Monday 7th – Monday 14th March
From the heady heights of Albarracin we descended down into the delta of Deltebre, with land only just skimming the sea and rice paddies as far as the eye could see. I had never seen rice paddies before, well maybe once or twice in Cambodia or Thailand, but here in Spain it was almost like another country with a landscape and eco-system uniquely it’s own.
Choosing to avoid all toll roads, our route to Deltebre was via the N340, a slightly dilapidated single carriage-way along which hooned massive articulated lorries (who also chose to avoid the tolls). Whilst being overtaken by these huge monsters we had a great view of the AP7 the barren multi lane toll road that ran alongside devoid of any vehicles. Oh the irony!
It was partly the onslaught of our 18 wheeled friends, partly our erratic sat-nav and partly my wavering navigating skills (which seem to fail me under pressure) that meant us missing a critical turn a couple of times. Mainly due to the fact that I had been slightly resistant to suggest to the white-knuckled Matt that he swing a right down a tiny lane with a thundering lorry right behind us. In the end we pulled over and with Matt much happier (once he himself had had a chance to review the satellite map) we finally found our way into the Delta.
The roads of the Delta are narrow lanes framed either side by small ditch-like waterways used to flood the rice paddies beyond. We dodged the town of Sant Carles and instead headed to Poble Nou, a tiny town in the heart of the delta. The buildings of Poble Nou were unlike those we had seen before (save perhaps a couple on the Caba De Gata). Low simple single storey walled buildings that gleamed bright white in the evening sun. Overhead towering palm trees rustled in the wind.
We parked Heidi up in the long municipal aire that stretched the length of the tiny settlement and did a quick loop of the town, before settling down to watch the sunset over the rice paddies. The wind was surprisingly strong and blew in great gusts that rocked Heidi and mimicked the roar of the sea as it buffeted the tall palms above us. As we fell asleep, it made me think I was falling asleep in Providence (my parent’s old wooden cliff-side Cornish cabin) listening to the sea.
The next day I woke bright and early with the kind of excitement you feel as a kid on Christmas morning… It was the 8th March… and the day of my birthday… the big 40! I know that you are supposed to kind of freak out about turning 40, but for me it was super exciting. I think that Matt (a year younger than me) was surprised by my excited approach to the big day, firstly as he was already freaking out about his (a year in advance), and secondly because he had momentarily forgotten what a big kid I am.
In fact the crowning achievement of my birthday was that I finally managed to make the perfect poached egg (or ‘testicle egg’ as I like to describe them i.e. chef-style vinegar poached eggs). This exceptional culinary achievement must I decided (as I tucked into my favourite breakfast of perfect poached eggs with avocados, herbs and a tasty drizzling of olive oil and balsamic syrup) surely marked my belated transition into adult hood?
My birthday seemed was the perfect day from start to finish, with a little leg-aching in between. Not only had I been able to revel in my culinary success, I also got to catch up with my lovely cousin CH and my lovely friend Claire (both of whom I had not spoken to for ages). Wish list complete (including many birthday embraces from Matt) we set off for a bike ride. With it being my birthday Matt had been adamant that was free to could go at whatever pace I wanted and managed to good-naturedly suppress his usual exasperation at my love of ‘pootling’ despite having readied the bikes and been poised to embark on our ride two hours previously.
What had originally started as a 2-3km ride soon morphed into a 5, 10 and subsequently 20km ride as we were seduced by the beauty of the delta, and the Barra Del Trabucador.
The first five kilometres were on the little road that passed in front of where Heidi was parked. My legs slowly got the hang of it as we past the huge stretches of paddy fields and then the marshland filled with wild flamingos where we stopped to the spectacle of these gangly birds in flight and snap a few pics of them stalking around the shallow marshes.
At last we reached the beach, a kind of sandy mud flat which was to be our terrain for the next 5km. Not a natural cyclist, and riding the same bike I road to school on twenty five years ago, I was rather wobbly and my legs groaned upon first introduction to the sand. But curiosity led us on and we cycled further and further to inspect the Barra, the end seeming ever in sight.
