Wednesday, June 24, 2015

What I Loved About France and Spain: Musings on our Last Day in Europe

 What we liked (that you cannot get elsewhere, at least not in the same quality)

French cheeses
French panna cotta
French flan
Other French pastries and desserts
Pear crepe

French sauces, especially the buttery ones!Brittany caramels and house-made caramel sauces
Spanish tapas (the idea, rather than the execution; some of the cheap, tiny portions of potatoes or sausages were pretty sad)
A more expensive selection in Barcelona: eggplant and goat cheese

Gazpacho—sooooo much better than at home
Oysters caught daily on coasts of Atlantic and Brittany
Daily haul at Bay of Arcachon, Atlantic coast, France

Wildflowers of every color; spring was a cool yet beautiful time to be here!
Ile Grande, Brittany, France
Meeting friends and friends of friends, some American, some English, some French
Our first night in Paris: Amber, Michele, Ann, Sally

Old castles, houses, Roman villas and bridges, and whole medieval villages made of stone
Eze, Cote d'Azur, France
Ile de Brehat, Brittany, France
St Emilion, Dordogne, France
Grapefruit, oranges, and avocadoes fresh from the trees on farm in Spain
The day's harvest at Finca La Paz, Andalucia, Spain

Big, golden yolks of just-laid eggs on farm in Spain
2-euro bottles of wine in both France and Spain
Ancient winery at Chateau St Martin in Provence, and their expensive rosés and "cooked" wine (similar to port or sherry)
 Not your typical California rosé!

Amazing marinas and harbors on Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts, which Pope wants to return to!
La Rochelle, Atlantic coast, France
Crowding boats into tiny harbor on Belle Ile, Brittany, France

High quality and friendliness at small, independent, inexpensive hotels found on TripAdvisor
Hotel Launay, Ploubaznec, Brittany, France
View from our window

High quality of hostels in Barcelona
Salt-water pools instead of chlorine
Iron work on balconies and windows
A window in Paris
And some railings in Paris

Poodle plants and other eleganct touches in formal French gardens
 Eyrignac Gardens, Dordogne, France 
Barelona walking tour with
Picasso's home in Barcelona
What we lamented (or put up with)
Finding stores and restaurants closed, again and again and again!!!
Scarcity of croissants aux amandes, one of the primary reasons Amber goes to France (these are not ordinary American-style almond croissants; they are moist, melt-in-your-mouth conglomerations of butter, sugar, flour, eggs, rum syrup, and almonds)
Failure to find one of the elusive human pyramids (castellers) during Spanish festival of Saint Joan
Weak wifi everywhere
Complicated and inconsistent car rental contracts and insurance coverage

Gavage, the process of force-feeding ducks through a 12-inch-long steel tube crammed down the throat and all the way into the belly to produce foie gras
Inserting the tube; face of farmer obscured by photographer
 The ducks flapped and struggled, with the whole tube inside, pouring whole kernels of corn straight into the tummy 
Skill of pickpockets and suspicious nature of their schemes—who is in on it?
The site of our only pickpocketing experience, in Barcelona, which had a happy endng and several unanswered questions

What we learned

Don’t trust bus schedules/maps.  Ask the driver.
You MUST MUST MUST flag down the bus driver if you want the bus to stop for you. How many times did I shake my fist at the back of a bus before I figured this out?  Your effort must be vigorous and sustained: once I waved at a bus; the driver put on the turn signal and slowed down, then kept right on rolling!
Schengen visa laws are at least somewhat lax; no one was around to stamp our passport re-entering France from Channel Islands, so no one will know how long we’ve been here. (But we still wouldn't take chances and overstay.)
Intermediate language skills are not sufficient to conduct business beyond accommodation and transportation--such as renewing a cell phone plan by phone; understanding recordings on answering machines; negotiating a refund; filing a police report.
Two months is enough to be on the road. After that things went downhill; afer two and a half months, we were tired of traveling and ready to go home.
Dancers are friendly everywhere!
 Cajun dancers, Chatillon, France



Saturday, June 20, 2015

How the Other Half Lives (or, How I Gambled at Monte Carlo--and Won!)

As you know, we are in the south of France, overlooking the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean, busily doing highly intellectual research on How the Other Half Lives. Or should I say, the 1 percent? This region is loaded with wealthy industrialists, financiers, actors, and retired brain surgeons who own the largest, most ostentatious villas, the reddest Ferraris, and the most enticing “infinity” pools.
How much did you say it costs?

