Saturday, April 28, 2012

Mourillon market


Despite listening to Toulon revellers until well past two in the morning, we made a reasonable start in the morning. After breakfast we walked to the seaside town of Le Mourillon. It was once a fishing village and now is home to many officers of the French fleet. Our first stop was the market, which was quite different from the Toulon market. Not only did they have fruit and vegetable stands but also lots of high end clothing, shoes, leather goods and flowers beautifully displayed. This market catered to the Mourillon locals; we seemed to be the only tourists. One really interesting vendor cooked paella for take-away in a gigantic pan at least a metre across.

We continued walking through the town to the the lovely, sandy beaches. The return journey took us past Fort St. Louis built in the time of Louis XVI to protect the harbour. By now the wind had really gathered in intensity and we were glad to be back in the main port area.

This afternoon we visited the Museum of Old Toulon. There were several models of ships, maps and artefacts tracing Toulon\'s naval history. There were also numerous documents on display, such as seventeenth century math teachers\' huge books written in perfect script. The edges of the paper had disintegrated but otherwise they were in perfect condition.

Next we stopped at a fromagerie -- cheese shop -- to admire a huge selection of small sheep\'s, goat\'s and cow\'s cheese. They were quite small in all kinds of shapes. It was a bit smelly with all kinds of blue cheeses and roqueforts as well as a selection of hard cheeses that we hadn\'t seen before. We had a taste of an old yellow cheese that had a rind that looked as if it had woodworm. It was a bit mild for our taste. We bought two cheeses and a loaf for a picnic on the way home tomorrow. No more rest stop food.

Day two in Toulon


It has been a busy day in Toulon. Our first stop was the market, which weaves its way up the centre of the pedestrian walkway. Most of the stalls have beautifully displayed fruits and vegetables with white asparagus and strawberries on prominent display. Fresh fish, olives and tapenades, spices, cheese and ceramics from Provence make up the other stalls. One stall had a lovely pate in puff pastry that looked delicious along with its other offerings. Nearer the port were a couple of flower sellers with arrangements of every colour. And of course clothing, shoes and handbags were on sale for next to nothing.

We then walked along the front to the Maritime Museum. As you enter you pass through the stone gates that were once the entrance to the port itself hundreds of years ago. These are adorned by Minerva, goddess of war and Apollo, god of war. The decorations were made by the navy artists. At the time, they would have been responsible for figureheads and other adornments on the wooden sailing vessels. The naval museum retraces the tumultuous history of Toulon's naval base. Numerous paintings and artefacts along with some amazing wooden models made for a colourful and informative visit.

After lunch we took a one hour boat tour of Toulon's beautiful bay. Toulon is the largest military port in the Mediterranean, and is headquarters for the French Third Maritime Region. Thirty French naval vessels are based here and were able to see many of them from our tour boat. The guide explained the roles and equipment of each ship, in French of course, so much of it escaped us, although references to exocet missiles seemed to pop up a lot. The tour also included views of several the 24 forts, towers and batteries that helped protect the port during its 500-year history. 

Tonight we arrived at the rugby match between Toulon and Stade Francais almost an hour before kick off to watch the teams warm up. We weren't alone. Stade Mayol was already half full. There was a tremendous atmosphere with music pumping in the background. Finally the teams were announced, everybody stood for the singing of the Toulon team song or perhaps it was a hymn, and a Toulon supporter led a cheer to which fans responded in noises that closely resembled a haaka.

Toulon scored a try almost immediately but Stade replied with two of their own and were soon up by 19-8. For much of the first half Toulon struggled but eventually spent enough time in Stade territory for Jonny Wilkinson to kick several penalties and a field goal. The score remained close throughout the second half, Stade playing a more exciting brand of rugby, including another try, while Toulon seemed prepared to win or lose on the strength of Wilkinson's kicking. On this night it was enough, Toulon winning 32 to 29 after a dramatic drop goal by Wilkinson in the final minute of play.

