Thursday, 8 November 2012

Eatin’ and Drinkin’ en Provence

And that pretty much covers what went on for the first week Perri's fall school break. If you prefer more details, keep reading.

As usual, no school break can be wasted. Perri was overruled when she voted for, and I quote: “sleeping in and watching tv” for the entire week. Meanwhile, Ann quietly made plans to meet some friends who were visiting from Calgary. What better way to spend some time (and money) than driving around the south of France? This time we go en Provence.
Ann making plans... A most dangerous game.
We spent the first couple of days at a B&B in Aix-en-Provence, an ancient town north of Marseille and arguably the cultural hub of the region. The first item on the agenda was some hiking around Montagne Saint-Victoire, a noteworthy blip on the otherwise gently rolling terrain.
Bad weather. What can you do?
Ann and 'guest' at Mt. Ste. Victiore.
The weather had been unseasonably cold and windy, although it had relented for our outing. Mt. Sainte-Victoire is crisscrossed with a myriad of hiking trails, all marked clearly so only a complete idiot could get lost.
I'm sure it's this way...
After about and hour we were lost. Somehow the trail we were on just petered out and we found ourselves at the bottom of a ravine. The good news was walking for more than a kilometer in any direction was bound to get us unlost, plus we were pretty sure the road was about two minutes away if we could guess the right direction. The bad news was Ann and I didn’t agree on which direction was right and the third member of the party (not Perri, who was back at the B&B sleeping in and watching tv) was beginning to see the logic in visiting grievous bodily harm on the two of us. A few short minutes of bushwacking and we found ourselves staring at a lovely country estate, and more importantly, a road.
Civilization, upscale.

Author’s note – I never mention names of those passing through the blog. My concern is being caught up in a messy legal case where one or more guests are caught touring Europe while officially on stress leave, or some equivalent. If I don’t use names, plausible deniability can come into play (“No, that’s not me but I can see why you might think so. There is a resemblance.”).

After lunch and another small hike near our B&B, we ventured out for the first of many significant late-day meals. It occurred to me that we had better be planning at least fifty miles of daily walking to offset the caloric intake. Sadly, this was not to be the case.

The next day we were off to Arles, another ancient town, with plenty of ruins to prove it. Curiously, the town looked like pretty much any other town, if you looked the right way. However, if you looked the other way, or around the corner, you got a whole lotta real old stuff.
On the catwalk at Arles.
They actually had gladiators here.

More Roman stuff.
This is a big bridge thing.

After a big, tasty lunch, we found our way to the Pont-du-Gard, a two thousand year-old Roman aquaduct. More importantly, we also found some firecrackers for sale in the local tabac shop. Fortunately, the other male in our group shared my genetic tendency toward “blowin’ stuff up”, which we did later. Back to the boring history bit. The Pont-du-Gard crosses the river Gardon and stands close to fifty meters high, and is part of an aquaduct of over 50 kilometres length. Pretty cool.

A great race, the Romans.
Our next B&B was just outside of Avignon. For you history buffs, you will remember Avignon for such things as the ‘great papal confusion’ of the 12th century, where no one in the Catholic church knew where to send the money (at least, that’s my take on it). On that day, normal fall weather patterns returned and we were blessed with torrential rain and chilly north winds. Fortunately, we planned on spending a portion of the day touring the Palais des Papes. In retrospect, spending the better part of a cold, wet day in a midieval Gothic structure may not have been a good idea. Brrrrrrr. Sadly, the gift shop had no "Pope-on-a-rope" Soap.
Raining and miserable.
Inner courtyard - good place for a putting green.
Who loves the gift shop? On a bad day, you make your own fun.
The day was salvaged by a trip to Chateau Gardine (in the heart of chateauneuf-des-papes country, for you winos out there), where we tasted expensive wine and failed to leave without purchasing some.
Wow! This tastes expensive!
We finished the day chowing down at a nice little restaurant off the beaten path in Avignon. Without our gps unit, much of this vacation experience would have been impossible. The old part of Avignon reminds me of a rabbit warren for rabbits with a very well-developed sense of direction.

