Red roses and books: a short visit to Catalonia


El dia de las rosas

With this week’s hailstones threatening to knock down the roof of my house in North London, the memories of last week’s sunny break in Catalonia seem very far-away. I was very lucky to be the guest of colleagues at the Universitat Rovira e Virgili (Tarragona) for a conference and took the opportunity to see parts of Catalonia that were new to me. It was the week-end before the day of St. George, or Sant Jordi, as they say in Catalonia. To mark the celebration of their patron saint, on 23 April, ‘El Día de Las Rosas’, friends, colleagues and lovers exchange gifts of red roses (for the women) and books (traditionally only for the men, but now the gift of reading is extended to the women!). Last Saturday, ahead of the celebrations at the beginning of this week, in Barcelona the ramblas were beautifully decked out with fragrant parcels of long-stemmed roses and small bouquets wrapped in crepe paper.

The Roman Amphitheatre of Tarragona (Photo M. Germana)

But I started off my trip in Tarragona, a charming small city about 80 km south of Barcelona. I stayed in the centre of town, close to the old market, which, I was told, the city has been restoring for four years! The main attraction, beside the remains of the Roman amphitheatre,  spectacularly perched on a hill overlooking the sea, must be the old walled town, a real gem of Romanesque and Gothic architecture.

'Tree on wheels' (Photo M. Germana)

I was shown around by my friend Liz, who has been working in Tarragona for two decades, and who introduced me to some of the best tapas bars in town (check out the Basque place, Txantxangorri, in Plaça de la Font), and the hidden art scene of the city: the quirky mural produced by a Cuban artist on the tunnel leading to one of the city’s underground car-parks was an unexpected treat: not the kind of thing you would find on a travel guide.

The initial part of the train journey north to Barcelona had a similar magical quality: running parallel to the coast, the train appeared to be sailing, or floating, just above the beach and past the green fields and vineyards on the other side of the track.

The weather was very mild for our British standards and my travel companion and I enjoyed drinking, on our first night in Barcelona, on the terrassa outside the Basilica dels Sants Martirs, not far from Placa Sant Jaume and the atmospheric Café de l’Academia, where we sat down for dinner at 11:30pm… Spanish style!

'Untitled' (Photo M. Germana)

The next morning we returned to the old part of the city, enjoying the contrast between the hustle and bustle of the Plaça Reial and the eerie silence of the dark alleyways. The Barrio Gótico is the home of some quirky shops, a reminder of the city’s tradition in craft and design and I went hat-shopping (I am now the proud owner of a beret Basque from the historical Sombrereria Obach, in the heart of the barrio). If you are into fashion and design, I strongly recommend visiting the stunning jewellery gallery La Basilica Galeria, where, as well as admiring beautifully crafted jewellery, you will see some incredible garments made of petals coated in real gold dust or powder made of semi-precious stones: too heavy to wear, the frocks are artworks in their own right!

A cup of coffee in the acclaimed Mesón del Café replenished our energy levels and we continued on soaking up the chilled atmosphere of the old workshop quarter, La Ribera.

We finished off the evening in Barceloneta, the old fishing quarter of Barcelona; in the past this used to be a fairly run-down area, but has been ‘cleaned-up’ and made more visitor-friendly: walking along the long beach on the palm-shaded wooden board-walk, we had a sense of being elsewhere, away from the city, away from its old buildings and narrow streets, in a new world.

'Tumbling tower' (Photo M. Germana)

Scattered on the beach are quirky sculptures, whose rusty colours and modern shapes are both suggestive of the city’s marine and modern identities. We had a tasty tapas supper in one of the best known bars of Barceloneta, El Vaso de Oro, a lively establishment, despite Barça’s disappointing performance against Real Madrid.

Returning to Barcelona is always a great pleasure. With less than forty-eight hours to spare, and this being my third visit, I skipped the city’s highlights: any first-time visitor, should, however, at least see the Sagrada Familia and the Palau de la Musica Catalana: two very different examples of what the city’s extraordinary architecture can offer to the visitor. I opted, instead, for one of the lesser known of Antoni Gaudí‘s works, and took a short trip out of town, to visit the Colonia GuëllThis was the utopian lovechild of architect Gaudí and his patron, the industrialist Eusebi Guëll, for whom Gaudí also designed his residence in Barcelona, Palau Guëll, and another housing estate, for which only the famous park (Parc Guëll) was realised. The colonia was an experiment in utopian town-planning; the village, created around Guëll’s textile factory, sought to provide its workers with good housing and a community to live in.

