At last, we've put down the "rest of the story".We pick our saga back up in Valencia, an interesting, clean and eclectic city. There is a dry riverbed running through town that's been turned into an attractive park - sports fields as well as wooded and grassy areas with pathways and benches. It's a very creative use of the riverbed (we don't know why the river was rerouted). There's a great, huge public market in the heart of town (fresh produce, baked goods, fish, meats, and flowers), and the largest sandy beach we've ever seen just 15-20 minutes from the city center.
Our most pleasant discovery in Valencia was the botanical garden we stumbled across on the way to our internet access spot one morning. For about fifty cents each we got to walk around what turned out to be the largest botanical garden in Europe! It was a well tended, huge collection (from many different climates) of various trees, bushes, grasses, cacti, succulents, and flowers. The park covered an area slightly larger than two square city blocks. It was a great place to casually stroll around (and get a break from the streets, the traffic, and the carbon monoxide).
But there was another unique surprise in this amazing garden; there were dozens upon dozens of cats everywhere we looked - sitting in the trees, watching us from the bamboo, sleeping in the bushes, stretching in the sun amongst the cacti and lounging on the benches - there must have been hundreds of them!! Some were tame, and came to us to be petted; others were more aloof or cautious and only watched us from a distance. Neither of us has ever seen such a large community of cats before; we were truly amazed.
There were a lot of outdoor cafés in Valencia, but we didn't return to busking; we didn't see any street performers there at all.
We did take a daytrip to Cullera, a town that a friend had recommended (about 1 1/2 hrs. south by train). After a short bus ride from the Cullera train station, we were finally in a small coastal town nestled up against a hill. It was quaint. . .until we made it through town to the beach side where high-rise after high-rise (20-30 stories tall) blocked the view and paraded north up the beach as far as the eye could see --- blech!! Disheartened, we went back into town, had a picnic, and headed for the church on top of the hill behind us, walking through a charming old town of very narrow streets, to the stone pathway that led up the hillside.
It took us about 1/2 hour to reach the top; it was a great walk. The path switched back on itself many times, and as we walked, we passed fourteen 2' square by 7' tall concrete and stone pillars. Each had an alcove in it, and steel bars protected a ceramic tile depiction of a station of the cross inside. There was a bench facing each station, too (for contemplation, prayer, gasping for breath. . .?!).
At the top was the church and castle. They were both closed, but a lone cat greeted us and kept us company as we played guitars and looked out at a stunning panoramic view of the Spanish coast to the south. When people from a tour bus started to trickle into our plaza, we packed up our guitars and headed back to the train and Valencia. We realized that we were looking for a Cassis (see last year's updates!) in Spain -- a tiny, non-touristic, peaceful, seaside village -- neither Cullera nor Valencia fit the bill.
We only spent one more day in Valencia; walking around older sections of town, snapping photos and discussing where to go next. Cullera had not panned out as the paradisical spot we'd been hoping for; we were stumped. All we had were tourist books and maps to help us find a place that was small, sunny, warm and not inundated with tourists! After hours of reading about the tiniest coastal towns listed in our "Let's Go", and referring to our map, over and over, we picked Calpe, on the Costa Blanca -- a tiny town on the southern side of a peninsula jutting out into the Mediterranean. The book warned of an experience akin to being in a Dali landscape (in tourist season). The description of other towns seemed even worse, though, and the tourist season was pretty much over, anyway. The next morning we checked out of our pension (cheap hotel), and were on the bus headed for Calpe by 9:30.
We arrived at the bus station on the edge of town about 1:00 p.m., and headed for the Office of Tourism. With the map and a list of pensions they gave us in hand, we began the search for a room.
Before long we found one of the less expensive pensions. It was siesta time, though, so we had a two hour wait before the managers would be available. We used their reception area to have some lunch and bring our journal up to date. When the managers returned we secured a room and went to scope out the scene.
Calpe was perfect. The city is built on a hillside. At the top there is an old maze-like section of town with lots of murals on the buildings, narrow streets, and just as many stairways and pedestrian walkways as roadways (though the ever-present motorcycles often go anywhere a pedestrian does!). At the base of the hill (about 8 blocks from our pension) lay a beautiful sandy beach and the magnificent Mediterranean. We strolled along a 10' wide mozaic promenade and soaked up the relaxing sounds, sights and smells. . .ahhhh, what a great spot. There were a few highrise apartments, but not many, and both sides of the bay we were in ended in huge natural cliffs that stretched out like two arms on either side, embracing the sea. We were very happy with our decision to come to Calpe.
