A Travellerspoint blog

day 12: where you going? BARCELONA. oh.

in which only great lovers of stephen sondheim will get that reference

sunny 45 °F

Sometimes I forget what an ambitious undertaking it is for someone so scatterbrained as I to try to make daily posts in a blog. (Check my rate of posting here for a concrete example of this!) So it’s not surprising that now that I’m home in DC and the luster of wanting to share experiences as they happen has worn off, I’ve let two days pass without posting and I’m even further behind in chronicling my trip than I was before. However, there are lots of terrific experiences fit to print, so the posts must continue until I reach my misbegotten flight back to the US!

Thursday – actually, exactly a week ago from the present – was more of a “travel day” than anything else, so this post "should be" on the short side anyway. (Not likely.) After a long night out soaking in my last hours in Toulouse, made even longer by the fact that I stayed up until around 4am packing, I woke up around 7am in order to make my train to Barcelona. Taking leave of my awesome and gracious host Marie, I lug my made-heavier-with-the-newfound-presence-of-French-booze bags to the subway station a few blocks away, and manage to figure out how to get on the right subway car to the train station. In the Toulouse subway there’s a frequently placed ad featuring my musical hero Gustav Mahler, and a guy who looks rather eerily like him on the adjacent poster. I’m fairly sure this would never ever ever happen in America. ☹

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The station the train leaves from is confusing, as there’s no ticket window and it seems the only way to purchase a ticket from the French-only machines is to have a French credit card. Standing at the machine, my train is leaving in eight minutes and I’m experiencing one of the few mild panic moments of my trip (reminiscent of getting lost on a bus in Prague, perhaps?). I decide to get on the train and see where the chips fall. The train conductor is standing by the door and I manage to ask if I can buy a ticket on the train; he says “yes, but it’s 10 Euro more.” I gesticulate to him that the machine wouldn’t take my credit card, and he kindly motions, “Oh, OK, no problem.” However, twenty minutes later when he comes to charge me for the ticket he shows me the handheld machine which says 24 Euro + 10 “on train” fee; I try to say “but you said…” but then give up. With better French I would’ve tried harder to explain the lunacy of charging me a penalty for something unpreventable, but... c'est la vie.

The ride to Barcelona is quite pretty, winding through the mighty Catalonian Pyrenees past gray-brown fields, barren winter trees and an occasional thinly populated mountain hamlet. I arrive at La Tour de Carol station around 11:50am and settle in for the two hour delay before I pick up my transfer to Barcelona. Like all good unfamiliar train stations, it feels really remote here, and the few people ambling around the tiny station speaking French or Spanish make me feel even further from comfort. To keep with the French theme, I watch Truffaut’s The 400 Blows on my laptop. (Along with Godard’s Breathless prior to my Paris trip last summer, I’m slowly conquering the French new wave, which is now... old?)

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The train to Barcelona is supposed to depart at 1:43pm, and by 1:35 I’m getting nervous that I’m not sure where it might arrive and leave from, and the ticket office, oddly enough on a Thursday afternoon, is of course, closed. At 1:40 I get up and cross in front of the station by the tracks, seeing a sign that says “A España” with an arrow pointing left; obviously this is the direction the train will head in, but the only train there is positioned further down on the tracks and somehow doesn’t look like my train. Having learned however that solo travelers should always investigate every option in unfamiliar lands, I walk down and climb aboard the train; there’s a girl who I recognize from the station sitting there and I ask “is this the train to Barcelona?” She says yes, and thirty seconds later the doors close and we’re off. Phew! Train-station-disaster-which-would-have-entailed-waiting-another-three-hours narrowly averted!

Until this day, Spain had remained one of the major countries of Europe which I had to enter, and passing by small towns in the North it resembles very much the picture I had created in my mind. Densely configured, rickety dwelling places in vibrant oranges and yellows, laundry hanging on clotheslines outside what seems like every window.

