Thursday, April 17, 2014

Barcelona / La Tour de Carol: The Train That Doesn't Exist

Let me be the first to reiterate powerfully that I love trains; I would also hasten to add that since a peculiar childhood, influenced by a father who was totally enamoured by public transportation, I have collected, read, studied and loved timetables. It is a curious interest, perhaps, but no reason to move a couple of seats away from me in a waiting room.

There are many fine train rides, often collected in glossy coffee table books, labouring under a title like “The Greatest Train Rides in the World”, or some such other similar title; many are terrific, many are simply there because the author scored a free ticket to travel on the train and include it in their catalogue, some are simply ordinary, but take place in a strange part of the world.

They are all mildly exciting. Few, however, are part of a major European city’s regional suburban system, and are thus not always so easy to find. Having told friends about the run down the mountains into Barcelona, they asked at local stations to astonished disbelief, "There is no such train" they were told, but I knew better. 

The run from  La Tour de Carol, an unusual town lying astride the Spanish and French border at an altitude of about 1,400 metres down to Barcelona is a fine journey, and starts at the evocative and rather marvellous station, large for its current, rather dozy existence, but in days gone by, a busy centre of smuggling between the two countries. Smuggling of people, northbound from Franco’s ghastly regime and southbound from pursuing Nazis, of goods, mostly of an alcoholic nature and the rather pungent Spanish tobacco, was the mainstay of the local economy. And the station, sitting pompously on the border reflected the authorities’ attempts to subdue or at least profit from this trade.

It is also where everybody changes trains; railway tracks in Spain are 5’5 ²¹̷₃₂” wide, while their French counterparts make their railways travel over tracks that are a mere 4’8 ½”. Now the discrepancy of just over 9” makes travel cumbersome, not to mention dangerous if attempted. If you think that this is all a bit unnecessary, know that in Spain alone, four different gauges of railways exist in the country, this one being called the Ancho Iberico, if you were wondering.

We, however, only wanted a scenic railway ride, and fortified with a marvellous lunch at the Auberge Catalane (opens daily at noon for lunch), we were in time for the 1345 train to Barcelona. The train is not a normal one, and is awkward to find details of its running. It is, in fact, part of the Rodalies de Catalunya (route R3), and thus wobbles its suburban way for three hours down through the mountains to the coast.

The journey is terrific; there are 22 stations on the way, and for the first ninety minutes or so, they are picturesque Catalan hill stations, the train populated by market goers and hordes of hikers and bikers back from the mountains. The Pyrenees are truly stunning; unlike the Alps, Rockies and even the Great Caucasus, they have an almost human shape; rising up to 4,000 metres, that assume dizzying heights in a formation that seems to bend with the wind. They are beautiful, and in common with other distant and remote ranges are home to dozens of ancient cultures and languages, some living in adjacent valleys for millennia, yet with mutually incomprehensible lives.

The train journey is more than worth the €12 that one is charged for the privilege, and once in Barcelona, there are a choice of five different stations to alight, suiting all but the most persnickety. Our aim was to enjoy some tapas, wander the unique streets of the city and enjoy dinner at the Catalan restaurant El Glop in the district of Gracia.

Barcelona is an astonishing city; it is one that I believe could be detected if blindfold. Its streets follow a unique pattern of hexagonal corners, and the ambient noise of the city comes from the thousands of scooters that whizz around all day and all night. It is an exciting city for those who wait. Dinner time is, in the Spanish way, from 9.00pm onward, and arriving at midnight, on a Tuesday or Wednesday is not at all uncommon.

Dinner was wonderful, and a rabbit and some ox-tail stew washed down with a very pleasant Tempranillo seemed to sooth the soul.

A walk back through the town looking at its collection of eclectic and gripping architectural masterpieces, the Sagrada Familia, the Bullring, the Arc de Triomf and the superb (at night) Agbar building were all on the way to the hotel, was a fine end to the day.

And so to the hills in the morning; an hours’ walk to the train station to catch the return journey to La Tour de Carol (in Barcelona called La Tor de Querol) proved uneventful; other than the small matter of purchasing the tickets.

Although the train heads to La Tour de Carol, and indeed says so on the front, the ticketing office will only sell a ticket as far as Puicgerdá (pronounced Poo-chair-DA); and should one want to use a credit card, then the ticket office was of no use at all, and a machine had to be brought to attention and made to dispense the tickets. I am not sure why the Rodalies Catalunya pretend that the final station on their route does not exist, perhaps it is because it is in France, but needless to say, after a little confusion, a ticket was bought, the train boarded and the three-hour haul up the mountains commenced.

