Friday, June 29, 2012

Young storks almost ready to fly

Another trip to Empuriabrava today to do some shopping. The drive was much different again with the vines now quite large, hay being rolled up and  fields of giant sunflowers all facing in the same direction smiling at the sun. A herd of goats was moving about in one field of grass almost as tall as they were. Lots of munching here.

After our shopping it was time for lunch at Sobres, a brand new restaurant opened by the owners of the Blue Sky cafe. When you pick the menu of the day, you can eat a three course meal for a very reasonable price. I started out with endive with roquefort foam and walnuts. It was delicious. Next was the grilled sea bass in a sauce with a perfectly grilled whole onion. Tart lemon sorbet finished off a delicious meal.

Next stop was the beautiful seventy-metre-wide sandy Empuriabrava beach. We had taken our swimming gear with us but it was extremely windy with the sand blowing everywhere so we decided to save this beach for another time.

Now it was time to visit the nearby Aiguamolls nature reserve to see the progress of the baby storks. Since it was very hot we immediately followed the path to the stork nests. And there they were, nests with two, three and four baby storks looking like smaller versions of their parents. How they had grown. One of the funniest things was watching the largest baby in a nest vigorously flapping his wings and jumping up in the air over and over and over again and then awkwardly clambering around the top of the nest with complete disregard for his siblings. There were three of these nest jumpers but no baby storks actually flying. Many of the younger storks stood up in their nests watching what was going on with their beaks open to help them cool off. Instead of following our usual eight kilometre jaunt we returned to the first blind in the park, very thankful for the cool air blowing through it. In the once lively pond we saw only a few ducks swimming around. One had a unique swimming position with its tail right up in the air swimming upside down for a couple of metres. The grasses around the pond are growing higher and higher and the pond itself is beginning to recede. What will it be like by the end of summer? We will be back soon to see the baby storks take flight.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Fort de Bellegarde and the old Roman road

Having just learned about the Via Domitia and Via Augustus, the old Roman road that linked Cadiz to Rome, we decided to see if we could find it this afternoon. We drove to Le Perthus, the first town in France, which we've passed by several times but never explored. It was one of those places that makes you ask yourself "why are we here?"  It is known as a  shopper's paradise with 60,000 square metres of shops, many selling perfume. There were stores selling watches, jewelry, leather and clothes. People were certainly buying but it was one of those places you just wanted to leave. There were numerous men on the sidewalks badgering passers by to buy sunglasses and watches. We made a quick exit.

Our first stop was Le Fort de Bellegarde, which sits high up on the hill overlooking the Franco-Spanish border. The fort is a jewel of seventeenth century military architecture designed by Vauban, who served Louis XIVth. The fort was built as a result of French-Spanish conflicts over the centuries. The panoramic views from the ramparts were quite stunning and you really could see everything just as Vauban had planned. As we moved around the ramparts we could see where the Wehrmacht had kept their ammunition dumps in 1943. Apparently the Gestapo had a prison for escaped prisoners of war and Spanish republicans at the fort.

A huge  well sixty five metres deep could withstand a siege. It was interesting seeing the huge bread ovens but I'm not sure how they worked as they were so vast. How did they get the food in and out of them especially at the back of the ovens? There were interesting displays of Roman and medieval artifacts, mainly pottery, that had been discovered in an archeological dig at Le Pannissars further down the hill.

We got back in the sweltering hot car to go down to Le Pannissars and the old Roman road. There are signs denoting the Via Domitia (into France) and Via Augustus (into Spain). This road usually parallels the autostrade and is about fifteen kilometres from the Mediterranean. The building of the road improved communications and attracted many new Roman settlements. The route was probably the same as followed by Hannibal and his famous elephants in 218 BC before the Via Domitia was built.

There were remnants of Roman ruins at Le Pannissars as well as the ruins of a medieval church. You can clearly see where the medieval buildings were simply built on top of the huge stone Roman foundations. You can also see grooves in the stone worn by countless Roman wagon wheels. We look forward to finding more places where the old Roman road existed. Apparently there is European and Spanish government money being used to reclaim sections of the old road.

Just down the road from Le Pannissars lies a seventeenth century military cemetery. Many of the graves were marked with stones, not gravestones, but there were a few with proper gravestones. All were marked with recent white crosses.

We had one final stop to make and that was at Marti Fabra, a small family winery. Everything was locked up but one lady member of the family spotted us and got the key to the winery. In we went, being enveloped in that lovely wine bouquet. We sampled the white wine and bought a couple of very nice bottles. It was a lovely ending to an interesting and very hot day.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Sant Joan festival celebrated with fairs and fireworks

Today is a big holiday in Cataluyna, the fira or festival of Sant Joan or St. John. This is a celebration of the summer solstice. Since our neighbouring town Llanca had a medieval festival starting at noon, we decided to see what it was about. Promptly at noon, we heard the sound of horns and drums leading a small parade of men dressed in medieval attire led by one man cleverly walking on stilts. They ended up in the town square where a proclamation was read to the audience.  The usual quiet town square shaded by an ancient plane tree was humming today. There were stalls filling the square and several of the side streets. Although several had a medieval theme with medieval armour and slingshots on sale, many sold crafts, clothing, jewellery and aromatherapy.

