Friday, December 31, 2010

A Day in Barcelona

The amazing thing about Barcelona is that you can walk for miles and miles on streets with no cars. Some streets the cars aren’t allowed and others are too narrow. What makes it really interesting is that you can shop or window shop your way along all these streets. It’s helpful if you get lost as you remember things in the stores.

After a late start this morning and I won’t tell you how late off we went. We have been trying to find a concert to go to tonight. Finally, we found it, a classical Spanish guitar concert in a church that starts at 9. We'll eat later.

Our wandering took us to the main market, which was packed. Finally, we stopped for a late lunch at a really busy restaurant that’s always a good sign. We had to wait so we had a good chance to check out the food. For starters we had asparagus tempura which was melt in your mouth. Seamus had Iberian ham, frites and two of the most orange fried eggs I’ve ever seen. I had an arugula salad with parmesan and sun dried tomatoes that were lightly sun dried because they were still a bit squishy. All the food here is so good.

Again we walked and walked. It really is a feast fir the eyes watching everyone and everything. And yes we did a bit of shopping.

The Manuel Gonzalez concert in the basilica was wonderful. His guitar was melodic, pure and really moving. He played traditional Spanish guitar music except for his encore when he played Spanish music only to be interrupted by a fly and then he would play a bit of Yesterday or James Bond theme or Satisfaction or Roy Orbison. It was vale, pronounced bally meaning good. There’s your Spanish word for the day. There were three tiny heaters in the whole basilica and fortunately we were near one. No wonder people don’t go to church as they’ll freeze to death.

We had to walk in the rain to dinner at the market restaurant where everything is super fresh. It was the bream or dorado for me and squid in rice for Seamus. We sat at our favourite spot at the bar where we can see all the food being prepared. Then another walk home in the rain. We must get up at a decent time tomorrow. Lots to do.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Back in Barcelona

We could have used a bit more time in Peniscola. Last night we had dinner at a restaurant on the port and you guessed it we had the extremely fresh monkfish (rape) again followed by a nice walk on the beach. This morning we looked around the old town, which is full of narrow streets and overlooked by the castle. On the way out of town we followed the route past the miles of hotels most weren’t even open. I can see going to that part of town in the winter to walk the promenade but it would definitely be a “no go” zone in the summer.

The ride up to Barcelona through fairly hilly countryside was quite magnificent. We stopped for lunch on the road at the auto grill only to be greeted by the police as we were going in to the parking lot. They waved us through but they were on the lookout for someone. Further up the road were more police and they were even stationed on the overpasses. We never did find out what was happening.

We got back to Eurocar with no difficulties. As soon as I remind Seamus that I have a degree in geography, I then feel obliged to do GPS type navigation. It was a relief to get rid of the car. Every car in Valencia had dings and scratches and we had some tight spots to get in and out of. We’re back in our apartment building but a different unit. One with more heating’ although it is 10 degrees Celsius right now.

Dinner was in an old restaurant called the Four Cats. It is well known for the literary characters it has catered to over the years. I know that I’ve read a few Barcelona novels where the characters eat here. We started with the fresh anchovies which we put on the toast with tomato pulp that is very popular here especially at breakfast. I think it is blanched tomatoes pulped. Excellent. Seamus had the Catalan fish dish of bacalau (salt cod) with beans. I had rabbit stew that was not as good as my friend Dino’s. This one had too many onions in the sauce.

We did our usual wandering around. It’s hard to come back to the apartment since there is so much going on. The street will be noisy until at least two in the morning. I love Barcelona.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Valencia to Peniscola

Yesterday was a down day in Valencia. It started with the morning coffee and then an 8 kilometre walk along the sandy beach to the port. The sky was blue; the sun shining and it was toasty warm. A few people were sun bathing and one brave soul actually went for a swim. After a bit of shopping and dinner we decided to pack up and leave Valencia a day early. Although the beach area is lovely, we haven’t really clicked with Valencia. The driving here is a web of one way streets usually not going where you want them to and it wasn’t what we were looking for.

Today we set off early with no real plans where we were going to stay the night. Once again we came in to the town Peniscola as we knew it from the way down south. This time we had lunch and then a really good drive around. One part is very much like White Rock as it’s built into a mountain rather than a hill and the other part divided by the old town is all hotels, where there are no people right now. The hilly part is quite lively and has wonderful views including a view of the old templar castle where they filmed El Cid.

After checking in to our hotel we went in search of real estate agents and found out lots of useful information about rentals. This town looks like it has possibilities. The beach is good. It has a big natural park, boat rides that you can take several places, and it is a couple of hours to Barcelona and less to Valencia.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Valencia Boxing Day

We had an action packed day today. It was off to the city of arts and Sciences to see the exhibits. This is part of the vast complex and we visited 6 or 7 aquarium related buildings. My favorites were the aviary with the red ibis and spoonbills, the walrus and the shark exhibit. At the shark exhibit you walked around while sharks and other fish eyeballed you right in the eye. Scary. There is a seventy metre long tunnel where the fish are all around you. My favorite fish in this exhibit was the sunfish. It is huge and most peculiar looking. We also visited the belugas, which we have in Vancouver. This is the only beluga whale exhibit in Europe. The walruses were wonderful floating about on their backs with huge tusks protruding. In fact the tusks had scratched up the glass of the exhibit. The penguins were pretty funny. You were right down there and watched the Emperor penguins and one other kind whose name doesn’t come to mind whizzing around the pool. It was a wonderful exhibit with snow all around. In other words a really proper penguin exhibit. I didn’t know that they could swim so fast.

We finished the afternoon with the dolphin exhibit where the trainers actually went in the water with the dolphins that swam the trainers around or tossed them way up in the air. I would love to do that. I’ve never seen anything like it. All in all it was a wonderful day. Apparently we’re having some problems with our videos but hopefully you’ll get a bit of an idea what it was like.

