Sunday, March 29, 2015

Ceret market and lunch with friends

At last the sun was shining. It didn't really matter that the tramuntana was blowing, as we were on our way to the Ceret market in France and then going to friends for lunch. The drive was lovely with all the yellow mimosas in the Alberes Mountains in bloom contrasting with the heavily snow-capped Mougins. Best of all it was hot.

Luckily we found parking almost right away. As we were crossing the road we fell into conversation with one of the locals. When he found out we came from a Spanish fishing port he told us a story of how he had been friendly with a Londoner, who might have been a fishing captain in Spain. Since the Londoner didn't speak French or Spanish they communicated by miming what they wanted to say. This is my version of the story. Seamus had a different interpretation. It didn't matter, he was a lovely man.
We walked through one of the main squares, which was lined on both sides with tall plane trees. Our first stop was Duclos, a wonderful bakery and coffee shop. Close your eyes and imagine all the wonderful French pastries you can and they can all be found in Duclos. We did restrain ourselves and had a petit creme coffee, espresso with a bit of milk, and shared an almond croissant with a creamy almond filling.

The market was quite busy on this sunny day. Since we are going on a short trip next week we didn't want to buy too much but we couldn't resist the spinach and goat cheese quiche and leek quiche. There were lots of stalls with French cheeses and we did buy one little rondelle. There were a number of butcher vans with organic rotisserie chickens, meats and a mouth-watering selection of sausages. Along with jewelry and clothing there were stalls selling local herbs, lovely cotton bath sheets, olive oil, local vinegars and even some wine. Book stalls catered to the expat community with a variety of English-language books. One vendor had nothing but English foods including Bird's custard powder. It is always a treat to wander around the Ceret market even if the selection of fruit and vegetables is much better in Spain.

As we were wandering around we spotted from behind a large dog with a thick, beautiful long coat. At first we thought it was a pale Leonberger since it was the color of champagne. He had a very expressive, soft face. I asked the owner what breed it was, and he said Tibetan. His friend called it a Tibetan Mastiff but it had a very long tail almost touching the ground rather than the curled up tail of the Mastiff. We are still puzzling over this dog’s lineage but what a lovely dog.

With only a few minutes to spare at the market we spotted some sweet peas at one of the flower stalls. Now this is something that you never see in Spain. I was tempted to buy some for ourselves but since we were going to be traveling I bought them for our hosts. The seller added lots of greenery and wrapped them up beautifully for no extra charge. It was lovely to walk along taking whiffs of the sweet peas’ delicate aroma. As we were leaving the market we passed a stall with some lovely home made brioches. We couldn't resist but we only bought two.

After one wrong turning we found the right road to our friends' house, which is a little out of Ceret. It is a lovely winding drive there through little villages and across old "ponts". We forked left at an old church and wound around a narrow road until we spotted their letter box signposting the old mas or farmhouse. Our little car negotiated their very steep driveway. We had arrived.

It is always fun to visit here. Our friends bought their three-hundred-year-old house and renovated it to modern standards, while keeping all the stone walls and winding staircases. They have added a pool and a guesthouse that resembles the old farmhouse. Best of all they are on land that slopes right down to a small river that we could hear today. Usually, it is dry. As we sat on the upstairs terrace the sun beamed down. We were almost too hot. The lunch was perfect accompanied with some lovely French gris — pale, pale pink wine — my favourite, and some great company. What a beautiful setting in this little valley surrounded by the mountains, some still snow-capped. It was difficult to tear ourselves away and return to the still windy Port.

Cycle race perfect excuse for trip to Girona

Heavy rain, low clouds, grey skies every day, high winds and low temperatures over the last few weeks have put a major damper on things. This continual bad weather is uncharacteristic and depressing. One of the highlights of the year in the village is the Asparagus Festival to be held last Sunday — Cancelled! Even though more restaurants are open they often sit quite empty since few visitors are around in this weather. It has rained so much that there is considerable water damage in our guest bedroom. Much more rain and some of the ceiling will collapse. Hopefully, this will be repaired and painted soon, not “mañana.”

Even though the weather was bad we stuck to our plan of visiting Girona on Wednesday to see the Tour of Cataluyna cycling race. Many of the big names were taking part: Froome, Porte, Valverde, and of course Contador. The weather on Wednesday morning was foul even though the rain had stopped. It was cold with gale-force winds. We had hats, gloves, scarves and layers of sweaters on. Usually, there is no need for hats and gloves here. At the train station we had to brace ourselves not to get blown over.

Forty-five minutes later in Girona the weather was much better. In fact all the winter gear was stowed in my bag. Fortunately, the route of the Tour was close to the station. After a quick ham-and-cheese baguette we picked our spot on a roundabout figuring that the cyclists would have to slow down a little at this point instead of going by in a blur, so we might actually see them and we did. Race motorbikes, race cars and some team cars passed by, and then we could hear the throbbing of a helicopter signifying the riders were near. The bright yellow of the Saxo Tinkoff riders, including Alberto Contador, the Movistar boys with race favorite Valverde, and some Sky riders raced by. After the first group passed by there were several other groups and individual riders not one big peloton.

