“Mind the Gap”

Portbou to Colera – 3.77km

SPOT® Tracker, Open Street Map – Portbou to Colera 3.77km, 2.34mi

Scroll back-up to the map above, and you’ll notice something odd. The train station of Portbou covers more real estate than the town itself! With its steel and glass arches, imposing buildings and miles of tracks, this is a station that belongs in London alongside Kings Cross and Waterloo. Not here in a humble seaside town like Portbou. The scale is simply weird.

It would be hard to begin or end a swim here, without glancing around and wondering about the history of this enormous station. Don’t worry; we’ll soon be down at the beach, tweaking cossies and gobbing in goggles (what a charming bunch we are?). The station has no cafe to loiter in, and the high pitched screaming and screeching of an electronic bird-scarer, a Peregrine Falcon sound-alike, will drive you nuts.

The railway tracks between France and Spain have a ‘break-of-gauge’. Standard, Fr versus Iberian, ES or, simply put, different width tracks. This slight oversight was an apparent cock-up of two Spanish civil engineers (outstanding ones, research has it) with little to no experience in trains. Hence the two massive stations on either side of the Franco/Spanish border. Every year, millions of tons of freight are transhipped in one town and axles changed in the other.

Another version of events, claims this was a deliberate defence move to prevent those pesky Gaulois smoking neighbours to the north from invading. Not a bad idea, but a little tough on trade.

But it’s time to swim. Let’s leave those slightly odd (still-living-with-mother) anorak-wearing, Railfans, Foamers and Trainspotters alone. After reading those last few paragraphs, they will by now, be quite aroused with such talk of break-of-gauges and transhipping. “Rock on” – Ferroequineoligists.

22.5C “Roasting” Portbou sea temp, August.

My beach-changing rock was the exact one I used when ending my last swim ‘Crossing The Border’ from Cerbere, Fr. The forecast was excellent and the day warming-up nicely as I nodded “Bon Dias” to early morning, towel-toting, beachgoers. The sea in this pint-sized patch of the Med has such clarity and cleanliness. You could spend many a carefree hour here, doing absolutely nothing, but watching the fish go by.

Swimming close to shore, past the cemetery, with its to-die-for ocean views, I wanted to cross the harbour entrance asap at the narrowest point, head-up, on a swivel. That short sprint completed, the day turned into a quite a sociable, relaxing swim, which for a lone seal swimmer like myself, I thoroughly enjoyed.

On rounding the first headland, I stopped for a chat with a very happy, chubby, wanna-be spearfisher. Not entirely dressed for the occasion (his first, I’m sure) his smile and enthusiasm outweighed any lack of know-how. Confident that nearby seafood would be safe from the night’s menu, I bid him “adéu” and swam on.

(Every time I hear the locals call-out “adéu” when parting one another (they drop the “a”) I’m tempted to burst-out in song to Harry Belafonte’s, ‘Day-O.’ The Banana Boat Song . . . “Day O, Daa-aa-ay O, Daylight come an me wanna go home”)

Just inside Punta del Claper there’s an inviting cave that would entice any swimmer or kayaker to take a peek. Before entering, I always glance seaward keeping an eye out for any vessel wakes on the horizon. They can prove a tad scary once inside low sea caves. Or, in my case, a whole gaggle of my least favourite watercraft – Jetskis! – The leader of the pack (a guide I’m sure) caught my ‘wave-off’, acknowledged with his own and steered his high-speed, rooster-tailed-rice-rockets safety away. Hats-off to the guide. 

To swim – stroke, stroke, stroke, breathe — with endless mechanical repetition, without pausing to reflect on the beauty that surrounds us, is, in my opinion, an absolute insult to nature. Veer away from the straight line pool mentality. Ignore the clock, ‘x’ minute miles, and Strava-like goals. Swim into a cave, alone, pause, observe and be still – very still.

Back into the sunshine, I swam south to the rickety, crumbling steps leading down to Cova d’en Xamuixa. Below the cliffs, under a natural rock arch, I spotted a small cluster of pop-up tents. My earlier spearfishing friend had overtaken me while I was sea caving and was now waving me over to join them. After customary exchanges of ‘where are you from?’ I was invited ashore for a glass of Moroccan wine. Tempting –– but, my swim had only just begun. I thanked them (“shukran”) chatted some more, and swam on.

At the very height of summer, every anchorage, cove, coastal nook and cranny for the next 3km was packed to the gunwales with boats and bodies in every profile. Not usually my ‘cuppa’ (preferring solitude to crowds), I was pleasantly surprised and will cheerfully admit, enjoyed the calmness and good-natured warmth of every friendly wave and raised drink as I paddled past.

Bay of Colera with yellow Vies Braves swimming lane buoys.
Roughly the same area as the photo above, this image is from a Vies Braves information board

The final km to the beach in Colera is another excellent example of Vies Braves or Sea Swimming lanes. With so many swimmers, snorkelers and occasional kayaking interloper, I felt like an extra in that wonderful Fish Tank scene from Monty Pythons Movie, The Meaning Of Life.

“Morning . . . Good Morning . . . What’s up? . . . Not much . . . Hey look! Howard’s being eaten”

. . . and some views from a slightly larger fish tank – the Med.

Snakelocks anemone. The tentacles sting, but in some areas, it’s considered a fried delicacy,
Ensalada del mar, Sea Urchins, Peacocks Tail, and Mermaid’s wine glass.

Colera has been described as the quietest village on the Costa Brava (well, perhaps not in August). I’ll add to that, as a marvellously uncrowded setting for Open water – Triathlon – Ocean – Wild – Cross-Country or just plain ole swimming. Not to mention, free parking, a five-minute walk from the rail station to the beach, Vies Braves, showers and a beach bar. . . “Cheers.”

All around the world, people love to swim. Young or old, wobbly or trim, firm or infirm – to the water we are all equal. But what draws us back time after time? For me, it’s enough to know that I always leave the water feeling happy.

Tessa Wardley – The Mindful Art of Wild Swimming

. . . and here’s that ‘Fish Tank clip’ from the ‘The Meaning Of Life‘ which will have the same effect.

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