Monday, February 19, 2007

Fortified: Carcassonne to Catalunya

There's nothing quite like a taxi driver dropping you off at the entrance of a castle under a full moon and giving you the directions just over the drawbridge, second left past the fountain. You can't miss it, it's just next to the outer wall of the fortress.

Carcassonne, a hilltop city in France's Languedoc region that has been fortified in various permutations since 100 BC, is straight out of a medieval fairytale, complete with moat, two rings of ramparts, and 53 turreted towers. The historic buildings along its cobbled, narrow streets house thriving shops and restaurants that range from a few embarrassingly touristy spots to traditional French cafe fare to bistros sporting Carcassonne's signature dish, cassoulet, a white bean stew regionally served with duck confit or partridge. But, having developed a certain mistrust for regional French cuisine after the bouillabaisse incident (and knowing that we would need our appetites for local cuisine in good form for Ireland), we limited our dining in Carcassonne mostly to the confections of a nearby patisserie. We spent three days inside the castle walls, exploring the 9th century basilica and reading medieval fantasy novels to each other in the archery-nooks of the outer walls (Wizard of Earthsea, for you curious readers - an indulgent slice of fiction between Apollinaire and Joyce/Swift/Heaney. J and I try to make regional narratives a part of traveling whenever we can, but after Rimbaud, we needed a break from French literature.)

Our one futile expedition beyond the castle walls and out into the Lower City proved that we should have stayed inside. We were trying to see a movie - an American movie - at the local cinema. We had had wonderful success with this in Paris when we saw "Babel" - the trick is to make sure that the movie is in its original format and subtitled in French, rather than dubbed. "Babel" was particularly interesting because, though much of the film is in English, a lot more of it is in French (Moroccan), Japanese and Spanish. So we had to interpret those parts as best we could with the French subtitles, which might have been more annoying if the movie's theme hadn't been the problems that exist in inter-cultural communication. Anyway, I digress - at the theatre, most of the films (READ: every one but ours) were marked "V.O." As a voice-over artist myself, I was familiar with this abbreviation and assumed, naturally, that it indicated that those films were dubbed. Thankfully, the movie we wanted to see was V.O.-free, so we bought an armload of movie snacks* and settled into our seats.

Short version: "V.O." means version originale. Thankfully, they congenially made fun of us and refunded our tickets. We went back to the castle.

*Best snack EVER: Nutella Snack & Drink. A healthy serving of Nutella that puts the frustratingly teensy smear in Cheese 'n Cracker Snack Packs (with the little red stick) to shame; crispy bread sticks to dip in it; and peach iced tea to wash it all down. All neatly packaged in a sexy cylindrical canister, complete with straw. I love Europe.


We watched the French coastline turn into the Spanish one from the train. The hills dried out and the roof tiles turned orange, but the sea was still the same radiant blue. We stopped for our first Spanish lunch in Port Bou, just across the border.

After the collective hours we had spent in France looking for something we could afford on menu after overpriced menu, Port Bou was a Catalonian heyday. Wedged into a booth at a local diner, we found ourselves drowning in sumptuous gambas al ajillo, ham and cheese croquettes, crispy baked chicken, garlicky mushrooms. The baguettes had gone bad at the border, but everything else was salty, delicious and mercifully cheap. For dessert we had a regional specialty, creme catalan, which is sort of a less delicate, flan-ier version of creme brulee. I loved it.

Barcelona was cooler than we were. Every beautiful Catalonian was out in slender, well-dressed, dredlocked regalia; our bright-hued hostel was packed with weekending teenaged Belgians and Australians in town to party. I felt old and tired during this part of the trip and attracted a brief cold that dampened our adventuring somewhat. But I do remember Barcelona's food! What diverse decadence we enjoyed there - from creamy gelato to sparkling cava.

Getting sick makes me want sushi. I guess that not everybody shares this particular craving, but there's something about the simple, healthy flavors of fresh fish, seaweed, miso and green tea that restore me a bit. So we sought out a sushi bar for lunch on the pier, just across from the enormous monument to Columbus. It was early, but we were so hungry that we had a round of tapas at a bar next door while we waited for the Japanese restaurant to open. What a mistake! The Japanese "lunch buffet" advertised outside for €7 was, in fact, a circular conveyor belt dotted with what was effectively Japanese tapas. It efficiently circumscribed the room and passed back into the kitchen to be refurbished with fresh sushi rolls, slices of salmon, steamed dumplings, seaweed salads, spring rolls, fried rice, butterfly shrimps.

