In Barcelona

October 13, 2010

The Hartleys slept like babies! So it was their good fortune to insist that we take the master bedroom. The back bedroom, I guess, is too far away to be affected by the nightclub craziness. Well, that made me feel much better. So I make a note: find earplugs today.

Today we explore the Barrie Gòtic (gothic quarter). We begin our day back on the Ramblas. The incomparable La Boquería market is open and we go to take in the sights of this incredible covered market (on the site of an ancient monastery). We’ve never seen this variety of seafood—some of it still crawling around or twitching. The produce vendors have produce from around the world that is beautifully displayed or cut-up in convenient ready-to-eat packages (fork included). There are even more kinds of wild mushrooms than we saw in France—the wild mushroom populations must now be entirely depleted. Goats heads with the freshest looking eyes, big tongues, whole baby lambs, a huge array of sausages, huevos del toro (bull testicles—yum!), full legs of the local smoked ham (with the hooves attached), plus of course the “usual” meats. There are vendors that just sell eggs of all colors and sizes. Juices of every fruit imaginable lined up in ice ready-to-drink. Olives, jams, prepared foods, cheeses, breads—you name it; they’ve got it. We have NEVER seen a market like this. This alone is worth the trip to Barcelona! We vow to come back and make a seafood dinner at home.

The next stop of the day is the Cathedral of Barcelona where most of the construction took place in the 14th century. The inside supporting buttresses provide walls for 28 richly ornamented chapels. There is an “ambulatory” floor plan—it encourages worshippers to amble around to each chapel. The individual chapels were sponsored by local guilds that competed with each other to see who could provide the most ornate chapel.

Each chapel honors a saint. Having been brought up a Catholic I thought I knew almost all of the saints. It was important (maybe obligatory) for all elementary school children to study The Lives of the Saints. I may have only focused on the gory stories but I did not recognize 80% of the saints honored in the chapels. The high altar of the cathedral sits upon the tomb of St. Eulàlia. I must have missed her story (and it’s a gory one). In memory of my mom we lit a candle at the chapel of St. Joseph.

The cloisters area adjacent to the cathedral includes a lovely garden with fountains and geese. The 13 resident geese (in memory of the 13 times St. Eulàlia was tortured by the Romans—how did I miss that story?) act as an alarm system to the monk in charge. The geese are a big tourist attraction.

It has been threatening rain so a stop at a nearby café, Restaurant Allium for hot chocolate and churros is welcome. We are told that the churros must be dunked in the hot chocolate and the combination sure is good. The server was especially friendly and told us that they did a nice tapas lunch. Maybe we’ll get back there…

Next stop is the Picasso Museum  which is housed in several connected Gothic palaces. The collection is presented chronologically from age 12 through 75, although most of the pieces are from his earlier years. The narrative through the rooms focuses on his “periods”—the blue period; the rose period; etc. Stephan says that “Picasso has more periods than a woman!” HA!!! In spite of the period weirdness we all enjoyed the museum.

It’s after 1:30 and we are hungry for lunch. We find a nice restaurant and have a great, inexpensive 3 course fixed price meal for less than 10E. Stephan starts with, he says, a delicious vegetable soup. The rest of us start with a salad of salt cod and broad beans—it was great! Then we all have a plate of 2 kinds of small sausages and wild mushrooms—also very delicious. The pièce de résistance is profiteroles for dessert. These profiteroles are filled with whipped cream. We find that normally in France they are filled with ice cream. I prefer the whipped cream! Cat says that the real profiteroles have whipped cream and that she will make us a pile of them when we get home. That’s maybe the only reason to leave this beautiful city of Barcelona.

It’s been a long day out and we’ve walked a long way. We get home and snooze on the sofa for an hour. It’s getting toward 7pm so we must make a decision on dinner. We had hoped to get back to the market for seafood but it’s too late. We head out to a wine shop and a small grocer and create a great “picnic” dinner of cheese, Spanish dried ham, tomato and shallot salad, bread and, of course, Spanish wine.

It’s Wednesday night and it appears that the nightclub is closed. Yippee!