Fire, water and herbs are symbols of Sant Joan's day. Fire symbolises purity, and for this reason fires are lit. Water symbolises healing causing people bathe in the sea on this night.  Herbs symbolise remedy, especially rosemary, thyme and verbena, and some claim that for the night of Sant Joan their healing qualities are enhanced one hundred times over. Interesting that one of the types of incense on sale at the market was called cannabis. I'm not sure where this fits in.

There were several stalls selling cheese and we bought some sheep's milk cheese with rosemary and some tallegio that we will have later with a pear. We couldn't resist the liquorice fudge squares on sale at one of the candy stalls, and munched our way around the fair. There were stalls selling lovely pastries, thin crust pizza from an onsite pizza oven and a bread stall complete with bread oven cooking the loaves on site. Here we bought a lovely looking cereal loaf.

By now it was time for lunch and what better excuse do we need to visit Pati Blanc, the tranquil outdoor restaurant. Here I had a red pepper stuffed with meat, vegetables and pine nuts with a fennel taste. Delicious. Seamus had a selection of cold smoked fish. Of course this was accompanied by patatas bravas. We were entertained by a west highland terrier who got great pleasure from eating olives. Great value in such a beautiful setting.

After watching Spain neatly beat France to advance to the Euro 2012 semi finals it was down to the beach to watch the St. Joan celebrations. All the restaurants were full, as eating is a big part of this day. At eleven o'clock the town let of its fireworks. Then the entire beachfront was lit up as families and individuals set off their own displays, many of which were quite elaborate.  At eleven thirty a bonfire was lit and burned away as the background to even more fireworks. As we walked along the promenade we could hear the strains of Michael Buble from the bandstand. People were dancing as little coloured lights swept over the dance floor. It was a little surreal as there were cordite clouds floating by at the same time. Midnight arrived with the band now performing live music. Still families had bags of fireworks to let off. The fireworks and music continued well into the night. After two there was the odd bang from fireworks and the band played on until four. A busy night.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Wednesday market in Llanca

Wednesday morning took us to the enlarged Llanca market right in the town. What a treat! There were numerous fruit and veggie stalls stacked high with every kind of tomato imaginable....some strung up on hooks, very fresh nectarines, peaches and plums. My favourites were the tiny but perfect plums and greengages. As well as these stalls, there were other stalls selling cured ham, sausages and many kinds of cheese. As if this wasn't enough, there were a couple of aisles of clothing of every shape and colour ... lots of linen ... with excellent prices.

With our marketing finished we walked around town only to discover a wonderful cafeteria in an incredibly tranquil oasis of shade trees and colourful potted plants. The tables are set a good distance apart with fine gravel for flooring. We perused the tapas menu and decided we'd return soon. Part of the area is actually a restaurant, which opens at eight for dinner. It is so unusual we asked about it's history. Apparently it started in the seventies as a place to see flamenco, while in the eighties it became a disco. Finally, in the nineties it was transformed into Pati Blanc, the lovely spot we found today. We will be back.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Roses citadel full of history

Since it wasn't overly hot this morning, we decided to take a short trip to La Ciutadella in Roses. We had passed the walls several times and weren't really sure what lay within them. What an impressive site. Inside we toured the well presented museum that outlined the history with maps, models and artefacts from neolithic times. The Greeks from Rhodes were thought to have settled the area in 8 BC and there are several remains of the Greek settlement. By 2 BC the Romans occupied the site and the remains include remnants of some baths and the fish salting area.

After the Romans the area was apparently abandoned for some time but in the 11th century there is the first mention of the Santa Maria monastery. Quite a bit of this building is still standing,  notably the impressive curved stone ceiling of the nave. It was around the monastery that a medieval town sprang up relying on a thriving fishing industry.

In the sixteenth century there was a lot of trade with Africa but this also brought raids by privateers. Fortifications around the town were built in the mid 1500s but these didn't hold back Barbarossa, who plundered the town. These fortifications still stand. One of the ways up to the ramparts is through a series of rooms that eventually takes you up to the top of the walls. As I moved through the maze, I felt as if Hercule Poirot could have popped out. It was  reminiscent of an Agatha Christie mystery. Looking out from the ramparts, we enjoyed a beautiful view over the shimmering Mediterranean. Just outside the walls a family of  black donkeys with a young foal eagerly followed the gardener with his wheelbarrow full of weeds from one of the ruins. As soon as he dumped them the donkeys happily devoured their lunch.

