Thursday, January 30, 2014

Showing off favourite places and making new discoveries

Last week we were busy taking friends around some of our favourite places: Cadaques, Cap de Creus, the Greek and Roman ruins at Empuries, Figueres market, the Dali museum, the San Pere de Rodes monastery and the lovely 'Venice of Catalunya', Empuriabrava. We enjoyed fairly warm, sunny days and only a little wind. Unfortunately, we both ended up with horrible colds. Sadly, we had run out of Cold FX.

We had planned on spending my birthday week exploring new sites, but decided to stay a little closer to home until we started feeling better. Tuesday we returned to Empuriabrava for a birthday lunch at Blue Sky, our favourite restaurant. I started with melt-in-your-mouth tuna carpaccio with wasabi and chicken with the lightest Gorgonzola sauce and little shapes of mmmm, mmmm good mashed potatoes. Comfort food. We both finished with home made coconut ice cream with strawberries and kiwi. It will be our last meal at Blue Sky for two months, until they finish renovating their new location on the waterfront.

Today we headed inland to the village of Sant Pau. We stopped for lunch along the way, in Besalu, where we were fortunate to find a restaurant right away. For 9€ we had a good buffet meal. I had lots of salad, lovely rabbit and a baked apple. What good value for money.

Back on the road it didn't take long to find Sant Pau, located in The Natural Park of the Volcanic Area. Our first view was of the 13th Century castle at the centre of the village, original walls and adjacent houses still in place. We took a walk through the narrow streets of the town ending up in the oldest part. People still live in these ancient buildings as we could tell from the laundry hanging from balconies. In the medieval square with its many arches we admired the gothic church of Santa Maria.

By now it was turning much cooler. We decided to return another day as there is lots to explore in this fascinating region. In particular, we want to take the 45-minute hike into the core of the nearby Santa Margarida volcano.

This is a beautiful area, surrounded by mountains, green fields, bright yellow mimosa in bloom and lots of blossoms just coming out. We are going to return soon. I think this just may be added to our tourist route.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Market day in Aigues-Mort

Wednesday was market day in Aigues-Mort. Since we can never resist a market we set off down the road passing through one of the gates, where we spotted the market set in a huge tree-lined promenade dividing the road. There we admired the French cheeses, local meats, and crepes that were being made on the spot. As usual there were lots of fruit and vegetable stalls with the beets already cooked and peeled. How sensible. Shoe and clothing stalls lined one side of the market. Vendors pointed out the "Made in France" labels, but as we know these items often come from Chinese sweatshops in Italy or Portugal. Some were quite stylish. The extent of our purchases was a pair of slipper socks each, something we had been looking for.

We crossed the road to admire the canal boats that take tourists around the Camargue. One was actually working while the rest were waiting for the tourist season. Some of the multicoloured boats were for day trips while some were for longer holidays.

You cannot ignore the history of the town as you wander about. Aigues-Mort was founded by Marius Caius in 102 BC. But it's not until 791 when, under the impetus of Charlemagne, the first tower, the Matafére Tower, was built in this little hamlet surrounded by marshes and where fishermen and salt miners lived hand to mouth. This building, with its eye to the Mid-east and its war aims, was soon handed over to the Benedictine Abbey.

In the 13th century King Louis IX began the construction of the city walls, an enclosure with a 1640-metre perimeter that still encircles Aigues-Mortes today. He used the town as a staging point for his crusades. At the end of the 16th century, the Wars of Religion raged in France, affecting this city as well. Between the introduction of Calvinism, which engendered many conflicts in this region, and the constant defense of the saltworks, the city battled against the tumults of history. The Constance Tower became a prison dreaded by the "preachers" and the "inspired" at the time of the abolition of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, and up until 1767.

In the twentieth century Aigues-Mort became a tourist destination. Once again we entered through the main gate to the old city, where we went for our last walk. The sun was shining inviting more tourists and making the town quite lively. More shops and restaurants were open. We enjoyed our final coffee before checking out of our hotel. This has been a lovely break. Once again this is a spot we must come back to at a different time of year. We have only scratched the surface of this delightful area.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Endless beach and fishing fleet of Grau-du-Roi

Our day started with a bracing walk along a beautiful long beach that stretched as far as the eye could see. Behind us, protected by fencing, were sand dunes inhabited by many kinds of plants. We walked as far as three small vans with open rear doors. It was a little odd since no one was around except for a golden retriever asleep in the back of one of the vans. It did manage to wake up and lift it's head to give us the once over but that was it. It didn't even bother to bark.

