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Monday, August 15, 2011, in Tarragona, Spain

Hi all, and happy Assumption Day, when southern Europe takes a day off from existence. This is a day when the continent is more closed up than it is on a Sunday, and that’s a lot. Time will tell whether we’ll starve here. Last night, we arrived in Tarragona, continuing towards Barcelona. Last week, we were still in Valencia.

Here’s something I noticed about restaurants in Spain. I once thought that American restaurants were more generous than those in Europe because of the bottomless cup of coffee and the bottomless soft drink. It did take some getting used to that a second cup of coffee is handled the same way as a second flan or paella. Get a tiny coffee, one euro. Another tiny coffee, another euro. Nobody drinks tap water, and mineral water comes in a bottle; when you finish that one, you buy another. But here, there is a category of beverage that doesn’t seem to end when you have the menú del día, or full-course menu of the day. It's wine and liqueur. If you order wine, chances are they'll just put a bottle on the table. Take what you want, included in your three-course meal for $15. In fact, for one of our lunches, the waiter pressed us to have an after-dinner drink that wasn’t expressly included in the meal, his gift to us. He brought the bottle to the table, and I assume that we could have stayed there all afternoon, sipping it down to a damp drop.

We spent our final few days in Valencia just strolling around the town. It isn’t necessary to go into a store to browse. There’s a lot of commerce out on the streets. Near the central market for seafood, ham, and produce, kiosks are set up all around the entrances and down the street. They sell cheap clothing, sunglasses, or paella pans of every imaginable size. Then there are the African vendors, each of whom spreads out a blanket in some plaza and carefully lays out watches, or fake designer goods, or music CDs, all pirated, for sure. I didn’t notice that each blanket had straps sewn onto the corners until I saw one of these guys pull them together in a flash, lifting up all his goods into a hobo pack. Then he notified all of the other vendors to do the same, and in an instant, blankets all around the plaza were hoisted and disappeared moments before a uniformed officer appeared from nowhere. The plaza went from bustling to empty in no time. These guys must have a fantastic sense of impending danger. I don’t know what he’d said to the others, in Spanish, or Valencian, or Somali, but I supposed it translated to “cheese it; it’s the fuzz!”

By mid-week, we were on our way onward. The winds were light, as is normal, but we were in no hurry, and we sailed most of the day to Port Castello, near the city of Castellón. The Castellón province is about 100 kilometers of coastline, and the city of Castellón de la Plana has a rich history, beginning with a Moorish castle. It was conquered in 1233 by King James I of Aragon, who founded the city in 1251.

Like Valencia, the marina is a bus ride to the city proper, but unlike Valencia, there’s a community at the port. We took a walk in the evening of our arrival, and the portside promenade was alive. Restaurants stand one next to another, and the competition is fierce, evident in the dueling blackboards of evening specials, the chicas giving out bits of paper begging you to visit, and the hosts outside the restaurants engaging you in whatever language they hear you speaking.

Our next day was devoted to our own neighborhood, where we found marine stores, supermarkets, and a place to have a coffee and the ever-elusive whole-grain tostada con tomate for our second breakfast. We walked to the large, well-groomed beach, a place for sunbathing and not much else; there isn’t a restaurant or shop of any kind on the beach frontage road.

Because the evening paseo was adjacent to the marina, we joined the strollers every night. We don’t eat dinner ashore, and Art was gnawing through some Ben and Jerry’s aboard, so we were without a reason to visit the restaurants that represent just about the only commerce on this promenade. We decided instead to have a summer drink, and were steered by our helpful waitress to tinto de verano.

We’ve been tasting sangria, the Spanish wine-punch, on occasion away from home, and having it on board regularly. Tinto de verano is a simplified version of this (although they’re both pretty easy to replicate, by buying a box of either one in the supermarket.) Tinto de verano or, appropriately, summer wine, is red table wine (tinto) mixed with a bubbly soda water with a subtle flavoring, usually lemon. The resulting beverage is sparkly, fruity (mostly from the grape of the wine), and refreshing. It’s served in a tall glass over ice, garnished with lemon. You can sit outdoors in the balmy evening, sipping this drink, and nothing feels more like a vacation than that.