The next few days we spent driving, eating, driving some more, stopping briefly, and eating again. We did see some cool things and funky towns, and had some wonderful meals.
We had lunch here. No idea what it's called.
Ann and I at the old ochre mine, somewhere.
The highlight of the experience might well have been a trip to a truffle farm, where the right oak trees grown in the right type of soil can, with luck and hard work, produce smelly off-colored fungus. We were treated to a hunt, complete with a truffle dog (pigs weren’t available), and a substantial lunch involving every possible use of truffles, including truffle brulee for dessert. When I heard we were going on a hunt, I was expecting something a little more redneck (e.g. camo gear, weapons, truffle blinds). The sad reality set in when it was clear the guide pretty much knew where every truffle was likely to be and the real challenge was keeping the dog from eating every truffle he found. I noticed the dog usually got it in his mouth for at least a few seconds before being asked to remove it (keep that in mind when ordering the expensive “truffle special” on your next visit to a shee-shee-ou-la-la French restaurant).
Get that out of your mouth!
Yummy, tastes like dog.
We managed to find a go-cart place to balance the wine-tasting (does anyone see a problem with this?). A good time was had by the crazy girls...

Speed kills.
 On the last day, we finished with some wine-tasting of the Gigondas appellation (no pictures, sorry). I didn’t notice until I got home that some of the plonk I bought was high-test. Six of the bottles of the 2007 Domaine de Terme weighed in at 15.5% alcohol. Please, only drink this stuff while under supervision of a responsible adult.

The next morning we dumped our mystery guests at the airport in Marseille, and hardly noticed the brief 6-hour drive back to Arcachon.

The provence region must be kooky during the summer season, based on the tourism infrastructure we saw. In late October, there were very few tourists but still enough to guarantee some restaurants would be open. That being said, the food and wine was great everywhere we went and the towns and countryside quite beautiful.  Oh, right. There was some historical stuff, too. I think I may like to try it again in the spring.  

Monday, 20 August 2012

Tea In The Sahara – Morroco

If someone asks me if I enjoyed my trip to Morocco, I will respond: “Morocco was a very interesting place to visit.” And if they persist, and ask me if I plan on returning to Morocco, I will respond: “I saw many interesting things in Morocco.” The reason I will give you for these evasive answers to seemingly simple questions, is that I don’t think I really know. When Ann explained we were going to Morocco with her sister’s family, I was initially concerned about vacationing in a Muslim country during Ramadan. What I should have been concerned about was going anywhere near that part of the world in August. I told Krusty, whose real identity will remain a secret to those out of the loop, Morocco in August is where they send people in hell when they’ve been bad.

This bears explaining, so get comfortable. We touched down in Casablanca where we met Ann’s sister Kate and her entourage, made up of her three boys and one girlfriend (not one of hers, one of the boys’). I realize the whole Kate/girlfriend picture remains vague. Sorry about that. We all climbed onto a much smaller plane to the flight to Fez, whose claim to fame is its medina. The old town constitutes one of the largest urban areas closed to vehicular traffic, which makes perfect sense once you get there. The streets, a generous use of the word in this case, are sometimes no more than a meter across, and usually packed with people. That being said, the occasional scooter does manage to work through the (literally) unwashed masses.

Propane delivered to your door.
We spent the first day doing a guided walking tour of the medina in spite of the heat (40c+), although we had been assured the hot spell was over. I was reminded of the big market in Istanbul. There were countless stalls, and countless people. So many of each that it seemed unlikely we could go more than an hour without losing someone. So we did. The most responsible eldest nephew found a way to go left where we went right and after a few minutes of backtracking through the rat maze, we realized he would not be found quickly. Since he was an experienced traveller and past voting age, we chose to abandon him, knowing full well he had no money and probably no knowledge of our hotel name. 

