Across the Pyrenees (2017)
Friday, June 30, Genova.
Our last full day in Genova was pretty lazy; a large and superb hotel breakfast will do that to you. After some time spent getting posts out
we wandered around our neighborhood (which is to say, the busiest heart-of-Genova) where the provision for moto parking was truly impressive: if only Cambridge and Boston could do the same!
A block from the hotel we were delighted to find the sort of place we love in Paris: a nondescript cafe serving the best possible composed salads for a midday lunch for the toiling bourgeoisie at very low prices. We were pleased indeed to have the octopus carpaccio (apparently a sort of octopus loaf thinly sliced covering the entire plate) and bresaola with buffalo mozzarella.
More wandering after lunch including the Feltrinelli bookstore with a fine selection of English books. We went away with some War-of-the-Roses historical fiction and a collection of Sherlock Holmes stories. We also savored the specifically Genovese version of focaccia with onions, eaten at breakfast and all day long.
For dinner, Deb decided to go fine-dining on me. A small and very popular seafood place outside the center where we had scallops with asparagus and a wobbly Italian version of hollandaise sauce, and a typical fish soup (not one of Deb’s favorites; oh, well).
And then it was bedtime once more.
B and Deb
Saturday, July 1, Genova.
Our 5pm ferry from Genoa to Barcelona allowed us more free time after our hotel breakfast to return to the nearby Palazzo Ducale to view the Elliott Erwitt photo exhibit, which was spectacular. Erwitt is, according to Wikipedia, an American advertising and documentary photographer known for his black and white candid shots of iconic and absurd situations. This exhibit featured a series of his color work, which is not that well known, along with some of his iconic b/w photos. Here is a photo that B found hilarious:
We returned to the local cafe for a repeat of yesterday’s lunch before picking up our bags across the street at the hotel and riding over to the ferry terminal. Check-in time began at 3pm and we arrived to find a line of motorcycles ahead of us ready to board.
Normally, they board the cycles and scooters first and we can make ourselves comfortable and grab a beer on the boat while the trucks, cars, and RVs are boarding. As it turned out, our ferry was headed to Tangiers AFTER stopping in Barcelona and they were boarding FIRST hundreds of vehicles destined for Tangiers, stuffed with “stuff” and the roofs piled high with furniture and other goods; very much like our experience in going to Tunisia a couple of years ago.
The process of boarding took so many hours, that the small number of vehicles for Barcelona began at around 6pm. We left the dock at 7:20pm, almost 2 1/2 hours behind schedule, and knew that we would not arrive in Barcelona at 11am as we’d hoped (to have a nice Sunday lunch).
We did find the restaurant on board to be just terrific and treated ourselves to a wonderful bottle of wine.
Happily, the waiter saw our camera and insisted on taking our picture:
before retiring to our cabin with a sea view (sorry that I forgot to open the curtain!):
Sunday, July 2, Barcelona.
It stands to reason that if the ferry is two-and-a-half hours late leaving Genova, it’ll be that late arriving in Barcelona; and it arrived at 1:30pm instead of 11am. Here’s the café on the ferry with Deb in the middle waiting to arrive in port.
So, instead of plenty of time to check-in and find a good place for the Sunday midday meal, we were stranded mid-afternoon after finding our hotel with nothing but touristy tapas places. We wandered a bit and survived on beer and two tapas. We did find some of the foie gras medallions I so love and that gave us a very delightful early evening snack which sufficed for dinner.
B and Deb
Monday, July 3, Collioure.
We thought it would take us two days to get from Barcelona to Collioure since the distance is 200km. But we were packed up and on the road at 12:15p and decided to brave the superhighway out of town. That worked out far better than expected because it was a three lane tollroad with little traffic and everyone was careful to move entirely into the middle lane when passing us. In no time we had gotten to our half-way destination and, given our disinterest in things Spanish and our very pleasurable anticipation of being in France again, we decided to push on.
One of our rest stops was at a big-box Carrefour where we stocked up on Iranian pistachios and replaced our year-old bottle of Heinz ketchup. Unfortunately, we couldn’t figure out a way to carry the whole Spanish ham which was on sale for 89 euros.
We’d reserved a room in Collioure for tomorrow but, when Deb called to say we’d like to arrive today, we suddenly had a two-night reservation. The only problem was that check-in ended at 6pm (Michele, the owner, lived elsewhere and wanted to go home) and we were traveling the coastal road which involved 30km of twisting and turning (longest straight stretch: 80m) which was not only exhausting to navigate but slooow. Nonetheless, we arrived at 6:15p and were met by the delightful Michele, from Normandy but a hotelier in Collioure with his wife for the past 10 years. Nice cozy room:
Michele recommended a restaurant on the beach where we had a typical French seaside dinner of scallops (with foie gras of course!) and an assortment of crudo (which were not photogenic!).
