Archive for December, 2011

home again

Saturday, December 31st, 2011

We arrived back home yesterday afternoon. After all the restaurant food, what I feel like now is cooking. Tonight I’m making hutspot, a Dutch dish with meat and (usually) mashed potatoes, though his particular recipe is more like a beef stew, with beef, chunks of potatoes, parsnips, carrots and Brussel sprout. Tomorrow I will be making red beans and rice – apologies to any reader from the US South, but I’m not making black-eyed peas on New Years Day. Actually, it will be brown beans and rice, that being what the supermarket had. I hope they taste the same.

We tried to eat local dishes as much as possible on our travels – gratin, tartine and lamb stew in Normandy (and now I want a recipe for gratin Normand!); tagine in Gibraltar, which is only 14 miles from Morocco; paella in Madrid; Spanish cheeses and Iberian ham in Sevilla; grilled sole by the Mediterranean; wines from Bordeaux and Ribera del Duero, Rioja and Provence, Valencia and Catalunya. We brought about 8 bottles home, too, including champagne for tonight.

We stayed in hotels ranging from luxurious to adequate – and here they are. In order:
Our airy and charming first hotel in Bayeux and its equally charming door; our less charming but comfortable second Bayeux hotel; our tiny but comfortable room in Mont-St-Michel and a hotel door (actually I think that’s a different hotel, but it gives you an idea of the streets there); our big but less nice room in Bordeaux; the stylish “design hotel” room luxe bath in Bilbao; the equally stylish hotel in Madrid that was yet somehow reminiscent of a Subway sandwich shop and its equally stylish bathroom (Subway’s aren’t like that!); the hotel in Seville with stealth parking but nice rooms (seriously, we were ten feet from the parking entrance and didn’t spot it until I’d walked by it twice); the extremely English hotel in Gibraltar; the slightly-neglected-feeling hotel in Almuñécar that is clearly much livelier in season; the nicer but even more deserted hotel in Mar Menor where we were the only guests under the age of 70; the very modern hotel in Valencia, echoeing all that geometry outside; three pictures of the posh suite in Barcelona where we had two rooms, and two-section balcony, and a ridiculously complicated spa shower; the French version of a Motel 6 at Brive-la-Gaillard; and the cozy dormer room in Chartres. (If you’re actually planning to visit any of these and want to know exactly where we stayed, email me.)

And now, off to peel parsnips!

This is the end … beautiful friend, the end

Thursday, December 29th, 2011

This is our last night on the road; tomorrow, we head home to Eindhoven. But for now, we’re at Chartres and the cathedral here is beautiful indeed. With all the cathedrals we’ve seen, this one still had me wandering around with my jaw hanging open. Unlike most cathedrals that took hundreds of years to build, most of this one was done by 1250 – the main later addition was one of the western spires, in the early 1500s. Since the cathedral is so early, the architecture is simpler than many later ones; one thing we noticed is that it doesn’t have all the little chapels around the nave that most cathedrals have. But the thing that caused my jaw to drop, is that Chartres still has all of its original stained glass from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. (It was removed and stored elsewhere during both World Wars.) The columns and flying buttresses that permitted large windows were still relatively new then, the the It is amazing stuff; I had thought the Madrid cathedral, which is modern, had the best stained glass I’d seen, but it doesn’t have the rich complexity of Chartres. There are comparatively few plain(er) glass windows, so the colors stand out dense and saturated. Incredible.

The whole Cathedral has that same amazing level of detail. My other favorite bit is the little figures under the feet of the tall statues of the Apostles and others in the Suth Portal. Some of them looked a bit surprised and annoyed to be there!

The Cathedral dominates the town still; as we drove in, we were able to see it from kilometers away. Of course this meant that its bell tower also has the longest views in the area, and of course that meant we had to climb up to one final bell tower. (Or as Ted’s famliy would say, “Help ‘er top!”)

out of the lap of luxury

Wednesday, December 28th, 2011

We’re back in France now (there goes my ability to communicate!). We spent most of the day driving, but did have some shopping opportunities; some of the highway service areas have surprisingly good stocks of regional products, so we picked up some Spanish wine including the same vintage we had and liked at dinner last night, as well as some olive oil with herbs and some olives to eat on New Years’ Eve. We’re stopped for the night at a roadside motel for the night. Think Motel 6 with a French accent. Still, it’s clean and the bed is reasonably comfortable, even if the bedside lamps don’t work and we had to steal a towel from the room next door. (We switched rooms, because one of its bedside lamps does work, but won’t turn off.)