Eventually the fortifications were completed and a military garrison was added to the town. The remnants of the hospital, streets with the original cobblestones intact, the armoury with cannonballs and huge rusty old anchors lining the walls oddly interspersed with wild roses, are all on view. As we carried on our walk around the massive area you could see the remnants of the bread ovens that were used when the garrison was under siege, making 'siege bread'. There were several tests to the fortifications between the 1500s and 1800s with the French actually taking the city at one point. The French attacked Roses several times and at one point Austrian troops tried to take the city. The townspeople were not happy when the fortress was built and many moved outside the walls of La Cuitadella.

The archeological excavations are well done and give a very interesting view of ancient times in Roses. In Greek times the sea came halfway into the present day Citadel. Both the museum and the ruins are well worth the visit. We were lucky being almost the only people touring the huge area, but by the end of our tour it was very hot, and time to look for lunch somewhere out of the sun. We look forward to visiting and exploring further or perhaps coming to a concert in the Citadel.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

A drive up the coast and a musical 'espectacular'

This afternoon we followed the winding coast road up to France. On this really hot, sunny day we thought the that there would be lots of traffic but it was relatively quiet. This made for a lovely trip with all the prickly pears dressed in their yellow and orange blooms. Once in France, the road cuts through many lush green vineyards alternating with the rough terrain of the Pyrenees.

As we neared Banyuls sur Mer we passed several wooden buildings, a bit bigger than huts, where you could stop and taste the local wines. Here, you don't even have to travel the short distances to the vineyards. However, we are saving this for another time.

We stopped for a pleasant outdoor lunch  under the shade of ancient plane trees. I started with local, very fresh crevettes or shrimp followed by sting ray, which has quite a mild taste. It is a little odd as you have to get the fish off fan-shaped plastic-like bones. Dessert was isles flottant, soft meringue in creme anglaise, a very light custard. My favourite! Seamus had goat cheese salad with the goat cheese placed on thinly sliced toasted French bread with a bib lettuce with lovely dijon vinaigrette followed by morue catalan -- cod -- with a tomato topping. Almond tart finished off his meal.

Then it was in the car for a short drive, past more wine tasting huts, to Port Vendres. We stopped first at the Charles Rennie Mackintosh museum only to find out that it was closed. It's only open three days a week for two hours now. So much for budget cuts. Rennie Mackintosh is a Glasgow architect and artist, who spent the last years of his life in Port Vendres. We then walked along the port passing a variety of fishing boats both small and large and mounds of rainbow coloured fishing nets, ending up at the fish market. We knew it would be closed, but enjoyed peering in the window at the huge variety of fish that looked like it had been pulled from the sea only minutes ago. Next time we will be better prepared and  bring our freezer bag.

Back in our own Port it was time to cool down and go for a swim. The beach had more people than we were used to but still was not overcrowded. It was lovely to get in the water but what a choppy swim with the water seemingly moving in every direction.

2200 hours. It's "Playback" time. Tonight at ten we were in our assigned seating in the ballroom for Playback, a production put on by the locals under the very capable direction of our friend Carme. What fun. It was two and a half hours of lip synching performances to Bob Marley, Tina Turner, Beyonce, Madonna, and several other well known names in English and Spanish. Who could resist the mayor in a romantic duet? Oo la la. Then we got to see a very slick promotional music video for the town, paid for with some of the ticket proceeds. As the evening drew to a close, five gentlemen provided live performances of two traditional Catalan songs, and then the entire cast and crew took to the stage for a grand finale. The show has been on for three nights playing to packed out houses of 300 a night. We loved recognising all the familiar faces from the community in their stunning clothing and various guises. Roll on August, when we may see "Playback 10", but this time outside.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

'Tramuntanart' display

Friday is market day in El Port de la Selva. The summer market has more than just fruits and veggies. The stalls now snake along the promenade selling purses, bathing suits, jewellery, clothing for the entire family and genuine Barcelona football club shirts and scarves. Tour busses drop people off for a visit to the port each day. It makes for a lovely mix of Spanish, French, German, Dutch and English people wandering the Port without making it too busy.

After marketing we walked along the wooden promenade by the marina admiring the 'Tramuntanart' displays. There were sculptures of glass, copper and an odd assortment of junk. One display was sheets with pockets filled with dried lavender and rosemary on a washing line. All of the art represents the tramuntana, the strong wind that comes down from the Pyrenees. There are over eighty installations with people from all over the world involved in the display.