Now we had over an hour while the cyclists rode another forty kilometers and then back to the finish line. Girona is built on either side of a river and is a lovely city to walk around. Unfortunately, I  was trying out some daily contact lenses that kept fogging up and they wouldn't clear even after trying to clean them over and over. Girona is a city with lots of optical stores but of course none of them were open until 4:30. The first riders would be at the finish line at 5:00. We waited outside one store and finally the lady turned up at 4:35. I ran in, selected some lenses, threw out the fogged up lenses and put in the new ones. Eureka. I could see.

We made it back to the last stretch of the race. Once again all the race vehicles appeared and then the helicopter. A lone cyclist wearing the colors of Credit Agricole was pelting towards the finish line. It was Domenico Pozzovivo. There had been some crashes out on the course and the peloton had been broken up so the rest of the riders arrived in small and large groups. We waited to see the presentations including for the current Tour leader Pierre Rolland. Of all the cycling races we have seen this one was the best for catching more than a fleeting glimpse of the riders.

While waiting for the train back to the Port we saw a beautiful sunset over Girona. It seemed that the bad weather had finally broken. It was not to be. Arriving back at Llanca station it was still cold and so windy we hung on to each other as we staggered to the car.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

With appointments checked off, time for a memorable lunch

It has been a week of running around getting sundry chores done. A visit to the dermatologist provided a humorous lesson in cultural differences. We had back-to-back appointments but the doctor decided to see us together. After taking Seamus' details she told him to strip off and get up on the table. I was waiting with baited breath to see how Seamus would interpret this - he modestly stopped at his underwear. Then the doctor started examining him very very closely through a magnifying device. I know it is juvenile but as I watched her working her way up his legs, peering through the magnifying glass, I really had to stifle my laughter. Then it was my turn and not so funny. It was a bit disconcerting with her assistant standing beside her ready to blast away with the liquid nitrogen. We have been told to visit every six months and take precautions in the sun.

The next day happened to be our 20th wedding anniversary and we had decided to celebrate with lunch at our favourite restaurant, El Compartir, in Cadaques. The three chefs here all learned their trade at the famous El Bulli. Everything is beautifully presented and always tastes delicious. Compartir means “to share” and that is what we did. First of all we had the welcome drink, apple juice and gin with a foamy top, tasting  a bit like sherbet. Our starters consisted of lovely little sardines with fennel and eucalyptus, followed by poached eggs with foamed potato and truffle foam in a little bowl. Then we moved on to scallops meunière with mushrooms and Parmesan. The scallops really were out of this world. Finally,  turbot Thai style with a green salad with padron peppers and peanuts and a spicy Thai dressing on the fish. For dessert we had something called an omelette surprise which turned out to be soft meringue covering little bits of biscotti, mango, pineapple and blueberry coulis. Our second dessert was chocolate bonbons with a wonderful blackberry sorbet. We were warned to eat the bonbons whole as they had a liquid centre that explodes in your mouth. It was a perfect meal topped off with a tasty short espresso and a long walk along the front.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Subterranean museum exhibit reveals Barcelona's Roman heritage

It was another beautiful sunny day in Barcelona, with no tourist agenda to follow. Our hotel was across the road from Cuitadella Park, a lovely green space with sinuous paths and a large lake, empty right now for maintenance, but usually filled with water and rented rowing boats. There was a movie shoot going on and we realized that many of the people around us were actually “extras” waiting for their cue to jog or stroll past the camera. Best of all it was so warm we didn't need a sweater or jacket. We exited the park through the massive Arc de Triomf built for the 1888 Barcelona World Fair.

We wandered through the narrow streets of El Born towards the Barcelona Cathedral. This is always an interesting walk with lots of street music to listen to — old standards, classical guitar, even an opera performance. When we actually saw this quite large lady she was dressed in jeans and a sweater not opera glam. This walk also appeals to your sense of smell with cafes trying to tempt you with churros and chocolate. Churros are long thin deep-fried pastries that taste like homemade doughnuts. They are to be dipped in the very thick chocolate drink. Perhaps they aren't healthy but they are a delicious treat.

Since we had never been in the Barcelona History Museum, but had passed it many times, we decided to visit it today. The museum is housed in the Casa Padellàs, a fifteenth-century Gothic palace.The palace has a typical Catalan Gothic architecture, with a small inner courtyard and external staircase. The museum's exhibitions are displayed in chronological order, starting on the ground floor of the Casa Padellàs where several small rooms show the prehistory of the Plain of Barcelona.

