Wow. I'm the subject of a TV program. A Spanish TV crew wants to record how a travel writer experiences their home turf, Catalonia. They want to surprise me, so the itinerary is a total mystery to me.
From Barcelona to the Pyrenees!
The Spanish region of Catalonia is well-known for its capital Barcelona, the Costa Brava, cities like Girona and Lleida and of course a big part of the Spanish Pyrenees.
For this trip I’m doing something a bit different to normal: I am traveling with locals. They’ll introduce me to their favourite places and share the hidden treasures tourists don’t often get to see.
The whole trip was filmed for a Spanish TV series called Catalunya Experience, which was shown on Catalan TV. You can find the complete episode here as well.
When I land at Barcelona airport the cameras are already rolling. Three of them. The show’s hostess, Ivana Miño, gives me a big hug and asks with a smile if I’m ready. “Uhm, yes. I think so,” I stammer. Though I’m not quite sure what I’m supposed to be ready for.
This trip is an entirely new experience for me. Normally I plan where to go, what I do and where I stay, but this time I have no idea. I simply have to go with the flow. Not easy for this control freak.
I did get a few assignments before I left. I had to take footage of myself and share my expectations. That would be a short video, because I just don’t know. And I had to pack seven sets of clothing including casual clothes, as well as several sets of outdoor gear. At least that’s a bit of a clue. One I quite like.
I have to admit I am excited and nervous, because my usual spot is behind the camera, not in front of it. Though thankfully I’ve recently gained some experience in this other role while working on some Dutch and Belgian TV programs.
,,Just describe what you feel and how you liked it.” It’s a simple and clear request. But responding on the spot is not so easy. Especially when there’s a camera following me wherever I go, they don’t want to miss any of my genuine reactions. Every now and then we have to do a re-take, but not often. They want to capture the raw experience. Or rather, this down-to-earth Dutchie’s emotions. ‘That’ll be…interesting’ I smile. Oops, that’s already on tape. Nice work, me.
A kind of ritual takes place every time we shoot a scene. The producer Xavi runs back and forth rather stressfully, and hostess Ivana shows her nervousness by frequently touching her nose…(is she worried about my performance, or her own?), my assistant keeps asking if I need anything, and the camera crew are milling around, but all that’s going through my mind is: ‘Bring it on…’
I need to describe what my feelings are…
We’ll be travelling together as a group for a whole week. Right through Barcelona, then a hike in the Spanish Pyrenees, we’ll visit Lleida’s ancient cathedral, drop in on an organic farmer and much more. All our scenes have been scripted, except for activities such as kayaking and the mountain walks.
‘Just do what you would normally do on your travels’ Xavi tells me. But I can’t, not really, because I would constantly stray off the path to find the hidden gems, to meet interesting people, or take the perfect picture. That will be hard when a crew of 12 people is following you. On the contrary, I am constantly wondering whether there is a scene to shoot. Which gives me no opportunity to do what I do best. Wandering off…
The team wants to surprise me with activities that are typical for this region, and almost every night I have to do an interview on camera about my experience. I have to describe what we’ve done, how I felt and especially whether I’ve ever done it before. ‘Because you have already done and seen so much in your travels’ sighs Xavi. But they do manage to surprise me, because it’s clear they’ve researched what I do. And I love that.
This TV production is a lot more professional than I had anticipated: twelve people, three cameras, a drone and my very own assistant. The itinerary is packed; I barely have time to breathe. My senses are on overdrive. All the time.
At the end of the week I gather my thoughts. It has been intriguing. But above all very special. I’m swimming in an ocean of emotions. My nerves start tingling when I think about the television show. It’s a fifty-minute program. About me…
As expected, the crew didn’t tell me what I was going to do. But because this was a special activity, I got to choose whether I want to take pictures, or join in the festival myself, which normally doesn’t allow outsiders to partake. They did tell me it would take place in complete darkness, so taking pictures didn’t seem like an option anyway…
I am intrigued by this tradition. The people around me are having a good time. Some are laughing, is that a good or a bad sign? Who cares, I’m just going to do it. Xavi does give me a warning: “It’s physically demanding. Do be careful and if you don’t feel comfortable, just say so. There will be 59 other people and they will help you, whatever happens…” Whatever happens? That’s not filling me with confidence!
I have to be quick, otherwise it will be completely dark…
It’s 7pm. We head into the mountains in cars. I notice an unusual amount of timber and tree trunks. A lumberjack is splitting logs by cutting the bases, and then forcing wedges into them. I’m not sure what’s going on. The locals seem tense, yet excited. This festival fills them with a sense of pride, as only people born in the town of Isil are allowed to take part… And me, their special guest.
At the top of the mountain people are singing, dancing, eating and drinking exuberantly. I am told to go and find some firewood. We enjoy each other’s company as we wait for the sun to set. Then, the large wood stack is set alight, a signal to the hundreds of people in the village below that it’s time to begin. Though it’s still a mystery to me what is about to begin. Once the fire is truly burning, the split logs are placed inside it until the ends have caught fire.
Then things happen very quickly, a long line is formed and it’s time to put our shoulders into it. Quite literally. Off we go, with one of the burning logs (which weighs about 30 kilos) over our shoulder. It’s terrifying and it takes time to get the hang of it, the only light I have is the burning log of the guy in front of me, and it’s constantly moving. I have to keep up, otherwise I will be in the dark, in more ways than one.
