Monthly Archives: May 2014

Paris in Black and White

Earlier, I’d written that as kids, my sister and I imagined Europe was black-and-white, based on my parents’ old home movies.  Actually visiting there dispelled that notion, as reality tends to do.  But the days we spent in Paris definitely felt black-and-white.  We’ve been dogged by lousy weather since we left Charleston, and our few days in Paris were no exception.  Grey, cold, rainy.  Ugh!

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This picture of the Eiffel Tower looks pretty much the same in black and white as it does in color.  The only color we saw much of in Paris during our visit was green — it’s a city with a lot of trees.

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Here’s the same photo, in B&W with only green picked out.  Sort of makes my point!

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The only place we really saw much color was in the flower markets on Ile de Cite.

My principal goal in visiting Paris was going to Roland Garros, one of tennis’ four “Grand Slam” tournaments.  While I won’t go so far as calling myself a tennis fanatic, I took up the game when I was 14, played on my high school team, and have been a player and fan – with a few hiatuses – ever since.  Attending all 4 Grand Slam events – the Australian Open, Roland Garros, Wimbledon, and the US Open – is on my bucket list.  By attending Roland Garros, I’m now ¾ of the way there, having also been to the US Open many times (it’s do-able as a day trip from Maryland) and the Australian.  Wimbledon next year?

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Me and Rick in front of Court Suzanne Lenglen.

I’d arranged to get tickets through Championship Tennis Tours, and requested first round tickets on Court Suzanne Lenglen, one of show courts.  When the tickets are purchased, there’s no knowing who will be playing and on which court.  CTT and the scheduling gods came up trumps for us.  CTT came up with a VIP package that gave us access to a separate entrance to the grounds and lounge where endless champagne flowed – which turned out especially useful during the several rain delays we endured.

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A champagne lunch in the VIP lounge under Court Suzanne Lenglen.

And the schedulers gave us Rafael Nadal against Robby Ginepri of the US.  Rafa is the No. 1 player in the world, the defending champion of Roland Garros, and the most dominant clay court player of all time.  Not bad!

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Rafael Nadal serving, and returning.  Which view do you prefer?

We didn’t have much time left in Paris after a day at Roland Garros, as we’d planned this trip while I was working and needed to get back to work.  Which, of course I still do.

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The view from our room.

Since we only had one full day to look around, we did a quickie tour by Metro, tour boat on the Seine, and lots of walking.

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Ile de Cite and the River Seine.

The tour boat was super-cheesy, with lots of schoolchildren aboard, but gave us a good orientation.  We got to gawk at many of the sights along with them, starting at the base of the Eiffel Tower and ending past Notre Dame.

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More views of the Eiffel Tower.

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Breathtaking Notre Dame.

Then we walked along the banks of the Seine for hours, despite the cold and wind.  My impressions of the City of Light were clouded by the weather and by the crowds – for example, we’d hoped to visit the Musee d’Orsay (the Louvre is closed on Tuesdays), but the lines would have consumed the better part of our day.  At least we visited an interesting exhibit on tattoo art at the Musee Branly.

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The unusual plant-covered exterior of the Musee Branley, and the exhibit we toured.

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We didn’t go into the Louvre, but walked the grounds.

As limited as our self-tour was, we confirmed that Paris is nevertheless a stunning, life-filled, historic, beautiful, stylish, vast city deserving of more time than we had available.  It’s also crowded, maddening, confusing, and loaded with traps for the unwary (e.g. pickpockets and other scammers).

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And it can be very expensive.  We ended our tour with a stroll down Rue de Faubourg Saint-Honoré, one of the famous shopping streets in Paris.  As much as I wanted to bring home a high-end souvenir from Hermes, I was out of luck (I’m hopeless with square scarves, and so would not be willing to spend several hundred Euro to play with one.  And the huge crowd of foreign shoppers – which made the store feel like a Coach outlet before Christmas with a sale on – was off-putting).  At last, I spotted gorgeously-colored handbags in a shop window, and felt like a kid in a candy store, when I discovered I could buy an orange leather tote bag body, add a fuchsia zipped pocket, and aqua handles.  Except the body was 500€, the pocket was over 200€, and the straps were 195€.  Each.  Bye bye beautiful orange bag….