To end the evening, we sat on a bench overlooking the old fort and watched the kids playing at the water’s edge. We remarked to each other how inaccurate it was for other people to think that we’re on vacation for three months. In fact, we’re just living elsewhere.
[Deb here:] Although our routine is to stay on backroads with the Vespa, we both agreed to leave Barcelona on the highway today and planned to stop in Girona, mid-way to our next destination of the lovely beach town of Collioure, France, 196 kilometers nor th of Barcelona. After stopping for a break near Girona, we decided that it would be nicer to spend two nights in Collioure rather than one and telephoned our hotel to be sure that we could book two nights. Once that was assured by our very kind host at the Hotel La Bona Casa, we chose the coastal road with about 126 kilometers to go and it was now 2:30pm. We could tell by looking at Google maps that the coastal route consisted of only unrelenting switchbacks, no straightaways, however, I’m not sure that we were prepared for the intensity of the degrees of turns along with the wonderful views of the local harbors and towns. We, especially the driver, needed to stop mid-way to rest, and we were fortunate to stop in the Spanish coastal village of Portbou which had the perfect harbor cafe. We ordered two small beers at 2 euros each; I was ready to hit the road and paid our bill. B requested another small beer, not my preference, but after conferring, I was persuaded that the driver of this intense touring should be rewarded, so I bought him a second, albeit, petite, beer before making our last push toward Collioure at 5:30pm. After 45 minutes, I telephoned the hotel to let them know that we’d arrived in town and would be there in about 3 minutes. Well, the iPad was not showing accurate results and you might say that we had a detour around town through a couple of streets that were pedestrian only before the dinner hour. After a couple of unpleasant exchanges, we found our way and our very gracious host was enthusiastically welcoming and helped us relax a bit. We asked for a few restaurant recommendations for the evening and ended up at a restaurant on the harbor, La Plage Aux Mouettes, where we had a Salad de la Plage and scallops with tagliatelle of both pasta and squash. Our waiter helped us choose a very nice local white wine, since we are not at all familiar with the wines in this area. It was terrific and so was the harbor at sunset.
We were last in Collioure seven years ago on Bastille Day, July 14, and found the town less crowded and quite serene this week.
B and Deb
Tuesday, July 4, Collioure.
[Deb here:] Our hotel is next door to the little supermarket that we rely on in every town these days, Carrefour City, a small supermarket of the large Carrefour big box retail chain. We opted to leave our room windows open overnight rather than use the air conditioner. Thus, I awoke to the sounds of: trash and recycling bin pick up, street cleaning, delivery trucks to the Carrefour, and a few motorcycles passing by, all before dawn. We’ll try the air conditioning tonight! We were among the early risers this morning and strolled through the very quiet streets, picked up croissants and headed for one of the cafes overlooking the harbor for our morning coffee. It was so relaxing that we stayed until almost 11am.
I did a little exploring while B read the news on his iPad happily ensconced at the cafe. After a lunch of mussels and a Catalan salad (with manchego cheese, ham, anchovies, hard boiled egg, tomato, radishes, lettuce, carrots, etc.), we stopped at the luxury chocolatier in town (also next to our hotel)
and had some of the best ice cream ever (flavors chosen: B - pistachio; Deb - coffee) and then a quick hop on the scooter (without any baggage!) to the next town to the south for coffee. Back to the hotel to take a nap before cocktail hour and planning the beginning of our tour of the Pyrenees tomorrow!
B and Deb
Wednesday, July 5, Prades.
Another slow morning (rest days will do that to you) but with the advantage that Deb could buy cold grapefruit juice at the Carrefour City two doors down when she went out for croissants. We spent some time on posts but were excited to get started on our (supposed) 7-day traversal of the Pyrenees from Mediterranean to Atlantic. We pushed off, but not before having a second ice cream at the glacier next door, an outpost of a Meilleurs Ouvrier de France (a very classy award given to the very best French artisans and craftspeople) Olivier Bayrand with the finest pistachio ice cream I’ve ever had by a wide margin, and soon got off westward.
Sooner than we should have, we stopped for coffee in Céret, a gorgeous small town with a lovely main square:
Here we had our first of two heartstoppers of the day: when Deb went to pay for the coffee, she couldn’t find her wallet! It took some anguished minutes before she discovered that she’d put it mistakenly in *my* backpack instead of hers.
