27 Jun 2010

FC Barcelona vs the World Cup

By simply living in Catalonia one becomes a fan of FC Barcelona, the great football club. Most people in Catalonia follow the club's ups and downs. For most of the last decade it has been mostly a lot of ups as the club has had arguably its greatest string of successes. In the four years since we have been here it has been fun to have become a fan. This is especially so since back in Toronto the city's professional ice hockey team has not won the league championship in more than forty years. It's a lot more fun to back a winner than a loser.

Whenever FC Barcelona plays the bars here in Vilassar de Dalt fill up. For big matches, such as games against arch-rival Real Madrid, it is standing room only. Even if we don't go to the bar at the end of our street, it is possible to follow the game, at least the goals. The cheering and hollering are intense and we can hear the noise from our apartment even with the windows closed. Someone in town maintains a supply of fireworks for celebrating every Barça goal and win. Little children, and adults too, wear the club's shirts with the name of their favourite Barça player stencilled on the back. People are football mad here, or least I thought so until the World Cup started earlier this month.

Back in Toronto, the World Cup is a huge event mostly because of the Canadian city's ethnic diversity. It helps that Canada itself has never competed in the World Cup even though the game is popular. If Canada did qualify, would anyone cheer for the team? Toronto is the place to really enjoy the World Cup. Look at the list of the 32 countries that are represented in this year's tournament and most have sizable communites of expats in Toronto. Some of those communities are larger than others. During the 20th century huge numbers of Italians, Portugese, Britons and Dutch immigrated to Canada. Dictatorships, civil wars and economic woes during the last decades of the 20th century attracted Chileans, Hondurans, Mexicans, Argentinians and Uruguayans to Canada. In Toronto every team has its supporters but if your preferred team fails to advance you can pick another and find a group of its supporters to party with.

Here in Catalonia, however, there is a very remarkable lack of interest in the World Cup. It is very disappointing. Spain may be one of the favourites but here in darkest Catalonia very few people are following the tournament. Of course this has all to do with Catalan nationalism. Catalanists will not support a Spanish team even though at least a third of the players are from this region. The World Cup is about the best footballers in the world playing each other but that has not filled up our local bar where I find myself watching the games virtually by myself. Even when Argentina plays with Barça's star player Leo Messi on the pitch, there are hardly any people watching the game.

Not all the bars in Vilassar are so empty during the games. In the lower part of town where there are more immigrants from other parts of Spain there is attention being paid to the tournament. On Tuesday when Spain plays Portugal I will try one of those bars. At least I'll have some company. So perhaps Barça fans are not football fans, they are simply Barça fans.

12 Jun 2010

Roman Remains--Vilassar De Dalt

At about eleven o’clock on a Sunday morning in October a couple of hundred people are gathered on a patch of level ground on the southern extremity of Vilassar de Dalt. The area of bare red earth looks like a construction site with red and white caution tape strung across different parts of what will be an athletic field including an oval running track. In fact it is a construction site but for now it is also an archaeological site. The crowd has gathered to examine the remains of several Roman-era graves and storage silos that were found in what will be the infield of the track. The tour is under the guidance of a group of professional archaeologists and volunteers from Can Banus, Vilassar’s municipal museum.

The site is located on the lower slopes of Vilassar about a kilometre above the autopista, the toll highway that runs parallel to the coast. To the north and uphill from the site sits the new public school built to accommodate Vilassar’s growing number of children. The school was built on what was once Vilassar’s old football pitch. The new athletic field is being built on the same site as the old track. During our first winter in Vilassar when early nightfall kept me from running on the mountain I used to run on the old track. During the last two winters I have had to find other places to run during the hours of darkness. Construction in Spain is very slow. Now completion of the new track is likely in the next few months.

From an archaeological point of view the site is interesting because it combines elements of a necropolis with evidence of past agricultural activity. According to our guides the remains of about 30 people have been found including several children. Some of the skeletal remains seem to have been placed in previously existing graves indicating that the site was used as a burial ground over a long period of time perhaps three or four centuries. Testing to ascertain the age of the various human remains has still to be completed.

The agricultural remains include several sitges, in-ground silos for the storage of grain. Several other silos were especially prepared to store liquids such as wine and olive oil. The remains of a furnace for the firing of ceramics have also been identified along with several pit pits where very likely clay was taken out of the ground.

