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Navigation, Directions and Communication

"When you get to a fork in the road, take it"

Navigation and communication:
First, thank you to Steve Jobs as the maps and walking/driving directions available on our i-Phones have saved our bacon dozens of times so far.
When we arrived in Spain, we bought spanish SIM cards for our unlocked i-Phones at the Madrid train station. For $25eu each, we got 1gb of data and $18 worth of talk/text time. That way we could stay in touch and use the data for e-mail, maps and research when we were away from free hotel or restaurant wi-fi.
In Spain, the phone maps and walking directions were life savers. We could drop a pin at our hotel/apartment and then wander around the maze of narrow winding one-way streets and alleys for hours and then just click on directions back to the pinned location. The only problem was that the street names in these ancient cities changes every couple hundred feet for no apparent reason (we were told that they do it to honor a famous person or family), but it seems more likely that they just want to piss-off the tourists. This problem is further complicated by the fact that the before-said ever-changing street names are rarely posted anywhere so you have no idea if you are going the right direction. Typical directions from the map "Proceed on Calle Sanchez for 30 feet, then proceed left on Calle Gomez then right on Calle Hermosa, proceed left on Avenue de Mendosa, proceed onto Calle Jerez for 30 feet". In reality, you just went straight for 100 feet while all the unmarked street names changed names. Confusing? Yes, very...but only until we learned to just watch the arrows on the screen and not listen to the directions. Another thing you learn is to never drive inside the old city walls. One time in Seville, we called a taxi to take us to a restaurant we could not find on the map, the taxi drove for about 20 minutes and charged us 8eu. When we put in walking directions to our pinned home, it was only a 3 minute walk back due to the limited car access on the narrow streets. Note: the narrow winding cobblestone streets don't stop the locals from driving at breakneck speed - especially on their motorcycles. However, to be truthful, the confusion, getting lost and all that just add to the flavor and ambiance of travel in beautiful places. Once you learn that it's going to be different than what you are use to, then you can just plan for extra time and enjoy where getting lost takes you.
So you might think that since we have been here a month, we must be starting to become fluent in Spanish. You, mi amigo, would be el wrongo. We are trying, but keep in mind I was taking French lessons - which only makes the Spanish more confusing. When we are out and about, there are two different results when we communicate in Spanish. The usual one is this: unbeknownst to us, we must have some invisible (to us anyway) neon flashing arrows above our heads that pointing to us saying "Americanos". The result being that we stupidly attempt to speak Spanish and point with our hands while they politely listen and then answer us in English. The other, more rare result is we actually accidentally speak the language correctly enough to fool them into thinking we are not idiots - the unfortunate result being that they answer us in Spanish. Thus the conversation:
Me: Donde es el vino?
Spanish guy on street: el vino ? usted borracho ! primero hay que ir a la izquierda en la Calle González , y luego caminar treinta y dos pasos a la calle Rameriz , luego dar la vuelta , comprar unas tapas , ir al baño , tomar tres vueltas alrededor del parque , tomar una siesta y luego buscar el vino nuevo. (All said in less than 3 seconds).
Me (A proud, but stupid American): Si! Bueno, perfecto, Gracias!
Me (whispering to Cathy) What the hell did he say?

Still.....all this beats being home watching reruns of Bonanza. Don't you agree?

Posted by Catnchas 06:56 Archived in Portugal Comments (0)

Never. Ever.

Drive. In. Lisbon.

Ever.

Posted by Catnchas 13:36 Archived in Portugal Comments (1)

Indiana Jones

"Fortune and Glory, kid - fortune and glory"