Once past the displays, a very wet golden retriever definitely wanted me to throw something in the water for him. There are no sticks so I threw a rock for him. When we came back from coffee there he was sitting on the sidewalk with the same rock that I had thrown. He had found it and carried it up the steps. Needless to say I threw it for him again. In he went and retrieved it. What a clever dog!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Baby storks thriving in Aiguamolls

After a two week absence it was time to visit the Aiguamolls nature reserve. Entering the first blind everything was very quiet. Some mallards shared a log with a big turtle and a few more mallards were swimming in the distance. What a change from a month ago.

The path that led to the storks was covered in a canopy of trees, and a  wonderful smell came from the wild, white roses climbing over the bushes. Our first stop was to watch the storks on the roof of the cowshed. The fledgling storks had grown a lot since our last visit. Many were standing in their nests  taking on the appearance of their parents. The more mature were standing flapping their wings in their nests. We were pleased to see that the four chicks in one nest were looking healthy and thriving even though they are a little more immature than most of the other storks.

Even though we could hear the cuckoos and nightingales singing, it is difficult to spot the songbirds in the dense vegetation.  The river that runs through the reserve was almost completely covered with three-metre-tall reeds. At the next blind we watched the coot parents with two of their offspring,  sadly three less than last time.

Finally, it was the Camarague ponies. There were some very dark, new foals in the distance. It was lovely to watch one of them gambolling about. A few of the ponies came up to the fence waiting for grass that I picked for them. This was quite funny as they were in a field with very tall grass. I suppose it's a case of the grass is always greener.

By now the sky was becoming very black so instead of continuing our walk to the beach we headed back to the car just as a few drops of rain fell. We're really looking forward to coming back in a few weeks to see the baby storks fly.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Sunday shopping at Roses market

Today was totally unplanned. We decided to visit the Roses market, a spot we had walked through on the way to Carnivale months ago and then forgotten about. When we arrived, we stopped at the coffee caravan and with no expectations had a delicious cortado, espresso with a little milk. Then we decided to stroll around to see what was on offer. It was very pleasant, the aisles were roomy and no one hassled you to buy things. There were some lovely linens, some pretty nice clothes and lots of leather. I stopped at a stall selling bathing suits and, rummaging through the piles of swimsuits as if I was in the old Filene's basement in Boston, I found for €2 some genuine Speedo, Arena and Tyr suits. You might be doubting me but I did work for Arena and I know my lycra suits. There were some knock-offs but I left with one hot pink suit, another black and blue striped suit and a black lycra Tyr.....all for €6. I go through a lot of swim suits so I will be going back. Even better, when I got home, they all fit. Bonus. Seamus bought a beautiful, stylish charcoal t- shirt.

We decided to go for a drive to find El Bulli, which is now closed. It was originally founded by a German couple in the 1950s but was eventually acquired by chef Ferran Adria who made it the number one rated restaurant in the world. The sign  to El Bulli on the main road in Roses has been removed but we knew where to turn. We drove through a valley with a big slate gorge on either side of us. Then the countryside changed to sandstone with bright yellow broom and the orange flowers of the prickly pear cactus brightening the hillsides. This changed to vineyards with views  of the turquoise Mediterranean in the background. After a long trek we passed El Bulli and drove down to the nearby shingly beach of Montjoi. This beautiful little inlet is dominated by the Cala Montjoi holiday village. We wandered into the resort restaurant looking for lunch but decided that the buffet on offer was not for us.

After backtracking and deciding to come for a hike in these mountains in cooler weather, we started heading home. We knew we would pass some likely eating spots along the way and sure enough soon spotted La Villa LLedoner. When we thought Roses was our local town, before we knew about Figueres, we always meant to stop here. It was lovely. We sat outside by huge pots of vivid pink hydrangeas. In the covered part outside, there was a huge Spanish family having lunch. We have found it is hard to go wrong eating where the locals eat. Seamus had a whole orado or sea bream and I had sea bass. This came with a small green salad and delicious roasted potatoes, pepper and onion. A huge meal. We washed this down with a bottle of local rose and finished with espresso. Or we thought we were finished - by way of apology for a slightly long wait for our fish (we weren't bothered) the server brought us some complimentary peach schnapps as a digestivo.

What a lovely unplanned day. We are now home in time to watch Spain vs Italy in Euro 2012. Ir Espana.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Old stories are the best ones

After having a good visit with Nino, aged 91, and his wife Iride, with our friends translating, we decided to go to Vecchio Fattoria for pizza. While it was cooking we thought it would be fun to walk up the road to visit Simone to wish him a buon compleano, happy birthday. We asked him if he and his family would like pizza and he did. It was a quick walk back to the restaurant for four more pizzas. Pizza, wine and lots of freshly picked arugula and lettuce from their garden made for a tasty, relaxed dinner. Their dog Nubia was very entertaining with many longing looks, while we were eating. Once again lots of laughing with our meal and stories of Ceriana going back many years. We took our leave early since Simone had been up since shortly after three in the morning to take his son and cousin to Nice airport for an early flight.

