Sunday, 20 November 2011

The Terrain in Spain

Since the girl (Perri) had been banished to Madrid for a week with her Spanish class, we were off to wine country. This time visiting the Spanish contender for the ‘best wine in the world’: Rioja. I had spent the whole previous week drying out, so as to cleanse my bloodstream of any French wine contaminants which might taint my ability to be objective.

After picking Ann up at her office in Parentis-en-Born, we cruised down the autocade for 3 ½ hours with only one photo-radar ticket (gosh, I hope I was smiling). We arrived in Haro, a little town on the edge of Rioja wine country where I had booked a room in a former 13th century monastery. Fortunately, some renos had been done since the original build and it was a pleasant mix of the old and the new. Since it was after 9 p.m., Ann and I felt comfortable not looking too touristy in our efforts to find dinner. A previous visit to Spain almost 20 years ago helped us understand Spanish eating schedules and the futility of looking for an evening meal before 8 p.m.. Needless to say we were the first to arrive and we may have actually woken up the waitress.

A good night’s sleep was followed by an excellent non-Turkish breakfast.  At 11 a.m. we found ourselves in the nearest bodega (fancy Spanish word for winery) whose doors were open. We discovered most of the wineries require reservations for a tour (weeks ahead of time) but thankfully tastings are based on an open-door policy.

Having experienced a wine tour biking expedition (or a bike tour wining expedition) a few years back in the Czech Republic, I’ve discovered that wine-making facilities are …well, kinda the same, which shouldn’t be a surprise since they all produce wine. Ann and I fall far from the category of ‘wine expert’, and subtleties of the fermentation process are lost on us. So, we have no problem fast-forwarding to the happy conclusion of any tour: tasting. Honestly, if you’ve seen and smelled one giant wine cellar, you’ve seen and smelled them all.

It's five o'clock somewhere.

In the afternoon, we spent some time at the museum of wine culture in Briones, just a few minutes up the road. Normally, nothing short of a debate on economics puts me to sleep faster than a museum. However, this museum covered wine (history, production from cultivation to consumption, art, etc.) without anaesthetic, although a glass of the local product was presented to all guests. The penultimate piece of the museum tour was a collection of over three thousand corkscrews and, of course, there was a whole section devoted to this sort of thing:

The museum building lies right in the middle of an active vineyard, although at this time of the year not much is happening. The leaves on this grape variety tell the story about what season it is:

What's this museum about again?

On our way to Laguardia, which is not the airport but instead a medieval town about 5 more minutes down the road, we saw an interesting hotel designed by a Canadian (Ghery), a detail well-known by the locals. It’s a funky building although I’m not sure it works in a typical Spanish town.

After a fabulous meal (we were the first guests for dinner, again) of fine Spanish beef tenderloin, we called it a night in a relatively new hotel (250 years) just outside the old city walls. In the morning, we visited one of the more modern bodegas, which I dubbed the ‘church of wine’…

The drive home was uneventful, especially since we accidentally took the 15 kilometre tunnel road rather than the hill road, with all the great views of the Pyrenees mountain tops. Oops. Still, we had a nice lunch stop.

Before you start to feel sorry for me and my lost weekend, a couple of dozen bottles of fine Spanish wine was legally smuggled into French wine country, for consumption at a later date. I'll be ok.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Legends of the Fall

I’ve spent my entire life waiting for winter, mostly waiting for it to be over. Growing up in Saskatchewan, the brief part of each year not directly participating in winter was occasionally spoiled knowing another one was waiting just around the corner. Twenty years in Calgary did little to change that mindset. Winter has never been my favourite season for the most obvious reason. It's cold. For those of you supporters of winter, I’d like to ask which other seasons can serve up a death sentence for losing your keys, or running out of gas.  Let’s be clear: I don’t mind skiing on a -20c day, or a pleasant drive through a blizzard from time to time. I simply have a preference for warm sunny days and the activities related to them.  OK, where am I going with this? Give me a minute. Oh, yes: the Aquitaine is not like Saskatchewan or Alberta.

I suppose I could just leave it there and save everyone some time, but that is not in my nature.