semi-overcast 14 °F

Indiana Jones
Remember that scene in "Raiders of the Lost Ark" when Indy is running from that big rolling rock? When he finally escapes, he lands in the middle of a bunch of natives with spears. Sans snakes, that was almost the same experience we had while driving in the hills of old Lisbon.
We drove from Evora to Lisbon and as we are prone to do, we had booked a hotel in the historic section. Rather than dropping the car off at the train station, we decided we would first drop our bags off at the hotel, then take the car back to the rental place at the train station and take a taxi back. Anyone want to guess what our first (of many) mistake was?
I should have known better than to turn off the main avenue and head up the hill into the old streets full of small streetcars, trolleys and pedestrians, but I was following the directions from Google maps - which would periodically just freeze. Plus....how hard would it be to find a hotel anyway?
My poor judgement was compounded by my poor eyesight and we both missed the small red circle with the X (meaning "wrong way, do not enter"). We followed the train tracks up the narrow, winding street. Things were peachy until we saw the street car full of people heading straight for us madly ringing its bells. OK, Indy, we have been in tougher jams than this. I'll just back down this curvy, narrow street and not crash the brand new rental car into anything - right? OH NO!!! Now there is another street car coming up the street the opposite way right at us! (Time for a commercial and popcorn.)
Both street cars stopped, both conductors (that makes 3 of us), waved their fists at us and said bad words in Portuguese (I don't speak Portuguese - but I'm pretty sure they were bad words). We were able somehow to back into a tiny alley, let both streetcars pass, then turn around and head back down the hill - both of us screaming and laughing uncontrollably as we realized we had escaped unscathed (cue John Williams music now). Needless to say, we abandoned plans to drive to the hotel and headed to the train station.
We had 36 hours in Lisbon. After the taxi dropped us at our hotel, we walked around and explored Lisbon. We found a great restaurant and really enjoyed our brief stay.
Other than the narrow, winding hill streets (Lisbon has 7 hills), the flat part of the city is laid out in a grid with wide avenues, many huge plazas, a zillion statues, beautiful shops, incredible fresh pastry, and tons of history. There was a major 9.1 earthquake in 1755 followed by a huge tidal wave and fire that destroyed 85% of the city including all the palaces and cathedrals. When they rebuilt it, they laid it out in grand fashion. We enjoyed our time here and would come back for a longer stay - but obviously not drive in the hills again.
Now we are on the overnight 13 hour train to San Sebastián (our favorite city from our trip two summers ago). We have a sleeper car (more like a sleeper closet). Back to Spain for a last week before we get to try our French skills and French wine. 😊

In the pics, see our blue hotel on the hill with the infamous sign and tracks, views of the old city, food, wide avenues, statues of old guys, a street musician, the 24th century castle, plazas and an incredible fresh sangria. Also, a couple who are still happily married after 31 days of tight quarters.

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Posted by Catnchas 06:50 Archived in Portugal Tagged lisbon Comments (2)

"Tell me when to stop"

San Sebastián (Donostia), Basque Country, Spain

"Tell me when to stop"
On our last trip to Spain, we were lucky enough to have enough Starwood points to stay at the Hotel Maria Cristina in San Sebastián. It was a splurge. During the famous film festival in September, this is the hotel where all the Hollywood stars stay. When we were there in 2011, we decided to try their "Gintonic" at their lovely bar. The bartender brought out a tray of various gins and large 20oz Bordeaux glasses with ice. After he described the various "healing" characteristics of each gin, we chose one and he began to pour. He did not stop after pouring 1,2,3...,4+ ounces and then looked up and said "Tell me when to stop"...We didn't know what to say and could only laugh.
That was 2011 and we have told and re-lived that many times. One of my "To Do" lists while back again in San Sebastián was to go back to the Hotel Maria Cristina and see if we could duplicate that experience. It was a task I was relishing. We did, he said the same thing and we were not disappointed. In fact we were snockered.
We, unfortunately are not staying here as it is way above our pay grade without the benefit of Starwood points, but we took pictures (The very kind front desk staff even allowed us to see our room from 2011 - I was hoping to see a plaque on the wall saying "Charles slept here", but they must have removed it for polishing.) Anyway, the pics show my favorite drink with my favorite woman at my favorite bar in my favorite hotel in my favorite city in the world. Additional pics show our train from Lisbon, our train "suite", the bar car, the views from the train and various sights around San Sebastián - including the infamous pintxos (glorified tapas?) found in all the bars throughout San Sebastián.

Note about "bars" throughout Europe - in the US, a bar is usually a place that you go at night to drink alcohol. Here, it is quite different. A bar is where you go to get your cafe in the morning, lunch in the afternoon and your appetizers (tapas, pintxos) and dinner at night. It is also a social gathering spot for locals in the neighborhood as the apartments are very small and often house three generations of family.
I wanted to clear that up - lest our friends and family think we spend all of our time drinking in the bars.
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Posted by Catnchas 01:49 Comments (0)

Pintxos and Sunshine

A good, but wet week in San Sebastián

We knew that our streak of 30 days with only small amounts of rain was bound to change. It did in San Sebastián. For the first three days, we walked around with our umbrellas fighting wind and rain with brief respites of sunshine. We took a walk along La Concha beach and as we started home, the glorious sun came out and the town immediately bloomed with happy people celebrating what seemed like the end of winter. Tomorrow is our sixth day in San Sebastián, our 36th and last day in Spain before taking the train to Bordeaux for a two night stay. The stay in Basque Country has been a nice transition from Spain to France. The pintxos bars have been amazing, though after 5 weeks of tapas, we areready to experience French cuisine.
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Posted by Catnchas 09:09 Archived in Spain Tagged and sunshine pintxos Comments (0)

Must be livin' on a lucky star

The Neverending Story - but you must read it BEFORE you look at the pics!!!!

