Monthly Archives: May 2010

COSTA BRAVA, SPAIN – lifestyles of the wet and famous

Girona - Old Town

‘What’s 2,330,000 euros in Aussie dollars?’ I want to know.
‘Around four million,’ answers Mevrouw T, without even pulling out the calculator.
‘Four million for a typical village terrace house, four dormitorios.’
‘Bedrooms. Looks ordinary from the outside. Must have nice bathroom taps.’

The showers are becoming heavier. It’s certainly not beach weather on Spain’s Costa Brava, so we’re relying on local real estate agents’ windows for alternative entertainment. Tourists who came here hoping for a quick tan are huddled in cafes and listlessly poking through souvenir shops.

If property prices are anything to go by, the Costa Brava still clings to its glamorous image as the playground of the beautiful people. In the 1950s and 60s film stars like Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and Ava Gardner partied in its luxury hotels. Salvador Dali was a local. Mevrouw remembers growing up in Amsterdam and being green with envy when other kids said they’d been on holidays to the Costa Brava.

Now the ‘Wild Coast’ is just over an hour’s drive or train ride north from Barcelona, and cheap Ryanair flights into Girona make the area accessible for us common folk. It’s worth the trip, even in the off-season. Even with the rain setting in.

Calella de Palafrugel

I wonder if Sophia Loren ever did as we’re doing, following the cliff path that leads from chic Llanfranc towards sleepy Calella de Palafrugel. If it was a day like this, let’s hope she was wearing her gumboots. The Costa Brava is a great place for walking, most of the time. The craggy topography makes it difficult and expensive to build high-rise monstrosities, so instead we have a chain of charming coastal villages, each on a little bay between rocky points. Villas perch on the cliffs, looking both pretty and expensive.

Another shower sweeps across the water towards us. In the village people are buying postcards of Calella de Palafrugel basking in bright sunshine, with colourful fishing boats drawn up on the beach and crowds of sun-worshippers spreadeagled on the sand. I take a close-up shot of the postcards, hoping that with a bit of judicious photoshopping, I could make the place look its sunny best.

It’s attractive enough anyway with its whitewashed buildings and arched porticos over the beachfront cafes, and the colourful fishing boats are still there, albeit with rain splashing into their colourful tarpaulins.

A poster in a shop window announces an artisans’ market on today, and a check of the map shows us it’s in a nearby town. The novelty of walking in the rain is wearing off, so we make a dash for the car and head inland. It’s appealing landscape; rolling hills, cork trees and olive groves surrounding smartly renovated farmhouses made of local stone.

But by the time we reach the market in the aptly named village of Torrent, the rain is steady, and water is gushing down the narrow cobbled streets. Soggy artisans are stretching plastic over displays of sausages and olive oil, and there are few customers. Maybe once Kirk Douglas and Montgomery Clift slipped into Torrent to buy sausages too.

We take refuge in the only cover in sight, the Museu de Confitures, and yes, it is indeed a museum of jam. We’d never have known we were so interested in jam if it hadn’t been for the rain, but there it is, pots of it, from all over the world, lining the shelves of Torrent’s major wet-weather attraction.

Other tourists who forgot their umbrellas are poring over wall charts detailing historic jam recipes (only the marmalade one is in English so we soon run out of reading material) and we can taste a range of sticky conserves, including coffee jam – an interesting flavour. Fortunately the friendly staff are also serving steaming cups of coffee-flavoured coffee. After a bracing brew we buy a jar of fig jam, scuttle through another shower, fumble for the car keys and drive on to Girona.

Girona is the capital of the region and a popular day trip out of Barcelona, and at first it’s hard to see the attraction. Sure it’s quiet and small, less than 100,000 people, but the outskirts are industrial and non-descript and near the centre of town there’s nowhere to park. Girona’s most recent celebrity resident probably didn’t have this problem. Lance Armstrong lived here while training for the Tour de France, and he probably did the shopping on the bike, even on wet days.