When I arrive in Barcelona I’m immediately aware of being in a place with a reputation for pickpockets and thievery, so I keep my camera packed tightly away. Last summer I had used the Airbnb (still don’t know where the name comes from) website to find rooms to stay in Europe with great success, and as I don’t know a soul in Barcelona, it’s the only time on my trip when I’m going to have to roll the dice and stay with a stranger. Binita’s place, however, which I booked the previous day, is quite well reviewed and a close walk from the major train station of Sants Estacio. Upon arriving, I call her and she gives me directions, and after the 10-15 minute walk through a quiet, residential neighborhood I find the apartment, and am let in by Roser, Binita’s new housemate who just moved in. (Oddly enough, in my three day stay I never actually met Binita, as we kept different hours, but I had a lovely stay and her friend was very helpful!)

Though I’m tired, I figure it’s better to see a bit of the city, so I pull my ID, credit card, and some Euros out of my wallet, put them in an inner buttoned pocket in my coat, and venture out, deciding that it’s better to leave my swanky camera behind. However, thankfully I brought my old Sony point-and-click, which fits into an inner pocket, along for the trip as a backup. (It’s funny how when I purchased this camera for a wedding in the summer of 2007, I referred to it as my “nice” camera!) Thus, the few shots I took in Barcelona that night look different from my usual shots.

I take Roser’s advice about the best plan of action, and hop on the subway to La Diagonal station, north of the major tourist area known as La Rambla. I walk for around ten blocks along Passeig de Gràcia, a vibrant shopping avenue which feels like Madison Avenue in Manhattan; Wikipedia tells me its the most expensive place to buy property in all of Spain! The window displays are immaculate and creative and I stop into a clothing store, thankfully resisting the temptation to purchase any fine Spanish shirts.

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Along the way, I come upon a large apartment building which looks like it’s been imported from a Disney cartoon, and I’ve arrived at Casa Batlló, my first view of the work of legendary Barcelona architect, Antonio Gaudi. It’s pretty impressive from close up, though I opt out of paying the 18 Euro (!!) entry fee and snap a few photos from the sidewalk instead.

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I pass by a large open square which empties out into the northernmost section of the long street La Rambla, and even though it’s early in the evening, the area is already teeming with tourists and vendors.

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I walk for a few minutes, and with the densely packed glut of tourists surrounding me now very glad that I don’t have my nice camera, and stop into an old-looking cathedral, wedged into a traffic pattern close to the Catalunya subway stop. A man shakes his cup at me, disgruntled, as I open the door for myself upon leaving the church.

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The Teatre de Liceu, home of the Barcelona Opera, is featuring Donizetti’s Anne Boleyn, and dozens of students pack the outside waiting to enter.

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Using Binita’s wifi signal, I had loaded up a few webpages on interesting bars in Barcelona, and I decide to seek out Rita Blue, which is close by just off of La Rambla. I’m quite hungry and want to indulge in a familiar snack, so I order the website-recommended, house special Margarita Blue (tasty!) and an appetizer of nachos with what ends up being processed cheese?! (Not a great introduction to Spanish cuisine, I’m afraid!) I leave after twenty minutes, as the place is large and mostly empty, and I want to experience something more lively in my limited time.

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Headed toward another bar on the list, I enter a bustling side street with loads of young people milling about, and realize I’ve happened upon a photography opening at an art gallery. I walk through and take in the photos, most of which are Polaroids, and help myself to a glass of wine in the back. Muchas gracias!

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Further down the street I find Casa Almirall, which this website tells me is one of the oldest bars in the city, and try out some Spanish with the bartender. Though my French is practically non-existent, I did take about 6 years of Spanish up through high school, so I’m feeling on steadier ground, though it's still un poco de dificil después de mucho años! I ask for a local beer and he pours me a glass of Estrella Damn, a light and refreshing Spanish pilsner, and I sit at the ancient bar and use the wifi connection to plan my next move. Before I leave, the bartender, who sees I’m a tourist looking for cool places, hands me a postcard picturing people at the very same bar where I’m sitting, ca. 1860. Muy impresionante.

