Friday, October 28, 2005

Off on a gelatto break

Published another post (catching up on our Provence wanderings) and uploaded a whole bunch of pics for your enjoyment. We leave Lyon, France for Italy tomorrow morning where we will meet up with Brian's parents who are coming over to travel with us for a couple of weeks. Thus the postings may be few and far between for awhile as we will have more social things to do than sit in an internet cafe.

We'll be back later with crazy italian adventures, until then wish us good travels and an unlimited supply of pistachio gelatto


UPDATE: We've added blog entries for Espana and our latest stop, Padua. Enjoy!

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Spanish Stream of Consciousness

Bonus Blogs as we have an extra couple hours in Padua hiding from the cold dampness before our train to Milan to meet up with the parents.

Random thoughts on our Spain travels (minus Barcelona which received already has its own entry) from both of our brains (in no particular order)

  • The area around Madrid is dry and desolate. Reminds me a lot of the US Southwest
  • Toledo is nice though pretty much built around people visiting the cathedral. Not a bad thing but the cathedral itself didn't hold up for me as well as some of the others we've visited. (Becca has a different reaction....lots of neat small medieval streets to wander and a lot of history in the cathedrals, old synagogues, and other buildings. Unfortunately, like other picturesque walled cities, it can be overwhelmed with tourists (though many were Spanish in Toledo) and it was really hot, even in late September.)
  • The Santa Cruz neighborhood of Seville is just a magical place to wander at twilight. It's a maze of tiny streets, hidden courtyards with lime trees, moorish gardens, and fragrant vines spilling over walled gardens surrounded by Moorish architecture giving you the feel of being a character in a tale of Arabian Nights.
  • The medieval area of Granada is less nice, being filled with grubby hippies with big dogs. If you got to visit the Alhambra, you can make it a quick in and out.
  • The Alhambra is beautiful and impressive, but we didn't find it to be as amazingly life changingly beautiful as you might be led to believe by the hype. Definitely very worth seeing if you are anywhere near there, but not necessarily worth planning a trip especially to go there.
  • Becca really likes the old doors in Toledo. Don't believe me? Check these and tell me what you think.
  • Roast suckling pig is a Spanish specialty and can be quite good. However eating the tail isn't.
  • The Prado is just the right size. Big enough to feel properly cultured upon leaving but not big enough to need a GPS system or multiple trips.
  • Don't buy an old translation of Don Quixote. Just don't. Great book but I think I might have had better luck reading it in Spanish than in Old English.
  • It's probably just me but I find it highly humorous that Madrid's city seal is a bear trying to do something to a strawberry tree. They also have a statue of it right next to the hotel we stayed at.
  • We definitely noticed an increase in the amount of smoking we had to endure around us, especially as Spain has no limitations on smoking indoors in cafes, restaurants, businesses, etc like many other countries are starting to do. That got a little old...
  • We inadvertently stumbled upon a total solar eclipse during our stay in Madrid. Not sure how we missed it as many had traveled there especially for the event. All three of us successfully survived with eyesight intact.
  • Brian decided that calamari sandwiches are a pretty good lunch. Becca and Molly were less sold on their cold greasiness, but everyone agreed that the tortilla (egg and potato omelet) sandwiches were pretty tasty
  • Tapas come in all shapes and sizes, from frou frou to down home, little portions to big, cheap to expensive, and we enjoyed sampling our way through them. (Though we never made it to one of the places where you serve yourself from the bar and get charged by the number of toothpicks left on your plate)
  • We couldn't get over the sight of legs of ham hanging in every restaurant, cafe, bar, and meat shop (best seen in the Museum of Ham), but after tasting it, we have to admit that Iberican ham lives up to its hype.

We were really glad that we made the trip down to Spain and that we were able to spend almost 4 weeks across 7 cities and 3 regions to get more of a flavor of the place. It's definitely a different world traveling there compared to the rest of Europe. We struggled a little to get used to the different rhythms (I'm not sure I ever got used to dinner at 10, though Brian seemed to do okay with it), but we really appreciated the richness of the culture (or rather, various cultures) that we experienced.


How to properly celebrate an education...

Writing from Padua, Italy where we elected to visit for a few days before my parents arrival. Padua is a vibrant area and home of one of the oldest universities in the world (The University of Padua which was founded in 1222).

We spent our time walking around the city and soaking in the sites. Our first stop was the Basilica of St. Anthony. A beautifully decorated Basilica and also the home of St. Anthony's tongue (found intact when they exhumed his corpse and truthfully looked a bit like a piece of pepper steak...I shall now wait to be struck down by lightning) and his voice box. Not the kind of relics you see everyday. Plus a piece of the "true cross". Who knows whether it was or not but I have to admit that for as many pieces of the "true cross" we've seen on this trip, either they chopped it up like they do with sports memorabilia for sale or someone's not being completely honest.

Spent the rest of our time visiting the University of Padua. We took an educational tour where we were able to see the stylish Great Hall and the first permanent anatomy theater (built in 1594). We also saw the tribute to the first woman to graduate (ever, anywhere in the world) from a university who matriculated from Padua in 1678. Pretty cool. Seeing the educational home of Galileo, Copernicus and number of other famous European intellectuals almost made us smarter by association. Unfortunately we weren't able to take the complete tour as we happened to be in town for graduation of the 3+2 students who have earned their Dottore (Doctor's degree, which is the equivalent of a Masters in the US). This was yet another one of those random cultural highlights we've had on the trip.

The tradition has been going since the university was founded in 1222. What is the tradition? Upon completion of the Q&A of your thesis (which is evidently a little more of a formality here vs. the thesis defense in the US), you walk out of one of the two rooms they are holding them in to meet your friends and family, who place a wreath with laurel leaves and bells around your neck immediately start in with this sing-song chant:

Dottore, Dottore
Dottore del busco de cul
Vaffancul, Vaffancul

(this is funnier when you realize that the Vaffuncul part sounds like Ooom-pa-pa, Oom-pa-pa)

You then go with your friends and family to the main pedestrian street where they strip you down from your fancy graduation clothes, put you in embarrassing costumes (drag, etc.) and cover you with all sorts of things (eggs, flour, chocolate, whipped cream are a few examples) while you read aloud your poster. While you do so you are repeatedly being told to chug from the bottle of red wine/champagne/other that you are holding.