Off to Barcelona

October 12, 2010

We are off to Barcelona today! The Hartleys are bleary-eyed because they just got the news that Stephan’s son has a particularly aggressive form of melanoma last night. His surgery will be in a month so they won’t know until then how extensively it has spread. We tell them to go the London right away but Stephen wants to wait until the end of the month when he has business there. Stephan thinks it will worry his son if he drops everything to run to London. That must be the “keep calm and carry on” British philosophy but I wish he and Cat would go sooner.

In the midst of trying to get everything ready to go and finding out about Stephen’s son, we read an e-mail from the Barcelona landlord saying that they will see us tomorrow. That’s not good since we’re arriving today. In my panic, I call the building manager, Blanca, not the check-in lady, Clarisa. Blanca speaks little/no English and we both get ourselves entirely confused as I try to find out if they expect us to arrive today or tomorrow. “You arrive mañana?” “No, I hope that you are expecting us today.” “You will be here right away?” “No, we are still in France; it will be about 4 when we arrive.” I sign off by repeating that we are arriving TODAY at 4pm but I am concerned that we will find our apartment unavailable. Later in the morning I get a hold of Clarisa and she confirms that we are expected today. Whew!

The two cats, Hundai and Harry, must stay at the 5-star cattery while we are in Barcelona. Catherine puts harnesses and leashes on them and I think they remain pretty calm but she is concerned about them. (I can fully empathize with the heart-break of leaving “the babies” behind that!) We reach the cattery property and it is a very isolated rural place. I try to shoo the pot-bellied pig out of the dirt road so we can pass—and I’m not too successful. (I even try my pig calls: Sooooeeeee! Here pig, pig, pig! Maybe I needed to do that in French.) The owner rushes up to help and is more successful in pig-herding than I am.

It is raining off and on and we hope that the further south we go the warmer and sunnier it will get. We head for the Costa Brava (Wild Coast) in Spain. Catherine says that most of the coast villages are populated by ugly high-rise apartments but they have a favorite village that is lovely. So we head to Calella de Palafrugell. And it is a beautiful little village…that is filled with children and their parents enjoying a national holiday. But the inclement weather has created huge waves that crash against the rocks and the beach—very picturesque. It’s not super cold—just overcast and a little windy.

We walk the promenade looking at the huge lovely homes (shuttered because it is the off-season—in fact most of the apartments and homes are closed up). We stop to peruse the menus at several restaurants. We choose Restaurant la Vela because it has a seasonal mushroom menu. But we decide on other choices for our lunch. Howard gets risotto with squid ink—surprisingly good. The rest of us get seafood fideos—pasta with seafood. But Catherine is very unhappy with the fideos. She will fix us “proper” fideos while we are here in Barcelona. (The dish is good anyway even if it’s not made in the traditional way.) We must nearly shout to be heard above the din of disruptive children. I say that the French would not put up with such behavior!

We order a very nice Spanish white wine. Stephan asks me to pour—now I’m under pressure. Stephan is an elegant wine pourer and I am a savage in comparison. I take great care in making sure that I know everyone’s water glass from their wine glass…and then I pour wine into my water! A couple of other faux pas of mine during lunch make Stephan exclaim: “Christine, your activity at lunch time has been less than cogent.” Well, that made us laugh until we drooled.

We arrive in Barcelona to pretty nice weather—at least there is no rain. Catherine does an outstanding job at negotiating the traffic and parking the car in a very small garage. The apartment is lovely and very conveniently located. We have a little “argument” with the Hartleys about who gets to sleep in the master bedroom with its spacious bath. The Hartleys insist that we take that bedroom and that they will be perfectly comfortable in the bedroom in the back of the apartment. As we relaxed with a bit of wine we notice that there is a lot of noise outside and in the building. I guess we should expect that since it is National Day (Columbus Day to us)—the day that Columbus set foot in the Americas. So maybe we won’t get so much sleep tonight…

At about 7pm we take a walk to see the Rambles—a lively pedestrian drag that runs through the heart of the “old city.” We didn’t spend much time there because it started to drizzle with heavy rain imminent. As we passed the hundreds of cafes and restaurants, the wait staff is calling to us to lure us into their place and not let us pass by. We settle on a little tapas place because it’s close to home and there are fresh sardines on the menu. We have little plates of olives, fried squid, cod fritters, Serrano ham, sardines, Russian salad (a nice tasting potato salad), and garlic bread. H and I had very tasty Sangria and the Hartleys had beer.