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Wanting to hit up at least one more place, I decide on Bar Marsella, legendary Barcelona absinthe bar and former haunt of artists like Hemingway, Picasso, Miro, and Gaudi. The side streets off of La Rambla feel a lot sketchier than the main drag, with prostitutes and shady-looking men lolling about, as well as children/possible pickpocket candidates running down the dimly lit, unfamiliar streets. I get to the bar but sadly it’s closed (really? at 11:30 on a Thursday night?), though the front door is still open. I walk in and am floored by the ambiance; history seems to seep from the amber-colored, oak walls, set up like library shelves, on which dusty 19th century bottles take up space. I ask if it’s alright to take some photos and snap away, glad that I brought a backup camera!

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I hustle back to La Rambla and walk toward the subway, stopping to take in an incredible flamenco dancer accompanied by a box drummer. This style of dance screams excitement and people quickly form a crowd to watch. The performers are stunningly in sync, and I shoot some video. Pretty amazing, right?

I stay for few minutes after and chat with the performers, Bernardo (dancer), and Cristobal (drummer) who are professionals who also rely on street performing to eek out a living. Bernardo gives me the website address for his flamenco company.

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I catch the train back to Sants Estacio and walk back to my temporary home. First night in Barcelona, relaxed and enjoyable, and I have everything I came here with, so that seems a victory already!

Posted by coolmcjazz 06:44 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

day 11: churches! museums! music! all you can eat!

in which your author gorges himself on the things that make europe europe

sunny 40 °F

My second morning in Toulouse begins by waking at 5am, meditating in a grassy field in the full lotus position in front of the cresting Toulouse sunrise. Actually, no, I slept in again, made a breakfast of toasted baguette and hopped on a bike outside Marie’s apartment. I ride the opposite way as yesterday, reaching the River Garonne, which I’m told flows into the Atlantic.

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I drop off the bike – this bikeshare thing is getting addicting – and stop for a slice of pizza before walking around the neighborhood of L’Eglise Saint Pierre des Chartreuse, a Baroque church built in 1602, currently undergoing restoration. The side chapels are in somewhat rough shape, but the ceiling of this church is stunning and in good shape. (So not Baroque? Sorry.)

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I walk past the sign saying "don't walk here" on the scaffolding around the altar and there’s a long ceremonial room with a large organ (here's some video of it on YouTube!), dark wooden seats on the sides and adorned with enormous, stately paintings hung high on the walls; this is a room which seems fit for a coronation, and I’m the only one in it. I shoot a bit of video which I'm certain in no way captures the ambiance of being there.

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As I’m walking around, an organist is practicing in the center of the church where a smaller organ resides. Standing there amidst all that art and historical air, the melancholy, perfect counterpoint in the background makes for a poignant experience. When the organist finishes, I say “Bach?” and he says “Oui.” We manage a 75% English, 25% French conversation, and I guess correctly that he’s a local student. The music was beautiful so I take a picture to find a recording later, and I take a few seconds to play the first few bars of the melody on the organ myself, though he tells me I’ve played it too fast.

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I leave the church and continue walking around, with no real plan in place, passing through some brick archways in the area of the University of Toulouse, where Marie chairs the English Department.

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The face of Matt Damon and a Red Bull car seem, I don’t know, anachronistic, in this neighborhood, no?

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I stop into a friendly-looking café and sit for un café, then decide to stay and indulge in some afternoon wine and cheese. (The wine is a local red, Fronton, which I would later purchase a bottle of for home, and the cheese was cow’s milk, though at first I hear the bartender say “coal’s milk.”) I’m able to get a wifi signal here, so I spend a bit of time updating my Facebook status, which admittedly is a fairly exciting thing to do when one is sipping wine in a French café.

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I keep walking and pass by St. Sernin, knowing there was a bike rack (two, actually) behind it, and I pick up a new bike and come upon a square with a merry-go-round and a traffic circle packed with lots of people strolling about.

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Riding down Rue D’Alsace Lorraine, I pass by hundreds of busy shoppers, and come out on a main avenue, where I find a bike stand and saddle down, with the mind of walking back toward a wine shop I had passed. On the corner, however, is the Musee des Augustins, one of the places Marie had circled on her map, and it’s still open, so I pay the meager 3 Euro entry fee and walk in. The museum is arranged around a square-shaped, outdoor monastery plot with a medieval garden in the middle, and I’m immediately struck by the uncanny resemblance to The Cloisters in upper Manhattan, always one of my favorite hidden gems in New York City.