What are these posters, you ask? They appear to be the history of the graduate, from childhood to embarrassing college stories (all now shared with parents and other family members). The most striking part of them are the prominently featured, mostly r to x-rated, pornographic caricatures of the now Doctor. There's something a little strange about seeing Doctor of Law (or Electrical Engineering or Psychology, etc) over the a picture of a naked busty woman dominating phalluses on a leash. It certainly takes some getting used to. These posters are evidently made by friends of the graduate, who often pay artists for the very impressive caricatures. After the graduate completes the ceremony, the posters are put up on the university walls for the rest of the day where they make quite a display by the end of the day.

All in all, quite a spectacle, complete with the local police making sure that they stay on their plastic sheet (to not permanently ruin the historic streets with all the goop that is tossed). And yes, pictures will most definitely be coming eventually (may not be suitable for all ages, however)...

Needless to say we've heard a lot of "Dottore, Dottore" over the last two plus days and we're glad we did. Added an unique element to an interesting town.

Off to Milan to pick up the parents!



Friday, October 21, 2005

Look! More old rocks!

We spent five days or so touring the Provence region in an effort to get some good food as well as tour some Roman ruins. Why Roman ruins in France? Mostly because the current plan is not to make it as far south as Rome, etc. However for the non-history buffs out there the Romans made it as far as England (before the Scots told them to feck off) so France has plenty of cool ruins to check out without the hassle of Rome.

First stop was the town of Arles. Got the chance to see the ruins of an old Roman theatre as well as a mostly intact arena (where the gladiators used to battle and which let becca take lots of pictures of arches). The town itself wasn't much to look at; in fact with its scary deserted bus station it gave the impression of a town long past it's prime. Our innkeeper was nice though and gave us some good info on how to identify rental cars. Evidently in France the last two numbers on a plate correspond to the region the car is registered in. However, for rental cars, they are either 60 or 76. That way we could identify cars if we needed to hitch our way home from Les Baux.

Les Baux you say? During our stay in Arles, we decided to take the bus to St. Remy (thankfully we found somewhere other than the abandoned bus station to get info) and then hike from St. Remy to Les Baux. It was only supposed to be a three hour hike so we grabbed our day bags and headed off. Two hours later, we still weren't sure we were headed in the right direction, it was raining on and off (coinciding with whether I took my raincoat off, leading to much cursing and general rock kicking) and things were generally not going well. Having infrequent trail markers didn't help. Nor did finding out that the trail markers we thought we saw were actually land boundaries in that area. Did lead to a humorous story Becca was told about the Germans someone had to finally set straight because they kept hiking in a circle around his property...

Thankfully we were able to organize ourselves and finally get to Les Baux. Spent the afternoon visiting the castle in a windy rain. Educational but not terribly nice weather-wise. I think this sums my sentiments up exactly. We did enjoy seeing the ruins of the castle though and learning about life (and punishment) high up on this rock plateau. The weather brightened as the tour finished up and ended up being nice the rest of our stay in Provence. After a "more expensive than planned" dinner at our hotel (the only place open in town in the evening), we spent the night and had a much more straightforward hike back to St. Remy the next day (though it did involve climbing a chimney through a cliff by a lake).

Of course, that day being a Sunday instead of being able to take the bus straight back to Arles, we had to take a bus back up to Avignon and then took the train back down to Arles. Of course, being the efficient travelers we are, we then had to head right back to Avignon the next day for two nights and a visit to Pont du Gard. We enjoyed Avignon quite a bit; a bit bigger than Arles and infinitely more infrastructure which allowed us to be able to do a little more preparation for our visit to Italy.

Pont du Gard was easily the highlight of the Roman ruins for me (if you want to work on your French, click here). We visited the museum first and were glad that we did. It was highly interactive, complete with videos, surround sound, touch screens and the hi-tech like. Very educational as it explained the building process, the Roman history and the place of water in Roman life in great detail without overwhelming us.

Armed with more information than we could possibly hope to remember, we went out and visited the actual site. An impressive structure; amazing how in almost 2000 years some structural methods are sounder then than today. We climbed around the Pont du Gard and even hiked up into the hills to explore some of the additional parts of the aqueduct.

Bus ride back was eventful as Becca was able to successfully negotiate safe passage for two fellow English speaking travelers to their destination after our bus driver let their connecting bus go (though not before almost running into it). Ended up that another fellow bus driver was going to drive them to their destination in HIS OWN CAR after the bus ride ended. Don't see that everyday, eh?

All in all a good visit to Provence. Got a chance to see some amazing history in the Roman ruins and get a little hiking in on the side. Apologize for the randomness of the entry but the mind is still recovering and in need of some more R&R...


Thursday, October 20, 2005

Hey! Hey! Anyone who isn't jumping isn't...


(Qui ne sautais pas n'est pas Lyonnais!)

Thanks to the go-getter attitude of our friend Cedric*, we attended our first true professional European football match last night. From the depth of the Czech D league we were treated to the penthouse of Champions League football (the all-European club competition) with the home team Olympique Lyonnais facing their Greek counterparts, Olympiakos.

Here's the actual report on the match, which Lyon won 2-1 on a 88th minute goal by Sidney Govou. I didn't quite feel up for doing a running diary of the match, instead concentrating on actually enjoying my first taste of live international football. Becca and I made some notes though as the game went along and here are our collective thoughts...

