Saturday, February 23, 2013

Seafood, modern art, big ships and a favourite author's grave

Today was a very a busy day. It started with a drive up the coast to Banyuls Sur Mer, where we did some shopping before heading up to the next town, Port Vendres to visit the fish market. Unfortunately our timing was out, just missing the open fish market. Instead we settled for some moules and frites overlooking the harbour. Not only was the food delicious but as a bonus we watched the Regal Star container ship arrive from Dakar. It was very interesting to watch the ship being towed into port. First it was perpendicular to the pier and then gradually with terrific force the tug maneuvered the giant ship close to the dock, where it cast its ropes to tie up.

We walked passed the Mirabella III, the luxury yacht that was seized months ago, still tied up to the quay Forgas. It has a giant generator pumping away on the shore. Originally, the owners wanted the captain to take it to a different port where repairs could be carried out. However, the Spanish captain was owed over a hundred thousand euro in back salary and wouldn't move the ship. There are many rumours about other creditors as well, resulting in Mirabella III remaining in Port Vendres.

Since the fish market wasn't open until later, we travelled the handful of kilometres to Collioure, where our first stop was the modern art museum founded in 1930 by Jean Peske. We climbed the stairs to the top of the gallery, which had two rooms of pictures of people showering in their bathing suits. Some were quite funny as the people looked like they were trying to remove sand. We toured the next floor and then looked for pictures appearing in the museum brochure only to find out when we asked that they weren't in the museum, they were examples of local work.

We wandered around the narrow little streets visiting the tourist information office before we set off in the car to find Patrick O'Brian's grave in the new cemetery above the town. On the way we passed the commandos training in a field. Finally, arriving at the cemetery we wandered through the big marble tombs, many with both artificial and fresh flowers. A few even had lovely china anemone displays. Patrick O'Brian's and his wife Mary's grave was made of very simple local slate. You could almost miss it surrounded by big marble tombs on both sides. This was a special moment since we are such big fans and have read all of his books.

I visited the local pharmacie and while standing in line, three of the commandos came in with faces blackened and a bit bloodied limping up to the counter to have prescriptions filled. Today's training must have been pretty vicious.

Finally stopping at the fish market in Port Vendres, we bought some lovely Coquille St. Jacques, squid ink for risotto and two beautiful Atlantic sole, which we have just enjoyed cooked in olive oil, capers and lemon. Delicious.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Can you say "thalassotherapy"

On the route up the coast through Banyuls we pass a thalassotherapy centre. Today our mission was to drive up the coast to find out just what was in the centre. Thalassotherapy is the medical use of sea water in therapy and is very popular in France, where in some cases your doctor can prescribe treatment at a centre, which is free. This particular centre is part of a hotel, which had a very full parking lot when we arrived.

We had a look around the various treatment areas tiled in lovely blue colours with white robed clients in flip flops wandering about. We went exploring and discovered a gym, a workout room, a fair sized salt water pool with an enthusiastic water aerobics class running from one end to the other. As well as this, there were two other pools, where you can use exercise bikes and various other kinds of props in the pool. Unfortunately, we didn't see the outside saltwater pool. Every kind of treatment is available from little fishes eating the skin off your feet, as well as massages, wraps, facials and  salt water hosing down of all types. There is a hamman, jacuzzi and sauna to get rid of any additional aches and pains. We decided to pick a treatment from the very extensive catalogue and return on another day.

Of course now it was time for lunch. Along the waterfront we stopped at the St. Sebastian winery restaurant. I opted for the menu of the day having a green salad with lardons in a sauce, some local fresh fish that I didn't catch the name of but which tasted like grouper, accompanied by some ratatouille and of course finished off with my favourite dessert, isles flottant. Seamus opted for a plate of salad with Catalan sausage, Serrano ham, calamari and bread with a local tapenade. On our way out we stopped to taste some of the Sebastian wines buying two bottles of the white wine. The lady kindly showed us the barrels and vats. There is a difference as some of the wines are stored in the plastic or metal vats, while others are in the barrels.

Satiated, we crossed the road and walked along the marina, eventually stopping at one of several artist's galleries. We particularly liked her work featuring traditional Catalan boats made out of wood then placed against a painted sea background. They were quite striking and very cheerful.

