Saturday, 31 March 2007

Why visit Vilanova i la Geltrú?

In my daily work in sales, my colleagues and I often talk about the ratio of price versus quality. What we sell is an expensive product concept but in the end that is usually justified, since we do deliver very high quality.

This ratio comes to my mind when thinking about my new hometown Vilanova i la
Geltrú. Although I am sure there will be many local people who will loathe me for what I am about to say, let us be honest for a while. From more or less any point of view, our neighbour town Sitges beats Vilanova on quality aspects.

In Sitges, you have a nice historic church framing the horizon of the beach. In Vilanova you have to look at the certainly not so beautiful port area. In Sitges, you have fancy bar streets leading down to the waterfront. In Vilanova you have either the rambla de la Pau, still scarred by the Pirelli factory which historically used to occupy this site or, worse, the rambla de Lluís Companys, which must have been constructed to be able to serve as an emergency landing strip for the Barcelona Prat airport judging from how oversized and sterile it is. In Sitges, you have a maze of picturesque and clean small alleys while the centre of Vilanova often feels like a huge, dusty construction site. In Sitges, the beaches are flocked with the rich and beautiful people from Barcelona and the rest of the world while Vilanova tourism is dominated by people from the Spanish inland and I will spare you further comments on looks and wealth.

So, if you are one of those lucky people to whom money does not matter any longer, do not come here. Go for the best and spend your holiday in Sitges. If you get bored with the small town during your stay, take a day trip into Barcelona. Only in the Catalan metropolis will you be able to find more exclusive stores than you find there.

For the rest of us, anyone who reserves a certain budget for the vacation, Vilanova is a very good alternative. As you will have understood by now, under no circumstances can our town beat Sitges on quality, but neither do we charge the same prices.

Vilanova i la Geltrú has a lot to offer to tourists, especially to families with children. You have the whole town at a walking distance and moving around is easy on our broad ramblas, even if you bring a baby stroller. Although even our beaches tend to fill up for a few meters right next to the water, they are large and anyone who wants to avoid having their towels touching those of the next family, will find calmer places up in the dry sand. The beaches are, if anything, even shallower than those of Sitges. Last summer our biggest son was three years old and while we certainly kept an eye on him while in the water, we were not afraid to let him run around freely, since there are no stones to tumble on and there is plenty of time for a parent to react before a child can reach deep water. Thanks to the Red Cross our preferred beach, platja de Ribes Roges, is guarded and there is a first aid station close to the sea.

The same beach has a number of kiosks, xiringuitos, where you can buy drinks and snacks. If your children would ever get bored from being on the beach – ours do not – there are a number of playgrounds not far away and in the weekends, the club of local steam engine enthusiasts operates a mini-train service which all children seem to find very exciting.

Once the beach day is over, our town centre caters to most tastes and needs. Some evenings you might want to eat a full meal in a restaurant, while you might limit yourself to an ice cream or a beer during the others. Life is buzzing from all the people walking by and even a family with small children will be able to feel that they are in the middle of the action. The commercial area of the town is very concentrated and almost all of it is a pedestrian zone. You will not find any luxury shopping, but will recognize most of the mainstream brands which foreigners tend to associate with Spain; Zara, Massimo Dutti, Imaginarium etc. There are several supermarkets and pharmacies and in No. 10 rambla de Josep Tomàs Ventosa there is a shop being open until midnight every day.

In between the two main shopping streets, the rambla Pricipal and carrer Caputxins you have the Plaça de la Vila and the beautiful local town hall. In the late afternoons, this square is usually flocked with playing children while their parents are having a coffee, a beer or a glass of wine at the café on the square.

If you want to seek calmer parts of the town for a walk, we especially like two areas. The more obvious one is the picturesque centre of la Geltrú with its narrow, shady lanes and historic church and castle. The other one is the residential area leading up from passeig de Ribes Roges. Here you find some of this town’s best examples of “American villas” – big stand alone residences, usually with palm trees in the garden. In the 18th century, quite many people emigrated to Cuba and got so rich that they could move back again and retire in houses built in different styles which they had seen during their journeys.

