Monday, 29 December 2014

Keeping warm

I had Viber text messages overnight from Rachel, one from Chicago and another from Phoenix, telling that she'd been sick on the 'plane, from some noxious component of the in-flight vegetarian meal option. Meal booking menus don't always list ingredients that might present allergy problems, apart from the obvious life threatening ones. On this occasion, she got caught out. Another wobbly homecoming!

Clare and I went out the Co-op for food shopping, but apart from that, despite the bright sunshine, the rest of the day was spent keeping warm indoors. Out and about, the temperature hovers around zero. BBC Radio 4 made the day worthwhile with a start of a serialised version of singer Ian Bostridge's book about Schubert's 'Winterreise' song cycle, which puts the music, and the poems of Wilhelm Muller which he used, in their social and cultural context as part of the emergence of Germanic identity in the nineteenth century. An utterly fascinating way to do history, ranking with Neil McGregor's outstanding 'History of the World in 100 Objects' broadcast series a couple of years ago.

We also binged on the missed Christmas episodes of 'The Archers' via iPlayer, while I cooked supper, in time to hear the latest one live. So much of the world's best radio on demand - this alone is worth the annual license fee, which reminds me ....

Sunday, 28 December 2014

Christmas Sunday

I slept badly, with a developing sore throat, and was out of the hotel by half past seven, well before sunrise for a change, to walk across Abbey Fields to St Nicholas' Parish Church for the eight o'clock service. I was disappointed to discover it was cancelled and that there'd only be a family Eucharist on this Christmas Sunday at a time I wouldn't be able to make it. So, I wandered slowly back to the hotel, enjoying seeing blackbirds and a missle thrush close to the footpath, too preoccupied with hunting for worms in the semi-frozen ground to be alarmed by my presence in the semi darkness.

Kath had just arrived back from ferrying Rachel and Jasmine to Heathrow when we reached the house for a farewell breakfast. By midday we were driving back to Cardiff. My cold was really beginning to develop, and I ended up in bed early, watching an episode of 'Inspector Montalbano' I'd seen before, that had an inconsistent confusing ending. I didn't have the energy to watch the last ten minutes again, so I obsessed about it in my groggy state, drifting in and out of sleep. 

This is the first cold I've had in ten months. I wondered how long it would take, after observing the alarming number of train travellers coughing when I arrived back in Bristol last Monday, compared to the few coughs I heard travelling to Barcelona earlier the same day. Ah well, there's nothing much to be done in the aftermath of Christmas, but enduring a cold isn't my idea of leisure.

Saturday, 27 December 2014

Family re-union II

On this occasion, Rachel and Owain, Clare and I took rooms in Kenilworth's Holiday Inn for our stay here. Anto's sister Viv, recently bereaved, was occupying their spare room, and this offered us a most comfortable and reasonably priced alternative to being crammed in and sleeping on the floor. Clare and I had a fourth floor room facing east and overlooking the High Street.

We got to bed by eleven, exhausted by Boxing day's festivities, and were awake to enjoy the sunrise, followed by a full English Breakfast in the hotel dining room, before joining the others for mid-morning coffee. After lunch, we walked through Abbey Fields to Kenilworth Castle, so we could all get some exercise, and the kids could enjoy the new play apparatus in the park.

After supper a game of Monopoly, against the background of Rachel preparing for her flight back to Arizona, involving a six o'clock start from here to get to a flight from Heathrow, just after ten. This had the added frustration of being unable to check in on-line, as the airline partnership (BA & UA) seemed not to have assigned an aircraft to match the demand. She has to be sure to be there earlier than usual to make sure that she doesn't get 'bumped off' the flight she's booked on, as the airlines always overbook seats on any given international route. It adds an element of insecurity no long distance traveller needs. It used to be like that travelling around the Mediterranean fifty years ago. Scale up the distances, and even today the element of uncertainty can't be ruled out.

Friday, 26 December 2014

Boxing Day re-union

We were on the road to Kenilworth as soon as we could organise ourselves after breakfast the roads, a lot busier today with people like us, making family visits, very few lorries. We arrived just after one. John arrived with Jasmine an hour later. Snow was threatened. It was no more than cold and rainy. Not that this was in any way a deterrent to Rhiannon and Jasmine! 

Last week, Rachel and Jasmine had been in Kenilworth. The cousins had been joyfully reunited and played together wonderfully. They'd devised and performed a play together, and vowed to do the same again, next time all the family met, which was today. Their stage set, with chairs for the audience was in the garden, regardless of the rain. The girls' enthusiasm was enough to ensure an open air audience despite weather conditions. Ten minutes of pure damp delight.