Just imagine a thousand stalls like this...
While the rest of us sat sipping sweet mint tea in the comfort of a carpet store, our guide put out feelers within the medina. In less time than Ann could complete choosing an overpriced carpet, the lost member of our group was returned to us. We then took in a visit to the local tannery, accessed conveniently through a leather goods shop. If there is a better way to encourage kids to stay in school than watching the locals muck about in dying vats in almost 50c heat, I would like to know what it is.

And it smells as good as it looks.
Still, I am beginning to believe teenagers are generally immune to obvious life lessons. Perhaps, as an employee of the tannery, Perri will be able to get a discount at the leather goods shop. Glass half full? As we strolled through the medina, Ann and I tended to be a bit cavalier about eating the sample fruit at the fruit stands, not to mention the salads at lunch. This strategy proved to be … flawed.

Gate to old Fez

Another gate to old Fez

A quick note about Ramadan, which, when observed in Morocco in summer, makes something like Lent seem pretty simple. These people give up all the basics between sunrise and sunset for a whole month: eating, drinking, smoking, sex. In the heat of summer, the first two items (and possibly the last two, as well) take quite a toll on the local populace toward the end of each day, as witnessed by the occasional street fight around 6 p.m.. The flipside is the big party once the sun goes down. Each night the streets refilled around 8 o’clock with people in a partying mood. The revelry usually continued until well into the morning, all without the benefit of alcohol! We experienced no difficulties (except perhaps guilt) acquiring a midday meal, or water anytime. Our guides were consistent in the message that observers of Ramadan harbor no ill will to those who aren’t observing, although we were discouraged from being too in-your-face about publicly eating and drinking during daylight hours. Sadly, not all tourists seem to have embraced the same philosophy.

The next day we were picked up in a large van, later to be known as the hot box, and carried away over the Atlas mountains to a small town on the edge of the western Sahara. At this point, the first member of our group began to display symptoms of an unnamed malady, which stalked our group throughout the remainder of the trip. Knowing almost nothing about tropical medicine, I would hazard a guess that this predatory illness was a non-lethal mix of new and suspect food, suspect water, and varying degrees of heat stroke. In my case, I lean towards giardia or dysentry, based on how I'm feeling today. The impact on the various individuals in the group wasn't perfectly consistent, although, without going into graphic detail, toilet paper quickly became a commodity of great value.

Not a lot of trees around.

So, after gearing us up like Lawrence of Arabia wannabees, we were unceremoniously deposited upon the backs of a number of ill-tempered and flatulent camels, and led into the desert.

My trusty steed.
I know that doesn’t sound very interesting or fun, but it was. Although I had seen pictures and movies, I remained completely unprepared for the impact of seeing endless dunes of sand, marching off to the horizon. Sadly, it was pretty windy, and the sun had set as we wound or way out to the camp, so my camera was ineffective. Half way to our objective, the equivalent of the Ramadan horn blew, signaling the end of the fast. Our guides immediately dropped to the ground and began chugging water. At this point I realized:”Wow! These guys have just gone 14 hours without water in this unbelievable heat. And this is day 23 with 6 more to go.” I’m not sure I could do it.

So we arrived at camp where I must have missed the orientation because I had no idea where we were going to sleep, or whether dinner was on the way, or when we planned on leaving the next day. After about an hour of standing around in the dark, listening to the orchestra of farting from our ‘ships of the desert’, the guides emerged from their dinner tent in a very good mood. Soon we were enjoying our own dinners while being entertained by our guides’ personal song stylings. Curiously, I didn’t seem to have an appetite although it had been some time since our last meal. Probably nothing to worry about.