We headed off to bed at about 10pm—just when everyone in Spain is eating dinner. At 11pm the fun real begins! Loud music (sounded like a cross between Pink Floyd and the Doors at the beginning of the night and followed with what sounded like cats howling), maniacal laughter, karaoke, and shouting. Howard is blessed sometimes with his hearing problems. He was not awakened until 12:15. I was sure that the Hartleys were equally disturbed and it reminded me that the last time they were our guests in Brantome, France, the apartment we rented was so cold that they cut their trip short. In other words, this would be strike two for us in apartment selection.

Just before 1am I can’t stand it any longer. What incredibly inconsiderate neighbors are carrying-on so late? I am either just going to find out who it is and “report” them to the apartment manager the next day, or I’m going to pound on the door and plead with them to be quiet or, I guess, the 3rd alternative is to join them! I discover that our building is completely silent. I look out the front window and see that there is a nightclub on the 1st floor under our apartment. So it will be this way every night??!! The music has stopped. It’s exactly 1am so it must be that nightclubs are required to close at this time.

I dread the next 3 nights and I dread hearing that the Hartleys had the night from hell.


October 7, 2010

After a jet-lagged restless night the four of us set off for near-by Montpellier. We have visited this dynamic city several times and love it more each time we come. The city has been a commercial hub for over 1,000 years for traders from all parts of the known world. Its university dates back to the 13th century. And there is a renowned medical school associated with the university.

We first traveled here in 2002 and every time we visit the traffic and roads have been unbearable! It’s the worst place to drive and the best place to get lost. We would never have been able to make our way to Centre Ville (the center of town) on our own—Cat and Stephen are navigational geniuses. The city is putting in a 3rd tram line and no street is untouched. But we made it into the city and it is just as wonderful as it’s ever been.

There is an “old town” that is almost entirely pedestrianized. A colossal center square includes, at one end, a nineteenth century theater. The center of the square features a large fountain and many cafés around the perimeter. And at the other end of the square is a tree-lined promenade ending in a concert hall. The square is a great people-watching location. The small alleys that radiate from the center square are picturesque and contain hundreds of small shops and restaurants. The architect of this area is none other than Mr. Haussmann, the “creator” of the Paris that we know today.

Montpellier in recent times developed an area adjacent to old town as a residential area. The “common areas” include beautiful fountains and arches that mirror those in the older areas of the city. The condo buildings are maybe 10 stories at the most. The area looks VERY inviting! And the close proximity to the amenities of the city make me want to chuck it all and “book it” to Montpellier. In fact the AARP newsletter recently listed Montpellier as one of the best foreign places for US retirees to live.

We spent some time in the large market building that is open daily with butchers, fish mongers, charcuteries, cheese shops, bakeries, and green grocers—everything you could want in your daily shopping. After an excellent primmer from Catherine on the many types of fowl available in France (and the choices are dizzying) , we stopped for a tasting of raw oysters and a glass of Picpoul de Pinet (by Ormarine), a nice dry white wine produced locally and not easily found in the US. So that was the 1st course to our lunch.

Our lunch continued at Au Bonheur des Tartes (4 rue des Trésoriers de la Bourse). Now this place was definitely NOT like your typical French restaurant—the portions were huge and the there were just too many items. The food was really delicious—just too much of it. Cat has been reading the Thomas Keller cookbooks we gave her and she shared Keller’s culinary philosophy (which is also the French philosophy) with us: the first taste of the food item is the best taste and you truly enjoy just a couple of subsequent tastes of the item. Also, our palettes enjoy just one thing at a time. So, many small courses are your best enjoyment in eating. Keeping that in mind, our plates included 3 kinds of tarts: a thin tomato and cheese tart, a goat cheese tart, and an onion tart. We then chose an accompaniment with the tarts: Stephan and I chose duck confit and Cat and Howard chose fois gras. And there was more: small amounts of local red rice, chick peas, nicely cooked zucchini and other vegetables, grilled grapefruit and sweet purple grapes. Were we stuffed! It was very unlike a French meal and we would have been satisfied with half of what we got. (We all left a good amount of leftovers on our plates.) Needless to say we did not have any supper that evening.