But once we leave the car and squelch into the narrow streets, Girona gets interesting. It’s a prosperous university town, with art galleries, jewellery shops and cosy cafes. The ancient cobbled laneways and intriguing staircases of the former Jewish area, the Call, have been beautifully preserved, and the story of mediaeval Jewry up until their expulsion from Spain in 1492 is told in a museum built on the site of an old synagogue.

Girona Cathedral stepsThe tower of the baroque cathedral is wreathed in scaffold for restoration, but we still have the energy to scale the 86 steps to the front door. Did Elizabeth Taylor ever climb up here? Probably Lance and the boys used to fang the bikes up and down the stairs just as a morning warm-up. We settle for the view out over wet Girona rooftops.

Along the River Onyar, the red and yellow buildings backing onto the water form one of the region’s most photographed scenes. I step out onto the bridge and take the obligatory snap, then wipe the rain off the lens and we move on in search of something warm to fill the belly.

River Onya, Girona

We round off our Costa Brava experience with a meal in Palamos. It’s not the most attractive town in the area, with apartment blocks and a busy road along the beachfront. However, we love the cheerful atmosphere at Cafe Baretu, and the black and white photos of old film stars on the walls set the tone.

The smoke takes us back to the fifties too. There’s a legal ban on smoking in Spanish bars and restaurants, though exemptions are made for those under 100m2. Consequently an awful lot of 99m2 establishments have sprung up. But the tapas and the cava, local sparkling wine, are excellent and we can reflect on a day well spent.

We hope to do it all again some time, just as soon as the weather improves.


Trains to Girona leave from Barcelona Sants station at least every hour. The trip takes 75 – 90minutes and costs 24 euros return.

Ryanair flights to Girona from London Luton Airport start at 9.99 euros (you’re kidding!?), excluding taxes (oh). Book early for the cheapest prices!

First published – Sun-Herald, Sydney


Filed under Travel

CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND – cycling the towpath

Along the Cam

We cyclists have often been grateful to the diggers of Europe’s canals. ‘All dug by hand,’ people keep telling us, but I bet they used spades as well. They’ve left us some wonderful places to ride the bikes. We just pedalled along the River Cam out of Cambridge, which claims to be England’s best cycling town, with cycle lanes on most roads, plenty of bike parking racks and best of all, patient drivers who probably ride bikes too.

Somebody else's problem...

The Cam is a natural waterway of course, but it’s been tamed with a system of locks and embankments to stop it spreading out over the fens and flooding people’s holiday homes. In the town, it is famous for punting, but we could quickly see that on a sunny weekend we wouldn’t have it to ourselves. On the banks we ran the gauntlet of students thrusting placards at anybody toting a camera or consulting a tourist map. ‘Finking of goin’ puntin’ while you’re here?’ (Nobody wants a toffy accent these days. Notice that Princes William and Harry speak more like rock stars than like royals of old.) We weren’t finking of puntin’, and if we had been, we would soon have been put off by the antics of the crowds of very merry young punters bumping each other into the water.

Bridge on the Cam

Instead we rented bikes and pedalled out of town. It was an easy option. Three gears were plenty. The towpath was well-maintained, simple to follow (”Just keep the river on your right””), well serviced with refreshment stops, and flat.

The waterway itself provided entertainment, in the form of narrowboats and locks, to take our minds off any discomfort in legs, lungs or rear ends. Back when barges were serious means of transport, the towpath may well have meant discomfort for those doing the towing. I remember a photo in a museum in Friesland showing a ‘skutje’ barge family at work. Mamma and the kids, ropes across their shoulders, walked the muddy towpath in the rain while Pappa did the steering from the captain’s cabin.

Those days are long gone. Now the ‘narrowboat’ barges have been converted into pleasure craft. Pubs have names like The Bridge,The Green Dragon and The Penny Ferry. Lock masters chat with skippers, and ride along with them for a while to open the next lock. Retired couples, usually with a dog perched on the deck beside them, lounge in the sun with the coffee cups. Their boat names tell the story; Croozy, The Fox, Fourth Time Lucky.

When we’ve had enough, we stop at the pub. “Waterbeach Chef and Brewer” sounds perfect. It’s a pub which seems to be in the middle of nowhere, but it’s packed with lunchtime diners and drinkers. The strollers of the mothers’ and babies’ club are choking the aisles.

