The week my parents were here

Yesterday we waved goodbye to our second set of Aussie visitors, my dear parentals. It’s a bit strange when you grow up, and you are supposed to be an adult, and you realise that your Mum and Dad don’t know everything, like how to order a coffee in Spanish, or the direction of the train station.

But on the other hand, it’s great fun when you grow up and realise that your parents can travel with the best of them, and that they enjoy cava (Spanish bubbles) just as much as you do.

This post could easily be a sob story about how seeing my parents made me feel more homesick than I have done so far on this adventure. Skype is one thing, but it’s sad not knowing when I will catch up with them again in person.

And I could easily write this post as a love letter to Spain in the spring: travelling with the family gave us a chance to experience warm Madrid nights, floral Valencian days and the delightful green countryside of Castile-La Mancha.

But to keep it local, here is the second edition of Things To Do in Tortosa When You Have Guests! If you remember, the first issue was full of suggestions for activities that are cheap, cheerful, and close to town.  For this round you will need a car, which you can hire here, or much more cheaply in Tarragona or Reus, if you are coming that way.

Visit the Delta

About 25 minutes out of Tortosa is the flat expanse of Delta del Ebro. Beaches, bike paths, towers, and nearly more than 7,500 hectares of ever-changing rice paddies are key features of this unique landscape. At this time of year, the rice fields are flooded and rice is being sown, making it a glorious place to spend the afternoon (the “afternoon” here being from 4pm until 8:30pm at the moment).

The real stars of the Delta, however, are the flamingos. The pink croquet mallets have even made into the Lonely Planet as a Top Site in Catalonia! Last Friday we criss-crossed the area in search of the lanky fellows, and were not disappointed.

We spied some in Llaguna de la Tancada, El Clot, and luckiest of all, a fly-over at the end of Playa del Trabucador, a small strip of beach that gives the Delta its bottom “fin” (map here). So lucky! I’m sure there are plenty of other good places for spotting as well, but we had a pretty fun time.

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Flying flamingos! Look at how pink they are!
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Flamingos dining in the foreground with Serra de Montsià in the background. I recommend zooming in on this picture for maximum flamingo-age.

Hike Els Ports

This book and this website are slowly opening up the Els Ports Nature Park for us, helping us to explore the dramatic mountain range that frames my walk to work every day. We did a couple of short walks with Mum and Dad: one through Els Estrets, an incredible gorge that is home to nesting vultures (!!) and crystal blue water, and one to La Barcina, a peak near Mont Caro, the highest point of Els Ports. We even spotted an ibex, Catalonia’s horned mountain goat!

Ibex, Catalonia's endangered mountain goat, spotted in Els Ports.
Ibex, Catalonia’s endangered mountain goat, spotted in Els Ports.
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Looking up at almost too impressive Els Ports.

Follow the Ebro

Further up the Ebro River from Tortosa, picturesque towns dot the green paddocks, including Miravet which is on the banks of the river and sports a very impressive castle. One of Spain’s most important defensive structures, the Miravet Castle contains both Moorish and Christian elements, and has been occupied by many different forces, including the Nationalists during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s.

The castle closes at 5:30pm on weekends during spring, so after a hike in the mountains and a long lunch in town, we just had enough time to appreciate the glory of the old fort. There is even a (very narrow) spiral staircase that takes you right to the top.

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The view from the top of the Miravet Castle.

I’m know there are at least 10,000 other things to see and do in this region, and that this is just a taste. If you are a mad cyclist you could possibly explore these suggestions on your own steam, but if you are a mere mortal you most definitely need a car to get to these places. This is especially the case on the weekend when most of the public buses do not run, although perhaps that will change in summer. Thanks for the adventures mis padres!

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 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.
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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.
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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.