We enjoyed another Christmas lunch, this time with all three children and grandchildren around the table followed by another exchange of presents, and a video showing of 'Despicable Me II', a cartoon satire of American action movie cliches, which it seems kids love and adults like to laugh along with. I noticed Jasmine seemed familiar with the songs, plot-line catch phrases and key moments, suggesting she'd seen it several times before I'd even heard of it. There's no doubt I'm quite detached from many elements of the bewildering world shaping our grandchildren.

Thursday, 25 December 2014

Christmas at home

I was glad to have Tuesday without commitments to do some last minute shopping. This meant Rachel and I could drive over to Bristol to visit Amanda, exchange Christmas gifts on Christmas Eve, and to catch up with her, as I haven't seen her since summer, when she was last in hospital. She fights against growing disability with impressive courage and creativeness, working with her carers on baking and jam-making. All the presents she'd prepared for the rest of the family she'd made herself. Such admirable spirit!

When Amanda's carer arrived, we headed for home, a late lunch, and then for me, completing a sermon for Midnight Mass. Owain arrived for supper and a relaxed evening before I drove out to Tongwynlais on deserted roads, to celebrate for a congregation of three dozen. Last time I was here, I was hearing Phil one of my students, preach. I also did locum duties here during the last interregnum, three years ago. How time flies!

It was good to be back in a familiar place with familiar faces, and hear the scriptures read by people with South Wales accents not too dissimilar from my own. For me, this is a profound part of what it means to celebrate Christmas at home.

It was strange to awaken relatively late this morning, without the excited voices of children discovering their gifts from Santa, but this year Jasmine is with her father. Rachel, Owain, Clare and I went to the Eucharist at Catherine's, and enjoyed a good carol sing together, before preparing Christmas dinner together - well, my share was preparing the sprouts and washing lots of pans and dishes. Owain took the lead, making sauce based on a reduction of red wine with plum jam to accompany roast duck for a change, plus venison sausages with all the usual family veggie delights including nut roast, followed by glorious Christmas pudding.

Before the sun set, we quit the table and walked around Llandaff Fields. One of my presents from last year was a boxed set of 'Superman' movie videos, from Rachel. Sadly, I've never had enough idle time to consider spending three hours watching them, but with no children to feed, play with or put to bed, we could all sit down and watch the first of the series together. It was good fun, and especially for Rachel a reminder of a childhood family outing to watch this particular movie - not that any of us could actually recall the first fifteen minutes of the film describing Superman's origins on planet Krypton.

It's a superbly crafted movie, but it's funny how differently one interprets it, some thirty five years later on, at the time of year when we sing. 'He came down to earth from heaven...' Superman is a heroic saviour figure, powerful, honourable, decent, upholding western democracy against criminal enemies, yet vulnerable (like Samson) to those who know the secret of his weakness. Sometimes he suffers, it's true, but it's never terminal. It's an intriguing fugue on the incarnation/redemption theme, proving how many thoughtful creatives simply don't get the great mystery of the incarnation.

Monday, 22 December 2014

Home run

Up at six before dawn, to finish packing and cleaning, then Michael arrived to take me to the station as I was finishing breakfast. The 07.10 Regional stopping train was in Vinaros station, lit up and open for business before we got to the platform, as it starts from here, and makes the diversion to Tortosa before heading north to Barcelona. It was an hour later when we were in the vicinity of L'Hospitalet that dawn broke over the sea. By this time the train was filling up with people on their way to Tarragona or even Barcelona, presumably for Christmas shopping. In fact, it was packed for the last hour of the three the early stopping train takes, landing one at Baracelona Sants just after ten. 

I had time for a coffee before taking the shuttle train to the airport, followed by the fifteen minute walk from the station to Terminal C where the EasyJet flights depart from. There must have been 200 people queuing to drop off bags, and it took forty minutes as only two thirds of the check-in desks were staffed. By way of contrast, security clearance took just five minutes, leaving me three quarters of a hour before boarding commenced. We arrived at Bristol ten minutes early and the shuttle bus to Temple Meads was soon transporting us to the station. 

At this point, effortless timely progress slowed somewhat. I just missed the four o'clock train to Cardiff. I got on the 16.24 train, but then we were all ordered off the train, when its cancellation was announced, and had to wait another half an hour for the next. It was 17.50 be the time I reached Cardiff, to be greeted by Rachel, who came to pick me up by car and take me home, an hour later than normal timetabling would predict. Trains in Spain may be fewer and often fuller, but given the distances they cover, they run fairly well on time. Given the opportunity EasyJet will get you there early. As for First Great Western, and their horrible noisy smelly trains, that's another story altogether.

It's great to be home again, except the first job always has to be updating computers neglected during my absence.

Sunday, 21 December 2014


Today, my last assignments in this tour of locum duty. First, celebrating the Eucharist at L'Ampolla for a dozen people. I was delighted to find that in one of the south aisle side chapels, the altar was taken up with a Belen, composed entirely of paper figures, many made from toilet roll centres. A remarkable work of imaginative art, during catechism sessions by local parish workers, no doubt!