[Deb here: We’ve found that it's very important along these drives to stop occasionally to take breaks. Our next break occurred at an Auberge/Cafe where we sat under leafy plane trees with a couple of beers and a large bottle of water. The owner was a very friendly man who seemed to take an interest in our Vespa, which we’d parked across the street. He walked over to inspect the scooter and how we’d packed and a few minutes later returned to our table with a book of photographs to show us that he’d toured on HIS Vespa through the mountains in Italy. Turns out that we had a lot in common and after we’d paid and hopped on the scooter, he ran out with his camera and asked whether he could take a photo of us on the scooter with our backpacks. After the photo op, we all waved and bid “au revoir”; I’m only sorry that I didn’t take a photo of him before we left.]
Not long thereafter we’d wended our way up a mountain to the Prieuré of Serrabone, our first real cultural sight. A romanesque church built in the 11th century, it had been very well restored.
The major feature was the various carved capitals; here’s the raised choir area with carving on the spandrels as well as the capitals.
When we returned to the Vespa, we had our second heartstopper: I had not turned the ignition key off, leaving the headlight on to drain the battery. When we tried to start it, we heard only some faint groaning. We’re in the middle of nowhere very far from anyone who knows anything about Vespas [Deb here: we are miles and miles away from civilization at the top of a mountain in the Pyrenees at a remote former monastery], and we realized that we didn’t even know where the battery compartment was! A consult with the owner’s manual solved that one (under the floorboard in front of the driver’s seat) and the time it took allowed the battery sufficient time turned off to regain a small charge. With baited breath, I turned the key and the engine turned over. Whew!
We were glad to arrive at the significant-sized town of Prades, found a terrific Motel-6-like hotel, had two Alsacienne tartes flambées for dinner and were glad to crash.
B and Deb
Thursday, July 6, Axat.
After a long and sound sleep we woke up in what we’ve come to call Nazi-ville: the cleanest town you’ve ever seen and not a single motorcycle or scooter parked anywhere. We went into the town square to get breakfast and I parked inconspicuously next to the bar. Within five minutes there was a policeman eyeing my license plate with his pen posed over a clipboard. I went up to him to explain that it was my Vespa and that we were just having coffee at the bar. To my great surprise, he accepted this excuse and permitted us to remain.
For the second time in France, we ordered cappuccinos and for the second time got this (we thought the first instance in Céret was just a local fluke):
We had planned to spend some time at the hotel getting our posts up-to-date when Deb announced that the Abbey just outside of town (our reason for being there) closed at 11:50a and reopened at 2pm. So we quickly packed and arrived at the Abbey Saint-Michel de Cuxa at 11am with plenty of time for a leisurely visit. It’s a preromanesque church with a long history of destruction and rebuilding (most decisively in 1789 during the revolution when it was sold to a private owner!). Now spectacularly restored, it was most impressive. The cloisters, partially restored (the unrestored parts are ironically in The Cloisters in NYC!) were a main attraction.
After picking up our bags at the hotel, we discussed whether we needed to get gas in Prades or would be able to find a station in Moltig-les-Bains (Deb for the former, I for the latter). One thing that’s become clear in the past two days is that you do not want to be far from a large town and in need of gas. So we drove up to Molitg-les-Bains where Deb inquired about whether there was a gas station ahead: answer no, the closest were the two (count ‘em, in a fairly large town) in Prades. So back we went to fill up at the big-box Intermarché; we stopped in to get some grapefruit juice and noticed that the little attached bistrot had a full house. We’ve been doing this long enough to know that this is an important clue to get in line. We had a delightful lunch of chèvre chaud salad, sautéed beef, and frites. The waiter was amused to see that we’d brought our own bottle of Heinz ketchup.
So, all in all, it was 2:30p when we headed back north again. We really didn’t know what to expect beyond no gas stations. It quickly became a ride in the wilderness with virtually no other traffic on the road. This is the Michelin map we were using: we started in Prades (lower right) and traveled on D14 through the Col de Jau and to the town of Axat just off the map in the upper left.
We were enjoying it immensely when we rounded a corner and found that the road was being paved (not half of it but the whole width!). They had just laid down a layer of tar and we would have to sit and wait until they covered it with sand in order to proceed.
