Volcanoes and the Greeks abroad

Saturday 9th May 2009, Santa Pau, Garrotxa
We are gradually making our way back to France but there is still so much we want to see and do in Spain that it's a slow process. Our route led us back inland towards the lovely mediaeval city of Girona. We visited it back on 20th January 2005, along with other places in this corner of Spain we long to see again. But we have been firm. If we revisit too many places we will miss new ones. Up in the wooded hills further inland from Girona there is the Garrotxa, an area of dormant volcanoes. Bypassing Girona we headed steeply back up into the hills to spend a couple of days discovering the area in which we are now camping. It is astonishing how thickly everywhere is wooded. We are surrounded by gentle, conical peaks that were once active volcanoes but they look so peaceful and gentle it's hard to believe they are simply dormant rather than dead. The peaks are part of an endless area of forest while any cleared space on their slopes are used for vegetable gardens, the small plots cleaned with mattocks and the crops planted by hand. Much of the time the solidified lava lies just below the surface, protruding through and showing as rocks of rough, pockmarked, black or red basalt.

We stopped at the stunning mediaeval hilltop village of Santa Pau. Seen from across the valley it looks rather severe with its dark, windowless walls built from a random mixture of locally available stone - basalt, sandstone, limestone and conglomerate. These though were for defence and once inside the walls there are a couple of pretty, arcaded squares, every corner filled with potted plants and bright flowers. At the church a funeral was in progress, the door open onto the square. Outside waited the pall bearers having a quiet smoke. The Spanish are currently having an ardent love affair with luminous yellow jackets for workmen of any kind, be they road builders or toilet cleaners, but surely this was taking things too far! Just round the back of the church we found the necropolis. When you live on a volcano there is nowhere to bury your dead so they were neatly tucked into the filing cabinets we've seen so frequently in Spanish mountain villages.

Santa Pau in the volcanic Garrotxa area

Santa Pau in the volcanic Garrotxa area

Charming image seen above a doorway in Santa Pau, in the volcanic Garrotxa area

Santa Pau in the volcanic Garrotxa area

Santa Pau in the volcanic Garrotxa area

Strange caterpillars on orange blossom, Garrotxa area

By this time it was nearly 6pm and we discovered a couple of interesting walks to the craters of some of the volcanoes. We also discovered a campsite nearby so have settled here for the night and will explore further tomorrow – provided we are not too exhausted from the racket our neighbours are making. They are donkeys and they are still braying happily at 11pm!

Sunday 10th May 2009, Sant Pere Pescador, Costa Brava
I couldn't find a single tap on the campsite this morning for cold drinking water! When I questioned it I was told that it came from an underground well deep below the site and that was the temperature it came out! Looking at our map I remembered too that across the border in France, not far as the crow flies, lies Amélie-les-Bains where we discovered the streets flowing with really hot water and steam rising up through the vents in the manhole covers. These Spanish volcanoes around Santa Pau are very recent in geological terms, the last eruption being a mere 11,500 years ago, and they are designated not as dead, but dormant. So it would appear there is still activity going on deep below the surface and we will just have to put up with tepid drinking water.

Despite feeling we've had a restful day, we have actually climbed a couple of volcanoes and visited two ancient stone towns of great charm and beauty.

The volcanoes here are small but plentiful. Everything we've gleaned about them has been a struggle as leaflets and display panels have all been in Catalan. They are designated as being similar to Stromboli in Italy. Small particles of pumice where thrown out from the core of the volcano in such quantities that they gradually formed a wide-based cone around the central vent. Embedded in the pumice are volcanic bombs where large lumps of more solid lava were hurled out at the same time. There was little in the way of flows of molten lava, though this formed the final stage of the eruption. The timescale for all this is unclear to us.

