Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Europe, Spring 2016, Part Five: Spain Again and Out



I'll admit to a certain relief as I steered the Peugeot out of Montpellier and on to the motorway (which was, along most of its length, the old Roman Via Domitia) towards Perpignan to return it. Maybe if I'd had someone with me to whom I could have shown bits of my past, perhaps driven up to Pic St. Loup and up the tiny road that leads to the ruined castle hanging off its companion escarpment l'Hortus that I thought I'd hallucinated until I actually was able to stop and photograph it. Or maybe I needed the down-time as a day of drawing a deep breath before heading into the last couple of days of this trip.

Spring in this part of the world announces itself with wind. Cold winds sweep out of the mountains and lower the temperature until they're countered by warmer winds from the south, the Mediterranean, and Africa itself. I used to sweep up a fine yellow dust that blew into my apartment, and someone who knew told me that this was sand from the Sahara in Algeria, picked up and transported to coastal France. The winds were in full effect on the highway, and I had to pay attention to stay in my lane, and make sure that the gigantic semi-trucks stayed in theirs. Fortunately there weren't many campers on the road: signs in French, English, Spanish, and German appeared every dozen or so miles warning against violent cross-winds.

But at least I didn't have any problem finding the Center of the World again, even if I did make a misstep finding the parking garage and, then, the rental return. It was okay: I had plenty of time before my train to Girona at 3:17. I was concerned about the scratches -- very concerned -- but just as concerned that Europcar had closed for lunch and there were various customers milling around. My body was sending me signals, so I went to the main waiting room, found some packaged sandwiches, and found a French BLT, speck, lettuce, marinated tomatoes on a seeded baguette. I knew I'd burn off enough glucose toting the case of wine that this wouldn't be an issue. Then I headed back to the Europcar area to wait. Apparently someone had tipped off the cops that someone arriving on the train from Marseille, a teenage boy, might be trouble, and a number of suspects had their luggage searched. Another pair, who looked to be in the demographic, were apparently undercover cops, checking in with the uniforms from time to time.

Eventually the agent reappeared, several families pushed ahead of me and got their cars, and I returned mine. She didn't seem unduly concerned about the scratches and I still haven't heard anything. My American Express card showed only the $100 I'd charged on it, so who knows. And the train to Girona, when I finally got on it, was impossibly crowded and noisy, but it was only 45 minutes, so I arrived in Girona, got a cab despite the fact that my hotel was only a few blocks away (luggage again) and checked in to a once-elegant hotel (cigarette burns on the desk? really?) crowded with British and Scottish golfers. I went out as soon as I'd stashed my luggage to look at the town, but the weather had other ideas and I returned, somewhat damper for the experience, about a half-hour later.

For dinner, I hit the city's oldest restaurant, Casa Marieta, and had some odd pâtés to start, then a dish of squid with green peas, which was interesting. But I'd read a description of the place as "tired," and that's just how it seemed. Surely there was someone doing something more interesting with Catalan food here. Fortunately, there was.

The next morning I set off to see the obvious sights and to figure out what the story was with Girona. I'd read that it had the best-preserved Jewish quarter in Spain and deduced from that, mistakenly, that the Jews hadn't been expelled from Girona with the rest of the Spanish Jews in 1492. A visit to the Jewish Museum set me straight, as well as inadvertantly providing me with a perfect first stop in figuring the place out. The Jewish quarter, El Call, had apparently existed in one form or another since before 1000 CE, and besides becoming a center of trade, it was a center of Jewish intellectual life, epitomized by Mossé ben Nahman (1194-1270), who must have been a busy guy, since he penned famous commentaries on the Talmud, systematized the Kabballah, wrote poetry, practiced medicine, and found a little time to preach at the synagogue, which at the time was located atop Girona's hill next door to the cathedral. He left town in his old age and died in Acre, which the museum puts in Israel, but I seem to remember as a Jordanian city. By the time of Mossé's death, though, Gironans had become suspicious of the Jews, and demanded a wall be built around the Call. Riots and laws persecuting the Jews began in 1381, and a lot of them converted, at least outwardly, but they continued to socialize with the unconverted and also made mistakes when practicing their new religion's rituals. The Inquisition finally came to town to see what was up, mostly because Barcelona, where they'd been working, kept having bouts of plague, and Jews started emptying out the Call. The usual punishment for being a Jew was burning in a bonfire, but so many had left by the time the Inquisition's bureaucracy had found them guilty that straw dolls were used in almost every case. And by 1492, of course, the Jews had all left. The Inquisition proved so popular with the people of Girona that in 1820, during the Riego Uprising (unexplained in the wall caption), the House of the Inquisition was burned to the ground, destroying all its records. With the Jews gone, they'd gone after herbalists, homosexuals, witches, Lutherans, and anyone else they didn't like.

If you wanted to sum up the history of the Jews of Girona, a rather ugly sculpture in the museum's courtyard does a great job:

On one side, the Zodiac, an astrolabe, various navigational instruments, and Mossé with a book...



...and on the other side, Columbus sailing from a Jew-free Spain using those instruments.



It was time to climb the hill, where the rest of the story would unfold, and explore the cathedral and its surroundings. The Museu d'Art is located in one of the buildings where the cathedral's bureaucracy was once housed, including its prison, and it has an impressive amount of mostly older stuff (ie, right up my alley), including a minor work by the Master of Cabestany, a long painted beam of unknown provenance, showing a procession of monks,





Rather badly captured here, but click to enlarge

the ubiquitous lion-eating-a guy carving, 

There's one in Montpellier, too. No idea.
and lots more. Impressive. Eventually, you leave into the plaza in front of the cathedral, where, letting my eyes adjust to the bright sunlight, I saw an act of rather shocking violence: I was noting the seagulls that were up there among the pigeons, because they were about two feet from one end to the other. As I was trying to decode whether or not the cathedral was actually open (it still serves as a cathedral, after all, with several Masses a day) I noticed that one of the seagulls had taken a small black pigeon in its beak and had broken its neck, and was bashing it against the pavement to hasten its death as it flapped its wings, ever more feebly. I'd always known that seagulls were eaters of every sort of junk available, but had no idea they'd hunt live prey. 

Although, in its odd way, it set me up for the cathedral, which is big, filled with Baroque chapels as over-the-top as any Spanish Baroque art can be (and that's plenty, althoug I do like that period's organ music), lots of depictions of martyrdom (Spanish Catholicism is gory) and its treasury has, as its central display, a very old tapestry depicting the Creation. I liked that a lot: it was a cheapo way of teaching the bible to the illiterate masses and it's crowded with bible stories and other goodies, like the pair of Jews at the bottom who serve as an informal logo for the Jewish Museum. 

Outside again, I descended the hill and headed for the grandly-named Archaeological Museum of Catalonia, housed in the former church of San Pere de Gallegants, which has a nice cloister and good paintings in the museum part showing how ancient people lived here (burning the dead, putting them in ceramic vessels, and burying them surrounded by mini-Stonehenges of rocks) and were influenced by the Greeks and, later, the Romans. Christianity seems to have arrived early, around the 4th century, possibly with Roman colonial settlers, and there are apparently small basilicas out in the countryside dating from then, centered around the cult of St. Felix the Martyr, who remains the city's patron saint. 

