Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Sevilla Forever

Sevilla is spectacular. We thoroughly enjoyed Barcelona, but we loved Sevilla even more. Cities exude very distinct vibes and those of Sevilla are of celebration. Purely by chance, we arrived in Sevilla on a weekend. We were thus lucky enough to be there on a Saturday night when all the city appeared to be out partying – young parents pushing strollers, elderly couples arm in arm, teenagers speaking a mile a minute, lovers of all variety and ages entwined on the corners and international tourists happy and laughing, appreciating that they were in the perfect city for a twilight stroll. For no reason other than celebrating life in Sevilla, hundreds of people spilled out of bars and restaurants into the streets and filled the city with chatter, laughter and the clinking of glasses. It was definitely pleasant to observe everyone across the generations taking advantage of the night air. The Spanish paseo, or ritual evening promenade, was in full swing and we needed no convincing to join the crowds.

With only two days and two nights to see the capital of Andalusia, we had to be efficient with our time and determined with a plan so we drew up an itinerary that included touring the cathedral (the largest church in Spain and the third largest in the world behind St. Peter’s and St. Paul’s); climbing the Giralda tower (a former minaret converted to the cathedral’s bell tower and which one ascends via a corkscrew ramp rather than stairs, as did the Moorish muezzin on horseback five times a day to call the faithful to prayer); wandering the residential Triana district across the Guadalquivir River; crossing the Parque de María Luisa (including the grand Plaza de España from the 1929 Exposition); and, exploring the narrow streets of the whitewashed Barrio de Santa Cruz (the former Jewish neighborhood).

Finally, but number one on our list of musts for Sevilla, was experiencing some genuine flamenco, and not just a touristy show with food being served and drinks poured, but the traditional, heartfelt version. Joe did some Internet research and we settled on the show at La Casa de la Memoria deep in the Barrio. It turns out that we chose very well; the performance was mesmerizing and emotionally intense in a way I hadn’t expected. Young artists in their 20s and 30s, including a guitarist, singer and two gorgeous dancers (the male was Colin Farrell’s twin), held us transfixed for an hour in our front-row seats. The intimate venue was a dimly lit courtyard in a 17th century palace-home with only a few rows of seats surrounding the performers on three sides. Inspired by those who have lived in southern Spain through the centuries -- the Moors from North Africa, the gypsies and the Spanish -- flamenco emanates from deep in the soul and movingly combines the romantic, passionate and celebratory influences that have created the tapestry of modern Andalusia. It certainly touched my soul and I don’t know that I’ve ever experienced a more emotionally charged live performance. Had we stayed in Sevilla longer, I know I would have returned to experience an additional show with different performers. I can still hear (and feel) the loud and soft percussive handclaps and the rhythmic, ear-splitting feet stamping; this proud art form grabbed my heart and still hasn’t let it go.

Sevilla surprised us at every turn. The architecture, in characteristic mustard and burgundy, was lovely and though the color combination doesn’t sound very attractive, it works well on the stately Sevillan buildings. The delicate Moorish influences of pretty arches, flowered patios and colorful tile work were everywhere. Carriages pulled by elegant horses added to the city’s romance as did the many cobblestoned pedestrian ways.

When we initially drew up our plan for exploring Spain, we focused on Andalusia, the part of the country neither of us had ever visited, and decided to use our two-week home rental south of Granada as a base of operations. Rather than pack up and move several times, the plan was to simply take day trips from Chite. Now that we’ve been to Sevilla, we know we got it wrong. We should have stayed near Granada for a week and then spent a full week in Sevilla. The two nights we allotted were just not enough to fully explore this beautiful, vibrant city. While we definitely got a delicious taste, we’ve now added Sevilla to our list of places to which we must return.

The official motto of Sevilla, seen everywhere throughout the city on sewer caps, busses and even Christopher Columbus’s tomb in the cathedral, is “No8Do.” Loosely translated, it means “forever Sevilla,” but the more formal meaning, tied to a legend involving a skein of yarn (the figure “8” in the emblem) and the loyal subjects of King Alfonso X, is “Sevilla has not abandoned me.” I actually like the former meaning, knowing that forever we’ll have memories from Sevilla and hoping we’ll return someday to create more.

Pictures of our adventures: http://gapyeargirlgoestoeurope.shutterfly.com

Monday, November 28, 2011

Culinary Scorecard: France 10; Spain 3

How often have you had a hankering for a taste of España and said to your spouse/partner/friends, “Hey, let’s go out for Spanish food tonight!” Probably never, right? And that’s likely the reason I’ve seen so few Spanish restaurants outside of Spain. I’ve already written at length about all the perfectly yummy food we had all over France at fine dining restaurants and tiny bistros (thus, it scores a ten), but I find it difficult to come up with even a handful of meals we’ve had in Spain that I would label memorable. 

The first of the three points I award to Spanish dining goes to sangria. It’s always been one of my favorites (and I’m happy to report that Joe is now an aficionado) and we’ve enjoyed multiple fruit-filled pitchers of the thirst-quenching nectar over the past few weeks. Spain scores a second point for paella, although one was significantly better than the others. The best paella we enjoyed, hands-down, was for lunch in a beachside chiringuito (an informal food joint) in the town of Nerja on Playa Burriana along the Costa del Sol. It’s owned and run by an aging, pony-tailed hippie named Ayo who we first saw on an episode of Rick Steves. The eponymous, open-air restaurant’s specialty is paella, which they make over an open fire in a huge, four-foot diameter pan in view of diners in an outdoor kitchen. I’m certain our beachy surroundings added some local flavor, but our plates of saffron-infused rice were simply delicious on their own. Accompanied by a pitcher of sangria, eating our paella with our feet in the sand made for a very relaxing afternoon. The final point for Spain goes to tapas in general, but not all those we tried were uniformly appetizing. Many simply filled our stomachs but didn’t pass the we-can’t-wait-to-have-more test. We did our best to try as many typical Spanish tapas and especialidads de la casa as we could (including what Spaniards consider their beloved and very pricey jabugo jamón), but very few were notable. In Barcelona we had flash-fried artichoke shavings that were out of this world and in Sevilla, a variation of escalivada (grilled and peeled eggplant, tomatoes, onions, red peppers and garlic mixed and molded into a squat cylinder) topped with warm cod was finely prepared and filled with flavor. Also in Sevilla, we were served a bowl of salty, vinegary, very ripe olives the size of small plums that were probably the best we’ve had on our trip. Andalusian gazpacho, although more finely pureed and a bit creamier than the variety found in the states, was often offered on a tapas menu and was light, refreshing and tasty. 