On my way home for lunch, I made a big diversion through Delta de l'Ebre returning to Els Muntells, where the car broke down on my first visit this time around, and then driving south along narrow roads through flooded rice fields to Poblenou del Delta, the remarkably modern designed township built as a social project during the time of the Generalissimo, now serving as a key tourist venue for the southern sector of the region. 

Outside the town is a huge lagoon, remarkable for its tall reed beds and wetland wildlife. There's a Natural Park visitor centre and restuarant at the heart of it, with several observation posts overlooking vast expanses of open water and reed beds, which have been enclosed for centuries and used for fish stocks as will as rice growing. The lagoon's name is 'Encanyissada', of Catalunyan origins, referring to the abundance of tall cane type reeds which flourish here.

What a treat to discover this on my last outing, on a beautiful afternoon, filled with glimpses of some remarkable birds, especially several kinds of heron I didn't know existed until I read the wildlife identification panels at the visitor centre, and mostly elusive to camera, as they startle so easily when you drive along. Still, I now know for the first time what a lapwing looks like. There were lots of them in one flooded field, and I even managed to get a close-up.

At the evening Eucharist in the Vinaros Fishermen's chapel, there were ten of us. With there being no priest available to celebrate the Nativity, and most people being away, it was important to finish on the right accent, so we sang a few Christmas carols after Communion, before making our farewells. 

Although there's only been Sunday service while I've been here this time, it's been quite busy in a way, as there's been a need to work with the lay worship leaders and Readers in training on developing their ministry as a team. Fortunately, this is something which I greatly enjoy, and willingly do. It's good to be able to re-cycle some of what I learned from my time tutoring at St Mike's.

Saturday, 20 December 2014

Cervera del Maestre discovered

A day of packing for departure, house cleaning and washing, except that it was impossible to get things dry as the weather wasn't favourable. In the afternoon, I took myself out for that visit to the village of Cervera del Maestre, which I promised myself to return to after visiting nearby Calig last week.

The Moors built a castle on a high ridge overlooking the maritime plain above Vinaros and Benicarlo in the eleventh century, and the village developed around it on the flanks below. It's spectacular to look at and to look out from the heights, in every direction. The village has prospered from almond, carob and olive groves in the vicinity. The walls and interior of the long-derelict castle are now being made safe and visitor friendly, a superb asset worth developing for the panoramic vistas alone.

During this visit I was surprised to realise I'd actually stopped on the road outside the town on the way back from a trip inland to St Matieu two and a half years ago. I'd taken a few photos late in the day, but there wasn't time to explore the village properly so I failed to realise what more there was to see. This visit was, therefore, particularly rewarding.

Friday, 19 December 2014

Tale of Nativities

Friday afternoon, Michael and I drove down to Alcocebre to take part in the annual Nine Lessons and Carols celebration. Fifty people were present. He and I were among three soloist with verses from 'We three Kings'. I said the customary Bidding Prayer and John's Gospel, but all else was carried nicely by members of the congregation. It's a measure of how important an occasion like this is to the expatriate community in the area, that people not only turned up and attended but were keen to play a part. One of the readers was a young Spanish girl, an English language student with plenty of confidence to deliver a public scripture reading. These are moments to treasure in terms of cultural exchange, part of what the church as a 'curator'of language exists to offer, often without realising the significance of what it does.

At the south side of the altar in the church of St Cristobel, where the service took place, an open tent canopy had been erected and decorated. Inside it there was a manger-crib with baby Jesus installed, but none of the other actors in the nativity scene. I imagine it was the stage setting for a nativity play or tableau. But, it was the subject of a certain amount of wry humorous observation from by-standers.

In Castellon la Plana last Tuesday, the Cathedral had a large north aisle arcade dedicated to a Belen, and as customary in church, all the figures were in place but the baby Jesus, who makes an appearance at Midnight Mass, a kind of liturgical version of 'Godly Play', I guess. 

Out in the Cathedral Plaza is a mediaeval public building which still serves the public administration of the city. In one corner of its porch is the municipal Belen. Here, baby Jesus is already installed. (I remember this at St John's Cardiff too.) It's too much additional expense and bother to arrange for baby Jesus to appear in public at midnight. Think of the overtime bills ... But in St Cristobel, by way of contrast, only baby Jesus was there.  Such imaginative games we play with our essential stories!

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Benifassa revisited

I visited El Portico this morning for the last time, and chatted with a few people before doing some shopping and making lunch. On a whim, on my way to the supermarket, I drove alone the south shore road, and spotted some birds roosting on a rock, a hundred metres off-shore. I parked and took photos with my Sony HX50, to find out what its telephoto setting would deliver. When I examined the results later, I was surprised to discover that the rock in question hosted not just the usual family of cormorants but also a pair of big grey herons, and neither seemed bothered about the presence of the other.

