Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Unknown Chateau of Belesta

Alan and Eileen had us hooked with one innocent sentence. "Have you been to the Chateau in Belesta?" they asked. We were dumbfounded. We knew nothing about a Chateau in Belesta. So, when they said we must go because we would understand everything about the renovations going on, we needed no more encouragement. As it turned out we knew nothing about the renovations. It was way beyond our realm of understanding. But that didn't diminish our enjoyment of the chateau.

Kate, Nancy and I went over to Allan and Eileen's one afternoon last week and we jumped in their car and drove over to Belesta. The two gentlemen who owned the place were home and were so gracious to show us around. Much was lost in translation as our listening skills in French are poor and his English was heavily accented. I often didn't know what language was being spoken. And as usual, his English was a hell of a lot better than my French. I won't be too specific, because it will probably be wrong. But here's the gist of the tour:

This chateau was given to the city of Belesta in 1924 by the former owners, the Delaballes. Apparently they could not maintain it. Nor could the city of Belesta. They sold it to the two gentlemen several years ago, for a song, with their promise that they would renovate it. And so they are renovating fools. Monsieur told us it was his fourth renovation of a chateau. We were impressed. When they bought the chateau, each room was basically a trash receptacle. Monsieur pulled aside a curtain and showed us a room with several decades, or perhaps centuries of trash. He said almost all the rooms were in that state when he took
possession of the chateau.

They are restoring the chateau with great care and whimsical taste. Above you can see the medieval kitchen. On the other wall was a monstrous fireplace that was, in the winter, the only warm place in the chateau. The monsieurs decided that it was too wonderful to keep to themselves and made it into a conservatory. The place was loaded with art that was for sale and it was done by a French artist named Constant who is still alive, and in Toulouse. There was some connection between le monsieur and Constant, but I didn't get what it was.

I love the medieval kitchen, the copper pots and pans and the 1950's social critic art all in the same picture. In questioning the monsieur, we found that there had been thousands of changes over the years. Some of the chateau dated from the 9th century and some of it was 12th, 16th and 19th. Monsieur didn't mention any murders, hangings, kings, queens or knights. Apparently nothing of any great historical importance happened here and the chateau will just exist in the footnotes of history, not the headlines.

One of the amazing features of the chateau is the uncovering of the medieval cobbled road with a gutter running down the center. It was apparently, at one time part of the stable. The cobbled road, when the monsieur's took over the chateau had about two feet of dirt and rubble over the top. They somehow knew the existence of the road, or stumbled upon the cobbles, but anyway they dug down and exposed the beautiful surface.

There was a beautiful view out the 19th century stairway window off toward the Pyrenees. The amazing thing is that you could wander around the Midi-Pyrenees and the Languedoc, two backwaters of France, for many years and not come upon something as personal as this chateau. You could wander around Belesta for years and never know it is there. I'm certain there are people in Belesta that have lived there for years who don't know of the existence of this chateau. It's hidden in plain sight, not far from the center of town, yet almost invisible behind a archway and a gate.

Junk and Funk in Montreal

I was anxious to head to the vide grenier in Montreal (and that's in the Aude, not Quebec) Sunday morning. It wasn't so much for the shopping, as I'm starting to see the same unsold objects being carted from one venue to the next, as Doug has so politely pointed out.

I was more curious what the Folklore Fete was all about. We had seen posters advertising the event as we drove back from Venice. Maybe I subconsciously imagined that Peter, Paul & Mary or Pete Seeger would be there.

No signs of the American folk legends, but a fascinating melange of colorful strolling musicians and lively dancers. Unfortunately for them, some of their costumes were heavy wool---"pure wool" as one fellow told us. Even though it was fairly cool and hardly humid (even by the scale developed by us desert rats), sweat was dribbling down their faces.

There were troupes from Latvia, Grenoble, somewhere around Lyon, and another unknown location. They wandered through the vide grenier, stopping often and breaking out into song and dance. Their playful routines delighted everyone, and the members of the troupes interacted with one another.

Some of the folks wore wooden shoes, others knee-high leather boots. Men in three-piece wool suits and knickers and tri-corner hats. Women balanced bizarre bonnet units on their heads. One gentleman looked like he was fresh from Scotland, and another just down from the highlands of Peru or Chile.

The performers played accordions, flutes, tamborines, and wind-up instruments I have never seen. I kept hoping for a bit of cossack dancing from the Latvians, but maybe I was making a wrong assumption. As we drove into Montreal, the Latvians had just ended a performance in front of the InterMarche grocery and were loading up into their bus enroute to the centre ville de Montreal.

