Just when we thought it couldn’t get better

Leaving Arles this morning we had a small snafu and momentary panic when we realized that the human ticket booth at the station was closed on Sunday and the machine only took change. We had plenty of bills but few coins. Thankfully a kind cabbie took pity on us and changed a 10 euro note. From then it was smooth sailing. Soon we were driving east from Avignon towards the Luberon. Kay expertly handled the car while I navigated.

Our first stop was the ancient, partially crumbled village of Oppéde Le Vieux. The village is built of stone and old beyond remembering. Parts are crumbling while others are in good repair and lived in. The crags of the Petit Luberon mountains form the backdrop. We ate at the excellent Petit Café with hikers, bikers, and cyclists. From there we set off north across the valley. We cruised tiny country lanes through rolling vineyards and stone farm houses.

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Rousillon, our next stop, while beautiful was full of big bus tourists and a little like Disneyland for adults. It’s famous for its ochre cliffs which provided the town’s prosperity until synthetics began to be used for paint color and dye in the 1940s. We brushed the ochre dust off our shoes and continued north to Saint Saturnin les Apt.

Understand, dear reader, that we are now traveling without a net. We have no hotel reservations until Friday night in Nice. We walked into the time warp that is the Hôtel des Voyageurs and asked in broken French if they had a room for a couple of nights.

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The delightful proprietor said we would need to come back at 6 o’clock. She wrote our name down in her tattered guest book. We weren’t sure what to make of all this but left hopeful.

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We walked to the top of the village which feels healthy and untouristed. There was a fête (flea market) in the main square, cats wandering the streets at random and a few people exploring.

Past the beautiful 11th c. romanesque church we climbed to the crumbled, ancient chateaux. We peered down at a small reservoir, the towns water supply. After hiking back down it was still no where near 6 so we sat at a table on the square. In a few minutes our hostess found us and ushered us into a delightful upstairs room opening on to a quiet, shady, shared terrace. This is living!

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Market Day in Arles

The Saturday Market in Arles is huge! It dwarfs any farmers market I’ve seen in Portland. Everything from clothes and leather goods to live grouse are available. Thanks to Provence’s proximity to the Mediterranean, there is an abundance exotic spices. As you might expect there are also plenty of wonderful fruits and veggies, local artisan cheese, bread, olives and sausage. You can even pick up a plate of fresh, hot paella. We gathered lots of goodies for the next leg of our adventure – driving through the villages of Luberon and Côte du Rhône.

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We had a delicious Provençal lunch at Café George. This little bistrot is south of the tourist attractions on the edge of the old town. We were the only Amercans in the joint as far as I could tell. The food was trés bon!

After lunch and café we visited the wonderful Musée Réattu which features art from the 19th through the 21st century. They have quite a few wonderful Picasso’s on display along with 19th c. neo-classics and late 20th c. photography – pretty eclectic. The collection is housed in the highly evocative medieval Priory of the Knights of Malta.

Tonight it’s a light dinner, then tomorrow we’re off to Avignon to pick up the car.

Au Revoir Arles!

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Sur le Pont d’Avignon …

Dinner last night at Le Criquet was our best gastronomical experience so far! The guide books said Provençal cooking was heavy on garlic and they weren’t kidding. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten that much garlic at once! And that says something.

Today we took the commuter train to Avignon then jumped a taxi for Pont du Gard, one of the finest examples of a Roman aqueduct anywhere. There was a young woman trying to find a cab at the same time and she was late. So we shared the cab dropping her off on the way. This turned out to be pretty cool because we circumnavigated the nearly intact medieval wall around Avignon and gave it us a great view of the Pont d’Avignon of French nursery rhyme fame as well. Our cabbie was very nice. It was a real luxury to see the countryside from a car for the 25 km to Pont du Gard. The bridge carrying the aqueduct across the Gardon River is massive. At 160 ft in height it is the second tallest structure built by Rome (only the Colosseum is taller). The largest arch is 80 feet tall, the largest arch Rome built. The picture doesn’t come close to doing it justice. The site also has an excellent museum describing how it was built.