Someone should write down the oral history and stories of Ceriana. It would be fascinating....stories about Tony Fullpockets, a really cheap man. And Gambolles, about looking for porcini mushrooms in the dark and coming on something that turned out to be some other unhappy porcini hunter's wellington boots, and the Mousse Dora, which is quite naughty and can't be translated here. It seems everyone in town has a nickname. My friend Lynn and I think our nicknames may have something to do with piave cheese. We were instructed by her sister-in-law and my friend Penny to go and buy some in the town. We went to three stores and asked for piave. "Cheese?" they asked looking at each other and us as if we were mad. We even spelled it. They didn't know what it was.  Needless to say we returned home without piave. It turns out this is not a cheese to be found in the village or even very much in Liguria. We could be known as the piave twins.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

A wedding in Ceriana

Today it was bright and sunny in Ceriana, perfect for a wedding. One of our friend's sons was getting married in the commune or town hall. The couple had chosen to have a small wedding with just family and a few friends, which was quite scandalous to some of the townspeople. Why weren't they being invited? In a town where families have lived for centuries everyone knows everyone and there seem to be some petty jealousies.

From our vantage point, sitting outside for coffee on the main street, we could see at one end of town the bride's car being readied with streamers and at the other the groom's family arriving at the commune. The priest passed us, dressed in his civvies, on the way to the wedding as an invited guest. We wandered down the street to watch as the bride's family arrived walking down the street behind us. Finally, the bride arrived dressed in a beautiful lilac and white dress. The car had to go around and turn and come back to a saved parking spot. What logistics a wedding poses in a small town with little parking. With everyone now assembled the group entered the commune for the wedding.

After a short while some of the guests came out with boxes of rice, which was distributed to the well wishers. We were prepared with our own rice.Then some of the bride's family appeared with big paper napkins full of rice tied with satin bows, which they distributed to more people from the village and the wedding guests, as they emerged from the town hall. Meanwhile, on the balcony above the entrance, a wedding guest, some office workers and the carbinieri lady from the town were prepared for the bride and groom with rose petals and tons of rice. The happy couple emerged from the building to a deluge of rice and flowers. Congratulations were bestowed on the newlyweds. Even the postman broke his rounds to go and wish them well. Eventually everyone dispersed to their cars and the newlyweds were picked up and driven off to a wedding lunch at an undisclosed location. What fun for us watching this Italian wedding of two people we had actually met.


Once again our day started at Pellegrine's for our morning cappuccino. This time we were joined by one of our Italian friends on her day off. Once again it was people watching time. All the old men sit on the benches or stand around the square for their morning chats while the ladies shop along the street. After coffee we visited the new library, currently being set up, to donate some English books. Much, if not all, of the new library is going to be run by volunteers.

We then drove down the mountain, past the now defunct greenhouses, some just shells, to the main road along the seafront. It is quite beautiful with palm trees, vibrant hot pink and purple bougainvillea, pink and coral ivy geraniums cascading down walls and lovely purple jacaranda trees blooming. Colour is everywhere. We wound our way along the coast for about an hour to Alassio, a seaside town with a stretch of sandy beach. With the cloud cover it was quiet today; however there were deck chairs for rent set up as far as the eye could see with maybe twenty centimetres between each. What must this be like in the summer?

Just behind the long stretch of beach is an equally long pedestrian shopping area with every kind of store imaginable. I love all the Italian fashion even the shoes, which are very extreme at the moment, stiletto heels six inches high. Who can walk in these? It does explain why we have seen some young girls on crutches.

Back in San Remo we had a wander around the high end shops but without doing anything to help the Italian economy this time. A quick refreshing coffee with our friends and it was time for the climb back to Ceriana. Dinner consisted of delicious freshly made minestrone followed by bresaola. This is very thinly sliced salted top round meat, aged three months, which comes from the Alps of the Lombardy region, and can be seasoned with juniper berries, nutmeg and cinnamon. It is drizzled with olive oil and lemon juice before serving. This with avocado and cheese completed our eating for today. We did learn how to prepare an avocado. You may know this but we didn't. You cut it in two and place a pick or knife in the stone and remove it. Then you slice across the avocado. Now you can take the avocado out to eat it with a spoon. You never peel the avocado. This is today's useful tip from Italy.

A day with a litle bit of everything

At last we woke up to bright sunshine. We drank our morning cappuccino sitting outside at Pellegrine's watching the events of the main street. A ninety-nine-year-old man came back from successful porcini hunting with lots of mushrooms in his basket. Everyone was out doing their morning shopping and stopping for ciaos and chats on the way.

