Sunday, September 25, 2011

Heading Home - Day 15

Tuesday, September 20th
          A brisk start for a very long day...up and in the taxi early to arrive at the airport in plenty of time for a 10:45 flight direct from Barcelona to Philadelphia.
          What can you say about a trans-Atlantic flight? 
     We sat. 
     It went. 
     We watched a movie. 
     We dozed. 
     We ate. 
     We watched another movie. 
          Craning my neck to look out the window at 40,000 feet I could see high overhead a lovely waning gibbous moon floating in the dark cobalt blue of the sky.
           Landing. Customs. Immigration. My passport gets stamped. A two hour layover in Philadelphia. The final leg from Philadelphia to Richmond.
          The angle of the six o'clock sun on the flight from Philadelphia to Richmond is such that it reflects back up to the aircraft from the surface of scattered waters, transforming rivers to silver ribbons, lakes to melted metal, and ponds and puddle to stars that flare and fade. The upper reaches of the Chesapeake Bay becomes and expanse of filigreed gold with traces of eddies, currents and the wakes of ships clearly visible, the marshes and wetlands appearing as glowing complexes of writhing roots and obscure Celtic etchings.
          Overhead the gathering clouds send beams down through gaps, a second layer of gray appears below as the plane begins its lurching dance toward a distant runway and home.

Barcelona, Spain - Day 14

Monday, September 19th
          After the included breakfast at the Caldonian Hotel. We took a taxi with Bill and Miriam to Mercat de Sant Josep de la Boqueria,  more often referred to simply as La Boqueria. This huge open air market has been a favorite both with tourists and with city residents.
           Although there must surely have been open air markets as early as 15 B.C. in the town that was to grow into Spain's second largest city with a population of more than 5 million, the present Boqueria was not completed in its present location just off La Rambla until 1853.
           In just the small section we were able to explore we were impressed by the variety of foods artistically arrayed in colorful geometric patterns.

           Leaving the market, we rambled down La Rambla, one of Barcelona's most charming features. A broad avenue, shaded by overspreading plane trees, is given over primarily to pedestrian use. Narrow automobile traffic lanes run down each side of the wide central section where vendors' booths sell an incredible range of goods. 

     News stands, pet supplies and pets, bird vendors, fresh vegetables, books, clothing, shoes, candy, displays of tourist trinkets compete for attention with buskers playing music and performance artists attired in amazing outfits holding as still as statues, waiting for the clink of a coin in their collection to animate them.


         We took a side street off La Rambla toward the Barri Gòtic, the oldest part of the city where many of the buildings date from medieval times, and some as far back as the Roman settlement of Barcelona.


          Eventually we found a bus stop on the Red Line, and climbed to the upper deck for a ride to La Sagrada Familia, a Roman Catholic church designed by Antoni Gaudí, and perhaps the most famous Barcelona landmark. 
          The architectural works of Gaudí are known for their modernistic flowing lines, unusual themes taken from his view of nature, the use of broken tile facings and mosaics, and catenary arches - the curve assumed by a hanging rope. When flipped over, the catenary arch distributes any load placed on it evenly over the entire span.
          Gaudí was not widely admired or accepted in his time. One of his now appreciated designs, Casa Milà, was disparagingly referred to as "La Padrera"...the rock quarry!
          When Gaudí took over the design of La Sagrada Familia in 1883 at the age of 31, he included Gothic, curvilinear, and Modernism forms with impressive structural columns and catenary arches, including a rich variety of Christian symbols. A hundred and twenty eight years later the construction still continues. It is projected to be completed by 2028, 145 years after it was started.
     Back on the Red Line we continued our loop, getting off at the waterside stop of Maremagnum. We found a lovely restaurant overlooking the boats, and enjoyed a delicious seafood paella dinner while we watched the sun set behind the hills across the harbor.
     After our last dinner in Spain we headed back to the hotel. Passing the statue of Columbus, it seemed that he was pointing the way for tomorrow's flight.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Carcassonne to Barcelona - Day 13

