The week we Via-ed Verde-ishly

Warning: for some inexplicable reason, this post contains an alarming amount of alliterations.

Yesterday we bundled our bikes into the bottom of a bus and headed off to explore the mountains that surround Tortosa. We ventured with verve to velocipede on the Via Verde.

Via Verdes (or Greenway) are old train lines that have been converted into cycling and walking paths over the past 20 years. Apparently most of the original train routes were never used or even completed, an ambitious infrastructure plan that was, for lack of a better word, derailed by the Spanish Civil War.

There are more than 90 Via Verdes across Spain (more than 7,500 km of path), and because trains can only go so fast up a hill, all of the trails are gloriously flat. The route that ends in Tortosa combines Via Verdes of two regions and starts in Arnes on the southern Catalonian border. However, due to the wonderful weekend bus timetable not including a bus to that particular village, we started our adventure in Gandesa in Terra Alta, around 40km north of Tortosa.

We hopped off the bus at about 9:30, ready for a superb day of self-propelled splendour. Gandesa’s main attraction, the region’s wine cellar was not open yet (probably for the best), so we pedalled off towards the south.

Terra Alta, the region adjacent to Tortosa’s Baix Ebre province, fortunately contains many walking/cycling routes that are well marked and provided amazing views of vineyards, orchards, and geologically-impressive mountains.

Unfortunately, only one of these trails is a Via Verde. The others are steep and scree-ish. So the first 9km of our journey was over hill and under dale along a dirt rode to get to the start of the official Via Verde track. Beautiful views but I was too busy watching the loose gravel on my timid treddly.

Gandesa_to_bot
Me trying to look like I’m having fun among the vineyards while the loose gravel mocks me.

We hit the straight and narrow in Bot, a gorgeous sandstone village with delicious chocolate croissants. As we started along the Verde’s wide, paved and city-bike friendly path, we realised what a genius idea it had been to start in Gandesa and ride back towards Tortosa, or towards the sea. We were going down hill the whole way!

Tunnel_bridge
Bridges and tunnels, and all on a slight decline.

And so we coasted. We coasted through old train tunnels that were lit with solar-powered lights, lit by our cleverly packed head-torches and even one tunnel that was lit by the headlights of a friendly policeman. We coasted past stunning swimming spots, charismatic cliffs, bold bridges and stately old train stations. Apart from the occasional sod struggling up the slight incline, we were on our own too (thank you winter!).

Lunch No. 1 was consumed at Fontcalda, a popular swimming hole with a natural warm spring. Lunch No 2. was devoured in Xerta, near where the Terra Alta Via Verde joins the Baix Ebre leg of the trail. We followed the huge Ebre river back to Tortosa, dragging our bruised buttocks home by about 4pm. An amazing 40km adventure to amplify our attraction to the alluring (Terra) Alta.

Fontcalda
A geologist’s delight! This will be the most lovely place for a swim come summer time.
Ebro_river
The mighty River Ebre (Ebro in Castellano)

For more information:

The Via Verde website (In English): http://www.viasverdes.com/en

Gandesa to Tortosa tour notes: http://www.hife.es/es/servicios-hife/bus-bici-via-verde/

A map that I blatantly stole from the Tortosa Via Verde information sign:

Via_Verde_map
The Via Verdes in Terra Alta and Baix Ebre, as well as another path (in red) that goes down to the sea. Save that one for next time…

The week of the jamón

Finally, after two months of filler, of pretending this blog is about science or experiencing a new culture or some such, I can finally write the blog post that this website was born to host. The real reason we moved to Spain. La semana del jamón.

Jamon of the house
Meet our newest housemate!

Jamón—pork that is cured by drying and salting, as opposed to your standard sandwich ham, which is boiled in brine or baked—is served at almost every restaurant here. Legs of it are sold at the supermarket, even at the German chain Lidl, and it has been our dream, nay our mission, to own a leg of jamón during our stay. So with my second paycheck we braved the wind and cold last Saturday and journeyed to the nearest Mercadona to procure ourselves a slice (multiple slices hopefully) of history.

Jamon on wheels
Jamón on wheels

It took us three laps of the supermarket to work up the courage to approach the jamón counter. There were hind legs (jamón) and forelegs (paleta) for sale, all hanging up behind the friendly butcher. We wanted the real deal, the jamón ibérico. This grand-daddy of pig products comes from black-footed Iberican pigs that are apparently fed only acorns. The meat is cured for over two years (so the butcher told us) and is melt-in-your-mouth delicious. It was tempting, but we just could not justify the 99€ (~$150 AUD) price tag.

