Friday 29 August 2014

The last days of summer in sunny Sant Feliu de Guíxols ...

It's almost over ... and I really, really don't want to let it go.

I love the summer. It's my season. I love the blue skies, the light, the optimism, being able to leave all the doors open and letting the breeze blow through to cool us down. And I hate to feel it slipping through my fingers as the nights draw in and autumn seizes us in its mists and mellow fruitfulness. 

And right now there's just a hint of the changes to come blowing about in the wind. Down in the Passeig dels Guíxols, where the old men play pétanque, the leaves on the plane trees are starting to turn brown and drop on the ground.

Yesterday I wandered down to the port with my faithful hound at my heels to make the most of the summer vibe before it's gone for another year. We passed a bank that's covered in Morning Glory. No one tends to it, but it seems to have flourished all summer, and still looks marvellous. I suppose it's technically a weed, but I guess one man's weed can be another man's prize bloom.

I walked past this apartment block, which my husband wishes didn't exist. From the back it is a bit of a blot on the landscape, but it looks out over the port so the people living there must have great views out to sea, and, as is true with every ugly building the world over, if you live in it you don't have to look at it when you're at home. I think it's fun to see so many people all busy doing their summer living on their balconies as you walk past. In the winter it's all closed up and boring.

A tiny sailing school has appeared on the quayside. I'm impressed by its funky paintwork. They're doing brisk business these days as the harbour is full of little sailing boats and people trying to get the hang of how to stand up on a windsurf. 

We walked on and had a look at what's parked up in the harbour. There were the usual commercial fishing boats ...

... and the little boats for just pootling around  ...

... and sailing boats for chasing the wind.

We walked on to the beach. The place was full of tourists and sun-worshipers, all stretched out on the sand, soaking up the rays, but away from the seafront the back streets of the village were quiet.

Here the people went about their business as normal, cleaning, fixing, repairing and getting ready for winter.

And the signs of the change in the season were all around. Fruit ripening on the vines. Leaves turning colour. Offers in the shop windows for back-to-school discounts. It was all there, and even I couldn't ignore what was happening. Who knows, maybe this time next week when we're back in London and Emi's settled into his new class at school I may even start embracing the autumn and telling everyone who'll listen how it's really my favourite season of the year.

All the best for now,

Bonny x

As shared on Friday Finds

Wednesday 27 August 2014

Mas Oller, wine-making as it's been done for centuries ...

Yesterday we went for a tipple at the winery down the road.

Here in beautiful Catalonia they have some very delicious wines, and nowhere more so than at the friendly little winery of Mas Oller, just outside Pals.

I should say, by way of explanation that a mas or masia is a typical Catalan farmhouse. It was usually built from local stone, had at least two stories, with the ground floor given over to livestock or working space for the business of the farm. The family normally lived on the first floor, and if there was a second floor that would traditionally have been used as a granary or a pigeon loft. Most of these houses were built to face south or south east, to take shelter from the Tramontana, the dominant wind that blows down from the north.

Mas Ollers, Pals, Catalonia

Empordà, this lovely corner of Catalonia in which we live, has a long history of wine-making as it happens. It all goes way back to its days as a Greek colony. Way back in about 600 B.C. those old Greek overlords first decided to try their hands at growing some grapes in the rich, local soil. The result was an astounding success. Before long this little corner of Catalonia was renowned for the quality of its wines, and they've been going strong ever since.

Mas Ollers, Pals, Catalonia

At Mas Oller, the old farm house, dating back to the 18th century, stands between the mountains and the sea. They've produced many crops on the estate over the years, but when it was rescued by its present owner, the renowned winemaker, Carlos Esteva, it was pretty much on its knees. The old house and outbuildings were falling apart, and had Carlos not come along when he did there's a reasonable chance that they'd have passed the point of no return, and been lost forever. 

Mas Ollers, Pals, Catalonia

There were a few vines growing across the holding, but the local council insisted that, before Carlos turned his attention to what he does best, and set about growing some prize-winning wines, he focus on the farm buildings and restore them so that they could be saved for future generations.

