Final months in the Mediterranean: Barcelona and the Costa Brava

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Electrical storms – when observed from the safety of your balcony or through windows and behind solid walls – are an awe-inspiring spectacle. Though traversing a lumpy sea in the notorious Gulf de Leon, 25-knot winds blowing out of the inky darkness; exhilaration rockets to a new level when encircled by storms throwing charged bolts to the ocean surface or splintering across the night sky. Momentarily illuminating our surroundings, the thick blue-white lightning was so intense its image burnt into my retinas long after it had disappeared. For me, exhilaration was mixed with a tinge of fear.

Departing near Toulon on the French south coast, we’d been sailing a beam reach for 14 hours and covering a steady seven to eight nautical miles per hour.  A few hours away from making landfall – with wind continuing to increase and two reefs in the mainsail – weather sucking into a nearby storm began pushing us too far north and off course. Mike and I were on watch, so we woke Dad who quickly decided to drop the sails and turn south. Parallel to the coast, we headed into the oncoming swell and wind just before gusts reached the mid to high 30-knot range.

Living under a 60-foot aluminium mast on a vast empty ocean is guaranteed to make you feel vulnerable. Despite Dad’s reassurances of earthing plates in the boat – in the highly unlikely event should our mast take a direct hit – fried electrical equipment would regardless be a huge inconvenience when awaiting multiple replacement electronics (all be it, courtesy of insurance).

At 4:00 am, after skirting around several spectacular lightning displays, we reached the protected harbour of Cadaques on Spain’s Costa Brava. It would be the start of an electric charged visit. Since arriving to Spain we’ve witnessed dozens of storms pass around us or directly overhead – some so close thunder would reverberate throughout the boat. Fortunately, in that time I’ve eventually come to accept and admire the regular spectacle of Mother Nature at her angry best.

Spain’s northern Mediterranean Coast is known as the Costa Brava – literally translating to ‘wild’ or ‘rugged’. Compared to the overdeveloped costas further south, its dramatic rocky shore is largely unspoilt. The craggy coast is pockmarked with picturesque calas (coves) providing numerous inviting anchorages. As such, this span of coastline is more appealing to the cruising yachtie than long exposed beaches to the south where marinas provide the only decent shelter.

A charming Spanish village, Cadaques’ rendered whitewash buildings spilled around a natural harbour brimming with local fishing boats. Its grey pebble beaches crammed with French weekenders from across the boarder, soaking up intermittent sunshine that filtered through the clouds. Immortalised in bronze on its foreshore, Cadaques is justifiably proud of its former resident – quirky and controversial artist Salvador Dali. On our first night in Spain, over a casual seaside dinner, we wasted no time acquainting with national specialties of tapas share plates and sangria!

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Further south along the Costa Brava lies the charming village of Llafranc. In the wide bay, dozens of local menorquina fishing boats hung off laid moorings, which for us, made anchoring options limited. Sheltered by lush forested headlands on either side, tamarisk pines fringed a pretty beach awash with a kaleidoscope of colourful beach towels and sun umbrellas. Preserving its fishing heritage, the eastern end of the beach was a functional parking lot of gaff-rigged boats both in the crystal-clear waters or winched onto the beach and chocked on wooden slats.

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We’d been anchored off the breakwater to Llafranc’s tiny boat harbour just a few hours when I noticed the red dive boat conducting an introductory dive course in the shallows beside us was flying a small, faded Australian flag. Within minutes the dive boat tender pulled up at our stern and a familiar accent greeted us with a warm welcome: “you’re a long way from home!” Originating from Cronulla, south of Sydney, Mark first came to Europe 17 years ago to work a ski season for a UK-based company, which turned into a summer season for the same company working at a busy Llafranc campground. It was there in his early 20s he met Mim, a beautiful Dutch-Spanish local whose family operated Triton Diving. Way back then Mim’s loveable dad Emilio first taught Mark to dive and today he and Mim have two gorgeous children (Mark’s nine-year-old son already speaks four languages) and help to run the family’s thriving business.