We decided to go for a walk around town down the narrow passageways, along the uneven, broken cobblestones that make walking difficult. Many of the buildings have unoccupied houses including the back of our building. It is different walking at this time of year. In October all you can smell are the grapes fermenting in the cantinas, which are under the buildings. Now everything is locked up. We passed many old rotting doors but then once again we would come upon flowers adorning the doorways of well maintained houses. As we came down to the river we passed old stone mills converted into houses, as well as the old hospital. One house has been faced in a modern grey, while immediately next door is an old decrepit stone house. The back of the reclaimed and modernised house has four gorgeous terraces. Further on one of the old churches is covered in scaffolding while the old twelfth century church languishes beside it.

Many of the new immigrants to Ceriana over the last several years are Moroccans and Albanians. The Albanians are very good with stone and building. With the money they have made here they are buying and doing wonderful jobs renovating some of the old derelict houses.

We cross the river for awhile and enjoy a different view the old town on its hilltop perch. We continue our walk and end up in the cemetery. There are a few new graves all covered in flowers. In fact all the graves, many going back for some time, are well tended. You can be buried for twenty years and then your grave is dug up and your bones put in a mass grave under the cemetery steps. However, there is enough room in the cemetery right now that there are graves quite a bit older than twenty years. Mausoleums line each side of the cemetery with familiar names of the town, Crespi being one of them. In the back of the cemetery there are even bigger family mausoleums going back into the 1800s.

There are also small niches, where ashes can be placed, with memorial plaques on the outside. Some people will not have a Catholic funeral. This explains why I saw the priest doing a double take at the death notices, which are placed on notice boards around town. I expected that he would know everyone who dies but that is not the case. In a change from the past the priest now will preside over the funerals of people who have chosen to be cremated.

We walked up some incredibly steep steps from the cemetery, through someone's land, up more steps by a house we knew was vacant and hopped a fence back to the road. Then a few steps more and we were at our friend's house. After a quick lunch it was back down the mountain and along the coast to the beach at San Lorenzo and a couple of lovely swims in the sea. The sun was shining and the water was a perfect temperature.

Returning to Ceriana for a dinner of mainly salads including arugula salad, egg and avocado salad, bean and zucchini salad and best of all, beautiful ripe tomatoes and basil. Then it was local metre-long sausage cut up and cooked in wine. All this was accompanied by lashings of lovely ciabatta bread and homemade red wine and finished with bel paese and gorgonzola. Simple and perfect.

We decided to walk into town, admiring the gigantic orange moon as we did so. We'd never seen anything like it. As we came closer to town we heard some shuffling and piggish snorts in the land below us. It was very bold cingales or wild boar. Finally, we ended back at Pellegrine's for our last espresso of the day.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Hunting the illusive porcini

We met our friends for coffee this morning before going of to a special spot to hunt for porcini mushrooms. We drove back up the mountain towards Baiardo, parked and walked to the secret mushroom hunting spot. When hunting porcinis it is good to find an area with horse chestnut trees. As we walked deeper and deeper into the forest we couldn't help but notice that all the ground had been turned over, especially under the trees. The cingales or wild boars had beaten us to it. Obviously these cingales had gourmet tastes. One of the group found a few chanterelle type mushrooms. Dino found other unknown mushrooms but we decided if the cingales left them we didn't really want them. Once again the fog started rolling in so we decided to give up our quest.

Back in the home of our friends we enjoyed some tomatoes squashed in to delicious ciabatta bread with some basil leaves, some local cheese, some torta, which is a local zucchini pie, cherries picked right off the tree and some homemade red wine. All this in the sunshine for a few short minutes before fog and clouds swirling in every direction and then thunder, lightning and of course rain.

Later this afternoon it was clear blue skies and warmth. It was back down to the coast driving from San Remo to Imperia past lovely, sandy beaches, through small towns along the road lined with lovely bougainvillaea, roses and magnolias in bloom. We stopped in Imperia for some window shopping before walking the promenade along side the port. There were many huge yachts mainly from the Cayman Islands and the Isle of Man but the one that caught our eye was the sleek, grey mega yacht, Radiant with the length of 110 metres. She is supposed to be one of the safest ships afloat. Apparently she can carry 16 passengers and has two pools, a cinema and a helicopter pad.

Our life is a little simpler than all of this. We just wanted some good fish and we were in luck finding a small restaurant right on the port. We had a variety of dishes but I had a huge grilled branzino or sea bass and frites, which was exactly what I wanted. It was right up there with the best branzino I have ever tasted. This topped off with an espresso and complimentary limoncello made for a fine finish to the evening before making the trek back up the mountain to Ceriana. Tomorrow we are looking forward to more sun.