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Walking through the Gothic section there are hundreds of religious sculptures and paintings dating to the 14th century and prior; the collection seems quite impressive and I’m already glad I stopped in.

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There’s a heavy door at the entry to the chapel, and entering I walk into a large space which obviously once was a fairly large church which has been converted into museum space. There are a number of interesting paintings and sculptures here, mostly Spanish, Italian, and French Renaissance and pre-Renaissance, with a few 19th century works as well.

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I take a particular fancy to a work by 17th century Spanish painter Bartolomeo Esteban Murillo, called San Diego de Alcala de Henares en extase devant la Croix, which shows an ordinary medieval garden containing a priest seemingly levitating off the ground in ecstasy while the churchmen bicker amongst themselves. (For some reason they had no postcard for this in the store?!) After looking this painter up online I recognize one of his other works, Two Women at a Window, as one of my favorites from the collection in the National Gallery in DC.

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Marie calls and we agree to meet at the museum, after grabbing a quick bite to eat we will come back to the museum chapel for an organ recital at 8:00. I explore a few more wings until she arrives.

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We walk with the goal of finding some food and exploring the town; she’s a terrific tour guide, pointing out 16th century apartments along the way.

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When I mention I’m interested in buying some wine we head off to her favorite wine store, which is packed with local selections. I buy a nice 2006 Fronton, which I’ve already had twice in Toulouse, and I splurge on some 15 year Armagnac, which I hope will stand for a while as a nice memento of this region. (I find it strangely synchronicitous that a day after I bought this bottle, the Washington Post published this feature article on the intrigue of Armagnac!)

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Stopping first at another of her favorite restaurants to make a reservation for after the concert, we pass by the river, and end up at a cute café where Marie treats me to local red wine (keep it coming!) and local spiced cheese with jam.

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The concert at the museum, played by a young organist on the large pipe organ in the same chapel space described above, is so soothing that I admit to drifting off at times; it’s an almost mystical feeling being semi-conscious while listening to Bach fugues!

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As we leave through the gift shop area I find out that the most famous work the museum owns (a Gothic Madonna and Child called Nostre Dame de Grasse) is actually on its way to Paris and Chicago! So I take a photo of the poster. ☺

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Dinner at Le May is fulfilling, and again I’m basking in the ambiance of the way the French eat. For dessert I have some sort of upside-down apple tort which Marie describes as being named after two sisters.

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The night is still young, so we head to La Tireuse, a beer bar with many Belgians on tap, which given my craft beer obsession, Marie is justifiably excited to show off. Over a few fine Belgian beers, some which I hadn’t tried before (e.g. the sweet Belgian stout Leroy), we discuss great books (I demand of her a list of her Top 5, Desert Island novels) and art and again it's great to feel an intellectual connection with an academic in a different discipline.

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On the walk back to the apartment, I’m kicking myself when I realize that one thing I missed seeing was the church where the relics of St. Thomas Aquinas are kept, and as we walk by the outdoor of Les Jacobins I resolve to see this another time. I head to bed having spent a full, enriching day in Toulouse, and I’m so happy I came here. I look forward to coming again – who knows when? – not to mention meeting Roberto (who was in the US at the time) at some point. (Something tells me he'll be a better conversationalist than Oedi the cat.) Thanks to Marie for being the best local host anyone could ask for!

Posted by coolmcjazz 11:40 Archived in France Comments (0)

day 10: toulouse is not too loose pour moi

in which your author has no excuse for that terrible play on words

sunny 45 °F

My first morning waking up in France (since July, at least) is spent catching up on sleep. I’ve found that’s sort of “how I roll” as a solo traveler – stay out at night and interact with people and places, then forego being an early morning tourist. There are disadvantages to traveling alone, but dictating one’s own schedule unapologetically is not one of them. After an unsuccessful joust with Marie’s stovetop coffee maker, I find a café in her neighborhood and manage to order un café (a strong French espresso, of course!) without much trouble, and I set out a map of Toulouse on the table to come up with a loose plan for the day.