Volcanic bomb embedded in pumice, Volcà del Croscat, Garrotxa area

First we climbed up to the crater of the Volcà Santa Magarida - a steep struggle through shady woodland along crunchy cinder tracks of dark red pumice. The entire cone consisted of red and black pumice granules. The soil seemed very fertile and the sides of the cone were thickly wooded. Eventually we reached the crater rim where the path levelled out, forming a ridge with the ground sloping away to either side. Down inside the crater was a wide grassy meadow with an old chapel in the centre with the wooded sides of the crater rising up all around. Coming back down again was harder than climbing up as the pumice slithered beneath our feet at every step.

Inside the crater of the Volcà de Santa Margarida, Garrotxa area

View out from the crater of the Volcà de Santa Margarida showing similar volcanoes, Garrotxa area

Next we walked across open meadows full of flowers to find the amusingly named Croscat volcano. This had been worked in the past by a mining and mineral company who had sliced into the side taking out a cake-like wedge. We were able to walk right into the wedge where its different layers of red and black pumice encasing volcanic bombs were clearly visible. Right in the centre were the solidified remains of the basalt chimney through which the ash, pumice and lava were thrown out from the earth.

Pretty meadows on the slopes of the Volcà del Croscat, Garrotxa area

Countryside surrounding the Volcà del Croscat, Garrotxa area

Solidified lumps of lava embedded in pumice, Volcà del Croscat, Garrotxa area

Volcà del Croscat with a wedge removed showing pumice in red and black and the hard basalt chimney from where it all erupted, Garrotxa area

Small and very light grains of pumice, Volcà del Croscat, Garrotxa area

Of course all around the area there is evidence of volcanic activity. Buildings have walls built with dark basalt stone, riddled with holes where it solidified around bubbles of gas. Similar materials are used for kerbstones in the towns and villages.

At Olot, a little place with several volcanic cones within the town itself and offering glimpses of the distant snowy peaks of the Pyrenees, we stopped by the river for lunch before looking around. It turned out to be a more interesting place than we'd expected with several delightful art-nouveau houses by famed Barcelona architects overlooking the wide tree-lined Rambla, and in the narrow streets of the old town. We were also amazed at the number of residents of African and Muslim origin, particularly in the older, more decayed quarter. They certainly brought life and colour to the place with their noisy laughter as they shouted to neighbours in the flats opposite or friends down in the street. From inside came the unmistakable sound of Arab or North African music and groups of men stood talking together all wearing brightly coloured shirts, baggy trousers and white crocheted hats.

Agreeable corner in Olot, Garrotxa area

Modernist façade by the Barcelona architect Lluis Domenèch i Montaner, Olot, Garrotxa area

Moving on from Olot we passed through the shabby town of Castellfollit de la Roca. Down below it we crossed the river and looked back up. The village seemed transformed as it stood there, right on the very top of a black basalt stack from an otherwise vanished volcano. It was a magnificently impressive location.

Castellfollit de la Roca on its basalt column, Garrotxa area

Here we gradually left the volcanic area as we made our way down towards the coast again, stopping at Besalù a picturesque mediaeval town on a pleasant river crossed by an ancient bridge. In fact the bridge was severely damaged during the Spanish Civil War when it was blown up in 1939, but has subsequently been restored. The town was quite delightful, busy with local people out to enjoy its charm, the main square set with little tables where families gathered in small groups to enjoy beer, coffee or iced cream. There was also a centre for Jewish history. It seems strange the way Spain is now so anxious to preserve anything remotely connected with its Jewish past when during the 15th century they were so persecuted that almost every one left the country, never to return. Besalù used to have a ritual Jewish bath that was forcefully closed down and used for other purposes and then knocked down. Today there is a Jewish studies centre set up on the site where it once stood.

Carving on the Romanesque church wall at Besalù

Entrance porch of the Romanesque church at Besalù

Restored mediaeval bridge at Besalù

Besalù from across the river

The fate of the Jewish community at Besalù in the 15th century

It has been hot and muggy up in the hills, and the shower of rain we had during the afternoon only made matters worse. Our hayfever erupted as suddenly and violently as the volcanoes of the past and we decided to make our way back to the fresher weather along the coast. Soon we were passing through the Spanish town of Figueres where Salvador Dali had his eccentric chateau. Having already seen it we continued past the various roundabouts, each with a Daliesque centrepiece – such as a column with a half open zip faster worked into it – down to the sea. Tonight we are camped right on the beach with a cool breeze blowing gently in from the sea. We have free wifi included and we've been told we don't have to rush off the site in the morning. Very friendly and civilised.