The food is hearty, honest, heavy British fare. The decor is all heavy wooden beams, under which heavy honest British trenchermen tuck into heavy shepherd’s pies. We tell ourselves heavy British lasagne is just what we need, then pedal gently back to Cambridge. Recommended!

TRIP NOTES: Bike rental from Station Cycles costs GBP10 for 24 hours

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GIRO D’ITALIA SCOOP – my exclusive with Cadel

Cadel in pink, Giro Day 3

G’day from Amsterdam for the last time, Cadel.

It was great to finally meet you this morning, and I really enjoyed our little pre-race chat.

I feel that I’ve done all I can for you now, since you’re off to Italia tomorrow to continue the Giro and I can’t afford the plane ticket to come with you. But so far you’re doing very well, and I think you’ll be fine to take it on your own from here.

Yesterday the entire peloton flashed past my vantage point in Amsterdam in less than four seconds, but I quite understand. It’s hard to stop and talk when you’re in such a rush. So today I thought I’d go early to the start of the race and catch you when you had a bit more time on your hands.

It's not safe to leave your bike where any fool can touch it, Cadel.

I was shocked and surprised to arrive at Amsterdam Zuid station and find that your BMC bikes hadn’t been locked up. This is Amsterdam, Cadel, the bicycle theft capital of the universe! Nicking bikes and on-selling them is one of the city’s major economic activities. I saw you had a spare on top of a support car, but leaving your good bike unattended on the street is asking for trouble!

Here’s a picture of my anti-theft city bike. You’ll notice it has a big chain on it and a bolt lock through the rear wheel.

My bike, showing the correct way to park in Amsterdam

That Giro d’Italia souvenir bag is exactly what you need for keeping the saddle dry. It’s good value at 10 euros and you get a cap and t-shirt too. Also four Giro fridge magnets, a wrist bracelet and a ‘targa’ (not sure what that is, something Italian) – nine items in all. Did you buy yours yet, Cadel?

It was all go at the start of the Giro, stage 3. There were free pink drinks being handed out, which I think were a sort of fruit cocktail, synthetic guava juice perhaps. Quite nice anyway. Outside a special tent, people who looked more important than me were lining up for champagne and coffee.

I’m telling you all about this, Cadel, because even though you were there, you weren’t able to get out and enjoy it. You and the entire BMC team were sheltering in the big red bus, to avoid being swamped by the media I assume. It must be pretty squashy in there. No wonder they pick skinny little guys to be in the cycling team.

Lots of bald people wanted to meet you, Cadel.

But finally you all emerged, waved to the crowd in a friendly way, and when the scrum cleared to let you through we were able to have our little talk. This blog report is going out into cyberspace, where lots of avid followers of RT’s LOTR are waiting anxiously to find out what you and I chatted about. It was nothing of a particularly private or personal nature, so I hope you don’t mind my sharing it with my readers.

I took a close up shot of your pink jersey. Hope you don't mind.

The conversation started with your correspondent laying a friendly hand on C.E.’s shoulder, in the process coming into contact with the coveted pink jersey. From there, the conversation went something like…


CADEL EVANS: Thank you.

And thank you too, Cadel. It means a such lot to know I’m making a difference, and that all my efforts are appreciated.

Best of luck,


STOP PRESS: Cadel had a bit of trouble with the wind in Zeeland and lost some time on Day 3. It was fun, Nederland enjoyed it and so did I. Thanks for coming. Ciao!

Arrivederci, Giro.


Filed under Cycling, Holland, Sport, Travel- Europe

GIROMANIA, AMSTERDAM – The Giro d’Italia flashes past

G’day again Cadel,

I hope you got a good night’s sleep. Amsterdam has a lot of notorious distractions available to young visitors, but your manager probably gave you guys a curfew and suggested you stick to the drugs issued by the team doctor.

It’s been busy in town while the Giro is here. You may have noticed during the time trial yesterday that lots of the streets are shut to let you have a clear run. Amsterdam’s local cyclists have to carry their bikes (some of them very heavy ones) up the footbridges when they want to cross the road.