Water lapped on either side as we slowly progressed along the Barra marking our progress by the telegraph poles that were set about 200 metres apart. We saw Cormorants stretching their wings, Sand Plovers chasing the waterline and many other birds in addition to a large (dead) octopus lying flat on the sand. Halfway along we were passed by a couple of huge lorries coming in the opposite direction (a little surreal given the surroundings). But as we reached the far corner of the Barra we were able to see huge salt pans stretching into the distance and some kind of huge production facility that belonged to Las Salinas de Trinidad (a salt company) and that was clearly off limits to the public. Having gone as far as we could go, it was time to turn back and ride the 10km back to Heidi. What we hadn’t banked on however was the strength of the wind, which when behind us had been of no consequence, but once in front of us transformed our casual cycle to a seemingly mountainous climb.
On the point of giving up many times, I set myself little challenges ‘just make it to that rock… that telegraph pole… the end of the mud strip’. This worked well for the first 5k, but once off the beach the wind became even stronger whipping up huge dust clouds in the field ahead. I tried to keep going but after about 2k of stopping and starting my legs finally refused to peddle and so I got off and walked the last 3k (which was nearly as fast as my cycling).
Feeling like I had conquered Everest (after all the longest I had ever really cycled without a break was 4k) we settled down for a chilled evening of tasty food and sparkling wine curtesy of Paul and Dom (which had travelled with us from Luxembourg) to watch another beautiful sunset and began psyching ourselves up for my big birthday celebrations in Barcelona.
The next day we headed for Sitges where we had planned to leave Heidi in a campsite whilst we headed into Barcelona. The campsite itself was not to bad, considering we are not really campsite lovers, and we managed to get a 7nights for 6 night deal. Completely knackered from the previous day’s exertions we had a quick walk to a stony beach to prevent our muscles from completely seizing up before hitting the sack.
Thursday morning was a sluggish awakening so we decided to venture out on another walk to wake us up abit. Eve, my fabulous friend and partner in crime for the last 10 years was landing in Barcelona that afternoon, so Matt had suggested that I head in early to keep her company, he would spend the night in the campsite and then meet me at our BnB tomorrow afternoon. I had been feeling slightly guilty at the thought of swanning into Barcelona without him, but all guilt soon evaporated as we rounded a corner of the campsite on our way back from our walk and bumped into Brian and Wendy relaxing in the sunshine! At that moment I knew Matt was set for an even more raucous night than me and we were all very enthusiastic to find ourselves reunited in such a coincidental way. Brian and Wendy were also planning to leave their motorhome in the safe confines of the campsite, as they had been invited to attend Brian’s brothers surprise 70th birthday in the UK.
I left Matt chatting away to them as I got packed and ready for trip into Barca, before he accompanied to the bus stop just in time to stop me from absentmindedly missing the bus!
Having heard many stories of Barcelona’s pickpocketing notoriety, the hour coach ride saw my transformation from sleepy motor-homer to urban ninja, ready to defend my precious backpack at the first sign of any encroaching light fingers. I met up with Eve and the lovely Jo (friend, female, not little brother Joe) who was the first of my birthday surprises and who I was delighted to see. Following a quick snack and a trip to Eve and Jo’s hotel room to drop of my stuff we hit the town.
Our first stop the Mercado de La Boqueria, which promotes itself as ‘one of the best markets in the world’ and which gives a very impressive first impression as it really is a merchandiser’s and photographer’s dream. I found out later from Hervé (soon to be introduced) that the market itself is in danger of becoming a victim of it’s own success as it is now more of a tourist attraction than anything else with hundreds of people taking pics, but very few actually buying anything. Still it was a feast for the senses and put us in the mood for exploration. Our next stop (passed a few dope pushers and ladies of the night) was a rustic but funky outdoor cocktail bar in the courtyard of what looked to be an old church. It was clearly up and coming, and quite an amusing place to start our celebration of the big 40 as everyone else was Spanish and at least ten years younger then us. Still we took our place amid some stunning arches next to a beautifully shabby chic/ romantic floral centrepiece that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Restoration Hardware catalogue and got stuck in to the cocktails. I (having thus far attempted to avoid the temptation since my €13 euro treat in Bruges) treated myself to a slightly less expensive but not quite Bruges standard artisan G&T whilst Jo and Eve combined two of their favourite things… Champagne and Sangria in a rather nicely presented pitcher brimming with strawberries.