That afternoon, we wandered through Barcelona's largest outdoor market, the Mercat de la Boquería, where we saw ostrich eggs and braces of conies and I tasted a mangosteen (thanks, Phil and Deborah, who told me to try them!).

My other choice culinary memory in Barcelona was dinner at Botafumeiro, benefacted yet again, in celebration of the eve of J's 21st birthday. Renowned for its seafood, Botafumeiro offers a dozen kinds of shellfish - all displayed in tanks at the entrance - and a delightful array of fish dishes. J ordered the some of the best cured salmon I have ever had (and a certain reader who cures her own salmon knows that I have had some really good lox). I ordered a half-dozen oysters that were good but unremarkable, and also a platter of sauteed baby artichokes that were, honestly, my favorite part of the meal. J's idyllic gambas al ajillo (redux) were almost lobster-like in flavor, and to top it all off, the generous and attentive maitre d' supplied a complimentary bottle of cava (Spanish sparkling wine) in J's honor. The celebrating continued when we returned to the hostel to a chorus of slurred voices in a cacophony of accents belting out happy birthday.

Monday, February 12, 2007


An artery through Provence, the Rhone river fans out at its mouth into a marshy spread of ventricles to the sea. This region, called the Camargue, is host to a wildly different sort of habitat - and tourism - than much of the rest of France. Southward beyond Arles, industrial farmlands give way to an expansive mix of freshwater and saltwater marshes; they are home to the muskrat's whiskery cousin the ragodin, dozens of species of migratory birds, and a pure-white breed of wild Arab horse that, along with the hulking black bulls tended there, has made the area famous for its gardiens, or cowboys.

It was through this unexpectedly wild place that we sought our seaside treasure, Saintes Maries de la Mer. This sleepy beach town, popular in tourist season for its oceanfront horseback riding, has another more pious claim to fame: it is said to be here that the three Marys (Mary Magdalene, Mary Salome, and Mary Jacobe) came ashore after witnessing the empty tomb and the resurrection of Christ. Two of them apparently became beloved members of the community, and the weathered stone chapel (previously a Roman church, and a Celtic worship site before that) houses their relics. But a fourth character in the story remains a mystery: the beautiful Saint Sarah (also known as Sara-la-Kali, or Sarah the black). Her reliquary, as well as a beautiful wooden sculpture of her, are housed in the chapel's dark crypt amid a shrine of flickering prayer candles, and date back to the same interminable time as those of the two Marys. Her origins are unknown, but sources speculate variously that she was a servant to the Marys, another follower of Christ, or an African queen. The reasons for her sainthood are likewise unknown, but she has become the patron saint of gypsies, and each May there is a ritual gypsy pilgrimage to Saintes Maries de la Mer. Saint Sarah's reliquary is lowered from the chapel ceiling, and those visiting nomads reach for the healing power a touch is said to confer. Sarah's statue is then paraded outside, along with the statue of the two Marys in their little boat, which is taken down to the sea in a great procession.

But in the winter, this quiet little outpost confers a secret sanctity that goes deeper into the earth than even the chapel crypt, and farther out into the sea than the holiest vessel, as the rituals of human migration intersect those more ancient sacred patterns of beasts, seasons, and the sea. Strange encounters happen between migrants in Saintes Maries de la Mer, that hallowed place for travelers - tourists among them.

The first strange and wonderful thing that happened was at dinner. As we finished sopping crusty baguettes in the garlicky broth at the bottom of a steaming pot of local mussels, a pleasant, if limited, dialogue began between the adjacent table, who spoke little English, and ourselves. An older couple from north of Arles visiting their seaside home in Stes. Maries, they were excited to practice their English and happy to offer us advice about how to see the Camargue. (Our delightful hostess, who dropped everything and knocked a cat off a table with a menu, aided in this endeavor, and drew an extremely unhelpful map on a napkin.) Conversation continued through dessert (delicious île flottante - an ethereal meringue "island" floating in vanilla custard), and we found ourselves invited over for aperitifs and conversation. Since aperitifs and conversation are what one does in France after dinner, we accepted.

