The week of contrasts

This week has been somewhat of a come down after three jam-packed weeks of visitors and weekends away. We have been so lucky to have many friends and family visit from Australia, and our little apartment and day-to-day lives seem a bit quiet and dull now that they have gone.

Quiet is not always bad. It’s nice to focus on the minutiae of life for a bit: making sure there is edible food in the house, finally cleaning some clothes, and getting stuck into bigger tasks at work. But it makes a stark contrast to the last few weeks of travelling and saying salut every night. I think we will feel somewhat lonely in the weeks to come, as autumn and winter slowly descend on the Ebro Valley.

Tortosa, in its special way, also managed to provide a lovely display of contrast this weekend, in the form of two little festivals (it’s been more than two weeks, right?!)

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The week for a weekend in Barcelona

There’s something magical about Barca. The narrow streets of the old town, the wide avenues of the Eixample district, the sunshine, the palm trees, the curved buildings, the people. Perhaps we are simply Melbourne folk, starved for urbanisation here in Tortosa, but every time I visit Catalonia’s capital I fall in love with it a little more.

Our mini-breaks to the big smoke generally take the same shape (although you can mix and match of course):

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The week of Festes de la Cinta

“What?!”, I can hear you spluttering at your screen. “Another festival? Is she serious? Surely after Sant Jordi, Sant Joan, Benicàssim, the Three Kings and the Renaixement Festival that is enough, at least for a little while. Do some work for goodness sake!”

That’s what I thought too. And believe me, I am trying to work. But this week, this was a big one. Possibly the most important one for Tortosa, because it contained two important days: the celebration of their patron saint, and a Catalonia’s national day.Read More »

The week of Benicàssim

Tuesday last week

Before we left Australia, a friend of a friend squealed when I told her we were moving to the south of Catalonia. ‘Oh, near Tarragona? You really should to go to Benicàssim!’ FIB, Festival Internacional de Benicàssim, is a music festival in the coastal town of, you guessed it, Benicàssim, about an hour south of Tortosa.

FIB has played host to a fantastic array of bands since its inception in the late 90s, including Oasis, The Chemical Brothers, Arcade Fire, Leonard Cohen, and millions of others. When I looked into the festival, I completely agreed with my friend’s friend. We SHOULD go to Benicàssim. And so in January we bought two early-bird tickets, 130€ for four days of camping, fun, sun and sound. FIB? Bring it on…

It is now only two sleeps before we set off to Benicàssim, and my excitement has turned to mild terror. The heatwave continues, and the thought of sleeping in our cheap tent for four nights has me imagining what it is like to live inside a plastic bag in an abandoned bin. The program has been released, and all of the headliners are starting at 1am or later. One AM! Surely I’m too old for that. My lack of festival fashion has me concerned that the youngsters will boo us out of the crowd. How are we going to get through this, let alone enjoy it??



We survived! We are filthy, and exhausted, and will probably never drink tequila-flavoured beer again, but Benicàssim was a great weekend. Here are some highlights and lowlights, along with some of those obligatory stage photos that you take at festivals, even though they always turn out dreadful…


  • The people! The crowd was 45% Spanish, 50% UK and 5% miscellaneous, and most of the people we met were lovely. Big shout out to the two 19 year-old Irish boys who had come straight from San Fermín in Pamplona, and still had the energy to be so polite that their mothers would have been proud.
  • The age distribution. Although the majority of the FIBers seemed to be between 18 and 24 (who can really tell these days) we saw some fabulous old rockers, and a number of families with little kids. You know it’s a good festival when people feel comfortable enough to bring the whole family, or keep coming back.
  • Cold showers. I’ve always hated a cold shower, but these open air, communal wash troughs were actually a delight to visit in the afternoon, to refresh yourself before an evening of music.
A cold shower with a cool view
  • Routine. Swim, Nap, Dance, Repeat. It was surprisingly easy to get into this gentle rhythm, once we were out of the tent. We would catch the bus down to the beach, have a swim, sleep a bit, maybe move into the shade of the glorious Nap Castle (actually a 16th century tower in the centre of Benicàssim) for a kip, then back to the campsite for some more relaxing, a shower, a tinto de verano, and then off to the festival (5 minutes walk from camp). This routine made it possible to make it to the 1am shows without too much trouble. The 4am DJs on the other hand…
The famous Nap Castle, where exhausted festival goers rest peacefully in the shade, protected from the unrelenting sun.
  • The number of bands with awesome female singers and musicians: Jamie T, Crystal Fighters, Clean Bandit, Hamsandwich, Portishead, Florence, MØ, Darwin Deez and plenty of others.
Crystal Fighters
Crystal Fighters
  • Watching Noel Gallagher from a hill at the back of the festival with all the locals because you can get to the hill for free.
Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds, from quite far away.
  • Damon Albans making a fan’s night by asking her onstage to sing Blur’s hit Parklife. She knew every word and was amazing.
  • Frank Turner’s adorable attempt at speaking Catalan to his audience, made up of 98% English people.
  • La M.O.D.A., A Spanish Twin Beasts/Cat Empire.
La Maravillosa Orquestra del Alcohol rocking the stage