Tonight we walked up to the beach for dinner and I had the sea bass and Seamus the dorado accompanied by a Valencian wine which wasn’t bad. It is a mixture of several grapes. I did find out that the rape fish that I have been rabbitting on about is actually monkfish. We used to get monkfish in Toronto and now I get it. I don’t think that we get monkfish like this in Vancouver.
Speaking of Vancouver someone sussed me out as coming from Vancouver because I had on my lululemon coat. And I thought that I was blending in. The lady herself came from Vancouver.
We are beginning to formulate a plan for our retirement which doesn’t look at all like what we thought it would. We know that Valencia is not for us. I think that we have been too spoiled by Barcelona.

We watched the news and saw the terrible cold in many places. It was a bit cooler here today, about 13 degrees, but the skies are always a beautiful blue. I love that. I know that many places in Europe and North America are digging out of terrible snow. At least we don’t have that problem. Blue skies. Beautiful.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Valencia the first three days

We started the day up on the beach having a fabulous lunch. Mine was rape in a tomato, wine garlic sauce with potatoes. I’d seen this fish in the market with very sharp, needle-like teeth and a really gelatinous texture. It may look mean but tastes amazing. Seamus had mackerel done in a light batter and he is ready to try it at home. It was lovely looking out over the ocean with a beautiful, long promenade. It certainly seems miles from the hustle and bustle of Valencia.

We then headed off to the City of Arts and Sciences. It is a huge, very modern complex designed by a local architect, Santiago Calatrava. First of all we visited the Christmas market. I managed to feed the camel, which would lunge at you to get its food. A German fellow tried the same thing and the camel knocked him right over. It was off to the science building where everything is hands on, which was a lot of fun. I particularly liked Foucault’s pendulum. We will return another day to the complex to visit the art museum.

On our second day we mastered the tram and metro to get downtown. We did the requisite visit to the market. You cannot believe all the wonderful fresh produce. It would be quite simple to follow a 100 mile diet here. We wandered around the town walking down the narrow streets and visiting a number of squares including the Square of the Virgins. Since we were invited out to dinner we thought we better get some flowers. One of the squares had various flower sellers. I was so impressed to see wonderful bunches of anemones at this time of year. We managed with our nonexistent Spanish to put together a really lovely bouquet of eucalyptus, red gerberas and white lilies.

Once we were back in our neighborhood it was off to the port where the 2007 America’s cup was staged. We wandered about and came on a ship, which turned out to be a converted whaler, for a drink. The ambience was lovely except that in Valencia people can smoke in restaurants. Horrible. At coffee in the morning a man at the bar finished his cigarette and butted it on the floor! I digress. We then went to a different part of the marina where we walked right out to the harbor wall. It was getting late and the wind was whipping in. The whole walk was quite invigorating.

Our dinner invitation was for ten o’clock. Once again we trekked in to town. Our hosts were a Spanish gentleman and his girlfriend who goes back and forth between Puerto Rico. There was another Valencian and a lady and her son who had emigrated years ago from Mexico. It was quite a diverse group but we managed to communicate quite well. We did discuss the Valencian language. I found it very interesting that it is based on the Oc language, which is used in France right over to Nice. Apparently, the dialect or language was banned during Franco’s time and is now making a revival. Dinner was a buffet and very enjoyable. I was glad to get home at 3:30.
Today, Christmas was a bit mixed up. The day started like any other with coffee at the beach. At the time we weren’t hungry so we decided to wait until later to eat and headed north up the coast to check out more towns. We went in and out of various places many had very few people there at this time of the year. Many have high rise utilitarian block apartments. This architecture is very standard here. The old centre of Valencia is lovely but a lot of what we have seen looks like old communist housing. By the time we were hungry we couldn’t find anywhere to eat. We went in a couple of really smoky bars and decided against it.

We have to decide if we are going to check out anymore of this coast tomorrow as we did find a couple of places with good beaches and attractive housing. Lots of thinking to do.
Merry Christmas to everyone. I hope that Santa was good to you.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Alicante to Valencia

We headed north to Jijona, Spain’s principal maker of nougat. There were nougat factories everywhere. Since nougat is one of my favourite things we made a stop at the nougat museum, where we joined up with seniors from a bus tour to get the museum tour. Of course it was all in Spanish but we got a lot of it. It was very interesting how the nougat and marzipan were made before mechanization. It was all mortar and pestle to grind up the almonds. We completed the tour and received our complimentary honey nougat. It was a bit weird. We bought some regular nougat which we scoffed down last night.

As we continued north we stopped for coffee in Alcoy. In most places we’ve been there have been Santas hanging from balconies. They are pretty cute but in Alcoy they had these black guys. On closer inspection they were actually golliwogs, just like the golly I had as a kid. We haven’t seen them anywhere else.

Last night was spent in Xativa’ the birthplace of the Borgia popes. We had our first rabbit and chicken paella and then visited the nativity scene across from the restaurant. Every town has these nativity scenes. This one had camels, geese, chickens and a harlequin donkey.

This morning we went for our coffee and croissant and then brought the car down to the hotel but couldn’t find parking. I was going to grab our stuff while Seamus settled the bill. The woman checking us out couldn’t get the one visa machine to work. I knew she wanted us to pay cash as she wouldn’t try the other visa machine. I was being bloody minded. We parked on a yellow line and you guessed it. We were towed. So it was off to the police station to pay our fine and then we had to walk to the pound to get the car. It was so maddening and my fault. I insisted on the yellow line.

We arrived in Valencia and drove around and around to find our apartment. It was a nightmare. Again no parking. The apartment was in the centre of the town and was very modern and well appointed when we saw it. I had enough by this time and Seamus asked if we could get an apartment out by the beach’ which we now have. It isn’t the one I would have liked as it was booked but it is a few blocks from the ocean where we had a walk tonight. Lovely. It was 14 degrees. The area is a bit deadsville at night but at least we can move the car around and get parking or take the metro into town. The whole port area looks really interesting and we have a local market.