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Locks placed on bridge railings by lovers.

And goodbye to our European adventure.

I’ll have more thoughts to share about our sailing odyssey and our travels in coming blog posts, but right now I’m facing going back to work next week.

 

 

Sometimes You’re The Show

I’m writing this post on the TGV high-speed train to Paris.  Whatever one might think of France, the trains are comfortable, fast, easy, affordable, and – at least in our experience – reliable.  This is a very nice way to travel!

We’ve finished our canal trip, and I’m reminded that Rick is fond of saying, “Sometimes you’re watching the show; sometimes you are the show.”  Usually this refers to sailboat docking attempts, not all of which are smooth and painless.  Any of us who sail have been there, both watching someone’s misadventures, as well as providing their entertainment.  On our next-to-last days in the Canal du Midi, we were definitely the show.

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Above, the pretty town of Colombiers.  And, speaking of shows, this day-tour of the Canal shows just how looooow those bridges actually are.

Our next-to-last stop was the Mediterranean town of Beziers, a good-sized town featuring the obligatory hilltop fortress, ancient buildings, Roman ruins, and great food and wine.

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So far, all of this stuff hasn’t gotten old.

Beziers is known for – among other things – being the birthplace of Pierre-Paul Riquet, the architect of the Canal du Midi.  And he definitely saved his most spectacular technical feats for Beziers.  The most popular attraction in Beziers is the Fonserrannes lock staircase – 6 locks in immediate succession, covering quite a descent.  Check it out on Wiki:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fonserannes_Lock

Once you’ve negotiated one lock, and gotten down your crew’s routine, it’s really no big deal.  But, evidently, for people observing from the shore, it’s something to see.  For better or worse, on Friday, we happened to be the only boat heading down the locks, and we drew quite a crowd.  People were watching us, photographing us, videotaping us, chatting us up, and very much wanting to be part of the show by “helping” us with lines.  I felt like charging 5€ per photograph.  It was all in good fun, though some of the spectators did very nearly interfere with our smooth transit.  Fortunately for us (but maybe not for the audience who was looking for some mayhem), we made it through without mishap.

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The bow rope handler’s (i.e. mine) view of the Fonserannes locks.

Once past the locks, we got some pretty spectacular views of the bridges over the River Orb, as well as crossing over it via aqueduct.

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The aqueduct over the River Orb.

Then we settled in for the evening near the old bridge in Beziers, tucking into our usual dinner and wine.

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A French country dinner of fresh melon and tomatoes, baguette, ham, cheeses and pate.  Meanwhile, we compare wine colors: two roses at left, and a red.

A strong storm – presaged by some pretty ominous looking clouds – passed through and left a rainbow and chillier weather in its wake.

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Scary-looking clouds, and the rainbow that followed.

Around 1 a.m., I heard some thumps and stumbling on deck.  Rick climbed out of bed and chased away one or two miscreants who were up to no good.  Again, at 4 a.m., I heard more noises (paranoid, and maybe a little freaked out), and Rick looked out again.  This time it was clear that one of our bike locks had been breached and a bike stolen.  Bugger!

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The broken lock, and the remaining bikes, which were rather nice 21-speed models.

So, the first task of our last day was marching to the police department and filing a report, in the hope that the barge company Le Boat wouldn’t charge us for the loss (they didn’t).  But after that – which didn’t take too long – we wandered around the town, stopping in a few shops, and ending our morning with a lunch of crepes and moule frites.

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Public park, and on the right, an outdoor market.

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The indoor market, and a typical street scene (really hilly!).

 

 

 

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A park built within the ruins of a Roman amphitheater, and another street scene.

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Another lunch featuring local rose and mussels with a tomato and garlic sauce.

From here, we finished the journey, coming ever closer to the Mediterranean Sea and beaches – which we skipped since it was so chilly.