We weren't happy with our room, though (a very soft and sagging mattress was our only option), so we went looking for another place. On our way to a pension further down the beach we saw a "Bungalows to Rent" sign, and decided to investigate. We're so glad we did. A bungalow was available the next day for just a wee bit more than what we'd paid for our room. It was fantastic -- two bedrooms, a living room, dining room, kitchen, bath, and covered patio right on the promenade next to the beach! The Mediterranean was only 20 or 30 yards away, right outside our door! We gave the owner a deposit on the spot, and moved in at noon the next day.
The highlight from Calpe is that there is nothing exciting to tell--two weeks of rest, relaxation, great weather, strolls on the beach, swims in the crystal clear (warm) sea, playing guitars to the setting sun, cooking delicious local fish at home. . . perhaps the most relaxing two weeks we've spent anywhere or at anytime.
It was so soothing we took a couple daytrips to nearby villages and went hiking in a national park to stay active.
Both Altea and Villajoyosa (our two daytrip destinations) were small, picturesque coastal towns. Altea's houses in the old part of town are all painted brilliant white, and there is an old church with a blue tile dome on the highest hill in town. Villajoyosa's old town predates Rome, and the houses there (unlike most of the houses on the Spanish coast which are painted white, like in Altea), are all painted quite strikingly bright colors, each different than their neighbor's, with only the trim painted white. Both of these small cities was on the major coastal highway and had, apparently, a tourist based economy (and way too much traffic for the small, 2 lane highway running through it).
The hike we took while in Calpe was up a huge (more than 1000' high) rock formation, the Peñón de Ifach. It was just a walk up a gentle slope to get to the visitor center -- perhaps the most interesting and complete interactive exhibit we've ever seen explaining the flora, fauna, geography, and eco-system of the area. From there the path steepened as we continued up past bushes and small trees to the base of the sheer rock cliff that loomed hundreds of feet above us. After a hundred plus meters in a tunnel hewn through solid rock (a 2" in diameter rope was pitonned into the wall as a handrail to help traverse the jagged, and sometimes wet tunnel), the path became no more than a goat path on an extreme (sheer) rocky cliff -- reminiscent of the trail on the Napali Coast in Hawaii. . .no railing, and nothing to break our fall or keep us from plummeting into the Mediterranean if by chance we slipped or lost our footing. We took our time, and were treated to awesome views of the coastline as we climbed. As it turned out, we were in a cloud at the very top, so we don't have any photos from the highest point. After a picnic lunch on a wooded ridge below the cloud cover (good viewing of the scenery), we carefully descended. It was a great hike: challenging, exciting, moderately strenuous, and extremely scenic -- negotiated without injury, though not without danger.
We had a few other adventures while in Calpe. We shopped at a street market that went on for at least a mile on a narrow, meandering street with thousands of other people, and had a great time milling around and making a few purchases (even haggled over prices, some!); had the best Chinese meal we've ever had, anywhere, served in a wonderfully discreet, unobtrusive, and yet pampering way; and turned down the opportunity to experience the week-long Ocktober Fest for the large German community of Calpe.
As wonderful as it was, the time to leave was upon us before we knew it. We were nearing the end of our resources and, quite frankly, were missing our family and friends back home. We considered just going home (it was Oct. 21st), but decided, instead, on two more stops before our return to Paris (for our flight back to San Francisco): 1) a visit to Chamonix in the French Alps, and 2) a stop in Beaune, in central France.
Early the next morning we took our last walk along the beach and up the hill through town. We took it slowly (we had our packs and guitars) and savored our last glimpses of the cozy town we'd been so comfortable in for a fortnight. It was sad to be going. At 8:30 the bus arrived (late, as usual) and our trip northward began.
The first leg of this trip was a short one; we went only as far as Barcelona. We were much more at ease in Barcelona this time. The next day and a half we strolled around, shopped (a rare opportunity to purchase small items we'd regretted not getting after our first visit) and visited yet another Gaudi creation--a building he designed, Casa Milà (La Pedrera) that now has an exhibition of his architectural drawings and models in the attic.
