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 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 Renaixement

The first sign was the flags. Blue and yellow, red and white, on street corners all around the old quarter. Next, they were on the bridge, and the main street. After that, deep red velvet banners were drawn along the balconies of our little Carrer. The following morning we awoke to sails draped across plazas. Then red and yellow flags and banners appeared, hung from one end of town to the other. And on Thurdsay 100 market stalls, bars, taverns, and tressle tables sprouted overnight, along with several discreet islands of portaloos. When the portaloos come out, you know something big is happening.

With such anticipation-building decorations, Tortosa prepared itself for its biggest party of the year, and we steadied ourselves to go from one festival to another, very different party. This week Tortosa is celebrating its 20th Festa del Renaixament, a four day extravaganza of all things 16th century. The town has completely been transformed. The air is full of the smell of BBQ and the sound of drums, people are dressed up in 1700s garb (from peasants to lords), and performance groups, giants, eagles and gargoyles are roaming the streets. It is amazing. The old fortifications at the back of town are also included: for the rest of the year the old walls are pretty much abandoned, but at the moment they are playing hosts to all night taverns and concerts. Incredible.

As we are living in the old part of town, we’re right in the thick of it. Sleeping before 2am is not really an option, giving us plenty of opportunities to explore. Here are just some of the sights we’ve seen!

The festival opened with a bang
Tortosa flags
The Tortosa Abanderados (flag throwning troup)
The smallest Abanderado
The lords and ladies in their finery
Tortosa’s giants parade past our house
One of the crowded plazas
One of the street performances
Human gargoyles on the Cathedral
A whirling dervish (he span for 30 minutes!)
The Falconer
One of the parrillas selling all sorts of BBQed treats
A plaza on Thursday afternoon
The same plaza on Friday night
The same plaza on Friday night

The week it was still hot

Last week was hot. And this week…still hot. Our old bedroom is now the Bed Frame Room, as the mattress permanently lives in the living room under the fan. Use of the oven is forbidden. I’m on a four-day ice-cream streak. And our clothes are drying in about 90 minutes on the line.

So we take to the sea.

The beaches near Terres de L’Ebre are actually quite lovely and pretty close to Tortosa. A 30 minute bus or train trip will get you to a swimming spot, or if you have enough energy you can keep walking or riding until you find a beach all to yourself.

A great walk mentioned by this excellent book is a section of the GR (Gran Recorrido) 92, which snakes from the top of Catalonia all the way to the bottom of the Spanish Mediterranean coast, hugging the sea all the way. One morning a few weeks ago we set out to conquer 17km of this 583km pilgrimage, from L’Ametlla del Mar to L’Ampolla.

The walk was long, and hot, and took us the best part of 6 hours (including swimming stops), but we saw some beautiful water and amazing Catalan coastline. Hiking really is a group activity here, and so we passed, and were passed by, many packs of flour-wearing, pole-wielding walking groups. We were even lucky enough to spot a g-string-wearing abuela trudging along with her backpack. Quite the sight! It’s a bit different from Australia, where people hike to enjoy the serenity.


Some hidden and not so hidden beaches we’ve come across.

We’ve marked our favourite beaches (and the ones with promising camping hideaways) to get us through the rest of the summer.

Another cooling activity this weekend was the XV Piraguada Popular en Defense de L’Ebre, or a paddle down the river in protest of the plans to divert much of the Ebro River into irrigation, threatening the ecosystem of the river and its important delta. The trip was also part of Big Jump, a European-wide day of river celebration. We have been keen to see the river from water height since we arrived, and jumped at the chance to paddle the 10km from Xerta to Tortosa yesterday.

After a short bus trip to Xerta, we found the kayaks waiting for us. More than 150 people took part, as well as a few adorable and brave dogs. The event was launched with a few fireworks (at 9:30am, of course), and included a considerate morning-tea stop after about an hour for bacon sandwiches and beer.

We cruised down the river, ogling the birds, the estuarine ecosystems and the sadly regular piles of rubbish. The Ebro River is the longest river in Spain, and the fourth largest river that feeds into the Mediterranean, although it was very shallow in parts today. In fact we were told that the dam managers up river had to let extra water out so that we could paddle.

We eventually reached Tortosa in about 3.5 hours, including a couple of water fights and swimming stops. After nearly eight months walking along the Ebro every day, it was lovely to finally be in it! Although I am not sure how healthy the water really is – we have been warned against eating any fish we may catch due to high levels of mercury. The motley crew of demonstrators then banded together and paddled through the town en masse, before wading into the water to show just how low the water levels are.