So, as we move along in our travels, we’ll continue our quest for memorable local food and drink and maintain our highly subjective country-specific scorecards. So far, France is in the lead and by well more than just a head. We’ll only be in Portugal, just over the Spanish border, for a couple days – too short a time to really make an informed judgment, but we shall see. We have little idea of what to expect in Morocco, but we project that Italy will give France a run for her money. We’re headed to London for Christmas, so of course, British cuisine will likely score even lower than Spain’s. In the meantime, España can keep trying to impress us, but surely it will be too little too late. Eating at a Spanish restaurant once we get home, I’m afraid, will remain at the bottom of our dining out list – right next to going out for bangers and mash. Qué lástima!

Pictures of our adventures: http://gapyeargirlgoestoeurope.shutterfly.com

Friday, November 25, 2011

More Moorish Musings

As we unhappily said goodbye to the Alhambra’s Generalife Gardens and made our way down the long stone walkway towards our car, I was taken aback by a sight that never fails to unnerve me. A woman in head-to-toe burka and face-covering niqab was walking with her husband, pushing a stroller down the path in front of us. It’s fairly unusual to see women outside Muslim countries fully draped, but I’ve seen several in London, always in loose fitting black cloaks with frightening grills across their eyes, and now I’d seen one in Granada. This woman’s burka was light grey and appeared to be of high quality material, starched and pressed, with the headscarf fitting tightly across her face, just over and under her eyes. Her husband sported casual western clothes – a brightly striped sweatshirt hoodie, jeans and Nikes. I’ve heard and read the arguments from both women and men about the merits of the burka – how it allows women to praise God; how it provides women with a protective, comforting anonymity; how it’s specified in the Koran (questionable); how it allows women to honor and show respect for their husbands. But no matter how I try, I just can’t buy it; I find the burka both troubling and astonishing. It subjugates women, makes them less than individuals – nameless and faceless, inhibits their social interaction and communicates a message of subservience. Every time I’m confronted with the specter of these women so attired, I have the urge to sit them down and suggest that if they want to be anonymous and hide their individuality, just put on some Jackie-O sunglasses, slip on a shapeless moo moo and don a floppy hat. Such an outfit would let women go about their business in public, unnoticed and undistinguished but not send such a blatant message of degradation. While not in favor of a burka ban (outlawing behaviors and practices often serves in the end to encourage them), as I watched the gray-clad woman load her baby into the car, I wondered, are women who wear the burka aware that their attire screams oppression?

The following day, we returned to Granada to explore the rest of the city including the massive cathedral (the second largest in Spain behind the one in Seville), the checkered Plaza Nueva, the dark alleys of the Alcaicería (formerly the silk market) and the Albayzín labyrinth (the ancient quarter of the Moors). Perhaps it’s because everything pales in comparison to the Alhambra masterpiece rising on the summit above, but for some reason the city below didn’t move us. We climbed the Assabica hill, which faces the Alhambra on the opposite rise, through the narrow, winding streets of the Albayzín to reach the Mirador de San Nicolás (an incredible viewpoint on a church plaza). While wandering the neighborhood maze was interesting, the whole point of the climb was to once again see the Alhambra from a different vantage point. When we finally reached the top of the final stairway and made a hard turn to our right to face the Alhambra across the ravine, we had a mouth-dropped-open moment. “Oh, wow!” was all we could say.

There are apparently many Roman Catholic religious orders based in Granada since we passed many priests and nuns on the streets, going about their daily business. As we headed down and back across town from the Mirador de San Nicolás to the parking garage, we crossed paths with a tall, regal Cardinal in black and crimson ecclesiastical regalia, short cape over his shoulders and red mitre on his head. The young novitiate in tow scurried just behind him, carrying the dignitary’s briefcase and other paraphernalia. The supremacy of this man of the cloth was unmistakable, given his gilded robes. As we rounded the corner onto the Gran Vía de Colón, I almost stopped dead in my tracks. Was it possible that we could be following two more burka-clad women? That’s three in two days in Christian Granada? What were the odds? As we got a bit closer, it suddenly hit me. These women weren’t Muslims in burkas, they were Catholic nuns in long gray and white habits, their brows pushed down and their cheeks pinched by tight wimples. The woman in the burka and the nuns in their habits...are these femininity-erasing garments really that different? Cardinals ascend to power wearing royal colors and nuns, unable to become priests, are stuck in black and gray. Muslim men wear colorful western clothing and their women are hidden under identity-robbing burkas. Perhaps this is an obvious point in common – the patriarchal culture of two of the world’s largest religions. The suppression of women: discuss.

Pictures of our adventures: http://gapyeargirlgoestoeurope.shutterfly.com

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Sweet Home Alhambra

I could live in the Alhambra. Simply put, it is one of the most magical places I’ve ever visited and if it hadn’t started raining, I could have wandered the palaces and their gardens all day. While the walled city of Carcassonne has a dreamy storybook aura from afar, it’s actually a cold, depressing place on close examination. In contrast, the Alhambra appears rather stark and plain on the outside, but up close and from inside, its elegance delights and invites you to pull up some embroidered Moorish pillows and stay. Carcassonne is a fortress in which to cower and be protected; the Alhambra is a garden sanctuary in which to relax and settle in. Although the skies on the day we chose to visit the sprawling complex were steely gray, the beauty and warmth of the place shone through. If it is this stunning under a veil of drizzle, we thought, imagine its resplendence in the sun.

The Alhambra (from the Arabic meaning red fort) is an ensemble of very different structures all within the protection of massive fortress walls perched on a plateau on the crest of a hill. Its construction over centuries followed no master plan so the result is a hodge-podge mixture with individual buildings added piecemeal over the course of the alternating rule of Muslims and Christians. The oldest and most westerly section is the imposing Alcazaba fortress, built upon Roman ruins and providing wonderful views over the city of Granada straight below.

Beyond the Alcazaba stronghold and hanging over the deep ravine of the Darro River (which divides the plateau from the Muslim Albaicín district of the city on the facing hill) are the crown jewels of the Alhambra: the beautiful 14th century Nazrid Palaces of the Moorish rulers, designed to reflect “paradise on earth.” We wandered through the various rooms of the intertwined palaces, were awed by the colorful, delicate tile and plaster decoration of the ceilings and walls and gazed out the arched windows that delighted residents with vistas across the surrounding hills. Unlike so many other immense castles across Europe, the Nazrid palaces were built on a human scale (they are elegant rather than grand) with smaller rooms, gardens and hallways and offered intimate spaces into which I could imagine myself crawling with a good book and a cup of tea for the afternoon. Washington Irving, of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow fame, stayed at the Alhambra for three months in 1829 and the palace tour includes the room in which he lived, now marked with a commemorative plaque. I’ve done my best to “read local” as we’ve moved along and the entertaining travelogue Irving wrote as a result of his sojourn in the palace, Tales of the Alhambra, was a perfect literary companion for our visit. The book, illustrated with 19th century drawings, helped me conjure up the Alhambra’s days of former glory and the colorful characters who lived in the place. No standard guidebook could appeal to my emotions and evoke the sensual pleasures of the Alhambra as Irving’s romantic collection did. It was difficult to leave the palaces but there was much more to see and so we reluctantly moved on.