Note - this experience actually happened three nights past. I delayed posting in hopes of figuring out how to add videos. Have not quite figured that out, so no vids yet. Currently in Bordeaux enjoying the food and wine. Heading to Saint Emilion later today.

Have you ever had an experience that when it was over, you were afraid to pinch yourself for fear you might actually awaken?
To really understand what we experienced last night, you need both a little background and a bit of history. Be patient as I believe it will be worth it.
Cathy had a close friend in high school named Terry. They kept in touch over the years. About 5 years ago Terry married a Spaniard named Alfons (note: very important - not a Spaniard, but a Catalonian). She packed up and moved to a small town near Barcelona. When we came to Barcelona in 2011, we made contact with them and hung out for a few days. Fast forward to 2015. Cathy wrote to Terry a few weeks ago saying we were going to be in San Sebastián this week and would love to see them. They kindly drove the 6 hours from Barcelona to San Sebastián - which is now Donastia to me. We met, had some drinks and pintxos, took a short drive to the top of the mountain for a great view of Donostia, then began to talk about what we wanted for dinner. Having had tapas and pintxos for five weeks, we wanted something different. We all agreed that a typical, authentic Basque meal would be perfect. Now for the history....

Basque is one of the oldest cultures on the planet. Before the Romans, before the Celts came to the British Isles, the Basque culture thrived in this area - the region overlapping what is now Northeastern Spain and Northwestern France. The Basque language is said to be 10,000 years old. Problems arose when sometime in the 1930's, the Spanish dictator Franco banned the Basque language and culture and attempted to make everything Spanish. The same thing happened to the Catalonians in the south - as well as the Galatians in the far Northwest. You can imagine that these ancient cultures were not too happy with the attempt to homogenize them into Spain and force their cultures to end.