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I make my way through brick-lined, colorful French side streets to Basilique St. Sernin, the major church of Toulouse. A large number of French students line the plazas surrounding the church, most of them smoking and happily chatting, and I see at least two bike drops close by.

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I stop into a crepe place Marie recommended (with a old piano at the entrance), and order a crepe dufort, with luscious, nutty emmental cheese and fromage de chevre, and a rich chocolate drink with vanilla cream. There's an old piano with a copy of the Beethoven Pathetique Sonata on it by the door. I must be in Europe!

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Passing through the 14th century gate, I enter the Basilica, a famous pilgrimage spot built in the shape of a Latin cross, and begin to explore its dark and ancient exterior. Allow me to pause briefly and note that one runs out of adjectives to describe the interior of these medieval churches; they all feel and smell “old” and storied, with ceilings stretching to the sky which make you wonder how the heck anyone got up there in the first place 600 years ago, never mind create incredibly ornate art. I sense a distinct lack of anything that’s comparable to them in the US. I also wonder whether if my students (or Americans in general) could hear music or even just set foot in these places, maybe the vapidity of much of American pop culture might lose some of its allure? (Soapbox now demounted.)

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In the rear of the church, I stop and touch the cement “feet” of St. Anthony, patron saint of travelers; this is one of the many stops along the legendary route of the Camino walk to Compostela de Santiago, and I think of my 70-something friend Dan, who has walked the 500 mile trip on numerous years, as well as Peter and Natasha of Greystones, who must have stopped here along their journeys as well? Incidentally, I'm very much looking forward to finding their book about the trip, which will be published in Ireland in March!

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In the other side of the rear, there’s an open space with statuary recalling the church’s history, reliquaries holding the remains of a number of Catholic saints, and what appear to be 14th century frescoes painted on the walls.

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I pay the 2 Euro entry fee to the crypt, and follow a curved path; from this angle, I can see the magnificent altarpiece of the church looming above. Steps leads down into a downstairs grotto containing more relic-holding shrines.

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Outside the basilica there’s a teenager bouncing a rugby ball, then kicking it high in the air to a mate; the accuracy of the kicking is impressive.

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Walking around the church, I find my way back to Rue de Taur, so named for the bull on which St. Sernin (aka Saturnin) was allegedly strapped to in the 3rd century; the bull ran the 1/3 of a mile along this street to the place where the basilica now stands. The street is busy with walking locals, and seems a center for shopping and eating, rife with bookstores (many displaying Camino maps), restaurants, bakeries, and even that grand French patisserie of yore, Subway. But thankfully, no holy men strapped to angry bulls.

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I spot another old church to explore, this one Notre Dame du Taur, which was the burial spot of St. Sernin. This is a good example of the constant renovation these churches must undergo; workers are up on ladders repairing some part of the altar, and most of the paintings and walls are in dire need of restoring. A beautiful 19th-century mosaic telling the story of St. Sernin and the bull decorates the area above the altar, and along the wall there’s a recently discovered, 14th century fresco giving the genealogy of Jacob.

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I stop into a bakery and order just one (just one?) pâté of chocolate and almonds, and come out into the large square surrounding the Capitolium, the large civic center of Toulouse.

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I pass through the archway and walk into the building, walking up a winding stairway around which colorful tapestries and paintings seem to cover every square inch of space.

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Inside the Capitoleum are what appear to be function rooms, all lined with paintings and ornate design. The workers setting up and breaking down ordinary plastic tables (probably for a wedding reception, as Marie says they have many here) seems a stark contrast to the opulent surroundings.

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Walking outside, I’m in a high traffic shopping area, and I stop into a Virgin Records, purchasing a few tough-to-find classical and jazz CDs in the clearance rack.