In the wee hours of the morning, I was able to enjoy a meteor shower while praying for the quick departure of a large and angry bobcat from my bowels. At least that’s what it felt like (again, I’m no medical professional). If I were to pick a specific moment where this particular trip turned a corner, I would have to say this was it. The next morning I was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, foolishly thinking that silly bobcat had moved on rather than depositing a litter, as it were, before leaving. Dawn over the desert was an emotional moment for all of us as our worthless lives were quickly brought into the proper perspective. Fortunately, the previous night had taught me patience and humility, so I was able to face the rising sun without any pretensions.


Perri's cousin contemplating his place in the world.

Nice to visit, but...
Choo Choo!

The temperature rose as quickly as the sun so we were off to town on our four-footed methane producers and a nice breakfast. Curiously, I was still not hungry. Probably nothing to worry about, although the next twenty-four hours were a bit hazy for me. I have a strong recollection of it being really hot, and then stopping a few times. There was one stop for lunch, where I was more than not hungry. We stopped somewhere later in a pretty nice hotel and I didn’t have supper. It had a pool, I’m pretty sure. The next morning I was feeling much better, although the rest of the trip remained a study in inner strength and concentration.

The nephew's skateboard proved to be a hit.

Many long and circuitous miles later, we found ourselves in Marrekech, but not before seeing the aftermath of at least three major accidents. Seatbelts on everyone! The conditions were such that the interior temperature of the van was 37c with full air-conditioning. Our guide suggested the exterior temperature had exceeded 50c. The oases we saw along the way were such a contrast to the sandy backdrop of the desert, I kept expecting to see golf courses.

Is this the par 3 or the par 4?
Combining heat with the wiggly nature of the road, and the one member of our group immune from the bowel monster was also feeling a bit off. As for the rest of us: no comment.

Marrekech seemed much more contemporary than any other place we’d visited so far. Even the medina was less… medieval than Fez. The quality of the genuine handmade goods had a ‘made in China’ look and feel and it was clear the tourists were expected and welcome.  The highlight was the main square in the old city, after dark, where it took on a carnival atmosphere. We saw snake-charmers and jugglers and belly dancers.

Is that a cobra?

It was there where I’m almost certain a local man made me some kind of offer for Perri. Sadly, my Arabic and French weren’t up to snuff to close the deal.

While in both Fez and Marrekesh, we stayed at hotels converted from old family homes, known as riads. The riads are very cool places to stay but are often very difficult to find without some local assistance. Additionally, you can’t get anywhere close to these places with a car, so some toting of luggage may be required. In Essouari, there is an entire industry around hauling tourist bags around the old town with modified wheel-barrows. On the bright side, you get an opportunity to be truly immersed in the local culture.

Essaouira is a coastal town where the Moroccans go to escape the heat and we joined them for the last two days of our adventure. Along the way we passed a grove of argan trees. The nut produces argan oil, a much-valued product, and the leaves are a favourite of goats. So much so that the goats have been known climb up into the trees for a snack.

Those birds look funny.
The town is on a fishing port and is one tic further along the touristy spectrum. We enjoyed the moderate temperatures (high 20’s) and wandered the streets looking for knick-knacks. Perri was able to acquire a henna tattoo (at least, I hope it’s henna).

Still smells better than the Fez tannery.
We finally arrived in Paris where we stayed the night and had almost a full day to amuse ourselves before catching the high-speed train back to Bordeaux. Like anyone who finds a free day in Paris on a hot day, we went to an English movie (air-conditioned, of course) and had Vietnamese food, followed by a bike ride along the Seine and a spot of ice cream.

Where can a guy get a good meal?

Morocco: great people, occasionally good food (if it doesn't kill you), and killer weather.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Who loves Tapas?

Before I go into the details of our recent road trip to Barcelona, I feel the need to comment on Olympic television coverage from this side of the channel. Admittedly, this week I have been exposed to some of the more obscure sports. At least more so than I might have had I been parking my butt in front of a North American television. As it turns out, obscurity is a relative definition as archery, fencing, judo, and handball are of great interest to French viewers, if airtime can be any sort of measure. Also, all these sports may be getting similar exposure back home. I have no way of knowing. Still, I’m pretty sure ladies field hockey and white water kayaking (really? An Olympic sport? Who knew?) aren’t front and center on CBC or CTV, or even ESPN. I like to think this is yet another opportunity to broaden my horizons.