At the Hartleys

6 October 2010

We dived back into French culture today after a 2 year hiatus when we went grocery shopping at the street market in a near-by town with Catherine. That meant asking for help in French; exploring food items that we would never see in California (the fall mushrooms are incredible); trying to figure out the cost of items (we could not believe that the produce we bought, including a huge heirloom tomato, was less than $3.30); attempting to understand what the vendors said we owed on our purchase; and figuring out payment in Euros. Our 1st purchase at the market was the rabbit pâté. We bought cheese that looked like it was 100 years old (called Salé) but it was only 2.5 years in age. We bought great stinky cheese and chewy baguettes. I’m now sure we are in France.

The weather is fantastic! Lots of clouds, including a few grey ones threatening rain; a fairly warm breeze; and nice warm sun peaking out every-so-often. Lunch today at home was wild mushroom omelets, tomato salad, a slice of rabbit pâté, and a delicious French baguette. The mushrooms we saw today would blow your mind—a testament to the shapes, colors and sizes not to any psychotropic aspects of the fungi.

We relaxed for the afternoon and then had a light supper with the Hartleys. Catherine bought some very interesting mushrooms called Lactaire—they were shallow-capped, brown mushrooms with green mottling. Very unique! The vendor said that they taste like meat—and they did have a meat-like texture. Cat drizzled them with olive oil and parsley and gently braised them in their liquid. They were great. We had rabbit puff pastry tarts from the same lady who had the rabbit pâté. She was an ancient looking lady with lots of character to her face. And she treated us with quintessential French manners and dignity. Stephen said that when he first saw her he knew she was the kind of farmer to do business with. We ended our evening meal with chewy walnut bread and the cheese purchased earlier in the day.

In France

October 5, 2010

Our flight was a dream compared to what we would have experienced in “economy.” Our food was the same “just OK” meal in economy but the premium included “digestives” after dinner”: I got Liqueur de Poire Willams, a pear liqueur that was very good and H got cognac. Even though we had large seats with lots of leg-room, I only slept about 2.5 hours but H slept a good long while.

At the Paris airport we searched for our luggage only to finally remind ourselves that it had been sent on to our ultimate destination, Montpellier, about 45 minutes from Catherine and Stephen’s house. After about a 20 hour journey we were happy to see our friends’ smiling faces. At home Stephan introduced us to Domaine des Trinités wine, a local winery in which the Hartleys have invested. Cat fixed a lovely supper of smoked salmon, cream cheese, local green olives, French bread, and, the one item I have been waiting for, great French cheese.

We unloaded the gifts to our hosts. The Thomas Keller cookbook set (for French Laundry and Bouchon restuarants) weighed 15 lbs! And I schlepped that in my carry-on. Boy, will I be glad that the return trip will not weigh heavily on my shoulder joint. H luckily found a signed 1st edition of one of Stephan’s favorite authors.

To bed at 11pm and blissful sleep until 9am (I read for about an hour at about 3am). Then we were ready for our 1st full day in France!

Off to France

October 4, 2010

We regretfully left our sweet babies, including our new arrival, Lucky, and we are now in LAX waiting for our flight to leave. Since our economy tickets only allowed us one piece of checked baggage, we were surprised to see so many people with well more than one bag. The couple ahead of us had six bags and they were HUGE (and fluorescent in color). So the Air France desk lady was in a very bad mood when we arrived at her station. It took a long time for her to check our two bags and I almost used the instant feedback station at the desk to say that she was being a bitch to us! But instead I smiled and told her “no problem” when she half-heartedly apologized about the delay.

After we got through the long security line I realized that she did not give us the correct seats! Howard and I always reserve two aisle seats across from one another. It is hell for me to have to sit in the middle seat for 12 hours. So Howard retreated to Wolfgang Puck’s for a beer and I headed back to check-in to give someone a piece of my mind. On the way I pondered our seat assignment: 20 A&B. Row 20 is pretty close to the front of the plane—could we have struck gold?? Yes, she up-graded us to premier economy—not quite business class but the man I grabbed to complain to said that I would be very happy.

Premier Economy

And he said to drink lots of champagne. As if I needed any prodding!

So I look forward to 12 hours of hell mitigated by at least 12 glasses of champagne.