In Castellon proper, the provincial capital a short bus ride away from the marina, there was no sign of that Moorish castle anywhere when we made our foray into the city. There’s a 15th-century bell tower and a large but unremarkable cathedral. A llotja (hemp market) from the 17th century now houses temporary exhibitions. The town is welcoming but unassertive, a good size for a walk around, but too small to have regional-level attractions. Still, it’s comfortable, and the sort of place you could make a life if you were Spanish and make a day trip if you’re a tourist. There are more attractions, including prehistoric rock paintings, elsewhere in the province, but that wasn’t a commitment we were ready to make.

A fifty-mile trip to an anchorage meant that we could dawdle before leaving in the morning, and sail no matter how wispy the winds. It’s always a treat to find a usable anchorage anywhere in the Mediterranean, and this one was at the delta of the river Ebro. It’s one of the largest wetlands in the western Mediterranean and supports a lot of agriculture in rice and citrus. The river was once the dividing line between the Romans and the Carthaginians. On a Saturday, the huge basin had about fifty boats already anchored when we arrived at twilight, and all but about a dozen were back at their home ports by bedtime.

The next day, we continued up Spain’s eastern coast. I remember the Med as a place where the wind is absent, or too strong, or from the wrong direction. This isn’t completely false. But this time around, we’ve been much more successful at sailing. Some of the reason is that the new boat is bigger, a faster design, and rigged a bit differently from our last boat. This means that we can make better progress in lighter winds. Another important reason that we sail more is Art’s access to weather information. Because we have the luxury of so much time at sea, and Art has near-constant Internet access with localized forecasts specific to small areas, we can pick our travel days for great sailing conditions. One of the assets of the Med is that it’s not an ocean, and there’s very little swell and almost no waves when you time it right. So if you can make some speed with winds of only ten knots or so, you cleave through water that’s barely rippled, and, while I’m on the subject, a lovely shade of aqua.

On the sail to the anchorage, we’d had cloud cover much of the day, keeping the interior of the boat cooler than we’d anticipated and surrounding us with a pastel turquoise. The next day was sunnier, and the water was a brighter blue, but this must have excited some class of fish, because there was a lot of splashing activity that didn’t go unnoticed, by us or by the seagulls. We’d watch the action during our otherwise uneventful sail, and later in the day, the fish began to jump clear out of the water as if they were auditioning for a dolphin show. These weren’t unsubstantial fish, making me wonder what they were running away from. They were about half a meter (a foot and a half) long, as I could see it. (I’m not overstating this size, since we didn’t catch any of them.) Indeed, each one might have fed a hungry Spanish family of four (or an American family of eight, as the American family would undoubtedly have a bucket of chicken on the side for the children.)

We arrived at Tarragona. Now this might sound like it will be the home of a coastal herb. But the word for tarragon is estragón in Spanish. And this poor translation isn’t as bad as the place we had passed on our way, the cape that Art thought was Pensacola, like Florida. It’s understandable that Art might think that a town in Spanish Florida might be named for a place in Spain, and it might have been. But this cape’s name isn’t Pensacola; it’s Peniscola. And now you won’t be able to look at the shape of it on a chart without giggling. My guidebook says that the amusing name of this otherwise old-fashioned town is lost in Spanish, but I understand that an entrepreneur on shore sells teapots with a rather original spout.

As we pulled into the marina in Tarragona, kids in tiny boats were preparing to set sail out into the harbor. They took a look at our American flag and began to shout their junior-high-school-English phrases to us: “Hello!” “How are you?” “What is your name?” I said hello back, eliciting grins and giggles, but I was pretty sure that there was no point in adding, “This isn’t a great time for me, as I have to get these fenders out and the dinghy secured to the bow pulpit.” So we all just waved, and I went on with my docking duties.

We’ll go into town later this morning, hoping that someone was willing to open their doors today.

Love, Karen (and Art)