  • The people. The majority were wonderful, but there’s always a few. Obnoxious (and sunburnt) English lads being gross, really loud drunken Spaniards yelling ‘DORMIR’ at 5am, and those guys, you know those Stone Men, in crowds, who never dance, even though that seems like more effort than actually dancing? Yeah, those guys.
  • The tattoo distribution. This isn’t really a lowlight, but it did make me feel very boring to not have any tattoos, when everyone else seemed to have at least five. Evil clowns, dream catchers, old churches, ornate ethnic designs, inspirational slogans in every language, you name it, they inked it.
  • Sleeping in a tent. Because I’m old.
Tent life.
  • The food. It wasn’t terrible, but there was no green chicken curry roti wrap, chai van or dagwood dog!
  • Sound troubles on the last night, meaning one stage ran 15-20 minutes late. That is an indication of how well run the festival was, that people were getting annoyed about bands running to Spanish time.
  • No free drinking water. Well, there was “free” “water” but it tasted like a warm, dirty swimming pool.

But that’s it. Highlights definitely outweighed the lowlights, and we had a rocking time. Thanks for the tip Sarah! Would love to see you again next year FIB, although we might spring for a hotel with AC in 2016.

Gracias FIB!


The week it was hot

And continued to be hot. And still is hot.

Wearing bathers around the house, sleeping in the living room under the fan, covering windows with wet towels, giving up on the balcony plants, staying at work until late because that’s where the AC is, eating watermelon for dinner kind of hot.

A heatwave is currently gripping Europe with its sweaty paws, breaking records all over the place and driving people to the beach in massive numbers. Helpful timing for the Our Common Future Under Climate Change conference happening in Paris right now.

The temperature in Tortosa has not dropped below 20º since the 26th of June, and maximum temperatures are ranging between 30 and 39ºC. It’s these high minimum temperatures that can be the real killer, particularly for the elderly and vulnerable who do not have access to AC.

I was going to try and write about the science of this crazy heat, but a) my computer (and myself) do not work well in high temperatures and b) this article from The Conversation explains what is going on, with neat pictures too.

Essentially a high-pressure system has parked itself over western Europe, suppressing clouds and diverting any low pressure system that might want to meander this way. It is also being fed warm air from the south thanks to high pressure in the upper parts of the atmosphere. Just read the article, they explain it much better.

In Australia, heatwaves occur in a similar way, when the jet stream and a surface high pressure system push warm air down from the middle of the country. However in Europe, the warm air comes up from Africa, instead of down from the red centre.

One interesting part of that article that I was not aware of is the Spanish Plume. The warm air travels up from Africa, over the Iberian Peninsula where it gets even hotter and drier. From there it ends up near the UK, where it meets cooler air coming down from the north. This results in some terrific thunderstorms.

We were lucky enough to experience both the middle and the edge of the giant pillow of hot air this week. For the first half of the week we melted in our non-air-conditioned apartment, eating ice cream and trying to think of cold things.

The Tortosa forecast. It has not changed much since this photo was taken.

In the second half we were in Ireland for the wedding of some lovely friends. I’ve never been so happy to wear a scarf! Western Ireland was brisk and showery, which may be characteristic of the Atlantic climate, and on our return to Dublin we saw some ripper cumulonimbus clouds which I now realise may have been the edge of the warm air. We even went through a town that had completely lost power thanks to the storms.

In contrast, the grey and lush Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry.

Now we are back in the heat, daydreaming about green fields and trying to keep cool. There is no respite in sight, with the Spanish Meteorological Agency predicting similar temperatures for at least the next week. Please look after yourself Tortosins, and your neighbours. See you at the beach.

The week of Sant Joan

This week brought with it a delightful mid-week fiesta, the day of Sant Joan. The Catalan holiday combines a celebration for the summer solstice with a day commemorating the birth of Saint John the Baptist.

