Last Days

October 24, 2010

Catherine is spending the day representing her cancer-support group at a senior fair today. We host a French Sunday lunch (a tradition for all France) at our place for Stephan. We start with olives, and bread rounds with tapenade and eggplant “caviar.” H cooks herb omelets and we also have garlic pan-fried potatoes and a tomato, lettuce and shallot salad. We enjoy a cheese course but no dessert—we’re full.

Before we left for our sojourn to Dordogne, there were incredible winds here—a usual occurrence this time of year in this area of France. In Dordogne, we got used to quiet sleeping (no winds). Now we are blasted with winds that you cannot believe 24 hours a day. I’m not sure I can sleep!

We spend the rest of the day planning our departure in two days time.

October 25, 2010

Catherine has invited us to lunch along with a friend, Jane. Jane and her husband, Graham, live in England but visit their vacation home in France (up the road) fairly regularly. Graham is away on business.

Catherine “throws together” a lunch. Stephan says “Can’t Catherine make a well-put-together-meal for a change? Must she always throw together our meals?” So that tells you everything you need to know about Stephan—HA!

So here is the “thrown together” lunch (get ready for this!): in the sun-kissed sitting room we have an aperitif of Pineaux de Charante with hard-boiled quail eggs dusted with sweet paprika, and toast with garlic rub, tomato juice and hand-shredded bits of tomato, topped with dried ham. At the table we enjoy a lunch of duck breast cooked in Pineaux de Charante and dried cranberries; steamed leeks; and lentils followed by an arugula salad. Our lunch red wine comes from a Provencal area where Cat’s son was married earlier in the year–delicious. After the cheese course we were treated to some XO cognac and then the dessert of French macaroon cookies was served. It was all just thrown together—HA!

Stephan provided the entertainment after lunch (and he’s usually entertaining during lunch too). We asked him to tell Jane a joke that he had told us early in our visit and it had become a bit of an inside joke ever since. He said it was his #6 joke. (My retelling of it would not do the joke justice.) So I said “Well what’s your #1 joke?” And we got to hear the #1 joke told in his theatrical style. We all laughed until we drooled.

During our lunch the wind was blowing like you couldn’t believe! At one point we were not sure if the cat was running very fast by the windows or if it was getting blown past the windows. Soon after the cat’s “flight” we see all the patio furniture blow by the windows! The wind was so strong we had to truly struggle to get to the front door of our apartment. We remembered that the last time we had the dogs here, the two poodles were nearly blown off their feet. We will not miss these incredible winds.

October 26, 2010

It is time to wave a fond farewell to the Hartleys and to France. It has been a fantastic trip. Catherine and Stephan have been incredibly gracious to us—after all, guests are like fish; they begin to smell after 5 days. And we’ve been here 3 weeks! If we overstayed our welcome the Hartleys were extremely good at hiding it. It’s not often at our age that you meet new friends. We have been incredibly lucky that our paths crossed and we enjoy each other so much.

To the airport! We have paid extra for bulkhead seats on the way back. At least we will have some legroom. But we discover that it’s yin and yang. You have great legroom but, since the tray tables are in the armrest, the seatroom is diminished. So my legs were comfortable but my derriere was asleep most of the time. Live and learn.

We arrive home at 10pm after having been up for about 26 hours. The “boys” were as happy to see us as we were to see them. I think we’re going to relax at home-sweet-home for a few days before facing the real world.

A bientôt, France! (See you later, France!)

Pézenas and Richard II

October 23, 2010

It’s joyous to sleep in—we have no plans for the morning. But we have invited Catherine and Stephen for a grand lunch in thanks for putting up with us for 3 weeks at their beautiful apartment. Our first thought was to enjoy lunch at a 1-star Michelin restaurant in a very small village nearby. But it is closed and we are glad it is because instead we enjoy a lunch at L’Entre Pots in Pézenas (8 Avenue Louis Montagne). We have been to Pézenas many times and have never discovered this fantastic restaurant.

The décor is lovely and clearly this place is a favorite—all the tables are taken. We start with rosé champagne—oh, la, la it is good. The next course is a fantastic lentil soup with garnishes of escargot and pigs feet (H says the best course and that’s saying a lot considering the following courses). For the main course Howard and Catherine have medium rare-cooked tuna on a bed of risotto; Stephan and I have about an inch thick cut of veal with aligot (a regional mashed potatoes of sorts) and a nice mélange of vegetables. Some might argue that dessert is the very best course: Baba au rum—a very light cake flavored with rum that is cooked in an old-fashioned canning jar (with a lid that clamps down on the top) served with custard cream. A large bottle of rum is served on the side in case the cake’s rum is not enough. We will kill for that recipe! Catherine asks the server if the chef would give it up. We translate the response as something like No Chance!

