Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Walking the Coll de Balaguer from l'Hospitalet

Footpaths Of The Mediterranean 4 
We thought our Saturday walk was just going to be an easy 6km legstretcher, but it ended up being considerably longer and lasting just over three hours! The route was another from our new Footpaths Of The Mediterranean folder and the first half was along another section of the GR92 coastal path. L'Hospitalet de l'Infant, our starting point, is named for its original purpose, a 14th century hospital for travellers traversing the Coll de Balaguer pass on their way from the Ebro delta to Tarragona. The hills here look very different now to how they did then because tons of earth were moved to create two motorways, the railway line and the N340 road, but in medieval times this area was particularly dangerous. With no towns to speak of for over seventy kilometres, travellers were at risk of frequent attack from bandits in the hills and corsair pirates from the coast. Fortunately these are no longer a problem and the only evidence of violence we saw were the remnants of wartime gun emplacements and a sign warning of the start of a hunting area.

View from Coll de Balaguer 
We parked up on the outskirts of l'Hospitalet, past the Arenal beach, and followed the GR92 south-west along sandy beaches as far as the Cala d'Ocques campsite which has pitches practically on the beach. We were a little envious until we got back home and looked up their prices online. I think we'll stay at Camping Ametlla for now! The GR92 turns inland up the Barranc de Cala d'Ocques and briefly follows a road until it turns off again and becomes a proper narrow stony footpath leading upwards to the ridgeline. The views up here got more and more stunning the higher we climbed until we almost had a panoramic 360o view. We could see for miles towards Miami Platja and Cambrils!

View to Platja de les Rojales 
The GR92 did have one short but scarily steep scramble at this point, but otherwise wasn't too challenging. The mapped route finished at a high point, Punta de les Rojales, with us then having the option to make our own way on a circular route or to retrace our steps. We prefer circular routes anyway and I certainly didn't fancy trying to get back down the steep bit! Continuing along the ridge until the GR92 descends to a beach-bound road looked hardly any distance on the map, but was probably the best part of an hour's more walking. Good walking certainly and with more fabulous views!

We were all the way up there! 
We descended by way of a winding road to Platja de les Rojales, a long sandy beach with gently lapping waves and beautiful colours from the setting sun. Two cyclists zoomed downhill past us which looked great fun, but we were less encouraged to emulate them when they turned around in the car park at the base and started back upwards again! From that car park, we walked through a short tunnel under the railway to reach the sand and, beforehand, could look back up over trees to the ridge from which we previously gazed down. Steps lead up from the other end of the beach so we had a short section along a wooded footpath passing El Templo del Sol nudist colony. It looked pretty closed up at this time of year! Then we rejoined our outward route to get back to the car and were both proud of our three hours non-stop hiking.

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Cycling the Ebro Delta

L'Ampolla sculpture 
The first excursion we chose from our new Footpaths Of The Mediterranean folder (thank you Ametlla Tourist Office!) was actually, for us, a cycle ride although walking around the Ebro Delta is perfectly feasible too. We parked up just by a roundabout on the way into l'Ampolla. It had the distinctive sculpture pictured here which I have been unable to find online so I am not sure what it depicts or who created it!

From the roundabout, it was an easy cycle down to the seafront with just a little confusion once we got there as we expected the promenade cycleway to have started already, but we had to navigate a short road one-way section first. Then the open path beckoned and we tootled along the prom in gorgeous sunshine, only screeching to a halt to take a look at this amazing sculpture, El lector de l'Ampolla by local artist Paco Morales who is from Deltebre. The book being read is Odysseus which I am taking as a second sign to get on and read my own copy (the first sign having been the Phocaean Greeks at Empuries speaking the same Ionian language as Homer.)

