December 22, 2010 Eymet/Font de Gaume

Today we are in search of our inner caveman. Nearby are caves where prehistoric man sheltered and drew fantastic pictures of bison and deer. We want to see the real thing and not the reproductions at Lascaux. John has read that the cave at Font de Gaume has a tour of the actual cave.

It turns out to be quite a drive. It’s not so far in distance but the roads are narrow and winding so that progress is slow. We arrive shortly before lunch. The overhanging limestone cliffs are quite imposing. there are many caves in them. Some more recent than
others. The tours are very limited and we are told to report in at 2pm.

Limestone cliffs
Sorry this is so hazy. The limestone cliffs are immense and riddled with caves.

In the meantime we have some lunch at a little restaurant called Chateaubriant. They have a plat du jour for only 11 euros. Europe is pretty expensive so this seems like an excellent lunch deal. First, an entree or first course. I chose a cheese tart and John and Sarah choose duck pate. Both are good. For our main courses, John and I both have the lentils with sausage and Sarah has steak frites. Finally for dessert we have apple tart and creme brûlée. Uh oh, it looks like we are heading for another dinnerless night.

Cheese tart
This was really tasty. In my opinion, the best of what we had.

Duck pate  with country bread
The duck pate isn’t foie gras. It tastes a little like liverwurst.

Lentils and sausage
A plate of brown. I thought it was so-so. A little too salty and the sausage a little dry.

Steak frites
We’ve had this cut of beef before. It’s hard to cut but easy to chew. Weird.

Apple tart
Not as good as the tart tatin in Carcassonne.

After we report in at Font de Gaume, we have a short walk up a very steep hill to the entrance to the cave. Unfortunately, the tour is only given in French. The tour guide tries to help out by saying a few English words now and then. We are told not to touch anything and not to take any pictures.

Into the cave we go. It is fantastic to think that we are walking in the same place where early man walked 40,000 years ago. The wall paintings are not as distinct as pictures in books would have you believe but still we see bison, a horse and deer. The artists used the contour in the rock to suggest volume. In some places there is some bas relief as well. Amazingly they use perspective. There are places where some animals are behind others. The tour shows a small sampling of the art. In the cave are hundreds more.

John at Font de Gaume
John at the ticket office of Font de Gaume

Bison at Font de Gaume
Obviously I didn’t take this photo. I got it off www.artists-atelier.com. But it is a photo of a bison painting from Font de Gaume.

After the tour we visit the Prehistoric Center and see some films. Again in French. Sarah and I can pick out the words for head, bison, and horse but not too much more. Then we head back to Eymet. As I imagined, everyone is too full from lunch to go out to dinner. We have some leftovers from the basket of bread and croissants that the owner left for us and go to bed early.

December 21, 2010 Eymet/Moissac

Today is mostly a travel day. We leave our frosty digs in Marseillette around 10 AM and travel northward towards our destination in Eymet. But there is time to stop and take in a sight along the way. It was suggested to us by our next landlady that we stop and take a look at St. Peter’s Abbey in Moissac. The first thing that strikes us are the whimsical sculptures just in front of the church.

Sculpture, courtyard St. Peter's abbey
I love the way the mother continues knitting while the child beseeches her. I want Sarah to sit on the bench too but unfortunately it is wet.

Modern scupture, Moissac

St. Peter’s Abbey was established in the 7th century under the reign of Clovis II. It continued until the French Revolution, a thousand years of monks praying in these environs. The golden age for the abbey was in the 12th and 13th century. The fabulous tympanum below was carved in the 12th century. There are many scenes from the life of Christ and many bizarre figures suffering the fate of those who sin – like devils taking your soul (through your mouth) as you die and serpents munching on Adam and Eve.

St. Peter's Abbey tympanum
Sarah under the tympanum

Inside there is also a wonderful crucifix from the 12th century. The cross itself is a depiction of the tree of life.

12th century crucifix
Isn’t the wallcovering weird? It looks like something that your grandmother would have as wallpaper. When they were examining the walls during restoration they found the stone painted in this fashion. The whole church is now covered in it.

Now it’s on to Eymet where we find Maison 20, our lodgings for the next few nights. It is warm. There is a washer and a dryer. And there is reliable internet. Two bedrooms and two bathrooms, a kitchenette, a dining area and a living area. And all for less than we would have spent on a hotel. We are three happy people.
PS No food pictures today. We are still too full from yesterday to eat.

