La Costa Brava

Another week, another trip.  I wonder if someday I’ll find this mundane. I sincerely hope not!

Last Friday I was helping a friend do some work on his basement when the phone rang. Glanced at the caller ID – it was from work. I answered, half expecting to get scrambled for a flight. I fly for my living. Instead, they told me of a trip coming up for Sunday afternoon.  "You’re going to Barcelona through Gander" they told me, "You’ll be back Thursday night."  Good news to me, because I’ve been looking for a chance to practice my Spanish for the last few months.

Now, my geography isn’t as good as it should be, but I knew that Barcelona is on the Mediterranean, and of course the prospect of being able to squeeze in a dive or two if conditions favored seemed like a good thing.  After checking the weather for Barcelona it looked like it might be a bit on the cool side, but then sun and 13-15 degrees Celsius is pretty nice for February, at least where I call home.

As I logged onto my computer later that evening, the thought crossed my mind that checking Deeper Blue for members in the area might be fun.   One name came to mind immediately. Adrian will either be in the area, or he’ll know who is, I mused.  Checking his profile I saw that he was from the Costa Brava, an area just north of Barcelona.  I sent him an email, and at the same time posted a thread looking for freediving spots in the area.  Adrian replied, posts were added to my thread, and before I knew it I was heading north in a rental car from Barcelona.

After checking into the hotel I phoned Adrian and half an hour later we were sitting over a bowl of steamed mussels staring out over the placid Mediterranean.  Later we drove up to the top of a hill for a better view of the area.  Adrian pointed out a beautiful bay with rocky walls rising out of the turquoise water.  Right at the foot of the bay there was a perfect sand beach.  "We often dive there” he said simply.  "It’s a very nice spot." 

I didn’t know what to say – the snow-capped Pyrenees in the background, the rugged cliffs, and oh, the sea! .  The afternoon sun was sending long shafts of light into the water. I stood, speechless, doing my best to take it all in. Possibly misinterpreting my silence for lack of enthusiasm, Adrian said, "But wait ’till you see where I’m taking you tomorrow.  It’s REALLY nice there!"

The morning dawned finding me in the very best of spirits.  The sun rose into the clear blue sky blasting rays of light deep beneath the glassy surface of the sea.  After meeting Adrian, we started out.  "Where are we headed?" Frank asked curiously.  "You’ll see" was the only answer we received.

While winding our way through the foothills of the Pyrenees, I was silently taking in the wealth of beauty that surrounded me.  I noticed that the mountains were all terraced, but the terraces were overgrown and in places broken making them look quite old.  I asked Adrian about them and he transported us back through time to a period when a blight decimated the grapes of most of southern France.  The winemakers, not wanting to admit defeat, moved south into Spain and built the terraces to continue the age old tradition of growing and harvesting some of the world’s best vineyards.  However, after several years the blight moved south and infected these vineyards also, and before long the terraces fell to ruin.  Nonetheless, even now they are still plainly visible, adding a very intriguing character to the hills of the area.

Before long the terraces disappeared, and the hills took on a wilder and even more rugged appearance.  The Costa Brava (‘the fierce coast’) is so named because of the intense windstorms that frequent the area.  During these storms, the winds can be strong enough to topple trucks on the highway and make walking completely impossible.  In the days when Spanish police officers wore capes, the wind once picked up one poor fellow and hurled him into a building 30 meters away!  People who have been caught out on the coastal hills during these storms, tell of clinging to the ground on hands and knees and still feeling like the wind would pick them up and toss them into the sea.  Countless centuries of these wild winds have eroded the very rocks in the area and given them a look that I’ve never seen before.  Strange formations abound amongst the rocky hills making for a surreal beauty that is truly difficult to describe.  From a high spot in the road Adrian pointed to a rocky little cove that in spite of its beauty looked totally inaccessible.  "That’s where we’re going", he said. 

Those of you who truly enjoy the sea know how the anticipation can build, until you can physically feel a longing in your body to once again be united with the aquatic realm that you have become so familiar with, yet are never bored by. 

As I shouldered my pack containing the gear necessary for me to enjoy the cool water, I made no effort to contain my excitement.  Bounding down the rocky trail I emerged onto a tiny beach, no more than 15m wide, completely surrounded by the rocky walls of the bay.  Here Frank took a few pictures of Adrian and me as we geared up.  Swimming along the shore, the rocks below disappeared into the blue. 