El lector de l'Ampolla sculpture 
Footpaths of the Mediterranean 10 
The best thing about cycling the Ebro Delta is that it is practically flat for miles - and not just looking so, but actually cycling flat! We soon shot off the end of the leaflet map pictured below and made up our own ride along the camis and levees that separate the natural park from acres of rice paddies. At this time of year we hardly saw anyone else, just two other cyclists and one walker so it felt like the whole delta was ours alone!

The Ebro is a favoured area for birdspotting and we saw several varieties of waterbirds, a couple of which we could even identify! We definitely saw cormorants, herons and flamingos. I tried to photograph the flamingos but they were just too distant for my phone camera to cope with. If you enlarge and squint at this vista, I promise you that is what the white blobs are!

Flamingos on the Ebro Delta 

Our visit lasted about three hours in all including a brief picnic lunch on a convenient bench out in the middle of nowhere. I was delighted to finally see the famed Delta especially as it might not exist in such a way for much longer. Threatened by sea level rises from one side and lack of incoming sediment from the other (the River Ebro has been dammed upstream), I would say get there soon if you want to experience this amazing habitat. However erosion from so many tourists' feet (and wheels) is another threat.

Footpaths of the Mediterranean 10 

Friday, 13 January 2017

Top Five Etsy Finds - Bookish Jewellery

The Raven Bracelet by WickedWordsmithCo 
So I know we have only just got Christmas out of the way, but if you have a sweetheart then it's time to start gift hunting again already because Valentine's Day is on the horizon! In fact you've got a month and a day. If the intended recipient is as much of a bookworm as I am then I might be able to cut down your workload with this post in which I showcase my favourite five book-themed jewellery pieces on Etsy. All five are handmade in the UK by seriously talented artisans.

Lorraine White at WickedWordsmithCo in Doncaster painstakingly stamps out each word on her gorgeous metalware cuff bracelets by hand so you can be sure that each piece is unique. I love the Edgar Allan Poe bracelet (pictured above) which features two verses from his classic poem The Raven.

The Raven Bracelet is for sale at £65 plus shipping.

Origami Butterfly Earrings by ThePaperCircusShop 
A delicate choice is this pair of Origami Butterfly Book Page Earrings which are made by Corran Wilson Davies at ThePaperCircusShop in Guildford. They're tiny! Each butterfly measures just 1cm across and the earrings have a drop of 3.5cm. The hooks are available in a choice of different metals and the butterflies are sprayed with an acrylic coating to increase their longevity. Corran does remind us that they are still paper though so it's best not to wear these earrings when swimming!

Origami Butterfly Book Page Earrings are for sale at £8 per pair plus shipping.

World Traveller's Bookshelf Necklace
by Coryographies
I adore the range of bookshelf necklaces made by Cory Cuthbertson at Coryographies in Oxford. I found it difficult to choose my favourite, but eventually settled on this World Traveller's Bookshelf Necklace although the Teashop Bookshelf came a close second. Cory makes all the tiny books by hand from polymer clay - you can even see their white pages between the coloured covers - and the bookshelves are varnished wood. Each bookshelf pendant is just 1.5 inches (about 4cm) tall and weighs 9 grams. Buyers can choose between gold or silver chains and findings for their bookshelf.

The World Traveller's Bookshelf Necklace is for sale at £32 plus shipping.

Acorn Hobbit Brooch by infiniteANDdarling 
Staying with tiny for one more of my favourites, I think this Acorn Hobbit Brooch is adorable. Made by infiniteANDdarling in North Yorkshire, each laser cut brooch measures about 2cm across and features a character or place name upcycled from a vintage copy of The Hobbit by J R R Tolkien. At the time of writing, ten options were still available although Baggins and Thorin had already sold out. I particularly like the cross-hatching and stem details on the acorn above the paper.

The Acorn Hobbit Brooch is for sale at £5 plus shipping.