The Harleys make us order the wine—what pressure! On the wine list H and I recognize one wine-maker’s name, R. Poujol. We love Domaine du Poujol’s rosé wine! But we still bow to the expertise of the sommelier. And he recommends the same wine!

It is a fabulous lunch. We return home to rest up for our evening soirée, a reenactment of Shakespeare’s play Richard II, a fund-raiser for the cancer support group in which the Hartley’s are involved.

Stephan has thankfully gives us a synopsis of Richard II on our way to the location of the play, a patron’s home in a village far away (it seems) from home. I am amazed that Cat can find it! Without that synopsis all four of us would have been sawing logs 15 minutes into the play. When the play is introduced (at 7:30pm), they tell us that the first part of the play before the intermission will be about
1 ½ hours; and the second half will be about an hour. What??!! We’ll never make it…

The play is to be held at a personal residence—a typical old and large French village house. There are two HUGE Labrador retrievers living at the house. The improvised “theater” is a large room with a sitting area, a dining room and, at one end of room, there is a sunroom section for the stage. It is a very intimate setting.

The players tell us that the characters of the play will be represented by symbols and proceed to show us the symbols of each character of the play. For example, King Richard’s character has a person behind him/her that holds up their hands in an array behind the king’s head representing his crown. The purpose of these “symbols” is to be able to recognize each character since the actors are not in costume. It seems weird at the beginning but this idea is the foundation of the very interesting approach to this Shakespeare play. During the play each character has two or three people along-side them and these ancillary people mime components of the character’s personality to give the audience a multi-faceted view of the character. For instance, a very old man in the play would have one “main” actor saying the dialogue of the character (and the main person playing the character would change constantly) while 2 or 3 people would literally be hanging onto the main actor (like they are one body) but moaning like an old man in pain or really scowling to show his personality. It’s difficult to describe—I should have video-taped it.

All four of us say later that we were not at all bored or unfocused on the play during the 2 ½ hours. It was incredibly interesting and made us want to see other Shakespeare plays. And talking with the actors after the play was almost as fascinating as the play itself.

There was one funny situation that occurred during the play. One scene had two actors playing barking and howling dogs. Well, the dogs of the household started barking like mad and a visiting little poodle (named, of all things, Patricia) in the “theater” struggled to run up to the actors. But the actors stayed in character in spite of the distractions.

Dordogne IV

October 22, 2010

We wake up to ice again. Our friends from the night before have all stayed over. That must be a nice bit of business for Madam. We have the usual wonderful breakfast except that we have fresh croissants. As the other people check-out I see that the last jar of melon jam has been purchased! Oh no! But Madam assures me that there is more and I then have my jar of melon confiture to enjoy at home and remember the farm in France.

We decide to forego the planned visit to Grotte Cougnac on our way back home; we’ll save that visit for another time. We visit the beautiful village of Sarlat on our way back. We arrive just before 10am and it is COLD. We find a knife shop and indulge our love of knives—kitchen and pocket-wise. We buy a nice Nontron kitchen knife (made in the nearby village of Nontron) in a size we don’t yet have. Our knife-urges are not completely satisfied so we return later to buy H a small pocketknife. He chooses a lovely one with a handle made of horn. Surprisingly it turns out to be a child’s knife—with a blunt end and a blunt edge. It is an interesting addition to his pocketknife collection.

We stop at a café for coffee and try to warm up. The café advertises that it is in Rick Steves’ 2010 guide. That guy really gets around!! We take a walking tour of the village. We find the hotel that we stayed at on our 1st trip to France in 1992. We also find the restaurant where we had lunch in 2003 with our Leo, who died earlier in the year—the picture of Leo on H’s lap at this restaurant is a bitter-sweet remembrance.

We come upon a lovely shop with a huge variety of jewelry (Andrea Creations, 6 rue Tourny) and H finds a beautiful shell ring for me—one more birthday gift! I’m so lucky! I think the lady says it’s called Shell of Lucy. She shows us that it is actually the “plug” to the end of large turban snail shell. We buy some gifts too. As I think back on it, we should have looked for more treasures to buy.

We would have loved to have lunch in Sarlat but it’s too early and too cold to wait around. We decide to take the scenic route home so that we can stop for lunch in a village along the way. An hour into the scenic drive we decide we’d rather get home as soon as possible; it’s been a long but great trip. So onto the auto-route we go (the fast way).