From a distance we could see the huge mountains of Camargue salt that had been gathered from the salt plains. We wanted to go on a tour of the salt plains but we will have to come back in June for that. Not discouraged, we drove nearer the salt pans on country roads seeing a number of ponds where the salt was drying. One was a beautiful rose colour. These salt plains are a feature of the lower Camargue. In fact, their salt content is so high that only a few plant species can survive; however invertebrates thrive making this an important source of food for the flamingoes.

We drove along the coast to the little town Le Grau-du-Roi amid the water and earth tangle of lagoons, salt pans and marshes. In recent years Le Grau has become one of Europe's biggest pleasure ports.

Should you need cultural justification, well, Ernest Hemingway was here in 1927, and again in 1948. “This is,” he wrote to a friend, “a fine place… with a long beach and fine fishing port.” The fishing port remains, the second most important on the French Mediterranean. We wandered up one side of the channel, while an assortment of trawlers chugged up and down the main channel which splits the town in two. Although most shops were closed, the quayside was a scrum of tackle, nets, ropes and restaurant terraces.

Le Grau has evolved since Hemingway’s time. We were happy to stroll around the pedestrian streets with their shops selling ices, pizzas and waffles because it was so quiet. I can only imagine what it is like in the summer with the smell of cooking, diesel and fish all being helped along by the heat and masses of humanity.

We had lunch in the terrace of a restaurant overlooking the channel. It was a lovely spot, where we could see the fishing boats arriving and unloading their catch of the day. As we waited for our food we were entertained by a gull trying to move a fish that was as large as it was out of the water. It did get it out eventually. There were lots of mallards cruising around bobbing their heads trolling for lunch.

Our lunch was perfect. We started with a salad topped with goat cheese toasties followed by a fish brochette with mixed vegetables and frites and accompanied by some local pale rose. All this was topped off with a ristretto, which is a very short espresso. Simple but delicious food.

Once again we drove through the ponds and lagoons that communicate with the sea via sluice gates. The cultivated land is used to grow rice with water from the Rhone that desalinates the soil to a certain depth. The fields are flooded in April and allowed to dry out in September for the harvest.

Back in Aigues-Mort we visited a shop that sold tablecloths. So far we hadn't had luck finding a tablecloth the size we wanted. We were in luck! The shop owner had us pick out a fabric we liked and told us to come back in half an hour to pick up our tablecloth, which we did. Now that's service.

Our day ended in an Indian restaurant. This does sound a little odd to be eating Indian in France but for us it was a treat as we never see Indian food. In fact the owner had lived in Seattle for a number of years. The raita, naam bread, veggie samosas, chicken masala and chai tea were very much appreciated by us. A good ending to another birthday.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Roman treasures and much more in visit to Arles

Since the weather forecast for Monday included some rain, we decided to visit the city of Arles, where we could do some indoor things.

Arles has a long history going back as far as 800 BC when it was populated by the Ligurians. The Phoenicians ruled before the Romans, who arrived in 123 AD. The Romans took the town in 123 BC and expanded it into an important city, with a canal link to the Mediterranean Sea being constructed in 104 BC. However, it struggled to escape the shadow of Marseilles -- or Massalia, as it was known then -- further along the coast.

Its chance came when it sided with Julius Caesar in his war against Pompey. Massalia backed Pompey, but when Caesar emerged victorious, Massalia was stripped of its possessions, which were transferred to Arelate or Arles as a reward. The town was formally established as a colony for veterans of a Roman legion, which had its base there. Its full title as a colony was Colonia Iulia Paterna Arelatensium Sextanorum, "the ancestral Julian colony of Arles of the soldiers of the Sixth."

We walked through the Place du Forum. Just as social, political and religious life revolved around the forum in Roman Arles, so this busy plane-tree-shaded square buzzes with cafe life today. We even spotted the remains of a second century temple in the facade of a hotel.

Our first stop was the Theatre antique, which is still regularly used for alfresco concerts and plays. It dates from the end of the 1st century BC. For hundreds of years it was a source of construction materials, with workers chipping away at the 102-metre-diameter structure. It is an impressive site and I'm sure would be a wonderful spot to watch a play.