Amsterdam has been preparing for the Giro for months. A garbage strike was carefully timed for this week so the Dutch collectors could make their case for a pay rise. Some say they left the garbage there for the Giro to make normally spotless Amsterdam look more Italian, but I doubt that.

Mevrouw Tulloch and I rode our solid city bikes to Amsterdam’s Churchilllaan to see you pass today. The atmosphere in the crowd as we waited for you to arrive was electric, as you can imagine.

Then suddenly, there you were, Cadel! At least I think you were there, unless you slept in. It all happened too fast for me to pick you out, and within three seconds you were gone again.

I did manage to get a good look at your spare bikes today, though. Gee, you’ve got a lot of them! You’ll be pleased to know the car driver was being very careful, so they probably won’t fall off before they get to Utrecht, even if he hits a bump.

Yesterday a Dutch guy next to me said, ‘Dat is Evans, de Amerikaner’, so I soon put him right on that one. Tomorrow I’ll go out to the Amsterdamse Bos to give you a wave and an ‘Aussie, Aussie, Aussie’ as you head down to Middelburg. Maybe you could wear some wattle on your helmet so I’ll know which one you are.

Good luck,

Your mate in cycling, Richard

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CLASSICO BORETTI – my small part in Amsterdam’s Giro d’Italia

My photo of Cadel Evans in the Apollolaan

Dear Cadel Evans,

Your 10 minutes 20 seconds was a good effort for the Giro prologue through the streets of Amsterdam today. A little Dutch boy beside me commented, ‘He’s riding even faster than the car behind him!’ You pipped my time for the course by just under 42 minutes. But you couldn’t have done it without my help…

While you were having breakfast this morning, I was contributing to grassroots Australian cycling by riding the Classico Boretti around the backblocks of Holland, trying to keep up with the Dutch amateur riders.

You’ve probably heard that elite sportsmen like you can’t develop without thousands of ordinary Richard Tullochs doing their personal bests in their chosen sports, so I hope you appreciate all l’m doing for you. It cost me 15 euros and a lot of muscle fatigue to support you today, but it was worth the money and the pain.

At around 8 am I joined some 5000 Dutch riders at the Amsterdam Velodrome.

My opposition prepares for battle

I thought the Classico Boretti would be a bit of a giggle – a few kilometres pedalling to the nearest cafe, then a quiet morning beer in the sunshine – but no, they take their cycling very seriously in Holland. Everyone but me had a smart racing bike, and serious cycling gear from their cycling club.

I was hoping to slipstream a group of riders marginally stronger than myself, but within a few minutes, lycra was whipping past me and disappearing into the middle distance. I have a perfectly decent touring bike and reasonable touring legs, but they just couldn’t mix it with the tough Dutch hard men.

So I stopped worrying about my time, and after that I found the Classico Boretti was following a particularly beautiful course, heading out from Amsterdam towards the North Sea, then through the undulating dunes and the wealthy village of Bloemendaal, famous for its extremely successful hockey team featuring some of Australia’s finest players.

At a pit stop, the Boretti people provided lunch – a currant bun, half a banana and can of Red Bull. I’m not sure if you’re allowed to drink Red Bull, Cadel, but it seemed to make some of my fellow cyclists ride even faster.

But Cadel, you know how it is when the whole of Australia is depending on your performance. I hung in there and finished the 75km course, and when I collected my goody bag at the finish, there were still other riders trickling in, so I hadn’t come last!

The organisers ensured that we all got a bowl of pasta at the finish to make us feel Italian, and we had the chance to be photographed with the ‘Giro Miss’, a charming young woman who had been selected as the most attractive cycling fan in Amsterdam. It was tempting, but I know you guys only get kissed when you finish on the podium, so I didn’t think I’d earned it.

Then Boretti offered us all a free ride in a shuttle bus to see you ride the Giro. A bus? For cyclists? How wimpy would that be??! I rode my own bike to the Giro course, thank you very much, found a spot by the Apollolaan, and took the above photo of you. Hope you like it.

Good luck for the ride to Utrecht tomorrow, Cadel.