Last week we were driving … somewhere, in the country, and the drizzle was steady on the windshield as the last light of day strained to get through the dark low clouds. Many Novembers in western Canada prepared me for those raindrops to begin developing an icy texture.  “Here it comes”, I thought to myself, at least until I looked at the thermometer which joyfully reported 17c. What the hell? It looks cold, but the air temperature remains toasty by Canadian autumn standards. All of my instincts are telling me not to get too far from shelter as a major snowstorm is inevitable, while the small rose bush out front continues to produce fresh blooms in spite of the diminishing daylight.

Today I put a coat on to go into the grocery store although I wasn’t cold. I’ve begun to be self-conscious about being obviously under-dressed.  Today’s high reached a mere 16c but I would have been quite comfortable wearing shorts and a light sweater. Compare that to the winter coats and scarves being worn by the locals. This is at 16c:

My brain is struggling to deal with the inconsistency between what I see and what I feel. I hope the pharmaceutical industry is working on a pill-based solution to this malady (I no longer rely on viniculture to resolve these problems for me – my liver is tired).

And just down the beach from the apparent cold front, I thought I'd capture the water sports in action (clearly sailboats are out of season):

Damon - this is for you
And just as I was leaving, the clouds parted for something a bit more spectacular:

Sometimes its fun just to be near the beach.

Last weekend Ann decided to get us involved in a ‘fun’ mountain bike expedition. Since there are no hills around here, barring oversized sand dunes (decidedly not conducive to enjoyable cycling), we were required to hit the road, as it were. There are some gentle rolling hills northeast of Bordeaux, which generally mean vineyards and that's where we ended up. How Ann finds these activities continues to be a mystery to me. Perri was exempt, owing to her extraordinary ability to whine for hours at a time during any fitness-related activities. Clever strategy.
In this case, a local bike club had marked out a number of walking and biking trails through the rural landscape, just for the day. For five euro, we would be entitled to thirty kilometers of unbridled biking shenanigans, plus some nibblies afterwards. Sounds good right? I’m sure it would have been exactly as advertised, if Ann, me, and our good friend Andrea had arrived on time and finished on time.  Arriving a few minutes after the registration closed did not deter us.  I conveniently forgot my real camera but phones have cameras so…

I grudgingly admit we had a good day although the promised nibblies were somewhat lacking when we finally finished. The trails were well-marked and only an idiot could miss them (I only missed one). Again, we were the only cyclists we saw wearing shorts although the high of the day was 18c (and sunny).

Perri and her Spanish class are being deported to Madrid for a week as part of a school trip.  Once again, Ann has designs on a short road trip to the Pyrenees or Spain this weekend. Perhaps some hiking will be involved. Perhaps some wine tasting. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Turkey with All the Trimmings

Get comfortable - this could take a while.

Ok, all set? 
A couple of hours out of Istanbul by bus will get you to a quiet little peninsula between the Ionian Sea and the Dardenelles called Gallipoli. Historically, he who controls the Dardenelles controls shipping between the Black Sea (Russia) and the Mediterranean Sea (the rest of the world). In WWI the allies made a good decision to try to gain control of this area, but a series of really bad decisions on how to go about it. A day of seeing the lay of the land with a good Turkish guide and a group made up of Aussies and Kiwis left me with a clearer understanding why Gallipoli serves as a metaphor for the futility of war. Hearing the Turkish perspective was particularly illuminating as the campaign, while a cock-up of epic proportions for the allies, was considered a watershed moment for the Turkish nation. It certainly didn’t hurt the career of a little known Turkish officer who masterminded the Turkish defense (Mustafa Kemal, later to become known as the great Ataturk, first leader of modern Turkey). It was difficult to reconcile this peaceful Turkish countryside with the numerous war memorials and cemeteries dotting the landscape like so many prairie crocuses in the springtime.