Plopped next to and sharing a wall with the Nazrid palaces is the circle-in-a-square 16th century Renaissance residence of Charles V. Boys will be boys and so after the Moors were defeated, the Christian monarch-in-charge built his own imposing palace to dwarf that of the conquered. Were his Renaissance masterpiece on a piazza in Florence, I would have been in awe. But built, as it is, almost smack on top of and crowding the existing delicate Moorish palaces, the stark contrast left me cold; in the context of the Alhambra, it just doesn’t belong. We did a cursory circuit and moved on. After briefly exploring the mosque baths, the Santa María Church (it was built on top of a mosque) and the San Francisco Parador (also once a mosque, then a monastery and now a four-star hotel at whose restaurant we’ll have Thanksgiving dinner), we headed for the summer palace on upper part of the grounds as the rain started in earnest.
As I observed earlier, even in foul weather the Alhambra was gorgeous and the sultan’s Generalife summer estate and gardens were no exceptions. I have always appreciated the symmetry and serenity of a quadrangular Catholic cloister and both the upper Generalife and the lower Nazrid palaces are filled with similar spaces – all rooms open onto a central court filled with the soothing sounds of running water. Cascades, reflecting pools and gurgling rivulets are evidence of the culture’s appreciation of water and its comforting effects. It’s easy to imagine the refreshing cool provided by the fountains in the grueling summer sun. The fragrant gardens within the palace and those that stretch on terraced acres outside are magnificent. With raincoat hoods on and our umbrellas up, we had to use our imaginations to picture them in their brilliant full summer glory. We’ll have to come back again, I promised myself, maybe with our grandchildren in scorching July, when all is in bloom and the cool spray of the fountains can truly be appreciated. After four hours in the Alhambra, we finally forced ourselves to leave, knowing that we’d visited the very best of Moorish culture from the final centuries of their rule in Al Andalus Spain.

Pictures of our adventures: http://gapyeargirlgoestoeurope.shutterfly.com

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Road Rage, Relaxation and Dogs

It was the second week of November and we lounged by the pool in the Valencian sun. It was a balmy 78 degrees and we now knew why hoards of Northern Europeans flock to the Spanish coast to escape the long, dark winter. Home for the next two days was a low-slung, whitewashed hacienda set amidst sprawling citrus groves in the rolling hills about 30 minutes west of the Mediterranean coast. Everywhere we looked, flat bowls overflowed with tiny, sweet tangerines and a pile of dried peels on the patio was evidence of how much we enjoyed them. We’re heading towards Andalusia in the south of Spain and this stop cut our nine hours of driving time from Barcelona to Granada down to about six. Spiky hedgerows of lavender, heather and agave bordered the winding, mile-long private driveway to the relaxed Mas de Canicatti and I noted as we entered that it would be perfect for an afternoon run. In fact, the day after we arrived, Joe and I both went running and the highlight of my five miles was that I saw my first actual pomegranate bush on the approach road. I’d never before even considered how and where this exotic fruit grows, but I stopped in my tracks as I saw a beautiful golden-leafed bush with apple-size orange-red fruit weighing down its branches amidst the lavender. What a delight! I now know the provenance of the delicious pomegranate seeds in the morning’s fresh fruit salad.

The tranquility of the Mas de Canicatti was a welcome relief after the frustration of our drive from Barcelona. Soon after leaving the city, we quickly learned it’s considerably safer and easier to be a pedestrian than a driver in Spain. We picked up our rental car in town, headed straight for the port and looked for signs for the Autovía del Mediterráneo (A7) that would bring us south along the coast. Joe hugged the outer lane of the roundabout that circles the Cristóbal Colón column, ready to scoot off towards the autovia as directed. Our roundabout strategy seemed reasonable to us but our fellow drivers had other plans. They cut straight across the circle from the center, crossing lanes willy-nilly to exit as they pleased, thereby making those on the circle rim (meaning, us) targets of their haphazard escape routes. We went around the huge rotary twice desperately searching for signs for the autovía. While we managed to survive the Cristóbal Colón 500 road race and make it onto the highway, we quickly learned that serious struggles with the road signs in this country were on the horizon. Warning: Spanish road sign rant ahead! Language wasn’t the problem; the simple existence of clear road signs was. Spanish signage doesn’t even come close to that of France. Even allowing for some time to get used to the nomenclature and unfamiliar coding, the signage just doesn’t work for us. It is too sparse, too small and contradicts itself often. In no time, we found ourselves sucked off the autovía and heading up a steep incline into the hilltop suburbs of Barcelona on a not-so-super-highway because the all-too-tiny arrow for continuing on the A7 didn’t catch our eye until too late. Argh... Yes, here I go again about France, but in that brilliantly drivable country, even the narrowest country byway, miles from any town and tread primarily by farm machinery, is well marked. And the signs don’t just direct you to the next little obscure hamlet. They always post the name of a good-sized town at every intersection with signs that let you know if you’re headed in the right direction. The alpha- and color-coding on every sign lets you know if the road you’ll be taking is a local road (white with no number), a department road (yellow and it starts with a “D”), a national route (red and it starts with an “N”) or an autoroute (blue and it starts with an “A”). If armed with a decent map, even one that simply goes down to the tertiary towns, you’re in good shape. You just connect the dots and then follow the signs. In Spain, on the other hand, markers at even sizable roundabouts will likely only direct drivers to the next town over. OK, fine, but not very helpful. I don’t much care if San Pau is to the right, Bonavista is to the left and San Cugat is straight ahead. I want to know which arm to take off the rotonda if my destination is Valencia! Even the indication of a larger waypoint, like Tarragona – halfway between Barcelona and Valencia, would be helpful. Despite the opaque signage, we managed to find our way to the Mas de Canicatti, with a detour or two sprinkled in, but I couldn’t stop questioning why the signage waited until we were almost there to indicate we were heading towards Valencia.

