Holiday 2014

A month in Spain – I’ve returned feeling restless and unhappy with my lot.

This has happened before – I’ve felt worse about my everyday reality on return than I did before I went. Though this year I needed the holiday more than I’d ever felt I needed one before – so maybe that’s what’s turned me into this apathetic shuffling slob; the epicentre of malcontent…

It’s not even that the holiday was ‘the best I’ve ever been on’ or similar.

Though it was restful.

A month in the Priorat. Torroja del Priorat. A very small mountain village: five and six storey 17th, 18th and 19th century houses clinging to a mountainside – just finding space amongst olive groves and the most steeply terraced vineyards I have ever seen. So steep, in fact, that all grape-picking has to be done by hand.

The village was eerily silent from 10am until about 7pm – aside from the first week when bottling was underway in the massive Comarca building which sat at right angles to ours. You’d hear voices from behind the huge wooden arched doorways of village homes – and from the courtyards and cellers which lay beyond. You’d smell cooking – the garlic and the smoked paprika and the olive oil scenting the air. But you’d seldom see anyone.

Unless you were at the communal village pool – which itself lay on the highest plateau (signposted ‘Part Alta’ of Torroja), giving views of Torroja rooftops from at least 200 feet above and beyond that, giving panoramic views to Gratallops (Grata-yoops) and right across the vastness of the valley.

View from the track leading into Torroja del Priorat from the village swimming pool

The road to our holiday home… Torroja del Priorat

It is hard to do justice to the beauty of the place. Photographs from an iPhone just don’t cut it.

Evan was with us for the first 9 days. Despite the quiet of the place he enjoyed his stay. There wasn’t a lot to do – besides swim, rest, walk, eat and drink and admire views – not usually high on any 17 yr olds’ holiday agenda. Our days began to blur into one big day… with the church bells – so intrusive and loud to begin with – becoming muffled and then lost in our sleepy haze.

We ventured down the mountain most days. We were 40 minutes from Cambrils and Salou – a perfect distance. Not too far if we wanted to join other holiday makers on the perfect beaches of the Daurada – just far enough to avoid them becoming the focal point of the break and changing the balance of the holiday entirely.

Cambrils is still a working fishing village – though its primary income must come from tourism and package holidays.


Cambrils merges into Salou – which merges into La Pineda and Port Aventura and latterly into the industrial hinterland of Tarragona. Salou and La Pineda are purpose-built package holiday Meccas (mainly for the Russians) – with Port Aventura advertised as ‘the largest theme park in Europe’.

We didn’t go. My youngest children have a warped fear of fun fairs and water parks. They would’ve tholed a visit if their older siblings had been with us (though Lew has a pathological fear of water parks and heights…) – but they would not be convinced that a visit would be a good thing – branding it ‘boring’ and refusing to explain beyond that.

In fact, if I am honest, Jamie is at that awkward age where everything (aside from loitering in Lanark with his mates) is ‘boring‘. Ana just copies him. Though if you’d to point that out to her she would swear blind that he was copying her.

Mind you – on our return it was hilarious listening to Jamie describing the places we visited to my Mother. All those astonishing, overwhelming and beautiful places which had been written off by him as ‘boring’ at the time were suddenly ‘great’, ‘really interesting’ ‘enjoyable’ ‘fantastic’…

Tarragona really was a surprise – which really highlights my ignorance. Formerly Roman ‘Tarraca’ (at one point the capital of the Roman Empire), the city visibly rests on its Roman foundations – concrete blocks of multi storey flats built onto the exposed massive blocks of Roman sandstone and of Roman streets.

A short walk from the impressive 1950s Rambla Nova (built to a style proscribed by Franco), down narrow streets and you are suddenly confronted by a preserved Roman street  – a raised and incongruous plaza surrounded on four sides by modernity- the newer city peculiarly 30-40 feet lower than the ancient.

Roman Street amongst modern flats – Tarragona

The Roman amphitheatre is breath-taking. The engineering that went into its making is astonishingly advanced. And it commands views right over the Mediterranean Bay. Deliberate – a show of wealth and power. And it would have been a place of gore and death. But today – well…

Amphitheatre – Tarragona

 The medieval quarter was impressive too. Lots of narrow cobbled streets, marble steps and blindingly white sandstone (there was the ubiquitous clean-up and conservation project on the go). The Cathedral was very attractive as churches go – though I’m never much into all that glitter and gold and bloodied Christs that make up the interior.