The drive back is longer than I first planned. Four and a half hours later we arrive home. We sneak in without disturbing Catherine and Stephen. They have a soirée to attend that evening. We snuggle in at the apartment, drink wine and have a cheese, pate and bread dinner. What could be better?!

Dordogne III

October 21, 2010

We wake up to a thin layer of ice covering the ground—boy, is it cold. But thankfully our room stays nice and warm. The dining room is inviting with a big fire. Another great farm breakfast except the croissants are day-old. That is a disappointment after such delicious croissants the day before.

We have to spend some time scraping the ice off the car before we head out for our day of caves. The car thermometer says it’s 1 degree C—the inside of the caves will be warmer than the outside for a change!

First stop is Lascaux. Of all the decorated caves, by far the most famous and spectacular is Lascaux. It houses the most magnificent collection of ice-age art yet found. It is best known for its 600 brilliant paintings of aurochs, horses, deer and signs but it also contains almost 1,500 engravings dominated by horses. The best known feature is the great Hall of the Bulls containing several great auroch figures, some of them 15 feet in length. The “falling horse” figure in the cave is painted around a rock in such a way that the artists could never have seen the whole figure at once yet the figure, when flattened out with photographs, is in perfect proportion. Other unique features of the cave include a figure called the unicorn and a human-like figure with a bird’s head next to a wounded bison. Stone tools for engraving; mortars to grind the pigments; evidence of scaffolding; and well-preserved lamps were also found.

The cave was discovered in 1940 by 4 boys after their dog, Robot, fell in a hole linked to the caves. The art dates back 15,000 years. It was closed to tourists in 1963 because fungus and calcification was threatening the paintings (due to the human presence in the cave). A “copy” of the most amazing areas of the cave (to within a centimeter of the actual cave’s dimensions) was opened in 1983.

We visited near-by Montignac for lunch. The entire village was decorated with hand-made flowers. Every street and alley had canopies of these flowers with each street having a unique color. We stopped at a little restaurant for lunch. I had a 3 cheese crepe and H had steamed mussels and French fries. We indulged in one sugar and lemon crepe (to share) for dessert.

Our afternoon cave stop was Grotte de Rouffignac. We had intended to skip this cave because we had seen it a few years ago—and we were really impressed with it then. But after just seeing 5 other caves we made a last-minute decision to visit to refresh our memories about the features of this cave.

We are in luck—the tour begins immediately upon our arrival. But we are not so lucky because we are sharing the tour with about 30 elementary school children! I guess that means the tour will be in French—HA! The tour by a little train takes twice as long as normal so that the guide can elaborate about the caves and quiz them about what they have learned so far. But it is well worth the visit.

The cave was known as far back as the 16th century but the cave art was officially discovered in 1955. The art includes etched and life-size black drawings of animals dating back 14,000 years. At the end of a long decorated tunnel is a ceiling covered with 65 black drawings of horses, bison, mammoths and Ibex—this area is what impressed us the last time we visited. Although the ground has been excavated for the train but the original height of this decorated area was less than 3 feet—painters were working in an area where no light penetrated (using torches and lamps) and in an area with no room to see the entire animal being drawn. In spite of those limitations the animals are life-size and perfectly proportioned. There are lots of graffiti—some was cleaned off the art it obscured. There is also a unique abundance of traces of cave bears—hibernation dens, bones from bears who died in hibernation, and extensive claws marks on the rock surfaces.

When we arrive back home, we discover the dining room is set up for 2 new parties totaling about 20 people. I guess we are in for a French soirée (evening party).

We have our usual aperitif of walnut liqueur. For dinner we have, as a 1st course, lentil soup. That is followed by our 2nd course of boudin and apple sausage (blood sausage with apples—a regional dish) in puff pastry. H does not want me to hear the word boudin but I do hear it and I am brave and enjoy the dish very much. The main course is veal and mushrooms in puff pastry with those delicious garlic potatoes from our first dinner. Then walnut salad followed by my favorite fromage blanc with jam. We cannot even consider dessert—I think we have insulted Madam. But we will not pass up a digestif of pruneux.

Dordogne II

October 20, 2010

We slept 9 hours and awoke fully rested. We had a fantastic farm breakfast: delicious freshly-baked croissants, fromage blanc with jam, farm-made grape juice, cheese (a choice of several aged cheeses), dry-smoked ham, pate and the wonderful coffee with warm cow’s milk. Now we are fortified for the day!

