The week of La Diada de Sant Jordi

Sant Jordi Book Cakes
Mmmmm, book cakes.

For most of this week I have felt like Harry Potter, in the last movie when he is asked about the Tale of the Three Brothers.

“You know, the tale of Sant Jordi?”, people say expectedly.


The tale, told to me several times in the past week, goes that once upon a time, a small Catalonian town was terrorised by a dragon that was killing all of the farm animals. To keep the dragon happy, the townspeople reluctantly decided to offer one person/beautiful person/ virgin every day.

One day, the King’s daughter was selected to be sacrificed. Just as she was about to be eaten by the dragon, Sant Jordi, a courageous knight, sallied forth and slayed the beast with his sword, saving the beautiful princess. Where the dragon’s blood pooled on the ground, a marvellous red rose bush grew.

Sant Jordi (or Saint George in English) is the patron saint of Catalonia, and a heap of other places as well. The four red stripes of the Catalan flag (apparently) come from the dragon’s blood-soaked claws, and the story is taught to children all around the region. La Diada de Sant Jordi on April 23 commemorates the date of his death around 300BC, and is the day of love in Catalonia, even more than Valentine’s Day.

Roses along Carrer de Sant Blai in Tortosa for La Diada De Sant Jordi.

Since the late 1920s, April 23 has also been Book Day in Catalonia (growing to officially become World Book Day in 1999), to commemorate the deaths of both Cervantes and, it turned out, Shakespeare.

Combining these two traditions, La Diada de Sant Jordi is now the day of the book and the rose all across Catalonia. Boys give their girls a rose, while girls gift a book to their fellas. Or vice versa, you know, as it’s 2015. In Barcelona and Tarragona, Las Ramblas are packed with stalls and lovers, and several people told me it is one of the most beautiful days to be in these cities.

In Tortosa, Sant Jordi was celebrated along Carrer de Sant Blai, the main pedestrian street in town. Stalls appeared overnight covered in roses and books: local books shops, schools, charities and political parties represented, selling new and second-hand books, as well as roses wrapped in Catalan colours. We could have bought yellow roses, many many picture books about Sant Jordi, and even a guide to the Dragons of Catalonia.

A book stall along Sant Blai in Tortosa
A book stall along Sant Blai in Tortosa.
Dragon book
A guide to Catalonia’s many dragons.

The weather was perfect and it was a very festive atmosphere. Perhaps not as spectacular as the book fairs in Barça, but great fun all the same. We soaked up the atmosphere with some ice-cream, and later some cava, definitely feeling the romance in the air.  I was even lucky enough to receive a rose!

In return I gave three children’s books, to help with H’s Spanish: El Patito Feo, El Libro de la Selva and La Dama y el Vagabundo. Romantic and educational. ¡Feliç Sant Jordi!

The week of our first journal club

With apologies to Tyler Durden…

The research group at C3 is a small but dedicated bunch. There are only 15 of us, working in a range of fields from climate model downscaling to data homogenisation, from temperature extremes to model downscaling. The majority are women (including our director), and we are a mixture of local and international scientists.

The range of topics and native languages sometimes makes it difficult to ask for help with those silly battles that we early career researchers face every day: how do I find these data? What type of bracket do I need to fix this line of code? When is the next public holiday? But we get by OK.

Continue reading “The week of our first journal club”

The week of the three towers

How good is spring?! The days are lengthening, the sun is shining and the flowers are blooming. Tortosa feels alive, like a new town. After a two winters in a row, we are really appreciating all of this, and the promise of warmer days ahead.

Yesterday we got out and enjoyed the sunshine by riding between L’Aldea and Camarles in the Ebro Delta region, visiting three watchtowers. Medieval towers pop up all over the landscape here, mysterious remnants of times and coastlines past. Who wouldn’t love a quest to visit as many as possible?

Our first stop, after setting a personal record for ‘smallest town to get lost in’ in L’Aldea, was the tower at the Hermitage just out of town. Tower #1 was rebuilt on the original foundations in 1936, but the area was settled since the mid-12th century. We thought we would just be able to look up at the rectangular torre but not, the door was wide open!

After getting the OK from the friendly man at the information hut, we climbed the tower and enjoyed lovely and free view across the delta. Every floor of the tower also housed great information boards (I love me an information board!) about life in the watch tower. Did you know that if all was well (i.e. no pirates could be seen) then the guard would hang a bunch of grass on the flagpole? Neither did I.

Tower #1: La torre de l’ermita, L’Aldea. Complete with trusty steed and flowers.