I had just enough time later in the afternoon to make the drive to La Senia, and from there drove up into the Sierra dels Ports before sunset to revisit the Benifassa reservoir. The display of light on high peaks and south facing cliffs was utterly lovely to behold.

Two and a half years ago, when I was last up there, the water level behind the dam was so low that an original river bridge and some houses at the bottom of the river valley were not only visible, but could be visited by the adventurous, some 250 feet below the road running across the top of the dam.

At a guess, I'd say the reservoir is now half full, and by the end of winter, there may be even more rain to bring the water level up to a healthy maximum.

The entire agricultural economy of the maritime plain from the Sierra dels Ports in the north to the Sierra d'Irta beyond Peniscola to the south depends on water captured from the mountains as well as the depths of ground water available. I was glad to have the opportunity to return there and see for myself the remarkable variations in climate that cultivators in Spain have to live with, or else go out of business. We who are consumers have no real idea of how much we owe them for our food supplies. All too easily we take abundance for granred.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Lunch and an evening exhibition

Michael and Pamela took me out lunch today at L'Antic Moli, one of their favourite restaurants outside of St Rafael del riu on the road to La Senia. This old mill building has been interestingly renovated and expanded, and has an excellent varied menu. I had braised pork cheek and mushrooms with a seafood 'swiss roll' to start with, consisting of minced morcels of fish and raisins, wrapped in a thin layer of a sweet brioche. Quite original. Nice wine too, a Catalunyan vin negre of deep dark colour.

On the way there, at the end of morning, I noticed many fruit pickers at work in the orchards alongside the road. As Michael pointed out, this is the time for harvesting Clementines and Tangerines to bring to market for Christmas. Oranges get picked later, in January. At the moment the former are present on fruit stalls in abundance, and they're cheap as well as deliciously fresh.

In the late afternoon, I walked into Vinaros to savour the evening atmosphere. As the sun sets the skies fill momentarily with tens of thousands of starlings, regrouping before heading to their roosting place for the night. They look like a dark cloud of locusts, swirling in exquisite aerial forms, then they leave as quickly as they appear.

Crowds of kids come out of school at five, then the streets wake up. By six they are busy with shoppers for the next three hours. The number of toy shops in the town centre is remarkable, as well as shops selling children's wear generally. It's a family oriented town in many ways.

In one of the streets there's a 17th century restored nobleman's town house, called the Caixa de Vinaros, which serves as a town museum with an interest in its economic history, displaying photographs and artifacts to do with its agrarian, maritime and industrial past. There's a very fine display of model ships from different periods of regional history. The model maker was there, chatting with the custodian and we got talking. Then he gave me a personal tour of his collection, which was an interesting challenge to my primitive Spanish, but most enjoyable.

The top two floors of the house are given over to an exhibition of paintings by Antoni Miro, an artist who lives in the town of Alcoy, north of Alicante. During the Civil War, a hospital was set up in his home town to treat the wounded. It was funded by Swedish and Norwegian supporters of the Republic. The paintings on display tell the story of the hospital. They are based on photographs taken at the time, made up into large lithographs, tinted in reds, oranges and yellow republican colours, with the faces painted in human flesh tones to take away the sense of abstraction attached to old enlarged photos, not always well defined or in focus. An interesting interpretative device for a powerful narrative about solidarity.

I asked if I could buy a couple of the booklets explaining the exhibition and was told they were for giving away. Free culture and history!  This gives me two more presents I can mail out from here. Pity I didn't take one for myself as well. Sadly there's nothing on Miro's website about this exhibition of his works completed in 2012. The Caixa de Vinaros is an unusual civic asset to say the least.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Shopping in Castello(n)

Today, I took the train to Castello(n) la Plana - the 'n' is in brackets since that's the Castilian spelling, but it's dropped in Valencian and Catlaunyan. This is one of the provincial centres of the Valencian area of government - the 'Generalitat' as it's known, so many of the public buildings are given over to civil administration. The town has a long history having been founded in 1251, eighteen years after the reconquista. The Moors had established a town and castle in the mountains behind, but permission was granted to relocate to the plain. 

Its Cathedral has been there since the thirteenth century, but only acquired cathedral status in the seventeenth. It has a sixteenth century bell tower separate from the church, tall enough to have been used as a look-out post in the days when Barbary pirates were busy on the Mediterranean coast, and there were no high rise blocks. The church was re-built in the twentieth century in a simplified Valencian gothic style, after its demolition had been ordered in 1936, following damage during the Civil War. The old town centre is several kilometres from the sea, where there are holiday beaches. There's a long avenue linking the centre with the sea, along which I believe an electric trolley bus called a 'tram' runs.