Our first stop is the Grotte de Font-de-Gaume, officially discovered in 1901 but the graffiti dates back to at least the 1850s. This is the last multicolored cave open to the public; Lascaux (discussed later) and a multicolored cave in Spain are now closed to the public. The number of people and the time in the cave is strictly regulated. It’s possible that this cave will be closed too in the near future.

There are 230 animal paintings and engravings that are about 15,000 years old. We have seen artists’ recreations of these incredible paintings and we had it in our minds that the paintings would be as vividly colored as the recreations but that is not the case. The tender scene of the stag licking the doe is only seen because the outline was scratched by the artist into the surface of the rock—the color is gone.

The first part of the cave was originally decorated but there is nothing to see today due to weathering. The cave includes multicolored and etched galleries containing a series of bison and another series of dramatic leaping horses. Unfortunately one lady kept asking long stupid questions and we ran out of time in the cave.

We had a light lunch of wild mushroom omelets at a restaurant in Les Eyzies that turned us away the last time we were here in 2002. I’ve held a grudge ever since. So I was happy to finally overcome what I thought was an anti-English/American attitude. Our lunch was very nice.

Next stop was Abri du Cap Blanc to see a 14,000 year old frieze of several remarkable deeply carved horses with a bear at one end and a bison at the other end. It was discovered in 1909 and partially destroyed by workers excavating the rock shelter in which the sculptures are found. The other caves we had seen had animal that were etched into the rock but the animals in this cave were actually carved from the stone in high relief.

Last stop of the day was the Grotte des Combarelles with images dating from 15,000 to 12,000 years ago. It was officially discovered in 1901. The cave is a narrow, winding gallery with an original height of no more than 7 feet and a width of no more than 3 feet but many areas were originally small enough to require crawling. The cave was excavated to lower the floor so that you can now walk in it. There are lots of amazing stalactites and stalagmites. It has over 300 etched/engraved recognizable figures but there are at least 100 unrecognizable figures superimposed on other figures. There are a few black drawings. There are about 50 human-like images (very unusual to find human figures) but they are stylized and there are a few sexual symbols (vulvas and penises—but I think someone had to really use their imagination to determine that). The yakky lady was in this tour also but she must have run out of questions—thankfully.

We were alone at dinner that evening and started with the home-made aperitifs. The 1st course was sorrel soup; 2nd course we can’t remember (!); 3rd course was pork cutlets perfectly grilled with a mélange of nicely cooked vegetables; 4th course was green salad with walnuts; then fromage blanc and jams; and we could not resist dessert: crème brulée for me and chocolate & orange cake for H. We try the home-made pruneux (plum) digestif—Madam includes a prune in our glass along with the wonderful liqueur.

To bed again shortly after dinner and strange dreams that night.

Dordogne I

October 19, 2010

It’s my 58th birthday!! And we are off to the Dordogne region of France to visit the prehistoric caves. We have educated ourselves to some extent. Our friends, Bob and Brenda Berry, gave H a great book on hypotheses of the origin of the caves’ “decorations” and we read several more books on the subject. But really no one knows exactly how and why, more than 10,000 years ago, prehistoric (Cro-Magnon) people decorated caves.

We experienced rain and incredible fog on our way there (about 200 miles). The crazy French drivers were passing in the fog—and I could not see more than 2 car lengths ahead of me! We drove cautiously and made it all in one piece. The Hartley’s Ford Focus is great! We found all gas stations open along the way and for good measure we filled up close to our ultimate destination.

Our first stop is the Grotte (cave) du Pech Merle, originally discovered in 1922 but other parts of the cave were discovered in 1949. The cave art dates back 25,000 to 13,000 years ago. The cave is known for its brilliant cave art depicting mammoths, bison and horses. The masterpiece is a spotted horse panel over 12 feet in length. The artists used the rocks’ shapes to enhance the bodies of the animals and create a 3-dimensional effect. It is surmised that the 3-D effect created a sense of motion as fire torches or candles were used in navigating the cave. This cave is also known for mud-preserved Cro-Magnon footprints; an extensive amount of painted symbols (dots, circles, geometric images that occur in other caves in the region); hand prints (minerals made into paint were blown from the mouth over the hand or fingers); and some stylized female figures.

There is only speculation (no one truly knows) about how many people created these cave decorations and why. Was it just one person or a few chosen people? Did successive generations create images on top of the “old” images? Did people in the same general geographical area share symbols/myths? Was it for religion or hunting rituals or what? It is pretty well-established that humans never inhabited the caves—they lived outside the caves and only used them for their efforts at decoration.