To lighten up the day, I caught dufus 1 and dufus 2 trying to get a picture of the inside of an old WWII bunker on another nearby beach:

Late in the day, after viewing Peter Weir’s movie, Gallipoli, our tour company seemed pleased to leave us at the mercy of public transportation on the overnight bus. We expected to have at least a couple seats each because there is no logical reason for anyone to be on an overnight bus from one small place I’ve never heard of in western Turkey to another small place I’ve never heard of in western Turkey. It was full, of course, and the bus seats were clearly designed for short haul excursions. Countless hours later (5, 10, 100?), we were dropped unceremoniously at the roadside in a small city called Celcuk (at least they got that right). The tour company who was supposed to pick us up was nowhere to be seen and that may have been because we had arrived almost two hours before the scheduled arrival time of 7:30 a.m.. How we came to arrive two hours early on a 7 hour journey remains a mystery. Is it wrong to be less diligent about travel details when the tour company guy assures you a car will be waiting for you? The answer is yes. Waking up a cabbie and gesturing in her finest  mime, Ann was able to establish our hotel was either a few kilometers away, or 35 kilometers away depending upon exactly which Fantasia hotel was ours (Disney trademark alert). So, thirty-five kilometers and many Turkish lira later we were in a comfy hotel - the girls sleeping, and me tucking in to a substantial breakfast buffet.
Aside on Turkish busing
At every stop for commercial buses or tour buses in western Turkey, at least one person owns the bus washing concession. For stops as brief as fifteen minutes, someone would appear with a long brush, window squeegee, and hose, and begin wiping down the bus from tip to tail.The drivers would always slip the cleaning guy a bill or two. Even on the overnight buses, at 1, 2, or 3.a.m., someone would start cleaning the bus within 30 seconds of the engine being shut down. The Turks have truly embraced the entrepreneurial spirit. 
Staring the breakfast buffet, it occurred to me I could be anywhere. A few dozen pasty tourists sporting beachwear on a day whose high will not reach 20c, poking through warming trays in hopes of finding something different from the previous six mornings, reminded me of all-inclusive resorts in Mexico, Hawaii, the Caribbean... anywhere. The tour guide in Istanbul assured us we would be very happy in this many-starred hotel, when really we would have been much happier closer to town, with fewer hotel stars and more ... Turkishness (Turknicity?).
The morning was spent wandering around Ephesus, one of the largest Roman ruins in Turkey. The city boasted over 200,000 citizens in its hay-day and there was enough un-pillaged stonework to keep archeological grad students busy for years. I was unprepared for the volume of tourists at the site although the coliseum-sized cruise ship docked not far from our hotel should have been warning enough. 

In this, as in many ancient ruins, the men’s toilets are the best preserved feature. I can’t say why with any certainty.

The lunch stop looked sketchy when we pulled up next six other buses and the promise of a cafeteria-styled buffet waiting inside. Never judge a book by its cover;  we have placed this stop near the top of the lunch list. It was very traditional, and very yummy, excluding the rice pudding dessert, which I would not recommend for anyone without a robust pancreas.
The afternoon brought us to the house of the Virgin Mary. Yes I am talking about Jesus’ mom. According to the helpful informational plaques, Mary spent a few years living there for unspecified reasons (trial separation with Joseph?). The evidence supporting the claim of Chez Mary would probably not hold up in court, but as I said to Perri (and this will surprise many of you), “that is not what faith is about”. Sadly, the military presence around the place detracted from the spiritual image projected by the guide books. Not much to look at, except for the ‘get your picture taken with a camel’ vendor at the front gate, so I won’t waste photo space.
Our tour guide surprised us with a unscheduled stop at his cousin’s carpet place. I’ll admit I am smarter about carpets, but also ninety minutes closer to being dead, and I’m not sure that’s a fair exchange.
A dog-food dinner buffet back a the many-starred hotel (with the exception of the chicken donair), washed down with no-star wine, ended our day, thankfully. Also, the many-starred hotel had wifi, as long as you were in the same room as the wifi box which was seven floors away from our room.
The next day was a relatively short 3 hour bus ride to Pamukkale, a small town who has managed to turn a mineral water problem into a Unesco World Heritage site.  Like everything else in this country, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Who knew a little extra calcium in the water could create this:

The locals have turned the hot water spring into a series of cascading infinity pools which look very much like sloppy spring skiing, with bath temperature water.

The Romans decided the hot mineral waters had extraordinary healing powers, so Pamukkale also boasts a significant Roman ruin (complete with latrine again) right next to the calcite ski hill.