Next I went to the "Arab baths," so-called not because they were made by resident Arabs (a people who seem missing from the city history, interestingly enough) but because they were in the style the Arabs employed: first a cold dip, then outdoors, then a hot  room for the steam. The building dates from 1194, but there really isn't enough of it to warrant a visit, and it was made less pleasant by a couple of those cult-kids making new-agey music on what looks like an overturned wok with dimples in it. Those suckers are loud!

It was time for lunch, and as I made my way down the street, I passed the City Museum, which would be the perfect knitting-together of the various threads I'd gathered so far, but I wasn't going to miss another meal and get goofy, so I went to a place in the Call and had the one signature Catalan dish I'd missed in my visits to Barcelona: botifarra amb mongetes, which looks like this: 

Right: sausage and beans
It wasn't all that distinguished, but it was just enough to fill the gap, and I was off for my last museum of the day. 

The City Museum starts out with one of the weirder rooms I've ever been in. It was once a Capuchin monastery, and when the monks died, they were arranged in a seated position and placed in the dessicarium. 

Dry up, bro!
When the corpses were mummified by the air circulating around them, they were dressed in their old robes and displayed in another part of the monastery. Memento mori, dudes!

The city museum is big on history and light on artifacts, which was okay by me, and the period between the Romans and the Inquisition is wisely left to other institutions in the city, but come the 19th century and the city's realization that its economic growth was stunted by its still being encircled by the age-old city wall, the citizens decided to tear most of it down so the city could grow. It became a printing center and had a few other industries, but it also suffered badly when it was bombed (by the Spanish government) during the Civil War in 1938. There is an amazing small display of children's drawings of the bombardment, all done in typical primitive kid style with bright crayons, and it reminded me that, starting with that, Spain became ruled by a fascist dictatorship under Generalissimo Francisco Franco, with full support from the Church, and that it remained so until 1975. With the current stirrings of reactionary right-wing politics fuelled by extreme conservative religion in the United States, remembering Spain's history during these times is a disturbing and, I'd say, necessary thing to do. 

After that, I was museumed out, and started strolling back towards the hotel. Along the way, I passed a restaurant that looked interesting enough, wrote down its name (incorrectly, but thank heavens for Google Maps, where I just zoomed in further and further until its name appeared) and, when I eventually got back, I checked out their website. There, I thought, would be a meal worthy of Girona's spirit. 

Because there is a spirit there, as there is in Barcelona, but it's more concentrated because the town is smaller. The place thrums with activity: Lance Armstrong, Gerry told me, took a house here because the hills were great training places for him and his team, and although I'm used to being a minority group as a pedestrian in Austin, not until Girona was I outnumbered by bikers. Had it not been for a book festival in the evening that drew crowds to its entertainment part, between the golfers and the bikers, I might not have seen any civilians at all. I liked this place, and once I arrived at my interesting-looking restaurant (where I'd reserved: you have to, I'd say), Llevataps, the deal was sealed. I started with a warm salad that contained calçots, a uniquely Catalan cousin of the green onion and leek that's usually roasted, touched with a bit of romesco sauce, went on to an absolutely amazing dish of grilled artichokes and razor clams, which concentrated the artichoke flavors while charring the leaves -- a tour-de-force -- and finished up with tender octopus whose method of preparation I didn't note, because by then I was too full and had to regretfully leave half of it behind. With this, I had a bottle of Io Masia Serra, a brilliant combo of Cabernet Sauvignon, black Grenache, and Merlot, one of those creative red blends I've favored recently, and which paired with the artichokes and clams spectacularly. Without question, the best meal of the trip, and not nearly the most expensive. The staff was friendly and the whole experience underscored my belief that Catalonia is well ahead of France in experimenting and creating within the tradition, extending it instead of merely preserving it. I gotta get back to this place. 

Obligatory cliched pic of houses along the Onyar River

Non-obligatory picture of feline residents of the river's edge

* * *

I had no train to meet to get me to Barcelona the next day, but I wanted to get going, even though I knew the hotel wouldn't have my room ready. But I seemed to have trouble getting out of hotels on this trip: construction workers hit a power line in Narbonne, trapping everyone inside (the front door had an electric eye to open it) for an hour or so, and Sunday morning in Girona, there was the city's annual 10,000k run. The brilliant folks who organized it managed to cut off the three big streets surrounding the hotel so no cabs could pick anyone up. This lasted for 90 minutes, with one of the desk ladies getting testier and testier with the cab company, who didn't seem to have any idea if there were a solution or how long the race would last. I hung out in the lobby, watching runners dash in to use the john and then dash out again, and finally the thing ended and a cab took me to the railroad station, where I was offered a fast train and a slow train. The fast train got me into Barcelona ten minutes earlier, so I chose the slow one, which took a different route and went through some lovely countryside. Had I but known, I could have gotten off at the Paseig de Gracia station in Barcelona, two blocks from my hotel. I also realized that, if one left at about 9, one could do a day-trip to Girona from Barcelona. Llevataps is open for lunch, too. 

Monday I checked out, but I also met a friend from Austin who arrived that day to start a trip with his girlfriend that would also take in Florence, where they would do some work on a film they're making. She wouldn't be in until later, so I took him to try to get a cheap phone, then to the hotel/housing agency that handled the apartment they'd rented to get the key, then to the apartment, and then back up to the housing agency's next door neighbor, a stellar northern Spanish tapas joint called Pulperia Bar Celta. A perfect last meal in Barcelona!

* * *

I'd also booked this end of the flight badly, and had to overnight at an overpriced, dingy hotel at Heathrow, a fate I wouldn't wish on anyone. After that, though, I had a long time to think about the trip (and, much as I'd disliked the Austin-Heathrow nonstop on the way out, this flight wasn't nearly as crowded, so I had some room). And I did. Beauty had clearly been encountered and enjoyed -- luxuriated in, even -- both natural and man-made. Love was, of course, unchanged, except for a nagging realization that a lot of women I'd been encountering in the States thought it unseemly that I could still be interested at my advanced age. Of course, my friend who was just starting his Barcelona trip was with a woman ten years younger than me -- and he's nearly ten years older than I am. I landed in Austin to discover a text from him: "What a big lovely city, Paris with a better attitude." Can't say that about the city I'd just landed in, and I'm going to have to cope with that somehow. I'm about to embark on a period where if all goes well I should see some changes in my material and professional life, and I intend to take as much advantage of that as possible. I would dearly love to get out of Austin: it's a bad fit, and had I known, I needn't have come here when I realized I couldn't stay in France any more. This isn't the place to bitch about that now. Just do your work, keep the love and beauty thing in your mind, and keep on. 

* * *

Two days after I got back, I ran out of coffee and headed up to Anderson's to re-fill. The next morning I poured some beans out of the bag into the grinder and took the egg man's rubber band to close it up. It snapped. 

Monday, April 18, 2016

Europe, Spring 2016, Part Four: Montpellier: You Can/Can't Go Home Again

Ahhh, Montpellier!


There was little enough reason to stick around Narbonne, when I knew that the road I'd parked on eventually turned into the road that'd drive me straight to my next destination, Montpellier, the city where I'd lived for five years before having to return to the States. I'd booked four days in a hotel there, planning to use it as a base of operations as I went out into the countryside visiting wineries and seeing more of the landscapes I'd loved.