Maison 20, Eymet
Maison 20, Eymet

December 20, 2010 Marseillette/Cathar castles

Wow, do we have a busy day today. It starts out with first the water being cut off and then the electricity. We leave early and find a McDonald’s with wifi. Strangely, they don’t open until 10 AM. Sarah is able to pick up a signal outside the door, though.

Wifi!
WiFi!

Having checked our mail and feeling much more connected to the world, we continue onto our main event of the day, a tour of the Cathar castles in the region. For anybody who doesn’t know who the Cathars were (and I certainly didn’t but of course John did), they were a sect that broke off from the Roman Catholic church in the 11th century. They believed in the dualism of good and evil with Heaven being God’s place and Hell being earth. They eschewed all material things so the Roman Catholic church was not on their good list. They also were not sure about Jesus being divine. Needless to say this upset the Church and in the early 13th century the church established the first crusade called the Albigensian crusade and systematically exterminated or converted all the Cathars. There are several ruined castles spread over the region. We visit three of them. (But they are up so high and inaccessible that we merely get close and take pictures.)

Puylaurens castle
Puylaurens castle, surrendered in 1255

Sarah in the snow
Sarah in the snow at Puylaurens Castle

Queribus castle
Queribus Castle

Peyrepetuse Castle
Peyrepetuse Castle

These castles are fairly far apart and in a pretty remote section of France and there is a lot of driving on very narrow, freakishly high roads. We don’t get back to the cottage until almost 6 PM. This gives us very little time to shower and get ready for a big dinner at La Barbacane at the Hotel de la Cite in Carcassonne. The dinner is our celebration dinner of Sarah’s 30th birthday. We order the 8 course tasting menu. Keep in mind that the portions are quite small and mostly we didn’t eat all of each plate.

We start off with some amuse bouche which I forget to take pictures of.
Then…

House made game terrine with foie gras, green tomato jam with giner and orange, toasted country bread
House made game terrine with foie gras, green tomato jam with giner and orange, toasted country bread. The foie gras was the best part.

Fricassee of autumn vegetaqbles cooked barigoule style, truffles and seasoned toast
Fricassee of autumn vegetaqbles cooked barigoule style, truffles and seasoned toast. This was just meh.

Bethmale cheese gratineed with burgundy truffles, potatoes from the Pays du Sault, smoked ham and mildly tangy onion compote
Bethmale cheese gratineed with burgundy truffles, potatoes from the Pays du Sault, smoked ham and mildly tangy onion compote. This was really tasty.

Roasted Brittany scallops, thin tart with Citou onions and smoked ham, matured Comte cheese, autumn truffles, and a sauce with Jura wine
Roasted Brittany scallops, thin tart with Citou onions and smoked ham, matured Comte cheese, autumn truffles, and a sauce with Jura wine. Another winner. The scallops were cooked perfectly.

Sole glazed with champagne, Dieppoise garnishing, razor shells and flat parsley
Sole glazed with champagne, Dieppoise garnishing, razor shells and flat parsley. The yellowish sole was better than the other one. Pacific razor clams are way better than these tiny ones.

Wild boar fillet roasted with six berries, Brussel sprouts, cep mushrooms and polenta
Wild boar fillet roasted with six berries, Brussel sprouts, cep mushrooms and polenta. Very good.

Wine pairings
Did I mention there were wine pairings?

William pear caramelised,, accompanying sorbbet, nougatine with fresh walnuts, mousse and chocolate sauce
William pear caramelised,accompanying sorbbet, nougatine with fresh walnuts, mousse and chocolate sauce. We are not really dessert eaters, but even if we were sorbet and chocolate sauce? No thanks.

Lemon on a Brittany shortbread, lemon tart, toasted almond crisp and accompanying sorbet
Lemon on a Brittany shortbread, lemon tart, toasted almond crisp and accompanying sorbet. This was ultra lemony.

Petite-fours
This was just an extra because I guess two desserts are not enough.