We did go in the main market in Valencia and it was without a doubt the best market I’ve ever been in. Prices are certainly cheaper than at home. We managed to grab a quick bite to eat before coming out to the beach area in a non descript restaurant, where I had the best sea bass with parsley, garlic and a bit of oil.

Tonight I’ve managed to not be able to work the washer and dryer as well as screwing up the TV. I’m on my second glass of wine to recover from this strange day. Some days Seamus can be very saint like and this is one of them. Thank goodness.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010


We’ve been here for two days now. Much of yesterday was spent wandering about the marina. Today we went out there for an amazing lunch. Seamus had mackerel that absolutely melted in your mouth. I had a starter for main course of a sardine, beautifully fried egg and two braised scallions. It was fabulous. The wine was a 14% 2005 Rioja that had matured in an oak barrel for a year. Excellent.

Tonight we wandered around again but lots of the shops are closed except for on the main streets. We are probably some of the few tourists here. I am a little disappointed having heard so much about Alicante. My guess is that the poor economy is closing stores and restaurants early. We ended up in an Italian restaurant and had really good pizzas. Mine was buffalo mozzarella, arugula and fresh tomatoes. Seamus had Serrano ham and cheese on his. This was nicely topped off with some Barolo grappa courtesy of the server.

We were going to stay another day but I think that we will move on.
On another note the Keith Richard’s book, Life is an excellent read. He is a wonderful storyteller. I can identify with his buying sweets using his ration book. I used to get dolly mixtures with my coupons. The book would make a great Christmas present.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Day 6 On to Denia

We left San Carles not really sure where we would end up. Our first stop was Peniscola, a lovely town with a beautiful promenade and 5 kilometer long beach. Most of the apartments and houses were all closed up. It was 18 degrees when we were there and it is very odd for us that there were no people about unlike home where the beaches would be really busy.

We headed down the coast with orange groves as far as the eye could see. The only interruption was when there were fields of artichokes or olive groves with the mountains in the background. We decided to bypass Valencia as we are going to spend a week there later in our travels. It was on to the Costa Brava. The first stop, Gandia was pretty grim. It lived up to everything you may have heard about the Costa Brava so we kept going and stopped at a lovely little port town Dania. The hotel we are staying in was built in the 1300’s and was formerly the old customs house.

We decided to have dinner in the hotel and opted for the 7 tapas menu. It was like dinner at Davide and Elizabetta’s. We had mussels in pickle; tuna with pimentos and boiled egg; spicy meatballs; langoustine with saffron and orange cous cous; pumpkin, cardamom and wild mushroom soup; bacalao balls; and ox tail. The ox tail was so tender but unfortunately I was stuffed to the gills by this time. The dessert was very light…lukewarm meringue, lemony mousse and sugared almond ice cream. Fortunately the portions were small so we will manage to eat tomorrow.

It is hard to judge how bad Spain’s economy is. Tonight when we wandered around the shopping area before dinner most of the shops were empty. I don’t really know if it’s because there aren’t many people here at this time. It would draw a certain amount of people as ferries leave here for the Balearic Islands.

Seamus continues to read Keith Richards. Who knew that after he was busted in Toronto that he went for rehab in Philly and lived in Cherry Hill? This was 1977. To readers not in New Jersey or Maryland this doesn’t mean a lot but I have family there and spent many happy hours at Cherry Hill Mall.

Tomorrow Alicante.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Days 4 and 5

Our first stop after leaving Barcelona was Sitges, a really charming spot on the Mediterranean with lots of different architecture and a wonderful long promenade by the sea. Since it was about 3 o’clock lunch was our first priority. We ate at a restaurant called Picnic, which was full of locals. After sharing a salad we had risotto nero with calamari and very sweet prawns only they were a bit larger than prawns. The meal was excellent and so was the wine, a local Spanish Barbera from the area with same name. After a walk it was into the car and off to Tarragona.

We finally settled on a hotel and headed downstairs for dinner. This hotel has a really interesting concept. They have a high end deli called Provisions, where you could select your food from quite a variety of things and it was heated up and delivered to your table. People were coming in for take away. Seamus had a Spanish frittata and I had a small plate of pasta Bolognese. Being satiated once again it was off to bed. Seamus is really in to Keith Richard’s autobiography and for the second night read until 3.

In the morning we visited El Corte Ingles, which is the big Spanish department store. We’ve had some issues with internet connection so bought a stick so we can get wifi anywhere. It’s a huge store and has everything you can imagine and is beautifully laid out. Then it was into the car and heading south.

Our destination was the Ebro Delta, which is a river delta leading to the sea. The area has actually shrunk in size since the 1930’s. We passed through huge areas of rice fields some flooded and some not. No wonder risotto is on all the menus. We stopped for lunch at a place in the middle of nowhere. The lady recited the menu, which is one way to learn Spanish quickly. We settled on a salad followed by small fish about 2 inches long called raf or plages with boiled potatoes with olive oil. Those small fish had an amazing taste. We ordered the wine de casa, which Seamus liked but I didn’t. It was sweet and left a sherry after taste. Dessert was gelato that tasted like rice pudding. It sounds weird but tasted great. A coffee and calvados and we continued on our way.

We reached the end of the road and went for a bit of a walk. There were a few fishermen after bass, dorado, or possibly eel. The area has high grasses and marshy areas where we saw lots of cormorants, egrets and blue heron but alas no flamingoes. We drove for miles around the area and over a new bridge. Half of the bridge was for cars and the other half for pedestrians with benches everywhere. Very civilized!

We stopped for the night in a town called Carles. Dinner was calamari and patates bravas for Seamus and I had sole. It was just a little sole. The food is amazing as is the scenery along the coast. It is a special treat because there aren’t a lot of tourists around. So far it’s sunny with beautiful blue sky everywhere and really vibrant sunsets. Tomorrow more food, more scenery. Bueno.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Barcelona to Tarragona

Days1-3 Barcelona

After pretty uneventful flights we arrived in Barcelona. This time we are staying in a one bedroom apartment in the Born area. After sitting on planes we were very happy to just walk and walk checking out the stores, the people and the fashions.