I left Narbonne early enough on Monday that I realized I could drop down to Sète on the way and grab some fish for lunch. Once again, it was a grey day, and windy. At this time of year, I remembered, the sun could warm you if you stood in it directly, but it wasn't making an appearance, and as I drove into Sète, I saw big waves in the Mediterranean crashing against the seawall: there was a storm out there somewhere, and it was a big one. After parking under the canal, I came up and walked around the main drag, then a couple of other streets, working up a hunger and noting that almost nothing had changed. I had in mind a tielle for lunch, a local specialty best described as a pie with octopus cooked in a spicy tomato sauce as filling, but the best place in town, the place that, in fact, was credited with inventing the tielle, was closed for the season. I settled for one of the canal-side restaurants -- one of the few that was open -- and had a fish soup with croutons (not so hot) and a rouille sètoise, which, the last time I'd had it, was cuttlefish under a blanket of hot, saffron-scented mayonnaise on a bed of rice, and this time was cuttlefish in a spicy tomato-based sauce with a dish of spaghetti on the side. It was far better than the soup, but the place wasn't exactly doing a lot of business on a Monday out of season.

It was too cold to do any more wandering, or to go up the hill the town is built on, so I got in the car and headed towards Montpellier. I'd arranged this trip so that I'd wake up at the hotel on Tuesday, walk downstairs, and go to the Tuesday market, which stretches out across the street. It wasn't the best season for the market, but I could tell just what time it was by visiting it, I'd spent so much time in the past buying my food there. Meanwhile, there was Monday to kill by strolling around the center of town, seeing what had changed and what hadn't. The hotel itself was much improved from when I used to stay there on my visits from Berlin: no more rickety furniture and lumpy bed, no tiny shower booth leaking all over the place. It was too cold to take breakfast in the hotel's wonderful garden, but it would be possible later in the year.

A quick stroll confirmed a few things. First, despite the Virgin Megastore's demise, the covered market was still open, although I'd heard otherwise. Neither the Musée Fabre nor the Pavillon Populaire had shows up currently, which, in the latter case, was too bad. Not having to endure the surliness of the Fabre staff was fine with me. Wandering out onto the Comédie, there were no patrons at the outdoor cafés, and slipping down the side-street towards my old place revealed that the former jeans store was now a beer-bar with an actual good list of beers (must be the American exchange students). The biggest disappointment was when I came to my old house, and the Lebanese snack bar was still in operation, but redesigned, and with someone I didn't recognize manning it. Had my pal Hani disappeared? Apparently: he wasn't there when I passed a couple of days later, either. There was a new burger joint where there'd been a nail salon, and I recalled the words of a Facebook friend whom I don't actually know who'd preceded me by about a week: he said that food in Montpellier had changed to pandering to students, and that cheeseburgers were now a fixed thing, even on the menus of decent restaurants. There was no reason for France not to have great cheeseburgers: they have good beef, many different cheeses, and great bakers capable of crafting a bun, but when I lived there, there was only one place that did a decent burger, the Vert Anglais (which, I saw, was now called something else). Now, burgers are omnipresent, and, at least in France, they ain't for dinner. Still, I wasn't worried about getting a good meal.

The saddest change was the old hat store on the Rue de la Loge, which had been run by an old man with a great story: he was Jewish, but didn't know it, and when the Occupation came, concerned Montpellierians hustled him out of town, ran the store for him, and got him out of hiding when it was safe again. That's as much a story about French laïcité as anything. But it was shuttered (I'd considered buying a straw hat there) and the few hats in the window were dusty.

Back at the hotel, I took care of some other business, calling my Apple tech support guy, Etienne, to tell him I had my old iPad and an old iPhone he'd asked me to bring, along with some sort of memory card for an Apple Cinema Display he'd bought. He'd wandered into the English Corner Shop one day, and impressed Chuck and Judi with his abilities, although back then he was only a teenager, and now, at 21, he's at loose ends, buying and selling computer stuff, and kind of vaguely thinking about coming to America. He's also into cars, and wants either a Cadillac or a Ford Crown Victoria, of all things. But his automotive knowledge would come in handy.

There was no question of where to eat on Monday: I'd already checked, and the Chat Perché, my absolute favorite restaurant, was open on Mondays. The menu in the window looked unchanged, but inside, it was a different story. The people running the place looked different, and there on the menu was the dreaded cheeseburger and fries, where the seiches a la plancha once were. There were other things, though, and I started with a fresh green pea soup, cold, and went on with a roulade of chicken breast stuffed with Conté cheese. And, of course, I had a bottle of Mas de la Seranne Sous le Figuier with it. My favorite winery, clearly keeping up the quality, I noted, waiting for the food. The soup was good, but the chicken was dry, and the vegetable side-dishes, always a highlight there, were bland. Bland! Clearly the Chat had fallen on hard times. Very sad. I remembered so many meals with friends (including the young woman whose philosophical conversations I remembered in the first part of this travelogue), and my sister's surprised "Who puts mint in mashed potatoes?" when she had dinner with me there. The Chat did. But not any more, apparently.

Montpellier's Muslims have tacos instead of cheeseburgers. I have no idea if this is a common North African street food, if one of them is called "a tacos," or whether some Moroccan guy thinks this is a taco. 


Of course, for the Tuesday market, the heavens had opened up and it was pouring. There were stands set up, though, and I decided to see if the storm would pass, and about 11, it relented, and I made a quick tour of a much-diminished market. The egg guy was there, and, moreover, he remembered me. We had a genial chat, and I almost asked him for one of the rubber bands he uses to keep the egg cartons closed. I'd been using one, my last physical connection with my Tuesday-Saturday market ritual, to hold my bags of Anderson's coffee shut back in Austin. But I figured he'd never understand why I'd want one, so I didn't. It was obvious that a lot of folks had bailed on showing up, but the Italian guy with the fresh pasta and salumi was there, busy as usual, the quiet guy with the best vegetables (usually) in the market was there, of course (most of his trade is with restaurants), but not many others had ventured out. The herb, spice, and soap people were obviously not there, because you can't display dried herbs and soap in a downpour, and I'd promised to bring back some of their famous Marseille soap, but there was a little guy with some hiding under a canopy, so I got it from him. It was kind of slippery because it had gotten wet, but it'd do.

The rest of the day, I just left the car in the hotel's newly-leased underground parking spot and did some random stuff. I visited my friend Kirsty, a Scottish woman who seems to have defeated the various crises she was going through when I'd left, and she filled me in on the latest idiocies that the city was perpetrating (not that, when a major hunk of the city is torn up, it wasn't obvious that something was going on), surprised the hell out of the woman who used to cut my hair by dropping in for another trim (this, too, was something I'd hoped to do), and, later, met my friends E&J, who made plenty of appearances in this blog back in 2011, for a catch-up at an Armenian restaurant, of all things (well, J is vegetarian, after all). A good, relaxed day.

The next day, Etienne had asked if he could tag along while I visited some wineries. Despite a surname that means "wine jug," he declared that he didn't like wine, but was curious as to why people did. The weather had turned brilliant, and it was a good day. And Etienne's car-geekery came in handy, too: I'd scratched the paint getting into the parking spot in the hotel's lot, and although it wasn't dented or a very serious scrape, I know that these things can come back and sting you, so I'd asked him if there were someplace I could get a quote for a quick buff-and-paint job. I managed to scratch it again getting out of the space and then out of the garage -- this wasn't a big car, but damn, I'd forgotten about French parking spaces -- so our first visit was to a Peugeot dealership on the edge of town, near where we'd get on the motor route towards wine country. The only guy who'd talk to us there kept us waiting for about 20 minutes, did a superficial look at the car, and, no doubt smelling panicked rich tourist, said if we left the car now, he could have it ready by the end of Friday for €3000. Um, no. Thanks, but no. But this was a concern, and it was preying on me a bit: I'd declined CDW when I'd rented it, and although people with more experience than I said that it might not even matter, I was hoping not to have to deal with insurance.