Then it was back on the train -- the Eurostar -- destination, Chamonix. We split the 15 hour trip in half, and stopped for one night in Montelimar, a small town just a little south of Valence.
Though we were only there for one afternoon and evening, Montelimar is a place we'd love to revisit and explore. Our hotel (the Sphinx), a remodeled, classic old building complete with carpeted walls and a huge marble staircase, was plush but inexpensive. The town itself was extremely quaint: narrow streets in a non-grid layout, small shops with creative, artistic, and unusual products, a large park, with a lake, mini zoo, fountain, carousel, and a topiary of a train, and the best pizza restaurant we've ever found. All that, plus freshly made nougat everywhere (a unique specialty of the area) and an almost magnetic atmosphere or ambiance of friendly comfortableness. We were only there for 18 hours, but we loved it.
I'd pulled a muscle in my back the day before, but was still able to manage my pack between spasms. After a slow walk through a gentle rain, past a topiary of a train engine and coal car (we had to take a photo for Chano, our grandson who loves trains) we were back on the train and headed for Chamonix. This was a great ride, most of it in our own compartment, through a part of France we'd never seen. We went from flatland into mountains. The rivers became tourquoise in color, smaller in size and much more rapid as they careened down the slopes through riverbeds cut in rock ages ago. As we proceeded into the mountains, the scenery became dramatic: snow capped mountains with their lower slopes covered with coniferous trees, still green, interspersed with desiduous trees wearing their autumn coats of yellow and red. Our train rounded a corner of the valley we were following, and the sight of the first glacier either one of us had ever seen took our breath away. It was huge, awesome, magnificent. . .like icing dripping down the side of a cake, but immense!! Having never seen the edge of a glacier before it was almost incongruous to me; no mountains I'd ever seen had any monstrous ooze seeping between them and down their slopes. I was truly awestruck by this glacier; it affected me emotionally. I felt very humble (the power and immensity of the ocean effects me similarly). Within minutes of this dramatic sight we pulled into Chamonix.
We checked our bags and went to explore. It's a small village with a beautiful mountain stream running through it's center. Before long we had our map, had secured our hotel room, and were familiar with the layout of the streets. After getting our gear to the hotel and getting warmer clothes on, we went out for dinner (Chinese) and a movie (Star Wars/Phantom Menace dubbed in French).
The next morning our first stop was the Office of Tourism. They suggested a day trip to Martigny, in Switzerland, since it was raining in Chamonix. That worked for us; we were hoping to get to Switzerland, and here was the perfect opportunity -- we even got discounted admission to an art museum there with our train ticket. The train left in an hour and that was just enough time to pick up some film and supplies for a picnic lunch.
We had another great day.
The train ride was on a small, local train that chugged up and over an Alpine pass. It went through half a dozen small villages, the track sometimes covered (to protect it from falling rocks or snowslides, we assume). Each village was unique; a couple were made up of only perhaps a dozen or two small houses, clumped very tightly together. Many roofs had logs attached on top of the roofing about a foot up from where the gutter would be. . .we don't know why. Some roofs were made from random sized, irregularly shaped pieces of slate, a style and type of roofing I've only seen there. The whole ride was through beautiful, picture-postcard type scenery.
We descended from the pass into another valley, where Martigny nestled at the base of the mountains (and also at the end of our train line). We caught a bus to the museum and had our second treat of the day. There was a showing of Pierre Bonnard's work (1867-1947; a contemporary of Monet and Renoir) - great pastel colors, very expressive compositions; even the still lifes had motion. . .very inspiring. In the basement were several dozen cars in mint conditon spanning the 1890's to the 1940's - beautiful, many hand made, some monstrous, some tiny. . .an excellent collection. Outside was a garden of statuary - George Segal, Max Ernst, Cesar, and Rodin were just a few of the artists whose works were displayed. Even the museum itself was built amongst Roman ruins, including an amphitheater and baths; in Roman times Martigny had been a major center of commerce. We were only able to scratch the surface of history and culture in Martigny before we had to catch our train back to Chamonix.
