Saturday, July 25, 2015

Feeling at Home in Portugal

Ahhh, the Mediterranean

[Note: Forgive the horrible layout. I have more pictures than words and dinnertime is approaching, so my priority is to get this done so I can go eat more fabulous food.]

Well, I stand corrected ... Barcelona was laid-back and friendly, but it was also jam-packed with tourists and was rather frenetic in its friendliness. But Portugal, though still crawling with tourists, is even more chill and relaxed and friendly (as long as you stay away from the frazzled, possibly chauvinistic waiter at the touristy restaurant on Rossio Square).
Sagrada Familia interior

After a slight, but very expensive, SNAFU in Barcelona involving misread time tables and incorrect checkout times, A. Karen and I spent our "extra" day in Barcelona checking out the Barcelona Cathedral and taking a tour of the absolutely fantastical Sagrada Familia. Gaudí had an ingenious, incomparable vision and mind. It's amazing to see his creation still being continued today (though many agree there is no way that what is being created would be what would have been built if he could have lived the 150-plus years it is taking to complete it). It is like no other cathedral, and I can't even begin to describe it. Unfortunately, even our photos don't do it justice, as it is absolutely impossible to capture. It isn't just visual. It is full of feeling and sound and light, even when infested with hundreds of tourists just like us ... gawking at the architecture; snapping countless photos with our phones, camera, iPads; and just trying to take it all in before shuffling on to the next site.
Continuing construction
on Sagrada Familia
Detail from Sagrada Familia exterior

We were overwhelmed and overwrought and overheated by the time we left. But with a little help from Google Maps and a lot of luck, we stumbled on a little vegetarian corner restaurant that was serving exactly what we needed ... a light, fresh, delicious lunch with gallons of water, not to mention a clean W.C.!
A. Karen enjoying the view
from Pena Palace in Sintra

Our flight to Lisbon was smooth and easy, albeit more than 12 hours later than what it should have been. We ate the most expensive little sandwich and water ever on the plane, but appreciated every bite, as that turned out to be dinner. (It was actually absolutely free, until you take into the fact that we had to pay for the change in flight ... our error, not theirs.) Once again, navigating our way through terminals, baggage claim, taxi lines was as smooth as could be, and before we knew it, we were settled into our latest home away from home, the Hotel do Chiado, which is about 2.5 blocks from where Mark and I stayed when we came through Lisbon 5 years ago.
Fisherman near Belém Tower, Lisbon

This city and its surroundings are simply beautiful. All Old World charm, with pastel, balconied homes lining the seven hills overlooking the Tagus River, which comes with its very own Golden Gate Bridge (aka the Ponte 25 de Abril), designed by the same guy who did the US version. We've dined on incredibly fresh fish and grilled meat, as well as the Lisbon speciality: Pasteis de Bacalhau, which is essentially the most delicious, cheese-filled fishstick you'll ever eat. We've exhausted ourselves with castles and monasteries and cathedrals and palaces and museums. We are just about historied out. For tomorrow, we are debating whether we should take in even more historical marvels or just go to the beach for the celebratory last day of the GMT.
Old-school selfie on our room's terrace
I loved this Moorish castle the first time I came here with Mark,
and I still love it, especially with hydrangeas.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Holiday Continues

The Mortagne hotel de ville (town hall)
I am falling so behind in my little updates. So much has happened since last I wrote. For those of you receiving A. Karen's updates, you know all about it! But for posterity's sake, I suppose I should note down a few thoughts of my own.

The Mortagne market
Our drive from Honfleur to Le Gué-de-la-Chaîne was 3 hours of extremely prototypical French country backroads. The routes were barely wide enough for our little Opel to fit, let alone having to deal with oncoming traffic or, worse yet, monster tractors that would put America's puny Monster Trucks to shame. Our little Mz. Garmin definitely showed us who was boss. Apparently she had been eavesdropping when we said we would just follow the map, thinking that she would only take us on the main roads. Well, when our map-reading proved to be lacking, we resorted to Mz. G, who proceeded not only to take us on every tiny backroad possible but also to avoid nearly every single farm town along the way (except for the one with a deviation [detour], of course). She got us directly to the green gate of Margaret and John Fabian's picturesque French farm/guesthouse in not-quite record time.

