Suddenly tired, I took some cans to my room and drank them in bed, noting with relief that the locksmith had already been, and that our passports were all intact. Eventually I dozed off until the guys came back, and then within hours we were back on a plane, heading for the office and a bright new day.