Lunch and festivities in Baiardo

Sunday morning and the sun is shining at last. The church bells were quite incessant with the first ringing at five this morning. Between ten and eleven they hardly stopped and they were not at all melodious just a continuous clang, clang, clang. One of our Canadian friends is the godfather of one of the Ceranasque girls attending her first communion today. Stationed in the square in front of the church, we watched the priest lead the six children about to receive their first communion.
We decided to explore the town once again. There are only a couple of roads where cars can travel and everything else is really a maze of narrow passageways with ancient, uneven cobblestone streets that may or may not have an even path of bricks, where you can walk. Many of the houses are abandoned. Sometimes the old stone buildings will have evidence of one resident on a third or fourth floor with the other floors being empty. Suddenly you round a corner and all the floors of a building will be occupied with colourful flower boxes everywhere. On the other hand some of the passageways we walked through were quite dark and a little scary. The houses have come down through many generations but as people moved away and families became smaller many were left empty.

Promptly at noon we were back at the church square. The band formed up, the doors of the church opened and out came young family members of the six new communicants. Then came the girls in their long satin dresses, and a boy, carrying a small madonna followed by the priest, their parents and family members. They paraded along the main street of the town and back to the church.

Meanwhile we met up with our friends and their ninety-one-year-old friend, Nino, who looks like he is sixty. He still works his land every day. Perhaps the secret to his longevity is that he never eats leftovers. The Mediterranean diet and the fact that you have to be fit just to get up and down the steep hills of the town are probably the reasons that so many people live to a very ripe old age in this town.

Everyone was off to lunch to celebrate the communion, while we decided to drive up the mountain to Baiardo, another small hillside town, for lunch with Lynn, our Canadian friend. We were lucky to get the last seats in the restaurant, which was filled with locals. On Sunday you don't order lunch. It just comes. You have to pace yourself as you are never quite sure how many courses are coming and today was porcini mushroom day. A great treat. Porcinis are very hard to find and you never tell people where you find your porcinis when you go porcini hunting. At yesterday's market they were €30 a kilo. The first course was steak tartare, some goat's cheese, grilled red peppers, sliced raw mushrooms, and a little piece of proscuitto. The next course was a few little pastries with vegetable-like fillings. Then came a home made bow tie pasta with a really tasty porcini mushroom sauce. All the portions are quite small.

Next came a mushroom risotto followed by a homemade ravioli. Thinly sliced porcini fritters were next....and we had seconds of these. Next came a few grilled artichokes with chanterelles, a tiny bit of potato and a little roast beef. By this time we were definitely slowing down. My favourite, rabbit, cooked in wine with olives was the penultimate course. Finally, tiramusu and a light strawberry flan followed by espresso finished off the meal. What a wonderful experience.

Now it was time to walk. Baiardo has had a lot of money injected into it in the last few years, which has made it very pleasant place to visit. The houses have been refaced and cobblestone streets and passageways redone. However, there isn't much commercial activity except for a few restaurants and a little store. We headed up some very steep cobblestone passageways to the old, ruined church at the top of the town. This has been a religious site since the time of the Druids, "from 1000 years JC", according to the sign. The church was devastated in the Baiardo earthquake, 150 years ago. The views from this spot over the lush green Apennines were quite magical. So beautiful and so tranquil.

We took a different route back into one of the squares, where we found a group dressed in renaissance Italian costumes performing with flags, accompanied by a band. We followed them down to the church square where they continued their performance flinging the flags higher and higher in the air and catching them.

Another band of older men in Alpine type hats started performing music, much of it Beethoven, while a man climbed up a ladder and tied a rope around a very tall, stripped tree. This took an age. Then he repeated this. At one time he had the rope around his neck. What was happening? Finally, the second rope was tied around the tree.

The men with the alpine hats, some watching and some in the band, were former Alpini troops, who have quite a distinguished history defending Italy's borders. More music. Then some of the townspeople formed a circle and began walking around the tree, while the elderly ladies sang. An inner circle was formed and they moved one way and then another. Some tourists were in the circles. I'm sure they were wondering what they had got themselves into as it went on for ages, while the band music got darker and then finally the circle dance was finished and the music lighter. A king then appeared. As the story goes a king had three daughters. One disobeyed him and ran off. He had her beheaded. Apparently, the stripped tree represented this daughter.

The makeshift arrangement at the bottom of the tree was dug up. The king started barking orders. Men took up the ends of the rope and the tree was lowered slowly with the king's commands. Finally, the tree was down. The ceremony over, we meandered back to the car. It was lovely to watch something quite unique to the area even though we didn't quite understand it all.

It was back in the car to wind our way through the beautiful hills back to Ceriana. There are definitely no plans for dinner tonight.

Sunday, June 3, 2012


Summer has yet to come to this part of the Italian Riviera but this morning the sun was trying to shine. After a quick capuccino and a flying surprise visit to a friend, we drove back down the mountain to San Remo. In the sixties San Remo was one of the places where the beautiful people gathered. Of course there was the lure of the very ritzy casino. Today it doesn't have quite the glitz of times past. We wandered around the very busy pedestrian streets looking at the shops, many the same as in other big cities. Then it was off to the market.