The jamón serrano was more our style, from white mountain pigs that are fed mostly cereal and cured for only 12 months. After a free tasting, and a confusing conversation in Spanish, we left the supey with 8kg of pork for only 48€.

We got her home and started slicing. Although we’re not completely convinced the leg is the right way up, so far we have not cut off any fingers. OK yes, some of the slices are still landing on the floor, but we’re getting there. We have now accumulated all of the accessories too: a jamonero (‘ham house’ –not the direct translation but quite the table centrepiese) and a long sharp flexible knife for cutting nice clean slices.

Apparently you need to keep eating the jamón every day or two so that the exposed meat does not go bad. Who are we to ignore this advice? Stay tuned for ‘The Week We Finish The Jamón’. Likely to be next week…

Jamon for lunch
Our first attempts at slicing the jamón. Another nominee for worst photo on this blog but my golly was it delicious!

The week of the assembly

It’s not sexy and there are no tandem bikes, but the most significant thing that happened this week, for the first time, was work related.

My research position at URV is part of UERRA, an EU funded program that stands for Uncertainties in Ensembles of Regional ReAnalyses (acronyms are hilarious). Reanalyses are not the job that Tobias Fünke has from Arrested Development. They are basically a complete picture of the atmosphere based on the observations that are available and the physics that governs how weather behaves.  Reanalyses are the data used by meteorologists and climatologists all over the world. I’ve attempted to explain more about them here.Continue reading “The week of the assembly”

Rea-whatnow?

Disclaimer: This is my first attempt at a grandma-friendly explanation of one of the key instruments in a climate scientist’s bag: climate reanalyses.

connectthedot

My new job is all about finding weather observations that can feed into things called reanalyses. A reanalysis product is a massive dataset that can be used to recreate how we think the weather and climate behaved. Having this kind of ‘guess-timate’ of the recent atmosphere helps scientists learn more about how weather patterns form and decay, different ways that the atmosphere is responding to climate change, and all sorts of cool  ways to understand how the weather works. Reanalyses are used to study things like extreme weather events, improving weather forecasting, how climate change is affecting the atmosphere, and sun, wind and rain availability for renewable energy and agriculture.

Continue reading “Rea-whatnow?”

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
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 week of the GOOOOOOOLLLLLLLLLLLLL

House_goals
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.

Full_house_camp_nou
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.

Soft_penalty
Athlético Madrid score after a soft penalty on Messi early in the second half.

barca_hug
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!

Flags
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!

The week it was Christmas

Although our Christmas was spent in Germany with family, this blog is about Spain, so here are some highlights from the lead up to Navidad in Tortosa.

The Christmas spirit is alive and well here, although not officially until the long weekend of the 6th to the 8th of December. Before that time the fairy lights hung throughout the town lay dark. The 8th of December is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, and a public holiday across Spain. Since then, the streets and buildings have been covered in Christmas lights and signs wishing you Bones Festes or Bon Nadal (happy holidays and Merry Christmas in Catalan). It’s beautiful.

Christmas_lights
Christmas lights along our street. The picture does them little to no justice.

In Tortosa, the long weekend was also when the Christmas market was held. Local crafts, crepe vans, and a vat of melted chocolate that was given out free to children (and lost-looking Australians) were all part of the party. While not quite as Christmassy as the German Weihnachtsmarkt, it still made us feel very festive.

As Christmas came closer, more and more decorations were put into shop windows, and more and more Santas appeared. The weekend before Christmas we spotted three giving out lollies in the street, one on a stage posing with children, and one being pulled on a tricycle with an accompanying Santa-dog behind a drumming band! This is weird because Spanish children generally receive their gifts from the Three Kings on January the 6th. I’m still trying to get to the bottom of that one.

Nougat also seems to be a big part of Christmas here, although maybe it’s important year-round and I just don’t know it yet. There are beautiful little nougat (or torrens) stores selling slabs of the stuff, along with almond meal cakes baked into the shapes of animals.

Tio_waytogo
Our own little Tió measuring about 10cm long. Not much room for nougat in there…

Nougat plays an important role in the story of Tió de Nadal the Christmas Log. Tió is  ubiquitous Christmas companion around these parts, and we’ve seen him in shops everywhere. Tió’s job is to sit at the fireplace and get ‘fed’ by the family every day from the 8th of December until Christmas Eve. On the 24th, little Tió is beaten up until he craps out nougat and candy, and not a stinky herring. There’s even a song about it! Apparently Catalonians also install El Caganer, a little pooing man in their nativity scenes, another glorious faeces-based Christmas tradition.