Dinner was at the restaurant next to the hotel, which was better than expected; Ted thinks it’s at about th level of a Sizzler, but I think it’s a step up the food chain. They had things like grilled duck breast, warm goat cheese on toast, and foie gras on the menu. Anyway, it is the first place I’ve ever seen with escargot on the salad bar!


Tuesday, December 27th, 2011

The first thing we learned about Barcelona is that it has really horrible traffic. Leaving Valencia was easy – there was no traffic to speak of on Christmas morning. Getting there was easy, too, and a surprising number of highway gas stations were open on Christmas Day. But apparently everyone in Barcelona decided to visit everyone in (different parts of) Barcelona, so the ring road was at a standstill. On the other hand, La Rambla (the famous promenade on the edge of the old quarter of the city) was emptier than usual, so we eventually got to our hotel, where we promptly parked in the wrong place (the lot of the hotel next door. Getting out of there would have went going way around the long way, and it turned out that the parking fee was the same anyway, so we just left it there.

The picture is not of our room! That’s a public room in our hotel.

Once we finally got to our hotel, it turned out to be beautiful. We’d decided to treat ourselves to a fancy place for Christmas so, we have a room with a spa tub, a shower so complex that we’re glad we have engineering degrees, and a sitting room. After checking in we went to walk along La Ramble. Most things were closed, except for the restaurants and a few places selling souvenirs. It turned out that was a light crowd; on later days of our trip, we’d see many more people walking along La Rambla. As far as I can tell, they’re not walking to get anyway, just out to stroll, see and be seen. I think it’s the Spanish custom of the paseo. So what they told us in Spanish class was totally correct – somehow that surprises me. Also, restaurants tend to be open until 5 or so, then close and reopen for dinner at 8. This is because people (even on workdays) take long lunches from 2 or 3 until 5. I don’t know how many actually sleep, but the timetable of the siesta is still very much in effect.

On Monday, most museums were closed (this is standard in Europe). We walked through the Barrio Gótico, the old part of Barcelona, going throught the Cathedral before they closed it for a post-Christmas Mass, and stopping by Santa Maria del Mar, the old sailors’ church in a pure 14th-century style (it was finished in only 55 years, so has more unity of style than larger cathedrals and churches generally do). Then we walked to the port area and went to the Aquarium, which was OK but not among the best we’ve seen. The port is a mixture of old and new, then the Rambla begins with a statue of Columbus on a 60 meter / 200′ high column.

The Maritime Museum was supposed to be open on Mondays but seems to be closed for some restoration, so we walked all the way up La Rambla and part of the Paseo de Gracia to the Casa Batlló, one of the buildings designed by Antoni Gaudi. You could see part of the inside but there was a long line, so we didn’t wait.

Today, we took one of those double-decker tourist buses that every big city has now, as an effective way to see a buch of things. We began at the Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s masterpiece. However, this line looked to be at least an hour long, so one again we just took pictures of the outside:

Next we took the bus up to Tibidabo Mountain. The name has a great story; it comes from the Devil’s temptation to Jesus, “…et ait ei tibi dabo potestatem hanc universam et gloriam illorum quia mihi tradita sunt et cui volo do illa”[3] — “All this power will I give thee, and the glory of them: for that is delivered unto me; and to whomsoever I will I give it”, because to Barcelonans, the views of their city from that mountain are said to be the biggest temptation ever. We didn’t go all the way up, just to the CosmoCaixa, the excellent science museum there. The guidebook talks about its reconstruction of an Amazon flooded forest, but the best part of it was the entire floor of interactive science experiments. Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute has always had a similar section, but theirs isn’t nearly as big or as varied. Once we’d finally tried out everything there, we took the bus to the city’s other big hill, Montjuic, named for the Jewish cemetary that used to be there. (There is still a cemetery; it wasn’t clear if part is still Jewish.) Montjuic was the center of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics; there, we peeked into the Olympic Stadium, then went through the Olympic useum. We’d thought of going back to the Sagrada Familia to see if the lines were shorter but by the it was too late, so instead we walked to the neighboring art museum, MNAC, to get a look at the views of the city from there.

