Thursday, October 22, 2015


On our way in on Monday from Figueres - home of the Dali museum, but that's for another day - we stopped at a newish bakery in Laroque des Alberes,where we'd spend the next week. It was next to an auto repair shop.  We didn't get one of these impressive sweets, but a very appealing tart, as well as a standard French baguette for dinner proper. We got our first cultural orientation from our hostess; one doesn't enter a shop and start looking at stuff, but immediately meets the eyes of an employee with a greeting, "Bonjour!" - or perhaps a more measured, low key version of the word, emulating in pitch contrast perhaps the American Gen-X'ers "right on".

Then, on to the heart of the village a bit away. Immediately comes the sense of compression, just a little unpleasant, too little room for even the smaller cars than those of the American burbs side-by-side, narrow habitations on steep streets, a sort of scaled-down version of a San Francisco neighborhood in a way.
Where we'll stay is just down the hill from the 12th C. castle tower that defines the town, in a building on the left pictured here, itself older than the United States government. It is fairly typical for the oldish part of town in this region, apparently, two or three levels, each level with a couple hundred square feet. In our layout, the ground floor has a W.C., very like a closet, next to a sink-and-shower room, separated by a wall, in a configuration we had seen in Italy sometimes, and a small bedroom. The first floor (here I have to remember a European mode)  above it has an undivided kitchen-dining-living area. And above that, another small bedroom and terrace looking out at the Mediterranean, a few miles distant, and the tower. This, quickly observed, time to walk around a little, see the tower, the wine bar, the park, the edge of the gardens which appear to yield abundantly, grapes, tomatoes, aubergines, haricots verts, and there are even chestnut trees in full fruit every so often.

That will be it for my explorations for a couple of days, as it turns out. The sniffling I didn't think much about accelerated into a serious cold overnight. So I wallow in self-pity while host/hostess/wife explore the region and seek wine and vegetables and clothing and whatever other obsessions drive their peregrinations.

But I would at become familiar with Laroque church bell, with an external clapper and a clock below. It tolled once on the half-hour and the appropriate number of times on the hour. So far, so good - but then, a couple of minutes after the hour, it would again toll the hour, hmm... Now I see a mention of this phenomenon that explains that it was a "missed it the first time" assurance of accuracy of counting, whether you're washing clothes at the river, escaping your duties at the bar, or whatever. You can definitely get confused between 12:30 and 13:30, and in our jet-lagged state, we seemed never to miss any of that sequence.

But Thursday we have a Carcassonne res, guiding light which provides momentum enough to push me into wimpy-tourist mode. En route, we see what probably is a French peculiarity, roadside prostitution in the rurales, women sitting on 5-euro laquer chairs at turnouts, awaiting trade. At one turnout, a long-haul truck and an empty chair. Then we reach an appropriately favored major tourist highlight, the castle at Carcassonne, and get a favored parking spot inside the perimeter, guided by a gorgeous and stylish lot attendant who probably works more in the hotel lobby. Then we are shuttled - a bit self-consciously in my case - in a van barely narrow enough to make turns in the ancient streets, pushing through the tourist clumps like a drover through sheep.

And then, the seriously old stuff. With modern hotels just embroidered into it.

Yeah, well, I'm not 100% myself.

And a former drawbridge turned fixed, no less:

The scope of this restoration is truly staggering.

They say Mme. Carcasse threw a food-stuffed pig over the battlements to convince the besiegers that there was no want of food within.

She does look like a tough cookie.

And we're not quite ready to storm the walls.

There's a phenomenal dinner awaiting us, and if we've got to close the place down, we'd better get going.

Next morning, mine hostess and la esposa consider the bridge to town before we depart. (The latter was on notice that the country was a "fleece-free zone", may actually have been in conformance here.)

Seen from a distance, the place has a definite fairytale look.

More church ruins near Luc-sur-Aude, plenty more where that came from...

In fact, dining alfresco makes total sense where the Cathars' resistance failed yet again in the Château de Puilaurens. Mine host and hostess show again that they know what they are about, and la esposa is the clear benefactress.

One defenders-eye-view: They had perfect positioning, but ultimately weren't ready for a siege. They had a significant communication network, here's a line-of sight battlement a couple of ridges away:

These run down to, and beyond, the Spanish border, and even played a role in the Spanish Civil War and its refugee movements seven centuries later. And ultimately all the hubbub was down to: one God or two?

And still more of the same history a short ways down the road at Peyrepertuse...
Remarkable defense location, but...

