Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Last Hurrah - One Night in Barcelona

July 20, 2013
Barcelona, Spain

After saying farewell to our barge-mates on Saturday morning as we all went our separate ways, we headed for Barcelona, where we would catch our flight home the next day.  We had a stressful ticket-buying experience at the station in Narbonne - the clerk could not get her credit card machine to work and Scott had to run all over town looking for an ATM while fearing we would miss the train - but eventually we arrived at the pleasant, modern station in Figueres de Vilafant, located just over the border in Spain.  Here, we would transfer to a Spanish RENFE train traveling on to Barcelona.  We had planned to have lunch at
the station while we waited for our transfer but were dismayed to discover that the only food available at or near the station was located in a vending machine.
 We were warned not to walk around in the area as it wasn't too safe so we hopped in a taxi and managed to communicate that we were looking for a restaurant that would be quick.  As luck would have it, the driver dropped us, not at a local McDonald's but at a delightfully no-frills tapas bar with good, local ambiance and where we had one of our favorite (and cheapest) meals of the trip.

Busy confirming travel plans while waiting for the taxi back to Narbonne and points south
Caroline loves tapas!  Tomato bread, chicken wings, boquerones (marinated, fresh anchovies) and fritters made for a delicious lunch in Figueres, Catalonia
Upon arriving in Barcelona, we easily found our well-located hotel on foot (but not before being reminded, once again, to travel a little lighter next time).  As the warm mid-July day gave way to a balmy evening, we passed a relaxing afternoon and evening exploring the less touristy streets of the city.  Energized by the bustle of the city and with no real destination in mind, we strolled the pleasant streets, stopping for a tapa or two and a glass of cava or sangria here and there as we wandered.  

Fun Gaudi-esque slide across from the train station in Barcelona
The National Art Museum of Catalonia was just a stone's throw from our hotel
Enjoying a tapa and a glass of cava on a quiet pedestrian-only street in Barcelona
Best sangria ever!  Tapas-bar hopping in the Barri Gotic (Gothic Quarter) of Barcelona
After two albeit wonderful weeks in the countryside, it was a most enjoyable way to end our trip and we already can’t wait to return!

Monday, August 26, 2013

Life on the Waterways (Still Enjoying the Good Life, But Now in France)

July 13 – 19, 2013
Canal du Midi, France

On Saturday afternoon, after a pleasant, high-speed train ride into Narbonne, France, we met up with our traveling party at the small but bustling station.  From there we taxied on to Le Somail where our barge was moored, ready and waiting for us.  It was hot as blazes, with little shade in sight, but we gamely unpacked our bags in our floating accommodations and did some preliminary food and supply shopping in the only shop in town, charmingly located aboard a permanently moored barge.

The Narbonne, our floating home for the week
Shopping for food and supplies aboard the grocery barge in Le Somail 
Back at our boat, the Narbonne, we climbed on deck and listened to Emily explain how we were to operate our vacation vessel, including navigating the many locks we would happen upon on our journey.  After the lecture, Bob volunteered for captain duty and we were off!

Here we go!
First stop: mooring at the local winery
After tasting and making our purchase, we were ready to haul our wine supply back to the boat
With the exception of the small setback we had on our first full day with a failed alternator that needed replacing, it was smooth sailing, so to speak.  

Tony made quite a mess of himself fixing our alternator but managed to be quick and cheerful about it
Bob, Christopher and Scott made an excellent captain and crew, negotiating the locks like old pros (well, usually) and Caroline and Margaret proved their skill at throwing the ropes up to their mates with impressive precision (i.e. not sloppily tossing the ropes into the murky canal waters).  