Usually, we have a cinema downtown called Bosc, but it is currently being renovated. Foreigners should be advised, however, that in Vilanova movies for adults are usually dubbed into Spanish while those for children are in Catalan. In order to see movies in their original language version, you have to go to Barcelona.

With very few exceptions, Vilanova’s best dinners are being served in proper indoor restaurants. However, for a more exotic, with a tourist’s perspective “typically Mediterranean” dinner you can head back to one of the terrace restaurants along the beach promenade. There are in fact some places serving decent paellas and other local dishes, but I would recommend you to be a bit picky in your choice here, not to end up in a tourist trap. Again, the pavements are broad so there is plenty of room for restless children to play in.

When summing up your vacation expenses, I am confident that Vilanova will come out favourably when comparing quality to price. While Sitges is a place where you will be challenged to show off and pay a little extra in order not to look poor in front of your neighbours, in Vilanova you can relax and be sure to avoid pricy temptations. Just like you, the people at the next table will not order real champagne but go for the local cava.

And if you ever get bored with our rudimentary offer and want to splash out for an evening, relief is available next door. One of my colleagues at work likes to spread evil jokes about my adopted town but there is one advantage he can not deny us: Vilanova is very close to Sitges.

Recycling bin delivery service

Yesterday, when coming back from a work trip, I was surprised to see a small plastic bin and a pack of biodegradable waste bags waiting for me in our small hallway. There was also a small information brochure on the whys and hows of recycling organic waste, which means that we have now received all the things which our ajuntament earlier had promised that we would be able to pick up during information meetings, but which I was looking for in vain some week ago.

I will have to talk to our neighbours to check whether they also received these things delivered to their doors. In our household, it was our au-pair who received the bin and she did not really understand why someone had decided to bring these things to our door, instead of handing them out in the streets of the town, as originally planned.

Or maybe we should stop wondering about who was this unknown benefactor bringing us the equipment and jsut start doing the work to separate organic waste from the rest. Thanks to the providence of the ajuntament we do not have any good excuses not to do so.

Sunday, 25 March 2007

Recycling with difficulties

In a statement from our local Partido Popular (PP) organization, I have learnt that Vilanova holds a number of sad records. Among other things, they say that we have Catalonia’s highest number of burnt out recycling containers. My family and I often doubt about the efficiency of our local waste collection. Why should we spend time separating paper and cardboard from other waste if the material usually gets burnt before it has been picked up? Well, in the end I interpret the PP claims in a positive way. They reveal that the poor situation we see in our town is an extreme, so let us all be happy that things work better elsewhere.

Things are improving here as well. Because of a yet another construction site starting up right across the road from where we live, we have got rid of the eyesore recycling station we used to have there before. It forces us to walk much further to throw our waste, but that is a price we are prepared to pay.

Step by step, the local authorities are replacing the big street level containers with subterranean ones which leave only a row of slots, quite similar to post boxes, in the street level. I just hope that there will be some resources left to maintain them afterwards. Since their construction is quite a bit more advanced than that of the old ones, there are much more details which our local hooligans can see as a challenge to break.

Maybe the subterranean containers can even reduce the number of arsons in the recycling paper. Without any engineering background, I assume that you can construct a container which limits the inflow of oxygen and thus makes it difficult to put fire to the content.

In some areas the local authorities take the right measures. In other, I think that they are wasting there energy. During February, to all citizens of Vilanova the ajuntament sent out an invitation to a drive to improve the collection of organic waste. We were presented with alternative places and hours where we would be able to receive more information. So, one afternoon this week when I picked up my oldest son in pre-school, I told him that I would not be able to carry him on the shoulders as I usually do, since we would go and pick up the special bin for organic waste which we had been promised in the letter. We walked up and down the rambla Principal, not only the corner with carrer Cuba where we had been indicated to go, but did not find anything. Later in the evening my wife made a new attempt, but with the same results. With an optimistic perspective, I guess that the authorities had been so successful in handing out brochures and bins in earlier phases of the campaign that they did not have anything left for this week, but who knows.