After the guy at the info centre directed us to the best road to ride along—he was wearing cycling gear so we trusted his judgement—we set off to Tower #2. We had an inconsiderate head wind, but the sun was shining and as we were riding along a channel there were plenty of swallows and water birds to see. We also pretty much had the road to ourselves, apart from the odd tractor.

The rice fields that cover the Delta region are still being prepared for planting at the moment, so our surroundings were fairly brown. As was the smell! It will be fun to return in a few months when the fields have changed.

The rice fields under construction.

Tower #2, in the small town of Camarles, was a little circular number that was restored in the early 1990s. The door was locked when we arrived, but the track notes suggested we ask at the information centre across the road. So we did and were rewarded with the keys! How often do you get keys to an 800 year old tower in your life, really? From the top we could see the mountains, the ocean and the delta all at once.

Tower #2: Torre de la Camarles.

After lunch at a nearby restaurant, featuring local duck and pizza with artichokes and black pudding, we headed back towards L’Aldea and Tower #3. La Grandella Tower was another rectangular torre that dated back to the 12th century. This last tower was accompanied by dogs instead of friendly information assistants, and the dogs did not seem to want to let us in. But still, I call success! Three out of three.

Tower #3: La torre de la Granadella. Note the not-so-friendly information guard dog at the bottom left.

We headed back to L’Aldea via the highway and some back roads, definitely NOT the route suggested in track notes, and made it back to the train station 10 minutes before our train arrived. Double success! I am officially hooked on tower chasing. Much more exotic than windmills.

P.S. Detailed track notes can be found here. We did the route backwards and managed to follow the suggested path about 50% of the way.

The week I figured out the wattles

We’ve just returned from a frolic around Malta, Sicily and Rome, catching up with some dear friends, learning more about the amazing history of the Mediterranean, and eating our body weight in pizza/pasta/chocolate-filled croissants.

There were so many things to do and see and smell, but one particular feature kept catching my eye…

Wattle I think of next?
Wattle blossoms in Tortosa.

The wattles! You can blame my botanist father if you like, but I couldn’t help but notice acacias—and eucalypts—everywhere we went. They are in Tortosa too and I’ve been aware of them since we arrived. Lazily I just assumed that their presence meant another Australian had lived here at some stage.

No more. Once that I learnt that these trees grow wild across at least three countries in southern Europe, my interest was officially piqued!

But what a depressing interest-quenching mission it has turned out to be. A quick something-search has led me to discover that several wattle and gum tree varieties are considered environmental pests across much of Europe and Africa.

The plants were brought over from Australia in the late 1700s because they were exotic, pretty and interesting. But now our floral emblems have invaded roadsides, coastal bushland and nature reserves across Spain, Portugal, Italy and France, crowding out native species and destroying local biodiversity.

Not everyone is against the naturalised Aussies. Much like Grafton in New South Wales celebrates the jacaranda, that great purple South African migrant, the French southern Riveria honours the wattle (or mimosa) bloom every year with a week-long festival.

I HAD been enjoying the little green and gold slices of home whenever I saw them. In fact I have some wattle blossoms in a bottle on the dining table right now. But it turns out they are the European equivalent of rabbits in Australia: slowly and surely wrecking up the place. I no longer want a Spanish home among the gum trees.

Extending the temperature record of southeastern Australia

This is a guest post that I was kindly invited to write for Climanrecon is currently looking at the non-climatic features of the Bureau of Meteorology’s raw historical temperature observations, which are freely available online. As Neville Nicholls recently discussed in The Conversation, the more the merrier!

Southeastern Australia is the most highly populated and agriculturally rich area in Australia. It’s home to our tallest trees, our highest mountains, our oldest pubs and most importantly, our longest series of instrumental weather observations. This makes southeastern Australia the most likely place to extend Australia’s instrumental climate record.Continue reading “Extending the temperature record of southeastern Australia”

The week of my first lecture

This week I filled in for a professor and gave my first ever lecture as a professional scientist to undergraduate students. Two hours of talking at second-year geography students about the climate of Australia. I now officially feel like an academic!

Although I get nervous (who doesn’t), I usually like giving public presentations. After some training in science communication, I hope that I am not completely crap at them either. But this was my first presentation to an audience that were not native English speakers. Unfortunately I could not rely on our mutual knowledge of Con the Fruiterer, or speak in slang. AND, I only had six days to prepare.Continue reading “The week of my first lecture”

The week of English

Maybe it was because of St Patrick’s Day, but this past week has had a tinge of the UK about it. Not only did a bar down the road start serving Guinness for the first time (you just can’t escape those ludicrous hats!), but a couple of events this week have reminded me of the Motherland:

English practice

On Tuesday we went along to an English class that a friend of mine attends. Her teacher – a lovely Tortisi guy with the most curious north English accent – was keen to meet us and wondered if we could help the students. We were more than happy to oblige, and so spent 40 minutes or so in ‘the hot chairs’ answering questions from the class.