Standing in the tender while telling us his story: “I’ve got the wife, two kids, dog, a mortgage… and the problems,” Mark joked with a cheeky no-worries Aussie grin. I can wholly relate to the unexpected yet wonderful path one’s life can take when finding love on the other side of the world. And after spending a few days with Mark, his family and staff at the Triton Diving den, there’s no doubt fate has handed him the priceless pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Llafranc-2Triton Diving, Llafranc

Mim’s parents moved to Llafranc from Barcelona when she was a young girl and what originally started as an air-filling station, has in 35 years grown to a prosperous and popular dive operation and school. While they are open year round, peak season is just three months long. In the summer months – when the team each take only a half-day off per week – they average an impressive 100 divers per day across 8 – 10 boat excursions, up to as many as 150 people on a busy day that includes a night dive. We witnessed the well-oiled machine in full swing when taking the opportunity to join a couple of Triton’s dive trips.

Triton Diving, LaFranc

It was after dark as I walked barefoot towards the port. Dodging amongst romantic candle-lit restaurants lining Llfaranc’s waterfront boulevard, I felt strangely out of place wearing a wetsuit and carrying fins and mask. It would be Mike and my first night dive – and many years since Dad’s previous – and we couldn’t have been in better hands. After a quick lesson prior from Mim on use of the torch and underwater signals in the dark, Mark suggested we enter the water as quickly as possible as “those first in the water have the best dive.” In the lead up I was both excited and anxious. Breathing underwater felt foreign enough without the added dimension of obscurity. Rolling off the boat and descending into the darkness, the feeling of calm was instant and overwhelming. Explicitly more intense than a regular daytime dive, my senses were heightened, every movement defined and relaxed. Mark quickly and expertly guided us to a rocky crevice in the reef that once torch lit was an astonishing hive of life. It’s true when they say another world exists below the waterline, and it had never before felt more so than that moment.

When night diving your focus is narrowed to the area cocooned in light. Beady orange eyes reflected from cracks in the rock as spiny lobsters stood to attention. Mark’s sharp eye spotted delicate horned nudibranches, while red scorpionfish froze hoping to go undetected and a curious octopus slinked out of its hole. We floated alongside a one-metre long dentex fish snoozing in a hollow; shortly afterwards a transparent cleaning prawn scuttled backwards onto Mark’s extended hand. As we watched on wide-eyed, a moray eel slithered sideways along a narrow fissure before startling a tiny fish that squirted upwards in fright. At a distance in the darkness I could see beams of torchlight and the illuminated faces of other divers as they peered attentively into holes and rock crevices. It was otherworldly yet euphoric and I didn’t want the dive to end. As instructed, on ascending up the anchor chain we flicked off our torches and waved our hands profusely to be enveloped in the green glow of phosphorescence. The entire experience was extraordinary and it was easy to understand Mark’s comment that “we have several people who will only dive with us at night.”

We were stoked to time our visit perfectly to join Triton’s annual night dive and cocktail party – punch and nibbles back at the diving den with an animated crew still buzzing from the dive. Apart from the three of us – Mark and another British diver were the only native English-speakers amongst the mixed group of Spanish, French, German and Dutch (owner Emilio himself speaks an astounding eight languages). Mark gushed: “That’s what I love about this. There are half a dozen languages being spoken here. But we’ve shared the experience and there are no barriers. Everyone is talking about their dive… it’s a common bond.”

Thanks to our chance meeting with Mark, we fell in love with Llafranc and experienced three of our best dives in the Med (he also pointed us in the direction of a 30-metre deep tugboat wreck at nearby Palamos on our way south). The gracious Triton team effortlessly treated us like family – we wish them well and hope they are now savouring some well-deserved downtime!

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A short, scenic walk around the headland from Llafranc brought us to the delightful Spanish resort town of Calella de Palafrugell. This had been one of my favourite stops on our 2006 road trip. And although an overcast sky resulted in less colourful umbrellas and bathers than I’d remembered, Calella’s numerous rocky inlets and sandy coves backed by whitewash buildings was postcard perfect.