Wine tasting at Julian's
Margaret and John greeted us with hugs and smiling faces and chilled rosé and an ultra charming guesthouse just for us. (They live in the main house.) I can't even begin to describe everything we did while at their home. Suffice it to say, every day was like a scene out of Under the Tuscan Sun, but so much better—especially because we didn't have to do the renovations, etc. We just had to enjoy the fruits of their labor ... and enjoy them we did! From dinner of grilled canard under the bodellia and plum trees, to wine tasting in an old farm house under the tutelage of sweet, be-dimpled Julian, to a roam through the Sunday market at Mortagne, complete with samples of homemade nougat and fresh(ish) mussels, to feeding the cute but weird-eyed sheep, to a fabulous, musical soiree at the home of Sophie. So many wonderful memories in such a short span of time.

A. Karen at the beach in Barcelona
All too soon our idyllic time in the French countryside was over, and off we sped to Orly Airport. We eventually navigated our way to the rental car return, with help from Mz. Garmin and my cell phone GPS and a lot of sign reading. Newark Airport has nothing on Orly when it comes to navigating the construction and cloverleafs. Our bumpy, dingy Air Iberia flight dropped us off close to midnight at the pristine, modern, clean Barcelona Airport. We gathered our luggage and walked out of the airport, straight into a waiting taxi, which whisked us off to our next home away from home, Catalonia Plaza Catalunya.

A. Karen atop Casa Mila
We have since claimed Barcelona as ours. Its friendly people, fantastical architecture, Mediterranean beaches, tasty cuisine, lovely siestas, and all-around laid-back atmosphere have made us feel utterly welcome as we tour the twisty alleys of the old city and cruise the wider expanses of the new.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Norman Invasion

I just love these buildings—Honfleur!
(oops, I'm getting ahead of myself)
[Our Wifi in Le Cheval Blanc Best Western is extremely slow, so I just now got a chance to upload the photos. I made a couple of editorial comments to this post and added photos, but other than that, it's exactly the same.]

Our last view of Plymouth
as seen from high atop the ferry
After an incredibly traditional Sunday roast lunch at Quay 33 and a ridiculously leisurely afternoon at the Imperial guesthouse in Plymouth, A.K. and I loaded up our baggage and two bottles of Plymouth Gin (one traditional, the other sloe) onto Armorique, our home for the next 10 hours. We had no idea our little ferry was nearly a ship—nine stories tall, including two levels for cars, campers, bikes, and 16-wheelers! The amenities included a casino, restaurant, two cinemas, a bar, and loads of places to just hang out, inside and out. We dumped our luggage in our room, which was just a little smaller than our lovely room at the Imperial (I'll leave it up to you to decide whether that is a comment on the grand size of our berth or the quaintness of our little room in Plymouth.), downed two Dramamine each, and headed off to explore before the drugs could take effect.

Leaving the port of Plymouth
... toot toot
As the ferry pulled away from the dock and headed out to sea, we toured the various levels of the "ship," including a walk across the helipad to enjoy our last views of Plymouth. Once it started getting a little blow-y and rocky, we headed to the cafeteria and dined on pasta salad, bread, and cheese, plus a mini bottle of wine each. We figured the wine would provide a little extra insurance for sleep to come quickly—besides, we were heading to France, so, wine? ... Of course! Anyone who eavesdropped on our dinner conversation would probably giggle as our diction rapidly disintegrated, with slurred "S"s and I'm sure many a repeated phrase. As we both felt our limbs and heads getting heavier and heavier, we wisely decided to make our way to our bunks.

A few short hours later, we awoke to Lans by Dremmwel, a tune they broadcast through the ship's speaker system every two minutes or so to wake up the snoozing passengers. You may wonder how I know the tune! Well, in my fruitless search for an answer to whether we could bring our bags into our berth, I did discover the name of the wake-up song and the helpful fact that I could purchase a CD of Dremmwel's greatest hits in the ferry's gift shop. Brilliant.

