Wednesday, June 29, 2011

My final post about our experiences in Spain and France

We rented this Citroen Picasso at the Barcelona Airport and drove north into the Spanish Pyrenees, then the French Pyrenees, Montpellier and back to Barcelona. Lloyd is mighty pleased with himself in this image--he has just succeeded in parallel parking on the left side of the road.

It seems that every village, town and city in southern France has avenues of plane trees. Apparently many of them were planted in Napoleon's time and so of course now they're very big trees. It wasn't unusual to see memorials attached to some of the trees indicating that there had been MVA deaths--the roads are considerably narrower in these avenues.

This was Lastours and the site of one of the last stands of the Cathars just north east of Carcassonne.

Rooftops in the village of Beget in the Spanish Pyrenees, just north of Oix and Olot.

These fabulous swirling columns are at Parc Guell, in the northern part of Barcelona city. This was designed by Gaudi. Probably a more famous image from this park is the merandering ceramic bench that is on the terrace above this "Hall of Columns". When we were in the park, it seemed like every tourist had flocked there as well, and to the ceramic bench in particular. So we beat a retreat to the less populated areas like this one...and I found it less gaudy as well...

Finally, in Monserrat (a mountain-top monastery just north of Barcelona) this is a wonderful statue of Pau Casals, world famous cellist and composer, who was very proud of his Catalan roots...and who was an inspiration to my cello-playing father. I grew up listening to a lot of his music!

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Barcelona Street Scenes

I was thinking that I should label this post as "Don't you just love jet lag..." or some such thing. I've been awake since 4 AM and finally got out of bed an hour later. I'm on my second cup of tea and feel much better. Speaking of tea, Lloyd has made a note to take tea bags with him next time--the Spanish tea is insipid at best, not the robust and hearty English Breakfast type of tea that we're used to. I enjoyed the coffee however, especially "con leche".

This was one of the more ornate door knockers we came across. We saw this type several times later but never this large nor as brassy.

This is the view from our balcony at the Gat Xino hotel. I never tired of looking at the different ways that people hung their laundry. Note the street sweeper dressed in lime green. There's an army of these folk.

Here's another street sweeper--I was entranced with her "dustpan" which is like a flexible bucket.

Grocery shopping--we saw men and women pulling these carts. This is the little square kitty-corner to the front door of our hotel. There were chairs permanently fixed to the pavement, always with people sitting and visiting.

In our neighbourhood, El Raval, there are many small fruit and vegetable shops that seem to be run by Pakistani or Indian families. According to our guide book, immigrants from North Africa and the Indian sub-continent have concentrated in this area and have opened specialty food stores such as this, "Halal" butchers, and bakeries.

These are two of Barcelona's "gegants" or giants being brought out in preparation for the June 24th holiday of Dia de Sant Joan (St. John the Baptist), a Catalan holiday. You can see that these giants are huge. They're being carried by men who are wearing those belts that weight lifters wear. We were so entranced by these moving statues that we followed them to their destination (city hall) and so saw the men trade off every 100 metres of so. We left just before this holiday which might have been a good thing because it is preceeded by fireworks and firecrackers all night long.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Some memorable meals in Spain and France

We stayed at the Colours of Pays Cathare B&B in the village of Verzeille, just south of Carcassonne for two nights. Our host recommended a wonderful restaurant, Auberge de Pommayrac, for dinner. This was the "entree" of tarte de champignon or mushroom tart. (Another interesting point of language is that the French use the word "entree" where we would use "appetizer" or "starter".) There was a lovely delicate sauce probably made from Rose wine which complimented the mushrooms nicely.

I persuaded Lloyd (not too difficult a job) to have dessert at this restaurant in Carcassonne. It was billed as "Creme Catalan" and is very similar to Creme Brulee. It was delicious! And a very dramatic entry.