We had dinner at one of our favourite tapas restaurants. I had the cod with zucchini topped with cheese and put in the oven. Lovely.

After yet another walk it was off to bed only to get up the next day at 1:20 in the afternoon. We headed off to the Maritime museum, which is a lovely building, which went back to medieval times. There were beautiful high ceilings but unfortunately for us the building was under construction so we didn’t see too much. Then we moved on to the Cataluyna museum, which showed us the history of the area to modern times.

Last night we had dinner at my favorite restaurant that is right beside the Santa Caterina marketplace. We always sit at the bar so we can watch the chefs. It was amazing to see the huge pieces of t bone steak for two going in the grill. I had a beautiful piece of dorado and Seamus had the tenderest calamari with scallions and a little asparagus. There are ten chefs all doing their thing so it’s quite something to watch.

This morning we actually visited the San Caterina market. I can’t begin to describe the wonderful fresh fish, rabbits, yellow chicken, fruit and vegetables. Beautiful. We had our coffee and croissant and headed off to Gaudi’s Park Guell with his stamp everywhere including the tiled benches, which overlooked the city of Barcelona. After walking everywhere in the park we decided to walk to the Segrada Familia, Gaudi’s church. We weren’t willing to queue up for over an hour last New Year’s but we were lucky today as there were no line-ups. The last time we visited here was seven years ago. We were very surprised to see that the main part of the church inside was finished as last time it was a major construction site. The stained glass was a sight to behold. We then went to the top in an elevator and looked out over Barcelona. They are still working on the outside of the church. Who knows when they will finally be finished?

Then it was off to the main shopping district where I bought a very cool dress or long sweater at Sisley complete with the requisite zip. For the ladies everyone is wearing leggings, including skin tight ones that leave nothing to the imagination. Skinny legged jeans and boots are everywhere. In fact the shoe shops hardly have any shoes just boots. My “not your daughter’s jeans” just don’t cut it as they aren’t skinny at the bottom. Red is very much in fashion in the stores. It is just red and I don’t particularly like it.

We set out for dinner with a few places in mind but we don’t like going in restaurants, which are practically empty. We were very lucky to find a fish restaurant where you select what you want and they take it off and cook it. Seamus had razor clams and I had sepia, which is different from the squid. I’m not sure exactly what the difference is. The fish, salad and a bottle of wine - 27 Euros. We will definitely go back. We then moved on to Origens for dessert with Seamus having castagna cake and I had a coconut flan. We then rolled back to the apartment. It is pretty chilly outside at night.

Our TV only gets Spanish and the router for our internet isn’t working so we don’t actually know the temperature. Tomorrow we leave Barcelona and start heading south.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Day fifteen - Barcelona to home

Knowing that we faced many hours stuck in a plane later that day we endeavoured to spend our remaining hours in Barcelona walking. First around the block to have coffee at a bar across the street from the Estacio de Franca and from there down to the waterfront of Port Vell. his is very tourist friendly area that now includes a floating boardwalk out to a shopping centre in the middle of the harbour. We admired the boats in the adjacent marina, had another coffee and a brief look at the shops before resuming our trek. We were at the base of la Rambla in Placa del Portal de la Pua, a traffic circle with a huge monument to Christopher Columbus for a centrepiece, somewhat reminiescent of Nelson's Column. By this time more and more people were out (it was Sunday morning), many of them presumably coming ashore from the five cruise ships we could see docked in various corners of the harbour. A flea market had been set up here and I was immediately drawn to a table filled with Beatles memorabilia. I followed another imortant rule of holidays which is to be mildly fleeced at some point. In my case it was a small colour photo of John, Paul and George in the very early days in the middle of performing at what looks like a private party. It is a great picture, one I have never seen before. I knew the chance of it being an original photo was higthly unlikely but what if? what If? Well, so what if it's just a really good, probably pirated scan - I like it!

From there we wandered up La Rambla past the human statues and sidewalk games of guess which box the pea is under. We came across another flea market in Placa Reial We decided to head up to the main shopping area near Placa Catalunya not to do more shopping but because I hoped to get photos or video clips so Jenny could see what fashionable Barcelonastas were wearing. El wanted to do more shopping at those fabulous sales. But of course being Sunday shops were closed and young locals were probably still in bed from being up late the night before. It was really just us tourists out on the streets this morning.

By now our time was running out and after taking a look at our street map we determined that we could cut straight through the warren of alleys that make up the Gotic section if we were careful to bear only to the left or straight ahead. This worked pretty much. And on the way we passed through another lovely square we hadn't seen before giving us a different view of the city's main cathedral. As we passed down the side of the cathedral the alley opened into a little square where a musical trio was playing arabic inspired jazz melodies.For me there is something special about finding new music on our travels so I was delighted to hear this group and buy one of their CDs.

We got back to our hotel with time to spare for a cool beer in the bar across the road before heading for the airport. We thought that from this point on food would be disappointing but there was one more little surprise for us, getting to enjoy an excellent lunch in an airport restaurant, El's last sea bass. We arrived home after an interminably long flight, tired, but filled with wonderful memories and ready to do it all again the first chance we get!

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Day fourteen - return to Barcelona

With several hours of driving ahead of us, we made an early start and by 9:30 had already made it to Beziers and picked up the toll road that would take us all the way to Barcelona. We pulled off at a rest area for our usual breakfast of cafe creme and a croissant. The rest area was busy with French holiday makers and this was an indication of what the autoroute would be like. Things went well at first but from Narbonne to Perpignan we crawled along taking two hours to cover 100 Km. Once in Spain we sped along quite nicely with one more quick stop for a bite to eat and another coffee.

Returning the car required driving across the width of Barcelona and while technically this only involved three different roads, we managed to add in a lot of others. One huge roundabout refused to conform to our interpretation of our map and spat us out in the wrong direction. We also thought we would save a few dollars and bring the car back with a full tank of gas, thinking our route through town would surely take us by a gas station - not! Anyway we eventually handed back our car, a little dusty, still with a small chicken feather stuck to the windshield, and an additional 2300 Km on the odometer. It was a great car, a Renault Megane deisel six speed manual, reliable, responsive, just the right size and fun to drive.