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At this point, I decide to try out Marie’s bike suggestion; she was kind enough to set up me up in the system with an account the night before. After some trouble with the all-French instructions (and some assistance from a stranger) I manage to get the bike out and I pedal back to her neighborhood, where I fix myself some soup and baguette and settle in for a nap.

I sleep way too long – I’m still in catchup mode after a physical rehearsal week – but luckily, France is a country that seems to open at 9pm!

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Marie and I venture out into a rustic neighborhood to visit one of her favorite local haunts L’Esquinade, and it’s the absolute picture of a stereotypical French restaurant, people wedged into chairs at tables practically butting into each other, everyone speaking French (imagine!) in animated tones. The menu changes depending on what they have in stock; I order white fish with vegetables, which is delectable. It’s tres difficult eating exclusively vegetarian (never mind vegan, God forbid!) in this country, as almost everything is cooked with some of meat, and the only meatless options on any menu seem to be cheese-based! They offer two house selections for wine, and we drink a good amount of the locally-produced Gros Manseng white, left at the table in jug form. The desserts are amazing: chocolate tiramisu, and flan encased in a caramel waffle, and after I pay the check (leaving an American-sized tip to make up for any previous rude, non-French speaking Americans… tres falulach!), we’re left with two shot-sized jam jars containing the house cocktail, strong, fruity, and gingery, though they won’t tell Marie exactly what’s inside!

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We walk a short distance over to Brueghel L’Ancien, another local bar with excellent Belgian beers on tap, where we befriend a cool local guy named David. We sit with him and his friend whose English is equivalent of my French (Marie translates), then retire to the outside area where most of the French people are now forced to do their smoking. I'm finding Marie's words true; everyone in Toulouse seems approachable and friendly, much more so than in Paris! A man with a dog stops by, then a few musicians getting out from a gig; one of them starts playing the Louis Armstrong classic St. James Infirmary on the guitar, but when a saxophonist joins in the bar manager comes out and asks them to stop. I’ve always heard how important jazz is to French culture, but it’s pretty amazing to see it in action; I can’t imagine jazz musicians picking up their horns for in impromptu session outside a bar in, say, Adams Morgan. Here's some video of this.

It’s been a nice, relaxing first full day in Toulouse, and I have another day to explore. C’est magnifique!

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Posted by coolmcjazz 03:15 Archived in France Comments (2)

day 9: carcassonne, s'il vous plaît!

in which your author explores an out-of-the-way destination

sunny 40 °F

On Saturday morning I successfully make it to the airport and am pleased that my underpacking has paid off – no extra fees on RyanAir, who I’d been warned is infamous for making their money this way. I catch up with sleep on the 2 hour flight to Carcassonne, and after landing take a shuttle bus to the train station, close to where I’m told there will be a hotel where I can leave my bags for a few hours. I’ve chosen to fly to Carcassonne (a town I had actually never heard of!) because it’s the closest RyanAir stop to Toulouse, where I will meet Marie, girlfriend of my mother’s college friend’s son. (Which in terms of Americans traveling in Europe makes us practically brother and sister?) Although I made it to Paris on my trip last summer, I opted to explore mostly Northern Europe, and didn’t make it down to the south of France, so it’s lucky and thrilling I’m able to tack on a trip at the end of the development week in Ireland.

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I stop into the tourist office where a friendly rep gives me directions to a hotel where I can drop off my bags for a few hours, and advises me to see the medieval city. I lug my bags through busy commercial streets to the small hotel, which is locked and seemingly unoccupied; I ring the bell and a man answers, who charges me 3 Euro to leave two bags. Walking around the “low” part of Carcassonne, it seems like most other cosmopolitan Europeans cities, rife with shopping, teenagers. Many of the residential buildings, however, seem to date from the 17th century or earlier; with multi-colored shutters and wrought iron balconies adorning their windows, it's easy to see the history of a place like this.

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I stop at a tea house, hoping to find un crèpe au fromage, but no luck, and the bargirl and I are having a comically good time trying to understand each other. Not wanting to be rude, I order an Earl Grey tea and sit for a few. I return to my walking and notice an open exhibit in the Museum of Fine Arts, where I take a few photos of sculptures.