But now, our job was to get to Aniane, and the first winery on my list. Well, there were actually only two, but I was keeping my options open. Mas de la Seranne has been my favorite Languedoc wine since I tasted my first bottle on an early visit to Montpellier, and some of my favorite wine experiences have involved it (and one of my least favorite, when I spent €13 I didn't have on a bottle of one of their higher-end wines, Clos des Immortels, for a birthday treat and...it was corked).  I'd always wanted to visit the winery, and now I had an excuse. I'd ordered a swell piece of luggage from a company that makes a collapsible suitcase that can contain cushioned holders for a dozen bottles of wine, which you can then check like normal luggage. (You declare 9 liters of wine for personal consumption at Customs, and the government charges you something like $1.35 a bottle). I'd bought one and had it delivered to a friend in Nîmes, whom I'd see later.

We got to the winery just as they'd reopened from lunch, did a tasting, and I discovered that they had a new high-end limited-production wine in the range, and upon tasting it, added it to the rosé and Clos des Immortels I already knew I wanted. Mme. Venture put up with us nicely, and let me take a photo in the room where the magic happens:

Well, some of the magic: the rest happens in the fields.
The next stop would be St-Saturnin, the traditional last stop on the little driving tour I'd give visitors, whisking them up and down the hills through medieval villages and UNESCO sites and, finally, stopping at the Domaine d'Archimbaud for a tasting with Mme. Cabanes, who was always gracious about it once she'd bullied me into trying her III Pierres white. I told her I didn't drink much white wine, but I'd loved her rosé at the Estivales, Monpellier's summer-long wine festival. Turned out the white was as good as the rosé, an astonishing feat for a region that isn't particularly regarded for white wine. This time she let me taste it again and made another sale, and so I made off with a white, a rosé, and her top bottle, Robe de Pourpre, a thick, intense red that calls out for a winter evening and a hunk of roast beast. To my surprise, Etienne declared that he'd never had a wine like that (well, I could believe that) and he loved it, so he got a bottle, too. As we drove away, he was making plans to serve it with a dish of magret, the breast of a duck that had been raised for foie gras.

It was a little early to head back, so I remembered that on the way in to St.-Saturnin, we'd passed Mas Conscience, which was not only back in the Terrasses du Larzac appelation like Mas de la Seranne, but, like them, had made an early transition to all-organic, certified and monitored. Their wines had been hard to get in Montpellier, but I remembered them as excellent, so we decided to check them out. Mme Ajorque was rather surprised to see tourists draw up, but arranged a tasting. Not only did I score two bottles, but I talked her out of a straw hat with AOC TERRASSES DE LARZAC on the band, decorations that had no doubt been part of the presentation at this year's Vinisud, the big biannual wine trade fair held in Montpellier. So now I really would look like a tourist returning from vacation on the plane! I also got a catalogue of their wines: starting this year they've imported a few pallets of wine to San Francisco and New York, and seemed open to talking to a Texas distributor. So next time I visit Austin Wine Merchant, I'll hand it off and see what happens.

It was a good day out in the country. The fields were yellow with wildflowers (ground cover, no doubt) with the occasional bright red poppy, and the vines had been grafted and were spindly green. Back in Montpellier, I parked in the outdoor lot near the hotel. No more scratches for me, and birdshit washes off. I dropped my haul off at the hotel, and fielded a text on my phone: "Headed in, traffic jam." It was from Gerry, the guy in Nîmes to whom I'd shipped my wine suitcase, who I was expecting to have dinner with the next night. It hardly mattered: I had no dinner plans tonight, and I was glad to see him. We had a fine chat over a nearly inedible dinner at Le Vieux Four, a restaurant I'd never really liked, but I was stupidly obsessed with having seiches a la plancha, a favorite that had disappeared from the Chat Perché's menu in favor of the cheeseburger, and I was also obsessed with eating someplace that didn't offer a cheeseburger on the menu, thereby narrowing choices greatly. The seiches -- encornets, actually; cuttlefish of a larger size -- could have been used to patch the tires on the Peugeot, and I struggled through two of them before giving up. Memo to self: never go on a restaurant search with low blood sugar due to having skipped lunch. I got back to the hotel, saw that Merle Haggard had died, and fired off a tribute on Facebook, then crashed.

The next day was my last in town, and I did...essentially nothing. Etienne checked in with two more shade-tree body shops he'd found who offered to do the job for €700 and €1100 (he'd taken pictures with his camera), and I decided that, with a $1300 hold on my credit card, I'd take my chances. I actually liked having nothing to do after all of the intense activity of the past week, and Friday would mark the last segment of the trip: drive to Perpignan, turn in the car, take a train to Girona, Spain. So Thursday, I wandered some, stopped in a restaurant Etienne had recommended for lunch (Les DouSoeurs, which had just opened when I left, and specializes in dishes from the Aveyron, in the north of Languedoc where there's no wine grown, but they make up for it with pork: the charcuterie-laced salad I had here was the best meal I had in Montpellier), wandered some more, found a small wine shop with a bottle of the Trois Lunes wine I'd had in Perpignan in the window -- the last bottle in the store, and the last of its vintage, the woman said -- and then wandered into a comics store and found that my favorite French comic artist, J.C. Denis, not only had a new book out, but one featuring his long-time character Luc Leroi, whom I thought he'd abandoned. I spent some time at the hotel packing, goofing off, and went back into town for a non-memorable meal.

There's no doubt in my mind that I'll return to Montpellier next time I'm in France because of the many friends I have there and the memories I also have, and because it's still the best place to base yourself for explorations of the surrounding countryside, and there are still places I want to see. And it was empowering to walk its streets now with no fear that my being broke was limiting me. I had spent a lot of time there frustrated, wanting to do things that I couldn't because my carefully-planned move was sabotaged by the capricious cancellation of a project I was working on with a music-biz sleazeball, and the subsequent $20,000 hole it left in my plans. Now I could walk into a good restaurant, drive a car into the hills, buy whatever I wanted (although I didn't want much). But knowing the town as I do, I no longer want to live there -- or, most likely, anywhere in France. The whole country still exerts a powerful pull on me, but, well, I don't know. At any rate, there's time to think before acting, and I have work to do.

And, I thought, turning out the light, there were still a few days to go, once again in unknown places.

Next: Spain And Out

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Not about to trust to fate, I got a fairly early start on Sunday, with a plan to see some of the ruined castles of Cathar country. Again, this was a part of the world I'd never seen, and I had no idea what to expect. But then, expecting nothing usually brings the information to you cleanly.

It was much easier to get out of the Center of the World than it had been getting back into it, and Sunday was much sunnier and brighter than Saturday had been, which meant that the huge mountain one can see so clearly from Perpignan hung in front of me as I drove out, its massiveness still about ¾ covered with snow, which gleamed against the blue sky. Of course, I got lost almost immediately, which is to say I somehow missed a turnoff to the route I'd written down -- hardly "lost," since it's pretty easy to find your way despite the occasional deviation from the route if you're equipped with a trusty Michelin yellow map (#344, Aude, Pyrénées-Orientales in this case) and the navigation system of a Peugeot 2008, which, although I couldn't program it, showed the names and locations of towns. You could just say okay, I'll aim for there, and I'll know where I am on the map.