December 19, 2010 Marseillette/Carcassonne

First, a pox on the owner of our apartment in Marseillette who disconnected the internet and then left for England. Until we reach our next destination on Tuesday, we will be reliant on finding Wi-fi hot spots which are not so numerous around here. Also a second pox on her for listing that there was a clothes dryer here. In her mind, a clothes dryer is a clothes line and clothes pins. (Not so useful in cold, drizzly weather.) The third pox is for thinking that we want to warm ourselves with a wood stove. What about the fact that we are Americans doesn’t she understand?!

Carcassonne is the main event of the day. Everyone is a little slow out of bed due to being up for hours during the night worrying about the wood stove so we reach Carcassonne about midday. Carcassonne is a citadel with immense double walls and watch turrets. Inside the walls is a city, cathedrals and a castle. But the first order of business is lunch. Maybe today we will find French food!

We stop at a restaurant called La Courtine whose posted menu looks good. There are three prix fixe menus and we choose one which is a typical meal for the region. First is a salad. What a salad! It has duck three ways on it – cured duck breast, foie gras and confited duck gizzards. What is the best? Duck gizzards! They are soft and really, really tasty. The salad is followed by cassoulet. It has wonderful beans, sausage and a duck thigh and leg. And if this were not enough, the dessert is a tarte tatin with slivered almonds, honey and etheral whipped cream. Wow, what a lunch. It is our food for the day.

La Courtine, Carcassonne
La Courtine

Salad with duck three ways
Salad with duck three ways

Cassoulet
Brown food is good food!

Tart tatine
Tart tatine

Thus fortified we check out the cathedral. It is very plain inside. Not really the kind of place that would inspire one to otherwordly thoughts. The windows, though, are beautiful. Next we tour the castle. Unfortunately for some reason, they are not renting out the audio tour. Maybe they are on strike.

After viewing a short video explaining the uses of the citadel from Roman times through the middle ages, we go on the walking tour. The views from the turrets and walls are amazing. One can see why it was impossible to breach the defenses. There is a story of Lady Carcas outlasting a seige by throwing a fat pig from the ramparts to prove that they still had plenty of food after 5 years (even though everyone had died of starvation). Charlemagne gave up and left. Thus the name Carcassonne. We enjoy it immensely but wish that the headphones had not been on strike.

Carcassonne citadel
Carcassonne citadel

Carcassonne from the ramparts
Carcassonne from the ramparts

Returning to our frigid apartment, we find there is no internet. We also have a note saying that there will be no electricity tomorrow morning. And in a real time update, they turned off the water this morning and I am writing this blog from a McDonalds in Carcassonne. So probably no blogs for a day or so.

December 18, 2010 Marseillette, France

Today is primarily a travel day. After checking out of the Rambla Praktik (which we highly recommend – economical, centrally located and perfectly fine rooms), we take a taxi to our Hertz pick-up location. First we can’t find it, then the person in the information booth is not informative and finally our GPS takes a very long time finding a signal while we drive aimlessly around. But we survive and start our trip to Marseillette.

We stop in Salt, Spain for lunch because who wouldn’t want to stop in a place named Salt? We are just figuring on some fast food because it is starting to rain and see a sign for McDonald’s. Unfortunately the sign is just a ruse and we end up driving around until we finally give up and go to a place called Viena Cafe. It is the start of a day when finding the native cuisine proves difficult. But, wait, what’s this? A sign saying that Mark Bittman of the New York Times has labeled one of their sandwiches “the best sandwich I ever had.” Well, wow, let’s get one each of the Iberian ham flauta. Really, Mark Bittman, the best? We eat it with varying degrees of gusto, John, some, Sarah, less and me, none. The next time you are in Spain and happen across the chain restaurant, Viena Cafe, remember Marymom, says “not the best sandwich I ever ate.”

Viena Cafe
Not the best

After a brief stop at the grocery store to pick up supplies, we arrive at our next lodging, Mountain View House in Marseillette. The owner, a British ex-pat, welcomes us enthusiastically. The place is very cute. It has three bedrooms and two baths and even a Christmas tree! But it is cold. Very cold. The owner assures us that all we need to do is start the wood burning stove and keep it lighted and all will be well. What? No central heating? But we are game and freezing so we get the fire going. It keeps the main room warm. The bedrooms have heaters that work a few hours a day and giant down comforters so we think we can manage. (Although both Sarah and I terrified that we will all die of carbon monoxide poisoning which explains why we are both up in the middle of the night.)