After a relaxing two days surrounded by orange, lemon and lime trees, we were ready for another day of tackling the Spanish roads. The landscape south of Valencia quickly resembled that of sunburned Tucson with rough, rocky peaks rising to the east of the highway and scrub pines and cactus dotting the arid flats. We made the long drive to Granada with minimal road sign rage and were astounded at how the snow-capped Sierra Nevada rise improbably to the southeast from the desert landscape of the city below. We then headed south 30 kilometers to the tiny, whitewashed village of Chite (Chee-tay), where we’ll be staying for the next two weeks. We’re renting a traditional three-story home, Casa Conejillo (Rabbit House), halfway between Granada and the Mediterranean – about a half hour drive to each. We’re hoping it will be a good base for exploring much of Andalusia.

While driving into Chite, the first thing we noticed is how many of man’s best friends were roaming the streets: all of them with collars and all of them friendly. We have arrived in the land of a thousand dogs, and of course, in the land of all they leave behind. Given the name of the village, imagine the fun we’ll have coming up with new, more appropriately descriptive pronunciations.

Pictures of our adventures: http://gapyeargirlgoestoeurope.shutterfly.com

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Guidebook Monogamy

I have a few questions for Rick Steves, but I’ll start with: How do you write a guidebook to Spain and not even mention Valencia, the country’s third largest city? Yes, I read the front matter disclaimer that you’re presenting only the best of Spain and that of course, it’s just your opinion, but Valencia might have at least merited a minor mention and perhaps a note about why you decided not to expand on it, non?

Joe and I have been fans of the Frommer’s travel guides ever since we first started using them as country-specific companions to our Let’s Go Europe back in the 70s, and long before I knew I would become a close friend and colleague of Danforth Prince, one of the guides' legendary writers. Before we left Paris last month, we visited the WHSmith bookstore on the Rue de Rivoli to pick up a copy of Frommer’s Spain. Unfortunately, they were all out, so we settled on the blue and yellow volume by Rick Steves. We’ve long enjoyed his TV shows, Europe Through the Back Door, so we decided to give his books a try.

We’re going back to Frommer’s. The first mark against Mr. Steves is what I alluded to above: it appears that he simply ignores entire cities and areas of a country he either doesn’t deem important or in which he has no interest. We had read an interesting New York Times article about the Costa Brava and its beaches that extend north from Barcelona to the French border. The article praised the rugged coastline and its hidden gems of deserted coves and authentic fishing villages. We were anxious to see what our new guidebook had to say about the area but were astounded to discover that it wasn’t even in the index -- not a word about the Costa Brava or Girona, it’s principal city. Our next search was on Barcelona and while the book helped us find exactly the kind of hotel we wanted and guided us expertly on a walking tour of the Barri Gotic, it was sorely lacking when it came to eating out. One of the highlights of traveling for us is experiencing the food and restaurants of other lands and our Rick Steves guide gives epicurean pleasures short shrift. As just one example, Picasso spent his formative years in Barcelona and frequented the now famous Els Quatre Gats (literally, The Four Cats, but figuratively, The Four Dudes) cafe where he met with other artists like Utrillo, Casas and Gaudi and staged his first individual exhibition. Why would Rick Steves not include this former hangout of the bohemian Barcelona set in his book? Els Quatre Gats is mentioned several times in background notes and artwork descriptions at the Picasso Museum. Even if Mr. Steves doesn’t like this cafe, shouldn’t he at least list it for historical reasons and for those wanting to pay homage to the Spanish masters with a beer or glass of wine?

A friend graciously passed along multiple green Michelin guidebooks before we left for our trip and we used many of them in France. I’m afraid that for the most part, I found the writing style cold and without personality and the books indecipherable because of how they were organized. It’s almost as if travelers need to know exactly where they’re going first in order to make the books of any use. If Rick Steves is overly selective, Michelin is excessively comprehensive. I couldn’t see the forest for the trees! I wasted more time than I care to remember just trying to figure out what we wanted to see and where we wanted to go because absolutely everything was covered. Michelin does use a star system to indicate what they recommend, but I found that in many case the un-starred sights were covered more fully than those highly recommended. And the index was useless. I would often look up a town or a monument we had read about elsewhere and not find it in the index only to unexpectedly discover it later when flipping through the text. There is little if any mention of food and restaurants (they have a whole separate series of red guides for these details). Call me crazy but I want all my travel info in one handy resource. Until we left France, I had lugged along several additional Michelins that covered other countries we’ll visit, but I lightened my load substantially by leaving them all behind in Puylaurens, hoping they’ll be adopted by someone else whose traveling style they better suit.

Does the reference we enjoy using when we travel simply come down to familiarity? Do we like Frommer’s because we’ve always used Frommer’s and are used to the friendly writing style and easy-to-understand two-color layout? Perhaps familiarity plays a role, but I’ve also realized that guidebooks have personalities and what works for one traveler may not work for another. We love Frommer’s because like Rick Steves’, the writer’s personality shines through, but unlike the latter, Frommer’s includes all the sights, restaurants and hotels you’d expect and provides opinions, even if it’s something like “the place is overrated and overpriced, but you may want to try it because it’s a legend.” Rick Steves would simply not include it and Michelin would give you Micheneresque detail on the place’s history that would eventually put you to sleep. We have Frommer’s Morocco to guide us through this country that we’ll visit at the end of the month and it provides us right up front, “The Best Of...” Every book in the series lists its favorites first thing, and our Morocco guide includes “Best Unforgettable Travel Experiences,” “Best Kasbahs and Medinas,” “Best Authentic Culinary Experiences” and “Best Natural Morocco,” among others. We always find these superlatives invaluable as we plan our trips to take in as many as possible. Frommer’s covers a wide range of budgets and includes plenty of splurge options, should you want to spend a little extra. But Rick Steves sticks with the basics and although he may mention “somewhere special,” he gives it only a cursory description. If I’m going to celebrate with a stay at a special hotel or a meal at an exquisite restaurant, I want my guidebook to wax poetic and get me excited for the event.

The good news out of all this is that I’ve learned something valuable. Travel guides, like spouses, wine and cheese, are not interchangeable. They have distinct characters and you have to find what works for you. I strayed for a bit and had flings with Rick Steves and Michelin, but I’ve learned my lesson. I’m committed to Joe, Sancerre, époisse and Frommer’s: I’m back to being a monogamous happy traveler. 