Another interesting thing about the cave animals is that the images show perspective—an art component lost after this time and rediscovered in the Renaissance era. The legs on the other side of the body of the animals might be without color or there is space between that leg and the animal’s body—all to show the perspective of the legs. Some animals are smaller possibly to make them appear to be in the background of the larger animals. Some animals have many legs maybe to show motion. When animals face each other they are different colors—one red and one black, for example. It’s theorized that one symbolizes male and the other female. The animals are never fighting and, in one case in a cave we will see tomorrow, it appears that a stag is licking a doe that lying on the ground in front of him—a tender scene.

Another interesting cave feature is the “pearls.” Limestone drips off the ceiling onto pieces of rock the size of sand. The sand particle rolls around as limestone coats it. Over millennia that piece of sand becomes a perfect “pearl” with about a ¾ inch diameter.

Many of the cave paintings have been destroyed by vandalism; inadvertent contamination (human breath increasing the humidity in the cave or the transference of bacteria from people’s hands when they touch the rock surface); or ignorance. One site we visited was nearly destroyed by workers excavating the site and not paying attention to what was dug up.

So back to our Pech Merle visit. In a group there is always one person who hogs the limelight and ruins it for others. An American man who “strutted” his knowledge of French (maybe I’m just jealous of his language skills), who had a girlfriend with a nose-ring like a pig, gobbled up a good amount of our allotted time (the time allotted to groups in the caves is strictly controlled to preserve the paintings) embellishing our tour-guide’s French remarks (although I think she did a good job describing the tour in English). I think our tour guide was as sick of him as we were by the end of the tour.

After our cave visit we were on our way to Auberge Veyret, a working farm with both rooms and meals (breakfast and dinner) just outside of the village of Les Eyzies (recommended by Rick Steves). Our room looks just like a bedroom at your grandma’s house and it has the French “signature” rolled pillows. The farm dog has 6 or 7 “toes” on each back foot—weird. And in the morning it smells like a working farm!

Madam and her daughter and son-in-law run the B&B& D (bed & breakfast & dinner). The food served comes straight from the farm: chicken, duck, pork, fresh cow’s milk and cheese, apple & grape juice, dry-smoked ham, pate, apples, walnuts, jams, aperitifs, digestives and more! For dinner we started with home-made walnut liqueur and Pineaux de Charante. 1st course was white bean soup; 2nd course was dry-smoked ham with sliced tomatoes in vinaigrette; 3rd course was Duck a l’ Orange (the farm’s duck) with really tasty garlic potatoes; 4th course was green salad with walnuts; 5th course was fromage blanc (an un-aged cow’s milk cheese maybe a bit like cottage cheese but with very small curds and not the sharp taste of cottage cheese) with home-made jams (blackberry, fig, rhubarb and melon—I LOVE the melon.); and last course is dessert which we politely declined. The coffee they serve is wonderful—not espresso (which is the norm in France) but a really flavorful, “American” (i.e. drip) coffee. A couple of Italian men were in the dining room with us the first night but I don’t think they stayed over—they were not at breakfast.

We were in bed by 9pm—about 20 minutes after finishing our grand dinner but fortunately we had antacid tablets!

Languedoc I

October 18, 2010

The high-velocity winds have hit our area of France. So things have cooled off considerably and we must hand onto our hats when we leave the apartment. I am glad that a purchased a beautiful scarf in Barcelona. I wear it like a French woman and it keeps me very warm.

We have been given the keys to the brand-new Ford Focus. Stephen told me they bought the car just for us so I asked if I could take it home! It navigates through the narrow streets like a small car but it is a 4-door model and so seems like a mid-size model. It’s diesel but has great pick-up, is quiet and does not smell like diesel—one of those 21st century diesels.

The Hartleys have an engagement so we take off for a day on our own. We drive up into the hills to discover nice views of the hill-tops, the valleys and the vineyards. We are looking to buy some wine but we discover that everything is closed until 2pm so it’s time to have lunch. We find a café in the village of Aniane. The pizza looks great! I order a crème, onion and goat cheese pizza and H orders a pizza with tomato sauce, bacon and cheese; the pizzas are accompanied by great salads. For dessert I get Iles Flotant (I may have really messed up the spelling but it’s “floating islands”—meringue cooked in a “liquid” custard. I’m really messing the detail description up but use your imagination and know that it is delicious. H orders crème brulée.