Monday 11th May 2009, Sant Pere Pescador, Costa Brava
This site is very pleasant, right beside the sea and shaded from the hot sun by pines, eucalyptus, acacias and palms. There is the permanent sound of birds, with the cheerful chirping of sparrows and the raucous screech of the bright green parrots populating the palm tree by Modestine's back door. Free internet and the need to sort out photos and blogs decided us to take an "admin day".

Having worked steadily all morning, after lunch we released Hinge and Bracket and cycled along the coast to see the Greek and Roman archaeological site of Empuries, dating from the 2nd century BC. It is recognised as introducing Greek culture to Iberia having been founded in the 6th century BC by Greek traders from Phocaea – the name Emporion means trading post. The Romans took over in 218BC and built a grander town a little inland. It was remarkable what an important role water played in both cultures. Under almost every house was a cistern, the roofs were arranged to catch water, there was an ingenious system of water filters using terracotta cylinders and of course the usual public baths and drainage systems. Sea water was also used for salt extraction and the preparation of their horrid sauces composed of rotten fish. There was an Asklepion, dedicated to the Greek god of healing, very necessary after ingesting too much of the sauces, which was similar to those seen in Greece – indeed the imposing statue, probably of Asklepios, was brought over from Greece. There was a small, simple Greek mosaic, but the Romans of course had to do bigger and better. In the palatial houses in the upper town, their courtyards laid out as herb gardens, were excellent mosaics, mainly in black and white, but some extremely detailed examples in colour were in the museum. The rise of other towns led to the decline of Roman Emporiae, but there was an early Christian basilica on the site. Remarkably part of the Greek jetty had withstood the buffeting of the Mediterranean for two millennia.

Water filtering system, Empuries

Water cisterns and sewers, Empuries

Salt factory, Empuries

Asklepion or hospital, Empuries

Statue of Asklepios, Empuries

Simple Greek mosaic, Empuries

Roman mosaic floor, Empuries

Polychrome Roman mosaic, Empuries

Roman mosaic showing sacrifice of Iphigenia, Empuries

Roman marine mosaic constructed from minute tesserae, Empuries

Early Christian basilica, Empuries

It was really enjoyable strolling through the ruined streets of low stone walls set against the pines along the sea shore with the brilliant blue of the sea beyond. So familiar did it seem after the sites we explored in the Peloponnese last year that I actually found it confusing to remember that I was now in Spain. Time seemed to have simply slipped away!

South gate of the Greek town with the jetty beyond, Empuries

We sometimes encounter some very amusing incidents on campsites and most frequently they involve Germans. This one is under German management and it stunningly efficient in the way it operates. There are so many different recycling containers for our refuse that we almost expect to find one for nail clippings! Spain isn't really into recycling anyway so they probably throw everything back together again at the council depot. The site is listed by ADAC, the German camping bible, and the staff speak excellent German. All notices are in German, the supermarket stocks German foodstuffs and the majority of campers are from Germany. This evening a huge German caravan was towed onto the site. First the owners asked the English couple next to us to move their car so that they could manoeuvre sideways onto their pitch. Then they asked Ian if he spoke German and whether we understood how the compass they were holding worked. Ian explained where north was but, in that case, they pondered, where was east and was that where the sun rose? They took ages exactly orientating their caravan using a special remote-controlled battery. Ian jokingly said it must have taken a long time to travel all the way from Germany at that speed. They were quite unable to see he was teasing and explained seriously that they'd done the entire journey in a day at an average of 100 km an hour. They must have been shattered but we presume that unless their bed was orientated exactly to the east, they'd be unable to sleep tonight! Fortunately our pitch is huge for Modestine so our English neighbours can straddle our pitch with their displaced car.