Having stayed with a countess and visited a baroness in Provence, we became quite intrigued by How the Other Half Lives. The south of France is prime territory for learning more. In the past, the French Riviera was well known as the home of Brigitte Bardot, Picasso, and Prince Rainier and Princess Grace. Today, many of the “south of Francers” are American celebrities. Like Sean Connery. Tina Turner. Brangelina. And Bill Gates. I was unable to confirm whose houses were whose behind their impenetrable gates and fences and security cameras. I forgot to buy the celebrity-houses map!
You can view the estates most easily from the water, and there are cruises and maps just for that purpose. Unfortunately the boats weren’t available in our neck of the woods. So our initial forays into research were stymied by mere glimpses of expansive rooftops and swimming pools far below. 
In order to find out how such wealth is translated into everyday living conditions, however, we needed to get closer. So we headed for two of the mansions that are open to the public. Our purpose was to find out whether money REALLY can buy an easier, more comfortable life. One of them is a reproduction of a Greek villa, built by Theodore Reinach (archeologist/art collector, early 20th century). He was into furniture and statuary.
Personally, I thought the house was rather sterile. Too neatly planned and executed, right down to the last mosaic reproduction. How could the children play "tag" without breaking a hand off Aphrodite, or knocking over Dionysus?

In our quest for a more practical millionaire, we moved along to another of the publicly accessible villas (just hop off the bus and pay your admission); this one from the Rothschild family (bankers, also early 20th century). Madame Beatrice liked gardens and fountains and opera. And pink.
Wanting to get a better feel for life in the mansion, we stayed for high tea on the terrace. Though Pope spoiled the refined atmosphere somewhat by ordering a beer.

Then it was time to find out what else these lucky billionaires do in their luxurious surroundings. Besides strolling in their gardens, cruising on their yachts, and hosting opera in their ballrooms, some of them amble down the coast to gamble in the elegantly ornate (and somewhat dated, I thought) Monte Carlo casino.
Monte Carlo is the place to see and be seen. Just park yourself at an outdoor cafe and watch the rich and famous stroll by. I sat in the shade a while to study the crowd and analyze the methods of the high-rollers, trying to get the inside scoop on how to win big bucks at the gaming tables.
Then it was time to put my lessons into practice: by trying my hand at gambling. Purely in the interest of research, of course. I laid my money down at the Monte Carlo casino—and I won!!
My winnings!!

My investment, and my gain, were a mere pittance, of course, compared with the big stakes of other James Bond-wannabes. But surely I experienced the same euphoria that others do when they top off their 750 millions with a few hundred thousand more! I was restricted to slot machines in the separate “public” area (note the comparative lack of glitz in the entrance hall in the photo), because you have to dress up in black tie (which I had unfortunately forgotten to pack) and pay a large fee to enter the blackjack or roulette salons, or even to access the “real” slot machines.

However, with my incredible ingenuity and cunning on the slot machines, I at least left the casino with enough extra cash to buy us a couple of drinks, thinking "so this is how it feels!" (Fortunately some happy hour snacks were included with the drinks, because I didn't earn enough to also buy food.)
Just down the street from the casino, the finest in diamonds and rubies are on display, awaiting the biggest winners--and their heavily adorned trophy wives (or mistresses). Alas, I could only afford a peep into the window.
Pope, having disdained the slots and the jewelry stores in favor of a beer on the waterfront, spent the afternoon wistfully gazing upon the finest sailing yachts, without a hope in hell of getting on one.
Aha! A clue to family activities among the wealthiest yacht owners. Even rich children have to take sailing lessons before they get a big boat for their 16th birthday. Their little training dinghies get towed back to the dock to keep the little kiddies safe and sound in a harbor filled with giant mega-cruisers.
At the end of an exhausting day, we conducted one last mini-study: finding out what it's like to drop a wad of cash on one meal. Our parameters were a bit tighter than those of the millionaires: we limited ourselves to one 30-euro bottle of wine instead of several 100-euro bottles of choice vintages followed by champagne with dessert. Nonetheless, I think we got a good sample of what it feels like to be at least rich, if not famous.
Naturally, being our normal thrifty middle-class selves, we didn't waste a single scrap.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Taking it Easy in Èze

All over France, picturesque villages are perched on steep hillsides, often behind massive stone fortifications--indicating a historic need for protection and defense and perhaps later, the value of property with a scenic view. The most striking we've seen were the medieval towns of the Dordogne valley. Here on the southern coast, the local bus #100 winds up a series of switchbacks for 20 minues to drop tourists at the clifftop settlement of Èze, to amble among steep stone lanes framed by boutiques, bistros, chapels, and exotic gardens--all against the deep blue backdrop of the Mediterranean.
The road up

Then you climb 
Stones beneath your feet 
Modern lives in old buildings  
Breathtaking views from the top

Cacti in the clifftop garden
Lunch in a tiny cafe surrounded by stone walls
Back down the mountain