After lunch we look for and find Mas de Daumas Gassac winery. We first purchased wine from the winery through Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant many years ago. In 2000 we visited the winery with the Berrys. In 2008 we discovered that the winery was fairly close to the Hartleys and they had already discovered the great wines of this wine-maker. Get the movie “Mondo Vino” for a glimpse into the winemaker’s vision. He single-handedly stopped Mondavi from desecrating the area for winemaking in this area of France.

We have been to the winery at least 3 or 4 times and always had the same gracious lady offering us the tasting. But this time we had a young wiper-snapper who was anxious for us to buy the wine and get out. It was very unsatisfying. We purchased their 2nd label wine that we recently purchased at home and left. Our stop at the Monetpeyroux cooperative, where we had purchased wine a few days earlier was a better experience. We purchased more of the same and the lady was very helpful. I asked about a bakery for bread and she laughed—it’s Monday and no one is open. Bummer…

We get home and fill Stephen and Cat in on our day. I need to make a few reservations for the caves we are to visit in the next 3 or 4 days. Some I can book over the internet—that’s easy. One I have to call. The man laughs at my French. Now that’s nice to hear—I hate ridicule! We had hoped to have Fabienne give us a refresher course in French before we left but there was too much to do. But I feel very happy with my French on this trip thanks to Fabienne’s great instruction over the years. I do not hesitate to speak French and when I do people seem to understand me. So, Merci, Fabienne—we will be back for your help!

We are experiencing France as never before. There are general strikes in France now as a result of the French government suggesting change to the retirement age. The current retirement age is 60yo and the proposed change is to 62yo. A general strike means that all public employees in France stop work. The oil refineries have been blockaded. So there are panic “runs” on the gas stations. It is expected that 50% of all flights out of the Paris airport will be cancelled. There is some worry that our trip home might be affected but that is a week away. We can investigate flying out of Barcelona if we run into problems. We’re confident that we’ll be able to get home on time.

Barcelona to Girona

October 16, 2010

I am very happy with my silicon earplugs! They truly block out about 80% of the noise. I sleep very well in spite of the revelry that lasts until 2am. But everyone else suffers. H says that the earplugs hurt so he doesn’t use them. And the Hartleys don’t find them as effective.

I wake up and I can’t believe that it’s 9am; our alarm malfunctioned—and we are to check out at 10! We scurry around and are actually ready to go in 45 minutes. Cat fixes us all breakfast and we rehash the night before. H says: What the drummer lacked in skill he made up for in stamina. Cat says: H doesn’t say much at breakfast but what he says is good! At least the sewer smell has substantially gotten better.

The check-out lady arrives and speaks French (she’s from Morocco). So Cat gives her an earful about our problems. She also says that no one has complained about the noise. Oh, I give up on all this turmoil!

Our 1st stop on the way home is a great factory outlet mall. Clothing is France is incredibly expensive! And clothing sales are heavily regulated. The idea is that no retailer should have any advantage over other retailers. So clothing sales are only allowed on a few authorized days of the year—everyone has sales at the same time. This is the place draws both Spanish and French shoppers.

I buy a few L’Occitane items (a bath and skincare line from Provence that I particularly like) at greatly reduced prices; and H buys two Timberline shirts (regularly 60E for 15E). We were happy with our reduced-price purchases that we bargains even with the current exchange rate. We also make a stop at Starbucks for coffee, hot chocolate and pastries. This 11am coffee and pastry stop each day is getting to be a nice habit!

 

Girona is our next stop. We have a quick tour of the town’s medieval centre.

Girona street

There is really a lot to see: Roman ruins, a cathedral and historical museum. But those sites must wait for another visit. We search for a place for lunch as we wander the streets and alley-ways. Catherine eschews the 20E menu restaurants—she remembers how inexpensive Barcelona was. We finally find a little place off the beaten path, Bar la Pedra (18 Carrer Mercaders), that has the 10E menu Cat has been searching for.

Our 1st course was a delicious salad: greens with a nice large slice of goat cheese, apples, bacon, walnuts, small dried berries or grapes and the dressing was olive oil and reduced pomegranate juice. For our 2nd course, Stephan had squid with rice and the rest of us had cannelloni stuffed with meat and béchamel sauce. Both courses were delicious! The wine tasted like it was the “paint scraped from the walls” as Stephen said. So the guys ordered beer. Dessert was not exciting—purchased ice cream cups with coffee liqueur for the 3 of us and Stephen had peaches in syrup from “a tin.” But for 10E each it was very good for Girona.

