By Beth Hancock
It was an inauspicious start. As our two boys slept on the back seat of the hire car, exhausted from their early morning session of plane-spotting at Manchester Airport, lightning flickered across the bulging grey-black clouds, serving as a warm-up act for the torrential rain that soon began to cascade down the windscreen. It was still pouring by the time we pulled up at the Catalan Farmhouse. We sat immobile in our seats, our reluctance to get drenched outweighing our eagerness to explore our home for the week. Then a figure, clad from head to foot in shiny yellow oilskins and – more importantly for us – holding two golfing umbrellas, dashed across the yard, knocked on the window and introduced himself to us as David, one of the owners. Proffering the two umbrellas to us, he grabbed one of our cases from the boot and ran with us down the path and up the stone steps to our first-floor apartment, a stylish blend of exposed stone walls, contemporary kitchen and attractive wooden furniture.
We’d picked this converted farm in the Empordà region of Catalonia because it ticked all the right boxes, those boxes being proximity to water (two ticks here, as the apartments share a lovely pool and are only 10 kilometres from the sea); plenty of space to play outside; and animals (again, several ticks here for geese, pigs and hens, with bonus ticks because younger guests can help to feed them). As we later found out, it also gets a tick for ‘tractors’, quite an important box for our vehicle-mad pre-schoolers.
Fortunately, the downpour on our day of arrival must have well and truly emptied the skies (it certainly gave that impression at the time), as we didn’t see another drop of rain all week. We fell into an easy pattern that suited us all perfectly.
Mornings were devoted to (albeit thickly disguised) cultural visits. Some days we would head out to a nearby village – honey-coloured Pals was my favourite – where, to make it more exciting for the boys, we would let them choose which way to go through the labyrinth of passageways, narrow cobbled streets and archways, keeping quiet when they led us back to the same arcaded square for the third time in ten minutes (hopefully this was just down to age, rather than having inherited my hopeless sense of direction). On another day we visited Begur and its ruined castle, where the boys looked out from the parapet for pirate ships sailing across the sea below, imaginary cannon at the ready. The ancient city walls in historic Girona grabbed their imagination in a similar fashion, though on that occasion they were knights, fighting off would-be besiegers with vats of boiling water, huge rocks and bullet-tipped arrows (why let historical fact get in the way of a good game?). We also managed a couple of short walks along the wide, well-made path that runs along the coastline, not that the word ‘walk’ was mentioned once. Since our two are at that in-between stage when they don’t yet ‘do’ walking but are too heavy to be carried on our backs, this was dressed up as a competition to spot the red-and-white striped waymarks of the long-distance GR route painted on the trees shading the path. We managed a couple of miles each time this way, which was quite an achievement for our family.
Having done something for the grown ups, we would then return to the Farmhouse, where the boys would play cops and robbers on the grass (the wooden den served as an excellent prison) or burn off what energy they had left on the trampoline, while we cooked lunch in the superbly equipped kitchen. (No resorting to chopping cheese up finely with a knife for lack of a grater or other essential gadgets here.) The fantastic May weather meant we could eat out on our covered terrace, the boys keeping watch for tractors along the lane, we adults listening out for the local cuckoo, something I hadn’t heard since I was a child. Then it was siesta time (when in Rome…), after which, suitably rejuvenated, we would spend the rest of the day on the beach, paddling, rock-pooling, building sandcastles and eating the obligatory daily ice cream.
Back at the Farmhouse, Carme, David’s mother, would usually come out of her house when she heard us (quiet is, as yet, an alien concept in our family), to ask us about our day, make suggestions as to other places we might like, and lend us games and even old John Deere calendars. With her small dog, Dau, waddling behind her, she’d take the boys to the field beyond the garden to feed the pigs or to let the two ten-day-old goslings she was hand-rearing have a run around. I must admit I’d been unsure about renting a property where the owner lived on site, but Carme was charming and struck just the right balance between showing an interest in her guests and being intrusive. The same can be said of David, who, much to the boys’ delight, would sometimes turn up on his tractor, and patiently answered the boys’ barrage of questions about the different tractor attachments while they took turns sitting in the cab. I enjoyed practising my Spanish (though I’m not sure that I’ll get to use the newly learned vocabulary relating to the irrigation of maize fields and the clearing of ditches again any time soon) and by the end of the week the boys had picked up ‘hola’, ‘por favor’ and ‘gracias’.
I’ll admit that there were one or two occasions when I looked towards the Pyrenees and wished we were in them, rather than gazing at them from a distance, but there’ll be time for that in the future, and right then, thanks to the animals, beaches and castles, the boys were having a whale of a time, and so were we.