It was interesting to watch the process for about 10 minutes but when it became 40 minutes we were rather bored. Finally, we were let through and 3 minutes later were at the Col de Jau, a mile high. Needless to say it was a long (but fairly smooth) coast down and finally about 4:30p into our destination, Axat, which we hoped would be large enough to support a real hotel. In fact, we could not have been more lucky as it had exactly the kind of small family run hotel one hopes to run into, with a creditable restaurant to boot. Here it is along with the entirety of the town itself:
A delightful room at an unheard-of 47 euros.
We had dinner at the hotel which turned out not to be a good choice. Our first unsatisfactory meal of the trip.
[Deb here: A rapidly flowing river ran through the lovely town of Axat, which was obviously a favorite vacation spot for the Danish. There were enough clues at our hotel for me to conclude that the hotel owners were also Danish. The town was full of window boxes full of flowers, had two plug-in parking spaces for electric cars, had rules about fishing and not killing the fish, and was clean and orderly. I took this panorama of the town with a family setting up dinner at two picnic tables at the side of the river.]
B and Deb
Friday, July 7, Tarascon.
This will be short because, although we had a wonderful day driving through the mountains (and the valleys) on one-lane roads with virtually no other traffic, we know that there is no way to capture in a photograph the fantastic scenery we were seeing. (We’ve got it in our heads, however!)
After a nice hotel breakfast (5 euros for two!) we sent off a delayed report and got on the road at 11:30a. By the time we got to the next town with any cafe/bar it was 2pm and all the restaurants had closed their lunch service (and the kebab stand was also out of kebabs!) so we made do with beer and pistachios.
By 5pm we had reached Tarascon, our destination, and luxuriated in espressos and a beer for Deb. The kind bar owner made her a gift of the espresso glass she admired.
We were ready for a big and glorious dinner but the outstanding restaurant in the area was fully booked so we headed for a place which emphasized the local provenance of the food, much of it grown on the owner’s farm. Great PR but not a memorable meal (for the second night in a row).
So, a quick good night!
B and Deb
Saturday, July 8, Tarascon.
Surprised to see that we haven’t moved? We had a difficult decision to make this morning. We haven’t been bothered by rain at all but woke up to overcast skies and predicted rain (in the evening here but earlier in the day along our intended route).
We were up early in order to go to the caves at Niaux where the oldest prehistoric cave art in France is found. (My assumption is that these are the caves that Wheeler and Kate visited with David and Enid during the year in Toulouse. Wheeler? [Wrong!]) Although we’d purchased tickets online yesterday, Deb started to read the details about the visit this morning and it was instantly clear that it was something I couldn’t do (a 0.9km walk through the dark cave with a flashlight over uneven ground to the important far point and then return!). So we were happy that there was an excellent Parc de la Préhistoire just outside town. It turned out to be at least the equal of visiting the reconstruction at Lascaux: extremely well presented with all the giant prehistoric animals recreated as though taxidermied, such as this giant deer:
And this wooly mammoth with her six-month old baby:
There was a reproduction of a major section of the Niaux cave with the markings which can be seen today enhanced with additional original marks discovered under ultraviolet light. Sorry to say that I was so fascinated that I forgot about my camera!
Anyway, when we finished about 11:45a, the sky was still dark and we could see the fog very low covering the nearby mountain tops. We could set out with the risk of getting caught in a rainstorm quite a way from any town or take the easy way out and stay another night in our very fine three-star hotel room (58 euros). Since we don’t have any schedule to meet, we decided to play it safe and get some of the overdue reports out to you.
As we’d had only coffee for breakfast and anticipated being confined during the expected evening rainstorm to our hotel and its very mediocre food, we wanted to have a substantial lunch. Deb had noticed a restaurant on our return from the Parc just outside of town with large crowds. As we’ve explained, to us this is a strong signal, and we followed up on it. We found ourselves at an all-you-can eat buffet (14.5 euros) where significantly overweight folks were overrepresented. (I fit right in.)
Barely a seat to be had but we found one and started in. Here’s Deb’s initial plate of healthy selections.
And here’s my third plate (following excellent braised lamb and shrimp which reminded us of Maine shrimp) from the grill which was cooking bavettes to order.
It was a very instructive experience (I’m sure it could be duplicated in the US but we never get to those places). I calculated that even with food costs of 50% (allowing customers to consume 50% more food than in a place with normal 33% food costs) there’s still that 50% left which, when multiplied by the 150+ people eating lunch, would leave a fine profit.
The remainder of the day was a washout except that Deb went out exploring and found a charcuterie with a very ripe Brie de Meaux which she had to buy and then noticed a St Marcellin, equally ripe, that she knew I’d love. So with a bottle of rosé from distant Provence, that was dinner in our room!
B and Deb