Lloyd and I often enjoyed a meal of tapas, small dishes served in most bars in Barcelona. The Spanish don't eat their last meal of the day until quite late--most restaurants didn't open until at least 8 PM and some even later than that. Fortunately for us, the bars are open all day and most serve tapas. Here we were enjoying a meal of Patatas Bravas (deep fried chunks of potato with a spicy mayonnaise), wild mushroom fritters, tomato bread, and a cheese tortilla (what we call an omelet). Tomato bread quickly became a favourite of ours for both lunch and dinner--simple to prepare, it's usually fresh bread spread with fresh garlic and a squeeze of fresh tomato and olive oil. At one restaurant, I was served all the fixings to do it myself...a slice of bread, a garlic clove, and a whole tomato.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Sorting images from our trip

Lloyd and I arrived home last night about 11:30 Pacific Time, after about 24 hours in transit. I was in bed within about a half hour and slept soundly until 5 AM. It's now about 4 PM and I'm feeling as though I am more or less in this time zone. It's not always this easy, but then I might feel differently tomorrow...

I am determined to sort my photos before the memories fade, and so I have actually managed to "process" all 250 of them into named folders. Interesting use of the word "process"--in this case of course meaning to sort and organize. Fortunately I don't take a lot of photos, preferring not to experience my vacation thru' my camera lens.

Herewith some images from my "yarn" folder:

Knitting after lunch at a local bar around the corner from our Barcelona hotel.

You'd think I'd never seen a yarn shop before! I was so excited to find this place, and it was a lovely shop. This is the one I wrote about previously--the co-owner is a lovely multi-lingual fellow.

And finally--yarn bombing has hit the streets of BCN! Some creative person has used the holes in a garbage can like a needlework canvas. It looks like he/she got interrupted...

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Fun with Language, Part 2

We're now back in Barcelona at the same hotel (Gat Xino) as before--we successfully navigated the maze of highways to get the car back to the agency with 10 minutes to spare. We were also driving on fumes which is how it was supposed to be. For some reason we had to return the car empty. It was all a little nerve-wracking to say the least. The ride into the city on the train was a lot smoother than the first time due to our familiarity--boy, do we feel like old hands on the BCN public transit!

Yesterday was another wonderful day of communication successes. We went to the museum at the Faculty of Pharmacology where our friend teaches. The woman who showed us around did not speak much English, however she spoke slowly and clearly in French and we understood her pretty well. I thanked her at the end "Merci Madame pour a vous parlez lentement" (I am not sure if that is grammatically correct) and she replied that she appreciated not having to use her English because she had learned it while in NYC with her young children watching Sesame Street!

After this visit to the museum we drove north out of Montpellier to the town of Lodeve where there is a fabulous art gallery and a temporary exhibition of Louis Valtat who was a peer of Renoir and Matisse--one of the Fauvres (wild beasts)--the impressionists of the early 20th C. It was a fascinating show of his work in a variety of techniques and mediums, from oils and pastels to wood block prints and ceramics. I loved getting up close to see how deceptively simple brush strokes created impressions of faces, clothing, trees, flowers, rocks and so on. I got a little too close for the security guard's comfort "Ne touche pas--c'est tres risque" I think he said--I replied "Je comprends, je ne touch pas!"

We then capped off the afternoon with a tour of the Societe Roqueforte caves and had an hour long tour of caves that are the equivalent of 11 stories underground--where the famous Roqueforte cheese is made and matured. We tasted some wonderful cheese that paired beautifully with some honey cake.

I am so pleased to get over my initial reluctance to try out my French learned long ago in Miss Graham's classes at Point Grey High School some 40 years ago...and the more I tried, the more the language came back.

We leave Barcelona tomorrow June 23rd just before noon, arriving in Kelowna at 10:30 PM--about 20 hours in transit. Tonight we will take it easy--repack, make lists for customs, and maybe take a stroll thru' this city of balconies, enjoying the narrow streets and the cosmopolitan feeling.