Last thoughts on Barcelona:

  1. Very clean city
  2. Few beggars; no homeless
  3. Friendly people
  4. Don’t need to know much Spanish; most people are happy to communicate in English
  5. Not expensive—10E lunches including a glass of wine are not uncommon
  6. Very colorful graffiti and garage door art
  7. Best market in the world per the Hartleys—I think Stephan said they’ve been in nearly 30 countries (it’s best market we’ve ever seen but we’ve not been around the world)

We arrive home at 6:30 and look forward to relaxing for the evening. It is lots colder than when we left. We even have to turn on the heat. But we sleep like babies with only the noise of the wind.

 

In Barcelona III

October 15, 2010

My silicon earplugs worked perfectly but everyone else had a terrible night. I sent an e-mail to the owner complaining. How could she rent an apartment over a nightclub??!! I also called the apartment manager because the Harleys’ bathroom had a horrible sewer smell. Oh, brother…

We started our day with a walk along the harbor and the beach. The beach was very inviting; it must be packed in the summer. There were industrious entrepreneurs sculpting sand-art hoping for a few coins for their efforts. (We gave up a few coins so it works.) The weather was lovely—sun peaking in-and-out of the clouds. We stopped and had coffee and pastries.

We then caught a taxi back to the harbor’s shop area; did a little shopping; enjoyed Sangria; and headed off to the market so that I could video the experience. We looked for available seats at the market’s tapas bars for our lunch but it was hopeless. So we wandered away from the market along the many little streets and finally found Dostrece, a small little place with a 10E lunch menu.

We started with a great zucchini soup and nice bread with a red bell pepper dip (roasted red peppers pureed with garlic and olive oil). Catherine had a vegetarian rice dish; I had meatballs and mashed potatoes with tomato sauce; and H and Stephen had chicken brochettes with couscous. The chocolate pudding for dessert was great—it had South American spices added: all for 10E each including a glass of fairly good red wine.

We took a taxi to Montjuic, the hill overlooking the city centre. This area was chosen as the stage for Barcelona’s 1929 World Exhibition. It got a face-lift later for the 1992 Olympics and was renovated then again in 2000. We visited the Poble Espanyol (Spanish village) —116 houses located on 5 acres. Each house is a reproduction of one of the numerous architectural styles from all the regions of Spain. I stop at a jewelry store specializing in amber and find a beautiful bracelet. The beads are a mosaic of different colored amber. It’s mine!

We then walked down hill to view the Museum of Catalonian Art housed in what was the main pavilion of the 1929 Exhibition. The Font Màgica (Magic fountain) flows down on a series of terraces from the front of the museum. There is a lights-and-music show at the fountain in the evening but, unfortunately, it was not flowing when we were there. From the museum you can look down the hill and see the Avenue of Queen Maria Cristina with all its monuments and fountains that are laid out before you.

After a 7 hour day we caught a taxi back home. The plumber arrived to fix the sewage smell problem—at least the owners were attentive to one problem. We did get an e-mail about the night-club. They were shocked to hear about the noise! No one has ever complained! Yea, right… So we are supposed to call the police if it happens tonight. (Which we did to no avail; the revelry lasted until 2am.)

In Barcelona II

October 14, 2010

Ah, peace and quiet last night! Today is a “Gaudi” day. We are exploring a few of the sites of the city created by the incomparable Antoni Gaudi, Barcelona’s most famous Modernista artist. Modernism (Catalan Art Nouveau) became popular at the end of the 19th century.

Breaking with tradition, artists experimented with glass, tile, iron and brick. The building decorations are a collage of nature images, exotic Moorish or Chinese themes, and fanciful Gothic crosses and knights to celebrate Catalonia’s medieval glory days. Barcelona is an architectural scrapbook of Gaudi’s galloping gables and organic curves. He immersed himself in each project, often living on-site. (Rick Steves’ Barcelona)

Our first stop is Parc Guell, a 30-acre garden that was to be an up-scale housing project when Gaudi designed it. It is now a beautiful outdoor space with stairways and columns decorated with mosaics of broken glass and ceramics. There are huge mosaic lizards, snakes and other images from nature—many of them bordering comfortable seating areas all over the park. There are terraces and paths surrounded by columns and retaining walls that were built from what looks like clay stones—they look very nearly natural. The “Hall of 100 Columns” is a stunning space that was to house the community’s market.

We visited the Gaudi House and Museum—Gaudi’s residence for 20 years. Among lots of interesting items on exhibit in the house, we were able to see quirky Gaudi furniture including a carved wood “love-seat” of sorts. The two connected seats were just off-set from one another—very interesting.