  • The Greeks were small in number but packed some serious punch in terms of cheering. A multitude of chants (including one apparently to the tune of Scott Joplin's "The Entertainer"), their own drum section, etc. Not bad support for a team that hasn't won a road game in 27 CL matches.
  • Stade de Gerland (Lyon's pitch) has an alien ship space-age feel to it. From the outside we weren't sure what to expect though wanted to make sure we documented it. Right then though we realized we'd forgotten the camera. Doh!
  • Gregory Coupet, the Lyon keeper has the worst frosted surfer haircut known to man. Even gives footballers a bad name. (not the best picture of it, but trust me...)
  • The overall atmosphere was just electric. The crowds was buzzing the entire match, the ends were a constant wave of fans (think the Duke fans but about 5 fold) performing all sorts of (seemingly spontaneous) elaborately cheoreographed and synchronized chants, songs, and dances, and the actual emotion within the stadium went back and forth depending on the score and the buildup of the action.
  • Juninho is the man. Anyone who steps up to a free kick with 35,000 fans chanting his name and promptly scores on a world class kick is the man. And if you're wondering why the Brazilians go by one name, Juninho's first name? Pernambucano. Just rolls off the tongue doesn't it?
  • Great halftime moment. Cedric and I decide to walk down to the front to get a better look at the field. What's going on? Stadium workers walking around replacing divots created by the players in the first half. The sexy side of Champions League football.
  • Regarding TV, all three of us agreed that watching live gave you a much better perspective to the game as a whole. Instead of seeing a break or some spectacular play come out of nowhere on TV, watching live you can see the buildup, the players rotating around the field, etc. Definitely gives you a better feel as to who is dictating play and why sometimes it seems that the TV guys have no idea what they're talking about. It's because in some cases they're literally watching a different game.
  • As he came over to our section to take a free kick, having Juninho acknowledge the crowd chanting his name with a little smirk and a thumbs-up none of the players on the pitch could see.
  • Five flares on the evening, all successfully put out by the match stewards, who immediately went up into the crowd, took it away from the offender, and dunked it in the barrell of water they had at the base of the stands for just that purpose. Well actually, the match stewards took care of all but the Greek one, but a) no steward in his right mind was going to wade into the crowd of rabid Greeks to fetch it, and b) they had the smarts to put it out themselves fairly quickly. And here I thought the random flares was only an Italian thing...
  • Becca has a crush on Fred. Who's Fred? This is Fred. (though Becca just told me he's cuter in person and with the longer hair) So if you start seeing Becca in pictures with a Lyon jersey...
  • Becca really liked the way the ref handled the game. It was a physical match but handled it with equal parts humor and an "I saw that. You do that again and you're getting a card..." attitude. Seemed to work really well and kept the match from turning into a hack fest.
  • The lineup announcements were hilarious. The last name of each player was thundered out by the crowd both at the beginning of the match and during substitutions. As a result... Sylvain... WILTFORD!!!
  • Seeing the Olympiakos fans after they scored the scored the equalizer was unreal. I don't think I've been more impressed/frightened at a group of people's general activity ever. Half expected them to just spontaneously combust. All in all though a pretty well behaving group of away fans.
  • The crowd control at the game was quite good. They were pushing us out of there post haste after the match. Kind of disappointing since we wanted to take a final look at the field and such but given the fact that they had to get everyone out so they could let the Olympiakos fans go home it was understandable.
All in all an amazing experience. Lyon is a legitimate contender to the European crown this year (and entertaining to boot) and getting to see them live was a significant upgrade from FK Slavoj (though that was just as memorable for a number of reasons). I've been to a World Series, numerous NFL and college football games, NHL games and all sorts of other sporting events and the passion of the crowd for this match dwarfed them all. (The WS game would probably have had it beaten had it been in Boston and not St. Louis.) The best part? The crowd support was completely self generated. No crappy music, no jumbo tron telling you when to cheer. Just two seriously passionate fan bases letting their associations known.

Hopefully the Siena-Chievo Verona match in Italy in a couple of weeks is half as exciting...


PS The title is in reference to the prevailing chant from the Lyon fans. By the end of the night, we were definitely jumping along.

*We emailed Cedric originally asking if he could look into availability of tickets for the match. On the assumption that they were either a) sold out or b) way too expensive we hadn't heard anything so we figured we were out of luck. Instead a day or two later we got an email from Cedric informing us that we were all going to the match! He ended up getting us great affordable seats that we a lot closer to the action than I ever assumed we'd be.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Welcome to the surreal zone, part 2

So we've become kinda connosieurs of street music over the course of this trip and have noticed a couple of trends as we travel.

1) Music minus one.....karaoke for street musicians.

I don't know if you are familiar with these CDs; they're basically like a karoake CD but instead of the voice track being left out, they leave out one of the instrumental tracks. Thus a violinist practicing for a performance with an orchestra could practice her solo and hear what it would sound like with the rest of the music. Well, street musicians have moved with the times, and we lost count of the number of them playing their part accompanied by a the rest of the instruments blaring out through a boom box or an ipod connected to an amp with a battery pack. In some cases this makes for very pleasant and very impressive performances. There a lot of pretty darn good classical musicans playing out on the streets (often conservatory students or music performance majors who figure they might as well make a little money from their practice time), and you appreciate the solo work even more against the backdrop of the orchestral play.

However, we have also seen this being used for evil. In Madrid, one of our nice tapas dinners was assaulted by somebody coaxing excrutiating tones from an accordian while flipping through his music minus one cd, trying to find a song he could manage to play along with (while his wife half-heartedly shook her tambourine). They had their cute little girl with, which bought them some sympathy and money when they walked around the diners to collect, though the Germans next to use used the line we wished we'd had the guts to say. After tossing some coins in her tambourine, the diner asked if that could pay for him to "Please god stop playing".

2) 'Yesterday'.....official theme song of the European street musician.

When Paul McCartney wrote "Yesterday", I don't think his plan was for it to become the plague of metro travellers worldwide. Despite the fact that according to the Guinness Book of Records, "Yesterday" has the most cover versions of any song ever written (over 3000 recorded), I don't think I had fully grasped its popularity until this trip. In a one month plus period travelling in France and Spain, I think we heard it performed (usually badly) in 8 cities/towns in a row on all manner of instruments, from guitar to sitar, accordian to pan pipes, voice alone to saxophone. The most impressively excrutiating was a gentleman with his Casio keyboard in the Madrid metro. He was haltingly playing the tune, stopping occasionally to try and fix a chord as we walked past on the way to taking Mom to the airport. More than 2.5 hours later we came back through the station and he was STILL playing Yesterday. Badly.

3) What the bleep?.....Chief Plays-His-Pan-Pipes says 'How.'