Books And Tea Necklace by BunnyBosworths 
My final choice for this bookish jewellery post is an elegantly simple fabric Books And Tea Necklace created by Natalie Bosworth at BunnyBosworths in Liverpool. The text 'all you need are books and tea' is printed onto a cotton lawn fabric which is then sewn around a cotton core and fixed to a silver plated chain. Natalie trained as a theatre costume designer and still uses the sewing machine she got for her eighteenth birthday for all her Etsy creations.

The Books And Tea Necklace is for sale at £18 plus shipping.

That's all for my Top Five Etsy Finds this month! Please note all links on this post are affiliate links so, should you click through and make a purchase, I would receive a small percentage. I look forward to curating another five Etsy items for you in February.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Our visit to Tortosa

Cat in a derelict Tortosa building 
Yesterday we jumped in the car and drove ourselves 45 minutes into Tortosa, a historic town a little inland from the Ebro delta. In Roman times it was known as Dertosa, although the town predates Roman occupation. It was also ruled by the Moors for over 400 years and this Arabic legacy is seen in some of the remaining architecture and in traditional foods of the town. Sadly many buildings were destroyed during various wars over the centuries so there is now a mix of the old jutting up against the very new throughout most of the centre. We had hoped to follow the Hemingway Route through Tortosa as Ernest Hemingway lived here in 1937 and 1938 reporting on the Civil War. Ten points of interest are named and we visited the Tourist Information Centre, a beautiful building, to get a map of the Route so we could explore. Unfortunately 'no tengo nada' (I have nothing) said the staff! Apparently we needed to have downloaded and printed out what we wanted - maps of the town, the Hemingway Route and the Via Verda cycle path - from the internet prior to our visit. Unlike the very helpful Ametlla de Mar Tourist Office, Tortosa's one was useless!

Tortosa Tourist Office 
So, instead of literary inspiration leading us, we wandered more aimlessly, but still managed to find El Portal del Romeu which is the old Roman gateway, now a stone arch under and between more modern buildings. We also circled the 14th to 18th century cathedral, as impressive a structure as could be expected, but surprisingly short-looking from its river frontage because it doesn't have a great tower or spire reaching to the sky. Out in the river nearby is the Battle of Ebro monolith, this being almost entirely a spire, which was inaugurated by Franco in 1966 to honour those of his forces who died in Civil War battles across the Ebro. I found this interesting Progressive Spain article talks about how the monument is now technically illegal as it breaches Spain's 2007 Historical Memory Law that serks to remove or recontextualise symbols glorifying the Franco victory. Tortosans voted last year to decide the monument's fate and decided to rededicate it to honour everyone who died.

Away from the riverside, we ascended towards the huge stone Castell on the hill and were surprised to find a fairly large area of derelict looking buildings and streets. They didn't look lived in, other than by stray cats, as pictured above. Above this, we climbed up steps to fortified walls where we had great views out across the town, towards the delta and further up the narrowing river valley. The Castell was originally a Roman fortification, but was rebuilt by the Moors so much of what towers over the town today is based on the Arabic construction.

We ended our wander with a delicious Menu Diario lunch at an olde worlde looking restaurant next to the cathedral. Forn de la Canonja serves a three course lunch with bread, wine, water and coffee for just €12 per person and we had excellent food. I tried a couple of regional dishes, peas and artichokes as a starter and borage fritter for dessert, with a lightly cooked bacalao main course. Dave had pumpkin soup to start, grilled meats (cooked over a wood fire) for main and a nougat cheesecake for dessert. Together with efficient friendly service, we'd highly recommend Forn de a Canonja to anyone visiting Tortosa!

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

A week of water problems

Ferreteria La Placa, Ametlla de Mar 
Our Bailey Orion caravan is generally reliable and we have been mostly very pleased with it over the past three and a half years. However living in it for over two years during that time does mean consumable parts wear out far sooner than they would do were we not using it so intensively. The water problems of my title were caused by wear to our Whale water pump. First up, the plug that pushes into the caravan inlet socket has been getting more and more difficult to connect recently and this turned out to be due to a little rubber o-ring having started to disintegrate. Removing said o-ring allowed us to fit the pump ... but resulted in water spraying out every time we ran the taps. Fortunately we have a bucket!