Your bruised and battered Aussie mate,


PS If I ever do the Classico Boretti again, I think I need one of those light bikes with very thin tyres and funny handlebars. Are you happy with your one, Cadel? Could you suggest any shops that sell them at reasonable prices?


Filed under Cycling, Holland, Sport

GIRO D’ITALIA, STAGE 3 – Amsterdam to Middelburg

Start of Giro 2010 Stage 3

G’day again, Cadel,

Here I am at the beginning of the Giro stage you’ll be doing on Monday, 224kms from Amsterdam to Middelburg.

You start off at the World Trade Centre at Amsterdam Zuid (south) station. That sign above me means ‘no cycling’ because of pedestrian safety concerns, but everybody seems to ignore it and ride anyway. I advise you to do the same. If you get stopped by the police, say you’re a tourist and they’ll let you off with a warning.

Notice I’m wearing a beanie instead of a bike helmet. That’s because it’s really cold. I know helmets are compulsory in the Giro now, but maybe you should ask if you can wear a beanie underneath.

From the WTC, you turn left onto the Amstelveenseweg. This window cleaning van was blocking the cycle path when I arrived, but the guy promised me he’d be finished by Monday, so you won’t have any trouble there.

Amstelveen itself is quite a modern town, where lots of business people live. The Cobra Museum has some very interesting modern art, particularly from wild Dutch artists like Karel Appel and Corneille. I don’t know if you’re interested in modern art, Cadel, but if so it’s worth a visit next time you’re in town.

From Amstelveen, follow the signs to Schiphol Airport. The route runs right alongside it, long, boring and straight, but it gets exciting when a plane flies overhead. If any helicopters were planning to cover the Giro, perhaps you should tell them to wait till you get somewhere safer, like Italy.

This sign says the road will be closed to traffic for two hours on Monday. That seems a bit extravagant – it only took me 1 hour 7 minutes to ride that section, though I expect some riders may not be as fast as you or me, Cadel.

But out here I did happen to meet up with some of your competitors who were getting in a bit of last minute practice, so I can tell you how good they were. First a couple of Spanish guys passed me (Caisse d’Epargna) looking very fit and fast. Then four Columbia riders, and finally the whole Liquigas team. I was able to hook on the back and ride with Liquigas for nearly 200metres, so there’s one team you don’t have to worry about. That Ivan Basso is rubbish!

I pressed on to Lisse and the tulip fields. Lisse is famous for the Keukenhof gardens, but I didn’t stop to visit them and I don’t expect you will either. I thought there would be lots of tulip fields so there’d be photo opportunities all over the place, but there were only a couple that looked like this.

By the time I got here, it was raining quite heavily. Some Dutch riders like to carry an umbrella, but I don’t recommend it for you, Cadel.

It takes a lot of practice to steer with one hand, and when things get tight and cosy in the pack, some riders get very annoyed if your umbrella pokes them in the peloton.

While living in cold, wet Holland, I have picked up a couple of useful tricks for riding in the rain, though. Always carry a plastic shopping bag with you and put it over your saddle when you get off. That way you don’t get a wet backside when you get back on your bike again. In this photo it’s an Esprit bag, but any plastic bag without a hole in it will do.

It was cold, wet and uncomfortable riding today, Cadel, but I knew you needed my expert evaluation of the route, so I rode on to Leiden. It’s a really interesting town, being Rembrandt’s birthplace and having the oldest university in the Netherlands. I took a photo of this icecream and chocolate shop. I thought you’d like it, being Australian.

The rain was getting heavier, and the 179 kilometres from Leiden to Middelburg are fairly routine, so I didn’t see any need to research them for you. Delft, Rotterdam, Zeeland, it’s all plain sailing. I took the train home from Leiden station.

Oh, one more thing, Cadel…I suppose you need to get back to Schiphol airport to fly to Italy at the end of the day. There are regular trains there from Middelburg, and for 6 euros extra they’ll let you take your bike too. Make sure you have correct change for the machine, otherwise it costs 50 cents more to buy a ticket at the counter.

Good luck and I hope you win the Giro!

Your friend, Richard


Filed under Cycle touring, Cycling, Holland, Sport