Saturday, January 31, 2009

Cardona and south (back) into the wet!

We continue to enjoy our stay at the Parador Cardona.

Last night we decided to choose from the a a carte menu at the restaurant - just to round out the experience following our choice from the 80s celebration menu yesterday. We had been trying to get a copy of the celebration menu so we could write down our choices for the blog (having forgotten to do it yesterday).

One of the young waitresses kindly put us out of our misery trying to copy from Spanish by giving us a copy of the menu book that has been produced. This includes all the recipes for the regional specials being served.

Looking through it, and remembering the meal yesterday, we could see lots of possibilities for future uses ;-) I then realised that this was book no 3 and we planned to ask her if there were spare copies of books 1 & 2 still available when tonight's hors d'oevres were served. (Later, one of the waiters seeing us reading avidly through the copy we have, brings us a copy of the first two without having to be asked - now that is service!)

For hors d'oevres tonight we are presented with a silver spoon on which is a 2 cm square of local chevrè topped with a half cherry tomato (not fully ripe) and a perfect walnut half - it is SO good. At the same time I have an aperitif of a local sparkling wine handed to me while Michael has to do with a mineral water!
For entreès Michael chose Seafruits and Garlic Bread Soup and I have Mushroom Cream with Egg. They are both luscious. Michael's bread floats atop the soup. My soup has a perfectly poached egg drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with chives in it. Now, that egg just perfected the soup. It gave it a light richness as the yolk broke into the thick brown soup.

The mains are Loins of Sea Bass with Fennel and Tomatoes Grille (Michael) and Grilled Lamb with Milfoil of Potatoes (Me). Both were just superb. Dessert then followed and we agonised over the choices. In the end Michael got the Caramel Cream encased around a fine Mint Jelly and Praline Icecream and I have the Dark and White Chocolate Mousse which is studded with drained dark cherries and accompanied by the tightest marbled chocolate log rolled about 5 inches long. We actually argue over which is the better and grudgingly give each other a taste of ours. The jury is still out!
Once we finish dinner with a digestif local Muscat for me with coffee and a bitter Columbian coffee for Michael we return to our suite. When we get back up there, we realise that it is almost 11pm! Gosh - it is hard to get used to the time here when meals are taken so late.

This morning we head down to breakfast at 9:45 am but most people don't come in until well after 10am. One of the local breakfast dishes is to rub pieces of bread (firmer than what we usually have at home) roughly with a cut tomato, drizzle it with olive oil and top with wickedly good Iberian Jambon (smoked ham - very dry, VERY good) and then anchovies. Nice, but in our humble opinion, the tomato is wasted - they would be better to slice the tomato and eat it as well!!

After breakfast we re-pack our stuff and in the drizzle from very low cloud swirling around the castle, we make our goodbyes - having given out yet another of our cards!

We head south for the Barcelona and the coast. Although it is wet, it is not cold and the car thermometer says it is 8 degrees outside. It is less than 90 kms to Barcelona and we make it in good time, again using the directions from Google Maps. Once in the City though, the directions seem less useful as streets are one way (the wrong way of course!) and named differently than on the directions. Using both the directions and our AA road map for Europe (which has a Barcelona Cit Map) we try to find the agency where we need to collect the key for the apartment we have booked for the week.

A frustrating 2 hours of going this way then that and I pull over to telephone them. Now, you might ask why it took so long to stop and phone - try finding ANYWHERE in Barcelona to pull over! We are just a few blocks from where we need to be - and have driven past the building twice already without realising it. The directions named a small street that is actually a laneway behind a closed iron gate! Still - all is good and we get directions to the unit Dali II. We find where we need to be very easily but as you can guess, parking is another matter altogether. We finally park in an underground station approximately 200 m from the unit at the crazy price of €34 a day! I phone the office and ask for alternatives only to be told that all parking stations are about this price. Tomorrow, first stop is the Tourist Information Office to ask their recommendation.

And the rain is setting in!

The apartment is on the centre of the area known as the Sant Marti and just off the Port Vill. We are within walking or a short bus trip from all the main tourist spots including the Gaudi architecture and La Sagrada Família. The unit is on the 5th floor at Plaça de Colón 5, 4-2, Barcelona, Spain - put it in to Google Earth to see what a great location we have!

Friday, January 30, 2009

Across the Pyrenées – or maybe not!

We get an early start from Carcassonne on the road just before 8 am – our earliest start yet! The day is just dawning and reflective of the national strike day, the streets are far less busy than we have seen over the last two days.