Sunday, September 18th
      Today actually started today about 3:30 a.m. with the passing of a rumbling street sweeper strobing its red lights across the ceiling and loud wake-me-up beep-beep-beeping as it backed up to swish another swath past the room if the first pass hadn't done the job of interrupting sleep.
      That was close-followed by a mirthful late-night group calling back and forth to each other as the wove their way down the alley outside the window. The inebriated serenade was succeeded by at least two different garbage trucks, insuring that all the trash was emptied from the dumpster containers by shaking them vigorously.
      Soon after that the clattering growl of small European motorcycles preceded the alarm clock, which was set for 6:20. We shrugged into our clothes and hauled our suitcases down the stairs, through the alley, and into the lobby of the hotel, where we found some members of our group already waiting.
      Two taxis arrived at 6:50 to load luggage and passengers for the trip through the cobbled streets of old Carcassonne before they were closed to vehicular traffic for the day. It was only about a 15 minute ride to Le Gare Carcassonne, where we had a 45 minute wait for the first leg of today's train trip from Carcassnonne to Narbonne. The route took us smoothly and silently toward the Spanish border along the shoreline of southwestern France, often with water on both sides of us. We were entertained by the sight of windsurfers and kiteboarders taking advantage of the protected bays and strong winds.
      The second leg of the ride was on the TGV ( in French: Train a Grande Vitesse, which simply means "high-speed train"), and the scenery close to the windows was a green blur as the countryside rushed by. The precisely laid jointless track made the ride so smooth that except for the view out the windows it would have felt like we were barely moving.
      The last hour and forty-five minute segment from Figueras to Barcelona was also a high speed train, reaching speeds up to 140 km/hour, but the track was not nearly as smooth. The cars bumped, lurched, and swayed as we hurtled along, but classical music and Pavarotti singing opera through the speakers soothed the ride.
       It was a short ride in heavy traffic from the train station to the Caldonian Hotel on Gran via de les Cortes Catalanes in downtown Barcelona. The taxi driver, who in some earlier incarnation must have been a Le Mans participant, wove in and out between slower vehicles with great finesse, His side view mirrors often only inches from those he was passing on one side and those on the parked cars at the edge of the street. Since I had not observed any dings, scratches, or dents in the taxi while getting in, I only grunted and screamed internally, but was immeasurably relieved when we reached our destination unscathed.

      After a short rest we met Bill and Miriam in the lobby, and the four of us took another taxi to the Plaça de Catalunya, one of Barcelona's large squares. 

     There we caught the double-decker Red Line hop-on-hop-off tourist bus, one of three tourist bus lines that drive loops through the city.
Each passenger is offered a set of ear-bud headphones, and every seat has a place to jack in. You can listen to a narrative about each landmark in your choice of Catalan, Spanish, French, English, Italian, Russian, German, Japanese, Portuguese, or Chinese!
      For an hour and a half we rode through the city, passing the famous pedestrian street La Rambla, 
along the waterfront and the huge Maremagnum shopping center built out over the water, 
marveling at the number of really large sailing and motor yachts at the harbor marinas, out past the different venues for the 1992 Summer Olympics, and up Montjuïc where the neo-baroque Palau Nacional (National Palace) houses the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya. 
Its collection includes Roman, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque art as well as 19th and 20th century works of art.
      It was well after dark by the time we got back, and the four of us had a satisfactory dinner at a tapas bar near the hotel before calling it a day.

Day 12 - Carcassonne - Our Last Day in France

Saturday, September 17th
          It's about a half day drive from Beynac through Sarlat, Gordoun, Montauban, and Toulouse to the truly ancient walled city of Carcassonne. The site has been occupied since at least 3500 B.C., and the Romans fortified the hilltop around 100 B.C.
          As we approached, our first view of the old city walls was across open green fields, the walls and towers impressive in the late afternoon sun.
          Following the turn by turn directions we had been given, we found no way into the old walled section of the city where our hotel was located, but instead found our progress stopped at a modern lift-gate next to a pre-fab booth manned by someone who asked the name of our hotel before raising the gate and told us to park next to the city wall itself.
          The attendant called for transportation for Bill and the suitcases, and directed us to walk along the outside of the walls to the ancient main gate, cross the moat, through the inner gate, across the square, though the next gate, and just up the main street ot the top of the hill, where we should turn left for a few yards to find the hotel.
           Except for special circumstances, no vehicles are allowed during the daylight hours on any of the very narrow cobblestone streets of the old city. The shop lined streets, the width of alleyways, are crowded elbow to elbow with pedestrian tourists. It reminded me very much of the similar steep streets of Mount St. Michel in Normandy. 
          Our French friends Christine and Uili, fresh from a week's vacation in Corsica, had made the five hour drive from their home in Upie, France that morning, and were waiting to greet us with big smiles and hugs.They decided to go with Jane and me for a walk though the old town to explore the walls.

           We crossed yet another draw bridge and passed through the barbican of the second layer of defenses, exploring a bit of the fortified bastion. We wandered back out and down a side street, finding an old stone stairwell that led to an open area perhaps twenty yards wide between the inner and outer walls of the city. We walked along the ramparts for a way, eyeing the veils of rain approaching across the valley.
Christine and Uili

          Making our way in a light drizzle back to the hotel, where we met Bill and Miriam, the six of us found our way to a square in the oldest part of town. 