Tomorrow we’ll drive back into France and find a hotel somewhere north of Toulouse and south of Limgoes. The next day we’ll stop at Chartres, and then on home. I’m going to miss having tapas restaurants with good Spanish wine every ten feet, not to mention the three weeks off work!

geometry of Valencia

Saturday, December 24th, 2011

We’re not exactly in Valencia; we’re on the edge of it in the Ciutat de les Arts i les Ciències / Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias (its Catalan / Spanish names). It’s a complex with an IMAX, science museum, aquarium, opera house, and lots of landscaped walks (also a mall). Though Christmas Eve rather than Christmas Day is the big holiday celebration in Spain, people here eat so late that the amll and restaurants are open until 8 PM for last minute shopping and eating – then people go home to celebrate with their families.

Ted says this is the place to be if you like taking geometric photos. Here are his arguments:

on the beach

Friday, December 23rd, 2011

After leaving Gibraltar, we headed east along the Mediterranean coastline. (Cue all of our Dutch readers asking “Why would you want to go there in winter??” Answer: because there aren’t thousands of other tourists there now.) Our first stop was in the resort town of Almunecar. No trouble getting a hotel; they’ve all got space this time of year. It’s a nice beach, except that it’s mostly fine gravel instead of sand. Our hotel, the Almunecar Playa, is clearly meant to be a resort rather than just a place to sleep – indoor and outdoor pools, a slide into a smaller pool, putting range, miniature golf, and so on. I suspect it charges at least twice as much in summer as we paid. On the down side, it was comfortable for walking around in a t-shirt and jeans but a bit chilly for swimming in the outside pool.

Luckily there seem to be enough visitors and locals that most of the restaurants seemed to be open. We stopped for what was meant to be lunch, but I only figured out afterward that the amazing cheap price for my fish was per 100 grams, not per meal. So they charged me 20 euros instead of 10; on the other hand it was completely worth it, for a whole grilled sole that was possibly the tastiest fish I’ve ever eaten. Ted’s omelette was also big, with lots of stuff in it and fries and sautéed vegetables on the side. After that we stopped in a local artisan store that had just opened for the afternoon (at 3PM, which I think may be earlier than most places there). The American proprietor, an old hippie who came in the early 70s and just stayed on) advised us to skip Cartagena and go to Granada instead. We seriously considered it, but it would have made the next driving day to Valencia very long. However, we did decide to go to another beach hotel instead of staying in the center of Cartagena. (Actually, the city doesn’t sound as bad as he painted it; I suspect he just dislikes it because it’s a military base.) Around the corner from his shop, we climbed up to an old castle, but it was closed and didn’t reopen for another hour or more, so instead Ted went up to another monument and viewpoint on a cliff, while I went back to the store to buy some earrings that caught my fancy. We napped a bit after that, then went to a light dinner.

Today we went on past Cartagena to La Manga del Mar Menor, which is a long narrow peninsula enclosing a big bay/lagoon (Mar Menor = “lesser sea”). The whole peninsula is only about 200 meters wide in most places, and maybe about ten km long, before there’s a break and then another narrow peninsula or island. The enclosed bay is dead calm. This place is even quieter out of season:

It looks like a lot of fun in summer, with all kinds of water sports and a great place to learn on the calm side and then practice in the wave. On the other hand, it has several hotels and literally thousands of vacations apartments, both high-rises and bungalows. With only one road in and out, it must be a real zoo in summer. Most stores and restaurants are closed; tonight we’ll pull out a special bottle of wine we bought in France and then have Ted’s birthday dinner either in the hotel restaurant or a nearby pizzeria we found that is open.

on the Rock

Wednesday, December 21st, 2011

Today, we went to England – at least officially. They checked our passport and everything when we crossed from Spain to Gibraltar. We took a mistaken turn getting to our hotel (GPSes are not omniscient!) but when we pulled over and I asked a kind local getting into his car, he led us to the right road. Actually it’s not hard finding your way around here – just more difficult at driving speeds, and our hotel is halfway up the Rock.