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When you read the guidebooks or watch travel shows it’s easy think that you should be able to do it all and feel great the whole time. Well it ain’t so. After hiking for a couple of hours is the humid heat and not eating enough when we got back to Avignon to tour the sites I was shot. It was all I could do to wait for the train home. Kay took good care of me on the ride and fortunately a couple of drinks and salad in a café on Place du Forum back in Arles fixed me right up. I’m gonna sleep good tonight!

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Roman Arles

Today we explored the Roman history of Arles starting with the Ancient History Museum. This wonderful museum takes you from the early paleolithic settlements near by to the 6th century C.E. when Rome pulled out. The collection is both broad and deep including everything from household items – kitchenware, tools, jewelry, etc. – to statuary and sarcophagi. There is a fantastic collection of large floor mosaics, some nearly intact. But the highlight is 1st century barge pulled from the Rhône in 2010, 30 meters long, nearly complete, along with anchors, rigging pullies and cargo. Only a small portion of the hundreds of amphorae are on display labeled by content – wine, oil, fish sauce (apparently very popular back then).

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We wandered back from the museum through the lovely La Rouqette neighborhood – not a tourist in sight.

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Lunch was a tiny vegetarian place and again the Provençal cuisine did not disappoint. After a little rest and a café on Place du Forum we checked a beautiful Romanesque/Gothic church and toured the remains of the Roman theatre and arena – no gladiators today I’m sorry to say. The arena and theatre are still used for French style non-violent bull games and concerts respectively.

Tonight we dine at the highly rated Le Criquet.

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Ah Provence

Three hours on the express train took us to Nimes for a 1.5 hour layover before hopping the intercity to Arles. Nimes has one of the best preserved roman arenas anywhere. We marveled at it on the way to Place du Marché and Restuarant Mogador for lunch. It’s a bit of a relief to be out of the intensity of Barcelona. The café culture in Provence is decidedly laid back. And the food! Oh la la! Had a trés fresh salad of red lettuce, shaved carrot, tomato and red cabbage in a hearty vinegrette with delicious grilled chicken. The tomato was as good as our homegrowns! Then it was on to Arles. The weather was blustery, rain, wind, sun – refreshing after sultry Spain. Pastis (local anise liqueur) on Place du Forum watching the rain from under the awning. And did I mention the food!? Dinner al fresco in the small Le 16 on narrow Rue du Docteur Fanton. Marinated salmon and arugula salad for the entrée (French for appetizer) and bull meat in a strong sauce with appropriate veggies for la plat (main course). The food was good in Spain but not like this.

Tomorrow we hit the sites in Arles.

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Last Thoughts on Barcelona

Barcelona is huge – about 5 million in the metropolitan area. Still with all those people it has a kind of intimacy. Of course we confined our visit to the main tourist areas. The little square in front of our hotel was a constant parade of tourists, locals, freaks, beggars and buskers all getting along in more or less harmony. We had been warned numerous times about the petty crime here. Yet even in areas you would expect, the Ramblas, train station, major metro stops, we saw little evidence of even minor thievery.

Today, our last day here, we went up to Montjüic to the Joan Miró museum, which was fabulous. Once again the sense of humor of the Catalans was obvious. But there was more. Miró lived through the Franco years and WWII in France far from his beloved city. His works shows the anguish of those hard times. Montjüic was the site of the 1929 World Exposition announcing Barcelona to the world stage. It is a park filled hill that was, until Franco’s demise, a symbol of the repression of Catalan. Seeing the massive city from up there puts things in perspective in more ways than one. Catalonia’s playful humor is born of pain as is so often the case.

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By the way for those of you who might visit here I would advise skipping the highly overrated Monastery of Montserrat. Don’t get me wrong, the setting is spectacular, and yes the 13th c. wooden statue of Mary and Jesus is significant, and yes they have a world class boys choir, and yes there are some wonderful hikes in a beautiful setting, and yes there is a decent little art museum. But all this is lost on account of the hordes of people visiting the site. This is big bus tourism at it’s worst. If you like long lines, cigarette smoke, pushy tourists, and massive tour groups knock yourself out. Otherwise there are plenty of great national parks, better art collections and more moving religious sites in Europe.