We had to leave it over the long weekend - the 6th of January is a public holiday here in Spain - but went into Ametlla de Mar yesterday where Dave had located Ferreteria La Placa. This shop was perfect. A proper old-fashioned hardware store where we could buy individual o-rings in a couple of sizes, not have to stump up for a sealed bag of a hundred! The shopkeeper was helpful too, happy to spend far more time than our 40c purchase warranted!

Books from Ametlla Tourist Office 
While in Ametlla we also visited the Tourist Office and now have a folder of ten walking route maps, a large tourist map of the local area and two interesting books about Catalonia, all free! The magic phrase was '¿Tiene mapas de senderismo?' We celebrated with a two hour walk along a further section of the GR92 coastal path and back into town via its parallel cami.

Back at Bailey, super plumber Dave got the new o-ring fitted in almost no time at all and our water pump was once again both pumping and leak free! Until this morning when we woke up to find the pump's indicator light on but no sound and no water. FFS! Fortunately we already carry a spare Whale water pump and had established the tricky process of replacing the actual mechanism part when it previously failed on us at Vera two years ago. We even knew to keep a tiny paint brush cover and (eventually) found the safe place in which I had stashed it! Fingers crossed we will now have running water for many months to come!

I'll leave you with two relaxing scenes from our walk.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

How I choose a good indie author book

Image from Books Direct
This post was inspired by a great question I was asked by DubaiReader on Goodreads a couple of days ago. I started to type a quick reply, but soon realised my indie book choosing process isn't just a snap decision. I've tried to describe below how I think through choosing my books and I'd love for other indie author readers to chip in their ideas too!

If you'd like some Indie book suggestions from me, I blogged my Top Ten for Indie Pride Day in July 2016. You can also see all the Indie books that have been reviewed on Literary Flits and reviewed on Stephanie Jane.

DubaiReader said: "I'm fascinated by your preference for Indie authors and small presses. I also favour global literature, like you. However, I find Indie authors a bit daunting - how do you choose a good one? Often I'm put off by Indie covers too. For obvious reasons they tend to be low budget, but do they have to be quite so obviously Indie? Interested in your thoughts."

Squashed Possums
by Jonathan Tindale
I am lucky to now be offered a lot of review copies of books so my decision of which to read is often down to the initial message I receive. Good spelling and grammar are vitally important and I like to be directed to webspace where I can read reviews of the book in question or, for a brand new book, sample a couple of chapters before committing. Terrible prose in the message, synopsis or first chapter will definitely have me saying 'thanks, but no thanks'!

Other reviews probably have the greatest influence over my decision whether or not to accept a book, however I have learned to be suspicious of books with entirely 5 star reviews. No book is absolutely amazing to everyone so I tend to take more notice of the words used than the rating itself. Seeing a good review by an author whose work I have enjoyed is encouraging as I am likely to appreciate their taste in literature and the same goes for reviews by readers and bloggers whose opinions I respect. For this approach to indie (or any) book finding, Goodreads is a far better search tool than Amazon.

Gulag 101 by Nico Reznick 
When looking to buy books, or when I'm using sites like NetGalley, Smashwords or KindleScout, I approach the process differently. Other reviews are still a good pointer, but they are not always available so I have a couple of rules that generally work for me.
Ever since the Stieg Larsson trilogy and Gone Girl I tend to automatically avoid anything with Girl in the title, especially where similar fonts are used! I steer clear of books claiming to be 'just like' some other book too. If Book B is basically a rehash of Book A, why bother with it? I don't want to read the same story over and over again. Where's the fun in that?!
Generic genre covers are a good avoidance indicator for precisely that reason. If it looks like Mills And Boon romance or fashionista chick-lit, military science fiction, gruesome horror or Game Of Bloody Thrones I click away! There are too many formulaic stories in these genres for my tastes although I accept this is a very personal decision.

