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!