After checking in, we walked more or less straight down (well, there were steps) to the gondola and rode up to the top to see views in all directions, as far as Africa and as near as the local Barbary apes (actually macaques, monkeys, though they’re tailless).

There can’t be many places where you can capture Europe and Africa in the same shot, short of standing on the Space Station to take the picture.

Next we walked into town. Most of the stores were disappointing – either junk, big chains, or duty-free-type shops selling rum and whiskey – but there are some nicer ones including a glassblower, as well as some good cafes, at the end of the street in Casemates Square. It’s the old barracks area. All over the island, I kept picturing Aubrey and Maturin – climbing up the rRock, as they do several times in the series, reporting for duty, or stopping at a cafe or whatever they were called then.

Another interesting point about Gibraltar is that it isn’t that big, but there are at least three synagogues, and I also saw a shop advertising that it had kosher food. When I stopped to buy a t-shirt, the proprietor was clearly Jewish (he was wearing tzitzit and reading a book in Hebrew or maybe Ladino, so I asked if any of the synagogues could be visited. He told us that the oldest one can (we may go see it tomorrow morning before we leave) and asked if we knew the history of Jews here. Apparently when the British conquered Gibraltar (captured by an Anglo-Dutch force in 1702, ceded to the Brits in 1712), they needed people to help in doing business there who spoke the language. After the Spanish Inquisition (1492), many Spanish Jews fled to Holland, mostly Amsterdam. So the British imported Dutch-Spanish-Jews to Gibraltar to help doing business. (Wikipedia has more details, though it doesn’t mention anything about being asked to go there. By the mid-to-late 1700s, Jews were nearly a third of the population – today it’s only 2-3%, but all the synagogues are still open.

Speaking of which, Chanukah in Gibraltar:

En Sevilla

Tuesday, December 20th, 2011

The drive to Seville was a long one, five and a half hours. A few days ago, we decided to book a hotel in advance, to make sure we could get something in the old part of the city. That strategy paid off; once we got here, we had just enough time to walk over and see the Alcazar (Royal Palace, 700 years old and begun by the Moors) and the enormous cathedral of Seville. The Alcazar was simultaneously an amazement and a disappointment; the decoration of the walls, floors and the ceilings is beautiful and astonishingly detailed, but with no furniture in the rooms, it’s difficult to imagine how people lived in them. In Madrid, we were wearing winter coats and I was wishing I’d brought a scarf; Seville is much warmer and the palace is very open to the outside, with courtyards and gardens, balconies and many rooms open to the outside.

Apparently sometime in the 1400s or so, the powers that were in Seville decided to build a cathedral no one else cold match. They failed; St. Peters’ in Rome is bigger and richer – but not by a whole lot. The Seville Cathedral actually began as a mosque, so they both inherited and added lots of ornamentation in the geometric Moorish style. It’s huge and beautiful, with over-the-top detailing and a full treasury. On the other hand, there’s a school associated with the Cathedral, and when we were there, there was a protest going on; people have been camping in the Cathedral itself for 84 days now in protest. Because the signs were only in Spanish, I’m fuzzy on the details, but it was something about teachers losing their jobs.

After the drive and the walk, we were too hungry to wait until 8PM when restaurants open, so we went to a place that sells Spanish wine, cheese and ham to taste some of each. The cheeses were very hard, almost the texture of Parmesan, and tastier than expected. I liked them a lot. Ted liked the hams but they were too fatty for me. We weren’t too impressed with the first wines, but then one of the women who worked there decided to make it a personal mission and kept bringing us more wine to try so we ended up buying the one we liked best. It still wasn’t as good as the one we’d had in the hotel restaurant in Madrid last night (a RIbero del Duera with stars and constellations on the label) but they didn’t have that one. She admitted it was an excellent wine, though so we felt our taste was vindicated. The front of the store was interesting – they had racks of hams – I mean, literally, pig legs – hanging there and just sliced off whatever was needed.

Tomorrow: on to Gibraltar. Hopefully we’ll have better internet access there so I can post these!

second day in Madrid

Tuesday, December 20th, 2011

Since I didn’t blog yesterday, I’ve got two entries. I’ll keep them separate so it doesn’t get too long.

