¡Viva España!

Monday 16th January 2006, Ambre-les-Espagnolettes
This is almost certainly the last entry from here. We have been intending to move on into Spain during the week but the incessant rain and the hope of seeing Karen and Doug again, due back from their travels any day, has made us indecisive about when to leave. The matter has been settled for us however when our house-owner rang yesterday to say they will be arriving tomorrow to attend the funeral of a local friend. In such circumstances we obviously feel our absence would be appreciated more than our presence so we are busy preparing to move on.

Yesterday was Jill’s birthday and Christine and Mostyn joined us for lunch to help it feel like a birthday. We met in the rain at the St. Chinian Sunday market where for 10 euros we found a huge remnant of soft green material, perfect for covering Modestine’s back seats - her present covers have become very shabby. We all warmed up with hot drinks at the Balcons café, which was fuggy, crowded, smoky and steaming with wet customers as we sat in a corner absorbing the usual cheerful atmosphere, so very different from an English café. At the back of the room young men played billiards, while in a corner by the bar others crowded around the overhead television watching football. The barman handed out tapas to everyone and slid between the crowded tables remembering everyone’s order and delivering beers, coffees and harder stuff with his usual pleasant smile.

Back in Ambre we sat in the cosy kitchen with glasses of delicious, vintage wine from our local wine supplier – a Christmas present from Doug and Karen. The rain fell ceaselessly throughout the day and during lunch we received the phone-call that decided us that we must move on at once. Christine and Mostyn generously suggested we could stay with them for a few days but they are going to England on Friday anyway, and once we have packed to leave here we may as well head on with our travels.

Tuesday 17th January 2006, Estartit, Catalunya
Jill threw a bendy today … says Ian!
Well would you blame me after driving round the hairpin bends of the French Côte Vermeille into Spain and continuing along similarly scenic and difficult terrain in a camper van that needs careful manipulation and nurturing to get her safely round? Meanwhile Ian the navigator admires the scenery until we arrive, after a brake-burning decent, at Cadaquez, a place Jill has long wished to visit, only to be told the nearest all-year campsite is an hour’s drive away and darkness will fall in less than that! Unless we sleep rough, there is no alternative but to leave without even getting out of Modestine as all the hotels around seem closed for the season and it would be terrifying to drive these roads in the dark!

Anyway, to summarise the rest of the day…
We packed up Modestine and called to say goodbye to Mme. J. at her wine cave around the corner. She really is a charming lady and has done so much to make our stay in Ambre a happy one. (Who couldn’t be happy spending each evening with a glass of her wonderful wine?) She had already given us a bottle of their special reserve as a farewell present yesterday and today we gave her an azalea from the nursery in St. Chinian as we said goodbye and left her the keys to return to our house-owners when they arrive tonight.

We followed much the same route as last week, avoiding the motorways and skirting Narbonne and Perpignan and following the twisting coastline around past Collioure and Cebère, the sea on one side, high mountainside on the other. The scenery was spectacular and the landscape wild and rugged, the lower slopes of the mountainside terraced with vineyards where possible but mainly abandoned to yellow-flowering gorse.

Cebère – the last town in France

View north from Cap Cebère

View south from Cap Cebère

Beyond Cebère we crossed the deserted frontier post into Spain and the name of the coast changed from the Côte Vermeille to the Costa Brava. Otherwise the scenery was as wonderful and the bends as contorted as on the French side. Indeed, there were so many twists and contortions we became completely disoriented and sometimes found ourselves looking back down onto the same little village from a higher level, or discovering we were round a different headland altogether looking down onto a new village - such as the less than picturesquely named hamlet of Colera!

Black cliff face near Portboul, Spain

The road turned back inland and threaded its way through the deserted mountains, greener than we had expected with white waterfalls cascading through bushy ravines, the road following the valley sides and crossing high narrow bridges. We were surprised how little traffic there was compared to the route into Spain at the northern end of the Pyrenées but with such roads as these it would be almost impossible for commercial lorries. As in the Basque country however, the local separatists had been out changing all the road signs, obliterating the Spanish and replacing it with Catalan.

Cadaques, just over the border into Spain, had for many years been the regular holiday location of our French friends from Caen. Pierre, a charismatic figure, and father of our friend Alain, had been a keen sailor and diver, bringing up roman remains from sunken ships off the coast here. He was also a contemporary of, and acquainted with, Salvador Dali who lived nearby. Sadly neither Alain nor his father are still alive to enjoy this idyllic holiday location but because of their enthusiasm, we have always intended visiting the town during this year of travel. Because we ran out of daylight we will need to return tomorrow – hence Jill’s frustration.