It's now on to Twickenham for Toulon, and a birth in the Amlin Cup final. It was a fabulous experience for us to see so many rugby greats from both teams play. When would you see two former Wallabies -- Matt Giteau and George Smith -- square off against each other? After pizza we came back to the square by our hotel, which is next to the stadium, and there we spotted the Stade players getting on their bus. They were even stopping for pictures but tragically our camera was back in the room. So rugby fans just imagine my picture with George Smith and Paul Sackey. Along with the other Toulon fans we clapped as the Stade bus left. What a great day.


Friday, April 27, 2012

Toulon


This morning we set off on our trip to Toulon, France for an Amlin Cup semi final rugby match tomorrow night between Toulon and Stade Francais. Our trip took us through miles and miles of the Rouissillon and Languedoc vineyards and past the cities of Perpignan, Montpellier and Aix en Provence before finally reaching Toulon. What started out as cloudy and very windy turned in to beautiful sunshine as we reached the port area of Toulon. After some difficulty finding the hotel parking, we were happy to get checked in.

Immediately, we set off to explore the port and get something to eat. At the autostrade stops in Spain, the food is quite good and in fact they will cook up fresh food for you. At our first stop in France, for coffee, we were faced with vending machines. We jumped right back in the car and drove on to the next rest stop. The same thing. However, by this time we just decided to take the plunge. After all that, the vending machine espresso was drinkable. Thinking about lunch we passed a rest stop with a McDonald's. This is France!Further along we stopped and had a grilled sandwich on virtually uncooked bread. All this made food a priority in Toulon. We strolled along the waterfront, passing huge yachts and tour boats, while across the harbour we could see the ferries to Corsica and some naval vessels. Finally, we stopped for a local beer and raspberry crepe. Weird but lovely.

There is a large pedestrian only shopping area, which we wandered around, discovering that the same items were quite a bit cheaper in Spain. But the browsing was most enjoyable.

It was back to the port for dinner where we shared a gigantic nicoise salad and then had duck and frites. The servings were huge and could easily have served four people. I can see how obesity has become a problem in France. As we were having our coffee I recognised a man, who passed us. Tonight the restaurant had several rugby types dining. Who was this person wearing a rugby jersey? After passing the restaurant again on our after dinner walk, it came to me that he was a rugby referee. Again racking my brains I knew he was from Ireland. It was Alain Rolland who refereed the rugby world cup semi final and gave Sam Warburton, the Welsh player a red card, thus enabling France's victory. I was just glad that I had figured out who he was. I'm sure we will see him tomorrow night at Stade Mayol.

Tomorrow will be a busy naval day as Toulon is the headquarters of the French fleet. We have much exploring to do at the naval museum and the port.




Monday, April 23, 2012

Mas Llunes vinyard


At 9 o'clock sharp we met outside the wine store in the village to form part of the convoy  to Mas Llunes vineyard. We were particularly interested as back in October, we'd liked their wine in a restaurant and gone looking for the vineyard. At that time, they weren't open to the public, but someone sent us up some very small streets in Garriguella to another of their premises. With the smell of fermenting grapes to guide us, we eventually found a couple of fellows pouring wine from barrels into demijohns, and they took us to the lady selling the wine.

Today we started our visit in the flat part of the vineyard where the granache is grown in the clay soil.  All the vines are planted in a north south direction, to minimize damage from the tramontana -- strong winds of the Pyrenees. Up on the hills where the soil is more slatey, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, samso, red granache and syrah are grown. Strong wires act as a frame as the grapes grow, always with the leaves and grapes facing out to the sun. We were very fortunate that Pilar, our guide, spoke English. The vineyard has been in the Roig family for many generations and it was really lovely to be hosted by them.

Inside, the wine making process was explained to us from the removing of stalks from the vines, crushing the grapes, fermenting the wine in huge steel vats for twenty days to the final bottling. Deep down in the basement we visited a vast room filled with French oak barrels filled with ageing wines. Some stay in the barrels for six months to two years depending on the wine, then they go into bottles and lie flat for further ageing. The dessert wines stay in the barrels for up to ten years.

