Bonne Année, mes amis, or perhaps more appropriately I should be wishing you a Fantastique Février!
I know...we’re already pushing into the second month of 2017, yet this is my first post of the new year. I’ve a host of good reasons why I’ve been so recalcitrant, but I’m putting them behind me and resolving to blog un petit more regularly!
We are still living in the convent in Pézenas, a charming little village in the South of France (check out my last post for details). We had a joyeux Noël, completely devoid of commercialization. It was a beautiful, sunny morning and we went for a bike ride that ended in the village square where locals were busy buying bread – oui, the French still need their fresh pain, even on Christmas Day. The sidewalk cafés were overflowing with people sipping espresso and visiting. The atmosphere was joyous and festive without a sign of tinsel and toys and tired, shopping-mall Santas.
Remember that epiphany in How the Grinch Stole Christmas, “What if Christmas...doesn’t come from a store. What if Christmas perhaps means a little bit more.” The Grinch must have spent the season in France. Here the focus is not on the frantic quest to buy things, but on enjoying food, family and friends. It was a refreshing change and I hope, like the Grinch, I can bring this lesson home with me!
For New Year’s, we were invited to celebrate with some new friends we met in a neighbouring town. But as the adage goes, the best laid plans...on December 29th the hot water tank in Ye Olde Convent blew! It was the worst time of the year for something like that to happen, particularly in France – where everyone takes their holidaying seriously!
We couldn’t shower and had no heat...so, to make a long story short, we said, “%#&@ it! We’re going on a road trip!" The next day, we headed to Girona, Spain - just across the border and only a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Pézenas. I love the intimacy of Europe - everything is so close.
We arrived in town looking forward with anticipation to tapas and sangria and then an early night. We completely forgot restaurants in Spain don’t open until about the time we’re ready for bed. It is a universal truth; Spaniards do everything later than Canadians – and even later than the French, which is saying something. The Spanish also speak l’espanol, which made my dear hubby’s heart happy. The second we hit the border, his halting français vanished like the hot water in our Pézenas convent home.
Girona is a lovely city and, while it brims with history, it still has a fun, contemporary vibe, with its funky outdoor cafés and boutiques housed behind vintage façades. It is ancient – at least several 1,000 years old - and was completely surrounded by walls. In the past, it was so regularly attacked it became known as the “City of a Thousand Sieges”. I think that may be a bit of an exaggeration, but nevertheless thanks to these walls, the gorgeous Gothic spires and Romanesque towers of medieval times survived.
The stone ramparts that once protected the city are still mainly intact and provide for a great wander. We did a walk-about and, for the entire circuitous route, we were in awe of the views of jumbled red-tiled roofs, walled gardens, narrow, cobbled streets and, in the distance, the spectacular Pyrénées. The River Onyar separates the Old City from the more modern one and colourful sun-washed ocher and rose houses line its banks , their rippling reflections adding to the magical ambiance!
Girona is also famous for its historic cathedral and Jewish Quarter (or Call). We did a Reader’s Digest tour of both, as I was with Don - whose patience for such things is limited. I was amazed I even got him inside the cathedral. It is so ginormous, it is quite formidable to explore.
New Year’s Eve morning, we happened upon the Saturday market while going for a run in a riverside city park. After spending so much time in France, the differences between the shopping habits of the French and Spanish were readily apparent to us. In France, the markets are more refined, their patrons more reserved and the focus – of course – is on food. The Spanish markets are chaos, with merchants loudly hawking their wares, customers grabbing at heaps of tangled merchandise, with clothing being the big seller. Prices are significantly less expensive in Spain, except for wine which is cheap in both countries.
On New Year’s Eve night (yes, night - again, we ate late), we gorged on a multiple course dinner accompanied with copious quantities of Spanish wine. We ended up in an animated, alcohol-fuelled discussion with a lovely couple at the next table who turned out to be from Barcelona and are now our friends on Facebook. Let the bells ring out and the banners fly, we somehow managed to stay up past midnight – but only due to the late start to the evening!
Feeling slightly under the weather, the next morning we headed towards the coast. En-route, we detoured to Besalú, an ancient, Catalan, walled town. It is known for its unusually angled 12th-century Romanesque bridge which, at its midpoint, has a stone gateway. We fortified ourselves with coffee there and I made my first resolution: to eat and drink more responsibly in the new year!
On the Costa Brava (the wild and rocky shoreline stretching from Barcelona to the French border), we stopped for lunch at the seaside town of Cadaques. The torturous drive over a mountain range to get there, was well worth the trip and if you haven’t been there, add it to your list!
The place was so dreamy, it attracted painters such as Magritte, Matisse, Picasso and Salvador Dali (who actually adopted it as his home). I guess the combination of beautiful light and the azure blue Mediterranean inspires great art. The whitewashed houses (oui...every single building is stark white - their design guidelines must be horrendous) add to the overall impact of the place.
From there, we continued to Collioure, an equally lovely village back across the border in France. That section of the coastal road is so steep and sinuous, by the time we arrived, we were both a bit off...or perhaps that woozy feeling was from the Spanish vino of the night before.
Collioure, could almost be considered a more colourful, French sister of Cadaques. It is nestled below Château Royal, a once mighty castle, and boats bob in the bay against the backdrop of pastel-coloured houses. We spent a peaceful night in a tiny boutique hotel there and, the next morning, walked from one end of Collioure to the other (it took no more than twenty minutes) and then we explored the gigantic Château, hiked up to the windmill and out on the promontory to the lighthouse.
I loved Collioure, but then I’m always partial to small villages in France. Don, a Hispanic at heart, still remained the biggest fan of the Spanish town of Cadaques.
En-route back to Pézenas, we detoured to the hugely atmospheric castle ruins in Cathar Country. The history of the Cathars (an ultra-devout religious sect) and their ultimate massacre in religious crusades is intriguing. In fact, I find it so compelling, it may even become the topic of my next blog post. Stay tuned, s'il vous plaît!
That’s all I’ve got for you, mes amis...except I’m happy to report all is cozy again at the convent – our hot water tank is fixed, our heat is back on, our showers are hot and the lovely French plumber is now our new best friend!
Until next time...