Lo riu és vida!

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 the flies

The amount of aerial wildlife is one of the lovely things about living in Tortosa, a regional town so close to the Delta Ebro wildlife reserve. I’m not saying I’m a twitcher, but in the immortal words of The Eels, I like…birds.

Pigeon house.
Classic pigeon house in Tortosa (pigeons MIA)

Pigeons, sparrows and swallows are ubiquitous of course, occupying the nooks and crannies in the old and abandoned buildings here. We’ve even started calling old, derelict structures ‘pigeon houses’, because they seem so at home. At sunset, swarms of swallows practise their flying acrobatics over the river, catching bugs, pulling shapes and generally having a wonderful time.

Evil seagulls surrounded by the feathers of their latest victim

Additionally, we have regular visits from water birds that travel up the Ebro from the Delta region. There is a white egret that greets me most days on my walk to work, as well as the occasional purple heron (I think), and tern. H even saw a kingfisher once! Two giant yellow-legged seagulls rule over a broken jetty near the university. These guys seem to be pure evil – I have seen them with the bloody corpses of at least four pigeons, and last week I watched one of them eat a whole snake! Maybe not ideal neighbours but they certainly make me walk faster.

Apart from feather friends, occasionally I also spy tiny microbats flitting about near dusk, looking for dinner bugs. They are magical little mammals, about the same size as swallows, and are apparently crucial for keeping insect numbers down. Butterflies and flies also buzz about, as you would expect, and yesterday I saw my first Catalonian dragonfly.

But not all flying things are fun, and not all wildlife is welcome. This week we met another member of the flying Tortosa family: the mosca negra, or black fly. These tiny little beasties have been around since about the mid 1990s, and have been ruining vueltas and sleeping with the window open ever since.

This article has a great quote comparing the mosca negra with a mosquito:

“If the mosquito is a neurosurgeon that bites with a probe, the black fly is a butcher that scratches the skin and makes you bleed,” said Raul Escosa, member of an Ebro river environmental board.

They love hanging around the river at dusk during the warm summer months, which is a real shame because going to the river at dusk is an official pastime here. Their bites are nasty and can cause very serious reactions in some people: swelling, days and days of itching, and general annoyance. Just writing about it makes me itch!

Recently there have been some chemicals dropped over the river to reduce the number of black flies, but I don’t know what effect it will have on the population (or the water quality for that matter).

The past week has seen record temperatures in the Tortosa region (subject to data verification of course, this is a science blog). As our apartment has no air conditioning and limited circulation, we are facing a nightly decision to sleep in suffocating heat with the windows closed, or sleep in constant fear of black fly attack with the windows open.

Fortunately, we have been let in on the secret solution to these nasty little flying hatchets. Natural Honey. Yep, this unassuming moisturiser contains traces of citronella, and keeps the black flies at bay while leaving your skin supple. This combined with some citronella candles at home have kept us relatively bite-free so far, which means more sunset bird-watching for me!

Natural Honey
Natural Honey – the unassuming hero in our war on mosca negra.

The week we drank

Just to be clear, we actually drink every week. Water, obviously, plenty of fresh orange juice, and the occasional beer or bottle of cava. But this week I finally achieved Catalan Drink Bingo, and I had to tell someone!

There are many popular tipples to taste while watching the world go by here in Catalonia. Some you may have heard of, others perhaps not. But to achieve bingo, you gotta taste them all. Get your pencils out, it’s time to play…


1. Cerveza

Although we are discovering more and more local craft beers (like Tortosa’s own Lo Gambusi), cerveza on tap is pretty much limited to Damm Estrella, Cuzcampo, or if you’re lucky, Barcelona’s own Moritz. Oh, or you can have Damm Lemon, which is 60% beer, 40% lemon. Beer is everywhere here – it’s probably harder NOT to have one!

Una cervaza waits patiently for lunch in the sun
  • Average price for a canya (pot): €1.50.
  • Appropriate time to drink: all the time.

2. Vino

Spain is famous for its delicious wine, and Tortosa is very close to Terra Alta, a not-so well known wine growing region that produces some lovely shiraz blends. There is also a lot of Rioja from the northwest of Spain which is famous for its delicious tempranillo. If the wine is not so delicious, just cut it with some gaseosa (lemonade) and you have yourself a refreshing glass of tinto de verano, or summer red wine.

Vino tinto
A glass of Terra Alta vino tinto with lunch
  • Average price for a copa (glass): €2.50 (often free with lunch).
  • Appropriate time to drink: all the time. We’ve seen abuelas drinking red with breakfast.