It's not every day you can top a vide grenier with song, dance and colorful period costumes. And, I'm a sucker for costumes.

The Calm Between the Storms

We're resting up. The other day we got Kate off to the airport at Toulouse. She had a 7:30 am flight. It meant getting up very early and making the hour and a half drive to Blagnac to get her there an hour before the flight.

We're also resting up from our trip to Venice. It was hot, hot and hot. A long drive both ways so we need to rest up. We're also resting up from several weeks of solid tourist activities with my family. One night we had Tony, Peggy, Kate, Noah and Kari all fed and bed. A record for our short tenure in Leran. It was absolutely wonderful to see a whole bunch of my family here in Leran. Most enjoyable, but you know how it is when your family is with you. It's busy, busy, busy all the time.

And were resting up because in a few days the next group arrives, Jim and Vicki, friends from Moab will be here for a short week's stay. They have done all or part of a circumnavigation around Mont Blanc. We'll find out how it went in a few days. And as you can imagine, they are very energetic folks. Will they want to rest up from their long walk, or will they be ready to see all the sights? We don't know. But we'll be ready because we're resting up for it.

Bill and Kathy arrive in a few weeks and we've got to get rested up from Jim and Vicki's visit and get ready for their visit. Bill is an old high school and college friend of mine and I've known Kathy for almost as long. It will be really good to see them and show them around our neck of the woods. I think they will enjoy meeting all our friends in Leran, and I know Bill and I will spend a fair amount of money and time in Marek's bar. There are lots of restaurants to visit, markets to explore, wineries to see and new places to discover with them. So we've got to rest up.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Leaning Towers of Venice

This is the Campanile. The new one. The old one had lasted for centuries and one day collapsed with hardly any warning in 1902. The first tower had been standing there in Plaza San Marco since 1173 and was replaced with a tower exactly like the one you see above in the early 16th century. The casualty list for the collapse of the tower was the caretaker's cat. Later in our visit we went up this tower and stood in the four black windows that from this vantage point seem little more than halfway up the structure.
This is another tower nearby and I don't know it's name. But like many other towers built back in the old days, the unstable ground tends to compress on one side or the other. The leaning tower of Pisa is not so unusual as I once thought.

Here is a tower on the island of Burano, which is out in the Venetian Lagoon. It too has a decided lean. It seemed like there were plenty of towers in the Venice area and about half were leaning one way or another. The towers were built as lighthouses and places to observe shipping, friendly, enemy and commercial.

And here is something seldom seen. Saint Mark's with hardly a person in it. We got up fairly early by Venetian standards and were the first persons on the elevator up the Campanile. The nine o'clock bells were still ringing when we got up top nearly deafening us as we stepped out of the elevator. You can see the shadow of the tower stretching across Saint Mark's square. This shadow makes the tower look like it has a lean, but it is plumb.
The striking thing about this photo from the top of the Campanile is that it displays how vulnerable the islands in the lagoon are to high water. From this vantage point it looks like a decent high tide would swamp this little place, but you must remember that high tides in the Mediterranean are not as high as in the Atlantic and Pacific. You can also see a fraction of the water traffic on the end of the Grand Canal near San Marco. Barges, vaporettos, gondolas and private craft performing a water dance. And you decide. Does that tower in the distance have a lean as well?

Monday, July 20, 2009

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

We bought a three day pass when we got to Venice that allowed us to ride on the local transportation system. For three days no one checked our pass and we saw no one else get their pass checked. Our passes expired on our last full day there. So when we got up Sunday morning to head to the garage and reclaim our car for the trip back to Leran, we took a calculated risk. We boarded the vaporetto, the Venice verision of a floating bus, and we didn’t buy tickets. We were scamming the system. Getting a free ride. We were part of the problem, not the solution. But we thought on an early Sunday morning we could get away with it.

As we boarded, there was a young lady in a transport uniform heading for work. It turned out her work was checking for losers like us. At the next stop, two more checkers got on our vaporetto, and the three of them went to work. They picked as their first victim a lady standing next to Kate, and then Kate, and Nancy and me. The nameless lady survived. Her pass was good. Ours were not.