Tomorrow it’s on to Provence!

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Barcelona: Spain’s Portland

Walking around the Bari Gotic I can’t help but notice some familiar sites: lots of tattoos and piercings, interesting bicycle type vehicles, white dreadlocks, the occasional sweet smell of ganja. It makes a Portland boy feel right at home. I have come to the conclusion that Barcelona is the Portland of Spain. Tell me these shots couldn’t have been taken in SE.

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Of course there are no Roman towers or 14th c. Gothic churches in stumptown (are there?).

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And the Lion will lie down with the Lamb

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Antoni Gaudí was a devout Catholic. His masterpiece, as many of you know, is the Sagrada Familia church. As yet unfinished, hopes are that it will be done by the mid 21st century. Entering the space one immediately feels lifted as if a weight was taken from ones shoulders. This is followed by a lump in the throat and slight shortness of breath. You don’t have to be Catholic or even Christian to appreciate the profound spirituality of the space.

Today, and more accurately including last night is our Modernisme experience. This was the Catalan version of the art nouveau movement of the late 19th century for those of you who don’t know. Gaudí was it’s most famous proponent but two other architects were prominent – Josep Puig i Cadafalch and Lluís Domènech i Montaner.

Last night we went to a wonderful concert of Spanish guitar in the Montaner designed Palau de la Músic Catalana. The music was great. The building interior was mind bendingly ornate as if someone had mixed art nouveau with the baroque of Bernini. Today we saw the famous Block of Discord which features one building each designed by the big three – Gaudí, Cadafalch, and Montaner. It was interesting to see the different approaches: Montaner – heavily classical and baroque influenced; Cadafalch – gothic elements reminiscent of the Low Countries and Gaudí with his curves and naturalistic elements. We also toured a third Gaudí building – the Casa Milá. Barcelona underwent a dramatic transformation in the late 19th century. It expanded north from the original gothic and roman center. The designers of the Eixample, as this part of the city is known, hoped to create highly livable, self contained neighborhoods with a school, clinic, shops and dwellings in each large block. Casa Milá was built along these lines. One of the cool things was that a huge apartment in the building is furnished as it would have been when it was first lived in. We got to pretend we were upper class Barcelonins coming home to this amazing space.

We’re now official wooped, Kay’s asleep and I’m about to take a siesta. We’ve got to build our energy back for an evening of gourmet tapas. The food here is amazing!

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Hello Dalí

Today we took the train north on a day trip to Figueres, home of Salvidor Dalí and the Teatro Museo Dalí. Dalí himself designed the building as his mausoleum and self tribute. He died in the building and is buried in a crypt in the bottom floor. The museum is five stories counting the below ground crypt. The breadth and depth of the collection is staggering. Most of us know Dalí for his surrealist work but he created works in numerous styles from realist to pointillist and in media ranging from painting and sculpture to installation and film. He even made and designed jewelry! The museum is a multi story labyrinth, at once confusing and somehow orderly. The shear creativity of creating the space and the art in it boggles the mind.

After seeing Picasso’s work yesterday, Dalí’s today as well as Gaudí and Miro over the next days, I’m struck by the incredible creativity and innovation of Catalan artists. One thing they all share is a sense play and humor.

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A long first day

After yesterday’s post we walked down Las Ramblas – a moving sea of humanity punctuated with tourist stalls – from Plaça Catalunya to the Mediterranean. We saw our first Gaudí, the Palau Guell. Very cool!

We stopped for a bite and una caña (beer) at Basca Itrati. Fantastic Basque style tapas. Then headed for early bed.

This morning we toured the Cathedral – gothic and quite impressive, walked the Bari Gotic, old town center and visited a synagogue dating from Roman times. Just before collapsing of hunger we checked the amazing museum of the city of Barcelona complete with a huge underground archeological site of Roman Barcino.

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For lunch we hit the Santa Catarina market – jamon, figs, olives, etc. – delicioso!

After a siesta we visited the Picasso museum. Amazing!

Here are the gates of the medieval city, the base of the towers date to the Romans.

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