This gives us a nice excuse to continue to mix organic with other residual waste. In the end, I truly wonder what the ajuntament wants to achieve with the separation of the first. I understand that organic waste can be transformed in to useful compost and that the recycling stations will be less smelly without rotting food waste. However, let us be realistic about how we are all living these days. At least in our household, the amount of easily separable organic waste is minimal. The rest is stuck to plastic films, aluminum foils and other packaging materials so greasy that for hygiene reason we do not want to put them in our packaging recycling bags.

My family is quite good at recycling domestic waste. Maybe, I am just prejudiced but I believe that the results of recycling are much better in our native Sweden than here in Spain. There, organic waste is usually accepted as a part of the residual waste. Anything but that I think makes the work so complicated that it scares people away from the beautiful concept of recycling.

Asian faces - not quite the touch

At this time of the year, we only have official places to go to if we need a massage. Summertime, there are alternatives. In general, Asian immigrants are rare here, but during the warm months you find a surprisingly high number of most often Chinese women walking up and down the beaches of Vilanova offering a massage.

Compared to the truly professional treatment at Mond Vertebral or similar places, they ask quite high prices, around € 10 for ten minutes. And, let us be honest about the fact that while an Asian face is good marketing in the massage business it does not automatically mean that the person has any skills or training. An additional inconvenient is that your body tend not only to be massaged, but also roughly peeled with the sand from your towel.

Having said all this, a massage on the beach has it advantages. First of all you do not need to plan it in advance, but just ask for it when you need it. More importantly, for anyone with a busy workday schedule, this service is available in the weekends as well, which is not the case at the proper massage establishments in Vilanova.

A touch of Asia - in Vilanova

The massage establishment which we had directly in the Sukhumwit Road sub-street where my family used to live in Bangkok, was considered up-market with local standards. The massage therapists were properly trained, always provided you with special clothes to use for the massage and worked in a perfectly hygienic, still intimate, Thai style decorated environment. However, as often, a premium price in Thailand is a bargain with Western European standards. As far as I remember it, a two hour massage would cost the equivalent of € 15-20. Two hours might seem a lot but they disappear fast, bearing in mind that a proper Thai massage should allow a dedicated time for each part of the body and usually half of the time is spent on the legs, something very uncommon in European massage schools.

For all the pain novices use to associate with Thai massage, my wife and I learnt to enjoy it and used is as an energizing escape from daily work. Throughout our years in Thailand, we were regularly reminding each other not to forget to find the time for a treatment, fully aware that things would one day be different. And totally different they are, not only here in Spain but everywhere outside Thailand.

When we first came to Vilanova, we were quite sure that we would have to go to Barcelona to have a high quality massage. Therefore, we were positively surprised when my wife discovered Mond Vertebral (Rambla Exposición, 31; phone: 93 814 10 52), quite close to where we live. This place offers such a long list of services that we first were afraid that they would not be able to do anything well. Luckily enough we were mistaken. Since we spend a lot of time in front of computers, what we want a massage to focus on is the back, neck and shoulders and it turned out that this place is specialising in treatments of
the spinal area.

The facilities are far from as spacious as we were used to in Thailand and the whole interior is an eclectic mix of influences from all parts of Asia. I would not say that it is stylish at all, but it does put me in a relaxing mode. The European people who run the place are at least as professional as the people we went to in Thailand and have the advantage of being prepared to openly discuss the treatments as such. This we never experienced in Asia and I do not think it was only for language reasons. In my opinion, Europeans are more used to question things while Thai people accept them, especially if carried out by an expert in a certain field.

This way, for example, we have finally grasped what moxa treatment is all about, something we came across in Asia, but always brushed aside as superstition. At Mond Vertebral we have learnt that it is a heat treatment with herbal sticks, making use of the same principles as acupuncture. I have certainly become a believer in it, since it liberated me of a spot pain which I had in my spine for a long time. While my medical doctor could not help me, the massage therapist using moxa managed to do so.

Mond Vertebral is a popular place and only accepts scheduled visits. They charge approximately € 35 an hour which I, although more expensive than what you pay in Thailand, consider a fantastic price - one of the benefits of living in small town, and not downtown Barcelona.