An elevator brings visitors to an underground level were you'll find the remains of the Roman city of Barcino, founded around 12 BC by emperor Augustus. The underground section covers an area of about four thousand square meters.

Following the walkway, we first saw the remains of a laundry, and adjacent to this a dying workshop from the second century. We could see the stone vats where items were dyed. They used something called Pompeii blue and we could see the remains of the blue dye on  a stone channel.  This area was known for salted fish and there were huge stone areas and large round clay vats for this as well as the remains of a  garum factory. Garum was a popular fermented fish sauce. They even had a large wine making facility from the third century AD. There were more clay vats for the wine that was shipped to many areas in France, Genoa, Rome and Sicily. I'm not sure how this would taste but some of the vats held honey mixed with salt that was then added to the wine.

We saw the remnants of the old Roman houses, the sewage system, the baths and the carriage ruts in the ancient stone roads. There were some lovely mosaics and a beautiful fresco. It was especially nice walking over the walkways with glass floors so that you could really see these old Roman ruins.

We moved to the ruins from a later period, including a church from the sixth century Visigoth period, and the episcopal complex, built between the fourth and seventh centuies AD.

Back upstairs you end up at the Palau Reial Major, a royal complex built in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Here the museum has a series of displays that tell the history of Barcelona during the Middle Ages, from the eighth until the thirteenth century, when the city experienced rapid growth. The tour concluded with a visit to the St. Agatha Chapel and the Tinell Hall built in the 1300s. The hall was used as a throne room and important guests were invited here. Christopher Columbus is said to have reported his discovery of America here to king Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.

There was a fragment of an old Catalan portolan map on display. These charts are navigational maps based on compass directions and estimated distances observed by the pilots at sea. They were first made in the 13th century in Italy, and later in Spain and Portugal. With  widespread competition among seagoing nations during the Age of Discovery, Portugal and Spain considered such maps to be state secrets.

Our tour of the Barcelona History Museum had come to an end. We thoroughly enjoyed it and will visit again some day.

Since we had some time left before our return train we took advantage of the weather and walked down to Barceloneta, Barcelona's beach area. Here you can walk for miles along the promenade visiting different beaches. There were lots of people sitting on the beach. Some were surfing and we could see that a handful had been in the water. They must have been visitors from northern climes.

By eight o'clock we were back in the Port. There was no wind and we were in just enough time to go to the champagne party opening of the new pizza restaurant in the village.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

High winds good excuse for escape to Barcelona

It has been a difficult couple of weeks back in the village,  a few lovely days interspersed with some really ugly weather. We knew that there had been some incredibly windy weather while we were away, and unfortunately it wasn't over. We had several days of tramuntana, the strong winds that come over the Pyrenees. Normally they bring clear blue skies, however one day the sky was full of dramatic clouds. After it rained we were lucky enough to see a double rainbow. But the tramuntana wasn't over. The winds were so strong it looked like smoke when you watched the sea. In fact one day we felt the spray at our house. You can't walk anywhere in these winds. In fact just going from the car to the Spar supermarket was almost impossible. At night the whole house shook and the constant  howling was becoming really annoying. By Thursday we were becoming tired of it all. In the morning we didn't even try to go to the Figueres market for our fruit and veg shopping. The winds were gusting to over 100 kilometers an hour. That was it. We loaded up our overnight bags, took the car to the nearby station and boarded the train for Barcelona, where we knew it wasn't windy.

Everything was going according to plan until the train stopped just before Figueres station. Something was on the line and it was going to take some time to move it. After a fifty-minute delay we were on our way once more, albeit slowly. There were some trees that had fallen down and were nearly touching the tracks causing yet another delay. Finally, we reached Barcelona almost an hour-and-a-half late. But what a joy to be there. It was sunny and warm and quiet with no gusting wind.

Barcelona is a wonderful city for walking. We always stay in El Born, which was once a medieval settlement but now is a trendy area with lots of narrow calles and cobbled streets. It is easy to walk from here through Placa Nova and the massive Barcelona Cathedral and on to Passeig de Gracias, one of the main shopping areas. We had a few things to buy that we can't get in Figueres. Once that was done we walked down several more side streets to end up in Placa Reial, a beautiful nineteenth century square surrounded by outdoor cafes. This is always a lovely place to visit.

After a brief walk down the lower half of Las Ramblas we walked along the front by the marina at Port Vell. Las Ramblas is one of the pickpocket capitals of the world so you have to be really vigilant about your belongings. On the way back to the hotel we discovered a new district with lots of little bistros, music shops and interesting little shops. that is the best thing about Barcelona, every time you go you discover something new.

Our day ended in the Market at Santa Catarina restaurant. It is huge and always packed. We ended up sitting at the bar where the six chefs do all their cooking. It is always a fun spot to eat and to watch the food as it is being prepared. Our spring rolls and basmati rice with vegetables and a mustard sauce were delicious. This was so much better than listening to howling winds.