We were very excited when we awoke the next morning to almost clear skies; the extra day we'd decided to stay turned out to be perfect for a ride on the Telepherique de L'Aiguille du Midi - a gondola ride almost 10,000 feet up a cable to a spot where we could see the top of Mont Blanc. We were excited as we packed into the tiny gondola with at least 30 other people. When there was absolutely no more space left to move in any direction, the operator sqeezed in. The door slid shut and we were on our way, being pulled upward by a 2" cable whose end we could not even see. When we arrived with a bump at a pinnacle of rock with a platform we thought we'd reached our destination. . .but, no, we were only half way, and had several thousand feet still to rise!! It was a smooth ride, all in all, but our hearts did quicken each of the several times there was a bump or a jerk along the way. Once out of the gondola, we still had to take an elevator up to the viewing platform.
The view was spectacular. It was now a sunny, crystal clear day, and all around us, as far as the eye could see were snow covered rugged mountain tops. It was breathtakingly beautiful. Although it was very, very, very cold and windy, it was our first high Alpine mountain experience, and thrilling. Mont Blanc loomed above us approximately another 3000 feet; we were standing in France, looking at Switzerland and Italy. Far below us the whole town of Chamonix was just a speck. Though we were feeling quite brave, the change of altitude had had it's effect on us, so we slipped into the restaurant (how they'd built these buildings way up there was a whole separate, amazing issue!), and had sandwiches and hot chocolate. After taking more pictures and having a fellow tourist take one of us with Mont Blanc in the background, we took the next gondola back down. The ride down was still very exciting, and the view quite radical. It was possibly our gondola ride of a lifetime. We shopped a little, relaxed a lot, and after a fantastic dinner (food as art) at a tiny restaurant called "Munchies", we packed our bags for the next day's journey, and went to bed.
It was an 8 hour ride to Beaune the next day, and new territory for us. After we came out of the mountains, the countryside was gently rolling agricultural land, progressively flatter as we proceeded westward. As we got closer to our destination, we noticed a couple things: 1) the large river to our right and parallel with the train tracks was almost overflowing it's banks; the water covered most of the tree trunks up to where the leaf canopy began (and had actually crested the bank in a few spots), and 2) to the left of us were huge vinyards, some a brilliant red color, that went on for miles, filled the 1/2 mile of flat land next to the track, and crawled up the hillsides in the distance. We were definitely in wine country, and it wasn't long before we arrived in Beaune.
Charlie (a friend's father) and a friend, Helene, were there to meet us, and though we were only there one day, we had a great visit in Beaune. We stayed at Charlie's home in town; our room was in the converted attic, up three flights of stairs, and was very cozy. The night we arrived, Helene gave us a great tour of Beaune (showed us what was old, what was unique and special, where she and Claude had played as children...) while Charlie fixed dinner. The aromas drifting out of the kitchen when we returned were heavenly; our entire evening was spent leisurely savoring an excellent, many course meal, tasting several local wines, and talking.
After sharing coffee the next morning, Charlie took us to a smaller village nearby, Bligny de Beaune, to show us his vegetable garden and the house he's remodeling (and to feed his cats, too). Before we could catch our breath, this spry, 80+ year young guy had us back in his little car and we were speeding through the countryside. He explained his 'break-neck' speed and rushed pace, "The tart is in the oven back in Beaune!" Eileen and I went for a walk around town when we got back, visited the Hotel Dieu (a hospital built in the 1400's), and made it back to the house in time for the afternoon meal that Charlie had been working on since before we got up that morning --Beouf Bourgogne, a traditional dish of that region of France.
Another friend, Christiane, joined us for this meal. It was another couple hours of eating, drinking, and talking (Charlie's an excellent chef!). In fact, we had to rush to the train station to catch our 2:15 train! We quickly said our farewells on the platform and boarded; only minutes later the train pulled out of the station -- next stop (for us), Paris.
Ahhh, Paris... we've grown to really enjoy returning to Paris! I, in fact, am a Paris junkie! It's an extremely magnetic city for me; I can't get enough... I have an afinity for the city!
We have outstanding experiences there, and this time was no exception. We had a wonderful visit with our friends, Chuck and Emily (and their cat, Lili). We "shopped 'til we dropped" (clothing and accessories), attended our first, live rugby game (Chuck is on a team, so we went to watch him play), and spent an entire day in the Louvre.