Our route today takes us towards Limoux and then south to Axat where Ron and Fliss Murray had a house. We travel through the Gorges of St Georges along narrow twisting roads – still however in brilliant condition. Although it is a beautiful sunny day, the narrow walls and negotiation under overhanging rocks keeps the temperatures through here down to winter degrees! We turn off the main road south through here to go into Axat. This town is on the higher waters of the Aude River that runs through Carcassonne.

Again, we are surprised at the size of the town – guess we were expecting some quiet little backwater – however, it is obvious that there is a huge summer adventure sport industry that operates through here – mountain hiking, rock climbing, rafting and canoeing advertisements abound. We try to identify the Murray’s former home – unsuccessfully. However the photos are testament that we were there!!

From here we hoped to drive over the top of the Pyrenées, but Col de Jau (pass) is closed and snow chains are required on the other. While we could have bought chains and fitted them, prudence was the order of the day and we opted to travel down the coastal road through Perpignan and Girona.

Here we turn west to travel towards Cardona. The roads are traversing valleys and hills – up and down, up and down. The country through here is hard to tame so the traffic fluctuates between labouring up steep inclines, some short, some longer and then flying down the declines from the apex of the peaks. You have the Pyrenées to the north and the Montserrat mountains to the south. Both form spectacular backdrops to our journey – the Pyrenées higher but more rounded and snow covered while the Montserrat are sharp and jagged and in the afternoon light look like castles in the air against the clouds.

Again, we come around a bend and all of a sudden can see the castle where we hope to stay. It sits high on a hill that appears to be a volcanic plug jutting out of the flat floor of an extinct volcano – totally dominating the landscape around it. We see it about 4 kms away, but it would easily be visible from many more over the flat valley floor. It’s very easy to see how you could defend your vassals when you can see aggressors approaching for maybe a week from over the surrounding hills and across the broad open valley.

Cardona is home to a very large salt and economically important salt deposit that has been mined for centuries. The castle of Saint Vicenç de Cardona stands on a site that has housed fortifications that date back to Iberian times before conquest by the Romans. In 798 AD, work began on the structure that now stands – although most of the current site’s architecture only dates back to the 10th Century!

We have not yet made a booking at the Parador de Cardona, hoping that we can get a room when we arrive in this, the low season. While it is not cheap (rooms begin at the equivalent of $AUD300 per night), we had decided that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity and not to be missed. Luck was with us! Not only do they have vacancies but Noemi at at Reception almost apologetically states that the present offer is €100 per night bed and breakfast. We are thrilled and book for 2 nights. Then we get into our room (suite). You have to look at the pictures to appreciate it. Noemi had asked whether we wanted one big bed or two beds. We opted for the one! Big? You have no idea - we almost need a map to find each other in it! Our suite is large and luxurious - the only ¿problem being that last Saturdays big storms have knocked one of their aerials and so we can only access the internet in the Reception lounge - no problemo!

We opt for a late lunch as opposed to waiting for an early dinner and so at 3:00 pm walk down to the Restaurant - silver service if you please. Paradors of Spain are celebrating 80 years of operation and have a special menu on offer. It includes four cold and three entree tasters, a choice of hors d'oevres and a dessert. It was a great introduction to Spanish food. The menu included cold and hot seafood delicacies, cold dried meats, hot veal cheek, pickled cauliflower, a shot glass of hot soup, dried breads, Michael's choice of Special Beans with Cuttlefish and Clams and mine of Desalted Ham in rich Tomato Sauce. The dessert was a composite of Turon, hard custard and fresh fruits - all local specials.

After lunch we take a tour of the Hotel but the rest of the castle complex is closed at 5:00pm before we can take a look. (and yes - the sky really was this blue!!)

A fantastic buffet breakfast awaited us in the restaurant this morning. Cereals, fruits, juices, hot dishes includng items such as black pudding and local sausages, delicious Spanish ham, eggs done in frittatas, fried or boiled, cold delicacies such as anchovies, cheeses, breads as well as sweet cakes and churros - that delicious spanish delicacy!

Once the appetites are filled, we then get tickets to allow us to explore the rest of the castle complex. The keep, the magazine, the gun ports and the former church complete with tombs and crypt and 10th century wrought iron are all amazing. As is the view from the ramparts on such a clear and beautiful day.

Late this afternoon we have come in to update the blog and to book an apartment in Barcelona for a week. So, in the words of Peter Cundell (google him if you don't know who he is!) thats your lot!

See you in cyberspace again soon!

