Saturday, January 10, 2015

Girona: A Beautiful Catalonian Roman City (and a surprise lunch in Banyuls sur Mer, France!)

Sean and I took two day trips to Girona a couple of days before he went back to Paris - one in the evening, and one the next morning. Girona is a beautiful, Roman/medieval town in Catalonia with a rich history.  We visited the tower, the cathedral, one of the many museums, and had a wonderful three course lunch for 16 euros in a classy restaurant. The evening before, on our mini trip, we had some of the best gelato I have every tasted (in an Italian shop). Oh, and I swear I didn't stage the photo where we found half empty shotglasses of scotch on the top of the tower Sunday morning!

 Here are a few historical facts about Girona, Catalonia, Spain (taken from the town's history museum):

  • In the years 100 - 200 AD, Palestine was part of the Roman Empire. The Jews revolted against the Romans and their religion, and had to flee the country. Many Jews settled  in small towns along the Mediterranean coast
  • Between the years 900 and 1300 AD, Jews lived peacefully in their settlements in Girona and Christians and Jews coexisted peacefully
  • Montjuic (the Jewish mountain) was an area of Barcelona where many Jews settled
  • In 1320, Christian crusaders attacked Barcelona and surrounding towns
  • in 1348, the Black Plague occured, and the Jews were accused of "poisoning waters"
  • The Jews were heavily discriminated against for their religion and their practice of saving money and lending it out to others with interest charges
  • In 1391, there was a massive attack on the Jewish Quarter
  • By the mid 1400s, Jews were confined to the Call (the ghetto) and were not allowed to be in any other part of the town
  • In 1492, all Jews were expelled from Girona
  • Jewish practices were carried out in secret, but anyone found out was killed
  • In 1809, the French captured Girona under Napoleon's rule after a 7 month siege

The cathedral

Girona Tower

Girona - Tower

View from the top of the tower -someone must have been drinking last night!

Roman Baths, Girona

Cobblestone houses in town

Cathedral in the mountains

An Artistic Bench

Gelatiamo Italian Ice cream - I LOVE IT!

So, the reason we took TWO trips to Girona is that on the Saturday, when we were supposed to visit the sites, we looked on our Google Maps app and realised that FRANCE would only be a one-hour detour. France!!!  Our conversation went something like this:

 - Sean: Want to go to France?
- Me: Sean, don't I need my passport to go to France?" (his was in the glove compartment)
 - Sean: Well, technically. But you could show your Spanish residence card. The worst thing they'd do would be turn us around at the border..."

So, we said, "What the hell, we'll have lunch in France!"  

Just across the Spanish border, on the Costa Brava is a little town called Banyuls-sur-Mer. Almost everything was closed of course, as it was the holiday season, but we managed to find a little wraps stand and had lunch on a bench by the sea.  I had the chance to practice a tiny bit of French (I really miss it!!!). I love road tripping (especially when I don't have to drive ;)
Banyuls sur Mer, France

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Spanish Vineyards: Two Starkly Different Wine Tours at Freixenet & Pares Balta

Sean and I decided to visited a couple vineyards, seeing as there are EIGHTY within a one hour drive of Barcelona. Eighty?! Wow, I did move to the right part of the world! Simply using Google to decide, we picked the first two that were actually open the week we wanted to go. It turns out we chose two starkly different wineries - one, a corporate, global, cava producer and the other, an organic, local winery. 

Remember my trip to San Francisco in 2012 with Sheena? This was definitely a completely different experience. We took the car, rather than a tour bus and were allowed to see the wine making process, rather than simply taste the wine. Going deep into the cellars of both wineries reminded me of Edgar Allan Poe's gothic short story The Cask of Amontillado ---what vivid descriptions Poe used of the dark, deep, moist, and creepy cellars. It's the story of a man who lures his enemy into a deep, dark cellar by playing on his tragic flaw-  his ego with regard to his wine connoisseur skills - and then tortures and kills him (the full text is here). 
Sapna and Sean at Freixenet Wineries, January 2, 2015


  • This winery is a cava producer and has worldwide production
  • All their wines are produced using 3 of the 9 grape varieties found in Catalonia - Macabeo, Parellada (the  sweeter one) and Xarelo (the dryer one)
  • We toured their cellars, where they keep the original machines that were used back in the day when grapes were crushed by feet, and wines were homemade. They still use them for two wines today - grand reserves, I think it was!
  • The cava is left in chesnut barrels, which give it a smoother, softer flavour than oak
  • We even got to take a mini train around the cellar, where we saw different aspects of the production process
  • We didn't see the vineyards themselves, but the overall feeling was very corporate - a family business that had turned into a corporate triumph. The tour guide wore a business suit with a purple tie, and we had cava in the adjoining restaurant style tapas bar afterwards