From there we headed towards the Barri Goti (Barcelona’s beautiful gothic quarter) winding our way through the narrow maze of back streets and side streets, marvelling at it’s hidden treasures before emerging into the square in front of the Cathedral. Steve, a friend of Jo’s who she had met previously whilst traveling was living in Barcelona and Jo was keen to meet up with him again and get some recommendations as to good music bars etc.
We were still outside the cathedral carefully avoiding potential pick pockets whilst admiring the vibrant buzz within the square when Jo managed to get hold of him and agreed we would pick a bar where he could come and find us. Feeling peckish we chose a nearby winebar and restaurant, that had a welcoming ‘Hopper-esque’ glow about it, persuaded the waiters to relinquish a prize table (despite not yet committing to eating) and quickly ordered a bottle of Cava. The bubbles were beginning to work their magic as Steve arrived and introduced himself with a big kiss on each cheek. It was only later when he began to pull out an assortment of pills and cold medicine that we chastised him on his over exuberant germ-ridden greeting and quickly ordered another bottle of Cava in the hopes of drowning his potential cold-carrying germs.
It wasn’t long before we started to feel peckish and although Steve was a little disappointed in our lack of adventure (in terms of seeking out something more authentic) we decided to stay put as we were enjoying the ambience and the waiters were brilliantly coeliac friendly. A tasty salmon and more Cava followed and before we knew it we were back out in the square saying farewell to the a wilting Steve and following the sound of Opera singing emanating from one of the alleyways.
After enjoying the vocal dexterity of the impromptu soprano, we found stumbled across an inviting looking tea shop tucked in one of the back alleys. Small and intimate, it had a slightly moroccan vibe and exuded delicious spicy aromas. We sat down at one of the little tables and admired our cosy surroundings whilst a gentle looking man with a wizened face brewed us some of the most incredible tea I have ever tasted. Feeling warmed and sleepy from the tea, we made our way back to the hotel, where we were enticed by the elegant looking bar with an extensive selection of botanical gins. We decided to treat our selves to one more drink (or two), before Eve and Jo smuggled me back into their hotel room where we all sardined for the night.
Those of you who have ever had the pleasure of sharing a room with me, know that when it comes to going to sleep I am the world’s biggest fidget! It is as though the thought of not being able to move makes every fibre of my being want to jump up and whirl around like a dervish (unfortunately for Matt, who is more of a fan of darkness, stillness and silence when trying to sleep). Squashed in between Eve and Jo and trapped in my sleeping bag, the temptation to wriggle around was almost unbearable, but I had been warned by a serious Jo that waking her up would not be appreciated. So instead I plugged myself into my iPhone and listened to the most lively music I had, doing mental arabesques with my brain instead of with my body.
The next morning we all awoke with a serious hangover! And while Eve and I decided to stagger down to breakfast, a rather sickly looking Jo decided that the bed was looking like a better option. This was a theoretically good plan, as it meant Jo could have a relaxing sleep and I could quench my alcohol with a tasty egg or too. The only snag came as Eve and I were making our way to the lift… we had forgotten that I was a stow-away element and that if the hotel knew that I had camped in their room, Eve and Jo were at risk of being charged for an extra person. This thought only dawned on us when we saw two chamber maids making a bee-line for the allegedly deserted room. Panicking that they would not only discover our secret, but also (even worse) that they might walk in on the recovering Jo in a state of undress, we raced them to the door and quickly stuck the ‘do not disturb’ sign on the door-handle.
Disaster averted, we went down to enjoy a tasty breakfast, picked up a few provisions for Jo before heading out for a walk. Feeling a little better, Jo decided that she would be happy to venture out, but only made it as far as the market, where the sight of too much food and the gentle allure of a comfy chair and good book, led her back to the hotel. Eve and I then made it our mission to explore every inch of the Barri Goti in search of the magical teashop which seemed to have mysteriously disappeared. Though we didn’t have any luck with the teashop, we did manage to find a potential location for everyone to meet that evening and so booked a table in a little bistro attached to the side of a hotel. After hours of marching, my legs and back were about to give up the ghost and so we returned to grab some food from the local supermarket for an impromptu hotel picnic and headed back to check on Jo, who was the model of serenity nestled in the chair with her favourite bodice-ripping book.
