Thursday, December 22, 2011

Merry Christmas

Unfortunately, the photo has absolutely nothing to do with Christmas whatsoever but I can't think of a better time to post it. This is my family in August of 1995, in Livingston, Montana. They were all there to help Nancy and I construct our cabin. We're standing just inside of what would become the front door. You can see a couple courses of logs have been put in place and the window and door bucks (frames) stand upright and braced to the plywood floor.
In the front row are my sister Leslie (holding Rose), Nancy and then Andrew, my nephew. The next row is comprised of brother-in-law Darrell (holding Willie), niece Anna, niece Ellen and nephew Noah. In the next row are my brother-in-law Tony and my sister Amy. The last row is niece Sarah, her friend Chris, niece Kate and my sister Peggy. I'm sitting off on the right side with our faithful hound dog O'Malley between my feet.
That summer, we formed work parties to haul rocks, peel logs, pound nails, drill holes and generally have an all-around good time building a cabin. As I recall, almost all of them returned the next summer to frame walls, paint kitchen cabinets and window and door trim, pick up wood scraps, hang doors, clean windows and perform other thankless tasks. I hope they all had a good time.
This photo is one of the survivors. It, along with a bunch of other possessions, spent 2004 in a storage unit in Livingston while we were moving from one house to another. Over the summer, there was a huge rainstorm and water flooded under the storage unit door. One box of photos was sitting on the ground and soaked up a fair amount of water. Many prints and a few boxes of slides were damaged beyond repair. As luck would have it, thousands of unremarkable photos of unimportant events survived unscathed. But hundreds of pictures of the cabin building process and the slide show of our 1987 bike tour of Europe were lost. Bad luck.

So count your blessings and Merry Christmas everyone.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Home Again, Again

We made it home to Montrose without any major SNAFUs. My sister Peggy and husband Tony picked us up at the airport. No lost luggage, no miscues at the arranged pick up point, and the next day, no flat tires on the drive to Montrose. (We did wake up at 2:30 am with a case of jet lag, but we bravely fought through the initial feeling of energy and stayed in bed til 6 am.) Fergus met us that evening at my sister's house and he was very happy to see us, but of course, he's happy to see anyone. We had some nice wine and a fine American dinner of steak, green beans and the best sweet corn I've tasted in years. Thank you Peggy and Tony for the beds and comestibles and the airport service. Thank you Amy, Dan, Mimi and Max for taking care of our buddy Fergus.

We have no plans to return to France next summer (but we'll see) due to lack of funds. It has been quite a run for quite a while. France, Italy, Austria, Slovakia, Spain, Hungary and Mexico were experienced and enjoyed.

If we can think of anything to blog about in the near future, we will. Otherwise, expect nothing and you won't be disappointed.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Animated Barcelona

Two young guitarists were seated at the steps of the Catedral de Barcelona. Their street performance of classical and flamenco guitar resonated throughout the plaza. While we were sitting listening, the plaza was a stopping point for numerous Barcelona fat tire bike tours, the site of a small flea/antique market, and hundreds of photo-oppers capturing the Catedral.

On our ramble down Las Ramblas, Barcelona's famous boulevard for promenading, we encountered the shadier side of street performances---the shell game. Three little boxes, one with a pea hidden under it, and the then the sleight of hand game begins. I've read that some of these con artists will have 10 to 15 'assistants' working the audience with them, putting money down and pretending to lose. It boosts your confidence. You find yourself watching several games, following the little boxes, thinking "I can win at this." And that's what they are counting on. But you can't win. They encourage you to participate, but I didn't want to try, and that's when the con artist suggested I stop filming.


The top tourist attraction in Barcelona is the Familia Sagrada, the famous Gaudi cathedral that is still unfiished to this day. The first stone was laid in 1882 and shortly thereafter Gaudi himself took over the project. He died in a streetcar accident in 1926 and the beautiful building was nowhere close to being finished. It was undone when I first visited it in 1972 and has come along by leaps and starts, but is not finished yet. Perhaps in 2030, they say. One thing that has changed are the crowds. It stands to reason, Barcelona being one of the top tourist attractions in the world, and Familia Sagrada the top attraction in town, that it would be crowded. The combination of the scaffolding, the tour busses, the lines, the construction fence, the traffic makes it a very unsatisfying experience. I am perplexed as how to make a decent photograph of the place, although I'm sure a great photographer would find a way. I didn't.

The line to visit the interior stretched around the block to the opposite side of the building and it was 9 :30 in the morning. I couldn't find a place to stand without a tour bus or a traffic light in the foregroound.

The older portions of the Familia Sagrada have a darker patina compared to the new stone and you can easily see the newer construction. In reality, it's unfair to compare my recent visit with the visit in 1972, it being enveloped in a cloud of haze, but I don't remember the crowds or the scaffolding as being objectionable.