For the second time, the local tour company dropped us into the loving arms of local public transit. If I had known we were doing two overnight bus rides in three nights, I might well have stayed at home. I don’t care how much you think you’re saving on a hotel room, my advice is to pay extra and fly. Here’s the scene: 10:40 p.m. in a town who’s name is a mystery to us (knowing the name would not have been helpful anyway), we didn’t know the language except to say please and thank you and count to three, the temperature in the open-air bus station was approaching zero, and the bus was either very late or we’d missed it. Three bus station employees, if we read the body language correctly, may have agreed our bus would be along in the Turkish equivalent of ‘manyana’. And that was probably the best part of the next ten hours.
When the sun finally rose, I saw we had been transported to the Turkish high desert in central Anatolia (the girls were sleeping blissfully, of course). If we had a tee time in Cappadocia that morning, there certainly would have been a frost delay. The town’s claim to fame is a series of cave dwellings used by early Christians from the fourth to the twelfth centuries. Imagine first generation recreational property for those times when your theological viewpoint falls out of favour. As we arrived in the town square my first thoughts drifted to the Flinstones theme song.

We joined a day tour and discovered there are a goodly number of habitations chiseled into the rock faces within striking distance of our hotel, each with churches and households. No matter how much historical background I was given, I still couldn’t shake Fred and Barney. The geology of the area has created a number of interesting erosional features which kept Ann giggly for the whole day (no further comments on this).

The next day was more of the same, including a visit to a giant 11th century underground city, used by early Christians to dodge trouble when things got a little hot for them. Between two and ten thousand people would live in what is essentially a people-sized ant-hill, for up to nine months at a time. The complex went down five levels and included traps, wells, and animal pens.

We also stopped at a cliffside monastery dating back a thousand years or more. 

All very cool. One more surprise trip to a cousin’s onyx workshop, complete with gift shop, and our time in central Anatolia was done.
Back to Istanbul (by plane this time). We had a couple of days to pick up all those things we didn’t buy on the first pass, plus an opportunity to take in some more fine dining. You’ll note any references to good food relate strictly to lunch and dinner. The Turks don’t really get breakfast, it seems. Every place we stayed offered breakfast, although one would be hard pressed to define much of what was put on offer as breakfast food in the North American sense. Each day we faced bowls of salad bar cast-offs (lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, potato salad, numerous undefinable pickled items, six kinds of salami, goat cheese, and plain yogurt). If it weren’t for some chewy baked goods, breakfast would have been a joyless occasion.
During one shopping run we tracked down a traditional restaurant somewhat off the beaten path, where tables are very low and throw-cushions rule the day. The food was fabulous.

On the way back to the hotel I considered getting a traditional shave. The barbershop we passed was cheek by jowl with local customers, so I figured it must have been a good place. However, a quick glance at those waiting told me I would need about a week’s growth to even begin to look like a serious customer, so I passed. A barber in Istanbul can’t go wrong: most of the customers look like they’ll be ready for another shave in the time it takes to pay for the one they just had.
One more aside on Turkish wildlife. I don’t recommend Turkey for those of you with an aversion to felines as there are cats everywhere, and dogs too. They belong to no one in particular yet looked after by all. In the big city and small towns, small dishes of food and water would be left out for any animal to enjoy. One day in Cappadocia, Ann and I went for a short, early-morning walk, which was met with great enthusiasm by the local dogs, who were happy to trot along with us the entire way. As we passed a small hotel, the dogs all ran over to a security guy, tails a waggin’, and were each given a pat on the head. In Istanbul, Ann and I watched a large mutt determined to make a game of a woman’s luggage as she tried to pull it through the square, much to his joy and her annoyance. Both dogs and cats, strays to my eyes, are not just tolerated, but accepted as part of the community, even at the historical sites...

Our last evening was spent enjoying the street vendors, the aggressive restaurant pitch-men, and the lights of old Istanbul. For Ann it involved torturing lamp, carpet, handbag, and shoe salesmen by never being able to find exactly what she wanted. I finish with a shot taken from our hotel room balcony:

post script

As I sit here watching the jets disappear into the fog above Zurich, it occurs to me I’m not waiting for a flight to Canada. After recent weekend jaunts, it was easy to get back into the “France as home” mindset. But this last adventure was such a cultural displacement that I seemed to have lost my grounding a little bit. It didn’t help running into a former coworker in the Istanbul airport, who was on an extended golf vacation in the south of Turkey (Turkish golf - who knew?) . The lost puppy feeling was driven home when he asked "How are you guys getting back to Calgary?" ...