With the modern development of the town, the path coastal railway line was diverted inland by half a kilometre. A grand new transport hub was constructed, catering for long/middle distance services, plus suburban 'Rodalies' lines linking it with Valencia. Outside there's a coach station. The former railway station building has been preserved and transformed into a local police station. Behind it stands a huge monumental modern multi-storey 'El Corte Ingles', my shopping destination after I'd toured the town to take photos. I was impressed by the amount and variety of modern sculpture in the streets typical of the effort to give prestige a provincial capital city.

I bought one gift in the Christmas market in the Cathedral Plaza and another in El Corte Ingles, but that was all I could manage in the time available. There's just too much choice. 

Monday, 15 December 2014

A difference in rites of passage

This morning we held a memorial service at Sta Magdalena Parish church near to 'El Portico', for Anita, who died unexpectedly last week. Fr Cristobel the parish priest came and opened up for us and made sure we had everything we needed for the service. It's lovely to receive such kindness and hospitality. The paschal candle was decorated with photos of the young Anita, and one taken a couple of weeks before her death. The urn containing her ashes stood on the altar.  Four dozen people came, and most sat near the front, which mattered in a church that can take two hundred and fifty.

This is the first time in both my visits to the Costa Azahar that I've taken part in the chaplaincy's bereavement ministry. Pastoral calls of this kind are fewer and far between here than they are on the Costa del Sol, where the expatriate population is much larger, and local customs are different. Also social conventions in this region are different. Here it seems to be normal that cremation follows death within 48 hours, making it very difficult to arrange a traditional funeral in the presence of the deceased. A service has to be arranged without the customary rituals of farewell people from the U.K. expect. I've been told, though I'm not sure I believe it, that the practice is due to civil society regulation rather than traditional custom.

After the service, I met with the four chaplaincy worship leaders for a training session. Hopefully this will encourage them to meet regularly for planning sessions, to strengthen their ministry through mutual support, an important engagement for them in the absence of a regular full-time chaplain.

After a late lunch, I walked into town and browsed the shops open for evening trading, in search of Christmas presents. Most often, I spend time in town during the afternoon, when people are at lunch, the shops are shut and everything is quiet. Things come alive in the evening, even though it's dark. Streets are tasteful lit with festive decorations. Vinaros town centre has many small shops, making for an enjoyable experience for a visitor like me, not much inclined to retail therapy outings. 

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Ministry Sunday

My first duty today was a return visit to Alcocebre for a Eucharist with a congregation of two dozen. It was warm enough after the service to stand outside San Cristobal church for a drink and a few tasty Christmas shaped cheesy biscuits a refreshing change from the usual sweet 'n spicy kinds. Quite special for Sunday in mid-December.

On my way home, I noticed that the Carrefour hypermarket on the edge of Vinaros was open, and I drove in, as there were a few things I'd missed on my weekend shopping list. When I was here first two years ago, Sunday opening wasn't normal. I recall a large advertisment on the side of the building facing the N-340, two years ago, promoting Sunday opening during the holiday season. I'm not sure if it's open Sundays all year round now, but it certainly is in the run up to Christmas. The majority of retail outlets remain closed on Sundays however.

We had Evensong again at the Fishmen's chapel tonight. Only nine of us, as several couples have left to celebrate Christmas elsewhere. Such in the nature of a mobile congregation. Even fewer will be around over Christmas and New Year. There'll be no priest, but wonderfully, our Catholic parish hosts have offered eucharistic hospitality to the handful of Anglicans remaining. It's all part and parcel of pastoral life here on the Costa Azahar. 

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Ermita de VInaros re-visited

This morning, Michael drove me down to Alcocebre this morning to join a group of people rehearsing for next Friday's service of Nine Lessons and Carols. Michael and I have been assigned the task of singing a solo verse of 'We three Kings of Orient are.', a first for me this one. A few doors away from the parish church of St Cristobal, where Anglican services in Alcocebre are held, a former surf and internet shop is being renovated prior to occupation by 'El Camino', the chaplaincy's drop in centre and shop in this part of the world. It has three times as much space as the existing shop, a more versatile arrangement than the current place. It's a credit to the worshipping community here to have assessed the need and seized the opportunity to undertake this development. I'm sorry I won't be here to celebrate the opening of the new premises early in the New Year.

After weekend shopping this afternoon, I drove to the Ermita de Vinaros to the west inland from town. My last visit here was in the summer two years ago for the Chaplaincy united Eucharist. I also cycled there from the chaplaincy house, a round trip of twenty kilometres, and when Eddie and Ann and Clare came over to join me for a holiday, we had lunch there. Unfortunately, I've not had a bike to ride this time. 

Now the Ermita is only open in daylight hours, and there are few visitors to the bar, restaurant or church. There are few leaves on the plane trees that provide summer shade. If anything, the colours of the fields and orchards of the coastal plain are more vivid than in summer, due to the growth after autumn rains. It's been a cloudy day with a veil of lingering mist muting the colours somewhat, but making for an atmospheric landscape as the sun descended to the horizon.