     It was edged with restaurants and bistros, tables filling the whole square ... a perfect place for our last dinner in France, including omelet with mushrooms, seafood salad with bread  and goat cheese, some vin rose, and creme brulle to top it off.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Doing Dordogne - Day 11 - Sarlat, La Roque Gageac

Friday, September 16th
          This morning the four of us drove to Sarlat, 10 km east of Beynac. We headed for the old town, always the most interesting part of any village or town in the Dordogne. Sarlat is the capital city of this part of the Dordogne, its history stretching back well over a thousand years.
          Like many other towns in this region, its location close to the border between the opposing English and French during The Hundred Years War (actually a 116 year series of conflicts between 1337 and 1453) meant that it changed possession a number of times.
          We parked near the town center, and walked the narrow streets to the old town square. Off to one side was a life size bronze sculpture of three geese, in honor of the region's reputation for excellent pate foi gras.
          Then it was back along forested roads the short distance to the village of La Roque Gageac where we enjoyed a picnic lunch of crusty french bread, cheese, and a bit of wine.
          As in Beynac, in La Roque Gageac there are modern versions of the old flat bottomed boats called"gabares", available for sightseeing rides on the Dordogne River. 
Mirm and BT cruised off upstream on one of these boats while we climbed the steep village streets, ascending toward the stairs that led to old dwellings visible high on the cliffs above the town. 

           The west-facing cliffs soak up heat from the afternoon sun, gradually releasing it again late into the evenings, creating an almost tropical sub-climate for this riverside village, and we noticed abundant bougainvillea, colocasia with their big elephant ear leaves, banana plants, bamboo, and various kinds of palm trees all growing in healthy profusion.

          We were disappointed when we arrived at the upper end of the street to find a wire mesh barrier blocking access to the stairs up to the troglodyte refuges up on the cliff. In 2010 a big section of the cliff had broken away, destroying several houses. Not long after, part of one of the old masonry walls high up had also fallen through the roof of another house. 
     After the rock falls, heavy cable netting, supported by large steel I-beams had been erected at the base of the cliff above the village to protect residents from any more falling rocks, and it appears that the cliff-dwellings will not be re-opened any time in the foreseeable future.
          The view across the river and the valley was worth the climb, however, and we walked back down via a different path, arriving back at the landing just as the gabarre was tying up at the boat landing.
          Since this was our last evening staying in Beynac, we joined everyone in our travel group for dinner at the hotel restaurant for a delicious 4 course dinner on the terrace.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Doing Dordogne - Day 10 - "Les Plus Beaux Villages de France

Thursday, September 15th
          Today is small villages day! We found a map marked with a wandering 150 mile driving circuit labeled "les plus beaux villages de France"...the most beautiful villages in France. Too long by far for a single day's exploration, but we decided to do part of it, and the four of us set off in the car for another adventure.
     Belvès, is an ancient town. Early in its history a defensive tower was built, with a deep moat around it. By the 11th century it had been built into a bell tower that can been seen today. There is a cave beneath the tower where village residents could hide in case of attack by marauders.
          There were colorful decorations still strung above the intersection in front of the town hall the day we visited, left over from a festival a few days before.
      Monpazier is another ancient bastide, a fortified town from thee 1200's. It was home to Eleanor of Aquitane and Richard II of England for a time in the late 1300's.
          We strolled down the main street, window shopping in of the old part of town, and discovered a covered market stall and stone arcades with shops surrounding the old town square.

          Ken and Gail Tuley, members of our group who were wandering on their own, joined us for a drink and some refreshment under the square canvas umbrellas of an outdoor cafe. 

     Continuing our explorations, we drove through the villages of Beaumont and Issigeac, and then up a hill through hundreds of acres of grape vines to Chateau Monbazillac.
         As we approached the chateau we saw bunches of dark purple grapes ready for picking.
     Although both red and white varieties of grapes are grown in this valley, the wine from this region is most famous for its white grapes, which are allowed to stay on the vine until they acquire a fungus that doesn't harm the grapes, but draws the water out of them, concentrating the sugar content. These super-sugared grapes are then harvested and turned into the sweet white wine for which this region is known.
          It was late afternoon by the time we neared our starting point, and we stopped for dinner at a sidewalk cafe by the Dordogne River in the village of La Roc Gageac.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Doing Dordogne - Day 9 - 15 km Canoe Paddle