Back in the car and heading south we followed a sign to a beach translated from French, "under the water," which turned out to be a stony beach. At that point the name didn't make much sense to us. Then we retraced our steps to look at what we thought was an isolated hotel on the headland overlooking the water in the most fabulous  position. As we got closer we could see that it was a hospital. It was strange as there was no hospital sign and the biggest sign on it was for a restaurant. Later we found out that it was a rehabilitation hospital for muscoskeletal and nervous system diseases. What a beautiful spot.

Traveling south we stopped at the Cerbere tourist information centre. The lady was very helpful and in fact she told us about the hospital. Best of all we found out that, "under the water," or in French "le sentier sous-marin," refers to an underwater submarine trail, with information at points under the water,  that you can follow in the summer wearing mask and flippers starting at the stony beach we visited.

Our final stop was the boulangerie in Cerbere to buy a baguette. There is something about French bread. So good.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Carnaval time in the village

This weekend was Carnaval in the village. Historically it is the time to really enjoy yourself before Lent and to welcome the spring. Friday morning saw the youngest students from the primary school, all dressed in their costumes,  parade along the sea front  accompanied by music from a lone float. Lots of admiring parents and grandparents lined the route.

Last night the music started blaring from the village's loudspeakers at eight o'clock, just in case anyone didn't know what night it was.The parade started out at the primary school with a few floats with devils, smurfs and Inuit. For some reason people love to dress as North American natives complete with reddened faces. We even see South American pan flute bands dressed as North American Inuit. I suppose political correctness doesn't enter in to it when you are dressing up.

The parade moved at a snail's pace through the town with the road along the front blocked off by the police. Anyone can join in the parade that ends up at the huge double gym on the fringes of town. We donned our costumes. Me with my Marie Antoinette wig and Seamus with top hat and moustache looking like a dandy or perhaps a silent movie villain.

When we arrived at the gym at about twelve-thirty a.m., a couple of the floats were still blasting out their music but this year there were less young people dancing and hanging around outside at the floats. We soon found out why. The band was totally disco. Last year there was a nice mix of rock and roll, disco and Spanish favourites. This year it was Catalan disco with lots of hopping about, literally. All the young people were inside. In all fairness older people were moving around to the music but not as many as last year. Even gangnam style wasn't that great. It's a shame because we have some excellent bands in the area.

The bar at the back was very busy selling beer and cava. There is no food to buy just drinks. After a beer and fake enthusiasm on my part we decided to call it a night. Of course it was three o'clock by then but we weren't staying until dawn.

Carnaval continued today with yet another shorter parade of school aged children. This is followed by a dance in the ballroom in town. Since it is about to rain we are opting for a cup of tea and watching the parade through binoculars. Carnaval has a really nice touch with the whole village joining in. All ages are welcome and everything is free. 

Friday, February 15, 2013

Museum chronicles plight of Civil War exiles

A drive across country through the burned olive trees that are showing some signs of recovery took us to La Jonquera, the Spanish border town. Today there seemed to be even more trucks going in both directions than usual. The main drag was lined with gas stations, rest stops for truckers and huge supermarkets that have parking lots filled with French and Spanish cars. We dropped into one supermarket with an emphasis on Spanish products and alcohol of every description. Apparently people come to shop for the cheap prices but items we looked at were more expensive than we were used to. But we didn't visit La Jonquera for the shopping.

This week is the seventy-fifth anniversary of the bombing of Figueres, our local town, in the Spanish Civil War. Today, we decided to visit the Museum of Exile in La Jonquera, which commemorates the hundreds of thousands of political refugees who fled Franco's fascist Spain after losing the civil war in 1939. Since my father nearly joined one of the International Brigades, it made the visit even more interesting for me. The museum is full of pictures, drawings, news reports and films of the last days of the Republican government in Spain as Franco's troops swept all before them. The events that led up to the war from the rebel coup and the support from Germany and Italy, while the Soviet Union and Mexico supported the Republicans, were well chronicled. The focus of the museum is the history of Catalonia in the war, the bombing of the major cities and the hardships endured by the population and the subsequent fleeing across the border, over the Pyrenees mountains that act as the border still today, into a less than welcoming France.

Some were lucky enough to get ships to Mexico, Chile or a few other countries in South America or North Africa but many were interned in concentration camps in southern France where they faced disease and malnutrition. Eventually some returned to a precarious existence in Spain.

