Barcelona Redux in the Fall

We’ve barely unpacked from our tour of southwestern France and we’re off again, this time on the fast Renfe-SNCF train out of Gare de Lyon. We decided to go to Barcelona in mid-October 2021: our friend Sergio’s band was performing and we’re always eager to see more Art Nouveau  architecture and consume more tapas! In addition, the Barcelona weather in October is delightful.

COVID is still on our minds so we’re wearing our masks on the train, though few others are. The seats are spacious and comfy, and the views out the windows of our upper-level train car seats are a treat. We’re whisked to Barcelona, non-stop, in six and a half hours. We brought our own lunch, including a nice Rioja and wine glasses. Very civilized.

We were lucky to be staying at the four-star HCC St. Moritz hotel, near Placa de Catalunya. We have a friend, Paco, in hotel management there and so we got the “friends-and-family” rate.

The HCC St. Moritz Hotel

Our room was large and well-appointed. After we checked-in and got settled, a bellhop delivered a chilled bottle of champagne to our room, courtesy of Paco. I was so flabbergasted I forgot to tip the guy. What a nice surprise!

El Nacional Brasserie

Our room window looked down on the ceiling skylights of a huge brasserie called El Nacional. It’s so large that it has different “neighborhoods” for different food and dining styles. As you can see, the place is opulently decorated. We ate there one night and we weren’t disappointed.

A Visit to Parc Güell

One beautiful day, we decided to visit Parc Güell, an enormous garden in Barcelona, with stunning and distinct architectural elements designed by the renowned Catalan architect, Antoni Gaudí. The park is named after Count Eusebi Güell, a rich entrepreneur who was Gaudí’s promoter and patron.

Park Güell is a reflection of Gaudí’s artistic style, from his naturalist phase (the first decade of the 20th century). During this period, the architect perfected his personal style through inspiration from organic shapes. He put into practice a series of new structural solutions rooted in the analysis of geometry. To that, the Catalan artist added creative liberty and an imaginative, ornamental creation.

The park was jammed with people and some of the crowd traffic-control mechanisms seem to have backfired. So, we didn’t get to visit some of the iconic features and we left sooner than we might have on less-popular day.

The Schizophrenic Spacers in Concert

Marti’s, and now my, Spanish friends, the Martos clan, welcomed us to town. Sergio fronts the Schizophrenic Spacers, a great local rock band, and it’s no exaggeration to say that the group puts 110% into every performance. We scheduled our visit specifically to attend one of their performances, at a local club called Sala Upload.

Sergio is not only a gifted musician and performer, but he’s also a well-respected music industry journalist and critic. And that’s on top of having a real job. He comes from a musically-gifted family and is a warm, generous, funny guy. We always have a great time when we come to Barcelona and get together with him.

Alice Cooper ranks as one of his favorite acts and my ancient history working with Frank Zappa and others let us quickly bond. Marti’s late husband was also a music journalist; he and Sergio spoke the same professional language.

There is a vibrant local music scene in Spain, supported by numerous venues. Even COVID couldn’t shut it down and so there are lots of opportunities to see homegrown and pan-European talent.

The Spacers’ Dates in Fall 2021 and Spring 2022

Armed with what Marti dubbed “Barcelona-grade earplugs”, we attended the Spacers’ top-of-the-bill October 23rd performance. When I was in Barcelona in 2019, I mentioned to several very pierced-and-tatooed young waitresses at a bar I frequented that I was going to see a show at Sala Upload. I could see my “street cred” with them go up several notches just at the mention of the place. It’s definitely not for the James Taylor/Carol King crowd!

With eight fully-produced albums, the band draws from a range of material in their shows. Sergio really knows how to work a crowd and the band is musically very tight. The songs are often punctuated with dramatic, beautifully-coordinated stops and starts. It’s something to experience. And, of course, it’s loud.