Sunday, 18 March 2007

Is it easy to learn Catalan?

Catalan is an Ibero-Roman language. In scientific research you will most likely learn that Spanish – or Castillano as it is usually being called here – and Catalan are not close enough for speakers of one language to understand the other, without any studies. Personally, I believe that if you speak Spanish and just accept to be exposed to Catalan, you will automatically develop an extensive understanding of the high degree of systematic difference between Catalan and Spanish grammar as well as vocabulary. Once you start to see the similarities, you will have it easier to identify and learn those words and structures which bear no resemblance at all.

Maybe it is because I live here in Catalonia, where both languages are being used, and not in a mono-lingual part of Spain, but I do think that a big part of the explanation to the lack of natural understanding between Spanish and Catalan is rather political than linguistic. Many Spanish speakers are happy to tell you how well they understand Portuguese and Italian without having studied the languages, but at the same time claim not to understand Catalan. This, to me, reveals that they see Catalan rather as an unnecessary statement of regionalism than merely as a language.

Unlike some tourists tend to believe, Catalan is the thriving, dominating language in North-Eastern Spain. If you listen to how local people speak, you might hear quite a lot of Spanish in the tourism and business areas of Barcelona, but not as soon as you come out in the rest of Catalonia. Vilanova is a good example. In our local supermarkets my family is usually the exception when speaking Spanish to the staff – the people in front of us as well as those behind us will be speaking Catalan. In spite of the many national Spanish speaking radio channels, broadcasting in Catalan totally dominates ether media so it take more energy to turn away from than tune in to Catalan radio or TV.

With this in mind, it is surprising how many people come to Barcelona to study Spanish. Among foreigners in Catalonia there is an evil joke that Spanish is such a popular language that the courses are expensive and always full while courses in Catalan have to be given for free. Well, this is not so strange since outside North-Eastern Spain the value of learning Catalan is limited. Here, however, knowledge of Catalan is needed if you want to integrate into society and as foreigners who have decided to live here, let us be grateful that the Catalan authorities are so generous. There are several dictionaries available for free on the Internet and many centres with special sections for self-studies of the language. In Vilanova, for example, there are two libraries of this kind.

However, if your spare time is limited and you try to learn Catalan through everyday interaction with local people, this is not easy at all. That is at least my experience. People here are social and helpful, so when you try to address them in Catalan, as soon as you make your first mistake in a sentence or need to replace a word with the Spanish alternative, you can be sure that the person you talk to will change for Spanish. Although the intention is good, this efficiently hampers opportunities to practise Catalan in daily life.

It is a bit of a contradiction that I found it easy to learn Spanish here in Catalonia through that method. Since few people here speak English, Spanish is the natural choice when speaking to foreigners and local people do not mind having to use their second language when communicating with you. Luckily enough this issue has been identified by the generalitat, so there are in fact a program matching foreigners interested in speaking Catalan with local volunteers who are strict in not answering in Spanish.

Still, what I would ask for is for Catalans to be more patient with us foreigners when we try to speak the language. Almost all of us master Spanish better than we speak your language, so when we try to do so, it can be assumed that it is with an intention to learn rather than by necessity. Since you are usually proud of your language, help building the knowledge of it with us new speakers.

Finally, in order not to be misunderstood, let me point out that I only speak for people who want to speak Catalan. Whenever the answer is given in Catalan when a foreigner or fellow Spanish citizen addresses you in Spanish, do understand that you will not come across as someone who is promoting his language, but rather as a rude person trying to avoid communication. That label certainly does not improve the outside world’s picture of Catalonia.

Last in the queue

Supposedly, “who is last?” is the most frequently asked question in Spanish shops. To have to address total strangers will make many Northern Europeans feel a bit uncomfortable. To make matters worse, the customers do not ask this to the staff, who at least have a formal role in establishing order in the store, but to each other. A tourist who feels lost in the queues of a local market or small shops, will have to take refuge to one of the new hypermarkets. There you find the same anonymous queues as we are used to back home.

