Thursday, November 30, 2017

As the month of November sets in, we have had a slight pause to look back on the intense last few months. From terrorist attacks to political upheaval, our little corner of the region has had a lot going on. It's been on our minds while we are working or when Frida is out of school because the teachers are on strike to protest the actions from Madrid.

Now that fall has set in, the mornings smell of dew drying, wet leaves and wood smoke. It has been a long hard push to get things done here the past fourteen weeks. We now have three apartments that have been repaired, rewired, patched and painted.

Little by little I am becoming more adept in the ways of the chisel, cement, mortar and plaster. We have been working with a Bolivian stonemason that is amazingly comfortable with rocks and cement. The way he can split a rock and make it fit beautifully into place is a true craft. There is so much to learn. We are half way through our second order of 17 tons of sand for cement. This house consumes cement like a dry sponge. Each time there is a plumbing or wiring problem it involves chipping out the old cement, fixing and filling again. So many of our exterior walls are in desperate need of repair with large gaps and cracks. Slowly we are picking out the old loose mortar and filling the voids.

In August we completed a major rework of the wood oven with a new door arch, refractory brick floor, and some dome repair. Firing the oven has really been a great and challenging experience.

Since the acorns have been falling the wild boar are churning up the fields and creek beds. On the weekends the hunters are in the mountains behind our house. Twice they have brought us a fully cleaned and skinned boar. Once the vet gives the OK to eat, we set in on breaking it down and marinating the legs and shoulders. The timing has been perfect as we had visitors from Seattle, Barcelona and friends of my wife from Estonia. It has been a true pleasure to get up early and fire up the oven, bake bread then roast dinner as the oven slowly cools.

A couple months ago, we met a couple that own a small wood oven bakery in the nearby village of Tortella. They have been a great resource for advice on baking and repair for our wood oven. They also introduced us to a local miller that lives above the village in an old castle and mills organic rye, spelt and kamut.

On Sunday's we have been trying to shed the work clothes and go exploring. It is absolutely mind blowing how many beautiful villages and farms are tucked into the surrounding area. Heading into the Pyrenees mountains we have found several small villages with restaurants so good that we just look at each other and shake our heads.

The views are like a fairy tale with the sound of cows grazing and clanking their bells.

Heading East toward the coast, we have wound through olive orchards and vineyards down to the coastal villages Cadaques and Tamiriu. Again the food has been amazing and fresh. Our other favorite has been La Bisbal the center for antiques ceramics and my favorite, building salvage stores.

During the week, when Frida is in school, Kaire has been tilling the soil in our upper and lower gardens planting onions leeks and garlic. She has launched a small and personal war against all of the ivy and vines that covered all the stone walls and bridge. It has been a very long time since they were cleaned and the roots have penetrated deep into the cracks between the rocks. Sometimes we're not sure what is holding the rocks in place, the roots or the mortar. As a result we have embarked on an epic project of dismantling and repairing all the loose and cracked areas.

There is an old man at the hardware store that always tells me that with an old house demolition and build is one job doubled. Sometimes when we pull apart a section of wall with hundred pound rocks, I can't help wonder how long they have sat there and of the people who groaned and strained to put them there. Hopefully our small improvements will be looked upon in a few hundred years.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Our first month and a half have now gone by in a flurry of activity. Once the first weeks passed there was definitely a feeling that the honeymoon had ended and all that remained was a mountain of work. Each day or so that went by there was a new crisis, broken pipes, corroded water valves, no hot water, no water in the cistern, then we started to notice fine sawdust on the floors, on top of tables and realized we had critters eating the wood. After a thorough inspection, it was confirmed that we had two types of carcoma, or wood worms that were attacking our oak beams. It has taken a team of four guys almost a week to treat all of the smaller beams with three coats of a penetrating gel, and to drill and install valves into the large beams which then have the treatment pumped into the wood under high pressure. These guys have been true heroes working in 95 degree weather with long clothing and respirators.
Little by little things are progressing. We have now finished repairing and painting the large apartment's main room, demolished and rebuilt the small apartment's kitchen, and re-tiled the bedroom, and busted out the tile and cement on the main floor and installed new water valves. 
We've had many visitors including my brother and his friend, a former baker from the cafe, friends from the cafe and a friend from Estonia. It's great to have people to cook for and help out.
After a colossal rainstorm the nettles around the house bolted and we had white beans and nettles with the local sausages. Our garden has been pumping out the lettuce, tomatoes and greens as fast as we can eat them. A few nights ago some deer got in and ate our chard down to the ground but within three days it was back to it's original size. I think the combination of the heat and the volcanic soil make things grow much faster than I'm used to. 
Living in Spain there is always some kind of festival or event. A few weeks ago we were invited to the San Ferriol festival at the sanctuary on top of the mountain behind us.
It was called something like Sardinas i Vi, or sardines and wine. When we arrived, we were escorted inside to a giant hall with rows and rows of long tables filled with people eating grilled sardines and drinking bodega wine from plastic water bottles. Then came salad, grilled botifarra sausages, Cava and cake, then roasted almonds and Moscatell wine. At sunset, a large band set up outside and the dancing began. It was a great time and a chance to meet our neighbors. Everyone was very gracious and accommodating. 
During the heat of the day we have been walking down to the river to cool off. One of our neighbors has shown us a place where the river is dammed off into pools for swimming and small children. We have met many people from the village there.
Our Saturday's have been taken over by the flea market in Celra and the salvage yards in the neighboring village of La Bisbal. I've been geeking out at all of the beautiful antique tile that we can use for renovation. We have found a great stonemason and tile setter through one of our neighbors and he and his assistant have really helped to keep the projects moving forward.
This week the veterinarian will come to work on our donkeys, trim their hooves and possibly file down a spur on ones tooth.
Poco a poco as the locals say here. 