The terrain is very steep and I have to descend about 600 metres. There is no path. There are muddy puddles, treacherous rocks, and grass that’s slippery from the rain. I’m sliding and balancing rather than walking. I can feel the heat from the burning log prickling in my neck. Cool, I’ve never taken a mountain hike like this before.
An hour and a half later, we arrive in the village. At the foot of the mountain, three women are waiting to offer you a flower, a biscuit and some wine for your achievement. My shoulder is feeling sore, but I can’t get rid of my log just yet. I have to visit the village church first, to pay homage to those who have gone before me. Then we do a tour of the town, at every corner there’s applause and a glass of spirits to celebrate our feat.
Then, with a graceful arch, my half-burnt log gets tossed into the fire. There is more dancing and music. The TV show’s host Ivana and I raise our drinks and she explains a bit more about this amazing festival. “In the olden days these villages were very remote from civilisation and far away from each other. Men barely ever got to meet new women, so this festival wasn’t just a summer celebration, but also a way for men to meet women. Or the other way around. That’s how this unique sport came to be.”
Ivana laughs. I stare off into the fire. All this is to impress women. I think I have impressed myself more than anything. What an adventure. I’m pleased those cameras were on me and captured it. Very pleased.
Suddenly I see a luxury tent through the trees. “This is our shelter for tonight,” laughs presenter Ivana. Gosh, I didn't expect that. The setting is just gorgeous. Around me, I see steep yellow-red rocks. In the rocks, I see an ancient rock house. Dozens of vultures float on the thermals in the air. This is a real surprise. Sure, I can sleep here tonight.
I hear an owl in the background. The sun is slowly disappearing, dozens of stars take its place. I couldn't wish for a better setting. I am speechless. Not something the crew can work with.
The cold water splashes in my face. White water kayaking, yes that's very refreshing. The glacier water is cold; just a few degrees above zero. The wetsuit does help. Intensive paddling too. Just like the sun, although it is watery. It suits the atmosphere. Some waves are bigger than the kayak, I almost get out of it. Ivana does take a dive, I can see from her face that she actually hoped it would be me who had to make an extra swim.
This rugged mountain range should be explored with the hiking boots. Via a steep mountain path I discover colourful orchids, wild thyme and countless panoramic views. It is a bit difficult to travel if you do not know how long you still have to walk and where you are going. But I do enjoy myself, this is my favourite terrain.
What a great setting. I am speechless.
I'm not the only one. Suddenly, countless bones, skulls and feathers lie on a plateau. There are so many that it is macabre, even a bit lugubrious. This is a feeding place for vultures. The animals almost disappeared from hunting and poisoning, but are now making a comeback. Dead animals such as sheep and rabbits are collected from nearby farmers. These are deposited here a few times a week.
From a shelter, I watch more than 200 vultures flying in en masse. And land right in front of me. They fight for every piece of meat. I quickly count various species: griffon vulture, Egyptian vulture and Black vulture. The largest of all, the bearded vulture, does not show itself. But what a spectacle this eating feast is. I think the camera did capture my emotion this time. I stood there with my mouth wide open, I notice ...
Choosing is always difficult, but I go for the newest Ferrari. “Well, have you ever done something like this?” Producer Xavi is hopeful; he really wants to surprise me. “No,” I admit. It’s actually something I’ve always wanted to do. He smiles, just like my driving instructor Pol Rosell. But his smile is a bit different, a bit provocative… Rosell is the European Champion in the Renault Clio Cup. Do I want to get in the car? I’m already sitting…
Pol hits the gas and we’re off at break-neck speed. At least, that’s how it feels. He is obviously used to playing with the powerful 570 hp of this machine. I need to grip onto the door handle when we take the corner. Meanwhile I’m looking out the window, trying to get an idea of the track. The speedometer is showing 230 km/h on the straight. Yikes…
A strange feeling hits me. I’ve already been stationary for minutes, but the adrenaline is still coursing through my body.
Pol talks me through the process the whole time while he manoeuvres the car: “Brake hard before the corner, a little less in the corner itself, slam on the gas when you exit it, steering wide. This way, you use the entire track.”
After two laps he steers the red monster into the pit again. Just when I’m ready to get out, he says: “Do you want to drive?” My hearts skips a beat. May be even two. “Of course.” I say, already sweating buckets. “There’s only one condition,” Pol says, “You have to do exactly as I say.” That makes total sense to me.
Accelerating is easy and familiar, though there has never been more power under my foot. The gears are panels on the steering wheel; it takes a couple of minutes for me to get used to it. The bucket seat feels very snug and I realise how necessary it is when I hit the corner…. “Finding the ideal racing line is key,” says Pol. Keeping this animal on the asphalt is a big challenge. “It’s better to enter a curve slowly, so you can leave it fast.” Pol’s words are buzzing in my head.
I have to brake hard just when the corner is too close for comfort. That’s seconds later than you would normally. But this baby has serious brakes. I have to steer right into the corner, apply the gas and go out wide to pick up speed. The chicane is the ultimate test, especially because it’s right before of the straight, which is where I’m supposed to hit top speed. I make it to 212 km/h. Wow. Sure, Pol was faster. But he’s a pro.
Back in the pit I’m still shaking. Yes, this certainly looks easier than it really is. Pol is full of compliments. “You honestly have never done this before?” No. “You did really well.” I bet he says that to everybody, but I’m quite pleased with my performance myself. And happy. And thrilled. A strange feeling hits me. I’ve already been stationary for minutes, but the adrenaline is still coursing through my body.