We returned to the same hotel we had stayed in on our arrival two weeks ago, the Chic and Basic in the Born area. Once checked in we headed off to to the nearest metro stop and were soon enjoying the bustle around Placa de Catalunya. And shopping. The sales here are really fantstic and the fashion is amazing. Lots of stuff that we won’t see until next year. The street fashion is like something out of a magazine with lots of style and vibrancy.

We had previously discovered a little bistro specializing in ancient Catalan recipes and we returned there for dinner. The waiter brought toasted buns and asked us if we knew what to do with the accompanying tomatoes and garlic, but we needed no instructions in that ancient art! Next up we shared four dishes, monk fish, some sort of mashed potatoes, peas with shavings of duck, and a sort of cod and zuchinni stew. All very nice. Dessert was an almond and apple pie and quince with chevre. At this time we struck up a conversation with two women at the next table and had a lovely chat about our travels and shared experiences of Boston and Australia, before disappearing our separate ways.

Later we joined the throngs wandering about the streets of Barcelona, watching the endless parade: locals catching up with neighbours or meeting up with friends to eat and drink; travellers looking for excitement or, like us, just watching it all go by. We both love Barcelona for its vibrancy and colour and sense of style. We'll enjoy it for a few hours more tomorrow morning before flying home.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Day thirteen – Salvetat sur Agout

One of the two excellent guide books we brought with us builds its chapters around suggested drives, usually loops that would easily fill a day. We decided to adapt one of these involving a trip into the mountains to visit La Salvetat sur Agout. We headed back to Olargues before turning north up the mountainside. The scenery behind us grew more and more impressive as we climbed 1000 metres through a mix of forest, scrub and rock face. And then down the other side into a completely different landscape with a decidedly alpine feel. When we got out for lunch we discovered the temperature was also a bit alpine – warm in the sun but quite chill each time the clouds rolled by. A nearby outdoor store had a rack of polar fleece on display which was very tempting! El had what she says is the best omelette she has ever tasted. We think it was made with local sheep’s cheese and I was equally happy with the Serrano ham in my paysane salad.

We took a half hour loop around man made Lac de la Reviage. Obviously a popular destination for campers and boaters (some were swimming but we didn’t fancy it) but a much more peaceful atmosphere than the seaside. As we took a different route back to our main road we encountered a local cycle team struggling up the hill. Seeing up close what it looks like to pedal 10 Km up a near continuous 6 degree incline gave us a new respect for the Tour de France riders we had recently watched on TV.

At this point we were anticipating a 30 minute run back to our lodgings so as to spend the rest of the afternoon laying around the pool. Not quite! Unfortunately it took some time to realize that we had taken the wrong cut-off and were now miles off track heading for St. Chinian deep in the heart of wine country. We decided to cut across country on little back roads and work our way home that way. This was quite nerve racking because we were never entirely certain we were on the right road although in fact we always were. Other than depriving us of some planned sunbathing, it was one of those delightful little adventures that every holiday should include. We had the narrow winding roads mostly to ourselves and views of vine covered hills rolling away as far as the eye could see.

After a little quiet time on our terrace we had our own simple meal of caprese salad and chicken left over from the day before. The wine is gone, the food is gone, and suitcases are packed as tomorrow we head back to Barcelona. All the remaining clean clothes are in one suitcase and the ‘dirties’ in another. I jokingly asked if I should organize the dirties according to dark load or coloured load ready for the laundry when we get home and El actually thought about it!

Day twelve - Montpellier and Sete

Montpellier is the regional capital as well as being a university town with the western world's oldest medical schoool. So we thought it worth a visit and got up extra early so as to get there at a reasonable hour.It's not actually that far from Herepian to Montpellier; but we lost half an hour taking the wrong route out of town, got stuck in another little traffic jam in Bedarieux, and of the course the traffic coming into Montpellier itself was slow. So it was 11 am before we were enjoying a desperately overdue coffee on a leafy square just inside the old city. It is a beautiful city and we must go back but on this particular day we weren't inspired to stay for long.

We are still trying to explore the Lj anguedoc seaside and decided to head a just a little south of Montpellier to visit a series of beaches along a narrow stretch of land separated from the mainland by beautiful lagoons or "etangs." There was not as much of the tackier seaside features we had seen elsewhere and we did find some sections that we could imagine staying in but overall it was much too busy for our tastes. We continued south to the fishing port of Sete and spent some time wandering up and down the dock areas watching some very large trawlers returning to port. This is the kind of place were you could sit at a dockside restaurant looking across to the boat that had perhaps delivered your dinner that same day! But it was a little early for that and so we headed off. Sete is a fascinating place, especially if you enjoy watching working boats coming and going. But it was also very busy and we were happy to move on.

El's navigation skills were once again 'formidable' in getting us across country to Pezenas, a lovely place we had visited before and a perfect place to stop for dinner. We wandered around the old town until we found the same little bistro we had lunched in before and were happy to eat there again. El had gazpacho and I had a huge salad. Despite all the temptations we are getting our eating habits back on track.

We zoomed home on more of France's beautifully engineered and maintained roads. At first a fading purple twilight silhouetted the distant hills. Darkness descended and we saw only the ghostly forms of the plane trees that line the roads in many places, picked out by our headlights as we sped along.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Day eleven - Lamalou les Bains

Our only plan for today was to visit Lamalou les Bains, which is a once famous spa town and only a few minutes away. After that we thought we might head off into gorge country. Lamalou les Bains still has three spas with thermal hot springs but only one is public and that one only if you sign up for various spa packages. The other two spas are now government run rehabilitation centres. The unfortunate clients could be seen hobbling or wheelchairing their way around the main street and generally getting in our way as we tried to find a coffee. We took an instant dislike to the place, which was confirmed when loud speakers hidden in the trees all along the main street bombarded us with a five minute announcement. It felt like an episode from The Prisoner (a great sixties spy series in which Patrick McGoohan finds himself in a mysterious holiday village from which no one can escape).