There are no precise numbers of the exiled that sought this route out of Spain but anywhere from 600,000 to a million people are estimated to have left their homeland for a very uncertain future in 1939, just as Europe was exploding into world war. Some eventually joined the French resistance, others the armies of Britain or Russia, and some of the most unlucky ones were moved to work camps in Germany and eastern Europe.
For the Catalans it was a particularly traumatic time as their President, Lluis Companys was held by the Gestapo in France and returned to Spain to be executed in 1940. A few thousand Catalans ended up in Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria, where photographs were taken and hidden. These photos were used to secure convictions in Nuremberg and now the graphic photos are preserved in the museum.

The end of World War Two didn't really help the Republican exiles. Many were settled in their new countries but they couldn't return to Spain with Franco still in power. Post war and in the new cold war era, Franco was now accepted by the Americans and the British in their fight against communism. American money was invested in Spain's failing economy and American air bases were established in Spain.

It was not until after Franco's death in 1975 that democracy and a new political order meant that many of these exiles could return to their native country, although for many of them it was too late.

The museum was fascinating with all the photos, movies and displays all succinctly explained on the earphones that were supplied. I felt that I had a much better appreciation of the history of Catalonia during the Spanish Civil War after our visit.

But today is Valentine's Day so it was home to cook duck breast in Grand Marnier sauce. Delicious.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Carnaval time in Roses

It was a day of men in tights and I am suffering from an overdose of hairy legs in fishnet stockings. No I'm not. Today was the big Carnaval parade in Roses with seventy floats and hundreds of people in the parade. Some of the floats, like the police float complete with jail, actually represent something, while others are thinly disguised, but inside someone is cooking shish kebabs and swilling beer for their marchers.

There were gorillas, bees, lions, pantomime dames, Arabs, people from medieval times, American football players and cheerleaders, Snow White and the seven dwarves, Star Wars, Star Trek, soldiers, pixies, fairies, cowboys, lots of pirates, Egyptians, ancient Greeks, flower people, and everyone dressed in beautiful, brightly coloured costumes.... and lots of men in skirts. There were some transvestites in high, high, heels, who were enjoying being dressed up way too much.

It was enjoyable to watch the three-hour-long parade along the seafront in Roses. We went to a section of the parade route where seats had been provided and made ourselves comfortable. Each float passed by with loud, mainly disco music playing. Quite often someone at the back of the float would lead the choreography of the marchers. Other marchers had their own loose dance routines that became very, very loose by the end of the parade, probably in proportion to the amount of beer or drinks consumed. The most popular music was Gangnam Style with people cleverly dancing and moving along the parade route at the same time.

It was a lot of fun with everyone out for a good time and enjoying themselves immensely. Now at home feeling somewhat inspired, our thoughts have turned to what we will wear to our Carnaval party next weekend. 

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

A long overdue return to charming Collioures

Our goal today was to reach the French coastal town of Collioure in time for lunch. It is one of the lovely coastal towns on the Cote Vermeille, a short 5 kilometres north of Port Vendres. For some reason that remains a mystery, we don't ever get that far up the coast.

Once we arrived in town we walked along the beautiful, picturesque seafront and in the little lanes right behind, looking for lunch. We settled on a very popular bistro and managed to get a table outside. We opted for the menu of the day. The first course was a small bowl of very sweet mussels done in broth accompanied on the side by some local ham. My main course was huge shrimp and squid  with zucchini and carrots. Seamus had a fisherman's stew filled with shrimp, mussels, clams and sea bream, all on a bed of potatoes. It was huge. For dessert I had joujon, which is nougat ice cream with a chocolate dipped nougat biscuit topped with whipped cream. Not being a fan of cream, I scraped it away. Seamus had a scoop of citron and a scoop of coffee ice cream. The half pichet of local red wine was excellent. In fact it was so good that I now wish that I knew what it was.

Now satiated we strolled along the seafront admiring the huge Royal Castle that dominates the skyline. There were a number of kayaks accompanied by an inflatable boat with army types in it setting out from the beach. Earlier we had watched men and women in camouflage gear running through the town with what looked like very heavy kit on their backs. This must be them on some kind of training exercise. They were all double kayaks except for one. Most of the doubles were moving along and finding their rhythm but there were a couple of boats that just couldn't get moving. In fact they were traveling in circles. Finally, the laggards caught up to the group at which time they turned around heading for the shore coming in to the mole where we were watching.

With instructions from the brass in the inflatable the first kayak pushed away from the jetty. Both of the paddlers had to rock the boat until it tipped. Then the fun started. They couldn't get the boat righted at all. After a length of time with the man on one side and the woman on the other they turned the boat over. The man clambered in with quite a bit of difficulty. The lady just couldn't get in. I don't think trying to put her feet in the boat and then levering herself up was totally efficient. After many tries and help from her partner, she finally made it into the boat. Exhausted she lay on top of her stretched out partner and couldn't get up. It was a funny sight and caused much laughter from all of us on dry land.