Friday, November 11, 2011

Bella Barcelona

We knew France was definitively behind us when our train pulled into the Barcelona Sants station a half hour late. Our 6:54am TGV (train à grande vitesse) left Toulouse exactly on time and the train we then transferred to in Narbonne departed not a second late as well. But apparently all bets for an on-time arrival were off once we crossed into Spain. As we slowed to a screeching stop at the border, an announcement was made about changing trains. Despite the fact that we had been assured we would not have to transfer again, I woefully harked back to my back-backing trip in the seventies. In the dead of night my companions and I were awakened at the Spanish border town of Irun, had to gather our packs, get off the French train and sleepwalk forward about 200 yards to then board the Spanish train because the French train’s wheels wouldn’t run on Spain’s wider track gauge. Apparently, this is still true for many of the trains in Spain (along with Portugal, they are the only country in Europe with the wider gauge) and the unlucky passengers crossing the borders into and out of France on these lines still have to do the border train shuffle. But luckily this was not the case for the variable gauge train we booked that runs from the Mediterranean coastal towns in France to Barcelona. Thank goodness I had misheard the announcement and no, we did not have to change trains and lug all our bags forward. Rather, they had to push the wheels of each car out to accommodate the wider tracks of the Iberian Peninsula’s system. What a way to run a railroad!

Now that we’re in a new country, the familiar doorbell chime greeting of “bonjour, messieurs-dames” every time we walked into a shop or hotel has been replaced with the simple, straightforward “hola.” And we’re reminded at every turn by the abundant bright red and yellow striped flags and the street signs and billboards (the words of which I can only decipher a few), that we’re actually not yet in Spain; we’re in Catalonia. I mentioned before that what at first glance appears to be a mixture of Spanish, French and Italian is actually quite different. Here and there I’ll spot a familiar word, like bella for beautiful (belle in French and the Italian mirrors the Catalan), carrer for street (calle in Spanish) or gambeta for shrimp (gamberetto in Italian). Ordering food off a Catalan menu can be a real adventure!

Barcelona has genuinely surprised us. Sometimes it’s better to arrive in a place with no preconceived notions, not knowing what to expect and allowing it to unfold for you on its own. And that’s just what we did with this beautiful city. We read only enough of our guide book to help us decide where to book our hotel and then stopped. We’d concentrated all our time and energy on the logistics of moving from one country to the next (repacking all our bags and leaving behind what we could live without, returning the rental car and catching the train) that we suddenly realized we had no idea what awaited us in Barcelona. All unpacked and settled into our bright, modern hotel in the center of town as our base for the next five days, we turned to each other and asked, “now what?”

On our very first morning we experienced one of those unexpected, laugh-out-loud moments that surprise you when you travel. In the bright hotel breakfast room, painted pale green and decorated with plentiful plastic oranges and daisies, we were the only two Americans filling our plates from the buffet. Imagine our surprise when the English-language rock music playing in the background launched into the original version of Cee-Lo Green’s “Forget You.” We almost dropped our coffee cups in our laps. Are they really playing the uncensored song? “I'm like, 
f*** you! 
And f*** her too!” No one else in the room even flinched. Ah, the beauty and innocence of enjoying another country’s music while you have no idea what the lyrics mean...

The fact that we arrived in the rain and that the showers continued for two days didn’t dampen our spirits or our introduction to Barcelona in the least. The chilly two days of downpours were followed by three days of brilliant sun and blue skies with temperatures near 70 and we spent hours wandering the city and exploring the sights. There’s an upbeat vibe to Barcelona – it’s a happy place with lots of happy people and the energy is contagious. Comparing our experience in France, bodies are broader, hair a bit darker and people move with an unmistakable lightness of step. The bread doesn’t even come close to the French variety, but the fact that all form and color of tapas are available all day is a pleasant plus. While no other system can surpass the Paris metro in my book, Barcelona’s subway was clean and easy and efficient and could mount a serious challenge. The colossal, central public market just off the main pedestrian way, La Rambla, the Mercat de la Boqueria, makes the open-air markets we visited in France look like roadside farm stands. Filled with hundreds of stalls selling every type of fresh seafood, meat, cheese and produce imaginable and fringed with countless hanging hams, the lofty ceilinged indoor market -- a vegetarian's nightmare -- buzzed with activity and a cacophony of chatter. Tourists, elbow-to-elbow with locals jostling to buy their daily groceries, snapped photos of exotic creatures from the sea on beds of ice, all color and variety of fruits and vegetables piled high and the brown and red awnings of Spain’s beloved jamón.

Barcelona is much like Los Angeles geographically in that it is nestled between the hills and the sea. But we weren’t prepared for the number of distinct neighborhoods, parks and monuments both up high in the hills and down by the sea. There are even Barcelonan surfer-dudes with their boards perched on the shoulders heading off to catch the waves along the man-made beach by the harbor. Yes, there were actually some pretty good waves crashing on the shore from the Mediterranean. We had no idea. To help us discover more surprises, get our bearings and orient us to the far-flung highlights of the city, we decided to join the other tourists and take one of the ubiquitous hop-on/hop-off, open-topped busses that snake through town, stopping at the major sights.

The number one stop for any visitor to Barcelona is Antoni Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia church, the architect’s unfinished masterpiece still being built and that won’t be completed for another 25 years. There are simply no words to adequately describe our astonishment at the first glimpse of this sandcastle sculpture in the middle of a residential neighborhood. It is unlike any structure we had ever seen. We were equally fascinated and charmed by Gaudí’s colorfully tiled Guell Park carved out of the hill, its paths delineated with his irregular, organic fences and jagged overhangs. The fanciful buildings that undulate in the chic Eixample district made us stop and marvel at the magic of their mosaics and vibrant serendipity. I’m embarrassed to admit that I had no idea just how much Gaudi and the Catalan modernistas influenced this lovely city. I found myself wishing I were an artist or fashion designer drawing inspiration from the lively work of Gaudi and his contemporaries. Beyond these visionaries’ whimsical work, so many other buildings in Barcelona are simply beautiful structures graced with delicate shutters in yellows and greens and that seem always to be open, unlike all those that were closed in France. And every window has a balcony of wrought iron or stone, beckoning its residents outside. We visited the Picasso Museum, which houses much of Barcelona’s other renowned native son’s intriguing early work, hidden in the dark narrow streets of the ancient Barri Gotic quarter. Again, I suspect that were I an artist, my creative juices would be overflowing and I might never want to leave this lovely city.

Barcelona was artsy and classy and fun and delicious, all at the same time. Arriving with no idea of what to expect, it surprised us at every turn and made for an excellent entry into Spain. 

