green balcony door. france.

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Thursday 30 july


today we went to a part of france that has its own language and flag – catalonia. we started in Perpignan and explored the tiny, narrow streets and many small squares of the old city that dates back to 1200s. In some ways it reminded us of Venice (with out the canals). Everywhere there were small art shops and galleries, cafes, bakeries and food shops that sold traditional Catalonian food (we have an exceptional apple tart for desert tonight). The windows of the old houses were filled with flowers and the shutters were painted a wide hue of colors. The street signs were in both French and Catalan. There was a greater concentration, in a small area, of upscale shops than in Paris. Naturally, we forgot our resolve not to buy anything more for Helena and now she will be the most sophisticated (at least in dress) of the kindergarten students at her school.


Then it was a drive into the foothills of the Pyrenees, to Ceret. Ceret is set in the hills among the orchards and is a guide book perfect town with its narrow medieval streets and buildings, its perfect squares, its enormous trees and its laid backed atmosphere. It is the kind of place you do not want to leave. We left four hours later. Besides being famous for its cherries it is also famous for its art and is known as the “Mecca of Cubism.” Picasso, Braque, Soutine, Matisse, Gris and other painters worked here in the 20s and 30s and we were able to view there works at the local modern art museum and then go see the actual site of the painting within the environs of the town. Some what like our utrillo experience in Paris.


We ate lunch at a small restaurant in one of the squares where everyone seemed animated, including the waiter who was always laughing. We had the Catalonian tapa plate for two (it could easily have feed four or more). It was different from Spanish tapas. We started with toasted bread and olive oil and tomatoes and excellent local cured ham. Then a platter that contained a dish of cold shrimps, and a dish of stew of chicken, meat, sausage and vegetables and two dishes of a lightly fried vegetables, fish and calamari. All washed down with a half liter of local rose (4 euro for the wine). We sat eating surrounded by the colors and textures of this old European town and both said that not only are we not eating out on our return home, but also we are not leaving our house and patio….there are no “magnificant sights” to see.


From Ceret it was a long drive to Collioure, a gem of a Mediterranean port and vacation spot. That Matisse settled here gives you the idea of how charming the town is with its cobbled streets and colorful fishing boats in the harbor. It is so popular that it was impossible to find parking anywhere. We ended up illegally parking in the lot of a restaurant high above the town just to get a good look at it and then take some pictures. Getting out of town took some doing as the streets, most one way, were packed with cars. We made what we thought was a poor choice of streets to turn into and expected a long slow up hill drive and then the same down hill – but luckily we followed the car in from who seemed to know how to turn into garbage filled back alleys and get us back to the center of town and to the street that led out of town.


All this driving was a challenge, especially in a shift car. Frequently you drove from one traffic circle to another. Perhaps six within half of one mile. The circles have no lights and right of way goes to the cars already in the circle. There are often four or five different directions off the circle. You have to be alert, aggressive, know where you want to get out of the circle and position the car accordingly – and be sure not to stall out you car at the yield signs. having lived and driven in Europe for many years certainly helped us be relaxed with the driving situation. all in all, European drivers are much better, much more courteous and drive in a more responsible way than US drivers. European drivers, surprise of surprises, know that cars have directional signals and always use them – they never hog the passing lanes and although they love their cell (mobile) phones you never see them use one while driving.


Nine hours later back at our local cafÈ…a beer for Neal and coffee for me. tuesday night, at dinner at the outdoor cafÈ in town, we were told that we needed to make a reservation if we wanted to eat paella at the local fest on saturday. so i went into the bakery where the reservations were supposedly being taken and was told that the paella reservations were “complet”, all sold out. Well not one to accept “complet” i, in my best and getting better french, talked to two men we knew (sort of…we had seen them at dinner from dinner tuesday night) and told them our tale of woe. One of the men called the women in charge of the paella and she said no – he then went to see her and talked her into not only reserving paella for the two of us but also for the local French guy and his friend. The four of us will go to the fest on saturday sort of like a couples date, except we don’t really know these people. Should be fun. The food is served community style.


Tomorrow it is the Carthars – look them up if you don’t know who they are!


Friday, 31 July.


