The week of our first visitor

Last week we welcomed our first guest to Tortosa, a dear friend who had trekked all the way to Europe from Australia just to see us! And go snowboarding in Andorra.

It was strange to have a visitor in our town when it doesn’t feel like our town yet. Where to go? What to do? It was even stranger when our guest had a better grasp of the Spanish language than we do, meaning that he was our guide as much as we were his!

We had a great time. Despite Tortosa being much smaller than Barcelona, we filled his few days here with what I hope was delicious and fun adventures. If you have found this blog by Googling ‘things to do in Tortosa’, or ‘cheap stuff to do in Tortosa’ here is the first in what I hope will be many lists of activities. As we learn more, we’ll add more!

  • Visit the cathedral. I missed this excursion, but apparently it was big, old, echoey, and cheap at only 3. Other information I’ve learned about the massive building in the middle of town with a slightly spasmodic bell is that it has Baroque and Gothic components, is on the site of an old roman forum, and was built between 1347 and the 1700s.
Calçots. A plate of onions might not sound delicious, but they were sweet and excellent sauce vessels.
  • Eat some local food! For us that meant a delicious lunch at Paiolet, a restaurant near our flat. I tried calçots, a seasonal onion that is barbecued and served with the most delicious romesco sauce. Our friend tried the menjar blanc (white food), a local rice milk and cinnamon dessert that doesn’t photograph well. We ate three courses each, shared a bottle of wine and had coffee for under 40.
  • Hire a bike. As I have bragged previously, I now own my own wheels, but the boys had to hire theirs. And why have two bicycles when you can have one? For 25 from the nearest bike hire store, we secured an incredible TANDEM MOUNTAIN BIKE for the day, giving us the freedom to have Goodies-style montages all over town. We rode along part of the Via Verde, one of Spain’s many bike paths built on old train routes. We did not really get far enough to see much verde, but enjoyed the good path and rode through a couple of towns to the west of Tortosa.
Tandem bike
That look on my face is definitely joy. Not terror. Promise.
  • Explore the fortifications. The hills behind Tortosa are topped with (I think) medieval ruins, halting structures that remind you how young European settlement in Australia really is. One of the forts, behind the Parador, is signposted and maintained, while the others are more like secret garden ruins. You can meander for hours. All have great views. And all are gloriously free.



The week I bought a bike

On Thursday as I shut the bedroom balcony doors, I looked out along our street. It was around 7pm. Golden street lamps bathed the stones now that the Christmas lights are gone, and the town was full of noise. Children running ahead of their parents, people heading home with groceries, and old couples wandering up the street, only to turn around and amble back down.

Across the road I could see into the music school that is in the building opposite. In one room, a teenager was learning the trumpet. In the next, a young man practised on a giant xylophone. The sound of trumpets and violins drift into our apartment most evenings and I am yet to get sick of it.

Next to them, Mary and Jesus sat in their small shrine that looks up to our kitchen window. The inset shrine has a large bunch of plastic roses below it, presumably giving our Career De La Rosa its title. Mary and her boy look old and faded as they watched me close the doors.

Towards the cathedral, the local bar had just opened up. You can tell when it’s open because there are little glass bottles with thistles in them set up on the outdoor tables. The owner also brings out a table laden with jamon set up for slicing. He often opens big umbrellas as well, and wraps strings of fairy lights around the stands. Last week he had an outdoor heater fighting against the cold but on Thursday, I could see little blankets on the back of every chair, ready for customers.

It’s been a lonely week, with my man away exploring Andorran ski fields. It was going to be The Week I Was Alone. Plenty of time for working long Spanish hours, learning how to cook romanesco broccoli and appreciating our lovely street view.

But on Saturday, after a few failed attempts, I managed to buy a bicycle. A lovely second hand black Catalonian-made cruiser with six gears and much swagger.

Buying a second hand bike was harder than I expected, particularly in a smaller town like Tortosa. I scoured segundamano, Spain’s second hand website, and contacted several people before finding a bike that was available and affordable. There were many more options in Barcelona than in the country, so one train trip and 145 later, she was mine. As I was in Barça, a 30 lock was also needed, as well as another lock to secure the seat to the frame. Bike theft is an epidemic in the city apparently.

It was great to explore the city on pedal power! Barcelona is so bike-friendly, with glorious bike paths and wide flat streets. I sailed along Las Ramblas, cruised around Sagrada Familia and even up to Park Güell on my trust steed. Today I got her back safely on the train, as there is space on the train carriages especially for bicycles. There are bike paths and flat roads all around here, so look out for more flowery descriptions of local streets, experienced at a slightly faster speed.


The spoils of victory! Also an early nomination for Worst Photo On This Blog Award.

Despite finishing up with a rotten head cold, we have kicked a lot of goals this week. Our Spanish bank cards arrived. We bought a Britta water filter so now we can enjoy water that doesn’t taste like chlorine. Our relationship survived two shopping trips in Barcelona (including one to Ikea) to buy important house stuff like oyster sauce, an orchid, a beautifully ugly lamp and a bazillion candles. And joy of joys, the Internet was installed in the apartment!