Earlier I had spoken to a recovering Matt who after one evening with Brian and Wendy was in an even worse state than us, not actually being able to remember how he managed stagger back and pass out in Heidi with the door still open. He gave me a call a bit later to say that he was feeling better and on the coach so I bid a temporary farewell to Eve and Jo and set off to meet him.
Backpacks on and google maps at the ready Matt and I made our way to ‘Chez Papa’ our Alistair Sawday B&B run by the inimitable Hervé (or Herve as we mistakenly called him, uncouth english heathens that we are).
Nothing had really prepared us for what to expect.. ‘Chez Papa’ was an apartment in the Example district of Barcelona famous for its modernist architecture and interiors…**
**’Modernisme (Catalan for “modernism”) was a cultural movement often understood as an equivalent to a number of fin de siècle art movements, such as Art Nouveau, Jugendstil, Secessionism, and Liberty style.
The “Modernista” movement is normally associated with the search for a Catalan identity. Art critics disagree on exact dates, but the movement was roughly active from 1888 (the First International Exhibition of Barcelona) to 1911 (the death of Joan Maragall, the most important Modernista poet). The Modernisme movement was centred on the city of Barcelona, and is best known for its architectural expression, especially the work of Antoni Gaudí, but was also significant in sculpture, poetry, theatre and painting—notable painters include Santiago Rusiñol and Ramon Casas.’ http://barcelonamodernista.com/map/modernism/
…On reaching our terminal destination we stood outside looking up at the many-floored modernista townhouse stratching our heads and wondering what to do next. Were we at the right address? There were many signs on the door for a music school and youth hostel as well as many marked doorbells, but ‘Chez Papa’ was nowhere to be seen.
After a flustered phone call in broken french a dishevelled looking Hervé shouted to us from one of the balconies (I think we had interrupted his siesta) before buzzing us in. We then headed up the winding staircase to a doorway that looked promising. Though many people have described me as looking a bit boho, I have never really understood the true meaning of Bohemian until walking into Hervé’s apartment, it was like walking into a work of romantic abstract art. Every corner was filled with some kind of creation fashioned from flee market finds, some of my favourites included a salad spinner lampshade, a outline of a dado rail made of vintage toothbrushes that seemed to crawl along the wall like a train of caterpillars and old tinted postcards of elegant looking ladies glowing with colour against their monochrome background.
Though we knew this was definitely an acquired taste (and may be a little haphazard for those who like a sparklingly clean interior) but Matt and I decided it was infinitely preferable to a clinical hotel room, and thought that Phil would appreciate it as well.
After a couple of hours siesta-ing (aka recovering from the night before) we made our way to the Barri Gothic where we had planned to meet Eve and Jo and await those Phil and Alicia, Grant, and my brother Phil who were all flying in that evening. Little did I know as we were talking a leisurely stroll in the direction of the restaurant that another surprise awaited me just around the corner in the form of Gail and Wayne, who were walking towards us with Eve and Jo. I let out a shriek of delight and ran to greet them as Eve stood grinning mischievously…. After that, I had a sneaking suspicion that a couple more friends… Mandy and Mark wouldn’t be far behind (a fact that was confirmed by Eve peering round at the door of our restaurant every few seconds). Sure enough, they emerged through the door, and we were also shortly joined by my brother and Phil and Alicia.
The only gutting thing was that Grant had dislocated his knee and had been in agony A&E the night before. Despite having heroically (in a morphine induced state of superhuman ability) decided to try and make it anyway, he soon realised that it wasn’t going to happen and that he was going to have to rest up until fully recovered. Matt and I both really missed his warm smile, infectious laugh and acidic sense of humour (especially as it was his birthday weekend as well) but he told us to enjoy ourselves and promised to try and meet up further along on our journey.
That night turned out to be a brilliant one! Everyone really hit it off and we all laughed hysterically for most of the night. Eve and I had picked a little bistro attached to the Mercer hotel that we thought had a nice intimate feel that would provide a great setting for the occasion. The ambience and atmosphere was great (which I think we can take a bit of credit for) but the food on the other hand left a lot to be desired (ironic as it was supposedly in the running for a Michelin star).