Pictures of our adventures: http://gapyeargirlgoestoeurope.shutterfly.com

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

A Significant Milestone

November 7th is an important date for us. First, it’s Chris’s 27th birthday, and just as it was so difficult to be away from Caroline on September 21st, the celebration of her 24th year, we hate being so far away from our son as he turns another year older. But the second reason this is a critical marker makes being at a distance a little bit easier. One month from today, the kids fly from DC to Milan to travel with us for two weeks in Italy. And while we certainly don’t want the next four weeks in Spain, Portugal and Morocco to fly by, we’re eagerly anticipating the arrival of our children across the pond. The itinerary for the four of us includes five nights in La Spezia where we’ll hike the Cinque Terre, visit the leaning tower in Pisa and have lunch in Portofino; one night in a Relais & Chateaux property, L’Albereta, in the lake district; five nights in the Dolomites where we’ll ski for a couple days; and finally, two nights in Verona, the city of Romeo and Juliet (in fact, our Verona hotel is appropriately named, Hotel Giulietta e Romeo). Reason number three to note the date is that two months ago today, we flew out of Dulles to start our one-year sabbatical. We’ve had our ups and downs, but overwhelmingly ups, and have learned so much about ourselves and the world already. So, with two months under our belt and two months wiser, we’re immersing ourselves in Spain with the glimmer of our visit with our children on the horizon.

Pictures of our adventures: http://gapyeargirlgoestoeurope.shutterfly.com

Friday, November 4, 2011

Puylaurens: Home of Marianne

On our penultimate night in France, we polished off our last bottle of Sancerre and enjoyed our usual in-room dinner menu of bread, cheese and ham. We spiced things up a bit this time, however, with an epi (a French loaf comprised of a series of French rolls strung together, thereby providing much more crunchy crust than a regular baguette) and some store-bought tabouli. Watching the finale of Master Chef, the French version of one of our favorite reality shows, Top Chef, topped off our relaxing evening. Almost identical in format and pacing to its American cousin, even down to the sometimes-cranky bald guy judge (Tom Colicchio’s long lost twin), Master Chef failed miserably in the selection of its lackluster female host who is very simply no Padma. And while the purse for the winner was a mere 15,000 euros, there was plenty of tension in the kitchen over masterpieces gone wrong.

On our last night in France for a long time, we’ll be having a lovely dinner at our hotel, the Cap de Castel. We could not have chosen a better place to spend our final nights in this country. About an hour east of Toulouse, it sits high in the hill town of Puylaurens and looks out over the gently rolling farmland at the base of Le Montagne Noire. Housed in buildings from the 1600s and beautifully renovated with exposed beams, earthen colored tile floors and ochre painted walls, the hotel is a real find. It’s a member of the Hotels de Charme et de Caractère association, which is how we found the little gem, and it definitely lives up to this label. We had dinner here on two nights of our stay (and are looking forward to a third tonight) and each superb meal was priced well below our budget. We’ve thoroughly enjoyed our time here, and to add to our enjoyment is the fact that we paid less than $100 a night by taking advantage of the off-season stay-three-pay-for-two offer. We’re staying for a total of six and will only pay for four. There are definitely some advantages to traveling off-season.

We arrived in Puylaurens after a long drive from Andorra and at first glance, things weren’t so wonderful. The entire town was boarded up behind closed shutters and the roll-down, garage door-like steel security walls that hide businesses and restaurants when they’re closed. “Oh great,” we thought, “yet another abandoned town.” We finally realized, however, that it was the important French holiday weekend, La Toussaint (All Saints Day) and that almost all businesses would be closed for the entire weekend. November 1, All Saints Day, fell on a Tuesday this year and was an excellent excuse for a four-day weekend. Much like in the US prior to the seventies, it’s hard to find anything open on a Sunday or on any day of a holiday weekend. We’ve had more than one disappointment and change of plans because we forgot that Sunday means closed. It’s a regular reminder of just how different France and the US are and of the familiar generality that while the French work to live, Americans live to work. We’ve witnessed several anecdotal incidents that suggest that perhaps the profit motive isn’t quite as strong over here as it is back home. On multiple occasions in Paris when we lunched near the Eiffel Tower or walked through a park, men in business suits were reclined on benches taking long midday naps. What an attitude! Can’t imagine finding business people in Manhattan daring to take a full hour out of their workday to snooze in the sun. We’ve also seen restaurateurs turn away business at 2:10pm because they stopped serving lunch at 2. Most likely the cook had already gone home – no working overtime for him or her. When the long Toussaint weekend was over, the shutters opened and the steel walls went up and Puylaurens was back in business. Although not a particularly pretty town, it is a vibrant one with plenty of citizens on its streets and a busy open-air market on Wednesday morning. Wholly unexpected was learning that Puylaurens is the birthplace of the French national moniker Marianne. I never would have imagined that our itinerary would just happen to land us in the hometown of my French namesake. Just as Uncle Sam is a symbol for the US, so Marianne is the symbol of the French Republic, representing Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité and appearing on its stamps, euro coins and official seal. We’ve learned that the first use of Marianne as a symbol of France was in a song of the revolution (la Guérison de Marianne), composed in 1792 by the cobbler-poet Guillaume Lavabre – a native son of Puylaurens. Who knew?

The weather has been gorgeous during our stay in this little town: a mix of sun and clouds (and just a little rain) and temperatures in the high sixties. We did a six-kilometer randonnée (a government mapped and marked hike through the rolling farmland hills), ran seven miles along the Canal du Midi (the plane tree-lined waterway built in the 17th century to connect the Atlantic with the Mediterranean) and have read for hours on the sun-drenched hotel patio. We’ve done our best to enjoy the warm fall weather before packing up and departing at 0 dark 30 tomorrow morning to drop off the car in Toulouse and catch the train to Barcelona.

As we prepare to leave France, Spain is slowly coming into focus. After all the picturesque medieval spaces we’ve stayed in over the past month, with the cold drafts and spotty Internet that come along with them, I actually told Joe something I never thought I’d say. When he was researching and Googling possible Barcelona hotels, I actually heard myself caution, “Remember, Joe, we want bright and modern. We’ve had enough atmosphere to last us quite a while.” Being on the road for this long can sometimes change your priorities.

Pictures of our adventures: http://gapyeargirlgoestoeurope.shutterfly.com

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Lost Horizon: Andorra

Our five-day trip up into the Pyrenees was an enjoyable but strange one, filled with little surprises, and couldn’t have been more different from the time we spent in the Carcassonne area. We left Languedoc-Roussillon and headed further south, deep into the bowels of the French Pyrenees towards the Spanish border.