Thursday, January 29, 2009


We arrived at Carcassonne in the Roussillon area of France just before dark fell about 5:30 pm. Google Maps is wonderful in getting detailed directions to specific directions. However Couchsurfer Celine’s directions were much clearer to her home in Carcassonne once we reached the city limits!

Again, I am amazed at the size of the city. Our first Couchsurfing experience is interesting. Celine lives with her partner and their son in a flat on the edge of the Old City and the room that we are given has the most amazing view of the Old City above us – all lit in the night sky.

Celine works long hours for the local Health Department as an Environmental Engineer and Xavier even longer in his computer/video hire business. Son Yann is 6, at school and a bundle of energy like all little boys his age. Celine’s job has been made harder this week with the weekend storm that saw some areas buffeted by the strongest winds on record.

We spend time with Celine and Yann (Xavier is still at work) talking generally about differences in our lives. We ate a very late lunch and are not hungry, so Celine has dinner. Yann seems to like the toy Kangaroo and Koala clip that we have brought for him and before long is playing with Michael with lots of his toys. They move into his bedroom and more toys after a little while! We offer to cook dinner for everyone tomorrow night and Celine accepts.
It has been a long day and so we make our goodnights and settle down to bed before 10 pm – the earliest in a while. Xavier gets home just before we retire.

Wednesday 28 January 2009

This morning we again amaze at the old city that we can almost reach out and touch! Celine is off to Toulouse this morning and Xavier will take Yann to tennis (young primary school students do not attend school on Wednesdays). We plan a day in the old city and the adjoining cemetery.

This is the low season and Celine has warned that most of the shops in the Old Cité will be closed so we go to the local supermarket to get the makings for lunch. The parking areas are almost empty supporting Celine’s comments. Still, this is a positive as we know that we will not have to jostle with lots of others to see the things that interest us.

We enter the City (Carcassonne Cité Médiévale) crossing where once a drawbridge impeded unwanted entry into the city across a deep ditch. While we finished our cheese and date bread rolls in the forecourt outside the city, we admired the towers that flank this entry gate and watched as artisans re-pointed some of the masonry on one of the towers while flocks of pigeons watch disinterestedly from their perch in the sun on the sharply sloped roof of the tower.

The first thing that strikes us is the slope of the roadway into the old city and the narrowness of the streets (just wide enough for local business vehicles to navigate). The buildings open straight onto the streets and there are refinements such as centre gutters to drain water away. Cobbled streets make it easier for repairs to be done, but let me tell you, they are not easy to walk on – especially when they have used rounded pebbles – edges up! We make a brief stop at the information office just inside the gate, get a map of the city and are told that the whole city is open and free to visit – except for the Castle where there is an entry fee.

This City has an amazing history dating back to the Romans before Christ – about 3,500 years. Over the centuries there have been many changes and additions to the City and to its castle as a result of the influences of Visigoth, Saracen and Frankish assailants. This continues today as we witness an incredible fervour of workmen scurrying around many of the properties doing repairs, maintenance and enhancements. There are a number of building styles evident – new ones at least are mimicking the old styles. As Celine has predicted, there are only a handful of shops open – they are doing as reasonable trade on such a nice sunny day. We can only imagine what it must be like during the summer months – every second shop is a café or restaurant and it is obvious that they utilise every bit of space inside and out.

The city is surrounded by a double wall and only one of the many towers cuts across both the walls. These walls were built at different times and led to the city being almost impregnable. While the city was breached in its early times, the castle within was never taken by force and in time of trouble gave shelter to the citizens of the city. The city is named for Carcas, who helped to hold a siege by the French. A copy of her bust stands proudly at the entrance to the city and the (very worn) original is in the museum within the castle.

The Basilique Saint Nazaire was the Cathedral for the city for many years. It is a beautiful church with amazing rose and nave stained windows. The city has a long history of supporting the Cathar knights and there are many reminders here in the basilica and in the castle.

And now to the castle within the City – the Chateau Comtal. The only entry is through the barbican – a fortified area of a reinforced gate, then a wide open space that was easily accessible to the castle crossbowmen and then a draw-bridged access across a deep moat (though it is doubtful whether it ever held water). This was one of the features that allowed this castle to be never taken by force (although it was at least once surrendered). Within the castle walls there are a number of features that helped in the defence of the castle including:
Portcullis – an iron/wooden grid sliding downwards to close off a passageway;
Machicolation – a stone overhanging gallery with openings in the floor for missiles to be shot downwards;
Arrow loops – vertical slits made for shooting arrows; as well as
Hoardings that allowed attack to be made is safety from any area of the battlements.

(and more b***** spiral stairs!)