It was Catharism day and we started off with a drive through the interesting country side to Carcassonne. We first visited this medieval walled city (cite), built in the 1200s, in the 1980’s with david. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. When seen in a birds eye view in a post card this double walled cite appeals to the imagination as an impregnable fortress and a romantic center of middle ages life. up close it is hard to appreciate its scale and the “romance” falls victim to the hoards of tourists that crowd its well restored streets. tourists being driven around in mule drawn carts – with the mules wearing medieval styled hats adds nothing to the ambience.


the basilique, dates to 1096 and has two tremendous rose windows. outside the church was a sign that said “believers and non believers should be respectful of this church of the catholic sect.”


we arrived early to beat the crowds but the parking lot was already mostly filled – filled with tour buses and small mobile homes that many europeans travel in. by the time we left the lot was complete.


the rest of the day was to be spent at the fortress of Peyrepertuse and of Queribus. These fortress cities (or chateaus) were built at great heights on the top of formidable limestone promontories that make them appear to be unapproachable and impregnable and make you wonder how they were ever built on such great and isolated heights. They really look now in their reduced state of disrepair – ghostly white in color. the two chateaus were the last strong holds of the cathars against the forces of the pope, the crusaders and the french king.

to get to the two places where the heretic cathars ,who wanted a return to the purity of early christianity were eradicated , required a multi-hour drive over some of the most narrow and winding and unmarked roads in france passing through pine forests and vineyards valleys and wild places of desolated scrub areas. it was a drive that kept you ever alert (two cars often could not fit together on the road and if it was a truck, then what?). but it was a drive that appealed to our emotions and to our senses – and often for us that is what Europe is all about.


on the way we passed thought Limoux (it hosts the largest and longest carnival in the world) and where Dom Perignon invented champagne. it was a laid back place and we had lunch in the main square where the weekly market was ongoing. salads are big at lunch throughout France and i had a gazpacho (or gazpacho salad) and Neal had a salad that contained a huge piece of duck pate with figs in the pate, hard boiled egg, lettuce with dressing, small tomatoes, a fig preserve and toast. Wonderful…..with a very small glass of rose (think of all that driving that lay ahead). a note about water…when we lived here previously everyone always had bottled water in restaurants with your meals. no more and not sure why, perhaps it has to do with ecology. now you are often given a bottle of tap water that has been chilled and sometimes are even given a glass with ice. Sometimes you get the water but not a glass to drink it with.


Then we drove through and stopped in what must be the new age Sedona of France -- Rennes Les Bain. An old and colorful village set in the hills and built on a maze of narrow lanes it contains sulphourous waters that people swim in. We watched young boys jump off a narrow bridge four or five stories high into the river below and then quickly return to do it again. A bookstore sold books in many languages about the occult and the mysteries of this region. The town square cafes played new age music. There were scruffy young people in strange dress. The entire place had the feel that something bad happens there. But we enjoyed having a coffee in the square and taking great pictures of the colorful buildings, windows and doors.


saturday, 1 august villeseque des corbieres


While in paris, before coming to southwest france, we frequently checked on the weather and it was always warm and sunny. monday, the day we arrived it was cool and cloudy and we woke up this morning to clouds, fog and a light drizzle – it was enough to make you cry especially since this was to be a beach day and there isn’t really anything to do on a rain day that we hadn’t done already.


so we decided to just go to the beach and sit in a cafÈ and plan out our barcelona trip. an hour later we were at our favorite beach and sitting in the cafÈ we always have both lunch and coffee in. The beach was empty as was the town area. We ordered coffee and croissants (but they had run out of croissants) so we told the owner’s wife that we would go to the local bakery and be back for our coffee in a few minutes. we returned and our coffees arrived and so did a surprise. a few days ago neal lost the little chinese change purse that he kept the small change in (he has also lost his sun glasses!!! at carrcasonne). The coffee was accompanied by the lost change purse and the smiles of the owner’s wife. This reminded us of a visit to the south of France in the 1980s when Neal left his “purse” with our money and passports in a roadside cafÈ. We only discovered the loss many miles later when we arrived in St Tropez. When we backtracked and arrived back at the cafÈ the owner came running out to our car waving the lost purse to the clapping of the cafÈ’s patrons.


After coffee – the beach – where the sun finally came out. Before lunch and beach time we used the internet at the local internet cafÈ that was also the wind surfing school. The beach,lunch, reading and napping until time to go home and rest up for tonight’s fest in Durban.


So there we were in Durban, all dressed up and ready to meet Pierre in front of the cafÈ at 8PM (as arranged) to cross the bridge to go to the fest and join the locals at the long rows of tables set up to eat paella. By 8:30 it was apparent that we had been stood up. Disappointing. And no food in the fridge. Then on the drive home I remembered being told that there was a new restaurant just down the road from our village.


We parked in a large parking lot and walked around a large chateau like building to see people seated at tables in a very pleasant park like setting. We were greeted as old friends by the hostesses (who had previously helped us at the Durban cafe on our arrival when the grumpy old cafÈ owner said he couldn’t understand a word of my french.)


But before we could order the sky darkened over and it became windy and started to rain – everyone dashed inside into a small dining room where our hostess had already set aside a small table for us. So while the locals at the fest got wet, we had a pleasant meal of salad with chicken livers to start (remember how the French now love their salads), followed by grilled tuna with wild rice and apple tart with caramel sauce for desert – a half pitcher of local rose naturally.


A five minute drive home and we were safe and full as the deepest sounding thunder rolled through the valley.

art outside the edge

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Taken on July 30, 2009