Mas Ollers, Pals, Catalonia

And that's exactly what he did. 

Mas Ollers, Pals, Catalonia

Today the old masia and the outbuildings are restored to their former glory, their thick walls providing cool in the heat of the Catalan summer and warmth in the depths of its winters when the Tramontana blows harshly from the North.

Mas Ollers, Pals, Catalonia

The old cow shed has been converted into a cellar, and the vines have been replanted in what had once been the best wine-producing estate in Pals.

Mas Ollers, Pals, Catalonia
French oak barrels in which the wine matures
And out in the fields they're growing Syrah, Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes to make their red wines ...

Mas Ollers, Pals, Catalonia

... and Picapoll and Mavasía de Sitges for their white wine. 

Mas Ollers, Pals, Catalonia

We had a leisurely stroll amongst the vines, and our guide explained that 2014 had been a bit of a strange year. The summer had been colder and wetter than normal, with the result that the grapes are not ripening as they usually would. It's going to mean that the harvest will be later than normal, but, who knows, perhaps the exceptional conditions will produce a vintage of exceptional quality. 

Mas Ollers, Pals, Catalonia

They showed us all their state-of-the-art machinery for cleaning, and mashing and fermenting the grapes after they've been picked.

Mas Ollers, Pals, Catalonia

The white grapes are picked and processed first. And then a few weeks' later they move on to the red.

Mas Ollers, Pals, Catalonia

And finally we went to the bodega to sample the three wines that they produced last year at Mas Oller.

First up was the Mar, a very stylish white that was fruity on the nose, but lighter and drier on the palate with notes of citrus. Then we had the Pur, which had a lovely toffee, vanilla nose, but was light and soft on the palate. And last we had the Plus, which was much less aromatic on the nose and drier with more tannins on the palette. All three were delicious, but both Mr B and I preferred the Pur.

Mas Ollers, Pals, Catalonia

Part of the space in the old cow shed has been given over to a collection of modern art, which contrasts nicely with the timelessness of the solid old walls and the barrel-vaulted ceiling.

Mas Ollers, Pals, Catalonia

If you're in the area and you fancy taking a look at a traditional winery do drop in and have a look around. They're open most days from noon until 6:00 p.m. local time, and are happy to give you a tour. You can find their website here: Mas Oller

All the best for now,

Bonny x

And if you're in the Empordá area why not check out Peretellada ... the village that time forgot

Or Sant Feliu de Guíxols mi pueblo

Or S'Agaró ... the pueblo down the road 

Monday 25 August 2014

Le Pont du Gard, Remoulins, France ... by daylight

So here it is: I give you the Pont du Gard in daylight. Isn't it a splendid sight? This is the highest aqueduct that those wily old Romans ever got around to building. It's part of a 50 kilometre water canal that took fresh water from a spring in Uzès to feed the fountains, baths and gardens of Nîmes, which was then a flourishing Roman city. The water ran in an aqueduct supported by the top row of arches. The people went down below on a passageway supported by the first level of arches.

Just think: this stone colossus was the greatest bridge ever constructed in the Classical Age. Built in 50 AD on 3 levels, it's 360 metres (393 yards) long and stands 50 metres (54 yards) high.

It was built in a breath-taking 5 years. And what is even more amazing is that they didn't use any cement. The bricks were cut with laser-precision to sit neatly on top of one another, locking at critical points, and they have stood the test of time for two millennia. 

Look very carefully at the bricks in the photo below. They're from one of the middle arches of the bridge. See how the original builders have numbered the stones - in Roman numerals, of course. The stones were cut to size in the quarry, so that they all fitted together to make the arch, and then carried to the site to be put together in a sort of flat-pack, pre-fab process. Happily for the oxen pulling the carts the Quarry of Estel, from which the blocks were cut, was a mere 400 metres away from the bridge. The quarry was lost to us for many years, having been buried in some 4 metres of mud from successive floods, but they rediscovered the cutting face during an archeological dig back in 1998.