We continued on our Roman tour reaching Les Arenes, where slaves, criminals and wild animals (including giraffes) met their dramatic demise before a jubilant 20,000-strong crowd during Roman gladiatorial displays. Les Arènes was built around the late 1st or early 2nd century AD. During the early medieval Arab invasions the arch-laced circular structure, which is 136 metres long, 107 metres wide and 21 metres tall, was topped with four defensive towers to become a fortress. Indeed, by the 1820s, when the amphitheatre was returned to its original use, there were 212 houses and two churches that had to be razed on the site. Today the arena is used for concerts and Camargue bullfights, which involve the toreador removing a ribbons from the bull's horns. No bulls are killed in these fights.

After a lovely lunch of moussaka in a little bistro, we looked through railings at the ancient Constantine baths, which were closed unfortunately. Now we headed off to the Cryptoporticus underneath the Forum. Dating from the 1st century BC the Cryptoporticus was built as foundation for the Forum, which has since been replaced by the the City Hall. Three double, parallel tunnels arranged in the form of a U are supported by fifty piers. Masons' marks on the stonework indicate that it was built by Greeks, probably from Marseille. Similar structures were used as granaries. As we walked around it started raining and there were puddles forming in the cryptoporticus probably making it too damp for prolonged storage. Apparently it may have served as a barracks for public slaves.

Our final destination of the day was the Musee Département Arles Antique, a museum devoted to archeological research. The part of the museum that I found the most interesting was the 31-metre-long Roman barge dating back to 50 AD that had been discovered almost completely intact in 2005 with its cargo of quarried stones. It is thought that the barge had sunk during a flood. This is the first time a Roman-era boat has been presented to the public with nearly all of its equipment on board.

We watched a fascinating movie about the lifting of the barge and how the wood was preserved by using preservatives and radiation techniques. When you see the actual barge, you understand just what an undertaking this was. The barge was accompanied by three themed exhibits: the port and its activities, the trade between Arles and the rest of the world, and navigation. The trading was far and wide with even spices from India coming into the port.

We felt very fortunate to see the barge and it's supporting exhibits, since this display had opened only a few months before.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Flamingoes highlight of day in the Camargue

Sunday morning we drove past fields of white Camargue horses and the black bulls of the region, ending up at the Pont de Gau bird park. As soon as we entered the park we heard lots of bird banter but not just any birds. The flamingoes were providing the music for their mating dance.

Almost as soon as you enter the park you encounter the first pond, which was full of flamingoes going through their mating ritual. We could stand or sit all around the pond almost right next to the birds, who would all move their heads in the same direction at one time, first to the left, then to the right. It was beautifully choreographed as they would stretch their necks to the full length. Then their squawking became even louder, as they ran back and forth, some of them displaying their beautiful black and vivid pink wings. There was some beak kissing going on as heads moved up and down. Things would get a little quieter almost as if the group was resting and then it would start all over again. If one of the birds didn't keep up, they were boofed right out of the way. What fun watching them! The mallards, the green headed shovelers and coots had to be careful where they swam.

We continued on to the next ponds to see the same display by the flamingoes. Overlooking one pond was a huge tree with grey and purple heron nesting as well as great and little egrets. It was very busy with birds coming and going to the tree and flamingoes flying overhead coming in for landings.

We passed more ponds and reed beds with more frenetic flamingoes as well as others just dozing or foraging in the water for food. The park has meadowlands, salt plains and irrigation channels. Much has been done to facilitate the observation of all the birds. We did see a few storks and many raptors.

There are several display cages near the entrance to the park. One had four majestic big horned owls and another some grey kites. The oddest bird was the white Egyptian vulture that summers in the area.

Just as we were leaving the park, we spotted a Eurasian beaver munching away on some grass. It seemed almost tame as we got quite close to it. We passed two more nearer the exit. They totally ignored everyone watching them.

The visit to the bird park was truly enjoyable. In the spring tens of thousands of flamingoes come to the area to mate. It must be quite something to see so many flamingoes. Today we may have seen a few hundred.

We drove to Saintes Maries de la Mer for lunch. It is a typical seaside town. Perhaps it is most famous for a weekend in May, when gypsies come from all over Europe for the Gitan pilgrimage. Black Sara, the patron saint of the gypsies is taken from the church where she resides by gypsies mounted on white stallions, and she is held high as they ride into the sea. Black Sara is then returned to her crypt and celebrations get under way: alongside Catalan flamenco musicians and Parisian Gypsy jazz duos there are now Balkan brass bands and Hungarian string musicians. Observing the gathering of these musicians from Europe's frayed edges, the listener must get a sense of how Gypsy music reinvents itself.