It's cold in here!
It’s cold in here!

Merry Christmas tree
Merry Christmas tree

Sarah imaking tea
Sarah making tea

But then there is the problem of dining. There is not a single restaurant open in town. The butcher and boulanger here are victims of the economic turndown. So we end up driving a distance to the only place open, El Campo Pizzeria and Italian/Spanish restaurant. We have some assorted dried meats, a salad and pasta. All fine. Just not what we expected for our first dinner in France. Where’s the foie gras?! John’s spaghetti carbonara looks the most dramatic.

Spaghetti Carbonara
John’s spaghetti carbonara

We now have to make the decision whether to stick it out at the Mountain View House for another two nights or try to find more felicitous lodging in Carcassonne itself. I’d write more but I need to go feed the fire.

December 17, 2010 Barcelona

Amazingly, we all slept pretty well last night. Our room overlooks the street. Barcelona-ians (?) are quite a lively bunch and they are out in the street having fun until around 3 AM. But tiredness trumps noise and we just incorporate the noise into our dreams.

This morning we go next door for breakfast. It’s pretty empty. Apparently the partiers get up later. Our choices are English or Continental breakfasts. John and I opt for the English breakfast that has fried eggs and bacon. The bacon is delicious and the eggs are fried. And when I say fried, I mean fried. Like deep-fried or confited. There are crispy tendrils but the yolk is creamy. I am not sure how you do that. But I think I’ll go with the Continental breakfast tomorrow, that’s a lot of grease first thing in the morning.

Our plan for today is to go to the Picasso Museum in the morning. Stop for lunch. Hit the Fundacio Miro in the afternoon. We have purchased a Barcelona Card that lets us use all sorts of transportation and get discounts besides. Our hotel is near a major subway hub, so it’s all good. The Picasso Museum is amazing. It has a lot of his early, early works, like from when he was a teenager. Most of the early stuff is very literal. He quit art school after two years, chafing under the regimen of copying the known masterpiecess. The museum shows a lot of paintings that he painted under the influence of Degas or Velasquez or other major painters. There is an interactive display showing how he reinterpreted Velasquez’s great work, Las Meninas. We really, really enjoy it.

Mary and Sarah in front of Picasso Museum
No pictures inside allowed!

Next we stop for lunch. It’s heading on to 1PM and we know the next time we eat will be close to 10 PM. We stop at a place called Mar dela Rivera. John has lentils with squid, Sarah has assorted fried seafood and I have fried calamari. We also have some fried artichokes. The frying here is strangely soft and not crispy.

Assorted fried fish
Assorted fried seafood

Lentils with squid
John’s lentils and squid

Now onto the Miro Museum. We get the audio tour. It’s very helpful in explaining the artist’s work. Sarah loves a lot of the imaginative figures and jots them down in her notebook. We make up fanciful names for some of the works. Both Picasso and Miro lived long productive lives and it is interesting to see how their works change over time. There is also an outside exhibit where we can take pictures and have a panoramic view of Barcelona from atop Montjuic.

A "couple" of stools and Sarah
Miro’s interpretation of a man and woman or a “couple” of stools and Sarah

Open to interpretation
Sarah and I thought this was a sculpture of a farmer but it is called Woman with Bird

Barcelona view from Montjuic
View of Barcelona from Montjuic

We manage to stay awake all day and tonight we are having dinner at a restaurant, Els Pescadors, that Sarah’s friend, Eddie, has recommended. We are not the first people there! Tonight is a fancier dining night and we have a sea snails amuse bouche. I have sea anemone fritters and rice with blood sausage and mushrooms. Sarah has cod tripe with head and trotters plus rice with cuttlefish. John has white beans with clams and rice with hare and a touch of chocolate. We finish off with bread with air chocolate and lemon sorbet. The dinner is successful although we are craving some texture in our food as everything has been pretty soft.

Sea anemone fritters
Sea anemone fritters

Cod tripe with head and trotters
Cod tripe with head and trotters

White beans with clams
White beans with clams

Rice with mushrooms and blood sausage
Rice with mushrooms and blood sausage

Air pudding and wind sauce
Bread with air chocolate

On our way home, we pass by the Carrer de Fernando Poo. We have to take a picture. It reminds us of our picture of Via Crapolla in Pompei.