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More Canal scenery as our journey nears its end; meanwhile, Rick ducks under a bridge.

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Fields of poppies, and a salt marsh, en route to Port Cassafieres at the end of our trip.

I truly enjoyed visiting this part of France, and exploring it by peniche, and would recommend it to anyone who is interested.  It is, as they advertise, a method of travel that just about anyone can handle.

Rose Colored Glasses – Drinking Our Way Through the Languedoc

I’ve long been an enthusiastic drinker and advocate of rose wines, much to the skepticism – if not derision – of others.  But I’ve stood my ground.  It’s not nasty, sweet white zinfandel I’ve been quaffing, but crisp, dry, grown-up rosés, which go beautifully with seafood.  Now that we’re in the south of France – in the Languedoc region – and the home of exemplary specimens of this gorgeous wine, I’m being vindicated.

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A rose we picked up in Le Somail; Rick and Harriet enjoy it while working on their iPads.

It hasn’t been too hard, but we’ve gotten into a routine on our Canal du Midi cruise.  Our days – of which a few remain – include at least one visit to a vineyard or winery where we taste and buy the region’s delightful offerings.  They are shockingly inexpensive given how good they are; we’ve not paid more than 10€ for a single bottle (and usually no more than 12€ in a restaurant), and often less than 5€.  That makes it easy to walk away with one or three bottles, which rarely remain full until the next day.

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One of our visits was to Domaine du Tresor, which has a lovely unwooded (pas de bois) chardonnay, and a unique rose made from a “gris” grenache grape, meaning that they could make it from the whole grape instead of using red grapes and tossing the skins.

We also do some exploration of the towns.  If you’re a sailor, you know the time-consuming effort of stopping a sailboat and going ashore:

–          Pick a likely spot;

–          Anchor;

–          Make sure the anchor sets;

–          Check again to see if the anchor has set;

–          Gather your belongings;

–          Climb into the dinghy (assuming it’s launched and ready to go);

–          Dinghy to shore;

–          Find a dinghy dock and tie up;

–          Make sure you’re tied up;

–          Go a ashore.

With the exception of our last misadventure, going ashore here is much easier.  With bow-thrusters and joystick maneuvering, it takes moments to sidle up to the edge of the canal, toss some lines over a bollard or around a tree, and go ashore.

Thus, if we see a likely town we’d like to explore, we simply get off and wander.  Most villages have a church or a tower or a square to anchor it.

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Capestang, which has a lively square and an imposing church.

There are alleys of ancient buildings.  Occasionally, you run into an angry troll who’d prefer you didn’t take pictures of his beautiful flower boxes, but generally, everyone has been friendly.

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Why make your house so pretty if people taking pictures of it offend you?

Most people’s dispositions have been sunnier than the weather, which hasn’t been sunny at all, but cold and rainy and blustery.

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Rick and Skip, braving the weather.

Midday, we stop for lunch at a local restaurant, of all which have had beautifully prepared food and friendly service, happy to help us out with efforts at speaking French.  (I speak only menu French, but it has been good enough.)  Each meal has been accompanied by that lovely rosé wine.  Because it’s all been organic and free of sulfites, we’ve been able to indulge with no hangovers.

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Today’s lunch in Poilhes, which featured scallop carpaccio with roe and braised pork cheeks.  And, yes, rose wine.

Along the canal, the scenery continues to be the same, but we’ve not tired of it yet.  Aqueducts, incredibly low and narrow bridges under which we have to wedge the barge, alleys of plane trees, a tunnel, and the rolling countryside.

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Alleys of plane trees or evergreens.

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One of several aqueducts; it’s a real trip to have a canal go OVER a river.

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Going through the tunnel at Malpas.

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The French countryside; can’t wait to see it in the sunshine!

The forecast is calling for some actual sunshine in the coming days, so we’re hoping to see it all in the brightness of sunlight.

Drowsy With a Chance of Rain

We’ve been chasing spring ever since we left the Bahamas, with varying degrees of success.  In Carcassonne, it looked like spring, but there was still a bite in the air – especially when the breezed kicked in.  But one thing that was definitely in the air was POLLEN.