Just look at how beautifully those old stones sit together so that it's impossible to push even a leaf of paper between them. And look at the texture of the stones that have been cut to shape by hand using nothing more sophisticated than a hammer and chisel. 

Normally the Gardon is a quiet, well-behaved river, but from time to time when the snow melts in springtime, or when there's torrential rain upriver, the water level rises dramatically and it turns into a violent, surging torrent. To survive the very worst of these Gardonades the pillars are solidly built on the rocks on the riverbed and shaped like the prows of ships to offer minimum resistance to the water flowing past. The rock from which the bridge is built is a highly resistant limestone with a high shell content. The Romans maximised its resistant properties by mining enormous blocks from the quarry weighing 6 or 7 tonnes each, which form an extremely resistant mass of rock when stacked together.

Given the scale of this bridge, and the large span of it arches, the Romans employed a technique not frequently used in the Classical World. Each separate arch is a composite of three independent arches, which have been assembled separately, and then joined using locking stones. You can see the three distinct arches in the span of the arch shown below.

I was really taken aback by all the graffiti that has been engraved into the stones over the years. 

Thankfully people have, for the most part, given up on the idea of scoring their initials and the date of their visit into the stones, but I was fascinated by the inscriptions made by the Compagnons du Tour de France. The Compagnons are still alive and flourishing in France, but their roots go back to medieval times. They are artisans and craftsmen who are apprenticed within the Compagnonnage, a kind of super trade guild with its own constitution and secret rites of initiation and codewords. As part of their apprenticeship they spend a year travelling around France to learn through visits to sites where great examples of their craft are to be found. Many of them came to see the bridge, which was recognised as a feat of stone architecture, and they left their initials with drawings of the tools of their trade as a salute to the brilliance of the Roman craftsmen responsible for building it. In the photos below there are a number of stone masons' axes proudly on display.

They tell me that more than 320 initials of Compagnons have been engraved on the bridge. The earliest dates from 1611, and the most recent from 1989. The earliest I found dated from 1767 (bottom right in the collection above). 

No one knows the name of the original Roman architect who designed the bridge, but there is an old Provençal legend that claims it was the Devil himself ... .

You see in the old days, before the bridge was built, it was mighty difficult to get across the river. In particular in the springtime, when the melt waters stormed down to the sea, the placid river became a raging torrent.

And crossing from the rive gauche to the rive droite became a death-defying mission. The people thereabouts were in the habit of wading across where the rocks rose higher and they could keep a steady footing. Few of them had ever learnt to swim. And even if they had, the strongest man would find himself overcome by the surge of the seething river when it was in flood.

Lives were lost, animals perished and the local people, who normally lived peacefully along the banks of the Gardon felt powerless in the face of nature.

Now as it happens a renowned stone mason lived in a little hamlet not far from where the Pont du Gard stands today. Every spring the people would come to him and say: Why don't you build us a bridge across the river, and put an end to all this death and destruction?

It seemed like an impossible task, given the steepness of the banks and the width of the gorge, but the stone mason was a very proud man. He'd spent many years apprenticed to a master mason after which he'd journeyed far and wide across the land perfecting his craft. Eventually his pride in his accomplishments got the better of him and he agreed to accept the commission. He reckoned he'd build a bridge and become the hero of the gorge by saving the people thereabouts from the ravages of the flood waters.

But sometimes what starts out as a straightforward plan has a way of getting painfully complicated. The local people worked hard to supply the stone mason with stones to build the bridge. They all ganged together and worked day and night to construct pillars of stone in the river, which they planned to span with a viaduct.

But before they could finish the work a terrible storm forced them to take shelter in their homes. For three days and three nights a tempest blew, the rain poured and thunder crashed along the valley of the Gardon. Inside their homes the people shivered, suspecting there were evil forces afoot. On the fourth morning, when the elements had calmed down sufficiently, they returned to the river only to find that the force of the water had washed away every last stone of the pillars they had built.