Plus, the distances weren't as great as they looked on the relatively large-scale map. Somehow, I had headed southwest instead of northwest, and my job was to find the large D117 road. Heading north sent me through some hills on one-lane roads through tiny villages. In one of them, a band dressed in traditional clothing was waiting for everyone to show up, at which point they'd head into the village for a fair or something. Others snoozed Sunday away; the streets were pretty much deserted.

After what seemed like hours, I found the highway and had overshot my destination, a town called Maury, by so much that I had to backtrack, but after missing a turn in Maury and getting stuck in a tiny side-street which took all my driving skills to do a 180º turn, I saw the signs to my destination, Chateau Quéribus. This isn't the most famous of the Cathar castles, but it's probably the most dramatic.

Yes, you do have to walk up there
Calling it a "Cathar castle" is a bit inaccurate. The Cathars were a Gnostic sect, a spinoff of the Catholic Church who believed that people could know God directly, and had no need of priests or saints to intercede for them. In France, they were the first small-p protestants, protesting against the siphoning off of money and resources to Rome, and with a message that resonated with rural communities in the hills and mountains. This, of course, pissed Rome off -- not to mention the French crown, which depended on military and financial support from Rome, and the Inquisition was let loose to rid the country of the scourge of these people, a crusade against the so-called Albigensian Heresy of Catharism. Since Cathars lived semi-communally, entire communities were threatened by the Vatican's thugs, and many people fled to places whose fortifications and remote locations protected them. Chateau Quéribus was one of them: built sometime around 1000 CE, and 728 meters (2388.5 feet) above sea level on the highest peak for miles around, it was intended as a border defense against Spain, but its commander was sympathetic to the Cathars and in about 1244, it gave shelter to a bunch of them, including important clergymen. The castle protected them until 1255, at which point Inquisition forces under French command defeated the knight Chabert de Barbaira, who was defending the structure. The Cathars who'd been living there, meanwhile, sneaked further into the hills to other refuges.

There are a number of other castles nearby, all of which have histories with the Crusade against the so-called Albigensian Heresy, but this one, I'd decided, would be first. The road up there is narrow and twisty, and ends at a parking lot with a wooden shed from which tickets (and walking-sticks, and other souvenirs) are sold. You have to hike up a trail to the castle. So I did.





Fortunately, any good castle has defensive positions where you can catch your breath


Getting closer


Another defensive position. That mountain's the same one I saw from Perpignan, and a sign up here called it Roc de France, which the map locates on the French/Spanish border SSW of Perpignan



Once you finally climb to the top, there's a door. It's pitch black inside, but eventually a pillar and a couple of narrow spiral staircases emerge from the murk, and although I started up one of the staircases, my childhood acrophobia hit bad, and I backed down. Outside, I noticed you could climb the hill a bit to another door, and as I did, a couple came out of it, speaking English. I asked them what was in there. They'd been in the so-called Pillar Room, too, and climbed the stairs, only to come out here. From what I can gather from aerial photos, this means that the largest part of the structure is inaccessible to the public. Which meant walking back down, acrophobia in full effect. 

I finally hit the parking lot, rather disappointed by everything but the view: besides the defenses, I had no insight into life at Quéribus, which had gone on until 1659, when it was abandoned as no longer necessary. It was a good walk, I suppose, but I didn't feel particularly enlightened. In fact, I realized upon thinking about it, what I felt was hungry. The village which had existed to serve the fort, Cucugnan, was still there, and was a short drive away and, more importantly, the only place for miles where I could get lunch. Surely it was a tourist trap -- they have you, and where else are you going to go? -- but I drove there anyway. There was parking at the base of the village, and a restaurant/hotel nearby. One glance at the menu meant I wasn't going to be eating there: tourist food, probably largely frozen, but cheap. I walked on to the more settled part of the village and saw signs for a restaurant called L'Auberge de Vigneron, which also rents rooms. Their menu was also cheap, but the food looked edible: and so it was. Much as I wanted to dig into their cassoulet, there was a 30-minute preparation time and anyway, I was wary of eating too much at lunch and getting logy on the remaining drive. There was a terrace, populated largely by middle-aged British women, and I sat out there and enjoyed a selection of local charcuterie -- sausages, hams, a little pâté, local bread, a tiny glass of cold creamed asparagus soup, and the most perfect accompaniment to all of this possible, a little jar of shredded pickled apple. There was no reason to expect anything this good, and suddenly the hike up the mountain was worthwhile. I ate slowly, enjoying the sunshine, the view of Quéribus in the distance, and a sound like the world's most boring gamelan orchestra, which was made by dozens of belled sheep below us, grazing in their field.


Not exactly the view from the terrace, which was around the corner


The road out of Cucugnan gave me the choice of two more Cathar strongholds, Chateau de Peyrepertuse to the west and the Chateau d'Aguilar to the northeast. I'd already been disappointed by one, and I'd lingered over lunch too long, so I decided to start heading to Narbonne, although on back roads. The signs alerted me to something I hadn't realized: I was in the Corbières, a small mountain range that, at its lower altitudes, is one of France's great secret wine-growing appelations. And so, as I twisted along the narrow road, signs for wineries began to appear. 

Random Corbières landscape: note vines.


I was still pretty high up, and at one point passed a place where a wind-farm was going in, its entrancce marked by a warning to the trucks bringing in the parts: MANOEUVRE IMPOSSIBLE. In other words, get it right the first time. And now I was really glad I'd picked Sunday for this trip: I didn't want to share the road with these guys at all. 

I could well have stopped at the Chateau Aguilar, and in retrospect probably should have. I've also been chided for not hitting Peyrepertuse. My response is that I'll do both of them next time, now that I have at least a basic idea of what the terrain is like. And the map told me I'd be on minor roads all the way to the outskirts of Narbonne, so who knew what rockslides or other problems might await. It was awe-inspiring all the way, and scary enough that I couldn't pull over to shoot photos. 

In contrast to Perpignan, the approach to Narbonne was easy, and parking was, too -- plus, it was free until 9am on Monday. I had no problem finding the hotel, and announced to the lady at the desk that I had a reservation and gave her my name. Turned out she was British. But she knew the town well, so she had a couple of ideas about restaurants that would even be open on a Sunday. A late-afternoon stroll renewed my orientation of the city (I'd been here before in 2009) and at a decent hour I had a good dinner of présalé lamb (the animals graze near the ocean on grass made salty by the wind off the ocean, and their meat really is "pre-salted"). 


Narbonne's historic center from near the market

Narbonne's cathedral, which you can see in the distance there (the tower on the left is the bishop's residence, the grey one to its right is the cathedral) was the last stop of the Catholic bishop who once ruled from Elne, and as such, is the easternmost stop in Catalan France, a cultural boundary evident in the fact that there are almost none of the signifiers of Catalan culture around in the food, the language (we're switching to French here, but up in the hills it once was Occitan not Catalan), or the religion (not many Cathars to chase here, I think). 

I felt a certain foreboding. Tomorrow I'd drive the short distance to Montpellier, where I'd lived for five years. Friends were expecting me, and memories were potentially about to ambush me. I'd booked four days; too many or not enough? 