One of the band’s hallmarks has been their incredibly good graphic designs, on everything from album covers to merchandise. It’s very creative, professional work and well above the amateur efforts one so often sees. To see more examples, go to their bandcamp website.

Alberto, Sergio, and the boys nail it!

Sadly, the band recently announced that, after 25 years together, they’ve decided to bring down the final curtain. They’re planning a farewell tour and that will be the end of the Spacers. I’m pretty sure we’ll be back in town to see them one more time before they’re done. The decision is an interesting example of how a really good group can produce great music for years yet, in the final analysis, it’s not enough to “break through” to the Big Leagues and, sadly, time takes its toll. They will be missed.

Monastery of Pedralbes

OK, so we’re not really as into late nights at ferociously loud clubs as we used to be. We decided a visit to the Monastery of Pedralbes, a Gothic monastery, the next morning would be therapeutic. No, we weren’t there to repent and join the order. The monastery is certainly one of the most beautiful gothic buildings in Barcelona and very soothing. It’s now a museum, housing permanent exhibitions of its own art and legacy holdings, as well as third-party special exhibitions from time to time. It was cool and quiet and we met some friends for a nice visit and, afterwards, coffee.

Our friends Bill and Toni, who moved to Alicante, Spain, last year decided to drive up to Barcelona to meet us while we were there and we enjoyed seeing them. We met at Cuitat Comtal, truly “Tapas Heaven” in Barcelona, and then we joined them as they did some shopping. They regaled us with tales of the challenges they faced in their international move, including setting up house and living without their household goods, which were stuck on a freighter, for seven months.

Our week-long visit to Barcelona over, we took the train back to Paris. It’s always nice to experience Spanish culture and foods, and we look forward to returning again in the future.

Wrapping Up in Lyon

Our traveling companions took the car and headed out from Nîmes for an archeological site they wanted to see, and we took the TGV train to Lyon. As I’ve mentioned before, France has a very good rail system and a two-hour, high-speed ride brought us to the city known as the “gastronomic heart of France”.

Lyon is built on the confluence of the Rhône and Saône rivers, and was the capitol of the Gauls during the Roman Empire, so it’s got some history. In fact, it has some more recent history with me: in March 2020, when the world shut down in response to the first COVID surge, I was living here. My Airbnb flat was in the Old Town area, just across the Saône from our current hotel, so I’m pretty familiar with the city. Our friends John and Alyce arrived at the end of the day from their archeological jaunt and joined us for a nice meal overlooking the river.

We saw a silk brocade, with real gold threads, being woven on a 200-yr old loom

Lyon was once the center of silk-weaving in Europe, with some 40,000 weavers cranking out the cherished cloth for royalty and clergy. Today there are just 12 weavers left and we visited one fellow’s shop to see how it’s done. The weaver demonstrated his fascinating art, up close, for us. His 200-year old loom uses “Jacquard cards”, a chain of rectangular cards drilled with holes that control the weaving pattern (truly the precursors to the IBM punch cards of the 1960s).

Marti receiving some ancient wisdom at the Roman museum

We crossed the river on foot and took the funicular up to the top of the hills overlooking Lyon and had a spectacular view from the Notre Dame de Fourviere basilica. Then we walked down to the Roman Antiquities Museum and the adjacent ancient amphitheaters. The museum is very well done and very pleasant to visit.

Finally, we returned to the Old Town by funicular and had lunch at Bouchon Les Lyonnais, a traditional bouchon restaurant. This type of establishment harks back to the 16th century and is famous for its hearty, regional dishes based on fresh ingredients, and for its charming, friendly atmosphere. The fare is rich – rich – rich; leave your calorie counter at home! We had a range of meat and fish dishes, and complemented them by filling our glasses with great regional wines from Beaujolais, Coteaux du Lyonnais, and Côte du Rhône.

Lyon is the third-largest city in France but its vibe is completely different from Paris; much more laid back. It’s a pretty city, too, and quite welcoming.