Our options were paying a fine and a tax on the fine amounting to 50 euro, or they would take our passport information and we’d be able to pay at the post office. Not on a Sunday, however. That would have been too easy. We left town with three tickets because we didn’t have enough cash to pay three fines. I argued with the fare busters that I had 100 euro and could pay if they didn’t give Kate a ticket, but to no avail. They were going to fine the American lawbreakers and no amount of arguing by Nancy and Kate would sway their resolve.

But now we don’t know if we’ll be denied entry to the US because of unpaid fines, or denied entry back to the European Union next year when we come back, or the mafioso will pay us a visit in Moab or where Kate lives in an unnamed American city.

I was angry, but I couldn’t really argue. And I was angry mostly at myself. We had gambled and lost. We could have bought tickets but we didn’t. We fought the law and the law won.

After we retrieved our car and got on the motorway to France, we stopped in central Italy to gas up. Nancy was driving and I got out of the passenger side. Nancy and Kate headed for toilets and drinks. Two gents in gas station attire offered to gas me up. Fill it up, I told them. They began to inquire in broken English about where I had gotten the car, was it a rental, where was I from? New York? No, Utah. Blah, blah, blah.

I pulled out my credit card to pay the 49.50 euro and the gents said no credit cards. How unusual, I thought, but I had my two fifty euro notes and so pulled one out and handed it to the gas jockey. Confusion ensued. I’d handed him a ten instead and so he gave it back. I pulled out the wallet again and gave him a fifty. I got my 50 centimes change and everybody was happy.

Back on the road again, I got to thinking, where did my other fifty euro note go? It was in my wallet on the vaporetto. I checked with Nancy and she confirmed she's seen two fifties in my wallet. Shit. Double shit. Snake shit. I was scammed. Why, those scoundrels.

They had sized me up as a tourist, then an American, and as a non-Italian speaker. I was the perfect mark. They refused the credit card, and in my momentary confusion, said cash only. Had I taken a moment to think I would have had alarm bells going off. I had pulled out a fifty and he pocketed it while the other guy occupied me with questions about the car, and where I was from. From somewhere, he produced a ten and I thought I’d make an honest mistake; I thought that they thought I was trying to scam them. Perfect. Had I protested right then and there in my non-existent Italian, it would have been two against one. I could not win even if I had realized the scam was taking place before my eyes.

As John Lennon said, “Instant karma’s gonna get ya.”

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Venice, A Sweltering Menace

I made a slight operational error upon arrival in Venice. In order to receive our keys to the apartment we were renting, I was to call the company when we parked our vehicle at the Pizzale Roma before boarding the vaporetto. I kept getting a recording saying something unintelligible to me. There was no Plan B in the works. Doug was already thinking I was scammed. We decided to go ahead and take the vap to Sant' Angelo, our stop, and try calling again. Kate and I went into a (thank the Lord in CAPITAL LETTERS air-conditioned hotel) and they graciously called the phone number. Whoops, I had been calling errroniously all along. They would be there in 20 minutes.

I was not just hot in Venice. It was hot, humid, dripping, sweaty, did I mention breath-gulping, energy-sucking HOT! Even the locals were fanning themselves. Our escort arrived, and we dutifully followed him at the risk of being left behind. The apartment was about 10 degrees cooler, but was out of the sun. That was a big plus.

For those of us Yanks not conditioned to cities with waterways as means of travel, we three must look pretty obvious tourist. But then, in a city where just about everyone else is a tourist, we probably don't stand out. I haven't heard so many American accents here since I left the States.
The most amazing thing to me is comparing this to my last trip to Italy, several years ago. What I remember thinking is that I was equally hopeless and helpless in Italian and French. Now, after a few days pittifully struggling along, I realize that I "can" communicate in France.

From buying our vaporetto passes to figuring out which boat to board; reading the city map and negotiating the bridges narrow passageways; asking directions to the only grocery store; and waiting three days to access internet---things are never what we expect. As a sign in one store advertised: "Open Sometime".

Murano, The Glass Island

In the oppressive heat, it was hard to imagine a job more undesirable than laboring in front of a forge all day, blowing glass. But on the island of Murano just a short boat ride from Venice (if you take the right vaporetto), glass-blowing is the industry. Rick Steeves claims you can walk into just about any of the shops and they will give you a free demo. Of course, it will be followed by a hard-sell sales pitch to buy, buy, buy. But, says Rick, you are under no obligation to fork out any money.

Kate and I discovered a flaw in Rick's assessment. We went into several shops and asked for their demos. They looked at us like we were freaks. "No", "broken", or a wait of several hours were the typical response. When we finally found a glimpse of a 'fornace' from outside, we were hopeful. We patiently waited in line until eventually we worked our way up to the front. At that point, however, the glass-blowers turned off the music, turned out the lights and yes, went to lunch.

