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.