We wandered along the Las Ramblas where performance art was going on. This lady I first mistook for a sculpture, but her blinking eyes gave her away. I took her picture just as some comedians were putting the devil's horns over her head. I missed the photo by barely a second.

The immense and bustling Mercat de la Boqueria along the Las Ramblas had a fish stall and a dish of fresh octopus was sitting on the counter. I took this photograph for Madeleine, who was squeamish about eating snails a few weeks ago. What about eating this, Mimi? Does it set your tastebuds on fire?

Speaking of seafood, last night at dinner we went to a nearby Neapolitan restaurant. I ordered "pasta with fruits of the sea". I was expecting a plate of pasta with some clams, mussels and a shrimp or two. I recieved this fabulous surprise; delicious pasta with a flavorful sauce, two of the largest shrimp I've ever seen, clams, mussels and a whole crab. I have to confess, being a boy from the landlocked Rocky Mountains, I never learned how to eat crab unless it comes in a plastic package. It was a struggle and I'm sure most of the delicacies were still on the plate when the waiter took it away, but "OH MY" was it good.

The "fruits of the sea" almost made me forget that I had been pickpocketed the day before on the Metro. We were aware it is a serious problem in Barcelona, and I unloaded almost everything I could from my wallet and left it in Leran. I lost two credit cards, ten euros, my driver's license and a filthy fifteen year old wallet. In what I thought was a smart move, I had shifted my wallet from my back pocket to front pocket. I guess they were smarter. It's a small price to pay for the freedom of being able to walk around Barcelona knowing that there is nothing further they can take from me. While filling out the police report later that day, we talked with some Brits who had also been victimized by thieves. On their first day in Barcelona on a three-week vacation, their motor home was broken into and driven off. They lost not only their money and credit cards but inside the vehicle was their precious dog. I felt lucky.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Peleton July 17, 2011

Le Tour de France is over and the Aussies are well into celebrating the long-awaited victory of Cadel Evans. I thought I'd post this video of the peleton wizzing by just to give you a sense of the fleeting nature of Le Tour when watched from the roadside. On television, the camera pans the peleton and follows it along the road for miles at a time. There is a difference. Stage 15 started in Limoux on Sunday, July 17. By the time it reached St. Hilaire, 10 km away, a small breakaway pack of 5 had emerged. The peleton took less than 15 seconds to pass us. After all the support vehicles and gendarmes had also moved on, the crowd dispersed. "Is that all there is? Is it really over?" Amy questioned in disbelief. An hour+ driving there, an hour's wait for the publicity caravane, an hour's wait after the publicity caravane, then 15 seconds of peleton. Worth it? You bet. The real motivation was knowing that afterwards we were having lunch at Chez Marie's La Table Cathar in Fanjeaux---cassoulet et chevre chaud. Le Touring so works up an appetite.

At the Vide Grenier

Sorry the clip is so short. We're having trouble loading long video clips on the blog. However, this old-timer was playing at the vide grenier in Rabaute on Sunday. He was dressed in period costume; wooden sabot and woolen vest. If by some chance, you don't enjoy accordian music, don't worry; this clip is so short it is painless.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A Teaser

We've been busy tourists the last few days. Here's a brief list of our activities. Yesterday, the Pont du Gard, a long day trip.

The Chateau du Foix in Foix and the Caves in Niaux, the latter, where you can see 13,000 year old cave paintings and take no pictures.

We had a lovely dinner at the Abbe in Camon. I believe Madeleine is the photographer here.

And of course we've driven hundred of kilometers all over southwestern France and seen the stunning scenery. This is a field of sunflowers, or tournesols, just above Rivel, photo courtesy of Nancy. If we get some more time in the next few days, we'll post more on each of these places.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Now You See 'Em....Now You Don't

Here, I am today posting again. This post is done by Madeleine about Le Tour de France. The photo above is my family and a few of the others waiting and watching. The reason why we are dressed up in coats and many heavy layers is because the weather is quite cold and rainy, despite the fact that it is July 17th.

Our plan was to go to St. Hilaire, northeast of Limoux, but the gendarmes must have barricaded the road shortly before we arrived. How were we supposed to know that? So, of course we had to know if the gendarmes would somehow let us through. All of us couldn't go ask at once because the gendarmes were behind the barrier. So we sent out my mother to ask the gendarmes if we could get through the barrier to reach the road to get to St. Hilaire. My mother was told a swift and strict NO, no madam, c'est fin!!!

Here I am wearing an Etap Hotel hat that is basically the same as a Survivor "buff" (for the non-Yanks, Survivor is a reality TV show). The end is tied off into a knot. It is one of the many promotional items thrown out of the publicite caravans.