Evan in the fore-ground looking reasonably impressed

Painted gable-end – old quarter in Tarragona

We sat in the street cafes and ate the tapas and drank cervesa and the salty sparking Vichy Catalan (this is Catalunya after all). We gorged on olives – mainly arbequina – small and hard and aromatic. And on chiperones and boquerones and calamares. Jamie would eat little but calamares or chiperones bocadillo. With patatas bravas – chips, really! Ana existed on croquettas (any but usually chicken or ham); on chorizo and on melon and curado de jamon serrano. And tortilla. And rabbit stew.

We took the bus to Barcelona. And were humbled by the city. From Parc Guell to Camp Nou; Barcelonetta and the old Bull Ring; to the Sagrada Familia, the Ramblas, the Bouqueria and the Placa de Catalunya. Too big for two short days. A taster which has us planning our next visit.

Ana – after Mother FC, Barcelona is her favourite team
Sagrada Familia (back of it) – work in progress – and not expecting a finish until 2026.
Torre Agbar – this poor photo gives no indication of the shimmering surface – iridescent, burnished glass and metal in blues and reds
Chinese Restaurant on the Ramblas -look at the skill of the wrought iron work and the stone masonry  – beats wee China Chef in Lanark… The ‘bubbles’ on the front are parasols.
Street art on the Ramblas
Bouqueria on the Ramblas – the colour and noises and smells of this beautiful market were overwhelming

Xavi’s shirt in its glass box – reflecting some of the hundreds of trophies Barcelona have won
Jamie in repose – feeling bored no doubt – at the Barcelona Olympic village

Reus was also a surprise. Don’t write it off as ‘just the airport place’. Perfectly proportioned placas – fringed by perfectly proportioned buildings – covered in Catalan Independence flags… The Gaudi Museum is worth a mention. And the food was very very good – fast, fragrant and fresh. Lots of seafood – and everything served with flat leafed parsley (an old-fashioned herb which is mostly relegated to soups and stews here).

Jamie and Robert walking towards the Placa del Mercadel in Reus.

Reus – Placa del Mercadel – we ate in the restaurant pictured

And Sitges! That elegant Riviera-like seaside town. Gay, stunningly beautiful, just the right side of seedy. I need to find our photos -but here is a little taster:

Spain. Catalonia. Ah. I loved reading about their Indyref…

There is nothing about this country that I do not love. Whether Castilian; Galician; Navarrese, Basque or Catalan (apologies to all those I’ve missed) – I love Spain.

It is a country built for people. The public spaces are beautifully maintained; easy to use and as a result, well-used; and they prioritise people over commerce or cars. Cities are alive. Unlike here, city centres are human and lived in – with residential properties and the needs of their inhabitants met by the commercial properties which are their servants (not their masters). Their pedestrian crossings prioritise people.

Spanish engineering and design is advanced and it works… Not for them dank concrete crumbling multi-storey car parks – instead the air conditioned vast and deep (sometimes four levels down) underground car parks which direct you with electronic arrows to your space; or the roads that tunnel through the Garaf mountains – for a km or more; or the road system that is so well-signed that we didn’t use our maps or satnav despite travelling 3100kms over the month. The modern architecture is astonishing – striking beautiful floating boxes of glittering granite and marble and glass and metal. But otherwise the blend of Colonial spanish with Gothic; beside Gaudi or Gaudi-esque and Romanesque and Mudejar-style buildings -these are the buildings that populate my dreams.

The village we lived in was poor. The lifestyle of locals was simple and revolved around farming. With a few rich in-coming foreigners having bought into a lifestyle and offering a slice of that lifestyle with the Hotel Abadia del Priorat (a casa rural) or similar. But Fincas with large plots of land can be bought for as little as 35000 Euros.

Hotel Abadia del Priorat – entrance

Rents – even in the cities – are affordable (or look as if they are from this Scottish perspective). With three and four bedroom apartments in good areas going for 400-500 Euros per month – a fraction of what would be paid here – though admittedly wages are lower and the economic situation very different.