Upon leaving the ferry at 7 a.m. we discovered that EuropCar rental staff does not show up until 10 and the ferry station was not really anywhere close to the fishing village of Roscoff ... at least not close enough to encourage us to lug our wheelie bags out into the misty morning. So instead we had surprisingly lovely croissants, pain au chocolat, and cafe while waiting for time to pass. At last, the young man led us to our car and sent us on our way. After a few ground gears, we were happily cruising through the Normandy/Brittany countryside!

The walled city of St.-Malo in the distance
with the floating docks in the foreground
Our first stop was St-Malo, which was beautifully described in Pulitzer Prize winner Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See. I was very excited to explore the old walled city and climb the stairs of the steeple. But, alas, the traffic leading to the massive parking lots surrounding the old walled city were chock-a-block full of cars parked, cars waiting to get in, cars waiting to get out, and pedestrians everywhere. It didn't take A.K. and I long to find our way out of the madhouse and into the newer part of St-Malo, which is still quite old. We got some great shots of the city's exterior, marveled at the floating docks, and then took a little driving tour of the rest of the city.

Hunger was setting in, so we made our way to equally quaint Dinan, only to find that it was between noon and 2:00, when everything pretty much shuts down. We did find one cafe-bar still open, so we had our first dejeuner of ham/cheese/mushroom galettes (like a cross between an omelet and a crepe) and salad. [Ed: I had originally said it was Sunday, but I forgot. It was Monday, which is like Sunday here, in that lots of places are closed.]

About as close as we got
to the abbey at St.-Michel
The next stop was Mont St. Michel. We'd heard that you should definitely not come here at the height of the tourist season, but that is when we are here. So when in St. Michel ... We parked our car and hopped on a bus that took us and nearly 50 other tourists across the causeway to the ancient abbey island. Unfortunately, there was a never-ending stream of said buses going to and fro, dumping loads of tourists on the little island.

It truly is a spectacular site to see, but we barely made it 100 feet into the walled area before realizing if we didn't get out soon, there was a good chance we might take one of the millions of little plastic souvenir swords and disembowel, behead, stab, and generally wreak havoc on the mobs of people all around us. It was like a combination of Epcot, Disneyworld, the Grand Canyon overlook, and every other tourist destination—all on their busiest day and all crammed into narrow, cobblestoned alleyways. And not to stereotype, but it seemed that very few had an iota of interest in where they were. They were just intent on buying as much Made in China crap as they could and take as many pictures as possible before heading back on another sweaty bus to the next tourist stop.

Karen washing her shoes
in our ultra-posh "loo" in Honfleur
So we fled the walls and hustled our way back to our rental car and on to the road to our final destination for the day ... Honfleur.

Karen at Vieux Bassin in Honfleur
What a surprise this town is! Although it too is packed with people, most are here to wander the little alleys, sit in cafes while sipping the lovely local cider/rosé/café, and enjoy the nightlife and fine dining—not to mention the Bastille Day festivities, which included cherry bombs, bottle rockets, sparklers, and much more being set off throughout the village all day; a competition in which young men dashed over the edge of the dock and up a slippery pole in an attempt to grab the flag before crashing down to the water below; and a spectacular fireworks display that was set off on the other side of the river, about 2 football fields away from our balcony view. Thousands of people stood along the banks of the Seine to watch and cheer the big finale as they danced along to American pop music blaring from the carousel. We made like Marie Antoinette, and enjoyed the festivities from our regal suite overlooking the docks while nibbling on pizza and sipping our Sloe Gin. Luckily no one threatened to behead us for our decadence.

We fell asleep to the sounds of cars filing out of the crowded streets, kids laughing, more cherry bombs, and disco music. We then awoke to a muted, misty morning. From my bed, I watched the village slowly wake up, with fresh fruit deliveries to the cafe down the street, a man hosing off the remnants of last night's revelries, a crew of men taking apart the firework mortars and cakes across the river, and a few people wandering the now-quiet streets.

C'est la vie, vraiment!

[ED: We also took a walking tour of the village center, where we saw many beautiful and ancient buildings, including the salt warehouses and the cathedral of St. Leonard and his gardens.]
The ceiling of the salt warehouse is constructed
using the same techniques to build a ship ... just upside down
The gardens of Saint Leonard in Honfleur