Quite a few gypsies live in the area. One of us is a gypsy magnet. Sure enough as we were walking towards the beach a gypsy lady accosted Seamus and tried to pin something that looked like an earring on him. Meanwhile Seamus gestured for this woman to get out of the way, while I had my eyes glued to Seamus' camera bag. She eventually got the message and moved off.

Calmness now restored, we walked along the beach and found an outdoor restaurant called Pica Pica filled with locals. It was one of those special finds with several fresh items on the menu served on plastic with plastic utensils. The food was excellent. I had shrimps and Seamus swordfish, both with zucchini and peppers with a hint of herbs. Even the pale pink wine that the French call "Gris" was served in plastic but my it was good. What a great meal!

The rest of our day was spent touring around the Camargue admiring more flamingoes, raptors, bulls and horses. We even saw another beaver eating grass at the side of the road. The area is vast and you could spend days following nature trails around the region. This will be a reason to return.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Off to the Camargue

Saturday morning and we were on the highway heading for the Camargue region in France for a small break. The weather this winter has been mild enough to go for short trips and not encounter lots of rain or high winds.

The Camargue is a huge wetland in the Rhone delta. It is exceptionally diverse in its flora and fauna, it's scenery and the culture of Provence. With its 13,000 hectares of ponds, lagoons and salt plains, the Camargue National Nature Reserve is among Europe's largest wetlands.

We turned off the highway at Montpellier and headed south driving through the Petit Camargue. Immediately, we spotted some bright pink flamingoes in one of the ponds by the highway. As we continued down the road, I caught a glimpse of two huge Grus Grus or common crane, a bird that is normally very elusive. Then right on the median was a golden eagle chasing down its prey. This all happened in just a few minutes. What a start to our trip.

We stopped in the ancient walled town of Aigues-Mort to stretch our legs. What a beautiful spot! The huge walls were well preserved. In the centre of the town is a square with narrow roads lined with shops, restaurants and homes heading in all directions towards the town's gates. Then it was back to the car and on to our intended final destination of Saintes Marie's de la Mer.

Along the way we spotted more flamingoes and in the fields saw lots of white Camargue ponies and huge black bulls with large horns. Finally we arrived at Saintes Marie's de la Mer. We immediately noticed a metallic, chemical smell that sometimes comes from marshland. We could still smell it inside the hotel. Our room was a big disappointment. This place looked like it came right out of the 1970s and hadn't seen a lick of paint since then. We asked to see another less tired room but it was in the same state. Plants inside were dead and the lawn outside was no better. The pool was very cloudy. This was not for us. After all, we made this trip for a birthday celebration. With a few clicks we cancelled our reservation and rebooked in Aigues-Mort.

So, after retracing our steps we arrived at our new hotel. For a few euros less we were in a lovely little hotel with a spotlessly clean, modern pool and a beautiful room. Everywhere you looked it was a feast for the eyes with plants, pictures and statues. Now our holiday could officially begin.

Once again we went for a walk around the narrow streets but this time we were looking for dinner. We settled on a restaurant in the main square, where I had some sea bream and Seamus had some cockles, we think, and a hearty stew made from bull meat and cooked in a red wine sauce. Oh my it was rich.

After dinner we walked around the inside of the ramparts before happily retiring to our small, lovely hotel.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Tales from the village

We haven't ventured too far from home since we have shared a bit of a flu bug during the holidays. However, we managed to visit new friends at their home close by. We were invited at 7 for aperitifs, and we know that the Spanish often have a big meal in the middle of the day or eat very late at night around 9 or 10, so we knew the invitation meant exactly that, aperitifs. It was a fun evening having some wine and eating nibblies consisting of cheese, bread toasts,  a little sausage and some local anchovies. These anchovies were wonderful, not too salty. Apparently they had been washed a few times and then soaked in milk. All this made the flavour milder and tastier. We shared our stories of life around the Port. Of course by now we had to deal with a new dilemma. What time to leave? In fact I think we left it a little late leaving at 9:30 but there was so much chatting going on. It was a good night out.

Our hosts did share with us that a Swiss neighbour goes swimming every day and for a few days dolphins came close to shore and played a little with him. I am so jealous. I can only think that this man must wear a wet suit. So far we haven't spotted the hardy Swiss. Lately, I have been tempted to go for a swim with the very flat water that we have right now. I know that I couldn't stay in for a long time, but we'll see.