OK - back to the Basque meal. Alfons called two friends he knows from this region asking if they knew an authentic Basque restaurant we could go to (note to my wine buds - this was after we went to Rekondo and found they were closed for remodeling - see the pic of the sign noting me as a "particular client").
One of Alfons friends pointed us to a small village near Andoain about 15 kilometers outside Donostia. Directions were to an old cider house about a mile east of Andoain, past Sorabilla to an old a Basque farmhouse in Aduna - one of those "You can't miss it" set of directions which usually translates to "Good luck finding it". Well, we missed it alright - several times, but eventually found this old stone Basque house with a light on - and we bravely parked and walked to the light in back of the house. The next four hours were one of the most memorable of our entire lives.
I've added pictures and hopefully videos of the evening. My description is that this was not an authentic duplication of a Basque dinner, but an actual evening with a Basque family and community as real as it gets.
When we first walked in to this beautiful time warp, Alfons began talking in Spanish and Basque to the family, telling them who we were and I think, most importantly that he was Catalonian and not only sympathized, but supported the Basque independence from Spain. At that point, they welcomed all of us as family and the evening began. In the pictures of the dining room (which formally was the barn), you can see 3 large barrels full of cider. We were told to drink at will, but first they needed to show us how to pour the cider for the best effect. One person holds the spigot and the other drinkers have glasses in hand about 3-4 ft away from the spigot and alternate filling and cheering the next person who puts their glass under yours as it leaves the flying line of cider.
This was great and they began bringing out their traditional dishes. There were 8-10 other people in the room - not sure if they were family or friends, but I do know we were quite a novelty as Alfons said that it was rate for them to have Americans as guests. We tried our best to communicate and introduce ourselves as we ate and drank the different ciders. Then it got really interesting.
One of the older men with the traditional Basque hats stands up and yells what sounded like "charge!" (I think he was the owner and husband of the older woman whom I believe must have been Indiana Jones girlfriend who owned the bar because as the evening progressed, it became very evident that she could and would drink every man there under the table.) You can tell who she was in the pics and in the video where she sings me a Basque lullaby of friendship. In retrospect, I realize that she must have been very respected as she was the only one who got to carry and keep the removable spigot handle - a most important piece of equipment.
Anyway after her husband yells "charge!" The room empties and follows him down three flights of stairs with glasses in hand. Upon arrival downstairs we see two even larger wooded barrels and about 10 big stainless steel barrels. I'm thinking it's a damn tour, but no, they want us to taste this cider too (as if the 3 huge barrels in the dining room are not going to be enough!) The same scenario of pouring and catching the cider from 3-10 feet away repeats and by now we are all fast friends slapping each other on the back while we make toasts to all things Basque. I learned to say "Gorro Escate Esgocutar" which I think means "long live the free Basque", although the thing was every time I shouted it they all raised their glasses and we went through the pouring ritual again. After about 30 minutes of this we realized that we had in our haste, left dinner upstairs where the three other large wooden barrels of cider awaited. It would now be a good time for me to prudently say that Alfons was being careful and acting like a good designated driver, but truthfully, I would be lying.
We all trekked up the stairs to the dining room, they brought out these huge pieces of incredibly delicious steaks and we were in heaven (sorry for the pics of devoured steaks, but by this time 3 hours into the adventure, I was thinking survival, not pictures).
Believe it or not, someone yelled "charge!" at least 3 more times and we not only went down the stairs to the storage tanks, but the woman whose name I now remember as Babelina (true) decided that we needed even more examples of their special reserve cider which was outside in these very large holding tanks next to their sheep herd. Yes, and the same rituals of pouring, singing, backslapping and friendship prevailed once again. It was now well after midnight, we were 18-20 kilometers from home - but we had not had dessert yet! Back through the doors to the storage tanks (stopping for a re-taste), up the stairs to the dining room where a plate of Basque hard cheese, a jam like quince gel, and un-cracked walnuts awaited. Most of the other men had left by now, but Babelina and two others stayed to make many toasts with us again, finally singing me a lovely Basque lullaby. By 1AM, we managed to pull Alfons away. He was having an incredible time sharing Basque and Catalonian stories and speaking the ancient language. We carefully drove home, getting dropped of at Pension Aida around 1:45AM.
That's my story and I'm sticking to it. Charge!

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Posted by Catnchas 00:30 Comments (0)

Bordeaux and Saint Emilion

Welcome to France!

semi-overcast

Bordeaux and Saint Emilion
OK, that last post was too long, so this one will be shorter. We took the train from Donostia to Bordeaux, spent an afternoon and evening seeing Bordeaux, then decided that night that we wanted to go to Saint Emilion where we will spend the next 24 hours before meeting friend and former CVHS colleague Ron Notto in a small village about 50 minutes south of here where we will stay for 3 nights.
Bordeaux was wonderful. We took a tram into the city center, strolled down Rue Ste. Catherine, enjoyed a cafe and pastry, visited several wine shops where we somehow were invited to a premier tasting of the 2014 Lalande de Pomerols - where we tried our best to look like we belonged even with our daypacks and tourist maps, found the recommended bistro Gabriel on Place de Bourse, then tramed back to our hotel for a much needed night of rest.
We picked up the rental car this morning. We will have it for 18 days before dropping it off in Dijon and taking the train to Paris towards the end of the month.
It was only a 40 min drive to Saint Emilion and the maps/directions on the phone performed near perfectly. Towns like Saint Emilion are the reason I cannot become homesick and will keep returning to Europe. It is the most picturesque town we have seen so far. It also helps that the weather is pure blue sky and daffodils are blooming. Of course, the fact that there are 300 wine shops in a town of less than 2000 residents certainly raises its reputation in my eyes.
Pics show our time in Bordeaux, street scenes, the tasting at the Grand Bordeaux Hotel, a wonderful cheese shop, as well as our brief time in Saint Emilion - our hotel and view, and our first French onion soup in France.
Oh, yes - one other thing: the days of inexpensive Spanish food and wine are over. Send $.