On Sunday night we also managed to go to the Barcelona – Athlético Madrid soccer football match at Camp Nou. Last weekend we bought tickets directly from the stadium, justifying the 73 Euro price tag as a Christmas present. We’ve heard you can pay a lot more for seats, particularly for such an important game! Or match. I think it’s called a match.

Almost capacity crowd at Camp Nou.

After Barcelona v Real Madrid and the Madrid derby, this battle between 2nd and 3rd is the biggest game on the La Liga fixture. Camp Nou (capacity of just under 100,000) was heaving by kick off at 9pm. Our seats were up high behind one of the goals, and it felt more like the Quidditch World Cup than an Australian football match. Almost everyone seemed to be a Barcelona supporter. I’m not convinced that it’s legal to support anyone else here. Barça even has their own TV station!

And why wouldn’t they? Barcelona FC are a team of wizards. Neymar Jnr and Suarez scored two goals in the first half, to much jubilation. A soft penalty delivered a goal to Athlético early in the second half, but this just fired up the crowd and Barça. The unstoppable captain Lionel Messi scored down our end in the 87th minute and the game was won. GOOOOOOLLLLLLLLLLL! Highlights are here.

Athlético Madrid score after a soft penalty on Messi early in the second half.
Barcelona FC bring it in after Messi’s last minute goal.

As someone who likes going to sporting events but only has a relationship-based obligation to watch soccer, it was a real thrill to see such a big game. We heard a lot of English accents and there were a LOT of selfie sticks so it felt a bit touristy. But I also saw plenty of Spanish dads with their young kids looking excited, just like at the MCG.

There were some little differences between watching this game and Collingwood vs Carlton though. There was no replay or close up footage on a big screen, so you really had to watch the live action. There was no booing the opposition: instead, the whole crowd whistled every time Athlético got the ball. I guess it’s more distracting?

When a foul was called against Barça or there was any hint of a Barcelona free kick, the entire crowd cried bloody murder. Lots of people also got out white handkerchiefs and waved them around, apparently in a sign of disapproval. There was plenty of cheering and singing, and the beating of drums. But unlike some football matches, the crowd were very civilised on our trip back to the hostel. Perhaps because it was Sunday night, or because only non-alcoholic beer was served. Either way the gods smiled on us this week, and as a barman told me recently, Messi es dios!

Barcelona FC flags fly high!

The week we came back

OK so we only got back to Tortosa last night, but on Sunday (technically still within last week) we returned to Spain after two weeks travelling in Germany and France.

As an Australian, I have this romantic notion that once you are in Europe, it’s a breeze to get to any other European country. The whole continent takes up about as much space as our one country, so surely travelling from one European nation to the other is a simple hop, step and jump. Right?

Obviously this turns out not to be the case, particularly if you are trying to avoid a) flying too much to watch your carbon footprint and b) paying too much to watch your budget…footprint. Travelling at Christmas time and organising the adventure three weeks in advance only makes things tougher. This great website tells you how to travel across Europe by train cheaply, but most of his itineraries require more forethought than we have yet.

Our trip from Tortosa to Hamburg, Paris and then back again ended up taking two flights, four trains and around 385 euros each. The train journeys were largely lovely, the plane trips generally cramped with lots of waiting. But we had a great time and have returned back to Tortosa with a renewed appreciation for the affordability of Spanish living and the balmy 12ºC days here, compared to the 0ºC days in Paris.

I don’t know about you but at the end of a holiday my diary always fills up with lists. Lofty ideas for things to do and holiday inspiration to follow up when I get home. Usually my lists are hilariously and embarrassingly similar: do more yoga, hike more often and make my own muesli. Seriously, I write it every time.

So it’s weird now, coming back to Spain to start the New Year and for the first time I don’t have a list. Maybe it’s because it’s not home yet, and there are still so many things to do. Maybe it’s because it still feels like we are on an adventure. Or maybe it’s because I’ve finally realised that it’s cheaper just to buy the expensive muesli rather than make it all from scratch. Time will tell.

Not only did WE arrive in Spain this week, but the wise men arrived too! All over the country the three wise men (or Reyes Magos) sailed from the east to collect letters written by children and deliver presents on the morning of the 6th of January, the day of Epiphany.

glitter rain
Confetti and lollies rained down on everyone who had lined the streets. Environmentally questionable but an amazing (and delicious) spectacle.

On Monday night we were lucky enough to catch the Cabalgata de los Reyes Magos in Barcelona, and it was amazing!  A stain glassed peacock, giant puppet monkey, and a rollicking pirate ship that seemed to be manned by Melbourne’s own Twin Beasts accompanied the magi, and at the end, a crazy downpour of confetti and lollies. You can see much better photos here. Not quite muesli, but delicious none the less!