Calella de PalafrugellCalella de Palafrugell, Costa Brava

Other notable stops along the coast were few and far between, as sadly much of the Spanish Mediterranean has long been overdeveloped and sucked of appeal (though obviously appealing to the cheap package tourist types). Tossa de Mar’s headland with medieval fortress and sprawling old town was a curious sight amongst the string of low-rise apartment blocks. Mid-summer its curved beach was jammed with visitors; at that time of year most appeared to be Russian and German. Google tells me in 2009, Aussie pop princess Kylie Minogue purchased a villa in Tossa with boyfriend Andres Velencoso who was born in the region.

Annoyingly, yet again swimming floats and a mooring buoy field for local boats rendered the anchorage useless for an overnight stay, so after a brief visit ashore we moved further south to Blanes.

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In our experience to date, we’ve found just two disadvantages to owning a catamaran: 1. we cannot sail as close to the wind as a monohull (‘tacking’ upwind is a painfully fruitless activity) and 2. the benefit of all that added living space means we take up two berths and hence pay 50 – 100% extra in marinas. This second point is rarely an issue as we choose to avoid marinas majority of the time. But nowhere else in the Mediterranean did we struggle to find protected anchorages than mainland Spain (northeast Sicily comes a close second).

On departing northern Costa Brava’s indented shoreline, often our only option was to tuck behind the extended breakwaters of various marinas along the coast. All the time ensuring not to obstruct the entrance or cross the long line of yellow swimming buoys that extended several hundred metres off the neighbouring beach. Apart from two uncomfortable nights in a gusty, wave-effected beach anchorage at Palamos, fortunately the weather had been relatively settled. Never before experienced until reaching Spain, some locals were so unwelcoming to visiting dinghies that numerous times we were told not to land. And on one occasion when ashore for several hours, staff at Marina Mataro attempted to impound our dinghy locking it up with heavy chain!

Speaking of dinghies… our faithful yet used and abused seven-year-old dinghy (below) was recently traded in for a light weight, aluminium-hulled Highfield RIB (at bottom) from a friendly marina-based dealer at Premier Marina. Seat inserts allow for a civilized forward facing, non-spray ride, and an overhaul of the original 20hp Honda outboard’s carburettor has her firing as good as new. With the reduced weight she climbs on plane effortlessly and Dad is often heard exclaiming: “boy, I looooove this dinghy!”

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Barcelona is one of Europe’s great cities. A beguiling balance of old versus new, the Catalonian capital is Spain’s most progressive metropolis. Avenues lined with gothic architecture are converted to lively boutique shopping and café bar districts. Intermingled with quirky art installations, tapas bars, inviting palm-lined squares and boulevards, creative street buskers and modern waterfront re-developments.

The city’s flat and mostly grid-like streets make exploring on foot a breeze. A few blocks away from bustling La Rambla and other key tourist arteries, wide and leafy inner-city suburban streets are clean, cycle-friendly and unexpectedly peaceful; their shade offering respite from the midday swelter.

With the boat safely moored in Premier Marina for five nights – sharing a pontoon with THREE other Australian-flagged Lagoon catamarans* – we took the overland train into Barcelona on a number of occasions to explore.

*Gladstone friends Viv and Frank’s 44’ Lagoon Dominos is currently wintering afloat at Premier Marina, alongside a 52’ Lagoon registered in Sydney. Also at Premier – over dinner and story swapping we got to know kind-hearted Craig from the Gold Coast; sadly a recent widower and we wish him well on the long journey taking his 42’ lady Lomana home to Oz.

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Barcelona’s re-developed waterfront, sparkling city beaches, atmospheric Barri Gotic (gothic quarter) and the colourfully hectic de la Boqueria markets should not be missed, along with one of Spain’s cultural icons – Antoni Gaudi’s fascinating La Sagrada Familia.