And so our 10-day swing through southern France came to an end. We bade our friends goodbye and boarded another TGV train for the ride back to Paris. They continued their travels through Europe, and will meet us in Paris for a rendezvous in December before flying back to the U.S.

Man, we ate some good food and drank some nice wine! We were lucky that we had very pleasant Fall weather throughout our journey, and it was nice to see some French culture outside of Paris. The Roman ruins we visited were amazing and we also saw some wonderful art. Now we’ll unpack and settle back into Paris for a few weeks and then we’re off to Barcelona!

Roman Antiquities in Nimes

Nîmes, our next stop, was an important outpost of the Roman Empire. It’s known for well-preserved Roman monuments such as the Arena of Nîmes, a double-tiered circa-70 A.D. amphitheater still in use for concerts and bullfights, the Pont du Gard tri-level aqueduct, and the Maison Carrée, a white limestone Roman temple, all around 2,000 years old.

I first stumbled across Nîmes on a poorly-planned, solo driving tour of France and Spain, back in the mid-80s, and wound up staying by chance at a wonderful hotel, The Imperator. It’s still there (listed as a Five-Star now so a bit above our budget for this trip) but I have no idea if it has retained its charm. Ahh, your impression of a place is certainly informed by where you stay and so, prior to our recent visit, I had a pretty nice impression of the town. My enthusiasm was tamped down on this trip, I’m afraid.

We had a frustrating time getting to our Airbnb in the Richelieu neighborhood because the car navigation system and Google Maps both kept trying to send us down one-way (the wrong way) and pedestrianized streets. We were passing places for the third time and patience was wearing thin when we finally arrived.

Our Airbnb was something else, over-decorated, with almost all of the walls lined with shelves containing thousands of CDs and DVDs. Sitting on the toilet brought you face-to-face with an enormous Star Wars movie poster and there was no shortage of red lights. Still, it was clean and the AC worked. It wasn’t in a very nice neighborhood, though, and we were stunned to find, tucked away across a major plaza, the Les Magnolias restaurant, where we quickly fell to reviving ourselves with an outstanding lunch.

We were really very lucky to have great weather during the entire trip, which allowed us to eat outside almost all the time, which helped allay COVID anxiety.

The next day we set out to see the Pont du Gard, the amazing Roman aqueduct about 30 minutes north of town. It’s a national park and a UNESCO World Heritage site and is probably jammed during the summer. Our visit was timed just right, and it wasn’t crowded at all.

What an awesome sight! The Romans knew how to use water as a political tool and they used this aqueduct and others to deliver water to Nîmes, growing the city’s economy and creating a lever for controlling the city as well. We spent half a day there and had a very good lunch at the nearby park restaurant. The associated museum, on the opposite river bank, has excellent exhibits that explain the engineering techniques used to build the structure. I was surprised to learn that a work force of paid, skilled laborers, not slaves, was employed to build it.

Nîmes is loaded with antiquities, such as the Emperor Augustine Gate, shown above, sprinkled through various neighborhoods.

Per our plan, we split up here, with our two friends taking the car to view the cave paintings at the Cave de Chauvet, while we took the train to our final tour stop, Lyon. They met us there at the end of the day.

Carcasonne’s Medieval Treasure

Carcassonne, a hilltop town in southern France’s Languedoc area, is famous for its medieval citadel, La Cité, which has numerous watchtowers and double-walled fortifications. The first walls were built in Gallo-Roman times, with major additions made in the 13th and 14th centuries.

Carcasonne is an easy 90-minutes east of Toulouse

We had an easy drive to Carcasonne, which loomed dramatically above us as we approached. We installed ourselves in our Airbnb rental and walked to the nearest restaurant for lunch. Which turned put to be a real jewel: tables in a large shaded garden, with a modest number of customers and friendly waiters.

L’Os ou l’arete cassoulet was outstanding

Everything was perfect! The food was memorable, the service friendly, and our hours-long lunch languid and relaxed. I had the regional specialty, cassoulet, which features white beans, duck, and sausage, roasted for hours. Incredibly tasty, and paired well with a local pilsner. We spent the rest of the day and evening in a virtual food coma and spent the time doing laundry and taking care of business online.