We did escape after picking up some groceries. We had decided that we would prepare a few of our own meals, since we had the facilities and were tired of staggering home late at night over-filled with restaurant food. This quest had it frustrations. We got some vegetables in Lamalou but thought the best spot for the rest of our needs would require a visit further down the road in Benardieux. Unfortunately road works on the one of the town's one way streets caused us to get stuck in a traffic jam and we never did find what we were looking for (but did get another coffee). In the end the easiest solution was to brave the local hypermart and there we did find what we needed.

By this time it seemed a little late to be thinking of visiting the Herault Gorge so elected instead to head back to Olargues, a beautiful hillside town in which we had stopped on our way to Herepian two days before. We were anticipating a visit to a very nice restaurant overlooking the river but were out of luck as it was closed on Wednesdays, and our second choice was no longer serving food as it was by now 2 pm, closing time for many restauraunts. Dark mutterings about the French work ethic ensued. We pulled into another restaurant also obviously closing up but for what ever reasons the proprietor let us in. We ate alone as the staff readied the tables for reopening at 7 pm. We had some more Rose, this one a blend of Syrahh, Grenache and I forget. Our meal was accompanied by the restaurant sound system. I dont know if they have trailer parks in France, but if they do, and if there was a wedding at one, this is the music they might play at the reception.

For several days now El has been insisting that we had passed by sites of previous Tour De France stages. As it turns out Colmbieres Sur Orbe is not the same Col De Colombiere that has featured in probably many races but it gave us an excuse to turn up the mountain side and enjoy some amazing views before winding down into the next valley and back to the main road. El has also been trying to feed sugar cubes to some Camarague horses in the field next to our car park. She couldn't figure out why they seemed a bit reluctant. What the horses knew and what El eventually figured out is that one of the fence strands was electrified!

We had a leisurely afternoon on our balcony before preparing our own simple but delicious meal of tomatoes, basil and a kind of loval chevre that is just like the buffalo mozarella we usually use. Before this we had rabbit and hazelnut terrine.We bought some chicken and had canteloupe for dessert. I think we'll do this again. Last night the server gave me a really odd look when I didn't finish my kidneys. Seamus wouldn't do that! Tomorrow Montpellier.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Day ten - Pezenas and Agde

We began our first full day in Herepian by wandering up to the town square to enjoy a coffee and croissant while watching the traffic go by. The bar didn't have its own croissants but were happy to direct us down the street to a boulangerie to get some there. Then it was off to visit Pezenas, just a half hour south of us, reached after a lovely drive through low rolling hills covered with vinyards and dotted with wineries. Pezanas is a market town that achieved additional prominence when selected as the residence of regionhal governors. Consequently it acquired many fine buildings, which we admired as we wandered about the 'old' town. These old buildings are now home to various boutiques and galleries featuring local artists. We found a very cool hat shop. El is very disappointed that we don't have any weddings to go this summer because this would the place for a hat! The hats had major attitude, beautiful colours and very high style. However, I did find a very nice chapeau that goes very well with the charming man purse I picked up in Barcelona. Typically, we arrived just as many stores were closing up for the afternoon. There were plenty of little restaurants to chose from though so we picked one and a had a simple lunch.

We had thought that we would plan a full day exploration of the seaside around later this week but as we were so close we decided to aim for the nearby Agde area. On my map it appeared that Farinette Plage might not be too built up but it was in fact a major beach holiday destination and we got out as fast as we can. Nearby Le Grau D'Agde sounded promising in the guide books and we did enjoy looking at all the boats lining either bank of the Herault river before it enters the sea. but the beach part was the same scene as before. And since we didn't have our swim suits with us in any case, we didn't try too hard to find parking, but just headed off. After making a brief stop in Agde we headed back to the hills.

We took a different route home which involved a little trial and error but with El navigating we enjoyed the scenery taking some back roads across the country ''til we reached the main road again. After a little wine and cheeze on our own little terrace, and a short nap, we walked over to another inn in town for dinner. We had some great cheese. One was like tallegio, another was tome like tomba and the roquefort was to die for. As for the veau kidneys, Michel at Vol au Vent does a much better job.

I find it very strange that at night there doesn'qt seem to be passegata as in Italy and Spain. Where the people go is still a mystery!

Monday, August 2, 2010

Day nine - Cavanac to Herepian

Today was moving day. We said goodbye to Chateau Cavanac and headed north and east to our next lodgings in Herepian. We got off to an early (for us) start around 10 am and headed north of Carcossone and soon entered rolling wooded hills, much of it in a huge regional park. This is the Montagne Noire. We came down into the valley on the other side and made our first stop at Mnazamet. This was written up as quite an interesting town, built on tanneries and textiles, but arriving around noon on a Monday we found it quite dead. We understand the French are quite particular about the 35 hour work week so if stores are open on a Saturday for example, they might be closed or only open late on Monday. Never-the-less we found some coffee and turned east.

Similar wooded and rugged terrain brought us to the charming village of Olargues, where we stopped for lunch. Built on steep slopes above a river, Olargues is a photographer’s delight of narrow winding streets, flower laden windows and views down to an ancient arched bridge (Pont Diable).

Our hotel in Herepian was a nunnery although I doubt the sisters would recognize their rooms now! Ours is beautifully decorated and includes kitchen facilities and a terrace. We are in the middle of town but many of the houses around us have large properties taken up with vegetable plots. We discovered a big supermarket down the road and did a little shopping. Hopefully,A with our own fridge and stove we will stop bloating ourselves in restaurants.

Day eight - Castelnaudary

Today we decided to do a shorter trip and set off for Castelnaudary, which is closer to Toulouse and on the Canal Midi. We parked, got out of the car and heard the banging of the drums and not so musical singing from the Moldavian dance troupe, which has been chasing us around the Languedoc. They were performing in the square up the street. After a quick trip to the pharmacy we came back by the same route to hear the bongos of the Ugandan dance troupe. Actually, I thought they were pretty good.