I (who naturally adopt a rather english attitude of pretending everything is all right rather than complaining) at first cringed at the thought of voicing our concerns. But as the meal went on with sauces arriving after 20mins of receiving the food, random portions and poor quality food I began to see the light. Eve had taken on the challenge and had already had words with the rather unsupportive manager which had resulted in them presenting us with some blancmange-like deserts (allegedly as a birthday treat for me). These rather alien puddings provided much amusement and our party was undeterred in its merriment by the less than desirable food.
When it came to pay the bill, Eve once more took on the recalcitrant manager, who came out with several hilarious responses including claiming that the ‘you had to understand the quality of the meat to understand the quality of the food’ that ‘People who eat at Michelin star restaurants don’t complain’ (a little premature if I do say so myself!). I think that he had somewhat underestimated his audience thinking that we were typical english people who didn’t understand food and had never eaten at decent restaurant before… Little did he know he was dealing with quite the opposite audience, including my lovely friends Phil and Alicia who run the most incredible farm and whose premium beef has recently been served at Buckingham palace. Within seconds Eve was flanked by Alicia and Matt (both of whom exerted their eloquent knowledge of the subject in hand) as she emphatically stated that they need to either take the main course off the bill or we would all walk out without paying a thing. At this point the manager resentfully relented and we paid up and moved on to our next destination… our beloved tea shop of the night before (https://web.facebook.com/teteriasalterio?_rdr).
We pretty much filled the little tea room with our laughter as we squashed in on the little stools. Eve and I tucked in once more to the incredible tea and where quickly joined by Alicia, who had was also mesmerised by the magic of the little place, whilst the others (slightly bemused at us drinking tea at that time of night) enjoyed a refreshing beer or two. We stayed chatted amid lots of laughter until everyone was ready to head back to their hotels/ B&Bs. Walking down the street with my gaggle of friends, I felt sooo happy and touched that everyone had made such a big effort to come and celebrate. The night had been an amazing one and the underwhelming cuisine had only succeeded in creating a spirit of camaraderie and adding to our amusement. As Matt, Phil and I said our goodbyes to Gail, Wayne, Mandy, Mark, Eve and Jo and jumped in a cab with Phil and Alicia (who were just down the road from us) I was already looking forward to the next day.
The next day, we were awakened around 8am by the discordant sounds of some rather intense improv jazz (Herve’s version of a breakfast gong) which was slightly at odds with our creeping hangovers. Not wanting to disappoint our gracious host, Matt and I made our way to the drawing room and the round table laden with fresh bread, honey, yogurt and cheese. For Phil (who was suffering with a rather horrid sinus headache) waking up to the erruption of hectic notes was a bridge to far and he opted to stay under the covers in a vein attempted to drown out the noise.
Herve, not used to people missing his famed breakfast, seemed to be a little perturbed by this and at one point started towards Phil’s room with a cup of lemon and honey (which I had requested), I think to verify his existence. But luckily I managed to quickly head him of at the door, much to relief of my grateful brother, who was just happy to be left in peace.
After a long breakfast Matt and I slowly began to ease into the day and by mid morning had built up our appetite for exploring. Phil was quick to join us and so we headed out into the Barcelona sunshine. After the previous nights culinary disappointments Matt, who had booked a restaurant for my main birthday meal that evening, was keen to make sure that his choice of venue would live up to expectation, so we headed to Arcana near to the Born Cathedral to do a bit of pre-emptive scoping.
On arrival at the chosen restaurant, Matt’s fears where put to rest, both he and Phil (who also has a good nose for food) were confident that Matt was on to a gastronomic winner and after seeing the chef already in action prepping for the evening, I too started to get excited. On the corner opposite we had also spotted a wine/cocktail bar which was part of the ‘City Hotel’ and on further investigation, we decided that it’s elegant yet laid back atmosphere would provide an ideal location for pre-dinner drinks.
Our next stop was the harbour/ beach, this however was an unsuccessful mission as we managed to walk in the wrong direction and by the time we realised our mistake, I had started to get h-angry (hungry/angry). Matt who can recognise the signs a mile off suggested we go back into the Barri Gotti, as at least we knew we could find a plethora of cafes there and one or two would be bound to be coeliac friendly. As if by magic we passed through an arcade with La Cereria, a little cafe, at the end of it which was charming, atmospheric and coeliac friendly (https://web.facebook.com/La-Cerer%C3%ADa-123592974370246/?_rdr)… Unfortunately for Matt, it was also vegetarian. But he sportingly managed to munch his way through a very green looking goats cheese sandwich (including the salad and apple…usually unheard of!) whilst I whole heartedly enjoyed a quesadilla made of homemade gluten-free flour (apparently the wife of the bearded jovial owner was also a coeliac). The ‘piece de resistance’ for all of us however (along with the delicious potato wedges) were the warm spiced rum and orange drinks.. an awesome hangover cure!