Castle and ramparts loom above us

As it happens, a set of very steep stairs at the end of our street leads up to paths that ascend to Carcasonne’s walled city and we managed the climb without too much effort. We took a self-guided tour through the castle and all long the city’s ramparts, which was fascinating. The Middle Ages were brutal and defense was paramount, as reflected in the many fortifications. It was a work-out, too, as we ascended and descended many steps, circular stairs, and changing levels.

Carcassonne became famous for its role in the crusades when the city was a stronghold of Occitan Cathars. In August 1209 the crusading army of the Papal legate, abbot Arnaud Amalric, forced its citizens to surrender. The people of Carcassonne were allowed to leave—in effect, expelled from their city with nothing more than the shirt on their backs. What a horrible fate.

Vegetable soup starter

Our fate after leaving the castle, of course, was much better and we suffered no privations, as the rest of the walled city is packed with modern tourist shops and restaurants. We were lucky to have escaped our touristic compulsions lightly, emerging with just half a dozen postcards. It’s a Saturday but crowds were light, which was a very good thing; I can imagine a crowded, hot, summer day here would be stifling. We ate a marvelous lunch at a place called Le Saint-Jean, in an outdoor area adjacent to the castle. The local Ortola wine perfectly complimented our meals.

My comrades are out foraging for tomorrow’s breakfast, after which we head for Nimes and its remarkable Roman ruins. Thanks for coming along!


Vineyards and Toulouse

Today, we’re in Toulouse, the capital of France’s southern Occitanie region, which is bisected by the Garonne River and sits near the Spanish border. It’s known as La Ville Rose (“The Pink City”) due to the terra-cotta bricks used in many of its buildings.

We stopped at two vineyards along the way from Bordeaux, by appointment, for tours and tastings. It was fun to learn about the vineyards, to taste their wines, and of course to buy a few bottles.

At Chateau de Gensac
Enormous barrels at Chateau Caze

In between, we had lunch at a fabulous restaurant we’d never have found in a million years but for a vineyard owner’s recommended.

Fine outdoor dining at Chez Vous, in tiny St. Puy

In Toulouse, we’re staying in an Airbnb, just south of the river. Inner-city traffic is really congested and it took us quite a while to get to our place.

Our day in Toulouse included visits to the Capitole plaza, the Basillica of St. Sernin, and the Victor Hugo Market, punctuated with a great outdoor lunch. We used the subway system, which was easy to navigate, fast, and convenient.

St. Sernin’s claims to be the burial place of St. James (disputed by competing claim from Santiago, Spain) and five other apostles!

We ended our day with a superb Moroccan dinner at La Marocain.

Couscous and other treats at La Marocain

Tomorrow, we’re off to Carcasonne.

In Lovely Bordeaux

We spent a nice day walking around Bordeaux, seeing its architectural high points, and touring the Museum de Aquitaine. The museum has a great collection devoted to pre-historic man, with artifacts that go back 25,000 – 30,000 years, which is of particular interest to our traveling companions.

Porte Cailhau gate

At the medieval Porte Cailhau city gate, we encountered a large brass plaque that references St. James, patron saint of the Camino de Santiago, of particular interest to me:

Traditional pilgrim routes went through Bordeaux

Our passe sanitaires have worked smoothly whenever they’ve been required and we generally feel quite safe in public indoor spaces, knowing others around us are vaccinated.

In case your French geography needs a refresher

We’re traveling in a leased, diesel Peugot 3008 SUV and France has plenty of nice, high-speed toll roads. The navigation system in the car has been spotty at times though, so we’ve had to do some Google Map verifications and a u-turn now and then. But it’s all been good.

Tomorrow, we head southeast to Toulouse.

Gaming the Coffee Machine

We’re in Bordeaux, on the second day of our drive-and-dine roadtrip through southern France.