While our local coffee spot is closed Monday to Thursday, we spread ourselves around other bars and restaurants in the village. The owner of one of these is on holidays and she has left her bar/restaurant in charge of an elderly English acquaintance. He doesn't make food at all, but that is fine with us. Yesterday we stopped in for a chat and a coffee only to watch in stunned amazement as he added instant espresso to a cup and warmed a little milk in the microwave. We didn't know what to say. The coffee was pretty bad. Now in Spain every bar has a good espresso maker. He explained to us that it was too expensive to turn on. No one in Spain would dream of making instant coffee. In fact when we told two of our Spanish friends they gave an incredulous gasp. I think the expat in charge of the bar is happy just spending time chatting over drinks with anyone who ventures by.

We met one of our other expat friends yesterday, who was bemoaning the fact that the store he wanted to visit in the next village was closed all day just because the owners had chosen to close. A funny conversation ensued. We started talking about nearby Figueres, the Dali museum town, and how most of the shops shut from 1 to 4 or even later. This leaves tourists drinking endless cups of coffee or wandering around aimlessly until the shops reopen. Our friend wanted to buy a jacket that he saw in the window of a store on sale with 50% off but he would have to hang around until later or chance it until another day. So frustrating.

Our conversation moved on to food. Now the Carrefour is open all day and they have a substantial foreign food section. We related to our friend our sad tale of visiting the supermarket only to find that the British food section that was quite sizable has diminished to just a few shelves. And worse! There was no custard. Our friend was worried that they still carried Coleman's mustard. Fortunately, they still have Branston pickle. We then had a very funny discussion about foods that we just couldn't go without every so often. Why has our section shrunk? Well it has been taken over by a big Russian and Rumanian section. It shows how things are changing in our part of the world.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Our first chocolatada

This evening we went to our first "chocolatada", which you might call a chocolate party in English, at the home of one of our neighbours. We were invited for 6 o'clock but had no idea what to expect. Anything to do with chocolate just had to be good.

There were several guests there when we arrived with a few more arriving after us. Fortunately, most people spoke English and wanted to practice it. Soon afterwards a huge pan of very thick hot chocolate was placed on the table and ladled into cups and finished with a dollop of creme fraiche. Now we chose either a ladyfingers or some pastry to dip in the chocolate. My, it was delicious. This special hot chocolate was made from chocolate from the town of Vic, orange zest, cinnamon and some pepper or salt. We weren't sure about that but it didn't matter.

It was a fun evening, where we met the mysterious wife of a man we meet quite often in the village. He is always without her but talks about her. She is Spanish and not Scottish as we thought. Other guests found out who we were, since we all take Kundalini yoga from the same instructor and they knew about us. Some people we recognized and now can put a face to a name.

We also learned that the pizza restaurant in Selva del Mar now has an Italian chef. You can have a meal and go dancing for 10€ every Saturday night in the village. We also learned where to eat authentic cuisine in our village. All in all it was a very enjoyable and informative evening.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Feliz año nuevo

It was a very quiet Christmas in the Port but with blue skies and warmish weather people started to arrive on Boxing Day. By checking license plates we see that people are here from the usual spots, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany. Someone was actually paddling in the water today. I'm sure that he wasn't a local.

The restaurants in Figueres were busy, and the tourists buy at the shops but still the economy is such that you don't see locals with lots of packages. It could be that the gift exchanges don't really take place until January 6, Three Kings Day, and the sales don't start until two days after that.

When we went to buy some cyclamen, the lady took us into the huge greenhouses behind the plant store. She pointed out a vast area at least one football field in size. Last year it had been totally full of red poinsettias but this year not even a quarter of it was devoted to the plants. The "crisis" in Spain is far from being over.

Last night we went to a big party at the Nautica with so much food that it was very hard to do it all justice. Just before midnight we were given a package with our party hats, hooters, streamers and balloons and most importantly our twelve grapes. It is tradition that you eat your grapes as the church bells chime the hour. The trick to doing this successfully is to peel and deseed your grapes beforehand, which we did. Once your grapes are prepared you are ready for the bells and I was ready. I am very happy to report that I ate all my grapes right on cue. This is the first time.

Then the servers and cooks from the restaurant came out in YMCA garb and did their well choreographed dance number amid much laughter from everyone. They changed, came back and kept on dancing with the audience joining in. For me it was interesting to see how many of the dances to Spanish pop music had very specific moves but that didn't matter as long as you joined in and were having a good time.

Happy New Year!