And let me say that the return journey was spectacular. While the southbound trip was wonderful, heading into the mountains gave one a sense of spectacle; they loomed ever closer, the population on the train thinned out, the stations became more rural and finally, almost poetically, we jumped into the scenery; Secret meadows far below us, cascading waterfalls of spring run-off thundering into the rivers, tiny and ancient houses perched precariously on the hills and the ruins of ancient fortifications punctuating the skyline. Terrific stuff, and when the six-carriage train pulled into La Tour (each carriage could carry up to 203 passengers, 58 seated, for a total potential passenger capacity of 1218), only 12 of us got off.

The lucky ones.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

A Wine Festival; your correspondent starts licking his lips ...

I realise that I have a lifestyle that borders on the unusual, and for that I am grateful. I am able to wander, see odd and disparate places, meet fascinating people and gather a treasure trove of useless facts with which I can pepper conversation for months.

March 2014, however, has been exceptional.

It has been a month of flying, North Korea, a stamp auction in Hong Kong and a day in Macau, selling a flat in London, a wine conference and speed tasting in Tbilisi and now a few days of rest in the South of France before the annual onslaught of the local Toques et Clochers festival.

Firstly, a word about the festival; imagine if you will, a small village of (perhaps) 450 souls playing host to a crowd of up to 30,000 for a day of celebration, duck sandwiches and wine. Copious amounts of wine, I might add, not just a child’s portion; enough to make some of the hill-folk loose all inhibitions about playing instruments that look suspiciously like Scooped Out Sheep in public.

The celebration is an annual event, and villages throughout the region that supplies the major winery Sieur d'Arques. Villages bid for the right to host the annual festival in a manner not unlike the competitions to host the World Cup or the Olympics, however with significantly smaller budgets. The winner will then have a couple of years to raise funds, establish numerous committees, create special weather prayers and wait for the event.

On the day itself, thousands of visitors, almost all of whom are local, will purchase a glass (€5), some tokens for wine (€2/glass and €10/bottle), and then head off into the madding crowd. Wine stalls selling their wares are everywhere, as are musicians, folks selling duck sandwiches and oysters, jugglers, drummers and thousands of folk. Knee-deep in wine, with laughter rising perceptibly in volume as the afternoon progresses but rarely a smashing glass and never a fight the event continues until the early hours of the morning.


It is impossible to imagine rivers-full of alcohol, glasses and thousands of people in the UK, for example, without conjuring up images of horror, but here in the Languedoc, the festival is charming, well organised, exceptionally amusing and held on the weekend before Easter each year. Make a note in your diaries.

It is, my friend Hubert says, the largest tourist event that isn't a tourist event that he has ever seen. And as a former CEO of a provincial tourist department for decades, he should know.

But then again, if Peter Mayle had written a book called A Year in the Languedoc, the economy of the south of France would be completely different. The region, known but unknown, is delightful. The centre of the Cathar religion in the 10th to 12th centuries, it still harbours mysteries and intrigue among devotees of mystery and intrigue! The Cathars, the Holy Grail, Mary’s escape from the Holy Land, The da Vinci Code, all mixed up with wine, fine food, delightful scenery and not a little story telling.

And so the festival, as far from Pyongyang as I can imagine, starts in four days. It is said in these parts that Don Perignon discovered his wine-making secrets here before moving to Champagne where they figured out how to bottle the stuff without it blowing up. Fanciful, I imagine, and probably as truthful as the DPRK’s Concrete Wall, but there you go, it is a good story. Nostradamus himself was supposed to have dwelt in a nearby village, but a little prodding of the museum’s curator, and a rather wistful comment of “Well, he might have stayed the night in the village once” comes a touch closer to the truth.

Sometimes it can all become overwhelming

However, it is true that the production of wine is no stranger to these parts.

Livy was recorded as trading non-sparkling wines with the Romans, and the first references to “Blanquette”, or “Small White”, came from the Benedictine Monks who made the first sparkling wines here in 1531. The other white grape of some substantial use here is Mauzac, which along with Chardonnay and Pinot are the grapes from which the delicious local Crement de Limoux is made.

All grist to the mill, and worthy of examination.

It is, perhaps, worth relating a little story about wine sales, and one that perhaps illuminates a great fiction of the world of mega-wine.