Being there on my own, I had time to look around the entire domain, which I hadn't previously. There's a Via Crucis ascending to a hill with ten metres tall cross on top of it. Beyond this is a higher mound with a ruinous platform on it. It looks as if the Via Crucis once ended up there, as reinforced concrete remains of the base of a previous cross are still at the platform centre. The reason for the sorry state of the mound is evident from a walk around the perimeter. Excavation has revealed ancient building walls and foundations of an earlier settlement on this site. The platform for the original cross would have been constructed in the early twentieth century, and there may have been less awareness of or interest at that time in what was out of sight under the ground. 

I took photographs, and lingered in the fast cooling air to watch the setting sun throw shafts of golden light through the pine woods that cloak the hillside away from the dwellings facing the sea plain. It was a moment to savour. Photographs are here.

Friday, 12 December 2014

Calig visit and Christmas arriving

El Portico was again closed yesterday morning following Tuesday's pipe burst. This gave me time to write a sermon for Sunday, and potter around the house. Mid afternoon I drove out to the hill village of Calig to the west of Benicarlo, a place I've only gone past before, but never visited. Calig has a substantial fourteenth century Valencian Gothic parish church similar to others in towns and villages in this region, a tribute to the investment that followed the re-taking in 1238 of the Valencian taifa (region) that had been ruled by the Moors since 1010.

As well as the church with its own bell tower, the village boasts a second larger fortified tower right at the top the hill from the 13th century. I believe this was originally a watchtower outpost for the Castle of Cervera which sits on high ridge ten kilometres further into the mountains. It's now home to the town clock and has a gable with two bells in it. Next time I come this way, a visit to Cervera will be on the cards. I passed by the town on a lower road, just as the sun was setting. You'll find Calig photos here.

Today I had two bereavement visits to make, one nearby in Vinaros, another outside El Perello. From the latter I went on to officiate at the Service of Lessons and Carols in L'Ampolla. There were over fifty people present. At the end of the service, 'Decibels' a local choir with an international membership, led by a guitar playing English retired headmaster, sang cheery folksy songs and carols to the congregation in English and Catalan before mulled wine and mince pies were consumed.

I think it's four years since I last officiated at a service of Lessons and Carols. The last I attended was the German Lutheran congregation's service in Taormina two years ago. It's very enjoyable to share in an expatriate celebration again. There's an enthusiasm about the singing, the sense of fellowship and the hospitality which owes far less to nostalgia than it owes to the desire to affirm the best about our identity and culture. All part of making yourself at home wherever you are.


Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Tortosa and the Valle d'Ebro

I drove up to Tortosa this morning to meet with Jenny and discuss her sermon with her. We met in the Viena cafe opposite the town's main market hall, a substantial 1890's building, prominent on the Ebro river bank, not far from the old town. It boasts several tapas bars and a couple of bakery shops along with the usual fruit 'n veg, meat and fish stalls. Jenny told me that market food prices are above average as all produce sold carries a municipal quality guarantee. I noticed there are several stalls specialising in salted fish products, it was slightly odd to see so much on display in one place.

I'd parked the car at the far end of town close to the new local university buildings, a kilometre walk from the old town centre. Instead of returning along the riverside, I took to the back street to explore the Jewish Quarter. This is an area of streets dating back to the twelfth century, when riverside land that had accommodated Moorish shipyards was given to the city's Jews for house building after the city had been seized from its Muslim overlords. How sad that the Jews should be expelled from the city within a couple of centuries. 

There's nothing obvious left of the original buildings of this barrio, but the ground plan remains unchanged from the Middle Ages, also some of the street names. There's enough in the historical record to identify where the synagogue stood, and the bakery, and the butchers' shops. Yes, there were two, next door to each other. One of them sold kosher meats, the other halal, since Moorish and Jewish communities lived side by side in this small area before the folly of ethnic cleansing took over.

On impulse, I drove north on the road that runs up the east side of the Ebro valley, through the villages of Bitem and Tivenys, past orange groves heavy with ripe fruit. Every now and then I'd pass a small tractor with trailer laden with crates of oranges, heading for a local storage depot. December is a key harvest time for both olives and oranges of a certain kind. Water is diverted from the river on both sides of the valley into irrigation canals, serving the agricultural needs of the entire region, right down into the Delta. 