Although intimidating to non-locals, the Spanish queue system can be very efficient. When coming into a store you can immediately head for the counter and ask the group of people waiting there who is the last – take note that they rarely stand after each other in a straight line –and then establish eye contact with that person. After that, you can without a problem go back to the shelves and start to select products. In case another person comes to join the queue, you are guaranteed that the person in front of you will point into your direction to indicate that you are waiting, although a bit further away.

This way of organizing a queue works also in more formal contexts. The first time I came to our primary care unit C.A.P. Jaume I here in Vilanova, I felt totally lost. At the reception the told me to sit down in the waiting room, right in front of the doctor’s office. Once there, I noticed how one patient after the other went in to the doctor. All of them seemed to know their turns perfectly, although the doctor did not come out to call any names. When I asked how the queue worked they answered me that I should just wait to be called, which felt very unfair since I had a specific hour for my appointment.

What I did not understand was that this was another example of Spanish queuing. People here tend to treat appointment hours less punctually than we do in Northern Europe, so the final appointment order is set up in the waiting room. When you get there you just have to sit down and wait. Do not be discouraged if it seems that the doctor has forgotten about you for a while. After a four to five people you can be sure that he will come out and check who has arrived. Among those of you who are present, he will establish your turns according to the original appointment hours. He will then expect you to enter into his office in that order without further intervention from his side. As you will understand, for local people here it is therefore perfectly normal to establish eye contacts with the other patients in a waiting room, while for many a foreigner this will feel like a lack of respect for people’s right to privacy.

I find the Spanish way of queuing quite distinctive from what I know from other countries. Catalans make a lot of noise about being different from the rest of Spain. Since I think that Catalan-Spanish similarities and differences are a highly interesting topic, I can promise to come back to it on this blog. When it comes to queuing, the Catalans behave like the Spanish. The fact that latter ask “¿Quién es el último?” while the former say “Qui es l’últim?” does not qualify as a difference.

Sunday, 11 March 2007

A Sunday when Vilanova lunched early

Sundays in Vilanova are usually quite calm. As a foreigner from northern Europe you might believe that there will be a lot of devout Catholics seen on the way to and from the churches, but that is not the case really. Although the Catalans are sometimes called Poles by evil tongues from Madrid, their behaviour is very far from real Polish Poles when it comes to religious clout. What really does pull them out into the streets, except for the frequent festas, are the store opening hours, but on Sundays shops are closed.

Last Sunday, after my wife and me had taken turns going to the gym, we decided to have lunch in one of the beachfront restaurants. Since it was not yet 2 p.m. we assumed that we would not have any problems to get a table although we had not made a reservation in advance. The whole of Spain eats lunch much later than people do in the rest of Europe, and 2 o’clock is rather on the early side for a Sunday lunch.

What we had not counted on was that people here, just like people in colder parts of Europe, look forward to the first day of spring and here it was. The Rambla leading down to the beach was packed with people. We had had warm sunny weekends already before this year, but those had not aroused the same feelings. This time we were in March so we could all enjoy the spring sun without having to at the same time give worried thoughts to global warming.

By the time we reached the beach promenade, all restaurants there had already been full for a long time. We had to make do with a place along the Rambla which, at least, had opened up its big windows so we could still have the full flavour of the special atmosphere in the city this day.

I still do not understand where all people came from since we have many months to go before the tourists start to flock the town. Can they all have been locals or did people come here all the way from Barcelona? But what a fantastic Sunday this was with the beach area suddenly full of people again, after the slow winter months. On days like that we feel very comfortable with our decision to live here in Vilanova.

On public healthcare in Vilanova i la Geltrú

Especially for families with small children, one of the first concerns after moving to a new country will be to understand how the public healthcare system works. After several years with private healthcare at one of Bangkok’s top hospitals, my wife and I were a bit sceptical about what we would find here in Catalonia. It is not without a certain feeling of resignation I realize how many times my family has had reasons to search medical care since we came here in 2005.