3. Cava

Ahh cava. The bubbles that don’t need a reason to celebrate. Cava (xampany in Catalan) is Spanish champagne, produced mainly in Catalonia to the west of Barcelona. It is fantastically cheap to buy, and H is yet to find a bottle he doesn’t like.

Two glasses of delicious cava at our bar downstairs, Rosa del Vins
  • Average price for a copa: €2.50, but often you need to buy the whole bottle for €6–20.
  • Appropriate time to drink: all the time, according to those same abuelas.

4. Sangria

I always thought sangria was a bit of a tourist drink, and maybe it is, but now that summer is here you can get your sang’ on at most bars, particularly those with a terrace in the sun. You can have typical red wine sangria, made with vino tinto, some lemonade, a liqueur (often brandy), and some fruit, or a cava sangria which is similar but white and fizzy. We’ve been told that the fruits and liquids must be combined up to 24 hours before consumption for the drink to legitimately be called sangria, but are yet to test this extensively. Research continues, the things we do for science!

Sangria in the sunshine at the seaside. Spectacular!
  • Average price for a jarra: €8–€20, depending on your vista.
  • Appropriate time to drink: when the sun is shining.

5. Vermut

In this part of the world, ‘let’s go and take a vermut’ is similar to ‘let’s go grab a drink’. It’s pretty much a verb. Before lunch or dinner, and on weekends, people head to beach bars (or chiringuitos) or any kind of bar for an aperitif. Vermouth (vermut) is having a revival at the moment, and many bars and pubs make their own version of this sweetened and herb-infused wine treat. It is served on ice, with gaseosa on request, and garnished with a slice of orange and one or two anchovy-filled olives. I’m not even kidding a little bit about the anchovies.

A vermouth with chips in Barcelona. It tasted better than it looks, promise
  • Average price for a vaso: €3.00.
  • Appropriate time to drink: pre-lunch or dinner, Sunday morning.

6. GinTonic

Now things start to get serious. Although you can also buy all your other mixed drinks here, the gin and tonic reigns supreme as lord of the beverages. Multi-paged gin menus are standard, with garnishes ranging from standard lemon to lemon rind, strawberries, cherries, rosemary, juniper berries and pepper. And that’s just the gin half. You also need to pick your tonic, one that matches the fruity, floral or crisp nature of the gin. Served in a huge glass and prepared lovingly by even the most hardened barman, Spanish gin and tonics are in a world of their own.

A saffron-infused gin with tonic if you don’t mind!
  • Average price for a copa: €5–10, depending on your gin and your tonic.
  • Appropriate time to drink: At the start of the night, at the end of the night.

7. Café

So you’ve gone out, worked your way through the first six drinks on the list, and now it’s morning. You need a coffee. But which one? This excellent infographic shows you just how many different coffee variations are available in cafes and restaurants across Spain. Taking a coffee is an important part of the Spanish daily ritual, so it’s easy to drink yourself through the list, from a café solo (an expresso) to a bombón (a shot of coffee with the same amount of condensed milk). I have a cortado descafeinado de sobre (a sachet of decaf in a small cup of hot milk), pretty much a decaf magic!

A cortado with cake
  • Average price for a café: €1.50.
  • Appropriate time to drink: at the start of the day, morning tea time, afternoon tea time, before lunch, after lunch, before dinner, after dinner.

8. Horchata

Not just the name of Vampire Weekend’s first single from their second album Contra, horchata is actually a sweet milky drink made from tiger nuts (or chufas), originally from Valencia, and reserved for the summer months. The first time I drank it, I thought it tasted a bit like Clag, but now that it is warm and sunny, it tastes more like sweetened soy milk. It is traditionally served from horchaterias with fartons (hehe), long fingers of pastry covered in icing sugar.

H hoes into a horchata in Barcelona
  • Average price for a vaso: €3.
  • Appropriate time to drink: after school or on the weekend, when it’s warm.

9. Leche Merengada

And finally, the last square on my bingo card, leche merengada. A colleague told me about this drink last month, when the ic-ecream shops in town reopened after their winter break. Leche merengada is a kind of milkshake mixed with sugar, egg, a bit of lemon zest and some cinnamon. H thought it tasted like citronella candles when we drank one on the weekend, but I loved it. Not bad as an ice-cream flavour either!

A tasty leche merengada, complete with cinnamon on top
  • Average price for a vaso: €3.
  • Appropriate time to drink: after school, on sunny afternoons.

Best of luck with your own round of Catalan Drink Bingo. Please tell me what drinks need to be added for season two!