Beyond Tivenys, the narrow winding road climbs several hundred metres over a pass that descends to Benifallet where the road divides - to Gandesa north-west, to Rasquera east. I stopped at the top of the col to take photos, then descended, to head for home. The view of the valley and the high Sierras dels Ports to the west were well worth the effort of the climb. You'll find some photos here.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Delta afternoon

This morning, I went down to El Portico, to meet Paul and discuss his Sunday sermon. I was surprised to find that the shop was closed for business, due to a water leak in the apartment upstairs flooding the shop floor. I found the shop team across the road, chatting and drinking coffee together, waiting for the plumber who'd been summoned to arrive. Paul and I retreated to empty shop for our chat, until it was time to lock up and go home. Then, I got to complete my week's grocery shopping, cook and early lunch and then head up to the Deltebre for some bird watching. 

The weather was perfect, and despite an occasionally strong wind, it wasn't too cold. In one flooded rice paddy I saw a pair of ospreys. One was perched on a power line, the other on hunting patrol. I caught the latter on camera on the return leg of the journey, although the photo isn't wonderful. In two of the Tancada Wildlife Reserve salinas there were hundreds upon hundreds of flamingos, all bunched up close together in a particular area. From 200 metres away they looked as if they were huddling together to protect themselves from the wind. It was a delightful refreshing afternoon. You'll find photos here.

Monday, 8 December 2014

Quiet fiesta

A different sort of Sunday for me, listening at the two Eucharists I celebrated, to each of the trainee Lay Readers preach. First Jenny at L'Ampolla, then Paul at Vinaros. As past of the process, I then had to write an evaluation, something I'm used to from St Mike's, except that the assessment form is different and required additional scrutiny in order to fill in properly ready to discuss with each of them in turn. All in all, I spent a lot more time on these tasks than it would take to write a sermon of my own, but it's good to contribute to their learning and development. The chaplaincy is fortunate to have two capable people who are good with words, confident about speaking in public, and getting a lot out of studying scripture for the purpose of writing sermons and course essays.

Monday, was the feast of the Immaculate Conception, a major public holiday. Vinaros was quieter than the average Sunday and every kind of shop was shut, except for a few bars and restaurants, as I soon found out when I went out shopping. The only essential things I needed was motor fuel, and fortunately there are a good number of service stations with automatic self service facilities. I'm quite impressed by how easy these are to use, regardless of language. I walked into town, late afternoon, hoping that the Archiprestal Church might be open for Mass, but it wasn't. To my surprise, the plaza in front of it, with the Ajuntament on the corner, was packed with Christmas market booths. Only a couple of these were open. I wondered if they might be open later in the evening, but didn't hang around and find out.

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Back to duty

Another trip to the Heath hospital first thing Thursday morning, since Clare thought she'd accidentally dislodged the plain contact lens that had been placed over the eye operated on for protective purposes. She was greatly relieved to find that it was still in place. After that, it was time to write the Christmas cards, label and fill the envelopes with our annual newsletter, then visit the CBS office to work on a few assignments and meet up with Ashley for a catch up session. After supper, Kath arrived so that we could we could spend some time together. 

On my homeward journey I'd failed in my attempt to book a place in a Hostal close to Barcelona Sants station as it was pouring down and I was unable to venture out to the address provided. I sent an email when I got back, but received no response. Kath, whose Spanish is better than mine, offered to ring up and check. The person who answered the phone must have spoken Catalunyan rather than Castilian Spanish, and not completely understood her, so passed her on to someone who spoke sufficient English to handle her enquiry. Ten minutes later, to my relief, I had my confirmatory email!

Kath took me to catch my train to Bristol after an early Friday lunch. By a quarter to three, I was at the airport and going through security clearance. It was busy, and took twice as long as usual, but I had lots of time to spare. Every seat on the flight to Barcelona was taken. I noticed that the average age of the passengers was lower than usual. Something unusual was happening, as there were a dozen or more people dressed as characters from Star Wars movies, behaving animatedly. A party mood prevailed. We flew into El Prat airport down the Costa Azul, which being mostly urbanised was brightly lit and looked quite enchanting. I was glad to have a window seat. There were two French women sitting next to me and we chatted in French as the plane was making its final descent. They were making their way to Menorca. I think they may live there. 

The Rodalies train from the airport to Sants station was delayed more than forty minutes by a problem with signals, so I was over an hour late arriving at Hostal Sofia, five minutes walk across the station concourse. After I'd checked in, I went to the bar-restaurant downstairs for a couple of drinks and some tapas - tortilla con patatas, and sardinas in pleasantly spicy marinade. My room was small and simple with a toilet at shower just down the corridor, just thirty one euros. Perfect for an overnight stopover.

I was up and out of the Hostal by eight thirty, breakfasting on coffee and croissant at another nearby bar. Then, after booking my ticket, I walked for three quarters of an hour, on a triangular route, to try and get an impression of the more modern quarter of the city above the station. It wasn't that interesting but I enjoyed the exercise, thankful to have only a lightly packed rucksack as luggage on this trip. The Inter City train to Vinaros left on time and arrived five minutes late. It was quite full, but quite a few passengers seemed uncertain as to whether they were on the right train or not, as they kept asking each other. Michael met me at the station, and told me about the unexpected death of a church member which had occurred yesterday, before dropping me off at the house.