What a cottage it was! Scarcely larger than the 300-square-foot apartment we left in New York, it had a traditional thatched roof, a blazing hearth, and a porthole-shaped window overlooking the sea. We sat in front of the fire and talked about the town, politics in France and America, the philosophy of education, the promise of our youth, the catastrophe of global warming, and the merry lives of our hosts, Jacques and Jeannette - all with squints of concentration as we strained to decipher the others' language. The two of them had retired from happily multifaceted lives to a small farm in the mountains west of the Luberon, where, as Jacques put it, "Jeanette cares for ten animals: one horse, one donkey, four hens, three cats, and myself." The mention of France's 1968 student uprising prompted Jacques to proclaim that it was "certainly not a revolution! One person dies - only one!" - at which point I had the opportunity to form my single most coherent, intellectual French sentance of the whole trip: "La mort n'est pas la revolution, monsieur." It was a long, splendid night, full of happy incomprehension and general goodwill, and a truly unique experience for a pair of young foreign travelers.

The next morning we set off on foot for the Camargue Ornithological Center, a bird sanctuary a few kilometers inland. We encountered a fair bit of wildlife along the way: the warm, white flanks of a Camargue stallion; several leggy egrets; a number of species of ducks; a pair of ragodins paddling through the marsh; and a black-and-white, robin-sized bird that we have since seen in every town we have visited (in France, Spain, and now today in Dublin). But the real surprise came just as we approached the Parc d'Ornithologie, when we heard a powerful squawking.

Most experienced tourists will tell you that visiting France in February is inadvisable. While we don't agree, and have found many reasons to visit France in wintertime (not the least of which is the lack of tourism), the benefits of summer visiting had not gone unnoticed: there was a chill, and many things were closed, and there weren't any flowers in Provence. Even truffle season was in its final, overpriced throes. The fermé feeling had been heightened during the hotel fiasco at our previous destination, and by the time we arrived in Stes. Maries, we had just about come to the conclusion that though we were certainly making the best of the "off" season, we weren't in France at exactly the right time for anything.

We were wrong.

We were in France - in the South of France, in the Camargue, in tiny Saintes Maries de la Mer, at the ornithological park - at exactly the right time for the flamingo migration. Not only that, but the freshwater ponds in the park are their winter breeding grounds for one month in January, and apparently the only one in France. There were literally thousands of them, shrieking and stalking along on their hot pink legs and turning their awkward heads from side to side and proclaiming their fiery wingspans like an absurd dance from Fantasia. Most improbably, they flew in pairs and trios across the sunset like pink sticks with wings. The whole display was deafening, showstopping.

(And we saw some other cool birds, too.)

All this we considered later, perched on the long, rocky promontory extending out into the sea: the chance meetings of migrants in Saintes Maries. Or maybe Saint Sarah arranged them, a traveler's blessings, the promise of good fortune for the next phase of our voyage.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Fermé (and Truffles)

We weren't sure our losing streak was over yet on the morning we prepared to leave Roussillon. Having come to terms with the fact that we had overpacked and were hauling around unnecessary kilos, we had sorted out the items we could part with and were taking them to the post office to send home (that's right, mom - nothing exciting in that box, don't even bother opening it, it's just sweaters). From la poste, our plan was to hike - with newly lightened packs - the fourteen kilometers to Gordes, the last of our semi-inaccessible Provençal destinations. But, after bidding a breakfastless adieu to our kind hotel proprietors and marching the uphill mile to town by five after twelve, la poste was, like everything else in town, fermé, closing its doors a purported five minutes earlier. Not a soul was in sight.

We deliberated what to do. All options were too expensive - the way to Gordes via several modes of transportation, another night at the hotel (a slightly more upscale splurge to celebrate surviving Parisian hostels and the Marseille ordeal), lunch at the one ouvert restaurant in Roussillon. But could we make it to Gordes on foot with such heavy packs? We decided that we would have to try.
It was an amazing seven-mile walk: a gentle sloping descent into the valley, a stroll through acres of vineyards, each vine trimmed into a gnarled winter fist. Gordes came into sight a long way off, white stone crests of chateau and cathedral against azure sky. The climb up was perilous and exhilarating; buildings hundreds of years old emerged out of the rock and sank back in again like unfinished sculpture. It took us a long time to ascend that last vertical mile into the city square, where little flotillas of ice drifted in the basin of an archaic fountain and dusk painted the white stones gold.