Poo

We have enjoyed Barcelona immensely. The people have been friendly and helpful, the transportation systems, great, the food, delicious, and the sights, interesting. The city is beautifully decked out for Christmas and it would be easy to stay longer but we are off for France tomorrow!

Xmas outside our hotel window
Xmas outside our hotel window

December 16, 2010 Barcelona

Today we finally finish our odyssey to Europe. The plane lands around 11AM today and it seems like ages since we got on in Los Angeles. We are hot and tired. Not a one of us slept at all. After picking up our Barcelona card for the metro and discounts, we all decide that taking a taxi to the hotel is about as much stress as we can handle right now.

We check into the Rambla Praktik where “luxe is less.” Actually it is all quite functional and thank goodness they will let us have our rooms right away. We know from past experience that the best thing to do for jet lag is get out in the sun so by 2PM, freshly showered, we start our Barcelona adventures.

Our main goal today is to see the Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s fabulous cathedral. It is indeed fabulous in every sense of the word. While we all find the Nativity Facade rather grotesque, the Passion Facade is more to our liking, and the interior is ethereal. We make good use of the audio tour, listening and looking at everything until our poor jetlagged bodies cannot take any more.

Sagrada Familia
Nativity Facade, Sagrada Familia

Passion facade, Sagrada Familia
Detail from the Passion Facade

Passion Facade detail
Passion Facade detail

Pilat was here
Passion Facade, Pilat was here

Interior
Interior

Altar, Sagrada Familia
Altar

Stumbling back to the hotel, we all decide that the best thing to do is take a nap until dinner time and agree to meet again at 8PM. 8PM is really too early for Spaniards to be eating but we need to be gentle with ourselves this first day. The hotel directs us to a restaurant called Matamala, just a block away. Of course the only other people eating at this freakishly early hour are Americans. By the time we leave around 9:30 PM, though, the place is filling up with locals as well.

We start with a couple of tapas type dishes, anchovies and olives, selected salumi, and they also bring a bread that is covered with tomato and oil. It is all pretty yummy. For our main selections, Sarah has chicken with pine nuts and plums (good), John has chickpeas with shrimps and pork jowl (very good), and I have a vermicelli paella with cuttlefish (Not a winner. Although made in a paella pan there is no crust on the bottom.) We have a nice bottle of Albarinho from Galacia. It is sauvignon blanc-ish but better. We all like it a lot.

Time to sleep.

Tapas
Tapas

Chickpeas with shrimp and pork jowl
Chickpeas with shrimp and pork jowl

December 15, 2010 LAX to JFK to BCN

Really not too much to report today. We caught the shuttle to the airport, got on the plane and flew. There was a big tail wind so we got to JFK almost an hour early. Now we have 3+ hours to wait. Luckily since we are flying business class, we can use the Admiral’s Club. The woman at the desk gave us 6 drink coupons and then told us just to come back when we need more. It’s possible we may be sleepy tonight!

Sarah and John in the lounge at JFK
Sarah and John at the JFK lounge

December 14, 2010 Sfo to LAX

We have the silliest airline tickets ever! We have to fly from SFO to LAX to JFK to BCN (Barcelona.) It will take from today until Thursday to get to Barcelona. But I suppose 2 free tickets make it worth it. Except for a slight delay at SFO, everything went off very smoothly. Sarah had a gin and tonic enroute and I had a glass of wine. If you are flying first class, you might as well get some of the perks! Our luggage was first up and the shuttle to the hotel pulled up as we got to the stop. So all and all a good start to the trip.

Tonight we had dinner had the hotel restaurant, Papparazzi. I thought it was meh. Sarah said the people on Foursquare raved about the bread. It was pretty tasteless. John and I had rigatoni in a cream chardonnay sauce and Sarah had a Caesar salad and mac and cheese. (reminds me of the old days) We are all pretty tired and parted ways after dinner. Tomorrow we leave for New York and then Barcelona and we have to get up fairly early.

Dinner in LA
Dinner in L.A.

December 13, 2010 All my bags are packed, oh wait I forgot something!