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Flowers — and pollen — everywhere!

And that left us all sneezing vigorously.  As a last resort, I took Benadryl before bed, assuring a night of deep sleep.  But getting up in the morning was challenge, since I was left groggy.

But rise I did, excited to start the next leg of our trip: a self-driven barge trip on the portion of the Canal du Midi (which runs from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea) between Homps and Port Cassafieres in France.  Having spent months and months living aboard a relatively small sailboat, this was going to be sheer luxury, with roomy cabins, a huge upper deck, and no rocking, rolling or heeling.

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Our barge, parked along the Canal du Midi.

These barges are designed for people with no boat experience, so it should be a piece of cake, right?

But life is never that easy.  In the village of Paraxa, we tied up alongside the Canal, driving in stakes on the shore and tying lines to them.  We went off exploring, and then had lunch at a canal-front café (where we and our server struggled to make ourselves understood in French, only to discover that we were all English speakers!)  A man walked in and said a canal boat was on the loose – somehow, our stakes had pulled out and our boat was straddling the canal!  Luckily, we got it under control, but left wine on the table at the café.

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Canal towpath, outside Paraxa.

Harriet and I had decided not to do a big provisioning.  We’d be going from village to village on the canal, so we’d just go shopping from day to day, picking up fresh baguettes, croissants, pates, and cheese.  And so far, we’ve established a pattern of eating out for lunch, so we’d have all day to recover from the incredibly delicious, dry rose wines of the region that we drank with lunch.

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Lunch at La Guinguette in Argens-Minervois.  We only drank 2 liters of rose.

Naps follow. For dinner, we just nibble on the goodies we pick up along the way.

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Some of our first dinner aboard.

Curiously, though based in France, our barge is ill-equipped for cooking.  The collection of knives is especially sad, which led to a misadventure involving saucisse seche — dried sausage.  We could not hack our way through it.  I put a steak knife into my thumb in pursuit of the cause; we ultimately had to microwave it and attack it with a paring knife.  Today, as we shopped at the floating epicerie in Le Somail, I made the mistake of asking the proprietor if his saucisse was hard.  Except I gestured for “hard,” since I haven’t a clue how to say it in French. Picture the scene. C’est la vie.

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The floating epicerie, and the narrow bridge, in Le Somail.

Yesterday, we were “stuck” in the pretty town of Argens-Minervois, since the lock-tenders had decided to go on strike.

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A handwritten sign informing all boats that the lock at Argens is closed due to the strike.  A line of boats heading upstream waits for the lock to open.

Although the morning was rainy and cool, it lent atmosphere to the fortifications in the village.

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Argens-Minervois under cloudy skies.

We visited the winery (Domaine des Maels) and bought a few bottles – a pattern that will likely continue as well.

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The tasting room at Domaine des Maels.  Yummy rose wine.

Compared to our travels on the ICW, this barging business is slow and leisurely, allowing us time to sleep late, sightsee, ride bicycles, dine languidly, and relax as we travel a dozen or so kilometers a day.

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Rick and Harriet and the bikes.

Although the weather is grey and cool thus far, the French countryside is pretty in a rustic way.  Hills and vineyards line the canal, with villages every few kilometers to break up the view.

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Sunsets and vineyards.

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Trees and wind turbines line the canal.

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An aqueduct going OVER a river.

Everything is antique and crumbly, yet there is a picturesque disarray to it all.

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Rick prepares to duck under a bridge; we call our barges Midi-Max — since they barely fit under the narrowest and shortest of bridges.

Perhaps it’s all the wine.

 

Castles and Churches

Until a year ago, I’d never heard of Carcassonne.

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A view of the Pyrenees from the train from Barcelona.

But after Paris, it is the most-visited attraction in all of France and a UNESCO World Heritage site.  And here we were, staying at a comfortable B&B (La Posada del Castillo) at the foot of the fortifications, and preparing ourselves to get lost within its walls once Skip and Harriet arrived – their flight out of MIA had been delayed due to a tornado (!) at the airport, and they spent an unplanned night in Marseille.