Wednesday, September 14th
      The big adventure for the day today is a 15 km canoe excursion on the Dordogne River from Vitrac downstream back to Beynac. Fueled with a breakfast of muesli and cafe-creme, we joined Charlie and Ellen from our travel group, and walked across the street from the hotel to the canoe office. The sign in the window specified that they expected you to arrive a minimum of twenty minutes before the 10 o'clock first departure. It was only 9:30, so we were not surprised to find that the office was not open yet. Two other women who wanted to rent canoes arrived about a quarter of the hour. However, when nobody had shown up by 9:55 I began to worry that we were supposed to have showed up at Vitrac instead of meeting here in Beynac.
      I scurried back across the street to the hotel office, and asked the helpful lady at the desk to call the reservation number for the canoes to see if we were in the wrong place. She assured me that someone would be arriving to pick us up promptly at 10:00. Sure enough, it was 9:59 when a small bus whipped into the parking lot motioning to the six of us to climb aboard.
     It was about a 25 minute ride on tree-lined country roads to the riverside canoe livery at Vitrac. An Australian hippy-type guy gave us a cheery greeting, and issued us life jackets and paddles. He slung a couple of canoes to slide down the river bank. Charlie and Ellen were the first to shove off, and Jane and I followed only about a minute later.

     Paddling leisurely downstream with the gentle current, we caught up with our fellow river travelers. We passed campgrounds and other canoe rental places along the way as we drifted down the Dordogne.
     In some places the banks were low, and flat farmland and vineyards stretched off to rolling hills in the near distance. The river meandered closer to the hills and the low banks became chalky cliffs. 
     We paddled past the Chateau Castelnaud high on a promontory above us where we could see the reconstructed silhouettes of several trebuchets, looking as if they were ready to hurl skull-sized boulders at us far below. 

      There were openings and caves visible as we approached the village Roc de Gageac. Sandwiched between the river and the vertical cliffs, the buildings and houses almost seem stacked on top of each other, and those that nestle up against the cliffs used the cliff itself as the rear wall.

      High above the last of the houses, a steep stairway juts out from the cliff, ascending to an opening halfway to the top where you can see masonry walls have been erected. We had read that village inhabitants long ago had used ropes, pulleys, and ladders to evacuate people and possessions to these high retreats in times of threat.
      We pulled the two canoes up on the gravel bank opposite the village, and sat on our life jackets while we shared sandwiches, fruit, and some wine between us.
      With only 8 km to travel, we slid the canoes back into the water and continued our downstream adventure. Rounding a curve we spotted Chateau Feynac, an imposing hilltop castle currently American owned.
      Another half hour down the river, traveling in the company of quite a few other canoeists we approached a riffle where much of the span of the river shallowed to a few inches, cascading with small chuckling sounds down across the underlying gravel.
      The six canoes in front of us all paddled vigorously toward the right where there appeared to be a spot on the inside of the river curve where the water was a bit smoother. IF I had used my past experience instead of assuming that those ahead of us had spotted an opening I could not yet see, I would have steered toward the outside of the river bend where water is almost always deeper. In a matter of moments I felt the bottom of the canoe scraping the rounded rocks beneath us, and seconds later we ground to a complete stop, joining all those other canoes that had preceded us.
      After hunching and crunching, and shoving on the bottom to no avail with our paddles it was obvious that I'd have to get out and wade, dragging the canoe across the shallow patch to deeper water. That was not difficult, but I had soggy shoes for the rest of the trip.
      The brochure had indicated that the trip from Vitrac to Beynac would take two and a half hours, but by the time we pulled the two canoes up on the ramp back at Beynac we had been four hours enroute.
      Bill and Miriam happened to be looking over the upper wall as we stowed our life jackets and paddles, and we posed as Bill took a picture of us with Charlie and Ellen before saying good-by to them.  
      After retreating to the room for a short late afternoon siesta (yes, that's a Spanish tradition, not French, but the principal applies well anywhere!), we rejoined Miriam and Bill for an excursion to Les Jardins Suspendu de Chateau Marquessac.
      Like other chateaux in the area, Marquessac occupies high ground overlooking the valley of the Dordogne and the river. Its grounds, however, stretch for more than three kilometers along a ridge. The elaborate topiary near the chateau, planted and sculpted in the 1800's had been neglected, overgrown, and virtually abandoned for many years, but in 2001 work began to trim the boxwoods back to their original strange, convoluted shapes. Today they fully restored. 
      Jane and I wandered up a roughly cobbled path away from the main gardens. Lavender and rosemary, trimmed to form a sinuous waving pattern on both sides of us as we climbed toward a high vista overlooking the river far below. We turned back at that point. Had it been earlier in the day we might have continued on through the woods along the ridge line to another belvedere at the edge of a cliff that commanded a view upsteam all the way to Roc de Gageac.
      The four of us headed back to Beynac, and descended the stairs to our favorite bistro to continue our new tradition of ordering scoops of ice cream or fruit sorbet to nibble while watching the sun drift low over the sparkling river.