Then came my favourite part, the wine tasting. A big table was set out with a huge variety of cold meats, cheeses and big slabs of bread which had been 'rubbed down' with tomatoes and olive oil. We started with one white then another, Nivia. The owner sat at the head of the table and discussed the wines. Our glasses were washed out with rose before we tasted it. The bottles were passed around for you to pour your own taste. I tried to keep my tastes small as the wines went up to 15.5% alcohol. If you didn't finish there was a big silver wine bucket in the middle of the table for the slops.

Then came the reds. The first was the one we'd had before, followed by Rhodes, a blend of samso, red granache, syrah and merlot from vines over a hundred years old. This was our favourite. Next came an even older wine, Emporion but it needed a bit more ageing. New glasses were brought out for the dessert wine, which tasted like sherry, lovely and all served with hazelnut biscotti and another drier dessert biscuit. Yummy!! Finally, we sampled a non labelled muscat, which we tasted with cheese. It really did explode in your mouth and changed the taste. I've always known about food and wine pairings but this was the first time I truly tasted a difference in taste with the food. We were sorry that we missed the granache festival in Gariguella last week where over 700 kilograms of banuyles -- small, light, sugary doughnuts -- were consumed. Now there's a pairing.

By now It was after one o'clock and time to go. What an interesting time meeting new people from the village and learning about another vineyard and their wines. Now for a nap.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Banyoles


Today we visited Banyoles, site of the 1992 Olympic rowing events and the 2004 world rowing championships. We approached the town driving around Lake Banyoles, where, as luck would have it, there was a rowing competition taking place. Beautiful tall plane trees made a canopy over the roadway and the six-kilometer walking path that goes around the lake.

The monastery dates back to the twelfth century. We were particularly interested in this as over sixty new tombs were recently discovered as the result of roadworks. However, it was closed over the long lunch hour as was the archeological museum. Both buildings looked really interesting from the outside. We will save these for another day.

Lunch was a salad and a goat cheese and apple sandwich for me and a Greek sandwich with tuna, goat cheese and black olives for Seamus with a glass of local red wine. All this was eaten outside at a restaurant on the main square. It was interesting looking at the architecture of the buildings from various times going back to old stone buildings to quite modern buildings that were lovely shades of ochre. In fact a lot of the town was made up of quite modern attractive houses and apartments.

We had an after lunch stroll at the lake. Since it was still lunch time there was a break in the rowing competition but we walked through an area with over a hundred skulls of various sizes. Our walk took us past the neanderthal village with grass roofed buildings, which certainly warrants further exploration. The lake water was crystal clear and had a lovely sandy bottom. Dotted around the lake were private boathouses, some quite grand.

Returning to the main competition area, we sat outside and watched the women's doubles races at the other side of the lake and the men's eights preparing for their race. Teams from all over Spain and France were taking part in the event. A really strong wind sprang up and you could see that it was really hard work just rowing to the starting line. In fact the wind was so strong it knocked down a branch from one of the plane trees, blowing it right onto me! The next time we visit will be in the morning, when we can visit the monastery and the archeological museum.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Spring has arrived in the wetlands


After days of high winds and mixed weather it was a pleasure to spend the afternoon at the Aiguamolls. We enjoyed our picnic of ham and goat's cheese on a multigrain bun and a glass of red wine, while being entertained by two ring necked doves making a high pitched crooning sound that accompanied their vigorous mating ritual. Then it was off to the first blind.

All the leaves were now out on the trees and were enveloped in that lovely green tropical smell that occurs after rainfalls. Just before we entered the blind we encountered a huge clump of  brilliant yellow irises. Once in the blind, we immediately noticed that most of the geese have disappeared but there were still lots of mallards, shellducks, pochards, and little and great egrets. In the distance we spotted the flamingoes nearer the next blind, our next stop.