If we thought the shopping area was busy, the market was worse. We could hardly move. This was made worse by the number of illegal hawkers selling watches and goodness knows what. There are lots of stalls with beautiful cashmere and leather purses of every colour. Unfortunately, there are a lot of tacky goods here now, certainly more than I remember.

Finally, we went inside the food market with huge pieces of parmesan reggiano on display. I will certainly be buying some of this. Wrapped in tinfoil it lasts for a very long time. There were zucchinis half a metre long, porcini mushrooms for €30 a kilo, brilliant red tomatoes and lovely fresh fruit. We bought some sun-dried tomatoes and some fruit and olive oil from one of the ladies from Ceriana. We even managed to congratulate her son in Italian on his upcoming wedding this week.

It was back up to Ceriana for lunch at the home of one of our friends. The table was set up outside with two huge bottles of red wine made with grapes from their vineyard, and bread. A huge plate of pasta with home made pesto and a two kinds of sardinara were served. Sardinara is a kind of pizza, special to the province of Liguria. One was topped with anchovies and the other more traditional with tomato and olives.

All this with pastries from San Remo for dessert. The setting was lovely with beautiful roses surrounding us. Now the only wrinkle was the weather. Instead of bright Italian sunshine this area has been cloudy and foggy. Our lovely outside lunch had to move indoors just as we finished because it had started to drizzle. It was a lot of fun with seven Canadians and the Italians at the table all laughing and telling stories. Someone translated when it becomes too complicated in either language.

In the late afternoon we said our good byes knowing that on Monday night we were all reuniting with even more people for pizza.

In the early evening we went to look at the new pasticcheria (pastry shop) opening tomorrow. It didn't look too different from the old one but big things are expected. In a town of a thousand people this is the highlight of the day. Ceriana used to have over seven thousand people living here working the land but the younger people moved out leaving Ceriana with less and less people and many abandoned houses. Even so I thought the main street was a bit more vibrant than at other times we have visited.

We decided to go back to San Remo tonight as there just isn't much to do in Ceriana in the rain. First we visited Morgana, an upscale restaurant and nightclub, where one of our friends used to work. In fact he was there with another of our Canadian group. Then we walked along the promenade overlooking the marina with many gigantic yachts. Who said the economy was bad? Finally we met up with another friend who had spent a couple of summers in Canada. She is a beautiful, sophisticated young lady now attending the University of Milan. Then her mother joined us and then her father. We adjourned to a restaurant not far from the port for drinks and nibblies. You can only eat so much in one day. Once again there were many stories and much laughter with some translating going on. Dino, an older friend from Ceriana, has many stories about life in Ceriana that we all know quite well, whether in English or Italian. These caused even more laughter as we all laughed with a one word cue because we knew the stories so well. After fond farewells it was back up the windy road to the desolate main street of Ceriana. Tomorrow we are looking forward to a relgious procession in the main street and some sunshine we hope.

Ste. Maxime to Ceriana

A beautiful walk in to The centre of Ste. Maxime was how our day began. We passed all the big mansions with palm trees, oleander and beautiful roses. Our first stop was the food market with beautifully displayed fish, fruit and vegetables. I'm glad that we don't have to buy food in Ste. Maxime since the fish was more than twice the price found in Spain.

After a stroll around town we stopped for tasty petite bouillabaisse for lunch. Then it was off in the car for a drive up the coast towards Cannes passing beautiful sandy beaches with a few people in swimming. On the autoroute we passed many vintage motorcars from the Princesses Car Rally in aid of breast cancer, sponsored by the Princesses of Monaco. Each car had driven from Paris over six days with two females in the car. After Monaco it was no time until we arrived in Italy. I think that you could have your eyes blindfolded and always know when you've arrived in Italy. All the terraces were covered in greenhouses or greenery for the flower business. This is the country of the flower markets but not as much as it used to be since China has taken over a lot of this business.

Once past San Remo, it was time for us to turn off the autoroute and head up into the mountains. Our destination was Ceriana, a hill town, thirteen kilometres up winding switchbacks through vineyards, blackberries and lots of trees. Finally turning the last corner, Ceriana looms in the distance perched on the hillside.

We met our friends in the middle of the main street. Right away we went to their house for some lovely bel paese and crotone cheese with lovely fresh bread and olives from their olive grove. Of course, all this was accompanied by wine from their nephew's vineyards. After settling in to our rental apartment, we returned to our friends for tomato pasta, salad and fruit. Italian meals are always delicious and so simple.

The evening ended with a walk up to the local bar for an espresso and zucca, a rhubarb based digestivo. We have visited Ceriana several times and feel lucky to come and visit, since over the years we have made several friends here. Tomorrow, the San Remo market.