'Colonia Guell' (Photo M. Germana)

The highlight of the complex would have been the church, designed and built by Gaudí. Only the crypt, the lower part of what would have been a grand design, remains finished today. Well worth a visit for any fans of Gaudí’s work: the interior of the crypt, which features quirky scalloped designs on seating and holy-water fonts (the basins are made of real giant shells), looks like the inside of a whale, its robust structure enhanced by the palm-shaped pillars that support the roof. The darkness of the space is interrupted by the daisy-like windows, realised, as frequently in Gaudí’s work, with stained glass in vibrant colours.

'Crypta' (Photo M. Germana)

We had an improvised picnic lunch in the colonia’s main square, nibbling on sausage rolls and hazelnut chocolate from the bakery, watching the local children chasing and fighting each other over toys. Back in Barcelona, after a brief visit to the Museu Tèxtil i d’Indumentària for an exhibition on the ‘dressed body’, we headed back to the port area for our farewell dinner in 7 Portes, one of the oldest restaurant in the city, with a string of celebrity guests attached to its name: our receipt revealed we had been dining at the same table as Che Guevara and Pelé! We walked off our escalibada and paella parellada on our way to the metro, before catching our train to the airport with a breath of sea air still in our lungs.

The other world, round the corner


'English Riviera' Photo (M. Germana)

You always think paradise is a far-away place. Before the rise of low-cost airlines and budget holidays, the exotic eden of foreign holidays was only accessible to the privileged elite who could afford the pricey air-fares.

Now it costs less to fly to Tenerife than spend a week-end in the South coast. Yet, whatever the weather, Britain’s coastal resorts may surprise the accidental tourists, who, like me, left it too late to book their overseas Easter break.

'Beachy Head' (Photo M. Germana)

Over the last month my itchy feet have driven me away from the unseasonal concrete heat of London to find fresher air by the southern shores of England.

The first trip, about three weeks ago now, took me to the sunny coastal resorts of Hythe (Kent) and Eastbourne (Sussex). The weather was consistently excellent; impossibly dry for March, but still welcome as we spent two days beach-combing and hiking the South Downs area.

After a day spent walking along the wind-swept trail of Beachy Head, there was nothing more conducive to the holiday mood than going to bed with the windows open, listening to the loud shrills of seagulls before falling asleep.

'Beachcombing' (Photo M. Germana)

Inland Hythe was a gateway to a gorgeous natural park, Brockhill. My travel companion and I had a pleasant walk about the gentle slopes of this woodland area, dodging the occasional sheep (we are city people after all!) and experiencing first-hand the effects of the heatwave on the British eco-system: in place of the waterfall advertised in the park brochure was a slope of soil and dried-up roots.

'Grazers' (Photo M. Germana)

In the middle of the park we took a peek at the amazing ‘hollow oak’, a beautiful old tree, which made me think of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: the dark inside of the tree could well be the entry point for another world within the otherworldly surroundings of Brockhill Country Park.

'Hollow' (Photo M. Germana)

My Easter break, a couple of weeks later, had a similar blend of rural and marine worlds, both of them refreshing, in different ways.

It felt different, of course, while we were stuck on the M25. Suddenly I regretted staying in Britain for Easter. My impatience made me realise how much I associate the anxious excitement of my airport experience with a holiday. It’s as if the airport has become the real start of a holiday. If you are not flying, you are not really going anywhere. Your destination is almost not worth mentioning to your cooler friends who will make the most of their annual leave to hop across to Marrakech for a spa break or Chile for wine-tasting. Suddenly your long week-end in Dorset makes you sound conservative and unadventurous.

I was very wrong.

And while I kept thinking I could have flown to New York in the same period of time, five days in Dorset were worth the five hours it took us to reach Lyme Regis on Maundy Thursday.

'Lyme Bay and The Cobb' (Photo M. Germana)

It was a trip down memory lane, too, as I returned to Lyme 19 years after my first visit to Dorset as a student. I remember drinking my first pint of lager and the giggles, afterwards, in the town cinema, where they showed the incredibly topical Jurassic Park, though I don’t remember drawing a link between the giant lizards and the fossil beach of Lyme Bay. We paid a visit to the Rock Point Inn, the hostelry that accounted for my bad cinema etiquette two decades ago, on our first night. There were few punters and as we sat at the bar with two pints of Doom Bay, I realised – not without some anxiousness – that the girls sitting beside us, who were lost in the screens of their IPhones, may have not been born at the time of my first visit to the Rock Point Inn.