We wander at will in and through the city streets and in the list – the area between the walls, marvelling at the remains of early Roman and then medieval works. It truly is fascinating to be walking through living history. Carcassonne has been restored after falling in to almost complete ruin. It is held up as one of the best examples of medieval military architecture in the world. It was restored under the famous architect Viollet-le-Duc from 1853 in one of the world’s biggest archaeological restoration projects ever undertaken being completed in 1910. It is now on the UNESCO heritage register and is one of the national monuments of France.

Once we have had our fill, we return to our entry point and cross the road to the cemetery. We are slightly disappointed as the oldest grave we can find only dates back to the early 1800’s. We had hoped to find some much older ones, but on talking with Celine and Xavier later, we come to the conclusion that the same system is used in France as is used in Germany – that your grave site is your for a period of time and that after then, if you don’t purchase the plot, then the grave is re-used.

There is another museum outside the city wall – Le Musée Memoires Moyen Age (Memories of the Medieval Age) that focuses on the history of Carcassonne primarily through its sieges. Michael goes in to have a look at the wonderfully detailed diorama models and an excellent audio visual presentation.

So we were not disappointed. Carcassonne had a huge expectation to live up to for us – and it met it admirably. I had just finished reading Labyrinth by Kate Mosse which is set in the city – it is a great book and well worth the read.

Another day over, we head back to the supermarket to get the makings for dinner. We have settled on lemon cream chicken with fresh vegetables (they are a luxury when travelling!) followed by fresh raspberry tart. 30 minutes after we get back to Celine’s place, we have dinner on the table. It is appreciated by everyone (whew)!

More talk of life in France and Australia. Celine is not working tomorrow as a national strike day has been called. No school for Yann either. Xavier however will work. We give our thanks, a few gifts we have brought with us and a promise of accommodation should they ever get to Australia (this was one of the things in Celine’s profile that drew us to her) and about 10:30 pm head for bed setting the alarm for 7:15 am.

Mieow - what is in a sound?

Tuesday 27 January 2009

We leave Arles this morning after being suitably sated with the generous breakfast at the Hotel l’Amphitheatre. Before we leave town we head across the main street to take a photo of Rue Parmentier (just couldn’t leave without this one!). All question if we know what it means and most are surprised that I can tell them that it means ‘the potato farmer’ – all thanks to Dad’s interest in and research of our family tree. And on the way out, Michael just HAS to get a photo of the Roman viaduct remains on the edge of town!

Today we make a change in our plans south and head north to visit the Viaduct Millau (pronounced mieow!) This is the highest bridge in the world, is an engineering masterpiece and has won numerous awards. It forms part of the latest motorway between Paris and Barcelona, crosses a lengthy valley at the edge of the Midi Pyrenées at a dizzying height and cuts significant time off the journey by cutting out a descent and then another ascent via continual hairpin bends.

One more of the pleasantly surprising things we find are the excellent roads in France. Whether it is a tollway or a local highway, the roads are in very good condition and road works are being undertaken in many areas. Even though, you can see that the diversion road is almost up to the standard you might expect on a highway! We see lots of chapels and shrines along the road and at one point, see one church with a series of shrines stretching out to a small chapel at the end. It turns out that this area is part of a number of pilgrimage routes that stretch from Spain through France and into Italy. No doubt this is one of the points of call.

We travel across the top of the Midi Pyrenées from the south at altitudes up to 885m. There is snow all round – not really deep, but a beautiful blanket on fallow farmland nonetheless. And it is cold again – the outside temperature (according to the car thermometer is 1.0ºC. Thankfully, we do not plan on getting out here!

As we continue north, I am thinking that we should be seeing the bridge when we come over a rise and around a broad corner and there it is! Despite its size, it is beautifully graceful and seems to hang effortlessly across the landscape far below. The wind has picked up and when we stop at the viewing station, it is roaring up the valley. This means that the temperature feels decidedly less than what is indicated. Nevertheless, the views are stupendous, not only of the bridge itself, but also of the surrounding countryside.

Millau town way below us is very picturesque and you can see the road winding down into the valley and then back out of it. Trucks not on the motorway crawl slowly down and then up the slopes of up to 9%. Doesn’t sound much, but try walking a kilometre at such an incline!

In order to turn south again, we need to turn off to the town of Millau and come around to re-join the motorway. The town is much larger than what I had previously imagined and we stop at the McDonalds store on the south side as they advertise great views of the viaduct (and we are not disappointed). We don’t stay long as we are heading for Carcassonne and now have quite a few hours travel ahead of us.

Stunning - isn't it!