Disheartened, but not defeated, they began from scratch again. Take care, they said to the stone mason. Make sure that the foundations for the pillars are as strong as we can make them this time.

The stone mason felt chastened. Were they criticising his work? How dare they! He vowed that the next set of pillars would withstand the very worst the river could throw at them. He'd build them twice as big and twice as strong. Everyone went to work again, and slowly, slowly massive pillars of stone rose out of the river that were mightier than any that ever been built.

But, as before, a winter storm came and the people fled to their homes as the thunder crashed and the lightening flashed up and down the valley of the Gardon. And next morning, when the people braved the river banks they found that all their work had been washed away like matchsticks on a neap tide.

This time they turned on the stone mason and accused him of not having designed the pillars properly. You held yourself out as the greatest architect of stones, and look how all your fancy learning has been swept away as nothing by the river,  they said. We ought never to have been taken in by you and your false promises spoken with empty, silken words. 

Defeated and dejected in the face of all the criticism the stone mason sat alone by the bank of the river with his head in his hands regretting the day that he had ever boasted of his accomplishments, and thinking dark, suicidal thoughts.

Why, I would give my very soul to the Devil to be finished with this wretched bridge, he said aloud in his despair.

And then in a flash of sulphurous smoke a sinister-looking, horned creature, half man, half beast, stood before him. Its red eyes surveyed him knowingly as it impatiently pawed the earth with a cloven hoof.

For the price of a single soul I could build the bridge for you, if you wanted, the creature said, lisping as though its tongue were deformed. And what's more I could build it so that it would stand until the end of time and never be destroyed by the Gardon.

Really? the stone mason said, regretting for a moment that he'd wagered his soul for the bridge.

Yes, the creature replied knowingly, as though sensing his hesitation. But it need not be your soul. I could take the soul of the first to cross the bridge after it was completed.

Very well. It's a deal, the stone mason replied, feeling relief to have been reprieved his own soul, but also feeling a terrible sense of guilt that he might have paid with the soul of one of his neighbours instead.

You go home and leave me to it, the creature said. When you come back in the morning the greatest bridge the world has ever seen will span this gorge.

The stone mason went home with a heavy heart, and told his wife all that had taken place.

Well it need not cost as much as a human soul, the good woman replied. One of the hunting dogs came home with a hare in its mouth. Curiously it was still alive. Why don't we take the hare to the river at first light, and release it to cross the bridge before any of our neighbours go abroad?

The man agreed, and went to bed feeling relief that the bridge might be built without the forfeit of a human soul. All through the night the earth shook as the Devil carved out huge rocks of stone with his horns and his nails. The man trembled with fear at the ungodly power he had unleashed in the valley.

The next morning, as dawn broke, the stone mason and his wife hurried to the bank of the Gardon with the hare carefully wrapped in a knapsack. As the church bells rang out Lauds, summoning the faithful to morning prayers they released the hare to run across the bridge. The Devil stood at the other side ready to receive his payment, but when he saw that it was only a hare he swore a vile curse and hurled the animal at the wall of the bridge. As the sacred bells of the morning office were still ringing across the valley there was nothing that the evil one could do. The bargain had been made and fulfilled on both sides, and he was forced to flee the scene. But from time to time, however, his anger spills over in the wrath of a Gardonade, and the flood waters hurl his fury at the solid pillars of the bridge that was predestined by him to endure until the end of time.

It is said that you can still see the imprint of the hare beneath one of the upper arches of the bridge. Being very short-sighted I was unable to see it, even using the lens of my camera as a telescope.

Other people say that the supposed outline of a hare is, in fact, a Roman phallus, which the original bridge builders marked on their work to ward off the evil eye.

Whatever the way of it, the bridge is an amazing structure that must surely have inspired awe and led ordinary mortals to believe that it could only ever have been completed with some manner of supernatural intervention.

All the best,

Bonny x

As shared on Our World Tuesday and the Alphabet Project

And if you happen to pass this way by night check out its nocturnal light-show here: Pont du Gard at night.

Or not-very-far-away Perpignan