Now for the surreal part of today's show. World travelers over the years are probably familiar with the South American pan pipe groups that used to pop up on every street corner. You know the ones: they were dressed in colorful ponchos, they played various pan pipe type instruments, they always played the same sort of tunes and sounded the same and sounded good, and they never played without mikes and amps, leading me to come to the conclusion a few years ago that they weren't actually playing. Personally I believed that a CD was pumping out the music through the amps and the colorful native types were just playing "air pipes" and looking good.

We've discovered a new twist on this that is more disturbing. In Krakow, we saw a band with much the same set up as the south american groups, except that they were dressed as Native Americans (of the North American variety) complete with long headresses and the amped music was of the hey-hey-naw-naw type with chanting and drums. Perhaps a bit disturbing and stereotypical, but still understandable. But what we saw in Seville really upped the ridiculous scale.

The band was dressed as Native Americans, complete with leather clothing with fringes and long feathered headresses. However, ethnically they looked Spanish and the instruments they were playing were the classical guitar (complete with long fingernails, etc) and the pan pipes. The topper though--the song they were playing was the classic Native American anthem "My Heart Will Go On" as performed by Celine Dion in Titanic. I'm all for cross-cultural pollination (and lord knows I love fusion food), but this was ridiculous.


Monday, October 17, 2005

Would you like some adultery with your soup?

Dateline: Avignon, France

Another dispatch from the surreal, you-just-can't-make-that-stuff-up file.

So Brian and I were in the mood for Asian food tonight and ended up finding a Vietnamese/Thai place whose menu looked good (and affordable.) Though it was empty, we had seen some people getting take out from there earlier, so we thought it would probably be ok.

Upon entering, we discovered that the place wasn't totally empty: there was a middle-aged French man sitting at a table smoking a cigarette and arguing loudly with the late twenties asian waitress. They stopped for a moment to tell us to sit anywhere and to bring us menus and then continued right back where they left off at full voice. Somebody else came in to pick up take out, they stopped to take the order and money, then continued while he waited for his food.

At first I was just concentrating on trying to figure out what to order and wishing they weren't being so loud. After a while though, I couldn't help hearing the words. Ok. That's a lie. I was eavesdropping like nobody's business. (though can you really call it eavesdropping when the conversation is going on at full volume about 10 feet from you?)

Anyway, it turns out that the conversation centers around him loving her and wondering whether her father is going to be an issue as they were from different backgrounds and her saying to leave her father out of it, but what was up with his was all well and good to say that she had special friends too, but why didnt he just leave her? She couldn't understand what the point of staying together was if you fought all the time; why not just separate? And he kept saying that wasn't the issue. Meanwhile, he was also saying something about how even if his wife wanted a divorce, he could refuse her one under French law (though another customer who he asked for confirmation on this point rebutted him). Oh yeah, then the phone rang and she finished the conversation and then came back and said 'and why is she calling here anyway? does she know that you are here? She must, otherwise why would she call?' have to picture this happening 10 feet away from us and another table of customers, at full voices; and then whenever another customer would come in for takeout, or one of our dishes was ready, or somebody wanted to order, she would stop yelling; then in a very nice soft voice conduct the restaurant business and then immediately continue the argument where she left off.

Not really what we expected for the evening, but as dinner theater accompanying what turned out to be fairly decent food (cooked by mom hiding in the kitchen) it was a success.


Monday, October 10, 2005

Technology... Run Away! Run Away!

I know this is going to most likely scare off the techno-phobes of the group, but since I'm pretty sure my friends aren't posting to hype up leasing needs and indian beauties, we've had to adjust the comments section to prevent that nasty spam from coming up. When you leave a comment, you'll have to include a list of letters (aka word verification) that Blogger gives you to post your comment. Simple but if you have any questions, send them our way.

First the telemarketers, then email spam and now comments on the blog. Thankfully I don't own a cell phone else it might be giving me some sort of virus I can easily be getting off on my own thank you.

More to come. Headed back to Barcelona tonight after a relaxing 4-5 days in southern Spain. Walking around in 90 degree weather in the afternoon makes me understand the "siesta" concept a lot better...


PS. Another two new entries up as we try to clear the backlog

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Under the Aquitaine Sun....

One of the highlights of this last phase of our trip was a chance to visit some close friends in southwestern France, get a little taste of life in small village France, and have a badly needed chance to relax and recharge our batteries.

15 years ago I had a fantastic high school French teacher. Not only was he a great instructor of the language, he was a good friend out of the classroom and became close with the whole family. Some years ago he and his partner retired from their jobs with the Corvallis School District and moved to the Aquitaine, a region in southwest France. They bought a two acre property with a guest house and have since been earning a living giving French lessons to expats, managing properties for absentee owners, and providing a vacation rental.

My folks had visited them a year and a half ago (my Dad's last trip) and had a wonderful time, but this was my first chance to get to see them in their new home, and to introduce them to Brian.

First however, we had to get there. We were meeting Mom at Charles de Gaulle airport and then catching a TGV directly from there down to Bordeaux. There was a little more than 2 hours between her arrival time and the train departure (which leaves from the airport) so we were feeling pretty good about logistics. Just to make things interesting, however, Mom´s flight suffered a series of delays in unloading that left us with 6 minutes to race with her and all our stuff across the airport complex to catch the train. We made it with a minute to spare, however, and had a pleasant ride down.

Ron met us at the St Foy la Grande train station with roses for mom and me, chocolate for Brian, and a thermos of a fruity aperitif to drink in champagne glasses as he drove us back through the countryside to their house. Not a bad life for a couple of weary backpackers. (Note: this will become a theme of the visit)

Their house is a converted 17th Century stone stable. The huge stable doors along the side are now windows that let in the light and open onto great vistas. The property itself is up on a hill and has panoramic views across the surrounding vineyards in constantly changing, beautiful light. After months and months of hassles and a lot of their own hard work (a travel comedy book a la Frances Mayes waiting to be written) they built a beautiful roman-style salt water pool on the terrace. Sometimes when you are out there you just have to pinch yourself. The property also includes a 17th century stone cottage where we stayed (more on that later).