Our scenic four-hour car ride was slowed not only by the hairpin turns Joe negotiated so skillfully, but also by gargantuan trucks and a herd of sheep. In the tiny mountain town of Sainte-Colombe-sur-Guette, we had to pull into an alleyway to avoid a face-off with three eighteen wheelers heading down the mountain. We graciously gave them the right-of-way but questioned whether they could actually make it down the narrow village street. Just where we had backed into the alley, the road took a slight turn, making the passage of each long truck between the village buildings a tricky proposition. The lead truck stopped just before the bend, the driver got out, surveyed the situation, scratched his head and puzzled over whether his ten-pound truck would fit through the five-pound road. The driver of truck number two walked down and joined driver number one, both scratching their heads, gesticulating up and down and back and forth and surveying the situation from a variety of angles. Joe got out of the car to take pictures, engineer-that-he-is, very interested to see how these guys were going to make the geometry work. After some brief discussion, driver number one got back in his truck and driver number two helped guide him through the narrow bend. When truck one was safe, driver number two climbed into his cab and driver number three walked down to help him navigate the turn. This delicate dance was repeated again with truck number three and driver number two. We had a ringside seat for all the backing, filling and eventual liberation of all three vehicles. As I’d mentioned before, Europe makes their trucks big, all well and good for the autoroutes, but it leads to some very real drama on the byways.

Our next obstacle appeared soon after we turned onto what was barely a one-lane road that twisted further into the mountains towards our next destination, Molitg. We hadn’t passed another car for miles (thank goodness because there was no room for anyone but us) and were enjoying the gorgeous scenery (finally some fall color!), when around a sharp bend, we found ourselves blocked by the most astonishing sight: a herd of over 100 sheep, a pack of herding dogs and a shepherd making their way up the road ahead of us. We were amazed and enthralled, our mouths wide open. Slowly following the pack for about a quarter mile, we were spellbound by how the shepherd orchestrated the procession from behind, whistling, clucking and waving his staff, letting his dogs know just what he wanted them to do. The dogs responded immediately and efficiently, following his every order to move the sheep along and rescue those that strayed. Although we had miles ahead of us and needed to pick up our speed, I was sad when at a fork in the road the herd went left up a mountain path and with a wave to the shepherd, we turned right to continue along the road. As we got back on our way, Joe commented incredulously, “I thought this stuff only happened in the movies.”

Two days in the spa town of Molitg-Les-Bains where we stayed in a baroque folly of a hotel, Le Chateau de Riell, was an interesting stop. Not sleeping in yet another medieval building was a welcomed change. At first glance, the chateau appeared to have been from perhaps the 16th century, but was actually built in the 19th in the baroque style as a crenelated tower in the middle of the woods. The little town of Molitg with its warm springs and therapeutic hotels was a precursor to the other worldliness to come. Europeans take their thermal waters seriously as we witnessed at dinner on one of our two evenings in the spa town. We had a delicious gourmet dinner at the chateau the night we arrived but on our second night, we had an equally tasty but much more modest meal at Le Grand Hôtel, a health resort just down the road. The dining room was about a quarter full when we arrived, but soon thereafter, additional patrons started to arrive, most of them singles. Each diner had an assigned table, much like on a cruise ship, and his or her already opened bottle of wine was waiting. No orders were taken, as it appeared that all but we were on a pre-set meal plan, and the food served to the spa quests was of the healthy variety. Dishes included lots of greens and plain proteins and dessert was very light. It was difficult to put our finger on what made the mood and all these people dining by themselves strange, but there was a Stepford quality to it all. The gentleman sitting next to us, perhaps in his fifties and all by his lonesome, was a bit frail, as were many of the others in the dining room. He quietly finished his grassy meal, drank exactly one glass from his bottle of red wine and left for perhaps some additional time in the healing waters. Le Grand Hôtel seemed more sanatorium than spa, with its ethereal inhabitants in search of cures for who knows what ailments.

The following morning we hit the road once again for the tiny principality nestled in a deep valley of the Pyrenees. If ever there were a spot that made me think of James Hilton’s spiritual yet slightly spooky novel, Lost Horizon, it is Andorra. No it is not Tibet – not even close – but there is something otherworldly and from another time about the place. Even some of its architecture reminded me of images of the red and white Potala Palace high in the Himalayas with its symmetrical square windows climbing up the hill. Intrepid travelers that we are, we decided to venture into this tiny country as a quick detour before we finally headed into Spain. How many people can say they’ve been to Andorra, after all? Tucked between the French and Spanish borders, Andorra is a cross between a brightly lit duty-free shopping mall and an outfitter extraordinaire, much like a Pyrenean Moab or Boulder. Its main industry is tourism and clearly the tourists come for inexpensive electronics, watches, perfume and liquor (there are no direct taxes in Andorra), as well as to ski, hike and rock climb. On our drive in, we wound through colossal, brightly colored, futuristic ski compounds sprawled across the valleys with architecture unlike anything we’d ever seen before. We ventured into a few outfitter shops in town and were amazed by the breadth and depth of the sporting goods they carried. One megastore had a huge 20 by 20 space devoted solely to rock-climbing. Who knew this sport required so much hardware? What added to the eerie, neither-here-nor-there aspect of the principality was the official language of Catalan. A romance language related to French, Spanish and Italian but altogether different, it was impossible for me to decipher. Catalan might as well have been Russian. But most people we met at our guesthouse and in shops and restaurants spoke at least some French, albeit with a thick accent. The gentleman who cut Joe’s hair (yes, he decided to get a haircut in Andorra – further to my earlier comment, we’ll certainly never meet anyone who’s had his or her hair cut in Andorra!) spoke Spanish, so we were able to communicate what Joe wanted done (the guy was a pro and actually needed no coaching). We learned that there are three types of schools in Andorra and apparently you go to wherever you are most comfortable culturally: Catalan, French or Spanish. Almost no one spoke English, which was fine with us, but the mixture of the other languages was a unique experience. We would say “Merci,” to someone and they would respond, “De nada,” in Spanish, but if we said, “Gracias,” they often came back with, “Merci à vous,” in French. As our waiter in a Tapas/Pizza restaurant explained in a mixture of Spanish and French, “We’re very international here.” We enjoyed our time in Andorra, even though the rainy weather made for a soggy three days and scuttled our plans for a hike in the Pyrenees, and managed to get a good sense of the country. We now head back down into France for six days in the town of Puylaurens to the east of Toulouse. We’ll have what will be our final taste of France for many months before we return next spring.

Pictures of our adventures: http://gapyeargirlgoestoeurope.shutterfly.com

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Les Châteaux de Lastours: A Cathar Hike

The Cathars and their annihilation haunted me as we hiked up the steep, rocky spur above the village of Lastours. The bloodthirsty religious fervor of the Crusaders that drove these believers in a Christianity that differed from that of Rome is unthinkable. But of course, such fanaticism still exists in many corners of today’s world. How uncomplicated it must be to live your life with a set-in-stone, black and white worldview. It’s always seemed to me that those who live in a moral world of blacks and whites, with no grey areas or ambiguities in between, must find it easy to go through life, not questioning what is right and what is wrong – they simply follow an established dogma. But was it really what the Cathars believed that incited Rome to launch a crusade? More likely it was the loss of power and revenue and the valuable land owned by the Cathars that prompted Rome to destroy them. Black and white terrifies me. I much prefer gray.