My favourite category is usually Literary Fiction and I find the vast majority of my good and great indie books here although I also look through memoirs and poetry. Authors who consider themselves literary tend to take pride in writing stylishly and seem to explore more unusual themes and settings. I am getting to know certain small presses - Guernica Editions, Crime Wave Press - that I know I can trust to put out good books, otherwise I look out for interesting artwork and synopses. Non-English looking names always grab my attention as I love to read global literature. Many turn out to be American, but as the internet becomes more widely available internationally I am finding a higher proportion of global books too. I am limited by my language as I only read fluently in English. Indie authors generally can't afford to have their work translated, however smaller publishers like Gallic Books and Aardvark Bureau offer a good variety of lesser known works.

An Ishmael Of Syria
by Asaad Almohammad
I am swayed by cringingly amateur book covers and think the off-putting effect is usually down to how the text is displayed rather than the image used. Elegant or classic fonts in neutral colours can look classy. Vivid orange Comic Sans does not! The cover doesn't have to look professionally created to catch my eye, but it does need to have a pleasing aesthetic. I can overlook amateur cover art if I think the author and I might have similar tastes.

Trawling thousands of indie author and small press books to find the gems is a real labour of love. I probably read one for every twenty I seriously considered and still then end up with occasional Did Not Finish books. Self-publishing is wonderful in that it does enable amazing books to potentially find an audience, but it must be even more frustrating to be one author trying to be seen through the dross than it is to be a reader trying to find one good book!

If you have read a good indie book, please help the rest of us find it by writing a quick (or long) review. I am happy to publish Guest Reviews of Indie, Small Press and Global Literature over on Literary Flits so do get in touch. My best contact methods are via Goodreadsmy Facebook page or Twitter.

The Lovely Brush by Heather Awad 

Saturday, 7 January 2017

On the Catalan coast at Ametlla de Mar

Rocky coast near Ametlla de Mar 
We've moved again! Having been fairly static last winter with two campsites accounting for over three months of our winter, this season we are struggling to stay put anywhere for long. Perhaps our current halt, Camping Ametlla just outside Ametlla de Mar will be the answer?

A reasonably priced campsite, we are paying €15 per night here with our ACSI card and this includes electricity. Camping Ametlla has long-stay discounts too so staying 7 nights will mean we only pay for 6, stay 14 pay for 11, and stay 30 pay for 21! The wifi is good and just €5 a week, and we have a good shower block with excellent facilities, hot water throughout and the heating is on! So that's Dave almost happy! We have a large pitch with warm sun in the afternoons although it is often breezy up here. There is a little shop in reception and a few shelves of books to swap although most are in Dutch or Spanish! The supermarket and restaurant are closed at this time of year, but Ametlla de Mar has shops and bars.

View from the GR92 coastal path 
We almost had a disaster on arrival as the roads here are being rebuilt to provide easier access to the campsite. When confronted with an unexpected fork, we stayed on the tarmac road when, it soon turned out, we should have taken what looked like rough access to a building site! Fortunately we realised our error within a few dozen yards, but had to unhitch in order to turn around and retrace our route! If you come to Camping Ametlla, when the road peters out continue straight on over the 'dam'. (That will make sense when you see it!) Walking around later, we discovered that we could have carried on our downhill diversion, but this would have necessitated a steep uphill bend to get to the campsite which I am not sure our car would have managed whilst towing. Phew!

The big attraction for us here is the proximity of the GR92 coastal path and the Ebro delta. We encountered the GR92 last year when walking from Pratdip and have now completed a few more kilometres of it by walking into Ametlla village along its route on Thursday! The Ebro delta we believe will be good for cycling so we are looking forward to discovering its Via Verde routes in the near future!

Rocks 'glowing' in the sunset