Out at the point I filled my lungs and dove, and as soon as I was negatively buoyant, allowed myself to sink, following the rocks deeper and deeper.  Drifting to a stop on the bottom I remained perfectly motionless.  Adrian had advised me to sit still and allow the curiosity of the fish to draw them to me.  In a few seconds I was surrounded by little fish, some swimming right into my mask.  All around me the scenery that I love the most continued living and going about things as if I weren’t there. 

Before long a powerful contraction reminded me that the surface was quite some distance above me.  Streamlining myself I gave a few strong kicks and glided up through the water column, welcoming the buoyancy as it returned and propelled me towards the oxygen-rich atmosphere.  Several times while floating on the surface I admired Adrian’s form in the water as I watched his kelpie camo fins disappear into the abyss.  And several times the thought floated through my mind that right at that moment, I was exactly where I wanted to be.

Adrian told me to keep my eye open for stakes in the bottom.  The area that we were diving was one of the first spots in Spain that was settled by the Greeks and Romans.  The rocky bays and inlets on both sides of the point made safe havens provided you were on the lee side of the point.  The Greeks and Romans both took full advantage of these natural harbors.  But in spite of the protection the cliffs afforded them from the intense blasts of the wind, many ships still lie on the bottom there.  The sailors, after anchoring their barques securely in the calm water of the protected bays, would then watch with horror as the wind changed direction, and the very rocks that had just been protecting them now dashed them to pieces as the waves inexorably hurled them to their doom.  Now of course, the seafloor is an archeological goldmine and there are survey stakes marking the spots where people labour to reconstruct the past.

After the best part of two hours, however, the 11C water had taken its toll on both of us and we returned to the beach.  Sitting over an excellent lunch of baked fish and potatoes, atop the same cliffs we had just been diving in the shadow of, I felt the incredible inner calm that seems to always follow a session of diving.  The sea was so calm that the wakes from passing boats extended as far back as was visible.  The shadows of the cliffs grew longer as the sun slowly sank behind the mountains to the west, bringing the day to a close.

The next day I was going to meet two other freedivers from a town close by to go dive a cool little shipwreck.  I met up with Wolf, his dog Diego, and Johnny and we headed for the coast.  Once we’d parked the cars, we headed down a steep rocky trail toward the shore.  Overnight a high overcast had slid into place, flattening the light and giving the water a steely blue-grey appearance.  The sea, much more so than it had the day previous, looked cold.  However, from atop the cliffs we could see deeply into the clear water.  That coupled with the knowledge that I’d be snug and warm in my wetsuit had the pre-dive anticipation levels soaring once more. 

 

Slipping into the water from the rocks I was greeted by the prow of the wreck.  With just the prow in sight and the rest of the boat angling down out and out of view, it almost looked like it was still, after many years, reaching for the surface.  Once I had my fins on, I explored the cargo hold.  Bags of something, cement maybe, were still neatly stacked.  Or maybe I should say the contents of those bags were stacked, the bags themselves having long since rotted away.  Wolf spotted a big grouper in the engine room, and Johnny found a nice bass that “would’ve made for a nice dinner indeed!” .

Swimming underneath the hull I came to the propeller and peeked out from between it and the rudder to see what was on the other side.  The school of fish there spotted me and, with a decision that obviously occurred to all of them at exactly the same instant, darted away.  Wolf and Johnny showed me underwater cliffs, swim-through canyons and caves during the next hour or so, and even Diego came out and joined us in the water for a while.  But without the sun, we started to get cold after and headed for shore.  We headed straight to the cafe for those fantastic core-warming post-dive refreshments that just seem to go hand in hand with cold water diving.

After saying goodbye to my new friends I threaded my way through picturesque little towns on my way to meet Adrian and Frank for a late supper.  I reflected on how truly fortunate I feel to be able to enjoy so much of the earth that God has given us.  Sometimes while exploring new places I feel like a kid in a candy store!  With visual delicacies and fascinating cultural differences abounding, I often feel that ten lifetimes wouldn’t be enough to absorb a fair and balanced mix.  I continue trying to experience as much as I can during this gift we call life.  As the Moody Blues put it- To loose just a day, to throw it away, in the quicksand of time, you know it makes me want to cry.

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