Showing posts with label europe. Show all posts
Showing posts with label europe. Show all posts

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Tossa de Mar: a Mediterranean gem

Toss de Mar, Costa Brava

Tossa de Mar rekindled my faith in the Mediterranean. For many years I had been despairing as the towns and villages around this tremendous sea were gradually being consumed by blandness. That gradual but powerful neutering that overwhelms individuality and turns each beach resort into an identikit duplication of each other.

Towns that had character now morphed indistinguishably into one another; travel brochures highlight the same attractions of sandy beaches, vibrant nightlife and endless sunshine. One resort becomes another.

There are, of course, exceptions, after all, the Mediterranean is a large sea. However, they become harder to find, and more difficult to reach. And then there is Tossa. I don’t usually try to write “puff pieces”, but having spent a little time in the town, I can’t really resist.

Tossa de Mar is a small Catalan community lying in the middle of the Costa Brava some 100 kms to the north of Barcelona. It is, in short, accessible and lying within one of the most popular tourist regions in Europe. It has, however, retained its soul. Its growth has been obstructed by geography, tradition and the strength of the local community to direct the town’s future.

Tossa's 12th century castle
Tossa is old. There are Roman ruins, and ample evidence of an active community here some 2,000 years ago, but the dominant and irresistible historical authority comes from the picturesque and poised castle that overlooks the town. Built in the 12th century, this magnificent castle grew to encompass a medieval town, now sympathetically restored to its 14th century appearance. As the local population grew in the 15th and 16th century, houses popped up outside the castle, and the community of Tossa emerged into the pattern it shows today. Small winding streets creep around the bay and offer tourists a glimpse into the soul of the past.

The front street has, of course, restaurants, but the buildings, including the hotels date back to the 1950s and beyond; the temptation to knock them down and replace them with a shiny new hotel or “tourist complex” has been resisted, and Tossa is all the better off for it.

Tossa de Mar - Street scenes

There are many places to stay; mostly small, family hotels, and the Hotel Tarull is a fabulous example. The property, built in the 1950s is run by Lluis Soler Capdevila and his delightful wife Meri. Lluis is a third-generation hotelier, and it shows. His attention to detail and to the whims, needs and interests of his guests is remarkable. New guests are presented with a map of the town with his restaurant suggestions already hand written, along with notes of supermarkets and other interesting spots. His choices of places to eat were formidable, and the variety and quality of food available in this small community is surprising.

Too often beach-resort restaurants offset a fine view with mediocre food; menus that offer identical choice, often frozen and served with little enthusiasm but great expense. To be sure, these types of mountebanks exist in Tossa as well, but there are gems. Casa Igor, run by a Michelin star chef, Simó Tomàs Vallvé who retired from the pressure of Barcelona to run a small, twenty cover restaurant here, is simply fabulous. The combination of local ingredients, a small menu and an enormous imagination is an extraordinary find.

Another Tossa institution is the Restaurant Bahia; located on the front, and at first indistinguishable from it less memorable neighbours, this third-generation family restaurant is quite simply a wonderful place to eat. Their food is well cooked, well presented, most agreeably served and quite imaginative. The stream of regulars is a testament to their place in Tossa, and any visitor eating there finds a sense of what Tossa means to its people.

And there are about 6,000 of them; fewer in the winter months and more in the summer, but about 6,000 overall. Proud Catalans with the sense of confidence and dignity that a millennia of history will cultivate. It is a community of ancient traditions like the annual forty-kilometer pilgrimage el Vot del Poble undertaken each year since the 1400s to give thanks for delivering Tossa from the scourges of the Bubonic Plague.

Tossa de Mar is a town that knows its history and can see its future. It is a town that seems to have managed to find the elusive balance of tourism today, that point between the needs and interests of the local community and the desires and expectations of their visitors. It is a community that has earned the respect of its tourists, and one that will certainly delight new visitors for many years to come.

I love Tossa!

Monday, August 9, 2010

Why I (sort of) like Ryanair

Folks love to ridicule Ryanair, but by the millions squeeze themselves into their seats and endure a flight chock-full of sales pitches for lottery tickets, smokeless cigarettes and truly disgusting sandwiches.

However, and here is the rub, they carry tons of folks around; more than British Airways, many more than Air Canada and for remarkably low fares. We flew from Carcassonne to London and back a couple of days ago for $140 each, including $10 for priority boarding, a very well-spent tenner.

Nobody could ever describe Ryanair as being customer-friendly, but then again London Transport isn’t either, the CTA in Chicago most certainly is not. And in either case, one can spend as much time in the process of getting from A to B, with no pretence at comfort, style or ambience. Actually, I have spent more on a tube journey in London than a Ryanair flight; it costs £4.15 for a one-way ticket from Heathrow to London (unless one gets an Oyster Card), and last September I flew from Carcassonne to Bournemouth for €5, all-in.

Ryanair make no pretence at meeting images of air travel conjured up by the improbable advertising of the major airlines; they are efficient, to a point of brutality. They pay airports pretty well the absolute minimum revenue required to operate, and certainly insufficient for any expenditure on comfy seats for their passengers to use; these small Ryanairports (sic) are reminiscent of aging public swimming pools, with instituitonal paint, spartan seating and elderly vending machines offering dizzying weak coffee or tea. Upon return from London, the incoming aircraft in London, and I was amazed to see them turn it around, disembarking 180 passengers, boarding another 180 (without seat selection or jetway-boarding) in 30 minutes, and away we went.

180 passengers to Carcassonne! And three hours later, there would be another 180. Where on earth do 360 passengers each day come from who want to travel to Carcassonne? Beats me, but they do. As they do on every other route that this remarkable airline serves at rock-bottom prices.

And it is the prices that do it; low, low low they are, but are they too low? They really are a perfect mirror of society’s contemporary problem of wanting salaries and lifestyles on a personal level that are impossible without relying on Chinese or Ryanair labour rates.

Ryanair staff, with few exceptions, can’t buy houses, cars and an increasing lifestyle on the salaries that are paid, and without those salary levels, fares would rise to a point that the seats would empty. It really doesn’t bode well for the future. British Airways current dispute centres on this paradox; the desire to be paid a living wage in terms of the country in which one lives, being pressured by salaries and operating costs from the world’s lowest-cost regions.

And one other thing; I thought that Ryanair’s seats were disgracefully small, and decided to grumble about this, but accept that it was part of the cost of the low price; however, a quick look at the comprehensive seat-chart-web-site Seat Guru tells that Ryanair’s seats are 17” wide with a 30” pitch. Tight, but EasyJet are 18”/29”, WestJet offer 17”/32”, Delta’s are configured at 17”/32” and by way of contrast, the much vaunted Malaysia Airlines offer identical space on their B737 fleet of 17”/30”.

Size does matter.