A lot of the students were interested to hear our opinions of Catalonia and Tortosa, with only one question about keeping kangaroos as pets! We said yes, of course. Instead of asking our age, one student came straight out with it and asked if we were planning on having children……

(awkward silence)

Luckily his grammar was OK.

English Festival

The river that used to be our street last night. Another nominee for worst photo on this blog!
The river that used to be our street last night. Another nominee for worst photo on this blog!
The Ebro looking moody earlier this week

So far here we have seen an artichoke festival, an olive oil festival, a local produce festival, a Christmas festival, several festivals for various saints and a ‘ruta de tapas’ celebrating all things l’abadejo (cod, currently happening at bars and restaurants across Tortosa). This weekend was the Tortosa English Festival, an initiative to help local students get excited about learning English. I have to confess we didn’t make the most of this because of the rain (see below), but there have been Irish breakfasts, English magic shows, debates and basketball demonstrations across town.

English weather

The atmosphere must have heard about the festival somehow because it has been raining all weekend! A perfect English spring drenching thanks to a bunch of moist air coming from the Mediterranean. This has kept us inside most of the weekend, finally catching up on Serial and getting stuck into a puzzle like the 65-year-olds we secretly are. All we need now are some Yorkshire puddings…

The week of #CLIMATEES2015


This week around 100 climate scientists, meteorologists, oceanographers and modellers descended on Tortosa for CLIMATE-ES 2015, an International Symposium (capslock intended) about climate change research across the Iberian Peninsula.Continue reading “The week of #CLIMATEES2015”

The week we tried to learn Spanish

‘What?’ I hear you say! ‘Haven’t you been living in Spain for three months now? Haven’t you been trying to learn Spanish for, I don’t know, the whole time?!’

The truth is, it’s actually been quite hard to for us to find a structured way to learn Castellano. The main reason for this is that, of course, we are not living in Spain. We’re living in Catalonia.

There are free classes at my university, at the town hall, anywhere really, if we wanted to learn Catalan. It’s not that we don’t want to. It would be great to know more about all the street signs we see and conversations we hear. But people here speak ‘Tortosi’, which is a Catalan dialect, different from standard Catalan and even different from the Catalan spoken 15 minutes away in other towns! And we were advised on arrival to start by learning Spanish, and then try our hand at Catalan later. Luckily for us, most people here are amazingly bilingual, meaning that they can help us with Spanish, even if it is not their mother gossip language.

If we were living in Barcelona or Tarragona, or anywhere outside of Catalonia, there would be plenty of Spanish classes available. But because we are in a town not quite big enough, it has been very difficult to come by any form of formal teaching. So far we have been pretty much teaching ourselves with language apps, books bought online, and Spanish TV.

In the last few weeks we’ve also felt confident enough to start some intercambios, exchanging languages with a couple of girls from university over a coffee or a beer. This is great for making friends and helping with English, but because my Spanish is still so basic, I find myself making the same foolish mistakes every week.  I speak a little Spanish at work, but as the only native English speaker my colleagues really appreciate practising their English, and that makes it easy for me to be lazy.

This week we stepped up our game. Firstly, after a month of pestering from two colleagues in a similar position, a language teacher from my university’s Tarragona campus came down to test our Spanish skills, to see if they could run some classes here. We performed miserably in the test, so maybe something will come of it, but we are not keeping our hopes up.

Secondly, H pulled the trigger on some intensive Spanish classes in Tarragona, an hour from here by train. We didn’t do this earlier because the travel is expensive, as is the class. 135€ a week for 20 hours, plus 30€ registration, plus 80€ for travel, and that’s a significant slab of our income gone. But it was definitely worth it. H is more confident at speaking Spanish already, and we’re learning different methods of study, which is great.

Finally, after asking around and around, a lovely librarian uncovered free Spanish classes for new arrivals here. This coming Thursday we will head to a dingy-looking building opposite the train station and learn for 2.5 hours. Who knows how good it will be, but at least we’re trying.

The week of wind

Despite the fact that my job is all about the atmosphere, the one thing that is guaranteed to ruin my day is wind. Not passing wind, that’s hilarious, but unrelenting, tree-bending, dust-blowing, hair-mussing wind that come from air migrating from one spot to another.Continue reading “The week of wind”