I'd left myself a ready prepared meal in the freezer. All I had to do was thaw it and cook some green lentils to go with it. Then, a quick trip to Lidl's to stock up with fresh food, before listening to the afternoon play on Radio 4, the fifth in a series of detective stories set in Cuba by Cuban novelist Leonardo Padura Fuentes. I've heard all of them in the weeks past, and it's given a fascinating insight into the lives of Cuban people behind the facade of Castro's communism. Nice to hear them while living in an hispanic context, albeit an utterly different one. And now, getting ready for tomorrow, but not preaching for once, as both Raders in training are preaching and I'm listening and evaluating. Just like being back at St Mike's.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Successful surgery

We were out of the house and on our way in the early Tuesday morning commuter traffic to get to the Heath Hospital (aka University Hospital of Wales) just after half past seven this morning, for Clare's eye surgery appointment. She was one of five people to be treated by consultant Mr Raj Kumar for the relief of high eyeball fluid pressure, brought on by her hereditary glaucoma. 

She was second in line for the twenty minute treatment, the whole process took three hours from preparation to recovery. I waited with her, and while she was being treated, I went for a coffee with another of the patients in the day's queue, a Palestinian man in his forties. He'd never been to the Holy Land, being born in Kuwait and studying in Hungary and Libya before coming to the U.K. We had an unexpected hour of interesting conversation together of a philosophical nature, in the middle of a challenging day for both of us, before it was his turn for treatment. 

We were home again by half past eleven, with plenty of free time and space for Clare to rest and recover. My job was to issue communiques to the family and cook meals. Thankfully, Mr Raj Kumar declared that he was satisfied with the way the procedure had gone.

This morning, we returned to Heath Hospital again, by eight, for an outpatient appointment to check that recovery had continued overnight without complications. I sat in on the examination, made by an optometrist, who declared afterwards that the result was as good as it possibly could be. Clare was sent home with three different batches of eye drops to be taken at different intervals during the day, and left to figure out the self administration regime for herself. This régime will last several weeks!

We went out for a walk to the pharmacy and shopped for vegetables before preparing lunch. Then I finished editing our annual newsletter, ready for production and mail out with Christmas  cards. It's good to be home to put these things in place. I'm delighted that Kath is coming tomorrow, a day early, so we can spend some time together before I return to Spain for my last fortnight of locum duty for this year, and look after her Mum before Rachel arrives from Arizona on Monday.

Monday, 1 December 2014

Rainy journey

I spent most of Saturday packing, cleaning up and tidying the house so that when I get back, it'll be easy to refocus on what needs to be done next.

It rained heavily in the night on Saturday and again on Sunday morning. During a break in the showers, I went out with the rubbish, but before I'd got a hundred metres, it rained again even more heavily, so I got soaked and had to try out the trousers that I'd decided to travel in.

Michael picked me up at eleven to go to L'Ampolla for the United Eucharist. It hardly rained during our journey, but it would seem the earlier heavy rain deterred some from travelling, as there were no more present than there would be for the usual service, around twenty. Afterwards, fourteen of us lunched at L'Ampolla's Station Cafe, which is run by an English couple. We were served an excellent British roast dinner, with a choice of three different meats, and half a dozen different vegetables to choose from.

At three thirty, before pudding, Les kindly ferried my to L'Aldea station, ten minutes away for my Inter-City train to Barcelona at five to four. By twenty to six we arrived at Barcelona Sants station. The rain seemed to have followed us, as a heavy downpour of rain made it impossible to explore beyond the station precincts before going out to the airport on the Rodalies shuttle train. Tourist information services at the station had given me a list of hotels in the vicinity to enquire about a room for Friday night, as my return trip arrives too late to get a southbound train down the coast. It was too wet to venture out, however, so an internet booking will have to be made when I get home.

Heavy rain distrupted the flight schedule, and so we were twenty minutes late getting to Bristol. I changed a hundred euros and got only sixty one pounds. It outrages me when the BBC tell us that a euro is worth seventy nine pence. I needed enough sterling to pay for the airport bus and a taxi to Owain's place, so I had to grit my teeth and let myself be taken advantage of by demons of market exchange. I got there just after midnight.

We were up by seven thirty and walking into town together along a cycle route also busy with pedestrians heading for work. We parted company just before nine, Owain to his office and me to the station, both in the Temple Meads locality. Thankfully the wet weather didn't extend as far as the West of England. I was home in Pontcanna just before eleven, glad to be reunited with Clare after an unusually long journey, due to the lack of Vueling flights into Cardiff in the winter season. I wonder how many others, like me were travelling on into Wales, by one means or another, from Bristol airport.