Many of the foraging  flamingoes were brilliant pink or an orangey-pink colour. When they spread their wings this, with the combination of black was quite breathtaking. There were many more immature flamingoes than we had seen previously that were still quite whitish grey in colour. Immediately below us we watched a black coot patiently sitting on its nest.

As we returned to the main path we could hear the clacking of the white storks' beaks. Some of the nests had grown considerably in size since our last visit but there were a couple of nesting platforms without any nests. We wondered if they had been swept away in gale force winds. Each nest had a stork sitting in it with other storks perched around in the trees. One nest had two storks that appeared to be feeding chicks. We observed a shift change on the nests as the male or female came to exchange places on the nest.


When we came out of the white stork blind there right in front of us was a whole field of yellow irises. They were actually growing in the wetlands and all along the path. Water levels throughout the aiguamolls are carefully controlled, and today the little streams bordering our path were quite full. As we passed a grassland area we spotted the bright red and green head of a pheasant accompanied by a female, then luckily, we spotted two more pairs.

One newly flooded field was filled with black winged stilts, black and white waders with long legs, and avocets that are quite similar in appearance. There were several egrets in among the stilts, whimbrels, green sandpipers and even a glossy ibis. In a pond nearby were several shags.

As we neared the beach we watched black and white Caspian terns, barn swallows and swifts swooping above the canals in the wetlands. We were entertained by a great crested grebe, easily spotted with its orange crest, diving under the water and then reappearing quite a distance away.

Once down on the beach we climbed the lifeguard tower to look over the beach, a large section of which is now roped off to protect nesting birds. We spotted gulls and sandpipers  on the beach quite a distance away. As we looked back over the canals it was hard to spot anything over the three metre high grasses.

On our return journey we spotted a pair of grus grus or common crane flying overhead. Some white storks were feeding near the fence separating the path and farther away there was a large black bird. It was a lone black stork wading in the field. By now the clouds were rolling in and as we neared the car the first sprinkles of rain came down. Perfect timing.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Cadaques


Without the benefit of Canada's best kept secret -- cold defence ColdFX -- for the first time in years I've had to put up with a cold. Not only that, but companies don't seem to ship it outside North America. The fact that Seamus has joined me has somewhat curtailed our activities. However, we did take a drive over the mountains to Cadaques, the town where Dali painted for many years.

Every trip over the mountains is different and today's was no exception. We passed some of the cows that roam freely over the mountains along with a tiny, new calf. Today orange  poppies and pale pink rock roses lined the road with large swatches of French lavender and bright yellow flowers brightening the hillsides.

Cadaques is always a lively spot to visit with many visitors from France as well as Spain. We opted to have a tapas lunch at Sal, where we sat outside to look at the sea, enjoy the sun and people watch. A brave swimmer, dressed in a wetsuit and flippers and towing an orange float, swam right across the bay and back. A number of people were walking their dogs both big and small, including one very hairy large black Briard with huge feet and and eleven-month-old lovely blonde Leonberger.

People watching is very interesting. Some of the locals still wore their puffy jackets; people from colder climes had shorts and one young lady short, shorts with boots of course. Some French women wore very stylish skirts, while the men still sported their scarves.

Our small tapas lunch consisted of: a small arugula salad with walnuts, currants, sun dried tomatoes and goat's cheese; sardines on top of red onion on a cracker; grilled cuttlefish; and toasted bread onto which you rub fresh tomato. All this with a glass of rosat. Good food and great entertainment from the passers by.


On this visit we walked back through the village square passing more restaurants, little boutiques, a few hotels and homes. At this point we spotted an island with a little causeway connecting it to the mainland and decided to visit it. We followed a shale path, with lots of purple wild geraniums growing out of the rocks, over the stony hillside and down to the beach only to be disappointed that the path to the island was blocked. This was the end of the road.

Retracing our steps to town it was time for a coffee and a little more people watching before returning home.