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After walking for about 25 minutes and turning the corner onto a bridge, under which some men are laying a game which looks like bocce, my jaw drops when I see the medieval fortress city lying off to my right. UNESCO recently named the medieval city of Carcassonne as a World Heritage Site and I immediately see why.

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I walk up to the castle walls and wander up the windy paths, entering a city within the walls, with restaurants, cafes and hotels dotting the neighborhoods inside. Due to the off-season timing, the streets are mainly empty, which lends an almost ghost-town quality to the medieval architecture. I come upon the fortified castle, open for another hour, pay the admission fee and walk across the moat into the area which once hosted brutal battles. Prior to touring the castle I stop into the gift shop and find an impossible-to-find-in-the-US, 6-CD box set of the French early music ensemble A Sei Voci singing Josquin, on discount. (In hindsight there were two sets and I should’ve bought them both. The individual recordings are wicked rare, some of them +$100 each rare! Ah well, less to pack.) I walk around the ancient, restored castle, which even more than the town I have almost completely to myself, and take lots of photographs. It’s fairly clear out and from the distance, one can see the enormous Pyrenees; apparently this region has been on the cusp of French and Spanish control for thousands of years.

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After leaving I stop into the “Museum of Medieval Torture,” a bit of a gimmicky tourist-trap, but the Wikipedia article on Carcassonne mentions it, so I figure it must be legit. It’s gory stuff, and contains many original instruments used in the Inquisition led by the medieval Catholic Church. (Though I don’t imagine the plastic mannequins date to that period.)

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I’ve agreed to meet the hotel proprietor at 6:30 to get my bags, so I start heading back to the low town. The setting sun looks gorgeous from the descent from the castle; I’ve found this a really unique and unforgettable place which I wouldn’t have thought to visit had my travel plans not enabled its accessibility.

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The streets are now dark, and the hotel guy isn’t there at 6:30, causing a bit of temporary worry, as the neighborhood seems a bit unsteady and I have to catch a train. A few minutes later he comes to open the door (phew!) and I walk up to the train station, where the employees give me somewhat confusing directions about a bus to Toulouse, which appears to be late; they point vaguely to another area where the bus picks up; I don’t see it, and resign myself to waiting until the later train arrives.

On the train I sit across from two delightful French women (mother and daughter, I assume) who give me tips on Toulouse. (Thanks again, Pauline and Martine, if you ever see this, and I very much enjoyed San Augustin!)

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Marie comes to the platform to pick me up, and I’m surprised that rather than being out in the country, Toulouse is actually a major metropolitan city and also that Marie is my age! (Because she’s the head of the English department at the University of Toulouse, I guess I was expecting someone older?) Marie recommends that we bike to her apartment, and kindly sets me up with a weekly ticket to use the Toulouse bikeshare system, which I would find extremely convenient over the next few days. (Do we have this in DC yet?) We pile my bags into the bike baskets and whirr through the streets to where she lives about 2 miles away. Marie whips up a French favorite, baked camembert cheese with slices of warm and crusty whole grain baguette, and we down a bottle of excellent local red wine.

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We get to discussing literature; Marie is a renowned expert on Nabokov, and she pulls out books from the shelves (including Lolita, her major focus of study, which I have to read now) to illustrate various points. Given the isolated conditions of my current college teaching jobs, it feels really nice to engage with a peer on matters of art and expression. Marie brings out some fine Armagnac, a locally-produced fine liquor comparable to Cognac, though far less commonly found in the US. Armagnac is aged for years, and we finish a bottle from 1988, which was impressive enough, but then Marie breaks out a bottle from 1976, given to her as a special gift after having defending her PhD. The aroma of this stuff is so complex and glorious I almost don’t want to sip it, but when I do it’s warming and layered with many notes. I’m also drawn to the ritual which surrounds drinking Armagnac; one must warm the liquid by cupping the glass in one’s hand, swirling it for a few minutes to release the flavors and free the alcohol. I find the idea that this liquid has been trapped in this bottle for 34 years outrageously cool.

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Marie sets me up with keys and a map of Toulouse to explore the next day, and so far am feeling very welcomed in France!

