I begin my six-week sojourn in Europe with a vacation from a vacation—a one-week stay at the evocative Castel d’Escales in Catalonia, Spain. I am invited there by a friend I have known since meeting her at university a good four decades ago. She is celebrating her sixtieth year on the planet by renting the castle for a six-week period during which dozens of her friends join her—each for a one-week stint. Usually when I arrive in Europe, I swing immediately into sightseeing mode—up and out into the crowds within an hour or two of settling into a hotel. This time, my sightseeing consisted of a ten-minute guided tour of the castle followed by a plunge in the pool and a long, luxurious nap. Now that’s the way to come to Europe. The eight-bedroom castle can host up to 16 people and will during some of the weeks. Today there are just seven guests—two just arrived like me; three others finishing up their week and getting ready to leave. Tomorrow another seven arrive so we’ll again have a full house, ah, castle.
I was told that the Castel d’Escales translates as The Castle of Ladders but after my nap, I read a history of the castle and its renovations compiled by the current owners. While Escales does mean ladders in Spanish, the word actually refers to the name of the first owner—a Count Escales. The oldest part of the castle is the round tower which is built in 1050. The walls at the base of the tower are six feet thick. With its strategic location close to France, the tower was originally a watchtower and not a residence.
The main part of the castle enclosing the round tower was built later and lived in for many centuries before falling into disrepair in the early 20th Century. After being acquired in the 1980’s and skillfully renovated by a Spanish architect, the castle was purchased by the current owners in 2000. I think I’m going to like it here.
The wind whistles around the wood-beamed great room on the top floor of the castle. I’ve been informed that comfortably furnished room with couches and pillows has been dubbed the Internet café because it’s the only place in the castle where the WIFI works. Three-foot thick stone walls apparently do not carry WIFI signals very efficiently. Several laptops and tablets are strewn about the various coffee tables. Arched windows look out over a rolling fields edged by forest—all still remarkably green considering it is the end of August. I’m told that wild boar live in the forest and have been seen snuffling around the base of a fig tree below the castle walls.
I move from my perch in the upstairs lounge to one of the wicker sofas out on the main terrace overlooking the fields and forest. The only sounds are church bells in the distance and the wind rustling through the trees. Clouds like puffed out fists glide across a sky that can’t make up its mind between blue and gray. A couple of sudden rain squalls dimly heard during my nap and a cool freshness to the air cuts the muggy heat that first greeted me when I emerged from the train station at Girona still dressed in black jeans and running shoes for traveling.
Day one of my castle visit will end with dinner, wine, and conversation followed by that delightful dead sleep of the jet lagged. I have no expectations for my week—no sightseeing agenda, no must-dos. I’ll be as content to sit on the wicker couch to write as I will to jaunt down to the Mediterranean for a swim or explore quaint Girona. A week’s vacation from my vacation—heaven.
As predicted, Day 1 ended with a wonderful candlelit dinner in the ancient stone-vaulted dining room. An exotically-flavored curry with roasted vegetables was cooked by a departing guest from Paris. I got to know a couple from Vancouver and had a lively conversation fueled by excellent local wine. We parted this morning and prepared to welcome the next batch. I spent the morning on a long walk with Jane from South Africa who is visiting with her son. The castle is surrounded by small lanes and pathways that lead up into the hills and through the pine and oak forests. I’m loving the greenery in this area of Spain—so much more lush than Vancouver at the end of a very long, hot, and dry summer. Who expected to come to Spain in August and find it greener than the west coast rainforest? Mind you, I am not really in Spain. I am in Catalonia. The Catalan flag flies from most roof-tops and anti-Spanish slogans are spray painted on the sides of buildings in the towns. People speak Catalan and refer, scathingly, to Spanish as Castilian. We are told by the caretaker of the castle that people learn Catalan, then English, and then Spanish. I have already made a few cultural faux pas by using Italian and French words instead of Spanish and no Catalan at all.