It's difficult to briefly describe the Louvre --it feels like a sprawling museum complex, more than a single building. Two stories below the 30' high glass pyramid in the center of the Louvre's interior courtyard is the visitor orientation area and main entrance. After purchasing tickets and getting a detailed map, the adventure began. There's such depth and variety to their displayed art and artifacts... we were there for 8 hrs. and feel like we just scratched the surface (we visited: a wing of antiquities from Egypt, Mesapotamia and Iran; a wing of Greek & Roman sculpture, and a wing of Spanish & Italian painters). Although there were a lot of people, it was only crowded at certain world renowned exhibits (DaVinci's "Mona Lisa", and Venus de Milo's "Venus", etc.). The rooms are huge, with very high ceilings. Some of the rooms, themselves, are works of art, and actually distract from the displayed pieces (marble walls, columns, murals, ornate crown moulding and cornices framing a magnificent painting on the ceiling in one room, for example). The building itself is architectural art! We enjoyed our visit tremendously. We hope to return, take advantage of an unlimited admission ticket for several weeks, and use the exhibits to study some history and culture.
We were comfortably full of travel experiences, and embraced the completeness of our trip. Although we had one day still to go, we left it unplanned, and decided to leisurely take advantage of whatever opportunity presented itself in the morning (one of our favorite ways to approach the activity of any given day!). We quickly and soundly fell asleep the evening of Oct. 31st.
The last day of our stay (a national holiday, so the restaurant was closed, and Chuck and Emily had a day off) we all had coffee and pastries together in the morning. Afterwards, while we were repacking for our flight, a friend phoned and invited us all to go "chestnut hunting" in the country later that day. Everyboby thought that sounded like fun, so we made plans to meet and drive to the spot together -- our day's activity had begun to unfold before us!
The cars were jammed full; the ride was great. It was a slightly misty, grey day. The scenery was fine: rolling hills, the leaves just changing, and narrow country roads going through small villages occasionally as we meandered our way to the hills and the chestnut forest.
We'd only been in the hills a little while when all around us there was only one kind of tree - a tall, single-trunked tree (8-12" in diameter and about 30-40' tall), sparsely branched, with large, oval yellow leaves. The forest floor was a soft carpet of the leaves. As we walked around in tennis shoes, jeans, hats, and light jackets, we collected chestnuts in plastic bags.
They were everywhere, just under the leaves (which you could brush away with your foot or a small stick). The trick was to avoid pricking our fingers on the sea-urchin-like pods (like tiny curled-up porcupines) that encased the chestnuts - VERY sharp needles. Sometimes the pods had already opened and you could just pick up the nuts; some pods had to be split by crushing them with your foot, or artfully smashing and prying them open with a stick.
The collecting was great fun! There were many other people (some families with children) within sight, doing the same thing. The sounds of other people's remarks and exclamations came to us muted by the carpet of leaves and forest, and formed a peaceful soundscape in the background as we concentrated on the details of our chosen method of search. The wind rustled the trees and sent new leaves fluttering down on us. There was something comfortable and yet exciting about harvesting food from the forest - a great activity for a group.
When we got back to Clichy, we were invited to visit with our new friends and share the roasting and eating of the chestnuts; "Great!" we said, and everybody went up to their place. It was almost midnight when we left.
The chestnuts were just the first course! We spent the whole evening enjoying tray after tray of various hors d'oveurs, cheeses, wines, breads, pate, and even freshly made caramel popcorn, as we talked and listened to music. A clip from "Mars Attacks", and two segments of "South Park" (enough!) capped off our day. All in all, it was a wonderfully spontaneous, unique and very French way to spend our last day in Europe.
...coffee and "farewells" in the early morning with Chuck and Emily, then METRO to the airport. After a 30 min. delay and an unexpected change of trains, our time was getting tight... Eileen got us to our gate on schedule, somehow, and after a smooth 15 hr. flight, we landed in San Francisco later that same day, Nov. 1st.
This was another great, GREAT trip. We visited more countries, and have so many beautiful memories - Normandy, the Aran Islands, Belfast & Dublin, Paris, Arles, Gaudi/Barcelona, Calpe, the Alps, Beaune... it's a wonderful world. We benefited from last year's experiences, and became still more travel savvy. This year's notables:
Pretty savvy, huh?
David and Eileen