'Beach Huts' (Photo M. Germana)

We had ample opportunities to check out other establishments in the village, such as the busy Harbour Inn, where we had our last dinner on Easter Sunday: if you are after a hearty fish soup, this is the place. The cosy Volunteer Inn was also a pleasant choice for a quick aperitif before dinner. They pride themselves in serving only local beer and as I joked about the fact they also seemed to have Stella on tap, the barman drily dismissed my comment: ‘That’s lager. Not real beer’. We accepted that and settled for two pints of the real thing, Cobb pale bitter, from the Town Mill Brewery, situated one street away from The Volunteer Inn, in the heart of Lyme: as far as alcohol miles go, drinking never felt more ethical.

'Waves' (Photo M. Germana)

In case you think that a pint of local ale is not worth the five-hour drive, Lyme and the surrounding area offers more than the pleasures of alcoholic intoxication. We didn’t go for any of the organised fossil or literary organised walks. Local businesses haven’t missed any tricks in the exploitation of their treasures for the amateur palaeontologists or the fans of Jane Austin and John Fowles: the latter lived most of his life and set his famous novel, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, in Lyme Regis. Austin, who has public gardens dedicated to her, visited the town twice in 1803 and 1804 and set the climactic events of Persuasion in Lyme Regis. Without wanting to spoil either novel for those of you who may not be familiar with them, I will only say that the picturesque bay and its tidal coastline is the perfect settings for two stories which, in very different ways, deal with difficult romances.

Lulworth Cove (Photo M. Germana)

Without a doubt Dorset’s greatest attraction must be the great outdoors. The weather was perfect for the inexperienced and ill-prepared ramblers like us (neither of us had proper walking boots or waterproof gear). We did, however, pack the most succulent sandwich lunch you will find in Lyme Regis: The Whole Hog‘s simple choice of either roast pork or chicken, accompanied by apple sauce and onions will keep you going until tea-time. We struck lucky in our random choice of itineraries and stumbled upon two of the most spectacular sights we have ever seen.

Yes, even when we have travelled a fair bit, sometimes we may be surprised to find that the most astonishing spectacles are (almost) on our doorstep.

The most famous is probably Lulworth, and the magnificent site of Durdle Door. The natural beauty of this part of the world attracted many visitors and some artists, who’d set up their easels to capture the changing light over Lulworth Cove. On the other side, by the natural arch of Durdle Door, some brave people dipped their feet in… we didn’t dare, but thoroughly enjoyed the walk and particularly the variety of shades the sky painted all around us. Towards the end, after numerous changes from the blues and purple of the season’s palette, the horizon seemed to vanish, the sea and sky merged into one seamless dome above us.

Our cream tea stop, on our way back to Lyme, in the lovely Tea Garden of Bay Tree House in Chideock was a well-deserved stop after our efforts.

'Durdle Door' (Photo M. Germana)

If highlights have to be picked, the other unmissable sight would have to be the easily accessible cliffs of West Bay, near Bridport. These stunning rocky walls will capture the wonderful warm light of sunset, offsetting the dark recesses of their secretive caves: you can’t imagine a more suitable place for pirates and smugglers.

'West Bay' (Photo M. Germana)

If you haven’t packed your walking boots yet, I will give you two more reasons to visit or return to Lyme Regis. The sky could be moody during the day, but it dressed up for the evening, studded with the twinkling stars you never see in London and, later, bejewelled with the most astonishing full moon. While there seemed to be no hints of werewolves lurking in the dark alleys of Lyme, the moonlight retained a somewhat uncanny quality. It wound its way up the narrow alleyways, casting its silver beams on the shiny cobbled streets, and chased us along the beach on our way back to our room in the stylish Alexandra Hotel. From the vantage point of our double windows overlooking the bay we kept our watch on the moon’s beautiful face, until he disappeared, shrouded in a light veil of pink clouds. Otherworldly.

The best way to finish the perfect Dorset mini-break? A delicious lunch at Lyme’s most prestigious fish restaurant, Hix Oyster and Fish House: you can also visit its sister restaurant in Soho, but the fish’s got to be fresher in Lyme! Book ahead, it gets very busy. For all the right reasons.

Do you have a favourite British holiday destination? Where did you spent your Easter week-end? We would love to hear your suggestions and travel notes…

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