Adios! Au revoir! Ces vacances est terminee!

Monday, June 20, 2011

Fun with language

While in north east Spain, I had a lot of fun trying to communicate with a Spanish phrase book in hand. We quickly realized that while most people do speak Spanish, their first language was likely to be Catalan. Catalan is yet another romance language and has some similarities with both French and Spanish, but is a distinct oral and written language more closely related to Romanian! While I never really grasped much Catalan, after a few days it became easier to decipher a menu and street signs... I could say Hello, ask for white wine and beer, salad and bread, and ask for the bill, but had a lot of difficulty understanding the replies. Even though I took a year of Spanish in high school, that was 40 years ago without any practice in between!

French on the other hand has been a lot easier for both of us. As soon as we crossed the border, the highway signs became easier to follow and menus are definitely easier to read. My pronunciation is appalling, however the server at our first dinner just outside Foix complemented me on my accent. I think she was just trying to make me feel good (she succeeded!) One of our best experiences was when we were trying to get to the village of Lastours where there are four remnants of Cathar towers on craggy peaks. We had to follow a detour, and the signposts weren't very good. Lloyd stopped the car opposite an old man on a bench (every village has an old guy on a bench...) and said in his best Canadian English accent: "Bonjour, monsieur! Lastours?" The man struggled up to his feet and threw his shoulders back proudly. He said, "Oui monsier! Sur le pont, a gauche, a droit, a les portes verte" or something like that...the important thing is that we knew to go over the bridge, turn left, then right at the green doors. It was so exciting to understand what he said! We think we gave him something to tell his wife too...

All this experience is making me realize how important it is to know another language and to not take English for granted. We are so privileged to travel pretty well anywhere in the world and for English to be the language in common.

Friday, June 17, 2011

From the other side of the Pyrenees...

It's about time I posted again for those of you who are wondering where we are and what we're doing!
We're staying at a B&B in the village of Verzaille just south of Carcasonne. Last night and this morning we explored Le Cite of Carcasonne, a fortified city restored to its former medieval glory in the 19th C, one of the first French monuments to be preserved. We had an excellent meal last night in the old Cite and this morning enjoyed the museum in the chateau (castle) with an audio guide, and that's about it for Carcassone unless you want to shop! There must be over a 100 shops crammed into a very small space, all vying for the tourist euros. This was one of the last strongholds of the Cathars, a religious sect which the Roman Catholic popes of the 12th and 13th C launched a few crusades against, viewing them as heretics. Well, they were not Roman Catholic but they were Christian. It was a power struggle and land grab--and the Cathars lost. There are some gruesome stories about the ethnic cleansing that ensued--eyeballs being torn out, lips and tongues cut out, and burning alive...all in the name of religion.
This afternoon we spent a couple of hours scrambling around Lastours, another Cathar monument which is actually 4 crumbling towers and castles on lofty peaks. It's a good thing there was a wind because it was 28 degrees and we drank a bottle and half of water during the climb.
This was similar to our experience a couple of days ago at Monsegur, which really was the last stand of the Cathars a few hours south of here. Now that is a lonely place and wonderful actually in that you really have to work to climb up, and there are no explanatory panels or restorations or audio guides--all making it easy to imagine what it might have been like 800 years ago looking out over the plains and seeing the enemy approach. The Cathars held firm under siege for about 10 months and then they capitulated. Anyone who didn't convert to Roman Catholicism was burned alive--and there were 250 of those "Perfects" who chose this route.
We're just about to go out for dinner at a local restaurant...Ah, the life in southern France!

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Knitting Tour of Spain Continues...

We arrived in Ribes de Freser Sunday afternoon after successfully navigated MANY narrow twisting mountain roads. We deliberately took scenic back roads rather than major highways and it was a bit nerve-wracking to say the least.

Ribes de Freser is about 1 1/2 hours north of Barcelona if we had decided to drive straight here!