For several years, the Limoux winery Sieur d’Arques exported tankers-full of Pinot Noir to Gallo in the US, who sold this far and wide under the Red Bicyclette label. So popular was this concoction that new warehouses were built, and for all I know, special docking facilities for the ever-larger tankers racing this popular brew from the south of France to the US of A.

All was well until a sharp-eyed accountant pointed out that they were in fact selling to Gallo alone, approximately 200% of the annual output of Pinot Noir grapes. Now interestingly, during this period, not a single customer, nor a single Gallo executive or wine taster, questioned the adulteration of their potion by the addition of the cheaper Merlot grape. A small fine was levied discreetly, one would not want this sort of scandal to hit the front pages, Red Bicyclette was relabelled and presumably launched to new heights.

Curious things, palates.

Friday, April 4, 2014

A Wine Tourism Conference; your correspondent reports.

I try not to be silent for so many days, but honestly, a combination of Georgian hospitality and the fascinating people of the International Wine Conference have led to a temporary paralysis; one that I am happy to relate is now over, and I am ready to report.

It was the second conference that I have attended of the wine genre, and I can think of no good reason for having delayed participation in this astonishing industry for so many years. Wine folks are different; interesting, convivial and enthusiastic, albeit with a curious vocabulary, their deep interest into a subject that hitherto I have found merely engaging is motivating.

Wine Tourism is fun!

Wine conferences are fun; it is as simple as that. They are not related in any way to the dreary commercial gatherings held in grey motorway hotels, where hundreds of earnest folks gather to discuss the latest trends in snap-on technology or advanced metallurgical gains in beading. They are the jovial end of the business-meeting spectrum, and require more convivial surroundings for their deliberations.

And do not think for one minute that the discussions are frivolous; no, these are folks, deadly serious about their trade mind you, who gather to “enjoy”; their purpose is to find new and exciting grape varieties, nouveau-Wineries, debunk myths and enjoy a glass or two. Add to these darlings the niche-market of the travel industry specialising in culinary tourism and the result is quite magical.

Take Tim Clarke. A Larger Than Life character, and co-founder of the tremendously successful Arblaster & Clarke travel company, he wanders through life with an enormous grin matching his encyclopaedic knowledge of the subject. He is familiar with hundreds of wineries, their owners and products, the new trends in tourism and of course, can spot an indolent molecule of “leather or banana” in a glass of anything at one hundred metres. He is also an academic historian, and presented a paper to the conference about his role as a consultant to the Georgian government’s efforts to develop a wine-tourism industry; sadly, we competed for audience share, and I was unable to hear the speech, but have enjoyed reading it, and look forward to promoting their fine tourism programs to our clients.

John Wurdeman and Tim Clarke

Other papers delivered included such gems as “Wine as Culture. Case Study; Lazio”, “Chicken Soup for the Wine Tourist’s Soul” and “Using Sensory Analysis as Games for a Memorable Visit”. Real corkers, and held the audience in raptures.

There was, of course, a Grand Wine Tasting led by the delightful and astonishingly knowledgeable Master of Wine, Sarah Abbott whose acquaintance I had been fortunate to make a year or so ago on another wine beano in Georgia. She led us rapidly through eleven local wines, each delicious and each memorable (for a minute or two in my befuddled brain) that highlighted the diversity that epitomises the wine industry in this remarkable country.

Thus fortified, and by now knee-deep in wine, we boarded buses to go and drink more of the stuff. Three days spent in quite delightful and cosmopolitan company we struggled through eight marvellous wineries, including my personal favourite, the Alaverdi Monastery. These monks, and their predecessors obviously, have been making wine since 1011, a pedigree that is quite obvious in their production. They make wines that are simply outstanding and unfortunately rare. However, for those fortunate enough to make it to their home, which is itself a fantastic complex dating back to the beginning of time, the opportunity to taste their production is well worth the effort.

Needless to say, we ate well as well; Georgians are known for their tradition of feasting, and one can safely say that our hosts did not stint. Eating until the point of blowing-up is not a good habit for the long term, but over a couple of days, it seemed that over-indulgence became the norm. Tables groaning under the weight of the food, toasts, polyphonic singing, Georgian folk dancing and much laughter became the nightly norm. And as surely as day follows night, breakfasts while delicious, were considerably quieter.

And so one continues to wander in search of a crust; Gruelling Business Travel is an important part of a business life, and one has to say that the world of the culinary travel industry is not a bad gang to be a part of.