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A view of the fortifications from the terrace at La Posada del Castillo.

Frankly, it wasn’t easy to move ourselves from our comfortable perches on the terrace at La Posada.  Our hosts Enrique and Lola spoiled us with delicious food and enthralling conversation about the castle’s history and information about the region.

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The tapas dinner at La Posada included serrano ham and duck pate.  

We basked in the sun like cats, soaking up its warmth, for it wasn’t especially warm here, though we were comfortable in the sunlight.

Finally, we did go exploring, and we did get ourselves lost inside.  The fortifications – perhaps the oldest and largest in Europe – date back to Roman times, and have been added on to in different eras.  The latest restoration was over 200 years ago, and though there is debate as to its authenticity, it is nevertheless stunningly beautiful.  And the scale of it is breathtaking.

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Views of the fortifications, as well as views from Carcassonne of the surrounding countryside and the town outside of it.

Inside the fortifications, there are courtyards and cobbled streets.  And shops and restaurants.  Lots and lots of those.  I’ve heard reviews of Carcassonne refer to it as a tourist trap, and the shops – and the largely undistinguished (from outside) goods lend credence to that.

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Rick at lunch, where we had cassoulet; Carcassonne is one of the birthplaces of the iconic stew.  And then shops, including an enticing candy shop which we did well to walk out of before succumbing.

But it’s a very picturesque tourist trap, and because we are visiting in May, not an unusually crowded one.  Though Enrique assured us that in July, the streets of Carcassonne are a river of humanity.  I’m not sorry about our timing.

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Eat your heart out, Disney World!

Naturally, a walled city must have a church, and the Basilica of St. Nazaire is an exemplary one.  As we gazed upon the elaborate stained glass windows, it was almost possible to forget the Crusades and the other killing (for which Carcassonne is ideally designed) done in the name of religion.

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A gargoyle on the church, which is a combination of Gothic and Roman styles.

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The number of man-hours it took to create these windows is mind-boggling.  The Church must have been a big employer in those days!

As beautiful as Carcassonne is by day, it is incomparable by night, when it is lit up from below.  My camera and meager skills could hardly do it justice.  An old bridge over the river Aude provides an optimal vantage point.

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Views at sunset and in the dark.

We end up staying up far later at night than we do on our boat.  The sun sets in this region far later than it does at home, and people in the south of France dine and stay out much later than we are used to.

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A glass of exemplary Minervois rose in a wine bar inside Carcassonne.

But once we sleep, the dreams are sweet.

 

 

A New Look at the Old World

On our way to MIA, from which we would fly to Barcelona, I looked out the window of the jet and happened to get a good look at the coast.  In particular, a stretch of the ICW between Southport and Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, which we’d just traversed very slowly a few weeks ago.  Needless to say, the perspective was quite different, as I could see not just the route we traveled, but much much more, including the offshore Frying Pan Shoals which we’d pointedly avoided.  I was reminded, once again, of what a narrow little slice of the world our particular journey has allowed us to see.

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Views of Spain and Barcelona on our approached.

Right now, I’m writing this on a train leaving Barcelona, Spain (en route to Carcassonne, France), as I see again how very little we get to experience in our travels – that our experiences are bounded by our own personal perspectives (age, prejudices, interests, life experiences) and the time we allow ourselves in a particular place.  Nevertheless, what we did see provided a tantalizing taste of what Europe has to offer, and how much more we’d like to have.

I haven’t been to Europe in 34 years.  At that time, my sister and I were young teenagers, and we visited relatives in England and Poland.  This was 1980, bare months since the election of the Polish Pope, and some time before the Solidarnosc movement gained traction in Poland.  We were basically visiting an Iron Curtain country, under the thumb of the Soviet Union, with the grimness, privations and limitations of that regime in full evidence.  Our naïve and inexperienced worldview colored our experience; frankly, there was a part of me that was still amazed that this part of Europe was not black-and-white, like my parents’ (who had immigrated to the US from Poland in the early 1960s) home movies.