Today we took a cog-wheel railway up to Nuria, a popular winter and summer resort, and decided to walk back down.

Here I am at the lookout facing back to Nuria just before we began our descent.

About about the half-way point, the trail crossed the river.

We left Nuria in brilliant sunshine, and about two hours later the heavens opened with lots of thunder and lightening. Fortunately we were near a "refugi", a cave with a stone bench, and I had my knitting with me!

Saturday, June 11, 2011

International Knit in Public Day, June 11, 2011

Santa Pau is a medieval (14th C) walled village in the foothills of the Pyrenees. Here I am soaking up the cafe culture in the main square, drinking tea and knitting a sock in honour of International Knit in Public Day. It was quite something to walk up the hill to the town, looking up at very austere stone walls mostly with very narrow windows, and then enter the town to see lots of balconies and larger windows and lots of plants and flowers. The street plan is very irregular with lots of nooks and crannies, and dead ends, and houses that have been built and rebuilt over a few hundred years. And lots of tourists too!

We stopped at the town of Olot later in the day to walk up to the Montsacopa volcanic crater just above town. It's an almost perfect circular depression, now grass filled, that we walked around before descending to the old town. And of course we found the perfect cafe to have a light meal (I had a delicious mixed green salad with warmed goat cheese) all the while watching the townspeople stroll by. There were lots of kids playing in the square while their parents visited in the terrace bars and cafes. In these small towns, it's only tourists out and about in the afternoons and all the shops close around 1 PM, reopening around 5. This early evening time is when families seem to shop and visit, teenagers flock together, and lovers stroll...a good people watching time.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

A Fabulous Yarn Shopping Experience

All You Knit is Love is the name of the shop near the Picasso Museum at Barro de ferro, 8 in Barcelona. The proprietor was speaking on the phone in Spanish when we arrived obviously putting in an order judging from the few words I recognized (numbers), and when he got off the phone he addressed his customer in another language (turned out to be Catalan, the local language), and then spoke French with two other women in the shop, and finally addressed us in English! When I complimented him on his language skills he shrugged and said "that's how we live here"... And hearing that we were from Canada he started speaking French again... The shop is wonderfully browsable and full of Garn Studio yarns. I picked up some sock yarn in colours that I hadn't seen before... (yarn is so packable...) and some ceramic buttons. The business cards for this shop are on very heavy plasticized card stock and are also a needle gauge--how clever is that?! On hearing that our plans are to travel north he opened Google maps to show us where to find the maker of the buttons. Just might pay her a visit in the next few days.

Before we found the yarn shop we paid a visit to the Chocolate Museum where the ticket is a bar of chocolate! I haven't eaten mine yet--saving it for later... The cacao bean was first introduced to Europe by the Spanish explorers over 500 years ago arriving in Barcelona port. It was in Europe that it became the sweet confection we know today. We capped off our visit with a chocolata petita (small hot chocolate which is very thick, almost have to eat it with a spoon) and shared a chocolate dipped croissant...mmmmmmmm good.

I've just heard a muslim call to prayer reminding me of India. Our hotel here in Barcelona is in El Raval which is where a lot of Pakistani immigrants live.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Getting my fibre fix in Barcelona

It hasn't been difficult to find fabric and yarn shops--and equally not difficult to restrain myself, realizing that the stuff that appeals to me is similar to what I already have. Aren't I lucky!

Yarn shops come in a couple different forms--there are those that are very old-fashioned where all the yarn is behind a counter or under glass with clerks standing at the ready behind the counter--and then there are the self-service type where one can browse and handle the yarn contentedly. The most common brand is Katia which is made here in Barcelona, and I was intrigued by some scarf yarns that are so thick no needles or hooks are required. Sounds weird, but in fact the instructions are to crochet a chain by hand instead. The resulting scarves are very interesting but I think too heavy to wear.