And down the road again to check out the Picasso Fountain and the perfectly autumnal market at Céret.

 home again, jiggedy-jig, we're hungry.

It's worth noting a tenet of mine hostess, which is that generally restaurants, at least in France, which display photographs of food are not going to offer a good quality meal, partly because they are catering to less discriminating tourists who can't make sense of the menu.

So next day, not far from Ceret, we indulge in a cafe which does not conform to the "no food pictures" criteria, yet is perfectly serviceable...
But then we must gird up our loins for a hair-raising trip through the forest, over the passes, to Prades..
.. and ultimately to Villefranche-de-Conflent, time for no more hairpins, lots more wine, even if your truly is profligate in spilling his glass in sight of seriously old piles.
I've demurely isolated myself here to the lower left, of course. Here again are 12th C. vestiges of the fear and bellicoseness of the time:
.. and cart-designed streets...
..reflecting a wine-centricity of the region:

Back to the coast: time for the much-painted, picturesque Med-coast town of Collioure, bustling market
grand old church
and all
(mine hostess and la esposa wave from center right.) A frame on the sidewalk allows you to select Achille Lauge's viewpoint:

A residential street.
And lest we forget, yes, a castle, with commanding views from shooting slots.

What can you contrive to follow all this? Well, for us, it was a dinner at home base with a visiting Svenska, and a hike the next day to the land of the endless aquifer

- which rema
rkably turns out to be in the neigborhood, out the front door. Less than 8 inches of rain in 2015, and they somehow have a continuous year-round flow in a broad network of ditches and canals, with informal weirs scattered throughout for irrigating gardens.

This concluded the French phase of the exploration, for the next day we were off to Figueres again, but this time with a stop at the famed Dalí museum, where the "car courtyard" is not the least striking:

The surreal Mae West installation, the car and its creepy inhabitants,
the spurting penises, the crazy sculpture,
the inescapable hordes of
selfie-stick-toting tourists and schoolchildren, all eventually made it a relief to leave our hosts to the rest of their day and make our way to Barcelona (with seconds to spare, this has to happen at least once in these circumstances.)

I've noticed in comparing my Alicante trip and this one, that Spaniards seem to like black and white rooms:
This one
was certainly comfortable.

We wanted to get our first Gaudí fix that day, so we checked out the exterior of the Sagrada Familia at dusk, just a walk away in the drizzle..
found something to eat somewhere in the land of midnight dinner, and planned our next day's outing before crashing.

We made it back fairly early next day for the interior of arguably the most famous modern Spanish structure. But it's yet to be defined, really; they have yet to complete the largest central spire and quite a bit more, but that said, it's phenomenal whether in construction details
 or finished elements,
and both are uniquely presented via viewing slots in the spires,
accessible by a helical stairway
 which could give acrophobes pause (and I suspect it's not where you
want to be in hot weather.) The light is magical,
 and the basement museum with its models and historical photos are
terrific - if you went to Barcelona, had any interest in art or architecture, and didn't see it, I sympathize.
We did a lot of walking as the day progressed, making our way to the oldest part of the city, approaching the harbor. Las Ramblas 
 is the area most tourists end up in sooner or later, I guess because it's crowded and has lots of tchotchkes to adorn houses and thrift shops - but really it is picturesque in the way all these places older than America are, at least to Americans. We ate eventually at a place which offered rice dishes common to at least the Catalan regions, perhaps suspiciously modern, but with friendliness and tasty fare.
Next day was again a Gaudí Day, this time focusing on Parc Guell, his famous (eventual) public park commission. It is among other things a masterwork of coarse symmetry,
suggesting nature in a less stylized way than the Sagrada, both in fired
and unfired clay, glazed or unglazed.
 Here too the selfie sticks fly off the vendors'
sheets, the pan pipes players congregate, but really the art and the views compel. We looked out at one of the neighborhoods
 which served as the settings for Shadow of the Wind, topped by an amusement park. This was a
day which was increasingly pleasantly cool, and we were hungry to take in a lot.

But also just hungry, and a catalan rice dish would do the trick... but afterwards in the plaza, what could pass for a Spanish flavor of a happening:

And not too far away, the fanciful Gaudi lampposts...

And what's becoming a somewhat Olympic walking day with underground train segments takes us to the Miro museum above the Olympic Park

and shortly later a look at that grand scale vision applied to the Olympics site:

But then all we had left was a visit to an all-too-touristy pizza place with all-too-familiar American sorority girls giggling about - what? A trip to Starbucks, what is rocket, some chance boy encounter, onerous parental limitations. I guess it signals that the adventure of going home is nigh.