That archaeological remains have been found on the site is not surprising. About fifty years ago some human remains also dating from the Roman era were found under the old football pitch, now under the new school. And, during the construction of the new school work was delayed because still more remains were found.

Vilassar de Dalt’s location must have attracted human settlement from the earliest times. The south facing slopes of the Serralada Litoral, a mountain range of low peaks running parallel to the coast, gently fall away to the Mediterranean which helps to moderate the climate. In Roman times the Maresme, as this area of Catalonia is called, was famous as a source of wine, much of it exported to Rome. Many retired soldiers were given land and settled in the area. The indigenous Iberic population seems to have been easily and willingly Romanized.

Most of the crowd that has shown for the tour up is made up of familiar faces. The political core of the town is represented by the mayor, those who want to be mayor and most of the municipal councillors. The citizenry that has turned up is made of a hard core of Vilassarophiles who tend to show up at these civic events. My wife and I call them the usual suspects. These people have a strong sense of pride in their town, revel in its history and value its sense of community. They care about what goes on. The families of most of these people have been linked to Vilassar de Dalt for several generations. They have known each other all of their lives. Most grew up and went to school together. Now they perhaps commute to work in Barcelona or Mataro but for all of them Vilassar is home. The mayor once told us that at least half of the working age people living in Vilassar actually work in the town itself. That is because Vilassar unlike most of the small towns that straddle the flanks of the Serralada Litoral has both a diverse industrial base and a significant amount of agricultural activity. It is a place to live and work in.

It is nothing new because even in Roman times the area that is now Vilassar boasted a diverse economic base that mixed agriculture and, surprisingly, some important manufacturing. The year before on another guided visit arranged by the municipal museum we viewed the excavation of a Roman villa located very close to the autopista. The villa was the centre of a large farm. And the remains of the villa are under what is still used as agricultural land. In Roman times the Maresme, as this area of Catalonia is called, was famous as a source of wine, much of it exported to Rome.

Vilassar de Dalt’s most public, possibly most important, archaeological remains are Els Forns Romans, the Roman Ovens. This is group of three ovens that were used to fire ceramic objects for everyday use such as amphora, containers and roofing tile. The ovens were found in an area of Vilassar that had always been known as the Fornaca. Some sort of historical memory had kept the name Fornaca alive for most of two millennium without anyone knowing why. When the ovens were discovered about twenty years ago they were thought to be unique and important enough that a special effort was made to preserve them. A stone and steel structure now protects the ovens from the elements while allowing public access to view them. The ceramics produced by the ovens of the Fornaca would have been sold to the surrounding farms, homesteads and towns. Presumably, the local wines would have been sent to the centre of the empire shipped in amphora made in Vilassar.

The Romans arrived in the Iberian peninsula in 218 B.C. when their army landed in Empuries near the present-day French border, in response to a threat from Carthage during the Second Punic War. The Roman army marched south along the Catalan coast to face the Carthagians south of the Ebro River. Along the way they would had marched past the narrow coastal plain between Vilassar and the Mediterranean. Although it took the Romans a century to completely occupy the peninsula the Maresme area of Catalonia quickly became an important part of the empire. The Via Augusta provided a land link with Rome. In the region of the Maresme the Via Augusta split into two routes, one on either side of the Serrelada Litoral. The coastal branch cut across the southern part of modern day Vilassar de Dalt. Both the excavated Roman villa and the ovens of the Fornaca would have been a few minutes walk from the Via Augusta.

We viewed the remains of several skeletons. The in-ground silos had had their tops broken but their bases seemed to still be intact. Afterwards we were all served drinks, chips and olives. Standing around under the mid-day sun we chatted with acquaintances and friends. After a while the heat got to be too much. Fortunately, it was a short walk home.

9 Jun 2010

La Course en Canots--The Quebec Winter Carnival Ice Canoe Race

In eighteen years of competing in the Quebec Winter Carnival’s Ice Canoe Race Jacques Anderson remembers the 1993 race as the sweetest. Anderson and his Chateau Frontenac team were one of only two crews to finish the race that year. “We were up at the Chateau Frontenac terrace looking down over the river and we could see the other crews trying to finish.” Ice conditions on the kilometre-wide St. Lawrence River were brutal and when the tide turned two dozen crews were swept up river, unable to make headway over the moving carpet of jumbled and jagged ice. So while most of the crews had made it across to the Levis shore and back to the Quebec City side of the river they were unable to reach the finish line at the Basin Louise.