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Posted by Catnchas 19:07 Archived in France Tagged and saint bordeaux emilion Comments (0)

La Boissiere

Hospitality at it's finest!

sunny

La Boissiere
Day 42
For the past four days we have been staying at "La Boissiere" - the breathtaking home of "Rondre" - Ron Notto and Darrell Andre. I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that if there were a Nobel Peace Prize for hospitality and kindness, they would need to dedicate an entire room in their lovely country estate to hold the awards. Gracious thanks to Darrell and Ron!
The name of their town is Montaillac, near Soumensac, but you will never find either one on a map. It is roughly 90 min southeast of Bordeaux, on the edge of the Dordogne region. Their home - which dates from the 1600's, sits on a gently slopping hillside - with a stunning view towards Bergerac to the east. They have lived here for 14 years, since their retirement as teachers in both the Corvallis School District and OSU. During that time, they have hosted over 300 guests - many from Corvallis.
Their estate has two buildings - the main home and a lovely, large, fully equipped, comfortable guesthouse where we stayed.
Staying with Darrel and Ron is like staying with family - only better. You don't just rent the guesthouse, but essentially - you rent them and get their knowledge, language skills, advice and an escorted tour of the area's rich heritage. Greeting us when we arrived were bottles of Cotes de Boissiere and Sauvignon blanc - which we all shared on the patio by the fountain before we even bothered to unload our bags!
We were lucky enough to also get two wonderful French meals prepared for us, as well as two evenings of fun board games and stories.
One of the highlights of our time with them was a full day tour of the Chateaux, bastides and castles in the surrounding region including Montpazier, Castillonnes, Chateau de Biron and the incredible castle at Beynac overlooking the gentle, winding Dordogne River. It's springtime. Daffodils are blooming, the early fruit and flowering trees are starting to flower, the grass is a deep green and life has again smiled on us.
I want to be very clear that we loved Spain - the people, the culture and the landscape, but already - after only six days in France, we are wondering why it took us so long to come here? There is something about the entire ambiance of the French experience that just feels.....cultured and artistically pleasing. For example, perhaps there is a stone house with a red tile roof. The shudders might be blue, but not just blue....but the perfect gentle pastel shade of blue that just exquisitely sets off the entire house. Hopefully I can capture this essence in a picture.
From here we are driving to the caves of Lascaux, stopping in Sarlat and then heading to Carcassonne where we will spend the night in a hotel near the old city center. After that it is on to the Mediterranean town of Callioure for a few days. Following that, we have about a week of unplanned time along the Mediterranean into Provence before heading into the Southern Rhone for our much anticipated scheduled tastings at the Cheatueax Beaucastel, Pegau and Telegraphe. Although we are looking forward to spending the last week of April in Paris, it also saddens us to realize that 2/3rds of our journey is over.

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Posted by Catnchas 10:45 Archived in France Comments (3)

Toulouse, Carcassonne and Collioure

Back to the Mediterranean as spring breaks out!

sunny 21 °F

Toulouse, Carcassonne and Callioure
Back to the Mediterranean as Spring breaks out

After our wonderful stay in La Boissiere, we headed east towards St. Cicq de Lapopie. At the last minute, we decided to turn towards Carcassonne so we would get more time in the popular medieval city. After lunch and a quick park walk (baby ducklings) in Toulouse, we headed to Carcassonne. That turned out to be a mistake as Carcassonne was just too touristy for us. A bad hotel, a terrible French onion soup and an overpriced bottle of wine, comme si, comme ca, knick knack, paddy whack, get the heck outa here. The pics of the castle and the old city are the best part of the visit.
Heading south and leaving Carcassonne turned out to be a better decision as the very small coastal city of Collioure is much more to our liking. Collioure is about 15 miles north of the Spanish border. It is quaint and the Mediterranean breezes are refreshing. We will stay here for a few days, enjoy the sea, fresh seafood and the Languedoc-Roussillon wines. Note the view from our terrace across the bay to the old castle. Not a bad spot to hold up in before heading across southern France and up the Rhone in another week. Bonne journee!
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Posted by Catnchas 03:52 Archived in France Comments (0)

More from Collioure

Perfect stop on the Mediterranean

We just love this beautiful village on the Mediterranean. We had planned some day trips to neighboring areas, but just could not tear ourselves away. We needed an R&R stop. This was perfect. I'm really glad we came now - in the offseason as the locals tell us that it gets crazy in the high season. Pics show our hike to the top of the castle walls, the trail to town, our incredible view from different hours of light and the most wonderful fish lunch - finished with a Crem Catalan. Mmmmm!
We are packin' our bags now and taking the three hour drive towards Avignon - croissant and cafe stop in Narbonne and lunch and a little sightseeing in Nimes.
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Posted by Catnchas 22:42 Comments (0)

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