This funny vehicle is a promotional caravan that St. Michel, the company that manufactures madeleines (not your blog author). Madeleines are sugary, buttery and soft cookies that I think taste delicious. There were many amusing caravans like this one that went by at a rapid pace, throwing out items for the public's entertainment. The promotional vehicles came by about an hour before the actual riders of Le Tour de France wizzed by.

Here's my loot for which I had to compete with the two French ladies next to us (the Heineken coaster was already on the table). Except I had an advantage---anything that went into the ditch below us I could get to first.

Several hours after we arrived, four helicopters alerted us that Le Tour de France was finally coming. The breakaway pack flew by faster than lightning could strike. Two minutes and 15 seconds later the peleton flashed by. Thomas Voeckler, wearing the yellow jersey, is surrounded by his EuropeCar teammates. As of this time, he is the overall leader of Le Tour de France, and just happens to be French.

We were all so surprised about how fast Le Tour de France riders biked by. We were all wondering "Is it over? Is it over?!" When we truly realized that it was over, everybody almost simultaneously flooded out at the same time. If you look at this photo, you can see that everyone one is crawling towards their cars; but our car was aways away. After we got to our car and reached the motorway, we were able to wiz by like the bikers in Le Tour de France.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Madeleine's Guest Blog---Fun at the Marche Nocturne

Hi. I'm Madeleine. I am Uncle Doug and Aunt Nancy's niece staying here in the South of France in Leran. This is a picture of me in a sunflower field near Rivel, a village near Chalabre, on our way back from a visit to the Cathar castle of Peyrepertuse.This is at the Marche Nocturne in Leran on Friday evening. The Marche Nocturne is a market in the evening. This picture shows all the people eating their dinners at the Marche Nocturne. The tables everybody was eating at were all lined up down the street. The way you would get your food was you would choose one of the many restaurant/shops or vendors and place your order to get your meal and then take it to your table to eat.

I was walking around the Marche Nocturne and saw these very large cheeses through the glass. I thought I should take a picture of these very large cheeses to put on the blog. You normally don't see very large cheeses like these in the U.S.A. If you ever see very large cheeses like these, then defininitely, buy them and eat them.

I have never ever seen snails being cooked and I have never ever eaten snails and this will continue. Now my father recommended them to me but I did not at all want to even consider the snails as a meal. Perhaps as an unwanted visitor in the garden, but not on my dinner plate. I don't know about you though, maybe you might think of the snails as your most favorite food.

Here I am trying sheep's milk ice cream, you might think it sounds odd but actually the ice cream tastes quite yummy. Last night we met a fellow, a friend of Uncle Doug and Aunt Nancy's, named Julian. He took this picture, and he wanted to introduce me to this ice cream. The owner of the ice cream stand had very interesting and cool flavors of ice cream. Some of the ice cream flavors that he was selling were flavors like: rose petals, rum and raisin, mint and numerous others. I decided to go with the dark chocolate flavor but Julian strongly recommended rose petals. The sheep's milk ice cream was very delicious.

At about half past nine, a man started singing songs in French. When he started we figured that it was that time for Karaoke. At about ten o'clock in the evening my aunt and uncle left. My parents and I decided to stay a little bit longer (we stayed to about eleven). Even though we left at eleven at night the karaoke went on much longer (it went till about 1:00 in the morning). Just a little bit after my aunt and uncle left people started to karaoke, we actually heard some pretty wonderful singers. We had quite a bit of fun yesterday evening at the Marche Nocturne.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Birds of Prey at Peyrepertuse

We visited the Cathar stronghold of Peyreptertuse again, which we've posted about two or three times, and this time we were able to take in the Birds of Prey Exhibition. Above is the Caracara, native to Central and South America. They are part of the falcon family but not known to be exceptionally fast flyers, causing them a little trouble in the task of killing their prey, therefore, are often seen on carrion. This bird landed on Nancy's baseball capped head and she said if felt like a very strong set of fingers giving her a massage.

They group has one American Bald Eagle in their possession, named Chapin. It was born into captivity in the Netherlands so U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents need not worry about the legality. We were able to watch it fly a number of times, and due to the rather brisk winds, it seemed to take almost no effort to fly. It merely had to open it's wings and the wind would propel it into the sky. I can tell you it was a thrilling sight to see it soar down through the valley below, disapear, and suddenly reapear behind you at a great height, all the while seldom even flapping it's wings. And then it would gracefullybegin it's descent, legs outstretched, tailfeathers moving like a rudder to guide him to the waiting arm of his handler. There he would receive a reward of a raw chicken leg.

Above, you can see one of the two falcons landing on the arm of his handler.

And again, same thing, different handler. These falcons, perhaps because of the high winds and effortless nature of their flight, did not return as expected. You could see the concern on the faces and in the voices of the handlers. It was "C'est pas normal." They appeared when the eagle was flying, and did not reappear by the end of the show. The handlers indicated that they would just have to go and find them. It looked like to me that each bird had a GPS unit attached and would be able to be tracked down eventually.