I’ve come back to a cold house that desperately needs a new boiler (the current one is done, finished, over); to quotes of £3500 min; to rain and to the fear that I will not be able to hold out doing this job until the new business is up and running.

I’ve allowed myself to sink a bit. General unhappiness with my lot made worse by the brief vision of a life lived elsewhere.

Ach. I’m not daft. I know that there’s a great deal to be thankful for. Not least, Dad’s radiotherapy is proceeding without too many problems and he’s upbeat and looking well. And I’ve always known that change must come from me – so I’ve only myself to blame if I’m still unhappy in the same way this time next year,,,

Here’s my favourite photo of the holiday. It’s a grumpy Ana – not happy that her three hour stint in the pool had to come to a siesta-end…

A wrinkly cross Ana reluctantly leaves the pool after a full three hours in water… Torroja del Priorat

16 thoughts on “Holiday 2014

  1. Fantastic holiday. I loved Tarragona and Sitges too when we went there on the motorbike. Spain is indeed a wonderful country, and your pictures give us a good idea of the variety and beauty of the place.

    I find it's easier to be happy in the sun.

  2. Well that was a good long read. I know you'll be back on fighting form soon enough whether or not you are happy with your work lot. Pretend for a moment that you are living in a finch and working the fields and that a £3,500 boiler is something you would have to save 10 years to acquire. I'm sure life will look slightly better from your current position then.

  3. That's it, isn't it – the sun. It's behind the main differences between here and there. People are just friendlier in the sun. They socialise and speak. Whereas here – well, the cold drives us behind doors and everything becomes an effort.

    I did love my month – and I know how lucky I am to get that time abroad. x

  4. Yip. And the Boiler would only come after the squillions spent on leading water and electricity to the plot… It all looks idyllic – until you start to 'get real'.

    However, where would we be without dreams…

  5. Without dreams we would be in reality and it took me 65 years before I could live my dream. PS I do know how to spell finca but the spillchucker does not.

  6. I really enjoyed your account of your holiday and the super photos, especially as Spain is a county I've never visited.I'm quite sure the kids enjoyed it too despite what they said at the time. 🙂 I well remember that feeling of dissatisfaction at the return to the workaday world, but GB is right. We have to keep dreams and reality separate without losing sight of the dreams.

  7. Oh bother Blogger, it just ate my comment!

    I really enjoyed reading this vivid account of your holiday with its super photos. It's quite obvious the kids enjoyed themselves too, despite what they said at the time. I've never visited Spain, but I can see from this post why you love it so much. What you said about the letdown on returning home also resonates with me, as I remember the feeling very well from my working days. But GB is right. We have to balance dreams and reality, without ever letting the latter extinguish the former.

  8. Think Blogger was just fooling with you Perpetua 😀 I seem to have both comments 🙂

    Thanks – I'm glad that I was able to convey a little of why Spain is precious to me. If you are able, please visit!

    Yes, you (and GB) are absolutely correct. It is the balancing of dreams and reality that is the essential skill – an excess of either results ultimately in unhappiness. I'm just recalibrating now. 🙂

  9. You weren't too happy with the situation before you left…and a holiday, even one as good as this, doesn't change reality.
    I do hope you can hold out as long as you need to get your new plans underway,

    If Leo's health is all right we shall be at the house in Spain in September, meeting up with the family from Belgium but plan to spend a couple of days in Tarragona on the way down as Leo was last there in the days of Franco and wants to see it again…I think from your photographs it is somewhat tidier and spruced up than it was in his day…..he remembers shoemakers and other tradesmen in tiny shops in the old quarter and remains of the Roman town in all sorts of unexpected places.

    The little I have seen of Spain has pleased me very much and I'm looking forward to being able to explore a little more this time…..though i have a feelingthat the stiove will be claiming a great deal of my time as he is already planning what he wants to eat…