My favourite shop so far is Ribes i Casals, a fabulous fabric store near Placa Urquinaona. I found the bargain basement and for 3.95 Euros/metre bought two metres of a very interesting organza print that just might make a layered skirt...who knows what the end result will be...

Today I enjoyed a visit to a textile museum, the Museu Textil i d'Indumentaria. The permanent exhibition was well laid out showing fashion (mostly female but some male) over the last 600 years or so mainly in Spain. The exhibition highlighted how clothing has either lengthened, reduced, or otherwise enhanced the human form. It was interesting to see how these shapes have been repeated over the years, and how 20th and 21st century designers have looked to the past for inspiration. The exhibition is well laid out with each display case holding mannequins that represent the ideal body shape of that era (e.g. very narrow waist, wide hips, etc.) and then beautiful dresses from the period--as well as a modern dress that had been influenced or inspired by the period.

Lloyd and I finished off the afternoon with a visit to Parc Guell which Gaudi designed...we were amongst MANY others wanting to see the famous meandering ceramic bench. We managed to escape the crowds by climbing to the very top of the park for good views of the city, but then got drenched in a thunder storm on the way down. It's thundering and pouring again as I write this which is a real change from yesterday's sunshine.

And for those of you who are wondering, Lloyd's conference started yesterday and it has surpassed his expectations. He's been excited to hear about issues that he's keen about, e.g. succession planning and mentoring...

Monday, June 6, 2011

Barcelona, cont'd

Barcelona is a very walkable city, at least in the central part. Most of these narrow streets are restricted to local traffic only, and drivers patiently wait for pedestrians and delivery trucks alike without honking horns. I've read that its density surpasses New Delhi. Children kick soccer balls around in the back streets while adults chat in doorways and from their balconies. Garbage and recycling bins are located in every block and these are cleared daily. The streets are clean--there seems to be an army of city staff dressed in fluorescent yellow and green sweeping up any refuse.

We spent most of the morning in Montjuic Park which is the site of the 1928 international exposition. One of the featured areas is El Poble Espanyol, built to showcase the architecture of each area of Spain, e.g. Catalunya, Aragon, Andalucia, and so on. At first glance, to my untutored North American eyes, it all looked the same...narrow balconies, iron railings, stonework...but as I continued to look more carefully the differences became more obvious in the shapes of the doors and windows, the use of tile or whitewash and so on. Best of all, the buildings are all working artisan studios and I enjoyed one in particular, that of a dressmaker who pieces together unique clothing out of linen, cotton and lace. Most of the fabric is cut and pieced on the bias so the garments all drape beautifully. She dyes the clothing after construction. I tried on several pieces and finally opted for a blue dress with long sleeves and a very wide skirt. I wore it out to dinner last night feeling very grand.

On Saturday we lined up for about an hour to get into Sagrada Familia, Antoni Gaudi's most famous life work. It's now known as a basilica and is only about half finished--there are still construction cranes raising four more towers. The main entrance is at the "Passion Facade", a very austere group of sculptures representing the last week of Jesus' life. Inside it's an enormous space, full of light, and feels like being in a huge grove of trees which was Gaudi's intention. The roof was finally completed only a few years ago. The choir loft can seat more than 1000 singers and apparently 8000 people could be seated in the nave. We spent more than 2½ hours exploring this grand space (along with a few thousand other tourists) and it was a relief to get away from the crowds to another delicious lunch of paella at a sidewalk café.

Lloyd is off to his conference this morning feeling very optimistic that the sessions will be interesting based on what he’s read in the abstracts. And I’m just about to set off to some yarn and fabric shops!

Friday, June 3, 2011

Montserrat, a very full day

Lloyd and I hustled to the Placa d'Espanya to catch the train to Montserrat this morning at 8:36AM and arrived up the mountain via cable car just after 10 AM. We spent a glorious morning in the basilica, bookended with an organ practice at 10:30 and the boys choir at 1 PM. We saw the famous black madonna but more interesting were all the images in the museum inspired by this madonna over the last 400 years. There are a few different theories as to why she's black...(1) she was originally painted with white paint but the lead darkened the paint over the year, and (2) she was carved out of dark wood.