Friday, April 13, 2012

A magical afternoon in a butterfly park


With clouds in the sky and the threat of rain we decided to visit the Butterfly Park in Empuriabrava. We entered the first part of the warm, humid rainforest to encounter parakeets of the most brilliant, vivid colours, blue heads, red bills, yellow throats and green bodies. There were others that were every conceivable shade of rust and red. As one would land on a perch another even more colourful would arrive beside it.

These birds were joined by mynah birds, tiny blue quails, tiny white and yellow birds, cardinals and one large azure blue chicken-sized bird with a lovely lacy crest. This particular ground dwelling bird took a liking to my shoes, which he pecked away at, even standing on my foot. As he started to puff up, I thought that it was time to move away.

The songs of the birds were cheerful and melodious and I think one might have said "hello" or perhaps, "hola." You could feel the movement of the birds wings as they flew very close to you. Higher up in the trees were some larger parrot type birds and one large quite ugly and sleepy lizard.

We moved on to the tropical environment created for the butterflies. Some plants act as roosting places for the butterflies, while others provide flowers rich in nectar for the butterflies to feed. One large, hibiscus with lots of red blooms provided dinner for a number of scarlet swallowtails, monarchs and morphos. The owl butterflies, which were a beautiful blue when they were flying, closed their wings and displayed their owl eyes that act as protection against predators, when they are feeding.

We spotted some chrysalis on a banana tree. Also, the passionflower vines and lemon trees are a food source for the caterpillars.   

It was a very pleasant afternoon spent in the tropics with the birds. Quite magical.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

We watch kite surfing


After a quick stock up at one of the supermarkets in Empuriabrava we went for a walk along the beach braving the brisk wind. It was quite spectacular looking at the twenty or so multicoloured kites, from the kite surfers, careening about in the sky.

We walked along the beach and actually crossed the wide Muga river on a sandy isthmus. By this time we were really fascinated by the people taking kite surfing lessons. One of the first things the students tackled was just getting the kite out of the water and into the air. No mean feat. Then they had to maneuver the kite and that was all they did with the help of the instructor. Another couple learned how to stand up on the board and then proceeded to the water. The next we saw of that person he had come right across the water and nearly came right up on the beach. His kite was stuck in the sand for a while.

Then a man started surfing in the lagoon behind us with a puffy kite that was much bigger than the rest. What a show he put on, actually leaping in the air for four or five metres and then floating along before finally landing perfectly back on the water.

As we made our way back to the car we watched a couple of boys with much smaller kites than the kite boarders. One small boy was standing on a board in the sand, while keeping his balance and flying the kite. When we glanced back to have one final look at him he was off the board and about to become airborne. Fortunately, his mother was nearby and caught him in time.

Kite boarding is very popular along the Empuriabrava and St. Pere Pescador beaches with certain areas being dedicated to this sport. It looks like a lot of fun. Perhaps some day.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Village comes alive for Easter weekend


Friday morning we set off earlier than usual for our coffee thinking that taking the car would be no problem. Since it was Good Friday we thought that our weekly market would be cancelled. How wrong we were. We arrived in the village to a market at least twice the size it usually was attracting hordes of people. A quick drive through the village confirmed that there were no parking spots except for the sandy lot at the bottom of our hill. With our shopping finished we negotiated the weekenders from Barcelona and France to our usual coffee stop, the Nautica. It was lovely watching the llauds, traditional fishing boats, now used for leisure, going out for the day.

Walking back through the village we investigated the rotisserie chicken shop, where they can rotiss over a hundred chickens at a time. Not only that but there is a sign that it is best to reserve your chicken in advance.


All the restaurants and shops were open again on Saturday, not even closing for three hours in the afternoon. Once again the people with summer homes, backpackers and cyclists converged on the village. As we had run out of sangria, we decided to drive over the mountain to Villaguiga to stock up for 2€ a litre. We passed a professional cycling team near the top and on the way down, as we were going 50 kilometres an hour around the switchbacks, two of the cyclists totally left us in their dust. Every time I watch cyclists training I have a great appreciation for the competitors in the Tour de France.