Fast forward a few decades.  Rick and I are visiting a different country altogether, in a different era, with a Mediterranean sensibility.  Just arriving here was a breeze; no forms to fill out, no forbidding military presence around the airport.  We landed, went through immigration, collected our luggage, went through customs, and were in a taxi within the space of 20 minutes.  Now that we’re in the EU, we don’t have to go through any more formalities until we re-enter the US.

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Plaza Real in Barcelona.  Full of people speaking a multitude of languages.

In Barcelona, we felt very comfortable, reminding us as it did of cities we know and love well – namely San Juan and New Orleans.  (And, I have to say, we are totally humbled by how welcoming everyone is, and how well they speak English, even as I put my halting and barely-remembered Spanish to use.)  We then have to remind ourselves that it’s Barcelona (and other cities) which influenced the look of our New World cities, even though our experiences of the New World cities precede them.  We were looking at the original in Spain.

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Some Barcelona street views.  Everything is close together.

We have just spent months and months in the semi-tropical Bahamas, where sharing a beach with anyone was an imposition, and where resources were limited.  Then a few days at home, with its attendant comforts and profligate waste of resources.  Here, in Europe, “green” is a way of life, where millions of people share small spaces and limited resources.  The sidewalks teem with life and are crowded with people on foot.  Parking space is given over to bicycles and motorbikes, because there’s barely enough room for car traffic (which is wasteful).  Every trash bin is divided into recyclable components.  If you think a 1.6 gallon flush is miserly, you should see the toilets here!  No lights went on in our hotel room unless we put a key card in the switch (although, thankfully, the shower had amazing water pressure – I’m still missing fresh water at the ready after months of going without).

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Lots of two-wheeled vehicles on La Rambla.

The super-modern coexists with the ancient in Barcelona.  There appears to be a contemporary, artistic sensibility pervading new builds, but there is no room for it except among and within structures which are hundreds and hundreds of years old.

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A lot of the development along the waterfront is of recent vintage.  But the old buildings overlook all of it.

Our hotel, the Le Meridien, managed to combine its signature, soothing, and cutting-edge décor within a classic old building.

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In the stairwell of our hotel, modern art set against old-style wrought iron railings.

And a few blocks over was the Gothic Quarter, with 5 and 6 story buildings hovering over alleyways that are barely a cars-width.

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Buildings in the Gothic Quarter, including the Barcelona Cathedral.  You can definitely see the precedents of the historic districts of New Orleans and San Juan.

The food was fantastic.  My favorite style of dining at home – small plates – has its forebears in Spanish tapas.

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Paella with langoustines.

For the most part, it’s very simple food, exquisitely prepared.  The most noteworthy features of our dinner last night were grilled bread with fresh tomato rubbed on it, and sliced Iberico ham.

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Us, at dinner.  You can see what happened to Rick’s hair….

The market a few blocks from our hotel was filled with beautiful, fresh foods.  It makes me want to get cooking!

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Scenes from the market.

I’m envious of all of the young backpackers we see around here, enjoying their gap years or just bumming around indefinitely.  Until we took this sabbatical, I’ve never had much time at my disposal to really explore the world.  And, indeed, this particular trip was planned well before we knew we’d be taking months off, and so was crammed into 2 weeks of vacation time (an especially long trip for us, because we typically take only one-week trips at most).  So, a few days in Barcelona, a few days in Carcassonne, a week-long barge trip in the Languedoc on the Canal du Midi, and then a few days in Paris.  Although a 2-week trip is generous for our schedule, I’m reminded again that I’m only seeing a little bit of this part of the world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Decisions, Decisions

We have a difference of opinion at Chateau Calypso.  I’m not saying who holds which opinion.  I’ll only say that one of us prefers the old-style of Rick — close-shaven and close-cropped.  Like this:

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The other prefers the scruffy-haired and un-shaven version:

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Although I can’t say that your opinions will govern this very important decision, we’d nevertheless like to have them.  So, please, weigh in!  (Regardless, no change will be made until June.)