Next: Montpellier: You Can/Can't Go Home Again


Friday, April 15, 2016

Europe, Spring 2016, Part Two: Ola Catalunya/Bon Jour Catalogne

The war room, Gran Hotel Calderón, Barcelona


The unexpected extra day in Barcelona was good and bad news. Good in that I really like the city and now I had an extra day to do some of the things I'd never done, but bad in that I hadn't planned it and wanted to get on the road fairly quickly. After all, the next stop would be Perpignan, where I'd pick up a car and head into the mountains.

The room was ready, I did my customary three-hour nap, and woke up about 7. Still too early for a proper dinner, but not too early to think about it. I love me some tapas, but there's more than that happening around Barcelona, and I'm still learning about it. I had a list from some friends-of-a-friend who lived in the Gracia neighborhood, but I was still paranoid about carbohydrates. The cuisines I'd be negotiating over the next couple of weeks aren't too carby, but I still didn't want to blow the diet too soon. I needn't have worried. The best find on the list was El Nacional, which would be a tourist trap if so many locals weren't there. The concept sounds odd: four restaurants, four bars, all under one roof. Odd, but as I'd find out later, it works. I chose the fish restaurant, La Llotja, where I had the anchovies and then the clams and razor clams, as well as a green salad. They also, as many restaurants do, give you a bunch of olives to nosh on while you wait for your food. Spanish olives are the absolute best, and the never-ending ways of curing them and stuffing them are a delight: the garlic-cured ones and the chile-cured ones here knocked me out.

As did the beer and the walk home. I was already so spaced out by jet-lag that I'd missed this huge joint, located in a mid-block alley just three minutes from my hotel, but I enjoyed the walk up the Paseig de Gracia in the relative calm of a Tuesday night until I realized I'd have to walk all the way back. Ah, well, tomorrow was another day, and if jet-lag was doing its usual thing, I'd be awake early enough to pack it with activity.

Which is why I found myself climbing my first mountain in search of beauty. I was curious about the Fondació Joan Miró, because one-artist museums can be all over the map: consider the dozens devoted to the Surrealist charlatan Dalí, another Catalonian, or, indeed, Barcelona's Picasso Museum, which is a great collection of stuff created while Picasso was becoming Picasso, but nothing next to the Musée Picasso in Paris. Then there's the van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, which left me vaguely unsatisfied until I realized that he was terribly prolific and that the best versions of some of the paintings on display were in other museums. The Miró was better than that. He, too, was incredibly prolific, but he was also an abstract painter, not recycling scenes like Van Gogh's wheatfields, but trying one thing after another, chasing motifs and colors to see what worked. What I didn't know about the Fondació was that it was up one side of Monjuic, the huge hill capped by the MNAC, which I'd previously ascended by the series of escalators the city nicely provides on the approach from the Plaça Espanya. So I started walking down a street lined with electronics shops and bakeries, then a market in the middle of the street covered by tent-like structures (I didn't stop, fearful that I'd lose a bunch of time), and, after a bit, onto the Carrer Margarit, which led to my destination, but led to it up a fearful hill, which I gamely climbed.

The Fondació was a perfect introduction/overview of Miró's work: consisting of donations from his family, other artists, and museums who've put works on permanent loan, it shows how Miró developed, hanging out in Paris, befriending Alexander Calder, whose work has the same sense of play as Miró's, and struggling to come up with a personal style. Although we think of him as a painter, he also worked in textiles (there's a huge tapestry in one room) and sculpture, with some witty assemblages made from junk he picked up and painted bright colors sitting out on the terrace. I learned a lot about color here: he was obsessed with it, and worked hard at getting exact shades that would harmonize with each other. I stood for a long time in front of this:

The Lark's Wing Circled by Golden Blue Rejoins the Heart of the Poppy Sleeping on the Diamond-Studded Meadow
It's so simple you have to look at it a long time. Elsewhere there's a room devoted to the year Miró made a hundred works on paper, which shows a guy just bursting with ideas, and a fine collection of late works donated by a Japanese collector. In the basement there is Miró's own collection of art given to him by friends -- Yves Tanguy, Henri Matisse, Robert Motherwell, Robert Rauschenberg and others -- and some of the winners of the annual Miró Prize. I'm going to have to go back to this place next time, just to further absorb the bounty.

Staggering back to the exit, I noticed that I'd inadvertently done a smart thing: I'd arrived shortly after opening. The line was down the block by now, so I skipped out and walked back to C/Margrit to head back to the hotel. Do I need to tell you I got lost? Well, I did. Given that so much of Barcelona is a grid, the angled streets can throw you off. Or threw me off. Next thing I knew, I was looking at a big statue of Columbus, and a quick check revealed I was at the foot of the Ramblas, the touristy strip I avoid because of crime and tourists, one of which attracts the other. But I was exhausted and knew that if I traversed the entire thing, I'd be a couple of blocks from my hotel. I was also hungry as hell, and knew just how bad most of the tapas joints here were. So I soldiered on. 

This area had a bunch of these weird trees, which develop a kind of pot-belly and have huge fruits that look like cucumbers, which split open to reveal a cottony substance. I have no idea what they are. 
Finally, I was in friendly territory and instead of hitting the hotel and collapsing, I had lunch at Ciudad Condal, the tapas restaurant on the corner. It was insanely busy, since it was mid-afternoon, which seems to be lunch time for Barcelona locals. I had some of my favorites -- a couple of croquetas, white anchovies marinated in vinegar, and, from the daily specials menu, a mixture of vegetables with romesco sauce. This last was something I'd never had before: a luke-warm stir-fry of eggplant, zucchini, asparagus, tomato and probably something else (I inhaled it immoderately), very close to ratatouille, with a puddle of lumpy red sauce next to it. Romesco is a Catalan sauce, and is made from hazlenuts, almonds, dried mild chiles and...other stuff. It's largely served with fish, but I didn't know that as I let it puzzle my taste-buds. Now that I'm back, I'm going to make some. 

Unsurprisingly, a nap and some vegetation in the hotel room ate up what was left of the afternoon, and I already knew where I was going to eat: El Nou de Granados, an old favorite that I'd recommended to other friends and which, I understood, was still good. 

Satisfied Customer at El Nou, 4/14/16
I like this place because they have fun with their menu, the service is excellent (and English-speaking to a degree) and the wine list is wide and innovative. I had their take on a Caesar salad and, um, I'm not sure what else, because Spain has a way of handing you tons of paper when you go to museums or other sights and towards the end of the trip, I tore up a bunch of it which unfortunately included some restaurant receipts. I do remember the wine, though: I'm getting into eccentric red blends, and this definitely fits that bill. 

No idea what this label is all about
The next day there was business to take care of. The last time I'd had to take a train out of Barcelona, I was headed back home to France, and the guy at Renfe, the Spanish national railroad, refused to honor my French-bought ticket. Moreover, there was nobody in the entire gigantic station, including the travellers' aid folks, who spoke English. Thank heaven there was a young graduate student near me in line who helped, but Renfe still wouldn't accept the SNCF ticket. I was going to head to France the next day this time, but I needed to avoid dealing with Renfe directly. I also wanted to check out the Museu del Modernisme, which was right near me. And my friend Bob (seen checking his phone above) was going to arrive on my last day in Europe, at the end of the next week, and had rented an apartment in the Born district, Barcelona's new hot-spot. I'd agreed to meet his airport bus and take him to pick up the key and check out the apartment. 