The desperate crews kept out of the moving ice by tucking in behind piers and indentations along the Quebec side of the river. There they waited for either open water or level ice that would enable them to move quickly enough to move against the five-knot tidal current. The break never came and three hours after the start the officials stopped the race. Meanwhile, Anderson and his crew relaxed, beers in hand, in the regal splendour of the Chateau Frontenac hotel, enjoyed the hospitality of their sponsor and accepted congratulations from friends. “It was a very memorable race,” says Anderson. I have to agree with him because I was part of one of the crews down on the river, waiting for the conditions to change and all the while trying to ward off hypothermia. By all accounts when this year’s edition of La Course en Canots goes on February 4, Chateau Frontenac will again be the team to beat. And Jacques Anderson will be there.

Ice canoeing involves racing lightweight fibreglass boats that are not canoes but rather 30-foot long rowboats and weighing about 230 pounds. Each crew consists of four oarsmen with a fifth crewman in the stern with a canoe paddle to steer. On the ice the crew scooters, inside knees on the seats and outside legs over the sides kicking at the ice to propel the boat forward. Clothing generally matches what a cross-country skier would wear in the same temperatures with the exception of the footwear. Thick neoprene knee-length socks keep feet dry and warm while protecting against bumps to the ice and boat itself. Crampons with inch-long snowmobile spikes allow for sure footing on the ice. Despite the danger of falling in the water, and there is an element of danger, few competitors wear lifejackets—they are too cumbersome.

Ice canoeing is a sport born of a particular set of geographical and cultural factors. It roots go back to the First Nations and the settlement of New France when the only way to cross the St. Lawrence River in winter was by boat or even birch bark canoe—the powerful tides and currents prevent the formation of solid ice. Ideally, open water assured a crew of a swift crossing but if the ice closed in, the crew and sometimes the passengers would climb out and manhandle the boat to the next stretch of open water. Until recently ice canoes continued to be used in certain communities on the lower St. Lawrence. When the Quebec Winter Carnival was established in 1948 an ice canoe race was suggested as an appropriate way to celebrate life on the river.

With this background, an air of cultural commemoration pervades the sport but Anderson downplays that aspect. “We don’t like to focus on legend and folklore,” says Anderson, “not when we designed our last boat with a computer and can spend $150 to test a new wax for a single outing.”

The top teams train year round. Chateau Frontenac’s trainer emphasizes endurance and interval training on land, snow, ice and water. The crew trains on the same rowing machines used by national rowing teams and every three or four weeks each crew member is tested on the rowing machine. Anderson and his crew regularly run up the 400 steps from river level up to the Plains of Abraham or practice scootering their boat across the snow fields of the Plains. Out on the St. Lawrence they perfect their rowing technique and practice bone-jarring scootering amongst expanses of broken ice.

“One of my goals is to pull good athletes from other sports, especially mountain bikers and tri-athletes,” says Anderson, “and it gives me pleasure to transmit my knowledge to newer athletes to ice canoeing.” There will be at least four all-female crews at this year’s race and one of them DMR Consell, consists of athletes who race mountain bikes, run cross country and race kayaks. “In the summer we pursue our individual sports,” says Corinne Bottollier of the DMR team, “but we start training in the ice canoe by the beginning of November.” This is DMR’s third season. “The first year we finished third in most of the races, the second year we were second,” says Bottolier, “and this year we hope to do even better.”

Race organizer Patrick Gagne expects about 25 teams for the 2001 edition of the Carnival race but there will be only one team from outside of Quebec—the Calgary Ice Canoe Team. The city of Calgary has sponsored a crew since 1969, making it the oldest continuously active team. “I would like to see more teams from outside Quebec,” says Gagne, “but I know that it is not easy for crews outside of the area.” In years past teams from the Toronto and Windsor, Ontario, areas had shown up for several years in a row.

It is also expensive to participate.

The cost of equipping a team with a boat, oars, trailer and other associated gear can easily run up to $10,000 in addition to the expense of travelling to the races. That is why most crews try to find a sponsor to cover some of the costs.

The Ice Canoe Race is a great spectacle. If you are in Quebec City on February 4, 2001, make your way down to the harbour and check it out.

I originally wrote this article for the February 2001 issue of Coast magazine.