We ate meal after meal of gourmet food until you practically needed to roll us across the driveway. Whether we were at the dining room table or eating out on the porch overlooking the pool, the tables were beautifully laid and made us feel like we were at a resort or fancy restaurant. Again, not such a bad life for a couple of weary backpackers.

We spent the days catching up on each others' lives, playing croquet, eating the aforementioned ridiculously good food, playing cut throat games of Taboo and Hoopla and relaxing by the pool. (All together now: not such a bad life for a couple of weary backpackers.) To try and help earn our keep somewhat, we also spent an afternoon helping Darrell clean one of the properties he was managing (nicknamed the Shabby Chateau). It was a very Cinderella-like moment and an interesting look into how the other half lives sometimes.

By the way, the croquet they play there is not your father's croquet game. Since they enjoy playing so much, Ron and Darrell have invested in professional mallets and wickets . For those of used to the flimsy round wire wickets, this was a brutal reckoning. I recommend trying it sometime; it feels like a different game. Darrell was particularly efficient and ruthless as he stalked us with his poison ball, though he did have suspicious moments of incompetence in the middle to let us catch up and keep it close.

All in all it was a wonderful vacation from our hostel and grocery store/kebab eating trip and a great chance to reconnect with good friends. Thanks again to both of them for hosting us.


PS As loyal readers know, we sometimes use this space to promote terrific places that we have been to, such as the fantastic okonomiyake restaurant in Amsterdam.

This time we want to encourage you to consider the cottage at Les Boissons as a home base for a vacation in Southwestern France. If you were wanting this region, including the caves at Lascoux, the caves at Pech Merle, the vineyards, walled cities, etc, and wanted a peaceful home base, this is hard to beat. (see below for a further description of the region).

The stone cottage itself has 3 bedrooms, two baths, kitchen, dining room, and living room. You have access to the terrace to relax, to the pool and deck furniture, and to the yard for games. Ron and Darrell are incredibly knowledgeable about the area, the local wines, the local cuisine, art, and gourmet cuisine and are just super nice guys in general. If you want more information about renting the cottage, check this site:

Info on the region

Seeing red...

I don´t know what kind of reaction you have when you think about bullfighting in Spain, but I had all sorts of thoughts swirling around my head on the subject.

Brian really wanted to go see a bullfight since it was such a part of Spanish tradition and the kind of cultural taste we try to get. (And as one of his friends who had lived in Madrid for awhile put it to him, the bulls are going to turned into hamburger whether you go or not). We especially wanted to see this cultural event since our luck and timing have been so bad trying to catch football (soccer) matches. We keep being either a day late or a day early etc. in the cities we visit so that so far the only live football we've seen is the C-Level game Brian wrote about in Cesky Krumlov. I was pretty reluctant to go to a bullfight at first, having little desire to see the blood, but while we were in Toledo I decided that I ought to be willing to see one at least before I made up my mind about them.

So, after arriving in Madrid and finding our hotel, we grabbed a snack and then headed out to the Plaza del Toros for the evening's event. Brian and I had bought the tickets online, and had fun trying to decipher the multi-variable calculus based seating and pricing system. You had seats in the sun and seats in the shade and seats in the sun and shade. You had box seats and reserved seats and all kinds of other seats. The prices ranged from 7 euros to over 100 euros, depending on the sun/shade and how close to the action you were. Not really knowing much about the seats, we found some in the shade (pretty much a requirement for Mom and me) for a price we were willing to pay and crossed our fingers.

The Plaza de Toros is a striking red brick arena with a Moorish architectural feel and a nice plaza around it, where you could bet on the bulls and buy souvenirs and snacks. It´s also very easy to get to, as it is the last stop on the number two subway line. When we arrived Sunday night, we had to push our way through crowds of people to find the automated machines that very efficiently printed out our internet-purchased tics (I recommend this to anyone wanting to check out the bullfights. It saved us standing in a long line and was really easy.).

The crowd in attendance immediately banished one of the concerns about the bullfight that I had had. I hate "cultural" displays that are put on for tourists in all forms (native dances, etc.), and can't imagine anything more distasteful than one that involved the bulls' deaths as well. However it was immediately apparent that at least for now, these are still first and foremost events for the Spaniards themselves. Tourists were in a very small minority in the crowd. Most of the people clutching tickets were locals, between 40 and 60, and dressed to the nines. (Being the first of many many times in Madrid when we would feel woefully under-dressed). It was a fantastic look at a cross section of Madrid society.

We pushed our way in with the crowds and were very unsuccessfully looking for any seating sign that matched what was on our ticket. Finally I gave up and walked over to a group of local gentlemen in their 60's who looked like this was a regular outing for them. After a good deal of gesturing we figured out which corridors and stairs we needed to take. On the way we passed a gentlemen renting seat cushions, and Mom and I stopped to pick some up. We eventually found our way to the correct hallway and saw all these closed doors to sections with ushers/security folks outside them.

Once we convinced them to let us in we found ourselves in a steep, small box area with great views in between what looked like a corporate outing (complete with open bar and food) and the Presidential and Officials box. Not too shabby. Not only that, but unlike the plain cement benches down below, ours were padded/upholstered and had backs. We felt pretty silly carrying our seat cushions into this area (silly tourists), but were at least confident that our rears would not get sore. :-)

It was fascinating to watch the pomp and circumstance of the event, and to appreciate all the contradictions inherent in it. It is a sport just dripping with masochism, yet where the heroes wear twinkly sequins and bright pink socks. It is a sport that wants a 'fair fight' and a clean death for the bull but cheers for the wounds the the banderillos and picadors inflict and don't flinch when the bull is stumbling as its muscles fail it.

Since we were sitting right next to the officials, we were able to watch the interplay between them and the torerors and the way that they controlled the flow of the event with their white handkerchiefs. By the second half of the evening, we were starting to get things figured out, though since the section of our guidebook that explained the ins and outs of a bullfight had unfortunately been left over in the States, we were (and still are, to some degree) a little in the dark to the subtleties. if you're interested, you can see the set of pictures from each stage of the evening.