Feeling sleepy and relaxed our next stop was the MACBA, Barcelona’s equivalent to the Tate Modern, a huge contemporary glass-sided building brimming with white beams and walkways surrounding an open atrium with man-sized leather beanbags and sofas. We split up and after wandering around the various floors admiring (some but not all of the exhibits) we all orbited back to the atrium and some much enjoyed horizontal basking. Though the beanbags were very comfortable, Matt and I were longing for intensive napping, so we left Phil there and headed back to Herve’s for a few hours siesta.
Our siesta time went very quickly and before we knew it we were back in the city bar enjoying some pre-dinner nibbles and the odd mojito with a very serene looking Phil, awaiting the other members of our party. A little after 7pm we were joined by the rest of the gang, all of whom had been more successful than us in finding the beach. As we listened to some of the humorous stories of the day (involving beach side margaritas, fish bowls, massages and a beach-side police raid) I clocked my brother loitering by the bar. A few minutes later he reappeared with two bottles of Verve Cliquet courtesy of him, my Aunty Pauline and Uncle Alexis and our lovely absent Grant (who despite being injured was still with us in spirit). Needless to say, these provided a great start to evening, which then proceeded to go from strength to strength. The food at Arcana was absolutely awesome and even the steaks got the thumbs up from gourmet beef farmers Phil and Alicia.
A combination of the previous nights drinking, a good deal of champagne and some very tasty wine, meant that I only remembered the meal as kind of a warm fuzzy feeling as if hovering above the table watching all my friends enjoying themselves in the soft ambient light. A testament to the fact that I was definitely a few sheets to the wind is that I spent some time asking our amused waiter directions to a night club in ‘alleged’ Spanish. The other proof of this (and that I was not the only one) is that a few minutes later we all ended up drinking extortionately priced drinks seated in in opposing rows of choir seats in an old chapel. Despite the fact that this may of cost almost as much as our meal, I still have fond (if blurry) memories… Firstly of Gail and I in fits of laughter (with Wayne looking on and shaking his head in Matt-style amusement/embarrassment) and secondly of the incredibly beautiful paintings adorning the walls of the chapel.
I have to confess I can’t quite remember getting home, although I do remember saying (probably very huggily) goodbye to Eve, Jo, Gail and Wayne and promising to meet Mark and Mandy for a gluten free Paella the following evening.
The great thing about my birthday weekend was getting to spend time with everyone both as a group and individually and the next morning Matt, Phil and I had a lovely (much needed) breakfast with Phil and Alicia at the ‘Petit Pot’ which was conveniently situated next to the Barcelona marathon. It was lovely to get some time with those guys and hear all about their news and news of the farm and we were really sad to have to say goodbye.
That evening we met up with Mandy and Mark for a tasty (if slightly s-penny) gluten free paella in a little restaurant towards the harbour. Mark and Matt having the opportunity to bond over the tricki-ness of gluten-free living (both having had to accommodate coeliac spouses), while Mandy, Phil and I relished the luxury of more al-fresco dining. All slightly jaded from the weekends late nights and alcohol we said our goodbyes and headed for an early night… me feeling a little sad that the weekend was coming to an end. The next morning Matt and I said our farewells to my lovely brother before embarked on our final Barcelona adventure…
In our somewhat rose tinted air of expectation, we had forgotten one of the cardinal rules of Spain… everything shuts on Mondays! This put the kai-bosh on our planned day of art galleries and museums, so after much walking and a quick investigation of the 1992 Olympic stadium we headed back to Chez Papa, thanked Herve for his kind hospitality and (after about half an hour searching) boarded the bus back to Sitges.
HUGE THANKS TO MATT, PHIL, EVE, JO, GAIL, WAYNE, MANDY, MARK, PHIL & ALICIA for making my birthday such a special one!!