The yellow train is a tourist institution celebrating its centenary in 2010 and is the highest train ride in France going through the Pyrenees from Villefranche de Conflent to Latour de Carol. You might well ask what does this have to do with being based in Girona for a holiday, well it is less than an hours drive to Perpignan from where you can get an ordinary train and in 45 min arrive in Villefranche where the "Train Jaune" begins.
The whole trip from one end to the other takes over three hours winding through the mountains from 400m altitude to 1,600m with spectacular scenery all the way.
The train itself is special as it is built for sightseeing all year round and taking skiers up to famous ski resorts like Font Romeu and Les Angles. The fun part is choosing a town along the route to get off and explore a bit more on foot. Mont-Louis is one option where you can discover the fortress building skills of Vauban, the foremost military engineer of the 17th century. He worked consolidating France's borders from a defensive perspective and was duly rewarded by his patron, Louis XIV, making him a Marquis.
Villefranche also has an impressive Vauban fort to walk around and these as well as 6 others have been made UNESCO world heritage sights in 2008.
Le Train Jaune is a great excursion for all the family; there is something for everybody from the train ride and scenery to all the different villages, fortresses and ski resorts to explore.
The very best way to see the spectacular scenery of the Costa Brava, without spending hours fighting the crowds at this time of the year, is to do it from the air.
Microlight sightseeing trips are offered in various places but the one I took is based outside l'Estartit (www.ultraligeros.net) and Javier was a perfect pilot and guide. The 15 min flight takes in a remarkable variety of scenery; from the River Ter estuary discharging into the sea; the wide beaches to Pals, and then the rocky coves of Begur, Aiguafreda (great views of the Parador) to the tiny Sa Tuna beach; back to the amazing Isles Medes (underwater national park); Estartit harbour and along to the Castle at Montgri and below the town of Torroella and finally down the river Ter and the vivid green rice fields of Pals back to land at the tiny airstrip.
On a clear day there is no better way to get a feel for the splendour of the coastline and seeing it from a very different perspective, as a seagull would, was a real treat, thank you Javier, I will be back for more!
About 30 people of all ages got together last sunday morning to follow Montse around cycle paths to Sant Gregori while she stopped and explained all the wonderful plants we were seeing and their medicinal properties.
First stop was the elderberry/elderflower with large white flowers which makes a cordial or cava which we tried later on and was delicious.
From the most common plants like dandelions, poppies and nettles to flax, bindweed and borage we learnt to identify them, which parts of the plant were of interest and how to prepare an infusion or compress and what ailments it helped.
We all felt very inadequate and the common lament was how we were losing contact with our surroundings and an important part of our heritage that our grandparents took for granted.
Thank you to Montse and Mou te en Bici for organising such an interesting ride and I hope it becomes a regular event.
Hostalric is a town built on a basalt outcrop in the 12th century above the river Fogars because of its important position on the France-Barcelona trade route.
This intersection has proved both good and bad for the local residents over the centuries, encouraging investment in the form of castles and defensive structures but also attracting more than its share of sieges and sackings.
Hostalric is now on the main road and train lines with trips in under an hour to the centre of Barcelona so its strategic position has evolved somewhat to one of a dormitory town but there are plenty of local industries based here too.
It boasts easy access to the Costa Brava and also the Montseny mountains which is a protected UNESCO scenic area. The river Fogars it is the dividing line between Barcelona and Girona provinces.
It is the perfect place to stop for a walk around following the easy routes that are marked and finish up sitting in the mulberry shaded main square sipping a cool drink and looking up at the massive fortress which still dominates the skyline above town and which now houses a restaurant.
This fantastic new exhibition at the Fontana d'Or in Girona shows how Miró the artist and sculptor collaborated with a young filmmaker, Portabella to illustrate the creation of some of the most emblematic pieces of art of the 20th century.
Miró was a creative genius in several formats and here we see him working on painting windows for a temporary exhibition, other creations made into massive wall hangings or cast into 1,000 kilo bronze sculptures.
His work is a pleasure to view as there is always something unexpected to be discovered. As an aside, one of his largest wall hangings was on display in the foyer of the twin towers on fateful sep 11,2001 and he refused to make another.
Portabella captures these creative sessions perfectly, usually letting the craftsmen themselves express the process or just standing back for us to enjoy what could be a wonderful theatrical set.
Impressive in scale and ambitious in intent this exhibition is a treat, filmmaking as visual art, literally.
On from May 6th to August 29th 2010.
Spring weather is as fickle as ever this year but a trip to visit a Bodega (winery) in the Empordà is always a good option since the worst that can happen is that you get stuck in a cellar with plenty of wines to taste while you watch the rain come down in the vineyards.