Today we woke up to a tramontana with force six winds. The kite and wind surfers were out in force. After sitting outside having our coffee in the shelter of the Nautica, we were enjoying the sun so much we decided to have a drink and then some tapas, grilled shrimp and grilled squid. Fabulous.

Tonight dinner was rabbit cooked in rose wine with whole garlic, black olives, fresh rosemary, oregano and bay leaves. So simple and tasty but perhaps in bad taste!

Friday, April 6, 2012

Coffee at the lighthouse


The quiet tranquility of the village in winter has truly disappeared. Even more undiscovered restaurants have opened. We now have neighbours, at least on one side of us. I'm sure the others will be here soon. Parking in the village is becoming impossible as the holiday makers open their summer homes and others visit for the day. And worse, last Sunday, while properly parked, someone managed to give the back wheel area of our car a good scrape. From now on, certainly on weekends, we will be trekking down the hill to the village and back with the return trip providing a good workout for our calves.

Our destination this afternoon was the Cap de Creus, since we hadn't been there for quite a while. The always superb drive through the mountains was made even more stunning today by red poppies lining the road. The mountains were full of colour with flowering rosemary,  purple flowering shrubs, the ubiquitous prickly pear and carpets of vibrant pink balsam, with their bright heads fully opened.

We headed to the cafe at the end of the Cape. As usual it was out of the wind, which made sitting listening to Nora Jones and sipping our cortado, gazing out at the sea quite lovely. Finally, we decided to go for a walk over the rocky outcrops and down a rugged path. We encountered a huge cave-like tunnel that allowed the sea to enter a chasm lined with rock in every shade of grey. The rocks contrasted beautifully with the Mediterranean blue of the water. On the return climb we went through several areas where bees were hard at work.

Back in the car we followed the winding route to Roses and then to Gariguella, where there are a couple of wineries selling various goods from the Emporda, as well as wine. After stocking up on some wine, olive oil, hot bread and olive oil soaps it was home to make dinner.

We made a blood orange salad with spicy green olives, a bit of olive oil and touch of salt. Our barbecued scampi were marinated in olive oil, grated ginger, garlic and a bit of chili pepper. Delicious.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Village enjoys Barca victory on big screen

Tonight's entertainment took place down at the ballroom -- really a gym with a stage -- in the village. It was a big night, Barcelona vs Milan to see which team will advance in the UEFA Cup. The two teams played to a 0-0 draw last week. What had happened to Barca's winning streak? There was a lot riding on tonight's game.

We arrived just before kick-off. The ladies from the adjutament or town hall were selling beer, cava and water and even better there was a whole table of home made sandwiches and lovely cakes, which we found out at half time were selling for only a euro a piece.

The game was pretty fast moving with Barca playing an aggressive game with very little rolling around on the ground. Complete with  a couple of vuvuzelas and the enthusiastic support of the crowd in the gym, Barca had a very convincing win over Milan, 3-1. It was a fun night out in the village. Our next visit to the gym will be held later in the month when Barca plays Benfica or Chelsea.

Monday, April 2, 2012

No more sleepy little village


Life has been busy in El Port de la Selva this week. The last painting and cleaning touches were finished to many businesses. Everything is sparkling. Over this weekend four, new to us, restaurants have opened. As well as: a take away chicken rotisserie store that we didn't even know existed; four clothing stores some with mainly beach attire; the flower gift shop; the ceramics store and the exquisite modern jewelry shop. All open and busy.

We had some shopping to do in the village and we just managed to snag the last parking spot. The place was humming. We did manage to time it when people were leaving the church, many carrying what looked like branches of laurel bushes to celebrate Palm Sunday. This is a very big week in Spain, Semana Santa, when there will be lots of processions relating to Easter.

In the bay in front of the village newbee windsurfers were getting their first lessons and doing very well. After about half an hour they were all managing to stay up.

The Nautica, where we have coffee most days, was busy with boaters, hikers and visitors from France. I think today was a taste of things to come. Next Sunday we may just walk to the village. Our little spot of tranquility is becoming quite exciting.