The rest of the exercise went fairly smoothly with boats righting themselves and the paddlers jumping back in the boats in a blink of an eye. The last pair, another male and female could not get the boat turned. In fact they looked pretty exhausted and had given up trying. Finally, the leaders of the exercise in the inflatable helped flip the boat with ease and helped the female get back in the boat. They had the most difficulty paddling and would hit the sides of the pier on the way in. their blackened faces looked pretty exhausted. I should mention that these people were in full kit including boots. I wonder if they are destined for Mali?

Once back on shore they were debriefed by the leaders. We were now right by the castle where we read a sign telling us that this was a commando training base as well as a site for officer training in commando tactics. That explains everything.

We set off to explore the massive castle, the Chateau Royal, which was built in four parts. The first mention of the castle refers to a fortified site in Collioure under siege in 673, by Wamba, king of the Visigoths. Later in the 12th century, the land came under the control of the King of Aragon. The Knights Templar built a castle around 1207 and integrated it with the royal castle in 1345. A second one was later built by the Kings of Majorca, over a period in the 13th and 14th centuries. In the 13th century, the Castle was annexed to the Kingdom of Majorca. The Kings of Majorca were itinerant. They travelled with their court moving frequently from Maguelonne, near Montpellier, to Perpignan, to Palma de Majorca or to Collioure.

In the 16th century, after a brief occupation by Louis XI, the Spanish Habsburgs, again occupied Collioure turning it into a modern 16th century fortress with strengthened defenses.

In the 17th century Collioure was at stake in the wars between the Spanish Habsburgs and the French Bourbons. In 1642, Louis XIII's troops lay siege to Collioure and the Ch√Ęteau Royal. Ten thousand men including Turenne, d'Artagnan and the King's musketeers occupied the hills overlooking the town, while the French fleet blockaded the port. Deprived of water due to the destruction of their wells, the Spanish were forced to surrender. In 1659, France annexed the Roussillon and Collioure and the castle passed definitively into French hands. Vauban built the bastions, reinforced the structure and upgraded it.

In recent times the castle was designated an historic monument in 1922. The Castle was turned into a men's prison in March 1939 and became the first disciplinary camp for the Spanish refugees of the Retirada, the exile from the Spanish Civil War. After 1941 French prisoners of the Vichy regime were detained there. The prison received men sentenced for indiscipline, attempted escape and incitement to rebellion from nearby camps. The detainees transited there before being sent to North Africa. Now it is the property of the Pyrenees- Orientales.

Our trip around the castle started by walking through an endless tunnel with a dirt floor. We ended up in a giant square surrounded by buildings. We crossed the treacherous cobbles to enter one building where there was a giant forge. Another building had a painting exhibit taking up several rooms. All of this led to a walk around the ramparts with lovely unobstructed views of the port and surrounding countryside. One attic room with huge beams complete with a mat on the floor looked like a perfect setting for a yoga studio.

We returned to the town admiring the copies of Matisse's paintings stationed at view points,  where he did his paintings. Back at the car we were already planning our next trip here with a visit to Patrick O'Brian's grave, which is at the top of our list.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Stormy Sunday

What a day with wind gusts to 56 kilometres an hour and a beautiful blue sky. The waves were 3 metres high with rainbow coloured spume everywhere. As we passed the port a handful of gulls made themselves as small as possible and were hunkered down floating near the pier for protection. Parking at the Nautica for our morning coffee, I headed over to see the waves crashing on the rocks but got spun around and propelled right back where I came from. The spray from the waves was coming right over the buildings and fishing boats, soaking the parking lot and our car.

We decided to return home for the camera before we travelled around the village taking pictures of crashing waves at the lighthouse and then at the beach at the other side of town. I bravely sat in the car while it shuddered in the wind, as Seamus braved the elements to take pictures. Finally, we drove up above the town to take pictures of the windswept beach. It was really invigorating standing outside watching the biggest waves we've seen here.

Since most of the parking area in town was being attacked by the spray, we decided to forego our trip to the butcher shop and just have lunch at the Nautica. After a beautiful grilled sea bass and espresso, it was time to brave the elements again. The car was like a fish you cook in salt, completely covered in a thick crust. It was back home to watch the France-Italy rugby game but not before hosing down the car. A beautiful day.