  10. Hahaha I had such a belly laugh at the 'stove' and 'planning what he wants to eat'! Spanish food is so good. I wonder that it isn't worshipped the world over!! However I think that it is not wondered at because it is 'simple'. It relies on few ingredients – it just needs them to be fresh and well cooked. No hiding there for the mediocre cook (which I most certainly am!). My favourite is pimiento de padron – those small green peppers just fried and salted and ready to pop in the mouth to burst with fresh flavour. And chiperones – only my rented kitchen was poor and I couldn't risk frying them myself. I could only get padron peppers in the smallest of grocers – the supermarkets have gone all 'american' and are stuffed full of UHT and fresh milks and cereals. A major change from when I first visited (Pamplona as it happens) in 1994 – for my brother's wedding.
    Tarragona is a good small city. But no doubt much changed from when Leo last was there.
    The old quarter is still beautiful and there are still small shops.
    Spanish cities are remarkably egalitarian in terms of the distribution of shops and types of shops. Robert and I never fail to wonder at the fact that you are as likely to find a designer shop next to a tourist tat shop next to a Yaoyao shop next to a simple old fashioned dressmaker as you are to find it beside another designer store. I love that.
    The Roman remains pop up in the most unexpected of places – Leo is so right. In many ways I was reminded of York – where Viking and Roman and Medieval vie for attention. And where modern ugly concrete is balanced on the ancient.
    But if I could choose my nationality I'd choose 'Spanish'.
    Have you read Giles Tremlett's 'Ghosts of Spain: Travels through Spain and its Silent Past'? I can recommend it. And maybe Leo would also enjoy it.
    My ex-sister-in-law's grandfather was a Francoist – a commander in his army – bassed in Pamplona. I have found that hard to understand. And I have little doubt that the family's prosperity has a lot to do with his former political connnections.
    My best wishes to you for your stay at the house. I only wish I could be with you! x

  11. You're just setting yourself up for failure with a month away…especially in someplace lovely. I'm pretty sure two weeks away is long enough to change the chemical structure of your brain…you're torturing yourself.

    I spend three or four hours on Saturday afternoon, during the SEC offseason, on my back porch drinking and staring at the lake….and every weekend there's a possibility I may just not get back up. If I went on a month long vacation….my face would end up on a milk carton.

    We just got back from three days on the coast…went down Sunday morning, ate too much, spent all our time at the beach and now we're back like it never happened. We vacationed like ninjas.

  12. I'm not surprised you feel a bit down after returning from a holiday like this. We have yet to go anywhere this year. But we're off to France at the ending of August. We hope to avoid teenage moaning by taking her friend with us.

  13. Terrific post Yvonne.
    I am with you about how Spain is a good place to live that puts its citizens above its corporations. Last year we spent a month – January – in Palma de Mallorca. I was struck by how well the city was run and how inclusive it felt too

    Hope your feeling of lowness passes. Plan Spain into your future. I plan to like in Palma for several months a year one day.

    Keep writing. I love your posts.

  14. It's a terrible thing we do to ourselves with this month-away business… every year it takes longer and longer to get back into the other 11 months' reality. I think last year I was only vaguely productive the month before I was due to leave for Spain – it's a miracle I've not been given a permanent holiday.

    Joking aside – you're absolutely spot on with the shorter holiday – maybe the 'lift' we get from a break is in inverse proportion to the length of the break. Less is more.

    Ah. But. Thing is – this job I do gives me nearly 70 days annual leave… begs for me to indulge my masochism.

  15. We've never done the 'take a friend' option before – mainly because we had too many kids of our own to accommodate – but I've a strong feeling we'll need to do it for Ana before long because Jamie is reaching the point of 'one week is enough for me' and anyway, he and Ana do a lot of squabbling… Have a great holiday Doris. 🙂

  16. Thanks Jane. I've heard lots of good things about Palma – my Mother and Father rave about it – strangely, I've only ever been on mainland Spain. Just the ways things have worked out. But Spain really does feel 'human' – it prioritises people and their needs – it just feels so so much better to live in.

    So, yes – I have planned Spain into my future! Once the MSc is finished I've pencilled in a basic Spanish course at Strathclyde Uni… I could start it this academic year but I don't want to take on too much. I'm committed to a full week sitting on Employment Tribunals in October and a minimum of 20 hours pro bono mediation for SACRO (the latter to secure the required professional registration) and I anticipate confirmation of my appointment to the Management Board of Edin Uni Student's Association within the next week or so (min 6 hrs per month) – on top of my day job. I think I'll cope with that stuff because it's using skills I already have – but I really do need to start from scratch with the language…

    I miss writing, Jane. I've been doing a lot for my job and for the MSc – which has meant I'm wrung out of words when it gets to the blog. But things will change!

    Take care – love Yx

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