In my last post I was bemoaning the fact that I am over 60 by a couple of years now. Collecting Social Security very soon. A pensioner. I am not even going to go into the ego shattering vision that I see in the mirror in the morning, it’s mostly the mental part of it that bothers me most. A developmental milestone for children is when they can follow a set of instructions – first do this, then that and finish up with a third thing. I feel like I am going the wrong way on that scale. Even though my lists are spawning secondary and tertiary lists, there’s way too much that is slipping between the cracks.

For instance, today I am sorting through my purses. I need a bigger one for the trip so I have to decide what to put in the trip one and what to leave behind in the everyday purse. So I take stuff out and put it in piles – throw out, move to new purse, keep in old purse. Hah, I see my lists of Saints. It is pretty tattered so I go to the computer to print a new list. Arriving at the computer I think, oh, Sarah might like to have a list. So I email her and wait for her response. (She’s very quick about getting back to me.) While I am waiting, I notice some bills that need to be paid. So I do that. Sarah emails back that, yes, she’d like a list. I print that up. Then I go into the bathroom and start working on my new cosmetic case.

Much later I walk back into the family room where the guts of my purse are lying in piles. Piles that I no longer have any idea of their meaning. I am actually surprised by seeing my purse project out there. It has totally left my consciousness. It takes me a moment to calm down from the fright of not remembering that I had this task in progress. Suppose it had been something I had been cooking?

So getting older is freaking me out. It’s not so much that I am having trouble with the Friday and Saturday NY Times crossword puzzles, I can rationalize that away. It’s more that my internal lists are fading away. I used to juggle all this stuff in my head. What’s in store for the next 20 years?

December 8, 2010 Birthday celebrations

Since we are leaving for our much anticipated trip to Europe with Sarah tomorrow, I am thinking that I better get this done. Yay, it’s my birthday? I am having a harder and harder time getting up for this event. Passing 60 a couple of years ago puts a damper on things.

What would a birthday celebration be without some fun event with my birthday buddy, George. Our birthday excitement started out with a trip up to some wineries up by Healdsburg on a dreary winterish day. But even winter here has its charms.

Wintery Sonoma Valley
Wintery Sonoma Valley

We visited Gary Farrell, Thomas George, Hop Kiln, Stryker and Stonestreet wineries. That’s quite a bit of tasting. Stonestreet had some really exceptional white wines. Then we headed down to Napa where we caught a few winks at the hotel. Wine tasting always makes me sleepy. Later we dined at Le Toque, a Michelin one star restaurant. The dinner was really, really good. We had the sommelier do wine pairings and a good time was had by all.

Birthday friends
Karen, George, Mary and John at Gary Farrell Winery

Shortly after the actual day, the whole fam came over for brunch, cards and birthday cake. John made the strata. Sarah got the pretzel rolls and Ryan and Jon brought the cake. Sam and Nathan brought me pictures they had drawn, Sam’s abstract art with candles and Nathan’s truck with candles. I got some great cards so the mantle is full now of congratulations on my oldness. After brunch we blew out the candles and had cake – Sam and Nathan’s favorite part.

Birthday  celebrants
Sam and Nathan celebrate my birthday

I love cards!
I love cards!

Blow out the candles!
Nathan and I blow out the candles!

December 4, 2010 Hanukah

Tonight we had a little impromptu Hanukah celebration. Sarah and I had gone shopping today to get her a coat for our upcoming trip, then she was staying overnight, and in the morning we would proceed to Burlingame to get our hair cut. (at last!) Whilst discussing dinner plans, Sarah suggested we have latkes, it being Hanukah and all. So John set up his fry station in the garage and started preparing his secret latke recipe.

John's secret latke recipe
John’s secret latke recipe

The reason that it’s a secret is that no one really knows what it consists of. Every year John asks if we have the recipe, I search for it and come up empty. So John makes it up every year.

First, though, light the menorah. Hmmm, do we have any candles? I get out the menorah and John finds a box with only eight candles. It’s a sign that we must light all the candles tonight even though it’s not the last night.

Sarah and John - candles lighted
Sarah and John – candles lighted

I prepare a salad, Sarah gets out the sour cream, John fries the latkes and our Hanukah dinner is ready. I am really glad that Sarah suggested it. The latkes are crunchy on the outside and creamy inside. Our little impromptu celebration is a success.

Hanukah dinner
Hanukah dinner