Our hotel has a lovely buffet breakfast laid out and I’m finding myself very entertained by my fellow guests as they do what’s necessary to get themselves their morning coffee. The ”coffee machine” looks like this:

Espresso, coffee, latte, cafe creme, americano, and hot chocolate

The machine is pretty simple to use: put a cup in place and tap the desired picture. This snazzy, single-serve machine will then grind the necessary beans, brew the coffee, and dispense the right amount. So easy!

And yet… Some of guests have noticed that the large, generous cups are not filled all the way, so they figure they can run a second choice into the same cup to top it off.

I can understand thinking you can double up on the caffeine by running an espresso in on top of a regular coffee, for example, but what I don’t get is how badly people seem to estimate how much room is left in the nearly-full cup. Some hilarity ensues.

As the cup fills and overflows, one guy panics and punches multiple buttons to make it stop, without success. Another keeps discreetly tipping some liquid out of his cup into the drain tray until the second cycle ends. And my favorite was a lady who just pretended nothing untoward was happening and walked off with her full-to-the brim cup, leaving a trails of spills through the dining room and the machine dispensing the remaining coffee directly into the drain.

What did they think was going to happen, I wonder?

Me? I drink tea.

Southern France Road Trip

I recovered from mild jet lag quickly and enjoyed being reunited with the New French Girl Friend (NFGF), both of which which involved good French croissants and champagne.

The French are taking COVID restrictions in stride, despite some weekend protests in major cities. The basic deal is that you must have a passe sanitaire, a national vaccination record represented by a QR code, and must have it scanned in order to enter restaurants, bars, the Metro, large event venues, and more.

French folk get their QR code via their national health system when they’re vaccinated. Vaccinated foreigners like me can apply for one online, and the US CDC vaccination is accepted in many places as a substitute. I received QR code a few days after arriving in Paris.

Publically, the French thought the passe sanitaire was an infringement on their freedom (hence the protests) but it turns out that privately they thought it was great to be assured that everyone in the bar, restaurant, etc. with them was vaccinated. So vaccination demand soared when this was put into place and, as of now, 85% of the eligible population here has had one dose, and 78% are fully vaccinated.

Social distancing and the wearing of masks in public spaces indoors is pretty widely practised.

All of which is very reassuring and lays the groundwork for our Southern France Road Trip.

The 2021 Edition is a 10-day driving tour, featuring great wines and wonderful food, starting and finishing in Paris, with stops in Bordeaux, Toulouse, Carcassonne, Nimes, and Lyon. We’re traveling with some American friends from San Diego.

Expect some gorgeous food and scenery pictures!

Ahhh, Travel

It’s good to be back on the road again.

I left Dulles airport, near Washington D.C., and flew Air France direct to Paris – Charles de Gaulle. I was asked to present my passport and U.S. CDC vaccination card before being given a boarding pass but otherwise the flight was uneventful. Everyone wore their mask, no one brawled with the stewards, no police were called to the gate. What a commentary on the times were in today!

The view from my seat in the Air France lounge at Dulles

Upon landing at CDG, my two docs were examined again. Not examined: the Passenger Locator form distributed on the plane, nor the French health attestation form I was told to download and complete before the flight. I also took a PCR test 24-hours before departure (negative, of course) but no one wanted to hear about that – it was mostly for my own peace of mind and a hedge against any last-minute flight restriction changes.

Wending my way through Charle de Gaulle airport

Very impressive baggage return system they have at CDG, with lots of status information provided as you stand around and wait. My bag appeared out of the maw of the belt machinery pretty quickly, so I had no need to test my first-time use of an Apple Airtag for luggage tracking.

Had a looonng taxi ride into town, with many jams and lots of rain, so I was glad I opted for the flat fare taxi (€58) instead of an Uber, which with ”surge pricing”, might have been double that.

Great to be back in Paris! Need some coffee and a croissant, and then a shower.