As part of our ‘keeping it close to home’ strategy, and considering Perri’s friend Samantha was visiting from Canada, we looked for a sensible driving-distance destination and settled happily on Barcelona.  To break up the long drive, Ann managed to find a way to spend three or four hours in the Pyrenees, participating in something called “canyoning”. That’s right, the noun ‘canyon’ has been turned into a verb. No one told me of this adjustment to the English language, but there you go. Imagine combining hiking, rock climbing, and white-water rafting, without the raft, and you’ve pretty much got it. We started by gearing up with wet suits and harnesses, which in retrospect was a good idea since the water temperature was somewhere between ‘numbing’ and ‘bone-chilling’ (it made me a little homesick). 

Staring death in the face... and not blinking.

Yes, we paid to do this.
In a nutshell, we spent three or fours hours sloshing along, sliding, swimming, rappelling, zip-lining, and just jumping off small cliffs into water of suspect depth. Other than a few minor tailbone bruises and a couple of fresh-water sinus flushes, we survived intact.

Just before the jump.

Look closely - someone is halfway down that waterfall.
One quick stop at the monastery at Montserrat, where somebody decided you’ve got to get high in order to be close to heaven. Before I get comments about condoning drug use, I’m talking about altitude. The Benedictine abbey was built at the top of a very odd looking mountain (roughly 4000 feet above sea level) about 1000 years ago. The site also hosts one of the ‘black Madonnas’, a wood carving of the Virgin Mary, originally thought to be brought from Jerusalem in the first or second centuries (carbon dating by scientists of suspect faith pegs its vintage at 12th century). It was worth the brief visit, but I can’t see anyone like me wanting to spend more than a few hours there (italics added by Ann).

Part of the monastery- late in the day.
As an aside, I neglected to bring my camera on this trip, so I relied heavily on inferior but adequate equipment (perhaps I could have worded that better). Still, many of the shots worked out ok.

Barcelona was different from most of the other European cities I’ve visited. The core of the city had wide, well-treed streets, and striking architectural variation, even if you don’t include the Gaudi creations. The waterfront was a happenin’ place, and there were no lack of eating establishments (important for me). That Barcelona is in Catalonia adds to its character. Catalan is the language of the locals and they have no issues with letting you know. Ann stopped in shop for directions and asked the obviously Spanish woman working there if she spoke English, to which she replied “Not really, but I have a little Spanish”.

 Flash Mob - Barcelona style.
Funky Buildings everywhere.
We wandered around for a couple of days, taking in the usual stuff: big old church, buried Roman ruins, restaurants, etc.. The creations of Antoni Gaudi proved to be the coolest part of the trip. We toured the Geull Palace, Park Guell, and of course, the Segrada Familia, and they all had a high WOW factor. I don’t know what Gaudi was smoking, but somehow he made it work. I think he might have a bit of trouble getting financing in this day and age, but I'm glad someone, specifically his rich benefactor Eusebi Guell, ponied up over a century ago. Barcelona should go on everyone’s list.

Roof of Guell Palace

Ann at Guell Park

Ann with her new boyfriend

Tourists, and me. 
This might surprise everyone but there were gobs of tourists from everywhere. After listening to a mishmash of international tongues, I realized Arcachon is a very regional tourist destination, compared to Barcelona’s truly international flavor. That being said, I kept asking and answering questions using French, even though I knew the words in Spanish. Strange because I never do that in France.

Flinstones get religion.

This thing could be alive.

I was impressed with how bright this place was.

Too cool. Way too cool for a church.

Next stop: Morocco (I won’t forget my camera, probably).