We walked down to a much quieter Canal du Midi and had lunch, which consisted of a salad. The Canal is so beautiful with the canopy of plane trees everywhere. There were a few people having lunch on the boats with the requisite wine as we passed by.
Then it was off to Montolieu, a small town that is all bookshops. There is every kind of book in the shops in the town and Seamus managed to buy two TinTin books, which he didn’t have. Some of the collector TinTin books were several hundred euros. It was really nice to see a vibrant little town with lots of visitors. Many of the places we have been or pass through have the shutters closed and very few people about. The shutters don’t seem to open in the cooler evenings, which makes me think that people are on holidays or the places are abandoned as the inhabitants have moved into the towns.

Tonight we finally ate at the Chateau in their beautiful dining room. It was a set course meal with lots and lots of choice. We both started out with peach kir…very nice. The next course for Seamus was fruit de mer au gratin. I had crayfish, which were very scuttery to eat with not much eating. Actually, they reminded me of the Marseilles bouillabaisse of a few years ago so I won’t be trying them again. Seamus’main course was roast suckling pig with roast potatoes, garlic and olives. It was melt in your mouth good. I had some after eating my roast pigeon that tasted like a mild duck but there wasn’t much eating on it even though I really liked it. Our next course was four kinds of chevre served with honey that you drip on the cheese. There were two kinds of plain chevre, chevre covered in shallots and another covered with peppercorns. And now to dessert. Seamus had tarte tatin and I had profiteroles. Our server asked if we would like an aperitif. Of course thoughts of zucca filled our heads. Unfortunately it was rum with a cherry. I didn’t drink all of mine. Throughout the evening it was interesting to watch the chefs prepare the meals, especially the pigeon, meat and duck in the open fireplace. At last all we had to do was stagger upstairs to our room. Tomorrow we leave the Chateau for new adventures further north towards Montpellier.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Day seven - Cathar country

Today’s plan was to drive south into Cathar territory and explore some of the hilltop ruins dating back to a time when Cathars broke away from Catholicism and did their own thing for several hundred years until finally exterminated in the 1200s. We started out with coffee in Pomas. Our attempt to order cappuccinos resulted in the café owner disappearing down the street to buy a can of whipping cream. We could tell two locals who showed up were wondering where she had gone. I expect by now the whole village knows that the café was abandoned because two tourists wanted whipping cream in their coffee! El really doesn’t like whipping cream at all but she made a brave face and drank the coffee. From now on we just order coffee.

I had planned a clever cross country route that began with the hilltop town of Rennes-le chateau, famous because a strange priest in the late nineteenth century had mysterious access to enough money to build not only a beautiful church but also a fancy chateau, guesthouse and gardens for himself. Some still believe a secret treasure trove exists, and it is a popular spot for da vinci code types. One bizarre Englishman who appears to have made his home there accosted us with talk of all the interesting things that people didn’t see. As an example he pointed out that nobody ever notices the inscription on a small stone bench. We took a look. It appeared to be the letters X S L X. It is quite obvious to me that this simple means extra small people sit on the left side of the bench and extra large people sit on the right. I have found that most conspiracy theories can be explained in this way.

Not far away is the small spa town of Rennes-le bains. We soaked our feet in the cool waters that run through the centre of town followed by an excellent lunch of omlette for me and chevre salad for El. At this time a bus pulled up and out got the same folklore performers who had abused us in Limoux two nights ago. Obviously on some kind of tour. It was only mid afternoon but we left quickly just in case they decided to have a rehearsal!

Now we took a back country route through parts of the rugged and remote Corrbierre region. We followed a lovely winding road with high slopes and rocky outcrops on either side before climbing up to an incredible hilltop fortress called Chateau de Peyrepertuse, where Cathars took refuge from their persecutors. To get to the very top we had to follow a ghastly rocky trail and countless uneven and really slippery steps. El’s knees did a semi scream all the way up but once there the view was breathtaking. Getting down was not as bad as El expected and we were soon on our way again.

That alone would have made the day a complete success but there was one more treat in store for us as we threaded our way through the Gorges de Galamus. One stretch of this cliffside road is regulated by traffic lights for much of the day as it is too narrow for two cars to pass. It was short but spectacular drive with towering hillsides and sheer drops to the gorge below. This brought us back to the main road from Perpignan on which we could speed our way home, with hopes of finding dinner along the way. As we slowed down to pass through Lapradelle-Puilaurens we spotted a restaurant and doubled back to check it out. As soon as El saw “lapin” on the menu we were in. It was a perfect little spot with a backyard patio overlooked by a railway viaduct. El ended up having duck breast which turned out to be the biggest duck breast she had ever seen, double-D for sure! We would have been fine with the starters. I had an excellent chevre salad and El’s salad included a huge amount of foie de lapin. Delicious!

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Day six - the beaches south of Narbonne

Today we decided it was time see the sea. We had chosen to stay inland thinking that the coast would be busy with French holiday makers. The coast along here has been developed with a series of holiday towns which I am guessing are mostly rentals. We drove out towards Narbonne before turning south on smaller roads and soon found that it was nowhere as busy as we imagined. We didn’t get caught in traffic or have trouble parking and the first beach we visited at Port Leucate was practically deserted . Along here the holiday resorts occupy a long stretch of land separated from the mainland by a beautiful lagoon. We had lunch at a little promenade restaurant at a place called Le Lydia, named after the small passenger ship dug into the sand and now serving as a casino. Lunch consisted of grilled sardines. Excellent! And some more rose wine to go with it. And frites.

We next drove down a narrow neck of land until we found a stretch of beach we liked and hung out there for a couple of hours. It was very windy which is apparently typical as part of our beach was reserved for kite boarders and one was busy while we were there putting on quite a show. The water was fabulous. El is mad she doesn’t own a bikini as all the other women were wearing them. (I hadn’t actually noticed as I was just reading my book).