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

It has been twelve crazy days since we arrived at the Mas Costa house. The first few days were spent walking around in circles taking in the beauty and making lists of all the immediate tasks. In the ensuing week we have managed to register with the town hall, fill our nearly empty fuel tank for hot water/heat, purchase a vehicle, insurance, transfer the utilities, and Internet, and meet with the US consulate in Barcelona to complete a form to release our belongings once they arrive in port. 
We have also been meeting a lot of our neighbors. Once word got out in the village, people have been coming by to check us out. The other night we were awakened by crashing and thumping to find a neighbors donkeys had escaped and were under our house eating. The next morning we set about to find the owners. After a few calls, David came with his five year old daughter and we managed to separate the donkeys from our own donkeys, harness and get them tied to the bumper of his car while Frida played with the daughter. Our own donkeys, Montserratina and Dali, are finding their way into our hearts. Each time we come home they are waiting near the gate.
The house is completely beautiful and overwhelming. There is so much work to be done. The first days all we did was explore and try to find our way back. Now we are meeting with plumbers and architects to try to untangle the web of pipes and wires that disappear into into the masonry. Just getting a count of all the light bulbs we need for a fourteen thousand square foot house can be daunting. Slowly we are making lists of which apartments and rooms to begin renovating, which rooms need beds, lamps, windows repaired, showers tiled, floors repaired, paint, shelves and so on.
The flower and vegetables gardens are also a large project. We have begun pruning vines and turning over the soil. Even though it's late in the year we have started kale, chard and beets. Frida has picked out flowers for the courtyard and we have started a herb garden with sage, lavender rosemary and thyme. 
Our mornings have been spectacular. Sometimes as it is getting light outside the sound of hundreds of different birds begin their songs. On several occasions I have awakened to a roaring sound and looked outside to see a group of hot air balloons passing by in the early light. Sitting outside on the patio having coffee I can imagine all the scores of people that have lived here and looked out on this forest for the last four hundred years.
We have two neighbors that rent one of the apartments and have their own vegetables growing. Often there are squash and cucumbers left in front of our door when we get home. They have been taking Frida on walks in the evenings along with their little dog Ulsa. Ester, the woman has been teaching Catalan to Frida. Overall they have been an enormous help as they have lived in the house for the past two years and know a lot about its workings.
The kitchen downstairs also has much to do. The wood oven is in need of serious repair with the dome literally worn out. The smell in the oven room is still strong with burnt oak.  It has been really difficult to find someone knowledgeable to work on it. I don't think there are as many people using them here as there are in France. On the bright side, one of our neighbors is a Dutch cabinetmaker. I'm hoping he will help build some large tables and a long counter. 
As it looks now, we should be able to accommodate guests within the next couple weeks. Some rooms and one apartment will be ready, and I think the rest will follow. Anyone interested in coming to help work on the house or garden would be welcomed with a free, place to stay and meals.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Welcome to Mas Costa Besalu!

Springtime is just arriving as are we.  We are busily preparing for our arrival to our new home in Besalu from Seattle.  We hope to welcome you and share a new adventure very soon.

The Mas Costa house was built in the 16th century.  Guests will be able to enjoy three full apartments and seven individual rooms each with their own shower and W.C.  They can relax in several common salons and a large shared kitchen.  The main floor has a large dining area as well as a kitchen with a wood burning oven that we plan to develop for future classes and workshops.

The house is situated among oak forests with many hiking and biking paths that lead to numerous ruins and neighboring villages. It is a perfect place to relax, enjoy nature and unwind.

Located on the Camino de Sant Ferriol in the Garrotxa region of northeastern Spain, Mas Costa Besalu is well situated for travel to the Pyrenees, the Costa Brava, and a short trip from Barcelona or Perpignan.

More information and details for arranging your visit will be coming shortly. Feel free to email us at

We look forward to seeing you soon,
James Miller & Kaire Alvet