Campsites open in the winter are even fewer here than in France. If the standard of this one is anything to go by though, they are infinitely superior for the same price! This one is really quite busy with proper walkways around the site, a heated indoor swimming pool, a sauna, wonderful heated showers, indoor toilets (with loo seats and toilet paper even!) Tomorrow morning we can even have a massage if we want. Tonight there is a bar, with TV and internet, serving sandwiches and snacks until 11pm though the restaurant is shut for the winter. When we arrived we were immediately greeted in English and made to feel welcome. Not good for our embryonic Spanish of course by very charming. Not once in France did anyone in a campsite reception even try to speak English to us!

The weather is already so much warmer we are not needing to use our fire for more than a few minutes from time to time. We are however very crowded with our entire world inside Modestine with us – including 2 bikes, a printer, a tent and all our pots and pans!

Wednesday 18th January 2006, Estartit, Catalunya
This is such a nice campsite and they are so few and far between we decided to stay here for a few nights using it as a base to explore the surroundings. Of course, the hot, fresh bread baked on the premises we had for breakfast this morning is an added incentive!

So we retraced our long journey of last night, back to Figueres to pay homage to Salvador Dali, and to Cadaqués to do the same for Alain and his father Pierre.

Figueres was far larger than we had imagined with most parking spaces below ground and impossible for Modestine as she is too tall. It took us ages crawling the grid-work of narrow streets before we found a suitable place to leave her – outside the prison with a couple of heavily-armed police on duty!

The town seems really pleasant and friendly and the streets are a joy after southern France being clear of rubbish, dogs mess and pavement hazards such as missing drain covers, cars and bollards.

Pavement art – Dali’s face reflected in a steel column, Figueres

Entrance to the Dali Museum, Figueres

Mediaeval town wall, now the Dali Museum, Figueres

The Dali museum was amazing. We thoroughly liked it but others may hate it. Either way, it is the sort of place where you cannot be indifferent. Dali created the building from a burned-out theatre and part of the mediaeval city walls as an eccentric present to his wife and spent the latter part of his life filling it with his own surrealist works. He was technically a superb artist and produced outstanding paintings, portraits and sketches apart from his surreal art which developed and changed throughout his life and made full use of new techniques as they were invented such as holograms and stereoscopic pictures. Much of his work used unlikely materials – today they would probably be recycled junk such as old circuit diagrams, sinks, skeletons, broken bits of sculpture and even a Cadillac car. Of course his famous sofa, looking like a pair of ruby-red lips was exhibited as part of a room which was actually a representation of the face of Mae West. (Unfortunately we don’t have pictures to show but do explore the internet, it’s really fascinating and entertaining.) He also experimented in producing images that were more than one thing, depending on how they were viewed. We’ve tried to show one here which is both a portrait of Abraham Lincoln and a rear view of his wife Gala, naked. What you see seems to depend on how large the image is displayed.

Abraham Lincoln and/or Gala Dali, Figueres

Abraham Lincoln and/or Gala Dali shown in context, Figueres

Exhibit in the courtyard of the Dali Museum, Figueres

In addition to his major paintings he did hundreds of very weird pen and ink sketches of bizarre limbs, torsos and heads that flowed and changed into completely different objects. There was a definite touch of Hieronymus Bosch about them.

Maybe the work we enjoyed the most was not one of his major works but fun - entitled A bed and two bedside cupboards ferociously attacking a violin-cello
We just hope the cupboard we recently bought without any provenance is better natured and doesn’t attack the poor guitar on the bedroom landing back in Ambre!

Although Dali and Picasso were both great self-publicists, Dali, unlike Picasso, never abandoned his technical skills to fob off childish scrawls on a gullible public. We doubt whether they would have seen eye to eye to eye!

Leaving the museum we made our way back up into the coastal mountains of the Cap de Creus which rise abruptly from the flat fertile Empordà plain in a switchback of tight bends to the summit before plunging down towards the sea on the far side. Cadaqués nestles on the coast, held in fast by the surrounding mountains with their crumbling terracing which at some stage supported olive groves but are now mostly abandoned.

Descending towards Cadaqués

Cadaqués is a delightful little place of steep rough streets hewn directly from the rocks with little cottages clinging to their steep sides. Wherever possible there are pots and tubs of cactuses and bougainvillea presenting bright spots of colour against the whitewashed walls of the houses. Today the sun shone and the air was clear and mild as we wandered around the harbour and the narrow alleyways clustered around the church. The main street has a statue of Dali who is strongly linked with this lovely picture-postcard town. We realise now just why our friends loved the place so much and returned here regularly for so many years.

Cadaqués from the church

Typical street in Cadaqués

Cadaqués from the harbour

Late afternoon light at Cadaqués

Statue of Dali at Cadaqués

Unfortunately we had to drive all the way back to this campsite again so could not do justice to the town. As it was, it was dark well before we reached Estartit. We may well stay longer still as we have not yet explored around here, and it makes a fairly convenient base for visiting Girona.

The end of the day, Golf des Roses