Never ones to give up, we kept wandering aimlessly, and found ourselves in a rather expensive shop, CAM. The saleslady motioned us back into the courtyard, checked the fornaces which were empty and told us to wait 5 or 10 minutes. We started hearing voices, seeing movement, and suddenly things began to happen. The best part was that we had a private glass-blowing demonstration, just Kate and her Aunt Nancy.

A team of four artisans worked together, in what appeared to be a master, an apprentice and two assistants. They worked quickly with the malleable material, measuring with simple calipers to the precise dimensions. Their tools had textured edges for forming. The master showed us a photo of the chandelier that they were 'constructing', and we watched them blow several different globes.

Sweat was pouring down our foreheads from the heat of their forges, so I can only imagine how they felt. They would occasionally dip the steel rods in water to cool them off, and steam would rise in clouds.

As a little treat for their audience, one of the artisans presented us with a glass horse, probably one that wasn't good enough to sell. We thanked them generously and checked out the cost of the chandelier they were fabricating in the shop next door---a mere 3000 Euros!

The Venetian Storm

We had decided to have a nice dinner on the Grand Canal one night in Venice. We chose a ritzy hotel and walked over, noticing a cool breeze and a few clouds. We wandered though the hotel noticing the glitz and opulence. We girded our loins, as it were, for an expensive meal hoping we could afford something besides a salad. As we sat down for dinner this Club Med ship was heading out to sea with some gondolas in the foreground. It was a beautiful spot and a beautiful night.

We ordered wine and a bottle of water and sat looking out on the grand canal and the customs house.

Before long it began to rain lightly, and then heavily. Pretty soon it was a downpour and we were rejoicing the end of the long hot summer. A little after that, the skies opened up and a downpour became a deluge, and then hail. The Japanese lanterns were picked off one by one. The staff came out of the kitchen to watch the spectacle and hail stones were bouncing off the gondolas.
Nancy captured a hailstone in flight in this picture. Customers were picking up the hailstones and showing them to each other. The staff were shaking their heads in awe and Kate heard a waiter say he had never seen such weather in his whole life. Tables were moved away from the edge and we were splashed by stones and drops wherever we sat.
The visibility went from unlimited to a matter of 50 yards. All of a sudden we couldn't see across the Grand Canal. Boats disappeared, either under cover or into the mist.The Japanese lanterns flew about and ended up on the deck.
I have personally never seen bigger hailstones. Not golf ball size, but close to walnut size. We wondered if the canopy would make it through the storm.

Soon, all the lanterns were demolished and the storm cleared up for the evening. The hot spell was broken, at least for awhile. The visibility went back to unlimited and we went back to our meal. Please click on Nancy's pictures to elarge them.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Kate's Guest Blog

Ignoring the fact that this post could potentially damage the reputation of their highly regarded blog, Doug and Nancy have thrown caution to the wind and allowed me, their niece Kate, to write a guest blog.

This past Sunday we headed to Ax les Thermes to watch the 8th stage of the world famous Tour de France bicycle race. Doug and Nancy staked out a perfect location; a cute cafĂ© around the corner from a long descent from the Pyrenees. (We were secretly hoping for a crash so that we could see the bikers for more than the 2 seconds it takes for them to zoom by on their bikes.) After anxiously awaiting their arrival for roughly 3 hours, the first group of racers rounded the corner. The sound of clicking cameras and loud cheers rose up as blurs of color, some call them bikers, raced by. Several of the especially agile bikers cut through the cross walk to gain an extra half second on their competitors. A few more groups sprinted by and then before we knew it, a blue van with the clearly printed words FIN DE COURSE drove by, and even a novice of the French language like me understood, it was over. While it took a couple minutes before my heart rate returned to normal and my hands stopped shaking, it only took a couple seconds for me to ask, “Anybody get a shot of Lance?!”

We knew what we were looking for: black socks, black and yellow helmet, and a black and yellow bicycle. Nancy, Peggy and I carefully scanned our individual collections of pictures for the illustrious Lance Armstrong. After about an hour of searching Nancy was convinced that Lance “must have taken the day off.” However, with a reasonable amount of prodding from her over eager and somewhat obsessed niece, Nancy finally spotted him in one of her pictures- our one and only photo of The Lance Armstrong. Nancy not only captured Lance, but she managed to get a number of terrific action shots!