We wended our way into Perpignan, which has a beautiful town centre and just had pizza for dinner (and wine of course). For the trip home we stuck to the toll roads and that would have been uneventful except I hadn’t been paying much attention to the gas and we spent some tense minutes on the highway waiting for a gas station to appear, which it eventually did.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Day five - Carcossone and Homp

El got her day off to a good start by taking a dip in the hotel pool, apparently a little on the cool side. At first we decided we would drive south and explore further south of Limoux but after coffee and pastries in Pomas we decided to go north instead and check out Carcassone. The guide book said to not visit Carcossone in summer as it would be a zoo; it is apparently one of France’s three most visited towns. It was in fact a zoo but we have seen worse. Carcassone is popular because it includes a small walled city with a positively fairytale appearance. It looks like a film set except with lots of narrow winding streets now filled with little restaurants and souvenir stores. We were done in an hour and headed into the ‘newer’ part of town to wander about.

Here we had our first chance to admire the Canal de Midi, a masterpiece of engineering and the determination of one man to build a canal connecting the Atlantic. Completed in the late 17th century it is now most popular for leisurely one or two week boat holidays up and down its length from Toulouse to Narbonne. We tried to find a drive that would allow us to parallel the canal and did so as far as Trebes where we ate lunch at a restaurant overlooking one of the locks. We decided to make the canal our focus for the day and continued driving parallel to it until we reached Homps, a major staging area for boat tours. We were in time to sign up for a two-hour boat ride up the canal to see firsthand its locks in action along with other features such as flood spillways (kind of like the overflow hole in a bathroom sink) and an aqueduct that carries the canal across a small river. What makes the canal really beautiful is that it is lined on both sides with plane trees, which it turns out are more than decorative as their roots are what keep the banks from eroding. All quite fascinating and left us more than ready for dinner.

This is where our day began to fall apart a little. We had this idea that if you drive through any town of a certain size you are bound to come to restaurant. This is not the case. We drove through many towns before finally ending up back at Limoux where we had eaten the night before. This would have been tolerable if not for the fact that the town was having some kind international folklore festival with a major performance in the square that evening. I believe these are actually put on by locals who like to dress up and perform traditional song and dances from places that should have stopped doing that a long time ago. Tonight’s entry looked like wherever Borat was from. What we found amazing is that the whole town seems to come out to enjoy this kind of thing, although I am guessing that many are there not so much for the show as the attendant social scene.

Day four - Barcelona to Cavanac

Merde! My pants are getting a bit tight. Today we picked up our Megane rental car in Barcelona and got on the highway without getting lost. The road travels right by the Mediterranean. We were surprised to see so many beaches that weren’t that crowded. My vision of nothing but wall to wall people was wrong.

We stopped for lunch at Sol de Mar, a lovely quaint little town. The gazpacho I had was amazing’ maybe it was the setting who knows. The bread was pretty good too and this with the croissant for breakfast, snack midmorning makes for tight pants.

We continued on the highway and went down to the coast again in a couple of places on the Costa Brava but we weren’t impressed. The beaches looked nice but the towns were made up of 5 or 6 storey boring block apartments. On to France.

We reached Chateau Cavanac fairly easily. It is in beautiful rolling countryside with vineyards everywhere, five miles south of Carcassone. The hotel has about 30 rooms and a restaurant that is quite well known. It is midnight, the parking lot is pretty full and we can hear happy people wending their way back to their cars.

We ate in Limoux tonight. It is a beautiful little town with lots of tiny, narrow streets set on the River Aude. Everywhere you can see huge hanging baskets and the scent of flowers is everywhere. Dinner was at one of the restaurants on the square We had a wicked salad with a bowl of melted Camembert cheese with some chives served with toast. So good but so filling. I couldn’t eat all of my duck in phyllo with whipped potatoes in their jackets. It’s so early in the trip and my stomach has given up. The Limoux wine set my face on fire. It must be the sulphites. A lot of the wine in this area is vin ordinaire that is shipped all over to be cut with other wine. I wonder if it goes to the Okanagan?

After dining outside we went for a walk along the river. It is so nice to be outside at night walking and being warm as well as smelling all the flowers. Heaven!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Languedoc trip - day three - Barcelona

Once again my little watch alarm failed to wake us but El heard the cheering from the end of the street as the 20 km men's race walkers went by - Barcelona is hosting this year's European Athletic Championships. The race walk was being held in a big park complex called Parc de la Ciuttadella which includes a zoo, parliament buildings, and many beautiful walkways. We wandered around there and up to the top where there is a huge Arc de Triumph, and our nearest subway stop.

We decided to take the subway over to an even more spectacular park area, Parc de Montjuic, a beautiful hillside setting with views across the whole city. This is also the site of the 1992 Barcelona Summer Olympics, so we had to visit the pool and main stadium. Eleanor got to check another Olympic pool off her list although we hadn't brought our swimsuits so didn't get to swim. We were also unable to enter the Olympic stadium unless we wanted to buy tickets for the athletic championships then in progress. Next stop was a cable car ride to Castell de Montjuic on the very peak, and even more spectacular views. I am guessing the temperature was in the mid thirties at least, so by this time we were done with tramping about. Even the locals on the subway looked wilted.

After a bit of a siesta back in our room we headed off to Mercat Sanata Caterina. I mentioned yesterday that we had seen what looked like a great restaurant there and decided to try it out. It was indeed excellent. I had grilled Turbot and El had Hake steak with glazed scallions, basil and potatoes. It was busy but we were happy to take seats at the bar, which we always find the most interesting spot anyway. We happened to be right where the servers picked up the orders and so were able to see every dish going by. We saw roasted suckling pig leg go by several times. Grilled razor clams also caught our eye. So that was today. Tomorrow will be mostly a matter of packing up and getting a cab to Estacio de Sants to pick up our car. We anticipate a three-hour drive, all auto route, to our next lodgings in Caravac, just south of Carcassone.