Every hotel in Gordes was fermé. We watched the sun set like a dissolving coin and felt the cold drift in under the moon, a day past full. We looked for caves to sleep in.

In the end, we were rescued by the only other tourists we ever saw in all of Provence - a Taiwanese family of five who were leaving scenic Gordes to go find sustenance in relatively nearby Cavaillon. They offered to take us to a cluster of hotels that was "just down the hill" and "very close by"; we accepted gratefully and piled into their small car with our large luggage. But we soon realized that they had meant "very close by" by driving standards, and that it would be an exhausting hours-long hike back up to Gordes in the morning. We exchanged a look of panic and requested exit at the first available lodging - a Best Western, radiating fluorescent welcome.
Abandoned in the parking lot, we weighed the eighty-euro fee, a full day's spending allotment and more, by our budget. We looked down the road after our benefactors' taillights; we looked up the mountain to Gordes; we saw only the cold dark of intermittent hotels and restaurants fermé for the off-season in both directions. Brave adventurers though we were, we had not packed for sub-freezing camping. Best Western it would be. And so a full 24 hours passed whence we ate naught but spoonfuls of marmalade from a jar in my pack, and two teabags from the reception stretched over several cups of tea.

The good fortune in all of this was that the Best Western turned out to be half a mile from a (miraclously operational) bus route to Gordes. Two buses daily - at 6:00AM and 6:00PM - and we were on both. We arrived back in Gordes before the sun, and followed our noses to the one un-fermé storefront at that hour: a patisserie, drawing the morning's first baguettes from the ovens. We sank our teeth into hot chocolate croissants and watched the sun rise over the chateau. What could be better?

I'll tell you what - A five-course Provençal truffle tasting menu and a bottle of local rosé with the person you love. We had discovered the Auberge Carcarille just outside Gordes on our way up the mountain, and went back for lunch the next day to indulge our truffle obsession. It began with an amuse bouche of truffled foie gras ravioli; the appetizer was a simple, exquisite plate of truffled scrambled eggs and butter-soaked toast. For my main course, I ordered a truffled fillet of Saint Jacques (a local French fish that I think is a bit like cod) with winter vegetables. The veggies were great, but I didn't care as much for the fish; the simplicity of the preparation (designed to flatter the truffles) left it bland and a bit dry. J, however, ordered lavander-honey-glazed pork loin with sautéed trumpet royal mushrooms, and it was truly spectacular. A large wedge of brie de meau followed, its core shot through with an aromatic vein of truffle. Dessert was a tower of chocolate cream with a ganache "truffle" center, drizzled with Grand Marinier syrup. We finished the wine and giggled a lot, driven by truffles into those conversational realms accessed only through potent fungi and long-aged cheeses (as well as a very few wines and the occasional risky slice of blowfish) - ponderances of the narrow way these delights tread between eroticism and death. We only accomplished a third of the walk home before collapsing in an olive grove and dozing for an hour in the afternoon sun. Such was the most indulgent afternoon of our trip - a tantric and philosophical exploration of the truffled palate.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Bouillabaisse Is the New Pancakes, or, How Things Went from Bad to Worse

I don't particularly care for pancakes, as it happens. I find them gummy, too sweet, and generally over-filling and unpleasant affairs. I know this. But on many a hungry late-morning in a New York diner, their large, sweet simplicity becomes fleetingly appealing, and left to my own devices, I invariably order them. They arrive, thick and bland, covered in artificial syrup, and by the end of brunch the only thing I am full of is regret. Now, as I am otherwise not a person who often misorders, and never with any repetition, this phenomenon of ordering the wrong thing knowing that you won't like it has come to be known between J and I as "pancakes" - as in, "Mahi-mahi? Are you sure that won't be pancakes?"

That in mind, here is the story of how we took five kinds of transportation to get to one place, and how I had a meal I would have traded for a two-foot stack of poisoned flapjacks.


We left Avignon early in the morning after a day of laundering and general recuperation. Saddled with two forty-pound backpacks, we shuffled through a pile of train schedules, trying to plot the route to our next destination, Roussillon - a tiny hilltop town known for its local ochre-based masonry and overall quaintness. Practically inaccessible by public transportation, we knew getting there might involve a complicated series of steps...but little did we know just how complicated.

Theoretically, the way involved a train from Avignon to Apt, via Marseille. From Apt, we would take a taxi ten kilometres to Roussillon. We boarded the train, full of croissants and optimism.