My reaction to the bullfight itself was complex. I appreciated the pageantry, I appreciated the very strict choreography and tradition of each phase, I appreciated that one of the bulls that showed great courage and fight was granted a reprieve and sent off with the hero cows (to fight another day?), I appreciated that the crowd was very knowledgeable and was looking for skill and precision from the matador, energy and passion from the bull, and a 'fair fight' for them both. I also was able to see how with very skilled bullfighters the 'cruelty' argument could be minimized as the strikes would be clean, quick, and efficient.

Unfortunately, we did not appear to be in the presence of very skilled bullfighters. This was ironic, as one of the reasons we had not gone to the earlier fight that day (which was much less expensive) is that it was the Novice Championships and we thought that these matadors would be better and more experienced. I had already looked away in tears when they killed the first bull (I was ok, though not necessarily loving it up to that point in the fight, but the increasingly weak and bloody bull got to me), but it just got a little ridiculous as the evening went on. Banderillos were missing with both of their banderillas, matadors were missing repeatedly on their kill strikes, and then the couple of times that a toreror was sent in to finish off the bull (because the matador had lost his chance for that honor due to repeated misses), they were taking a bunch of times to get it right too. The crowd was jeering and whistling and was most displeased about it and the matadors walked away with their heads slumped in shame. All in all, everyone involved would have been happier with a better display of skill.

In the end, I'm really glad I went and appreciate Brian pushing us to go, though I don't know that I would go to one again. It was a great cultural experience, just from watching the crowd, let alone the bullfight, and I felt like I learned a lot. Plus, having actually attended a bullfight I feel like I can make a more educated decision about what I think about the controversy surrounding the events instead of just making assumptions.

However for my next cultural event I´ll stick with butterflies and puppy dogs, please. :-)


(Brian´s two cents: I enjoyed the cultural aspect of the bullfights the most. Unfortunately as Becca said the actual skill of the bullfighters was poor at best. It's like taking your friend from a foreign country to a baseball game only it's an Independent League game. Cool environment but the actual talent level is bad. My original plan was to write this up much like the CK football match but it got so bad by the end I decided it wasn't worth it. Some lasting images though: the first time you see the blood flowing down the bull's front, a particularly good member of the matador's team getting some ole´'s from the crowd, the anger on the faces from some of the crowd towards the officials for not giving the bull a fair chance, etc. Certainly a memorable experience. I'd go again but only if I had some sort of guarantee as to a higher level of talent amongst the fighters. Really did take a lot of the entertainment value out of the evening in the end. Still worth going though and I highly recommend it to anyone who makes the trip to España.)

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Update with real new blogging!

We're fresh from a night of rest in Seville, Becca's Mom is safely back in Oregon after 2 1/2 weeks of traveling with us young'uns and we're cranking away at the internet cafe so you the reader FINALLY have something new to read other than giant squid articles.

As a result a bunch more pictures are up (check it out via our revamped link to the right), there are blog entries up for Paris, Northern France, Southern France and Barcelona and more in the hopper (including both of our thoughts on the sport of bullfighting). Hoping to use the next few days to recharge the batteries and get caught up with the blog. Thanks for hanging with us; it's a little tough to justify computer time when people come across the pond to visit :-)


PS Hope the Minnesota contingent is all ok, safe and above water after reading this.

PPS. For those who haven´t already worked through this: when you´re trying to check out the pics on Flickr (and you´re not hi-tech enough to be using an RSS feed), you have two basic options. You can view a tag (or if you´re masochistic, the whole thing) in a slide show, which gives you a smoother, easier flip through the shots, but it doesn´t show the slide titles or any of the explanatory comments that Becca slaves over. Or you can click on them one by one (using the Previous or Next links in the upper right) to see all the commentary, but that can be slow and kind of a pain. The best compromise might be to use the slide show and then click on any picture that particularly interests or confuses you. When you click on it, it momentarily stops the slide show and shows the info associated with the pic, then allows you to restart the slide show. Happy viewing!

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Barcelona: Your Cool Kid Sibling...

... if they had an unfortunate predisposition towards bad mullet-like hairdos. And yes, this includes the ladies.

Our initial impression of Barcelona was so-so; a ton of noise and basic chaos was our first impression as we tried to get around town and get settled in after the trip in. However once we settled in we found a vibrant city with a distinctly bohemian feel. The night booms with restaurants, bars and clubs packed with Spaniards who embrace the nightlife culture. The streets are filled with music shops, too-hip-for-us clothing stores and the like. And on the Ramblas and in the squares, we encountered some of the best street performers and human statues we have seen on the trip. Like the title of the post suggests, Barcelona for me is like the cool hipster sibling that makes you feel like you're about 10 years older than you are.

Despite the age difference, we had a great time in Barcelona. We spent our first day touring the various works of Antoni Gaudi. My favorite however had to be the Sagrada Familia. Started by Gaudi´as his last major project in 1883, it continues to be worked on to this day. Since work on the project is funded only by private donations and entry fees, experts predict that it will be another 50 years before the church is complete. You can love or hate the architecture involved (I personally really liked the spires (the eight completed representing 2/3 of the apostles) and the Nativity Facade, the only part to be competed during Gaudi´'s lifetime.

The most amazing part to me about the Sagrada Familia is the fact that it's history happening right in front of our eyes. After going into a HUGE number of churches so far (and yes, we haven't hit Italy yet) that took 100-150 years to build, there is something strangely satisfying about seeing one just like it in progress. Hopefully in 50 years people will be admiring the finished product and in 150 people will be enjoying the site much like we've enjoyed others on our trip.

The next morning we spent touring the Picasso museum. As someone who only knew Picasso from his "wacked out blocky" paintings (aka Cubism) that museum was a real eye-opener. We were able to follow Picasso's rise from child prodigy (he started painting serious works at 12) to his eventual progression to Cubism. The chronological procession allows you to see how truly talented the artist was and how despite the distinct difference between some of his paintings his development as an artist was a progressive one over time.