Pares Balta

  • Pares Balta had a completely different vibe, though they also produced wines and cavas from the same three grape varieties
  • The winery is certified as both "organic farming" and "biodynamic farming", the latter of which means they use no pesticides and also no yeast additions; everything is natural. 
  • They also had some "mystical" beliefs and follow a specific calendar that relates to the weather/moon position as to when they plant their grapes. Hmm, perhaps a bit too mystical for me!
  • We had the chance to actually see the vineyards; some of the vines are still harvested by HAND! 
  • We tasted our wine in a room filled with barrels, giving a much more rustic and home-made feel to the wine than the Freixenet cava bar
  • Sean much prefered the oakier wine (they use French oak barrels)
  • Did you know that the type of glass you have your cava in determines where the bubbles fizz? The expensive glasses have a small circular glass dip at the bottom, making the bubbles fizz in a straight line up the centre of the glass (rather than dispersed all over as in glasses we use at home)
  • We tried one that was 100% Syrah (the grape that I learned in California is the key to a smooth finish to a full bodied wine). 100% Syrah was too much though - too light tasting!
  • I REALLY wanted to try the blend - Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah - but guess how much that bottle was? --- 270 EUROS! Eeek - talk about expensive tastes!

Check out the Flickr slideshow of the two wineries we visited below. Once again, thanks for driving, Sean!  I LOVE wine! 

Oh, and stay tuned for my next post on our day trip to beautiful Girona...

Friday, January 02, 2015

Happy New Year 2015! - Roadtrippin' Catalunya's Roman Towns

Sitges on New Year's Eve - Ghost-town!

Sean and I decided to check out the nightlife in Sitges (apparently a hip town in the summer) on New Year's Eve, since we had just rented a car for  5 days and were getting tired of how dead Barcelona is during the holidays.  Sean drove, of course (Thanks, Sean!). Remember the road trip where I had to drive a manual car in the UK? No, thank you. I'll leave all that gear shifting and driving on miniscule roads and parallel parking in teensy spaces to the Europeans (and Sean).

Selfie - Pizza for New Year's Eve Dinner
It turned out Sitges was DEAD for New Year's Eve. Only a couple places had New Year's Eve menus, and they were all 60 euros per person (one of the main reasons we had avoided Barcelona's NYE menus!), except for the pizza place, where we ended up spending 25 euros each on a mediocre pizza and a salad. I feel so lucky to have Sean visiting this year, just as he did last year in Oxford. What would I do without you, Sean?!  Happy New Year!

Tarragona on New Year's Day - Spectacular!

Roman Ruins by Night - Tarragona, Catalonia, Spain
We made full use of the car, and ran a TON of errands for the apartment (ie: trips to IKEA, super cleaning and organising all of Kiara's things into boxes labelled 'Toys' and 'Blankets'! We even went to Mediamarkt and bought a cheap, 200 euro dryer, because apparently it's the DRYER that gets rid of K's hair off all the bedding and blankets the most (not the washer). Who knew?! It is also nice to have soft towels again, having not had a dryer for the past three years.

On January 1st, everything in Barcelona was closed, so we headed over to Tarragona, a nearby town (about the size of Red Deer, AB - 150, 000 people),  full of roman ruins. The picture doesn't do it justice, as neither of us had a tripod. We did have a LOVELY  three course meal (for 15 euros, rather than 25) at a beautiful restaurant in town and then drove back home to the puppy.

Holiday Cinema!

Now, as you probably know, I LOVE movies.  The saddest thing about living in England was how outrageously priced Oxford's cinemas were (for small, mediocre screens).  Now, if you live in London, they do have a monthly movie pass, but of course I was never going to take a 1.5 hour bus just to go to the movies. Ah, the perks of continental Europe...remember my data collection trip to France where I watched a movie for 4 euros every second night?!

Barcelona's movie prices are about average (7 euros a ticket), but I haven't any time to watch movies over the past few months. Also, you can't just go to any cinema here - 90% of them only have movies DUBBED in Spanish. How awful! 


This movie, based on a real story, tells the story of an Olympic athlete who is drafted to the war and must survive a plane crash, 45 days at sea and several other brutal challenges. Incredibly sad and moving, this is a must see (no pun intended...)

The Imitation Game

This movie tells Alan Turing's story (the man who broke Enigma, the Nazi code) in WWII, resulting in a war victory that shortened the war by two years. He was a genius - and had quite an interesting personality. The character development is stunning and the plot is beautiful.  Keira Knightley and Benedich Cumberbach  play their parts perfectly. 

What a relaxing couple of weeks - it's going to be hard to get back into my crazy 20 hours a week of Spanish class, 20 hours a week of teaching, and 20 hours a week of PhD work. EEK.  Stay tuned for my next post including a slideshow of our amazing Catalonian (Cataluyan) winery tour - coming up!