The day only got better when we returned home to Leran and found my cousin Noah and his girlfriend Kari had arrived. Noah must have known what sort of an appetite you can work up watching bicycling and already had a fantastic dinner planned. C’est parfait!

Monday, July 13, 2009

We Go Wine Tasting

We headed off in the direction of Limoux over the Razes, with no real itinerary decided other than to visit a winery and do some wine tasting. Several friends had offered suggestions, but not writing them down now presented some recall problems. So, we did what we knew best---wing it.

For some unknown reason, we drove in and out of Limoux, and headed out towards Fanjeaux. The roads around here are dotted with signs promoting numerous wineries. Leran to Limoux is maybe a 40 minute drive, but the landscape changes dramatically. You cross an invisible line, leaving the wheat/cattle/sunflower country and enter wine country. The microclimate that exists nurtures the growing of Blanquette, Malpere, Corbieres, Fitou, Cotes-du-Rouissillon, and Minervois just to name a few.
We chose not a glitzy sign, or well-marked road, but one with a good gut feel. Chateau-Saint-Roch. When we exited the car, we didn’t have a clue where to go or what to do. When we started out walking towards a building, the two people in the parking lot signaled us. It turned out one was the owner, Jacqueline and the other was the vineyard manager, Leo. The land has been in Jacqueline’s family for more than 400 years. It’s close to impossible for us Americans to fathom that. They have been making wine for maybe 50 to 100, depending upon our understanding of what she said. Leo started off the tour, using mainly hand signs and his wiry enthusiasm.

The “tasting room” consisted of a well-cluttered old wooden office desk and several glasses that we later determined might have been left over from the last attendees. Doug was the only one who pre-wiped his with his ever-ready bandanna. Leo grabbed a big rubber bucket as the dumping spittoon, and progressed us through their Savignon and Vignosier. To taste the Chardonnay, we climbed a steep staircase that none of us was thrilled about descending post-tasting. We noticed the wine casks were all stamped “American Oak”, and Jacqueline confirmed that French oak was too expensive.

No bright lights overhead, no bread to clear the palate, just the pure beauty of good wine. No gimics. I apologized to Jacqueline about not making an appointment and she said it wasn’t necessary. In fact, she said no one really ever stopped by. I’m sure we were all wondering how they could ever make money with that marketing strategy. We bought the three wines we tasted and added a Pinot Noir which didn’t disappoint either. These folks knew how to do it right.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

A Visit to Fonserannes Staircase

Canals were a invention that allowed one horse to pull a boat carrying thousands of tons, instead of hundreds in a wagon. These locks were built in the middle 1600's and were the engineering marvel of their time. Not much has changed. The lock gates are powered by electricity now instead of muscle power. Boats are pleasure boats, not cargo vessels, motorized now rather than being drawn by horses, but it follows the same path from the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. I think it is hard to look at the canal in any given place, and see the tranquil setting, the beautiful plane trees along the bank and boats slowly cruising the flat water and think of it as something remarkable. The amount of work and planning do not go unnoticed when you see these seven locks that have been in constant operation for 350 years or so and think of how primitive the world was at that time. Eventually, canals were supplanted by railroads but the canals and locks remain on the landscape.
The staircase itself stretches over 280 meters (918 feet), rises 21 meters (70 feet) and has seven locks. It has become a tourist attraction for the town of Beziers. People love to watch the boats going through the locks, and the water rising and falling, taking the boats up or down with it.

We struggled to find the locks with our computer generated instructions, but eventually found them just in time to see three boats enter the locks for their trip up to the top of the staircase. Luckily, we got an early start, because if we had missed these three boats negotiating the system, we would have had to wait a few hours to see some action. Nancy and I went through these locks on our canal trip in 2001. They can be intimidating if it happens that you haven't been through too many locks. But each lock is basically the same as the one before it and by the seventh lock, boaters generally have mastered it.

You get to watch people struggling with ropes, steering their boats in tight quarters, managing to deal with the powerful flow of the water, crews working together or against each other, boats crashing into the sides of the lock, and people from different nations trying to communicate with each other. All in all, it is a spectacle.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Lance Sighting in Ax-Les-Thermes

1-1/2 hour drive each way, 3 hour wait, lots of cafe au lait, coke, Roquefort Pizza, good conversation (talking about ideas not people or things), 45,000 rapid fire photos and 10 seconds of heart-stopping action. Whew! More to follow.....promise.