Many reliable sources had advised us to avoid Marseille - and we fully planned to - but a two hour layover there made us think of lunch. And lunch made us think of Marseille's claim to culinary fame, bouillabaisse. Our handy Lonely Planet guidebook directed us to a string of restaurants on the Old Port, which we found without incident. In fact, Marseille's metro was impressively efficient! We strolled along the quay in the afternoon sun, reading menus and comparing bouillabaisse prices, salivating, until we found the joint specifically recommended by Lonely Planet. It was an expensive dish at €22-28 (depending on whether you ordered an additional half-lobster); this meal would be one of the few decadent splurges we would take on our trip, and would mean a couple of bread-and-cheese-only days to compensate. As we lumbered toward the door with our packs, a waiter waved from inside, Non, non! Fermé! We looked at our watches: two-thirty. Our faces fell, for the first thing we had learned about France was that the French eat at the strictest and most absolute times. Lunch is from 12:30 to 2:30 and no later; restaurants reopen at 7:30 and close at 9:30. Bistros that remain open all afternoon often only serve drinks between dining hours. We were not to have our bouillabiasse, after all.

But we were absolutely fixated on the idea. We elected to take a later train and stick around in much-warned-against Marseille, just for dinner. We passed the afternoon quarreling and sweating under our pack straps. At seven-thirty, we were back at the door of Le Merou Bleu.

Our waiter grimaced at our packs and had us shove them in a dirty corner. He sat us, recommended a wine, and didn't bring it. Twenty minutes after ordering, he informed us that they were out of the shrimp appetizer J had ordered. But we were hungry and forgiving, salivating over the promise of five-fishes bouillabaisse with scallops, mussels and jumbo shrimp in a decadent saffron broth, served with butter-soaked croutons and house-made saffron aioli.

The dish that arrived bore absolutely no resemblance to that description. Lumps of gritty fish flesh sat like oily islands in the yellow broth they'd been simmering in for hours. There were two mussels and one unchewable scallop; a tiny, sad shrimp, shriveled inside its shell, perched in the center of the bowl like a dead pink insect. The waiter returned and, with a flourish, presented me with an additional enormous bowl of the evil-smelling yellow-grey broth, as though the quantity in my orginal bowl might not be enough, that I might want to sop up this extra half-gallon of vile brine with my baguette.

Repellent, repellent bouillabiasse. Tragically disappointing; a new, crueler world of pancakes. At least he gave me a free dessert when I didn't eat it.

The Marseille metro, it turns out, closes at nine, and the only cabbie we could find (most reasonably eating a pizza, we thought) charged us ten euros to take us the three kilometres to the station because of our baggage. Naturally, we missed the last train. Lonely Planet recommended a hotel nearby; let us just say that we bolted the door, didn't go barefoot, and the next morning, I threw away Lonely Planet.

Our next destination, Apt, was interrupted by an inspiration to detour through Aix-en-Provence, incited by the "July" chapter of Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence. We were under the impression that a bus from Aix to Apt would be available; upon our arrival, evidence was to the contrary. We spent a forlorn hour in the Aix station planning an alternate strategy, followed by a comforting breakfast of croissants and hot chocolate to make our fate go down easy; to get to Apt from Marseille, we had to go back to Avignon.

So we did, by bus, and as there were no further buses to Apt, we stayed the night, a block away from our original hotel. Le sigh.

After that, things slowly got better. We passed the following morning in what had become our "usual haunt" - Pizza Rush, where we ordered large, steaming slices of pizza au saumon, creme fraiche et champignons. Made with a mix of mozzarela and gruyere, pizza in France is invariably quite good and more affordable than most other cuisines.

The bus to Apt got us there without interruption, and in Apt we found a taxi without too much difficulty. The B&B I had arranged turned out to be a bit of an uphill hike from Roussillon proper, but it was pretty and clean and the proprietors were wildly friendly. That evening we shopped for diner at a little market on a quiet street, tramped home, and enjoyed a fabulous spread of fresh baguettes, local saucisson and fromage, chocolate-orange marmalade, and a very enjoyable bottle of €3 red wine from the next valley over. It wasn't pancakes - or bouillabaisse - at all.


It should be noted that I've backlogged a bit, and that I have several additional updates that took place after this one. Fear not! Wonderful adventures - and truffles - yet to come!