On our second full day in Madrid, we went everywhere … except to the main building of the Prado Museum. Bad planning. We arrived late Saturday on a afternoon; if we’d been smart, we’d have checked all the opening times, gone to Prado on Sunday and the the Cathedral and Royal Palace on Monday. We didn’t, though; we went to the Palacio Real on Sunday, when its neighboring Cathedral was closed, and only realized later that most of the museums are closed on Mondays. Oops.

But we did get to see most of the things we wanted to. On Monday morning, we headed straight for the Cathedral. It turns out that Madrid was not formally designated as a diocese until the mid-1800s; work on the Cathedral was begun in 1883. It was finished in the 1980s and consecrated by Pope John Paul II. As a result, walking through it was like being in an alternate history where the Reformation never happened, and cathedral building and renovation never stopped. (We’ve been in Cathedrals that are still in use, but there are a lot, like the Dutch ones, that are now landmarks and historical sites rather than living religious sites.) There are three different sections to view, and we began at the bottom with the Cryot. Your average Cathedral crypt is like the one we saw in Bayeux (which was actually sealed up sometime before 1100 and rediscovered in 1400-something, possibly with the Bayeux Tapestry in it); they are deep and dark ad creepy. Just like modern houses often have daylight basements, this was a daylight crypt, with high arched ceilings and satined glass, so that we only knew we were in the Crypt and not the Cathedral proper from the leaflet they gave us.

Next we headed out, around the corner and into the Cathedral itself. It had a totally traditional layout and the same level of workmanship as any other cathedral, but also had modern stained glass (much brighter!) and portraits in modern style of more recent saints. The only other thing we’ve seen a bi like it is the National Cathedral in Washington DC, which is actually Episcopalian. This is relevant because the third place we visited was the Cathedral Museum, which had an array of robes and all kinds of jewels that have been donated to the faithful for the Virgin of Almudena (hidden in a city wall in 712, found by Alfonso I in 1083 – I’m not convinced the dates could be that precisely known, but it’s definitely clear they have an image of the Virgin that’s over a thousand years old).

After that we headed back to the Paseo del Prado. We were lucky; though the Prado itself was closed because it was Monday, their special temporary exhibit from the Hermitage Museum was open, in one of the Museum’s secondary buildings. The Prado has Spanish paintings from 1200 AD- 1900 AD, as well as artists from other countries. The Hermitage exhibit was carefully selected and leaned in two directions: material to illustrate the history of the Hermitage itself and the Russian Tsars who created it; and Spanish painters in the Hermitage collections. There were amazing works of goldsmiths and jewelers, and paintings from all over Europe. So if we didn’t see the Prado’s own collections, at least we saw the sort of things in it. We finished by walking through the Jardine Real Botanicos – the Royal Botanical Gardens – which was not at its best in December but which had some nice greenhouse.

We’d thought of visiting the Museo Reina Sofia, but we’re not big fans of modern art museums, and we thought it might be a disappointment after the Bilbao Guggenheim, which we did like. Also, after having walked another 3-4 miles, we were tired!

old Madrid

Sunday, December 18th, 2011

This morning we got up and headed into the older part of Madrid. A lot of the architecture there is very reminiscent of New Orleans – the Bourbon influence, maybe. We walked through the Plaza Mayor:

And then past it to the Palacio Real (Royal Palace); unfortunately photography wasn’t allowed, but we did get a bunch of pictures of the outside of the palace and the cathedral next door (which was closed, because it’s Sunday).

From there we walked to the Temple Denbod, an Egyptian temple of the Ptolemaic era that was brought over and reassembled stone by stone from Egypt. I wanted to see the Puerta del Sol, a major Madrid landmark, but there wasn’t really much to see there except a large open square and a very large crowd, probably because it’s the last Sunday before Christmas. There seemed to be some kind of parade or opening going on at the department store near there:

then headed back to our hotel. (This makes it sound like a short day, but we actually walked 3+ miles in the course of all that.) Later on, we headed out for paella, but ended up having fiduea, which seems to be the same thing but with short noodles instead of rice. Tasty, but a bit over salty. We’ve been trying to eat ocal specialties when possible, so lots of tapas and paella in Spain, caramel and gratin and apple sorbet in Normandy, and local wines everywhere.