The Châteaux de Lastours are actually four castles perched high in the foothills of the Montagne Noire, isolated by the deep surrounding valleys. Cabaret, Surdespine and la Tour Régine stand in line on a crest, while Quertinheux is on a slightly lower pinnacle nearby. The castles and the surrounding villages in the valley welcomed Cathars during the Albigensian crusade and thus were a target of the brutal Crusader leader, Simon de Montfort. I find it hard to say or even think his name without adding the epithet, “that sadistic bastard.”

It took us about a half hour to hike up the switchbacks and through an eerie cave to the chateaux. We spent a good hour scrambling from one rampart to the next and exploring the crumbling windows and towers of each castle. It was windy with just a bit of drizzle and the gloomy weather helped us imagine what life was like there long ago: difficult, cold, and under constant threat. The precipitous hike down may have been more difficult than the ascent and we were happy to have taken our walking sticks with us. Back in the car, we drove up to a promontory opposite the chateaux to a view point panoramique where we could take in the castles from across the valley. Just as with Carcassonne and impressionist paintings, the view from afar is the best and brings it all into focus. 

We had bread, cheese and a bottle of Sancerre in our room that night; it was good not to eat some form of duck for once. It really has amazed us just how much duck dominates the menu in southwest France: duck breast, duck rillettes, duck confit, duck gizzards, foie gras in all its many forms, stuffed duck’s neck, duck cassoulet and we even saw duck heart on one menu. Reading what a restaurant has to offer in this region is a bit like listening to Forrest Gump’s friend Bubba recite what you can do with shrimp. About a week after arriving in the Dordogne, I recalled what a nice guy from Toronto we met at the Paris flea market told us when we shared that we were headed this way. He and his fiancée had just left the southwest and he predicted, “I see duck in your future...I definitely see duck in your future.”

Pictures of our adventures: http://gapyeargirlgoestoeurope.shutterfly.com

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Carcassonne: Medieval City Extraordinaire

A healthy lunch of a great big salad and crêpes with ham and cheese – comfort food à la Française – did the trick and lifted our spirits. Our lunch spot’s free wifi and the fact that we spent the good part of a sunny afternoon exploring the storybook walled city of Carcassonne also helped. People-watching in the largest fortified city in Europe was excellent -- the best we’ve had in weeks. We were expecting to see lots of tourists at this haunting but breathtakingly beautiful monument to the past but didn’t expect it to be such an international crowd. People and languages from around the world surrounded us all day and in fact, it was the first time we’d heard anything other than French and English since we left Paris. We were so happy to no longer be alone as we explored this masterpiece of a walled city. Carcassonne boasts its share of the griffins and other medieval beasts whose ghastly faces had helped dampen our mood over the past week, but there’s a difference between having them glare at us when we’re all by our lonesome in deserted villages and experiencing them with lots of other happy people around. Joe and I enjoy our own company as well as each other’s, and generally do just fine on our own. But after so many days of isolation, even natural introverts like us need the company of others, if only to see them eating, drinking, laughing and interacting. The weekend crowds at Carcassonne fit the bill perfectly.

My first starry-eyed imaginings of Europe were of a turreted fairytale walled city just like Carcassonne. Growing up, our family had a multi-volume set of orange-covered Child Craft books and each had a name like, The World Around Us, Folk and Fairytales and Poems of Early Childhood. I loved each and every one and read them over and over (and before we could read, my Mom and Dad read them to us) but my absolute favorite volume was Life in Many Lands. It included stories of children in Mexico, Holland and China and of course, the one I remember most is of a young French girl -- Nanette -- in an embroidered dress and lacy headdress who lived in a medieval chateau with her grandmother. As we approached Carcassonne from a distance, with its 52 turrets and double walled fortifications, the romance I felt when I’d read Nanette’s story came flooding back and I was reminded of why and when I’d first fallen in love with France. The pictures we took of this enchanting walled city, looking at it from afar across golden autumn vineyards, are some of my favorites of our trip so far. Perhaps it was the perfect afternoon light or maybe it was my childlike love for my subject, but the photos I took captured perfectly the uniquely dreamlike quality of Carcassonne. We could have sat there all day and just looked at its impossible beauty.

In one of my earlier posts I’d mentioned Carcassonne and my visit there 33 years ago as a student. Joe has often heard the story about my arrival in a blustery January snowstorm clad in flimsy white sneakers and how a nun at a closed youth hostel housed in a convent opened the padlocked doors and gave me a bunk in a large unheated stone chamber. We were both anticipating our visit to this fairytale bastide so that we could revisit the site of my snowy stopover so many years ago. Memory is a funny thing. I could have sworn that the approach road curved up along the outer city wall to the left to reach the huge Porte Narbonnaise drawbridge and entry. But when we retraced my steps from my arrival at the train station to the walled city’s gate a mile or so away, it was clear that the approach I remembered so clearly only existed in my mind. It was actually a straight shot from the SNCF gare over the Aude River with just a slight curve to the right and under the arch in through the gate. Perhaps it was the blizzard that altered my memory. Once inside the city gate, reality agreed with what I remembered and Joe and I made our way on the winding path, uphill but not steep, past the plastic sword and brightly colored knight costume hawkers followed by the artisan workshops and cafes housed in the ancient stone arcades. En route to the top of the town before finding the convent that saved me years ago, I had briefly stopped in the one tiny bar I’d found open for a chocolat chaud to thaw my frozen fingers and warm my insides. We found it! The little place was still there, tucked on the left of the twisting cobblestoned street and still in business. We had less luck finding the convent as we wandered back and forth and around the church at the summit’s square. Just where I thought the dorm of my memory stood was a gilded, 4-star establishment, Hôtel de la Cité. While it would certainly make a good story to claim that the frigid hostel of my youth had been transformed into a luxury chateau hotel, I’m afraid that the Hôtel de La Cité has been in that spot for almost 100 years and has never been a convent. We finally gave up looking for what apparently no longer exists and I decided that I would preserve my memory of that snowy night in Carcassonne exactly as I remember it and not let the reality of today interfere.

Having rallied with the memory of a lovely lunch and afternoon in Carcassonne to keep us going, we decided our constitutions could handle a true Cathar experience, with all its ghosts of blood and brutality. We planned a hike for the next day to the hilltop Cathar bastion of the nearby Chateaux Lastours and crossed our fingers that our sunny moods would prevail.

Pictures of our adventures: http://gapyeargirlgoestoeurope.shutterfly.com