It turned out that the Corta Inglés, the huge department store near me, had a travel agency in the basement, and the woman who waited on me confessed to "a leetle" English. In no time, I had my ticket to Perpignan and was back at the hotel so it'd be safe. Then I headed to the museum, which, although small, was a wonderful education in Modernism, the movement -- largely in decoration -- that preceded Art Nouveau in Spain. Gaudí was the most famous (and extreme) exponent of it, but there were lots of others. The museum was founded by two guys with an antiques business who decided some of the furniture they were buying needed preservation and exhibition -- and promotion as a strongly Barcelonan product. The collection is small, but superb, and there's even a Gaudí piece in it, for those like me who don't particularly want to stand in line for several hours, pay over €20 for entrance to one of his houses, and view reproductions of pieces looted by Japanese tourists over the years. (Robert Hughes has a great rant about this in his book on Barcelona). In the basement, there's a large exhibition of the works of Ramon Casas, whose 150th birthday is this year. Casas was both a fine artist, painting beautiful women, for the most part (modern beautiful woman, not afraid to smoke a cigarette or -- shock horror -- ride a bicycle), and he put this skill to advertising art, so there's a bunch of that. And if you're a first-time visitor to Barcelona, just seeing what Modernism is will open your eyes, and you'll notice the many, many buildings, especially in the Eixample neighborhood you're in, that are built in this style. Many masterpieces are on the Paseig de Gracia, but many are not.

After a quick trip to the hotel to check that I had my bearings right, I headed towards C/Princesa to get my routine for Bob down. I turned onto the Via Laetana, an old Roman road, now a major artery, for some time, turned left and there the street was. I walked almost to the end to the hotel that also rents apartments, noted the address, and was delighted that it was next door to one of my favorite lunch joints, Bar Celta, so I dropped in and had lunch. Refreshed, and with nothing else to do that day, I wandered Born, which has some magnificent little alleys, as well as several large plazas. 

I kept wondering what the apartments in this crazy skinny building looked like
Also, at the end of Princesa is the Citadel Park, which I'd not known about previously. It has the Catalan Parliament building


and the second-most-over-the-top fountain I've ever seen (number one is in Béziers, but this photo doesn't give a true feel for how crowded with symbolic crud this one is)

No, that's not the Brandenburg Gate's Quadriga on top, but close

and somewhere in the park is the Zoo, although some critters are loose

Fortunately, he was too stoned to move
I then walked back to Born, where I admired the street art -- and the streets themselves. 




Then it was back to the hotel, another meal at El Nacional (the meat restaurant this time, although I got lost after hitting a bank machine for some cash and I lingered at the wine bar for over an hour waiting for the phone call saying my table was ready -- the woman had lost my number, and it was close to midnight when I ate), and bed so I could catch the train to Perpignan, over in Catalan France.

* * *

Dalí proclaimed Perpignan station to be the center of the world, a title they use to advertise it, but I'm not so sure. It's not even in the center of Perpignan. It was, however, close to the neat little hotel I'd chosen, so it was a ten-minute walk to the Nyx. They were super-friendly, anxious to practice their English, and I was settled in in no time. This gave me lots of time to wander the historic center of Perpignan, which is compact, and overlooked by the Palace of the Kings of Majorca. Yes, the tiny island in the Mediterranean once ruled significant parts of Catalan France and Spain. The building is best seen from outside: although I paid admission, there's nothing but empty rooms, devoid of decoration inside. I was also hustled out by a surly guy even though the place was supposed to be open for another 40 minutes. 

Big, but boring
I wandered some more, looking for places to check out the next day, getting lost in the warren of streets and generally enjoying the ambience. Next to the Cathedral of John the Baptist, I saw a restaurant that looked good, and so I went there that evening. Le Saint Jean is a wonderful combination of Catalan (a fine charcuterie plate to start) and French (veal with a wine reduction), and although the owner hypes his own wine, Mas Divin, I went for another, and was transported: again, an eccentric blend of reds was a knockout. 

The veal

The wine
I'll be back again to try his wine, too: this place was a find. 

The next day, I picked up the car I'd have for the next week at the train station. As they'll often do, they upgraded me to a Peugeot 2008, a car I came to love driving. Neither the Europcar guy nor I could make the navigation system make sense, but the map itself showed enough to get me around. The day, though, was overcast, not quite raining, but not quite not raining, either. My goal was to find a number of Romanesque chapels nearby and also to visit a museum dedicated to a single Romanesque sculptor, which I thought was pretty unusual, in a suburb of Perpignan. The lady at the desk kind of talked me down, though, and I'm glad she did. She mentioned a church in Elne that was a must-see, so I decided to do that one first. 

And I got lost, of course, in part because one of the roads to Elne was blocked off. First, I landed in Canet Plage, one of the horrible decaying holiday villages de Gaulle built in the '60s. Great day for a beach:

See the lone joggeur?
Then I got lost some more looking for Elne. The weather was something else: stopping at a pullover at a winery called Mas Senior, I snapped this hallucination.

Floating mountain
Finally, I hit Elne. It's a fairly small place, although the church isn't. And it's got a hell of a history. As a plaque tells it:
In 1285, war broke out between Pere II el Gran, king of Catalunya-Aragon, and Philip III le Hardi, king of France 
The French troops besieged Elne and broke into the city. On May 25th, the inhabitants sought refuge of last resort in the cathedral but the besiegers burned the door and massacred the population in the sacred place.  
A  ceramic memorial outside the church goes into gory detail, albeit in Catalan, from a 13th century account: women raped on the altar, then murdered; babies smashed against the pillars; every single inhabitant killed and all of the buildings reduced to rubble.  They rebuilt, and the cathedral, too: this was an important center for the Church, and a monastery was added to it. The monastery's cloister has been restored, despite resistance from the French government, for some reason, and it's the most spectacular collection of Romanesque sculpture in its original context that I've ever seen. I'll try not to post all the photos I took.

A bible story? Who are the three guys? Are they dead?

No idea

Lots of weird animals on these pillars

Again, no idea, but the snake's cool

Small lizard on the pediment
Elne lost its vootie to Perpignan eventually, and some of the cloister's pillars were looted by antique dealers, but a lot of it's been restored and every single one of these pillars is worth looking at: it's the medieval mind gone nuts. I was breathless by the time I left.

Could this place in the suburbs, in Cabestany, be worth it? Aaah, it was on the way back to town, so why not drop in? It was an easy enough drive, Cabestany touts the museum, so it was easy to find, and I paid my dough and went in. And, although I'd just seen some of the best Romanesque sculpture I'd ever seen, I was agape. A piece of an altar had been discovered not too long ago while making repairs to the church in Cabestany, and it seemed far more accomplished than most Romanesque art.

Dramatically lit, like everything in the museum, this is it
The fragment excited the world of Romanesque scholars and other pieces that seemed to be by the same hand began to surface in a bunch of different churches in France, Spain, and Italy. Who was this guy?



The museum is refreshingly frank about the answer: basicallly nobody knows. He might not even be one person. Then again, he might be. Whatever the case, the museum has a wonderful collection, as well as a great explanation of it, and of Cabestany's role in that period's history. Why, it was the home of Guillem de Cabestany, a troubador whose object of adoration was the lovely Saurimunda, wife of Raimond de Castell Rosseló, who had him killed and his heart served to his wife, cooked and peppered. When she found out what she'd eaten, she killed herself, and when the king, Alphonse II, heard the story, he had Raimond imprisoned, where he died. Apparently this legend originated in India and has many versions in Arab poetry, which explains how it arrived in Cabestany.