Took one of the funicular trains further up the mountain for some great vistas, unfortunately marred by the low clouds. Lloyd was impressed with the plant life...thyme, rosemary, saxifrage, oak, and so on.

Finished the day with beer, wine and tapas in a local restaurant where we successfully deciphered the menu and ordered croquettes made with wild mushrooms, cheese tortilla, and potatoes with a spicy sauce.

Thus the food tour of Barcelona continues. I have spotted at least one fabric store and a yarn shop to visit in greater detail next week while Lloyd is at his conference...

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Hola from Barcelona!

We arrived in Barcelona about 24 hours ago and have settled in nicely. We're staying at the Gat Xino hotel for the next week, and while the room is small (there's about 2 feet of space around the two single beds pushed together) it's clean and bright. The walls are a bright white, the floor is black, and the curtains are lime green. We have a narrow balcony with full sized shutters. The bathroom is a decent size and painted a bright lime green. We're on the third floor overlooking a back street which is a lively neighbourhood. We had to wear ear plugs to sleep because we could hear a myriad of conversations from the open windows across the way--a distance of about 10 feet. It's interesting to look up and down the street to see the many different ways that laundry is hung to dry. Some people have suspended shower curtains over their balconies presumably to add a little more privacy as well as protection against the elements (probably birds and rain).

It's partly cloudy today and the temperature feels about 20 degrees or so--just right for sightseeing--as it was yesterday. We got to the hotel around 11 AM after a bit of backtracking on the train (we missed our stop and had to get out at the next one and take the next train back) and finally the metro. Once we got our bearings above ground, we walked straight to the hotel which is not too far off Las Ramblas, a major pedestrian thoroughfare in the old city. Our room wasn't ready until 2 PM so we spent the next little while walking around the streets and back alleys of the neighbourhood. We aren't too far from the Sant Antonio Mercado, a market that is frequented more by locals than tourists. Lots of inexpensive clothing and the most popular booths were full of thin Asian cottons and scarves worn in several layers. We stopped for lunch and I had a delicious potato tortilla (omelette) and Lloyd enjoyed a huge "hamburguesa" of ham, egg, bacon, cheese and all the trimmings.

Our room was indeed ready at 2 PM and we thankfully went to bed for a nap, finally rousing at about 6:30 or so feeling much better! Out for another walk and ended up at a tapas bar for supper. The barman spoke no English but motioned us to the back to look at the pots bubbling away on the stove, and I chose a potato/garbanzo stew which was delicious. Lloyd pointed at a variety of tapas and ended up with roasted green peppers, veal cutlets and a veggie tortilla. All washed down with a couple glasses of vino blanco (me) and cerveza (Lloyd) accompanied with delicious bread. While the beer was served as a single bottle, a carafe of white wine was on the table and we were charged for what was consumed. While there are innumerable bars and restaurants--some obviously catering to tourists and others are more neighbourhood affairs--we would go back to this place and see what they have on offer another night.

We've just finished a breakfast of coffee, cereal (museli type), toast, ham and cheese. The bread was delicious. It's wonderful to be in a country that respects its bread! We've noticed lots of bakeries--they seem to be just as plentiful as the bars, restaurants and fruit/veggie stores.

Finally, one of the best discoveries yesterday was a textile artisans fair which is on until June 12th just off the Ramblas. I stopped to chat with a woman who was crocheting jewelry from wire and she very proudly showed me all her work while saying that everyone exhibiting there had made their goods--nothing was a cheap import from Asia! I plan to go back and have a better look at everything.

In my next posting I'll try and post some images and won't talk about food quite so much! But as you can tell, I'm already impressed with the food--it's met my expectations so far. We're going to head out shortly to explore some more of this great city.