After a nice coffee and pastry break, we set off for Sagrada Familia (Holy Family Church)—an unfinished landmark church that is Gaudi’s most famous and persistent work. He worked on this project from 1883 until his death in 1926 (he was run over by a street car while walking and reading—an early example that multi-tasking does not work). The construction continues today (the Spanish civil war destroyed work already completed and delayed further construction) and is probably going to take another quarter century or more to complete. Since Gaudi’s death the completion of the church has been guided by Guadi’s vision but designed and executed by other artisans and workers.

The church is a must-see! The more recent construction includes a façade illustrating the Passion of Christ. It is very modern-looking and created by Joseph María Subirachs using Gaudi’s original vision. It is in stark contrast to the façade completed in Gaudi’s lifetime, the Nativity façade, which includes Gothic–style symbolism and the Modernista approach.

The inside of the HUGE church is breathtaking!!!! The columns, the ceiling mosaics, the incredibly colorful and modern looking stained glass windows were a surprise. Also a surprise was how much work is in progress. There was large machinery in the church and several cranes above the spires. When Gaudi undertook this lengthy project he said “My client (meaning God) is in no hurry.”

After our amazing visit to the Sagrada Familia, we go to the 3rd Gaudi site of the day, Casa Milà. Rick Steves describes the façade of the building as a “roller coaster of melting-ice-cream eaves” with incredibly elaborate wrought iron balconies. This is Barcelona’s quintessential Modernista building and Gaudi’s last work before dedicating his final years to Sagrada Família. From the street we see people on the roof but from our vantage point at street-level, we never imagine that the roof is so interesting. It is a fanciful, undulating space with 30 chimneys disguised as multi-colored medieval knights. We also visit an apartment that is done up in the style a well-to-do family might have enjoyed in the early 20th century. The attic has a museum where you can see models and videos of Gaudi’s work.

We are ready for lunch and we find a very traditional café, La Bodegueta, which means wine cellar (100 Rambla de Catalunya)). The wait was to be 5 minutes—but this is Spain! So the wait was more like 30 minutes. But this place had character! We had Spanish sparkling wine (cava) and “tomato bread” (sliced fresh bread with the juice and a little pulp from a tasty tomato) while we waited, inhaling the cigarette smoke (this is Spain!). For our 1st course C & S had paella; I had a nice salad with cheese; and H had cooked spinach. For our 2nd course, we all had a very thin, grilled slice of beef and French Spanish fries. The beef was a bit chewy and the fries were a bit soggy but, honestly, it was all good because it fit with the ambience of the place.

We were running out of gas—or I should say that H & I were running out of gas and were ready to head home (it was to be an 8 hour day in the city). But our last stop was the big market to make our purchases for a seafood dinner at home. It was about 6pm by the time we got there and it looked like all the seafood vendors had packed up for the day! But we found one lady who we remembered had the most varied shellfish selection the day before so we felt like we were in luck. We were not so lucky because she was helping a customer that she clearly knew and her customer was buying a lot—a “perfect storm” for her to be engaged for a good long time. The “yacking” went on forever! Interspersed with the gabbing, she is yelling at people who are poking at her seafood. If other vendors had been open we’d have been out of there in a flash. In fact a couple other potential customers walked away.

Finally it’s our turn. Cat orders small razor clams—the shape of a straight-razor (for those who remember straight-razors) and about 4 inches by ¾ inch. The lady tries to weigh the clams on one scale and goes on and on about how it’s broken. So she switches to the other scale. Next are “tellines”—really tiny (less than an inch) clam-like shellfish. Once more this lady, who just likes to hear herself talk, tries to weigh the tellines on the broken scale yakking to herself about how it’s broken (because we aren’t responding to her at all). So lastly Cat selects some small clams. You guessed it! Here we go again with the broken scale. All this time more people are walking away. All I can say is that it’s a good thing the seafood we purchased from her was fantastic—otherwise I would have would have returned another day to poke at her seafood and drive her crazy!

Speaking about poking the seafood—Catherine and I laughed till we drooled poking at the razor clams in the kitchen at home. The living clams droop out of the shell and if you poke them and they snap back into their shells they are alive. A few of our dying razor clams drooped/sagged out of the shell like something I don’t want to further discuss in polite company. But it sure made us laugh like nuts.

So we had a delicious dinner of 3 types of clams—all delicious especially the razor clams. We also had great asparagus with balsamic vinaigrette. And of course very nice Spanish wine.

The club below us was open—we prayed for a quiet night but I was “armed” with silicon earplugs. They worked GREAT for me; I immediately fell asleep in spite of the craziness downstairs and slept like a baby.