From one creative outpouring to another: Becca and I spent the afternoon touring Camp Nou, home of Barcelona's major football team, FC Barcelona. We decided that since we keep missing the matches themselves, touring a stadium here or there is a trip approved activity. The tour itself was self guided and nothing out of the ordinary for a club of this size (though the team shop did it's best to overwhelm our senses with their away pistachio day-glo jerseys...). Well maybe the leather seats for the teams on the bench... The most memorable part of the field trip was the kind older gentleman who after we got off the metro looked at us and asked "futbol?" We nodded and next thing we knew he'd gotten us through the tough part of the directions to the stadium (with his handy hand drawn map), given me a slap on the back and headed off into the afternoon. A random act of kindness to say the least but much appreciate by the wife and myself.

Evenings were spent enjoying the nightlife, filling ourselves up mightily at the various tapas bars (both fru-fru and down-home) and just enjoying the vibrant culture that pulsates through Barcelona. We highly recommend it to folks making the trip to España and plan on going back ourselves next week on our way back north through Spain to check out the Olympic sites, the marina area, and other things we didn't have any time to hit on the first time through.


A couple more Barcelona views: the market, the harbor skyline, and MEAT

Road Trip!

After our amazing visit with Ron and Darrell (blog on the visit coming as soon as Becca finishes her other job uploading pictures), the three of us headed to Bordeaux, picked up our rental car (complete with space age starter system) and headed off towards our eventual destination of Barcelona. In the five days that followed we visited caves with prehistoric paintings and amazing geologic formations, a perfectly preserved 13th century walled fortress city, the former home of Salvador Dali, and all the gourmet truck stops in between.

Here's a (somewhat) brief rundown of our car based findings.

Day 1: Drove from Bordeaux to Montpezat de Quezay, France (try finding that one on your maps) where we stayed at a wonderful pension hosted by an artist couple and their three dogs. During the day we took a pit stop to visit the Pech Merle caves where our tour guide took us underground to visit prehistoric drawings and admire the impressive geological structures that abounded. Here's a english version of the tour we took. The hall of discs were our favorite though as far as I'm concerned, they still don't beat Marvel Cave...

Day 2: Drove from Montpezat de Quezay to Gincla, France. Our midday stop was to the aforementioned fortress city of Carcassonne. A beautiful piece of history but it reminded me a bit too much like Disneyland as the entire thing was tourists. Having been to other medieval towns that still functioned as actual towns, to see nothing but hotels and chotchzkies was a bit much for me. The highlight of the day though came from our pension where we ended up having a four course gourmet meal (check out the pics under the Gincla tag) that included a cheese course that had something like 12 different cheeses. Needless to say our waitress wanted us to learn plenty about cheese and our gastronomical systems were out of whack for at least a few days (That that could have been due to these).

Day 3: Drove from Gincla, France to Cadaques, Spain. We took a few hours out of the day to explore the Haute Corbieres region and the Gorges de Galamus. We stopped at one point to hike up some seriously steep hills (and be impressed at how strong Mom´s leg has become) to visit the ruins of Peyrepertuse, one of the chateaux of the Haute Corbieres (a series of mountain-capping castle ruins at the foothills of the Pyrenees built by the Cathars). The drive from Gincla down to Spain was a perfect example of what can happen when one goes too fast on small roads and miss the town signs one is looking for. Some adventurous driving was also had getting our way through the Pyrenees and into Cadaques itself. That's all the info I can give. If you want more, you'll have to buy the book :-)

Cadaques itself is a beautiful town right along the Spanish coast and for me reminded me a lot of what the Italian coastline would look like with tiny towns and lots of beautiful mother nature in between. Our hotel was right on the water with a lovely terrace, though on the day we arrived it was thunderstorming so instead we walked around the bay into town through the rivers of water on the streets and got wet.

Day 4: No Driving! We spent the day exploring Cadaques and relaxing. Took a walk over to the next cover to gaze at Dali's house (it was closed) and toured a fascinating local museum exhibit that was profiling pictures done of Dali by a lifelong friend. (Basic take-away? The man was WEIRD.) The rest of the day was spent hanging out on our hotel porch reading and just generally recharging our batteries.

Becca and I also watched the thrilling conclusion of the 38th annual cricket match between one of the local hotels and "The Rest of the World". The match was held in the center of town on the local boule courts with fielders standing in the streets, in front of local cafes, etc. Despite the fact that half of the guys playing wouldn't know a cricket bat or ball (due to the city surroundings they used a tennis ball) from a hole in the ground everyone was dressed in their whites and with the assistance of an Aussie tourist they pulled in as a referee, it almost felt like the real thing. The game featured at least five languages (and even more countries represented), players spanning 5 decades, and an exciting conclusion with the local hotel winning 37-35. A really cool local tradition that you could only stumble up upon on a trip like this...

Day 5: Cadaques to Barcelona. Pit stop in Girona to visit the Call, the city's Jewish quarter and wander the medieval streets. Interesting to look into a section of town that we've now seen in a number of countries and to contemplate all the things the Jews and Moors and others (like the Cathars) brought to Spanish (and Western European) culture before they were expelled and/or persecuted. Other than that, pretty smooth sailing into Barcelona!

It was nice to get out and explore some areas via car that we wouldn't have seen with the train, bus and foot strategy we've employed so far. It was interesting to see the terrain change over time from the fertile vineyards of France through the Pyrenees to the waterfront of Spain and into the big city of Barcelona. Thanks again to Mom Bloomfield for helping make this part of the trip happen...


Monday, October 03, 2005

Up North There...

No, not a fictional account of a Minnesotan's favorite pastime: spending the summer weekends away at the cabin.

Instead it's the story of one of our French field trips: three plus days visiting the provinces of Brittany and Normandy, staying in the towns of Dinan and Bayeux.

We started in Dinan, a city with a medieval old town complete with medieval ramparts and one of the bigger cities in Brittany. We spent the day hiking around the old town, exploring the arcades half-timbered buildings. They were built this way because back in the day property taxes were based on the square footage of the ground floor. As a result, the buildings started with small ground floors and expanded outward with the upper floors, creating relief from both the rain and the local tax collector. Other highlights included the mainly still intact ramparts and learning to avoid street signs while walking down the sidewalk.

The only other thing of note was when our waiter at dinner tried to serve us our flambe´crepe and set his hand on fire with what can only be described as a sub-optimal pouring technique. Our bill came on a burn creme covered hand. For the record he calmly served the crepe before running off to tend to the hand. (Crepes and galettes (what you call crepes when they have things like meat and cheese and veggies in it instead of sugary deserty things) and hard cider are all traditional local foods here. We were made sure to have a full on cultural experience when it came to the local cuisine!)