Scott mans the ropes while waiting for the lock to fill
We putted along the waterways at a slow but steady, barge-like pace, enjoying the idyllic scenery along the canal and waving at passing boats and cyclists as is the custom.  The sun was hot – at times downright merciless – and the air humid but when the barge was moving, the breeze was positively heavenly.  The hours spent cruising the waterways were exactly as Caroline had envisioned and it was a dream come true being out on the water every day for a week.
Watching the scenery go by
The eight passengers of the Narbonne quickly fell into a pleasant routine, revolving largely around food  - preparing, serving and cleaning up after eating (we were in France after all!).  Breakfast was typically Scott’s ‘famous’ aero-press coffee and bakery croissants on deck as we set off for the day.
Enjoying a light breakfast aboard the Narbonne in the town of Homps
The locks on the Canal du Midi all observe a scheduled closure from 12:30– 1:30 when the lock keepers take their lunch break.   As such, we were at the mercy of their schedule, so it made sense to stop for our lunch when they lunched.  During the mid-day closure we moored the boat, frequently at a lock while we waited for the lock keeper to return, and enjoyed a leisurely meal on deck.  Once we even unloaded the table and chairs and enjoyed our lunch right on the towpath.  We dined on a variety of delicious French and Spanish cheeses and charcuteries, including an impressive variety of sausages, some delectable duck rillettes and goose liver pate, in addition to olives, canned fish, boiled eggs, ripe tomatoes, cucumbers and other fruit – all scrumptious.   Oh, and of course, we enjoyed plenty of wine with lunch – rose, white or red, take your pick!
Lunching on the towpath
  Prior to the trip, we had thought we would be spending more time off the boat exploring towns and riding the rented bikes on the canal tow paths.  As it happened, we typically only moored briefly for lunch and again at the end of the day before heading to town for a group dinner and then back to the boat to sleep.

Dinner on the Canal du Midi - sardines in Trebes
Our one lengthier stop was at the halfway point where we moored in a tight spot in a busy marina (kudos to the captain and crew!) in the city of Carcassonne, dubbed the ‘Jewel of the Midi’ by the tourism board.  The only real city on our route, we all went our separate ways to find lunch and explore the old town and the medieval city on the hill for which Carcassonne is known.   

Carcassonne's medieval city
It was about 95 degrees that day and the touristy medieval city was teeming with visitors.  Scott likened it to arriving in the Disneyland of southern France – jewel, indeed!  We lasted about 30 minutes before grabbing a couple of overpriced (but delicious!) lemon slushes from a sidewalk vendor and retreating to an unassuming and (un-air conditioned) bar on the town square to sweat in peace.  There, Scott delighted in the opportunity to watch the Tour de France on TV in real time (as opposed to at the crack of dawn on the computer at home).
Watching the Tour de France in Carcassonne
Too limp from the heat to even think about shopping for postcards, Caroline enjoyed a mauresque (a refreshing pastis-based drink) or two while trying not to stick to the vinyl seats. 
That evening, the heat finally broke after a brief rain shower during which we enjoyed our joint favorite meal of the trip: a truly lovely foie gras followed by an amazing cassoulet, enjoyed al fresco at a charming bistro in town.  Oh, and the chocolate mousse for dessert wasn’t half bad either! 

Mmmmm, cassoulet!
After another few days of enjoying waking up on the water, watching the scenery go by, lunches on deck, cool afternoon drinks in the heat of the day, al fresco restaurant dinners in the small canal towns and last but not least, the satisfaction of working as a team to make it all happen, it was time to pack up and drop the boat off back where we started.
To view more pictures, click on the photo below:
Picasa Album - Barging on the Canal du Midi in France

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Enjoying the Good Life in the Spanish Countryside

July 9 - 12, 2013
Can Ferrer, Catalonia, Spain and Around

After brushing off our travel dust, we spent an enjoyable four days relaxing and catching up, in very low-key fashion, with our friends whom we had last seen seven years ago.  It wasn't your typical Spanish vacation, spending sweaty days touring the sights, bemoaning sore feet, tired legs and sunburned shoulders.  As Daniel and Leonne are Dutch, not Spanish, and speak fluent English and we encountered very few people in our countryside wanderings, at times it was easy to forget we were even in Spain.
 It was more like visiting friends anywhere in your own country, visiting the more immediate local sights, swimming at the beach, cooking and drinking at home and lounging in the shade of a tree with the cats during the heat of the day.  A very pleasant way to pass some warm July days with good friends, a friend aptly described our trip as “Spain lite.”

Scott samples a Spanish rose with his tapa on the balcony at our Spanish digs in Can Ferrer, Catalonia
The highlight of this portion of our trip was definitely the half-day hike Daniel and Leonne took us on about an hour from their house.  The scenery was simply non-stop, with oohs and aaahs around ever bend, and we had the trail completely to ourselves – a wonderful locals’ secret!

Hiking at Cornudella de Montsant with Daniel & Leonne
And as a bonus, we followed up our memorable hike with a menu del dia lunch, a swim in a nearby lake, a bit of town-wandering and cold drinks on a family-friendly plaza – a truly perfect day!