If you are a boy lucky enough to be called Joan, then June 24 is your name day — like a second birthday, complete with gifts, family celebrations and maybe even cake. In fact, most Catalans that are named after saints have name days as well as their birthday, how great is that! I am yet to find a Saint Linden…

The 24th might be great for Joans, but it is the night of the 23rd that is the big verbena. Fireworks, bonfires and all-night parties happen on this ‘Nit de Foc’ (night of fire), welcoming the Spanish summer and symbolically burning the old to make way for the new. People get together to share cava and an oval-shaped traditional cake, the Coca de Sant Joan. In this region it is also common to snails, a local delicacy.

Apparently the number of fires has decreased over the years, presumably in response to safety concerns. I have to admit I stifled a gasp at a celebration that promotes fire during the summer! This would never fly in Australia. Nonetheless, the firework stores in Tortosa had queues coming of out their doors for several days leading up to Tuesday night, and children of all ages (seriously, I saw a two-year-old have a go) have been throwing noisy crackers in the street for a week or more.

But when the big night came, the fires in town were overshadowed by natural entertainment in the form of a huge thunderstorm that flashed and rumbled and drenched poor Tortosa for over an hour. The lightning was very spectacular, but it put a dampener on many of the parties in the surrounding suburbs. In the end we had to set off our meagre collection of crackers next to a supermarket car park that had become a temporary lake.

Our firework stash and subsequent display.

Wednesday, the public holiday, is a day for the beach. Rest and recovery after a big night. We had left the abuelos to their dancing at 2am on Tuesday, and so were up relatively early, ready for a fun day celebrating Sant Joan in Tarragona.

Couples dancing to a band by the river at about 2am on the night of Sant Joan. Notice the drenched paper tablecloths…

Tarragona is a moderate city about an hour from Tortosa, rich with Roman history and a wonderful place to explore. We wandered around the old city walls before joining the throngs of families celebrating with paella by the sea. Later on we slept off the paella on the beach, as instructed, and then rounded out the day watching some castellers build their best human towers in Tarragona’s central square.

Paella marisco and a castell in Tarragona
Paella marisco and a castell in Tarragona.

I am now writing this in 36 ºC heat, with nothing but sunshine in the forecast, so it seems we have welcomed summer correctly.

The week I wrote about science instead

One of the reasons I started this blog was to share my experiences of living and working in Spain, hoping to fill the gap that I discovered when frantically Googling ‘how to live in Spain as an Australian’ before we left home. I enjoy sharing what we see, what we eat, and where we discover in this largely unknown region of southern Catalonia. It might be useful for others to know how we survived the administration process, and what to expect. I write for my friends, my family, for Past Me, and hopefully for future visitors.

One of the other reasons I started this blog was to tell stories and snippets from my research, which (until I got here) was mainly about historical weather observations in Australia. This topic is an amazing combination of history and science, of characters and statistics, and throughout my PhD I was determined to tell those stories to more people than my patient friends and obliging parents.

And so this website is a combination. Una mezcla. Part professional, and part…not. Sometimes I feel bad about this. I want to say sorry to those who have arrived here looking for info on Australia’s climate history, and are instead bombarded with pictures of Catalan booze. Equally, I want to apologise to my mates who want to keep up to date with our adventures here, but have to wade through the science stuff that they may find boring. I worry too, that when it comes time for me to find another job, this quasi-professional approach might bite me in the backside, as I have shared too much of my personal life.

But you know, most of the time I do not want to apologise. To take that young person’s phrase that I don’t completely understand, I’m sorrynotsorry. Just like any profession, scientists don’t do science all the time. Sure, we may appreciate the world in a different way, but we are still living in that world, and occasionally doing non-sciencey things, just as accountants do non-accountanty things, and waitresses do non-waitressy things.

And maybe one day a potential young scientist might come across this blog and realise that he can be passionate about clinical psychology AND about his random love of baking dog-shaped cakes, or that her love of physics with her goal of visiting every football stadium in the world can co-exist happily. Or perhaps a skeptic might stumble here looking for details about historical Victorian weather and find that the scientists who study this stuff are real, complex people too, and may think twice before publishing something hateful on her blog.

Who knows. But either way, this week I finally put together a small tale about Melbourne’s meteorological history. Light on graphs, but effective at making me homesick, this is a summary of some key sights to see in Melbourne if you are on a nerdy science tour. Enjoy! Or don’t.