I was so impressed that I bought one of the Master's works. Oh, it's only a reproduction from the gift-shop, but I wanted a souvenir of this day. The lady at the desk packed it well ("There. You can now play football with it.") and it survived the journey to Texas. I'm not sure what it represents -- an angel? a saint? something else? -- but it's good and mysterious.

We'll stare at each other a bit until we get to know each other.

Getting back to Perpignan looked easy from Cabestany: it was only a few kilometers. And that train station may have been the center of the world, but it was very hard to find: it took me two hours, between the frustrating one-way streets and the construction. I parked the car, went back to the hotel, and only emerged for yet another fine meal in Perpignan at Le Figuier, recommended by the front desk. Wine by Mas Senior, of course.

After all that driving, I was pooped. The next day's drive was only to Narbonne, but I was taking the long way there.

Next: Another Day, Another Mountain

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Europe, Spring 2016, Part One: The Backstory


Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita...

Well, not quite, but it was going through my head a lot, so a bit of explanation may be in order. Early last fall, when I finished my rock and roll history book's actual writing, I knew there would be a lot of post-writing work to do. I also had the second half of my advance, and it was, in a sense, more than the first half because the immediate debts I'd had to repay with the first half weren't there, giving me some room. And I knew what I wanted to do: return to Spain and France as a tourist, seeing stuff I'd never seen before, like the western end of Languedoc-Roussillon in France and some more of the area around Barcelona. So I went to Google Flights and started playing around. By then it was too late to ensure a pleasant experience: fall was coming in, and although that meant good things for food, it also meant that the driving I was anticipating doing could be hard, particularly in some of the places I was planning to go.

Eventually, a plan emerged. UT Informal Classes had me down for the two I was going to teach (Austin music history, and a new one about being a tourist and being a resident in Europe) and the first one would start on the evening of April 13. SXSW took up two weeks in March, and I knew from returning to Europe after a number of SXSWs that what I wanted wouldn't be ready immediately thereafter. The alternative, waiting until after the classes, would probably give me the best weather, but the book stuff would be getting hotter around then, probably. I narrowed it down to Easter Monday (March 28) to April 11.

And then I did some boneheaded stuff. Prices were all over the map, and the best one seemed to be to fly from the US into Rome, then back to Barcelona. Weird, but in terms of time in the air, not very different than something that seemed more direct. I decided to think about it: I was committing a bunch of dough to this and I didn't want to screw up.

I did anyway, though. As time moved forward, I decided I had to act, only to find that the flight I wanted had sold out. Aha! I thought. British Airways has a non-stop from Austin to London, and I could connect there! But the BA website wasn't cooperating. I'd get to where I'd pay and it wouldn't load. I started the process over. Same deal. I quit in frustration, knowing I'd mess up if I were too angry. And I went back the next day, booking through American Airlines, which runs the route with BA. Austin-London, London-Barcelona and, in reverse, back. I was so happy to see the website work that I didn't notice that I'd booked a nine-hour layover at Heathrow to start and an overnight layover there on the way back. I had an idiot for a travel agent, all right. Me. But I'd bought it, so that was that.

As I went through this two-day process, what surprised me was the vehemence with which I was doing this. The project had gone from "I want to go" to "I have to go." What was up here?

That question began to be answered only weeks later. Shortly before SXSW was due to begin, John Morthland, an early colleague at Rolling Stone, my very best friend on the staff, and, afterwards, a guy who'd shared my house for a while before moving into San Francisco with other friends, had been found dead at his home of natural causes. My age, approximately. And the day of President Obama's speech opening SXSW, news spread in the crowd that Louis Jay Meyers, one of the event's founders, had died of a heart attack in the night. Again, my age, approximately. Naturally, I didn't know these things would happen when I was booking, but the idea of getting out of town suddenly, for some reason, seemed more urgent.

And there was more, not life-and-death, but a gathering storm of personal and professional issues that were closing in. The publishers of both of my impending books were working faster than I'd thought (thanks, digital age -- and I'm not being sarcastic) and there was stuff that needed doing. I started doing it, but I'd warned both publishers that I'd booked this trip and couldn't change it. Mostly, they were gracious about it.

And in the back of my mind, there was more, which the two deaths had nudged loose. Which I have to digress to explain.

Some years ago (not many, I see now, looking it up; not as many as I'd thought) my friend Mark Rubin alerted me via Facebook that some friends of his were coming to Montpellier. They were busking their way through Europe and had just been in Denmark and were headed to Italy. A duo, male and female, they wandered the world like this. The male half had been producing a singer/songwriter from New Mexico in Denmark, the female half told me as I picked her up at the Montpellier train station, and the two of them would arrive soon. And so it developed, and it's a long story, but they found a house with some hippies to stay at and the singer/songwriter and I started  hanging out and having long conversations. She was a doctoral student in botany, about to take her exam for the degree, but was also pursuing a music career. She was also smart as a whip, sharp as a tack, and all of that. And gorgeous. And too young for me. I managed to get the three of them a gig at a friend's bookstore, and there I heard some of her songs, and it seemed something was not quite right. Besides, of course, the fact that she hadn't copyrighted any of them and was selling self-burned CDs at gigs, which led to more conversation.

But that was nothing next to what happened once she returned to the States. A question about proofreading, posted on Facebook, led to a correspondence, which led to an uprooting of a lot of my cherished beliefs. If our late-night yammerings in France had been intense, our transatlantic correspondence was positively incandescent. We batted ideas back and forth via e-mail and occasionally in video calls with Skype. She was obsessed with architecture, the way we capture space and live in it and arrange it to make that act of habitation as pleasurable as possible. As she hurtled on to her PhD, she challenged my entire intellectual superstructure on a daily basis. It was like a carnival ride.

It ended badly, of course. I invited her to SXSW and she came, which was, from her end, not such a hot idea, cutting in to her study and preparation time as it did. I selfishly wanted to spend time with her, which I couldn't do in France, where I still lived. What happened in Austin was that the thing essentially imploded. She got her degree, although she had to put it off for some months after Austin, and she moved to the desert. The songwriting career seems to have quieted down. We lost touch, which is probably best for both of us.

I can't speak for her, but some of those discussions we had profoundly affected my life and thinking, and for that I'll always be beholden to her. After months of thinking about it, I can distill one of the main changes like this: Everyone needs reasons to stay alive, by which I mean far more than food and shelter. I decided that the only two things worth living for, on that level of existence above food-and-shelter, were love and beauty. The former you have to be open to, but if you search too assiduously, it will elude you. The latter is all around you, and you can also increase your input of it by going to places -- art museums, concerts, natural spaces -- where an elevated level of it may be available. This became my mantra, and I've been much happier ever since it has.

And that was foremost in my mind when I booked this trip. The love thing continued to be problematical. The beauty thing was waiting for me in specific places I knew -- and in places I had no idea existed. The deaths just underscored this in a big way, as did the changes these books would likely make in my life starting this fall. It was time to escape for a while and let things dangle. And, of course, to let other things in.

The trip started well, too: I asked at the Austin airport if I could somehow rectify my stupid mistake and not have to spend an entire jetlagged day in Heathrow, and the guy clicked some keys stared at a screen, went to talk to someone else, and bingo: a 90-minute layover rather than a 9-hour one. I'd just bought myself another day in Barcelona, getting in at 2 rather than 10:30pm. I'd planned the trip rigorously, as I always try to do, knowing there would be things that didn't go as planned, and being open to them.

Two weeks. This was going to be fun.

Next: Ola Catalunya/Bon Jour Catalogne
 
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