Wandering the quaint streets of Siurana, Catalonia after lunch
Enjoying a Scheweppes Limon on the plaza in Prades, Catalonia before heading home for a late dinner
Four days and some exciting wildlife spottings – a fox and a wild boar in the yard, as well as a beach full of nudists - later, it was time for our Spanish adventure to come to an end.  On Saturday morning Daniel and Leonne dropped us at the recently-built, modern train station at Camp Tarragona near their house and seemingly in the middle of nowhere, where we would catch a train to the border and then on to France.  Little did we know, the hot and sweaty portion of our trip was about to begin!

Scott had no time for jet lag - on our first morning in Spain, the guys went for a long bike ride in the hills of Catalonia
Beautiful Waikiki Playa - the locals' secret, located right outside Barcelona
Our hosts welcomed us with delicious mojitos on the balcony
Caroline poses with the trusty Kangoo, our taxi for the week
Leonne & Daniel, in the grapevines near their house on our nightly walk with the cats
Pusita & her son Pusito, on our walk
Exploring ancient ruins near Can Ferrer, Catalonia, the village where Daniel & Leonne live.
Cherries!  We may or may not have eaten illicitly harvested cherries.  Only Daniel and Leonne will ever know...
A lovely Spanish rose served on the tray our friends bought on their trip to Mexico when they home exchanged at our condo in San Miguel
Hiking at Cornudella de Montsant with Daniel & Leonne
Hiking at Cornudella de Montsant with Daniel & Leonne
Hiking at Cornudella de Montsant with Daniel & Leonne
Taking cover from a brief rain shower in Siurana
Good times in the plaza of the mountain town of Prades, Catalonia
The lively family-friendly plaza of Prades
When in Spain, eat ham!
The cava ice cream in Villafranca del Penedes was delicious!
Catalonia separatist flags in Villafranca del Penedes
Luna, lounging in the yard on a warm afternoon
Relaxing with Daniel & Pusita in the yard
The charming view from the yard
Enjoying the countryside from a comfy chair
"Why, yes, I'll take another mojito!"

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Off to Europe...Eventually...

San Francisco International Airport to Barcelona

About three years ago, while we were still living in Albuquerque, our friend Christopher began talking about the European adventure he was dreaming of in celebration of his 50th birthday.  It began as ‘5 for 50’ as in five months in Europe for his 50th birthday.  Well, the trip went through many iterations over the years (not the least of which saw five months turn into a mere three), but in the early stages when Christopher mentioned inviting friends we knew that we would be there!

The ‘American Friends and Family’ portion of the trip ultimately came to fruition in the form of a week-long pleasure barge trip on the scenic Canal du Midi in the south of France, not far from the Spanish border.  When we learned the location of the trip, we decided it would make sense to fly into Barcelona, as it would be much closer to our destination than arriving in Paris.  This plan also gave us a great opportunity to arrive a bit early and spend a few days visiting our Dutch friends Daniel and Leonne in their home in the vineyard-rich Catalonian countryside an hour outside Barcelona. 

The trip got off to a bit of a slow start.  On July 6th we were sitting at our gate planning to board our 747 to Frankfurt when we learned via numerous Facebook posts that an Asiana Airlines jet from South Korea had crash-landed at SFO earlier that day, making the wide-body jet runway unusable.  From our gate, we saw the long stream of fire engines and ambulances crossing the tarmac in the distance.  For a time, the entire airport was closed down and no one could enter or leave, on the roads and runways, alike.  

Getting some fresh air at San Francisco International as we awaited news of our flight.
After repeated delays, our flight was finally officially cancelled.  United re-booked us on a flight the following evening and sent us away to spend an unexpected night in our own bed.  As we considered what the new day would bring, we had memories of the chaos of trying to fly in the days immediately following 9/11 (on that fateful day back in 2001 we were scheduled to be on a flight back to California and spent the following four days trying to get home).  We had visions of spending half of our vacation trying to get on an airplane, any airplane, and to the other side of the Atlantic.  It was a stressful time but luckily none of our macabre visions of vacations cut hideously short came true.

Enjoying beer, brats and sauerkraut in Frankfurt
Following a brief layover in Frankfurt as originally planned, we arrived in Barcelona about 36 hours late but all in one piece, grateful to find our hosts patiently awaiting our arrival in the middle of the night to take us to their home.