Like in many other countries, all outpatient matters start with a visit to a primary health clinic, a centre de atenció primaria (C.A.P.). Our C.A.P. is located right in between the main shopping street Rambla principal and the local fresh market. The building can possibly be called modern but certainly not interesting so I wonder if the late Catalan King Jaume I who has lent his name to the institution would think of what he is being associated with these days.

During office hours, this C.A.P. accepts a limited number of emergencies, but usually you come here with an appointment. As soon as you have your CatSalut card, these can be made centrally through the Generalitat, either by calling 902 111 444 or through a web-based reservation system. The latter has the advantage that you put in your social security number by yourself, which means that you do not have to spell out your strangely sounding foreign name letter by letter over the phone.

When registering with CatSalut you also have the opportunity to select your doctor at the C.A.P. My wife and I have made different choices, but both of us are very content with the health care service provided to grown-ups. Rarely have we had to wait for more than 30 minutes for our turn and the doctors instil the confidence you want.

I must admit that we are a lot less happy with the paediatrician ward. We are content with the doctors we see, but have had to see far too many. It seems that substitutes are rather standard than exceptions here. We have learnt that there is a general lack of educated paediatricians in Catalonia, and that most likely explains why the doctors here seem over worked and the waiting time by rule is longer than one hour although you have an appointment. A piece of advice to anyone on the way here is to bring some distraction for your children. To me it is almost absurd that in a waiting room for children of all ages there is only one toy. In case you are interested, this is a wooden toy suitable for twoyearolds, so for us it is too basic for our older one and almost too advanced for the younger one.

Once you have reached the doctor you will experience what we see as a big benefit with Spanish public healthcare, at least compared to what we are used to from Sweden. Doctors here might be blamed to be a bit too happy to prescribe medicines, but once you have a prescription from a doctor connected to CatSalut, medicines are heavily subsidised. If you, like us, have two small children attending to kindergarten and pre-school respectively, you will appreciate this.

Specialist and inpatient care in Vilanova is handled by the local hospital Sant Antoni Abat, housed in a beautiful historic building. Sadly enough, the person who drew the modern extension of the complex must have been requested to make a building which could double up as a bomb shelter when needed. If not, I can not understand how you can come up with such a poor matching of old and new architecture. The interior of this place is far from inspiring but still hygienic and a lot more welcoming than the environment at C.A.P. Jaume I.

The part of the local public healthcare system which my family knows the best, however, is the hospital Sant Camil in Sant Pere de Ribes, a small inland town in between Vilanova and Sitges. This is where we are referred for certain kinds of specialist care. It is the only hospital in the area with a 24h presence of paediatricians so it acts as the urgency clinic for children during weekends. This is also where we have our local maternity ward, so our second son was in fact born there. Since my wife had some minor complications at the end of the pregnancy she had to spend about a week more than normal in the hospital, but except for being bored from not being able to leave the bed, she was positively surprised with the institution. Above all, she was extremely happy to meet an understanding, Castillano-speaking midwife who did a wonderful job in making her relax as well as in delivering the baby – an experience very different from the nightmares which she had in the weeks leading up to the big day.

To sum up, so far we are quite content with public healthcare and have not bought any private medical insurance. For any newcomer in Catalonia I can advice you to trust the public system to start with and add a private insurance only when you are sure that you need it. However, I must admit that than more than one person has told me that to rely on public healthcare is a luxury which only people in the outskirts of the Barcelona province can allow themselves. They claim that anyone with a busy schedule and living in the city centre has to have a private insurance, since the waiting time with the public alternative simply is too long.

Sunday, 4 March 2007

Restaurants in Vilanova: Basque food at El Far

Whenever I go to the Basque country for business, I have a feeling that the pride of their cuisine is in the quality of the beef, while fish only takes a secondary role. At El Far (Passeig Marítim, 107; phone 93 815 42 07), it is the other way around. The menu lists some five meat based main courses, but the focus is on fish cooked and served in styles originating from different Basque provinces. Except for the Basque dishes, El Far also offers a nice selection of rice dishes, paellas and arrossos.