If the sun shines this is a glorious time to wander around the countryside as everything is growing furiously and the shades of new green are startlingly vivid. After all this activity, or maybe in spite of it, a glass of cool white or rosado wine does wonders for looking at life in a more positive vein. Follow this with a selection of reds, some young and fruity and some with oak ageing and by the time it comes to taste the dessert wines things are positively wonderful.
Having activated the taste buds and got the saliva flowing the only possible follow up is a wonderful meal at a nearby restaurant with fresh fish and lamb with wild herbs dishes that seem to be particularily appreciated, washed down with a choice of wines, of course.
By now it is completely normal to feel a bit satisfied and even drowsy so either another walk is needed to explore some of the prehistoric burial sites which dot the area or it's time to have a doze in the back of the van for the ride back to Girona. Either way it's a day of pampering oneself with tastes, flavours and experiences that make visiting this part of Spain a fantastic experience.
Day tours to wineries in the Empordà inc all transport, tastings and lunch cost 125?/person, groups of 4-8 people.
Contact: email@example.com for more info or to book.
This exhibition of art and film by Rodney Graham is on at tha MACBA (Museu d'art Contemporani de Barcelona) until May 18th. It shows his evolution from photography to film, music and painting and this is the perfect space to display his works.
Graham is from Vancouver, Canada and uses the forests around there to capture the process which transforms objects (mainly natural objects like trees) from mere representations to autonomous images using flash illumination at night.
Another transformation is an old typewriter which is filmed being covered with snow, symbolising how words have been silenced and also that both the typewriter and the old projector displaying the scene are both obsolete technologies.
It is an interesting and thought provoking exhibition and in addition there are works by John Baldessari, another contemporary artist on display in the same building.
Yes, we are talking about the corks that are normally found in a bottle of wine or sparkling wine. This is an industry which has been important for Girona province for 150 years. It is centred on the towns of Palafrugell and Cassa de la Selva, either side of the Gavarres hills where most of the cork oaks are found.
Cork is an amazing natural product which was discovered by the Greeks over 2,500 years ago to seal the amphoras of wine and olive oil they transported around the Mediterranean basin.
As well as being lightweight, it is waterproof and fireproof which means the cork oaks are some of the very few trees that survive the regular fires which sweep through most forests. The trees take about 30 years to mature sufficiently to produce a layer of cork (its bark) but another 15 is needed before it is thick enough to be used for commercial purposes.
So, this is no short term industry, the trees take about 14 years to re-grow its bark for the next harvest which is all done by hand up in the hills. This area is the second largest exporter of corks in the world after Portugal and some 1,500 people are still employed in some way by the industry locally.
Unfortunately, like all mature industries, there is severe competition from other methods of closing bottles which are more economic and the market for corks is sliding steadily. Their niche is still relatively secure in the more upmarket sectors of the wine and champagne sectors but the cheaper end is moving to plastic corks or screw-caps.
Make sure you come and take a tour of a cork making factory (ask at the local tourist information offices) or visit the cork museum in Palafrugell before this fascinating industry disappears forever!
Terra Alta is just about possible to visit as a day trip from Girona if you get an early start. The roads are motorway almost the whole way and with the new Reus bypass open it cuts at least half an hour off the trip to Falset in the Montsant.
Why go to these places you ask, what's there that is worth sitting in a car for over 2 hours each way?
Well, several things actually, as they happen to be interesting areas from a geological point of view with mountains and the river Ebro as important features, but mostly the visits are to discover good value wines and excellent olive oil.
These two regions are the decidedly poor cousins of the Priorat wine region which is also nearby but has been much better at putting itself on the world wine map.
Terra Alta and Montsant both have the poor soils, rolling or steep hills, extreme weather and little rain which provides the raw materials for producing wines with character. There are fewer wineries here as most of the hot money went to Priorat which had a better name and where the wines commanded a premium while the world economy boomed.
Red wines from these areas are mainly made from the garnacha (grenache in France) and cariñena (carignan in France) grapes which complement each other very well in aromas, colour and structure.
The whites tend to be garnacha blanca, xarello or macabeu mixed with some more recent arrivals like chardonnay and sauvignon blanc. Both red and whites can be on the alcoholic side, purely a factor of the long hours of sunshine all year long.
Visiting some of the smaller producers is especially rewarding as they are trying to get away from the co-op image of quantity over quality. The younger winemakers are emphasising more fruit and less oak for fresher wines which appeal to an international palate.
These are the perfect places to discover wines to weather the economic crisis as they are easy to drink and very affordable.
We organise wine tours to many of the 12 Catalan "Denominaciones de Origen" (like the appellations in France)- please email: firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.