The next day we took the train to Normandy and the town of Bayeux. Bayeux was the first city liberated after the D-Day landings and is used as a central launching point to the D-Day memorials. Upon entering Bayeux, we had the exciting task of finding our hotel in the pouring rain. After a few fits and starts about 25 minutes later (which should sound familar to our loyal readers) soaked to the bone we made it to our home, changed clothes and headed back into town to go check out the Bayeux Tapestry. The tapestry itself was interesting to see though Becca and I had to go through it twice after we found out that despite both having English commentaries, we had two separate ones. After listening to them both, there's little doubt I got the "American" one. :-)

Our second day in town we used the now beautiful weather to our advantage, rented a car (first time behind the wheel for either of us since June) and headed to the various D-Day Beaches. During the day we visited Point du Hoc, Omaha Beach, Gold Beach, Longues and the US Cemetery at Omaha Beach. Seeing the various memorials, old bunkers and various stories being told at each locale was difficult but impressive. Every time it seemed to get repetitive I would do like I did at Auschwitz and try to imagine the particular locale being filled with people during that fateful time. It certainly brought a level of emotion to me that I felt when I visited Pearl Harbor. To see the dedication the fellow troops had for the fallen and their country makes one appreciate the sacrifices people make for their country. The cemetery especially made this hit home; seeing all the crosses and Stars of David remind you of how many lives were lost just in this locale to take one step forward towards regain freedom across the globe.

On a final and somewhat similar note, please remember to do whatever one can to help the survivors of Hurricane Katrina (& Rita). The Red Cross link is on the right but whatever one can do to help is always appreciated. May not mean much coming from someone traveling the globe, but every bit helps...


Saturday, October 01, 2005

A City In Three Acts

The City of Lights.
One of those cities in the world everyone knows.
The Eiffel Tower. The Arc de Triomphe. The Louvre. Notre Dame Cathedral.

All the stuff you see on TV or in the movies. So instead of giving you a blow by blow of our visits to those places, it made more sense to talk about the city itself. We visited Paris three separate times (using it has a home base between our visits to Ireland, Normandy/Brittany, and southwestern France). As a result of this, we were never in the city for more than three days at a time yet I felt like we got a better understanding for the city as a whole as we were coming in and out of it over a three and a half week period vs. our normal 2-6 day stay and then heading out on the train. You get to see the normal day to day occurrences a lot more and after a while you feel like you know your surroundings. (Plus, our hotel was in a great location. We were on a quiet alley with a great Italian restaurant just off the Place St. Michel on the Left Bank, just across the Seine from the Ile-de-La-Cite and Notre Dame. Easy to walk to just about everywhere we wanted to go and lots of pretty river views and parks.)

My first impression? For me it goes to the top of my list of cities we've visited on the trip and overall gives Melbourne a good run for its money as a place I´d like to live. This may be an obvious statement for some but take the relaxed attitude of Parisians and couple it with a vibrant city center and you've got a city that just doesn't stop, but does it knowing that life is a jog, not a sprint. (good example: all the chairs/lounge chairs in the public parks and around the lakes).

We loved the fact that there were parks everywhere, and that picnicking was as much (or more) a local thing as something that tourists do. As we walked around town we were just amazed at the number of times we'd turn a corner and find another historical landmark. Of course then we'd walk past a futuristic looking retail store or some other cosmopolitan locale and be thrown right back into the 21st century. (Like Vienna, we liked the fact that the monumemts/historic sites/tourists attractions were spread around and integrated into the city rather than being concentrated into a central area that might be picturesque-disney like, but is crowded and only puts you into contact with other tourists).

Overall just an amazing place and well worth a visit. The knock on Parisians being snobs and rude is overstated. Learn 5-10 words of French before visiting (or during your visit) and always greet somebody before you ask for something (and thank them for it afterwards) and you'd be amazed how much they open up. Just like we'd do for someone that didn't know English in the States.

With that a few memorable highlights from ol' Paris:

-Having a picnic in front of the Eiffel Tower. Not a bad way to start the trip.

-J'ai faim. Je voudrais un sandwich au jambon et une bière svp. (the first French phrase I learned). If you can't figure out what it means, cut and paste it into this.

-Having a lovely night time picnic with scores of Parisians on the pedestrian bridge connecting the Latin Quarter and the Louvre. Chomping away on our Thai takeout while soaking in the boats and surroundings lighting up the Ile-de-La-Cite and the night. Quite beautiful.

-This picture in the Pompidou. My feelings on most modern art summed up quite nicely.

-A lovely much overdue anniversary dinner our last night in Paris at the Italian place next door to our hotel. Looked a bit sketchy from a distance but it served up amazing food and Becca and I got to be semi-grownups for the night.

- Hanging out in and around Notre Dame whenever we needed a break and enjoying the changing views in the day, evening, and night.

- Taking on the Louvre (covered in a previous blog), seeing some new pieces of art, and checking out IM Pei´s pyramid in the day and at night.

- Discovering a scene out of Becca´s childhood memories: kids sailing little sailboats around the fountains in the Tuileries gardens with sticks.

-Just generally spending days and evenings soaking up the ambiance of Paris and feeling ourselves more and more comfortable in our surroundings. Despite our strategy of going to fewer places for a longer amount of time, there are still places that you never quite feel right in. Paris was most certainly not one of them.

For pics of our Paris adventures, go ahead and click here. Enjoy!


Hold please.......


Sorry for the delay in posts.

My mom has been visiting and we have been enjoying her company instead of spending our spare time amongst shower-deprived teenagers playing shoot-em up games in scary basement internet/gaming centers.

However we are currently taking a couple of hours to hide from the hot mid-day sun in Toledo (1 hr south of Madrid, not in Ohio) while every one else takes a siesta to try and work on blog entries from France and Spain and start posting pictures. We´re way behind, so things should show up in fits and starts.

Until then, you can stretch your imagination with this story:


ps. Brian says, ¨Go Sox!¨"