The artist’s architectural influences can be felt all over the city, though nothing rivals the grandeur of Gaudi’s gaudy cathedral. Commissioned in 1882, his vision for La Sagrada Familia has been under construction for more than 100 years. Attesting his dedication to this his boldest works, when Gaudi passed in 1926 (sadly being hit by a tram) he was buried under his masterpiece inside a crypt. Today, a skyline dominated by towering yellow cranes, copious scaffolding and mosaics shrouded for protection detracts from the setting and photo snapping. And judging by plans to erect an additional 10 spires (bringing the total to 18), one might think the anticipated 2020 – 2040 completion date were ambitious.

We finally made it out to La Sagrada on what would be Mike and my third visit to Barcelona, though were ignorantly unprepared for the entry line up. Unwilling to wait 1.5 – 2 hours in the heat, only to joins the throngs inside the building; we were content to observe the eccentric place of worship by walking around the entire city block. Gaudi’s own dark and ghostly Nativity Façade was particularly haunting. In all my encounters, the only House of God more obscure would be Czech Republic’s Sedlec Ossuary “Church of Bones”. I can only imagine the further peculiarities inside the cathedral, and should you happen to visit in peak season I highly recommend pre-purchasing your tickets from this website and arriving well before the doors open.

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Another display of Gaudi’s love of mosaics, fantasy-inducing lines and gingerbread house-style architecture can be found several kilometres from the city centre at rambling Park Guell. Lose yourself for hours along disorientating pathways that snake throughout the expansive hilltop parklands – worthy for uninterrupted city and sea views if nothing else.

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This being Mike and my third visit to Barcelona, we first took the following photo in 2001, recreated again in 2006 and now 2014. Standing under the mirrored entrance to harbour-side shopping plaza Maremagnum – this time around we had company!

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Mike fulfilled his dream to attend a European football (soccer) match with tickets to the season opener at FC Barcelona’s famous Nou Camp Stadium. I naively anticipated a rowdy, hooligan atmosphere and second-guessed if it were a smart idea to carry my DSLR camera. Though with an alcohol-free stadium and cordial hand clapping for either team throughout the match, the crowd was civilized, jovial and notably more behaved than those often encountered at Aussie spectator sports. FC Barcelona comfortably took the win over FC Elche (3 – nil). Nou Camp Stadium was steep and staggering; our elevated mid-field seats providing the perfect vantage point to admire World Cup star Lionel Messi’s fancy footwork, alongside big names such as Iniesta, Xavi and Suarez (Neymar sidelined with injury). We squeezed in like sardines on the subway trip home, and overall a highly entertaining night out away from the boat.

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Few stretches of the Spanish Mediterranean coast have escaped extensive development – particularly the sprawl of holiday apartments. Though intermittent areas that remain untouched are raw and dramatic.

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Our second to last stop on the coast, before stepping off to the Balearic Islands, was Peniscola. An unfortunate name depending on how you pronounce it, anchored in the lee of a 14th century Knights Templar castle grandly constructed on a promontory was a delightful setting. Encircling the foot of the castle, a tight cluster of buildings and homes were interwoven with a spider web of narrow streets and souvenir stores. By night, Peniscola’s old town was alive with Spanish visitors and bustling tapas bars that spilled along the cobblestone laneways.

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It was at Peniscola we celebrated Mum’s birthday – the first of four crew birthdays in a two-month period – with a tasty hot breakfast and dinner feast of local seafood prepared on board. Happy Birthday Pammy!

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After four weeks cruising Spain’s northern Mediterranean coast (Llafranc and Barcelona the highlights) we were eager to head out to the Balearic Islands – and onto one of the western Med’s premier cruising grounds. Setting out under engine power, the southerly wind slowly increased through the day for sailing. It peaked at 25 knots during the early morning hours as we approached Mallorca’s dramatic moonlit Tramontana Range; where after 18 hours on the water we dropped anchor at 3:30 am and settled down for some Zzzzzzzss.

Well now my blog updates are officially the furthest behind they’ve ever been…! Hoping to dedicate more time and catch up over the next week as we mission past the largely uninspiring Costa Blanca and Costa del Sol en route to the rock that is Gibraltar. With that said, our time to farewell the Mediterranean Sea is near.

Until next time, adios amigos!

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