Already before your enter, you will notice a fresh, white interior and marina inspired high class textile tablerunners. El Far has been decorated with some old fishing equipment and the owners have managed to get the balance just right. With more props, the place would start to look tacky, but as it is now it adds to the flavour of the place.

This was one of the first places which people from Barcelona recommended my wife and me to go to when they learnt that we had moved to Vilanova i la Geltrú. Only last Friday, however, did we finally make it, letting the children stay at home. Although prices are moderate (starters around € 10, main courses at € 17 and desserts for € 5), I would place El Far among Vilanova’s up-market restaurants so we did appreciate to be able to enjoy the food together, rather than taking turns either eating or looking after the children. Except for that, this is a small place – less than 10 tables plus a small terrace – so there is not really anywhere but the street outside to escape to if you have to comfort a crying baby.

To be fair to the owners I do not think that they would have objected to us bringing children. Rarely have we met with such a commitment to make us like a place from the very first visit and such an interest in explaining how the different dishes are being prepared - an impressive personal service well on the same level as the quality of the cooking.

You do not go to el Far to see and to be seen. Theirs is a story about good cooking and the relatively small and niched menu makes it a place rather for special occasions than for regular weekend dinners. Some day we will have to try the rice dishes as well, but at least for next visit we look forward to continue to explore the Basque fish variations.

Leisure in VNG: Auqa - the No. 1 Sports Club

Only two years ago, when I first came to Vilanova with my family, the fitness club Aqua (C/ de Solicrup; web-page under construction) did not even exist but today, as far as I can judge, it is this town’s strongest local brand outside the restaurant sector. There might me some book and jewelry stores or real estate agencies which have a more solid reputation, but that is just because they have been around for longer. While such establishments at the best can hope for customer loyalty, Aqua is a part of people’s lifestyle. The club already works as a fitness and well-being based social network - this was the first place in town where I started to greet other people than our neighbours, although I must admit that being very reserved compared to all the super-social local members.

In all fairness Aqua did not start from scratch. The family who owns it used to operate the more modest gym Sama, so they already knew their clientele before they decided to invest in a big, free-standing construction. The stylish architecture and interior decorations were rapidly discovered by the experts of the industry and already in its first year was the club awarded a prize as Spain’s best privately owned sports facility.

As a member, you have free access to almost all activities and generous opening hours (from 8 a.m. to midnight Monday to Saturday and from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Sundays) plus a nanny service for children ages three and above. The weight lifting and cardio training area is well equipped and allows you to keep track of your progression, since all stations are connected to a computer network. The instructors of the scheduled classes all have a high profile and most foreigners will appreciate that the classes are in Spanish, not in Catalan. Finally, in the basement of the building there is a sophisticated spa area to which a massage service has recently been added.

A very large cafeteria and a meal delivery service are other things you find at Aqua, and you can question whether they really fit in with the rest of the concept. I guess that partly these can be ascribed to the caprices of diversification which a small entrepreneur can allow himself although it contradicts a more economical business sense.

Lately, I am happy to notice an increasing number of younger people. Can it be because of the earlier relatively high average age that the background music is so odd at Aqua. In other gyms I have been to, the music usually has a strong beat suitable for cardio training to encourage people to give a little extra. Not so at here. Theoretically, I might be able to accept experimental jazz variations and pan flute tunes as half-adequate for a spa area, but certainly not for exercise rooms. In the end, that is the only small flaw I see in the club and maybe the music choice just reflects the owners’ taste. They are clearly quite driven people, very busy with the continued promotion of their club.

Anyone who is not totally immune against billboard and newspaper ads can not have missed the fact that Aqua exists. Classes in workday evenings tend to be quite full, but on Saturday and Sunday mornings you virtually have all machines for yourself. I assume that the often repeated free-trials and bring-your-friend days are well chosen campaigns - the club can trust its members to be its most efficient promoters. However, since the owners seem to have money for further brand building, I would recommend them to change the message of the advertising. It is time to create and tell the story of Aqua. Whenever they come up with a sports bag or clothes looking as smart as the club itself, I will be fast to buy and show the rest of the town that I am a proud member. I can promise that I will not be the only one to do so.