Posted by coolmcjazz 02:07 Archived in France Comments (0)

day 8: alas, a last day in ireland

in which your author can't stop meeting wonderful people

semi-overcast 40 °F

Phew. Lots to catch up on from the past few days, friends! I write from a comfy seat on a train bound from lovely Toulouse to Barcelona, but I’ll have to backtrack to all the way back to Greystones, Ireland to cover all things.

After some morning writing, a nice breakfast, and conversation with Peter and Moira, I begin to plan out my next move. Tony, Peter and Moira’s friend who I remember from the Biden-announcement visit, stops by to drop off a rugby jersey, and he tells me that if I want to make quick friends in Toulouse, I should buy a t-shirt proclaiming “I love rugby!” I walk into “downtown” Greystones, right on the water, and find a cute hotspot café with friendly people to write and plot out my next few days.

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The previous day I had left a phone message for my possible distant cousin Anita and her husband Michael, who live in Dublin, about a visit. On my 2008 trip, my ex and I had gotten desperately lost trying to find their home, and had to settle for a nice meal with Michael in town, so I’d never actually met Anita. While at the café, I get a return call from her, and they invite me over for dinner. I venture into town and buy a bottle of wine in gratitude for Peter and Moira’s warm hospitality. The bottle is from the Languedoc region of France, close to where I’m headed; it's one I’d seen in New Hampshire last summer, when I expected to be traveling to France, rather than where I actually went. Also, note the photo of the Obama book mentioned previously; fun to see it again, as when it was given in August of 2008, Obama's candidacy was a dire wish! If we only knew then what we know now, right? Although truth be told, the record of accomplishments is quite impressive.

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Peter is going to drive me to the Bray station, and on the way I phone Anita to find out if its possible to stay the night with them; she kindly obliges. I say my goodbyes to these lovely people (and dogs!) with hopes of seeing them again another time, and Peter drops me at the station for the next leg of my trip.

I spend some time writing on the train, and when my stop comes up, I’m caught off guard; upon pushing the button the door doesn’t open and I have to go one stop further. Not the sort of mistake an experienced traveler should make, especially one who is trying to save time to make it out to his Patriots vs. Jets playoff game at 9:30pm! Michael picks me up at the alternate station, and after catching up on the ride, tells me that due to a slightly overcrowded house at the moment, they’ve booked me into a hotel?! He refuses to let me pay for the room, and its just one more example of the overextended hospitality so many people have displayed to me in this fine country. I drop off my things and we head to his house, located in the Ranelagh area. It’s nice to be at a place where I had intended to be at during my last trip, and Anita is a wonderful host. They have three darling children, all under the age of ten, and I let them take photographs with my camera, a few of which came out quite nice! (There may be some budding young photographers in this family?) Also, Anita’s father Nile is visiting, and he’s the picture of a warm Irish chap, telling stories of his trip to America. After a terrific meal the four of us sit around the table and carry on a wide-ranging conversation touching on Catholicism, economics, and American politics, and as with Peter and Moira I’m impressed by how well versed in American political dramas the Irish seem to be. (And they seem as perplexed about Sarah Palin’s popularity as most Americans are!) It’s another warm visit with interesting, smart people, and I’m glad to have made the connection with Anita finally, even with the last-minute timing. Some day I’ll try again piece together whether there’s an actual family connection, which dates back to an address label circa 1930!

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Michael takes me to my hotel, quite posh and conveniently located for the morning shuttle to the airport, and I prep for another early morning with not much sleep by writing and not watching this movie which is on. With the flow of conversation I never made it out to watch the playoff game, and I’m rather devastated to hear that to punish me for this, my Patriots have chosen to not show up. (Spring training starts when, Red Sox? Though I'm told my roommate may still be having a party on February 6. Some sporting event is taking place?)

Anyway, sadly, I’ve wrapped up my second visit to Ireland but I'm excited to get back in solo traveler mode and I look forward to my next trip to the auld sod… who knows when?

Posted by coolmcjazz 08:27 Archived in Ireland Comments (0)

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