Following a morning walk on Day 2, I retire with new friends and old to the pool. Its unheated water is a welcome shock. The afternoon passes in lazy nothingness—remarkable inertia after the flurry of work that preceded my leaving for Europe. I have no inclination to do anything beyond read my Kindle, chat, and swim. The line “vacations are a necessary part of one’s existence” keeps going through my mind but I can’t remember where I read it. I’ll google it later, maybe. The only room in the castle that gets decent WIFI is a two-story climb. Expanding my knowledge base can wait. It is Sunday in Catalonia and the shops in the local village are closed. With the arrival of seven more guests to swell our numbers to twelve, five of whom are young people with healthy appetites, we realize we are in need of more food. We set off in a caravan of three cars in search of an open supermarket, but are thwarted. Fortunately, the castle stocks plenty of wine and there is enough pasta and cheese to throw together a fantastic meal eaten on the terrace under the stars. No one starves.
After another lazy morning, three groups in three cars set off to make the 30-minute drive to the Mediterranean Sea. The first glimpses of that distinct azure blue is always a thrill. Just five days earlier, I’d taken my last dip of the season at the beach near our house on Bowen Island and now I am swimming off the Costa Brava in the Mediterranean Sea. We ended up at a tiny beach bordered by the village of Tinamui which for some reason gets immediately nicknamed Tiramasu. Who knows why. The beach is packed with holidaymakers—mostly Spanish with a sprinkling of Brits. Getting from our perch near the wall separating the sand from the walkway to the water is an exercise in balance and diplomacy. We stop first for lunch at a café overlooking the beach where I have my first taste of Spanish calamari and paella. The plate of paella is enormous—far too much for lunch. I won’t make that mistake again.
We enjoy a few hours sunning and swimming. The water is clear and warm with just enough wave action to allow for some serious bobbing about. Red rocks sprayed by crashing spray enclose the beach and dozens of boats scuttle around the bay beyond the swimming area. The houses lining the beach are mostly of the white Mediterranean variety with cascades of purple and pink bougainvillea. Our trip back to the castle includes a stop at a supermarket to stock up on food. Each guest is asked to shop for and cook one dinner. I’ve chosen the evening of Day 3. With twelve people to feed, I decide that veggie burgers (the meal must be vegetarian) will keep everyone happy, particularly the young people. Shopping for the ingredients in a Spanish supermarket proves to be more challenging than I had anticipated. Apparently tofu is not a common ingredient. We tried three stores and came up empty-handed. Mind you, by the time I’d finished mixing together ingredients to shape into patties for the grill, I was so far away from the recipe that any lack was no long an issue. Cooking while drinking a mojita made by one of the young people who has bar tender training lessened any stress I may have felt going “off book” with the recipe. The final result was pretty tasty although I had forgotten to buy ketchup, much to the horror of the young people.
Dawning clear and hot yet again, Day 4 is another lazy day in Catalonia. I take a trip into the town of Bisbol to wander around the many ceramics shops. Apparently Bisbol is renowned for its ceramics. I could have bought a great deal since I have a soft spot for ceramics and usually pick up several pieces when I travel. However, I have many more weeks left and restrained myself to just two brightly-colored cereal bowls. After the shopping trip, another stint by the pool was in order.
At five, when the air was cooling slightly, I joined Jane for a brisk walk up the hill to a castle. We were told the walk was just 45 minutes. It was not. By the time we returned from our walk almost three hours later, the rest of our group was seriously considering calling out the police to scour the hillside for our remains. The hike up was just challenging enough to justify an extra glass of wine when we returned and the 360-degree view at the top was our stunning reward. The ruins of the castle date from 1024, which makes it just slightly older than the Castel d’Escales. I was delighted to read on the interpretative plaque (in four languages) that the castle had played a role in the siege of Girona in 1808 and 1809. The novel I’m currently working on takes place during those years so now I’m wondering how I might include something about Girona in a novel set in London. I’m presuming the siege was part of the Napoleonic Wars and may eventually look that up.
We ran into several very energetic young men making the climb up the mountain on bikes. Two of them chatted with us atop the tower—one spoke a bit of English. They were from Girona and spoke Catalan to each other.
The evening ended with another spectacular dinner under the stars. I have been here four days and have not done any writing except for this blog. My plan to spend time working on various writing projects has not materialized, but for now I will just enjoy having my brain recharged by the Catalonian sun.
Vacations are a necessary part of one’s existence. I really must look that up.
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