Feliz Navidad y Bon Nadal!

The week we made it into the system

Also known as the week we slept outside in the street for a night to apply for our “alien cards”…

When we finally picked up our Spanish visas last month, the Melbourne consulate said we needed to present ourselves to the Oficina de Extranjería (foreigner or alien office) within a month of arrival and apply for a Tarjeta de Identidad de Extranjero (TIE, or Foreigner card) to make sure the visa stayed valid. No worries, we thought, easy!

Obviously not quite that easy. When we arrived and spoke to some other extranjeros, they told us that we needed to go to the Policia (or Comisaría Local) because there was no Oficina de Extranjeía in town. Most of the people we spoke to were also from other European countries, and didn’t know about the TIE process because they don’t need one.

So we visited the Police station, and after several trips and conversations, the smiling El Jefe told us that we need to provide proof of where we live, some more documents, some photos and a copy of our passports. For anyone playing at home, more specifically you need:

  • A volante empadronamiento, a form from the local town hall that shows you are a registered resident of the area. To get THIS form you need a bond form (or Model 2) from your landlord or real estate agent. It took three visits to the town hall before we cracked this nut.
  • A photocopy of your visa
  • Two passport photos
  • A copy of your resolution, a letter from the Ministerio de Empleo y Seguridad Social authorising your residency (you need this to get your visa as well)

We have by some miracle managed to cobble together these documents already. Great! Can we apply now? No no, says El Jefe. You need to be one of the first 20 extranjeros here in the morning. Come at 6am, we will hand out the tickets at 8am.

We get there at 7am the next morning. Too late. There are 25 names on the makeshift list taped to the wall next to the police station and everyone there looks cold and tired. The next morning we write our names on a new sheet of paper that has been stuck up at about 10am for the following day. We get up at 6am and rush down to the station but that new list has been replaced by yet another list, and our names are not on it. Instead there is a mob of tired, slightly scary extranjeros that tell us no, you need to be here all night to ensure your spot.

And so it was that we spent the next night, one of the longest of the year, camping out. We were there from 7pm until 8am when the policemen arrived to hand out the 20 numbers to those who would be seen that day.

waiting
Waiting outside the police station with the other extranjeros

I’m not sure how I would have felt if I had been there alone as a woman, but with my man there I felt perfectly safe. All of the other extranjeros, from Pakistan, Algeria, Romania, Belarus, were very friendly. Some were lining up for their partners, their nieces, and many were old hats at the process. Apparently you need to go through the same process to renew your residence card, which needs to happen every one to five years depending on your visa.

We ate snacks, listened to audiobooks, huddled under a blanket, rested on some cardboard boxes and kept a beady eye on the list. At around 4am, the original sheet of paper was taken down and a revised list was made, crossing out the five or so people who had simply written their names down and walked away. Fools! we thought as we shivered. Despite the unofficial nature of the process, there was a real sense of dignified procedure to it, a sense of earning your place.

As the sky slowly grew lighter there was some kerfuffle as the list finally hit its limit and the people who had not stayed over returned to find themselves gone. This was one of the only times we’ve been glad to not speak much Spanish, because all we could do was watch the discussions play out while making sure the list was still taped securely to the wall.

List
Man with the list. The first list…

At 8am the policemen arrived and we formed the order that had been decided at 4am. We were numbers 7 and 8. The cops did not seem to care how the order was determined, as long as they didn’t have to do it. After we received the numbers we had an hour before we would be processed – just enough time for some food and rejuvinating hot tea.

Finally we made it through to the police administration lady who processed our applications in about five minutes and sent us off to the bank to pay the 15€ taza (tax). After we had returned with our receipt that was it! Well, not absolutely it. We are now in possession of two justificantes, or letters to say that our application is in the pipeline. We’re in the system! In 45 days we can go to the police station between 1pm and 1:30pm and start asking if our alien cards are ready yet. Isn’t that civilised?

UPDATE 16 February 2015: We are with cards!! This afternoon I picked up my tarjeta de extranjero. It has a big smiling picture of me on it (none of that neutral face stuff you need to do for your passport in Australia) and it valid until the end of October. October! Which means we will have to do this all again in eight months.