Monday, April 20, 2015

Finally, France

After three outstanding preludes (farm in Torrox, excursion to Morocco, and Alhambra in Granada), each of which could have been a vacation all by itself, we have reached our target destination: La France.

I love it here! The atmoshpere, the scents, the people, the scenery. My first three experiences were marveilleuses, and I feel right at home. How many superlatives can I use to describe my happiness?

1. At Avis rental car at the Bordeaux airport, a tres sympathique young lady named Alexandra spent 45 minutes solving a seemingly intractable problem:  the difficulty in getting comprehensive insurance coverage if you pre-reserve a car from home at US prices. I experienced a similar problem in Corsica some years ago, and almost had a nervous breakdown from the runaround I got and disastrous result. This experience was the opposite! I left the counter uplifted, extremely grateful to Alexandra and her colleagues, and confdent that I am thoroughly protected. Pope and I drove off in a fancy RenaultTwingo, a new model of which the French are very proud. Our is brown with a white racing stripe.
2. Pope found a well-rated hotel in Ares, a small, relatively unknown town on the coast east of Bordeaux.
The hotel is beautiful, our room is ultra-comfortable, and the proprietress, Ann-Sophie, is the nicest person! 

I have been smiling since we arrived, holed up in a cozy room during an intense thunderstorm.

3. We came to the coast to feed Pope's addiction to oysters, and this region came through with flying red, white, and blue colors. Tomorrow we will visit oyster-men at work, just as we have done on Chesapeake Bay.
On the menus are local oysters (huitres), a second shellfish called amandes (literally translated as almonds, probably because the shell resembles the coloring and markings of the nuts), and maigre (a white fish), as well as standard fare such as lobster and shrimp.
 I suspected I might need to set aside vegetarianism on this trip; in Barcelona, I lived on bread and cheese while Pope and Linda feasted on Iberian jambon, and in this restaurant, a baked potato was the only vegetable on the menu.

During notre repas (our meal), le soleil peeked out of the clouds long enough to grace us with a glorious sunset.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

A Mini-Holiday on the Cape: Heaven in a Small-Town Package

Ares is exactly the kind of petite ville I envisioned when I proposed living in France for a year. (A proposition that got hijacked during the ensuing planning phase, due to visa difficulties and a broken foot.) The houses are adorable. They sucked me in and made me want to call a realtor. (Go ahead, call me a pushover. But many of my female friends would agree.)
Ares is at the head of a narrow cape between ocean and bay--prime seafood region. People line up in the morning for oysters, which are very cheap compared with Chesapeake Bay prices.
Throughout the town, old mixes easily with new.

The population appears to be on the older side. Even the trees have some senior citizens, bent over from the weight of their years.
Some of the townspeople value privacy, while others seem to show off their plants and flowers.

The cars and buildings are interesting colors: aquamarine, celery, fuschia.

Plenty of biking and hiking paths here--to the sea, the lighthouse, the forests, the nature preserve, the next town. When the tide is out on the bay side of town, it's a looooooong way to the water.
Right around the corner from Ares, on Cap Ferret, are sand dunes on the Atlantic Ocean, surfing schools, and Oysterville--a series of bay-front villages where the residents live, breathe, and smell like oysters.
One of the few female oyster-catchers is also cook and proprietor of her own waterfront cafe, as well as raw-seafood-cookbook author: "Miex Vaut Tartare que Jamias," roughly translated as "Better Fresh Than Never."
Sure, the townspeople in Ares are aloof, for now, but I'm sure that's only because I'm a short-timer. That's the French way, according to Sally Adamson Taylor's book "Culture Shock! France." Respect for privacy--until they get to know you and invite you into their hearts, as in the sentimental movie "The Hundred-Foot Journey."

Right in the middle of an average residential street, this snug little cottage is crying out for an American to snap it up and merge gently into the community.
To imagine what it would be like to live here, I highly recommend the book "I'll Never Be French No Matter What I Do: Living in a Small Village in Brittainy."

Likewise, I'll never be French or even fluent, but the small town of Ares has warmed my heart and left me wishing I could stay a while.

Friday, April 17, 2015

36 Hours in Barcelona

Barcelona: City of Dreams.
 Every few years, the New York Times publishes an article on "36 Hours in Barcelona."  The journalists at that stalwart institution tend to focus on gourmet eats, night-clubbing, and the latest musical trends. I would like to propose my own version of what can be accomplished in a couple of days in this city of gaudy Gaudi creations, Catalonia cuisine, eclectic populations, and twisty, windy streets.
Mind you, I'm not necessarily recommending that you try these things on your next visit. They are merely a record of what I discovered is possible, during my own five days in the "City of Dreams." In fact, maybe it's better if you consider some of them figments of your wildest imagination--or even, on occasion, nightmare--rather than something fun to do on your vacation.

1. Get lost. Nobody has heard of L'Enfant or divided highways here in Barcelona. Instead, the alleys and streets grew up in a hodge-podge of one-block segments, crowded pedestrian lanes, narrow paths the sun never reaches, and tiny back streets that seem to curve endlessly until you throw up your hands in exasperation and consult the compass on your iPhone.
2. Sample the cuisine. It's not spectacular, but it is interesting, in the sense that sometimes you wonder, why? Every restaurant advertises tapas, which can range from a one-square-inch of potato covered in garlic mayonnaise to an elaborate Mediterranean creation concocted of bread, cheese, olives, and peppers that will clean your palate and pocketbook.
Most restaurants specialize in Iberian ham and cheese. In fact, some dining establishments have 20 or 30 items on the menu, all of them variations on the theme. (Yes, those are ham and cheese and bread kabobs.)
Simpler and tastier to just head for the nearest bon-bon shop and try a heap of meringue (pictured lower right). A fad destined to replace cupcakes in DC, perhaps?
3. Go shopping. Now this is an interesting activity in Barcelona. Prepare for your senses to be overwhelmed. First, feast your eyes on the colorful confusion of the souvenir shops.
Turn the corner and who knows what you'll find in the category of everyday necessities.
Then head on over to the mercat, or food market--kind of like Eastern Market in Washington, DC, but 300% larger and 150% more interesting. Whip out your wallet and sample fresh fruit juice, fresh eggs and fish, olives and spices, or goats head and cow tongue.
If you're feeling homesick, shopping is a particularly useful activity, because you will feel right at home--as though you never left Tysons Corner.

 4. Drink wine. There are plenty of establishments, or you can imbibe in the comfort of your own hotel. Bottles of vino start at a mere 0,89 euros (under $1.00), and when you feel like splurging, there are hundreds of choices in the 3-euro range. As you can see from the photos, my companions Linda and Pope took this activity very seriously--like the Blues Brothers' mission from God.

5. Study the architecture. Walk your feet off to see some weird buildings and over-the-top elaborate cathedrals. Gaudi is guilty of having created the most bizarre selections in the early 1900s. But the 14th century had its own share of ostentation.

6. Find a beach. Who cares if it's only mid-April and the temperature is barely broaching 65? In Barcelona, that's a perfect day for taking a break from your job to join hundreds of others working on their tans or languishing in seaside cafes--drinking wine, of course.

7. Explore the public transportation system. When you get really, really tired from walking miles and miles, and all the cathedrals and stores start to look the same, take a tour of the city on the local bus--hop on anywhere and ride to the end of the line. Who know what gems you'll find there. Such as more interesting architecture. Or a bustling seaport.

Or just board the subway and limp, exhausted, back to your hotel.