Here is one of the falcons plucking a chicken leg out of the lure. We also saw an African vulture, native to Senegal. Seeing the birds made an interesting day even more exciting.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

An Afternoon Visit to the Andrieu Peyret Vinyards

My sister, brother in law, and niece arrived on the train in Toulouse last evening from Paris and today we started to show them the sights of our region. It was a cool, rainy morning so we slept in, and after lunch headed over to Limoux to the Andrieu vinyard for a tour. You can see the little town of Cepie in the distance and the merlot vinyards in the foreground. Andrieu Peyret makes blanquette (several varieties), Malpere, Pinot Noir Rose and Chardonnay.

Blanquette is the precursor to champagne and the ledgend says that Dom Perignon, he of great fame and wisdom, visited the region centuries ago and took the secret of sparkling wines to the Champagne region, where it became a worldwide success story. That may or may not be true, but the vintners around here swear by it, and I'll buy into the legend until I see proof otherwise.

This gentleman, Andrieu Peyret, is the owner of the vinyard and it has been in his family since the 1850's. In 1986 M. Peyret stopped selling his grapes to the winemakers in Limoux and began making his own wine. A bold and courageous move if you ask me. Here, he stands in front of his Moissac vines, which make up the bulk of blanquette.

The grounds of the vinyard were very picturesque and rustic. It is one of the smaller producers in the blanquette industy and all the functions are performed by three people, mom, pop and one employee (except during the harvest when they hire ten grape pickers). It is from January to March that they actually work the hardest, pruning and preparing the vines for the growing season. Monsieur himself works from sun-up to sun-down, seven days a week. His son is a teacher and the mayor of Cepie, and our interpreter, a rather hardworker himself. He declined to get involved in the business because of the long hours of hard work and I can't blame him.

Here are the grapes themselves, early on in the process. The grapes have only emerged 15 days previously and are not yet fat and juicy, bursting with ripeness.

This is the scale used to weigh the grapes before they go into the crusher. We marvelled at the rather ancient machine; it wasn't digital or electronic and it didn't plug in. But as Monsieur said, " Ca marche." It works.

Here, we're being shown the sediment in the bottle of wine. They store the wine, neck down in a bottle stand, and every day, Monsieur turns the bottle one quarter turn for 21 days. Later on, they extract the sediment in a process which we could not understand given the language problem, but I know other producers have frozen the neck of the bottle and pulled out the frozen sediment and recapped the bottle. Peyret uses some other method, and we saw the machine but failed to understand the process.

Some bottles are saved, at least one bottle for each production run, for each year and they are opened on occasion to check quality and how well they are aging. The rest of the bottles go off to market. About 80% of the blanquette produced around Limoux (the only place it is made) ends up in France and a few other countries. Almost none goes to the U.S.; I would be surprised if you can find very many American wine enthusiasts that know what blanquette is.

After checking out the production aspects of the operation, we retired to the tasting rooms where we sampled three types of blanquette and the other varieties, all very tasty and delicious wines. Monsieur Peyret, it was obvious, was a working stiff. He had dirt under his fingernails, hard callouses on his hands, sweat stains on his t-shirt and clearly did not expect us to show up for a tour today. This was not a slick operation like his nearby neighbor, Gayda wineries (the champion of corporate, highly capitalized vinters) . The buildings were in need of some maintenance, the grounds were in need of someone to pick a few weeds, and Monsieur Peyret could have used a fresh shirt. We've toured the Gayda vinyard several years ago and the contrast couldn't be more obvious. Corporate versus family, new versus old, stark versus friendly, groovy, gourmet restaurant versus nothing, and I could go on. Frankly, although I like the Gayda wines just fine, I'll vouch for the integrity and soul of Peyret's operation every day of the week.

Here's Mimi on the left, my sister Amy and Dan's daughter, with the Peyret's grandaughter, Chloe, and their ferocious dog with the gimpy leg outside the tasting room. We bought some lovely wines and took up some more of the proprietor's valuable time talking about wines and France, and the politics of city management and headed back home to Leran. Remember kids, click on 'em to enlarge 'em.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Cool Toy

This great toy was for sale at the Mirepoix market a while back. I'm sure you will enjoy seeing it in action, and the sound track is good as well.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Alhambra in Granada

Those of you who guessed Alhambra in Granada as the location of our last post, were absolutely right. We took a tour, something we rarely do, because we guessed (rightly, I might add) that we would need some interpretation of what we were seeing. I'm not going to give an involved history of Alhambra except to say that it was built by Moorish sultans who had invaded Spain in back in the ninth century. It's first role was as a fortress and then became more or less, a pleasure palace. It was a hot and tiring tour that lasted three and a half hours. Our guide filled us with information and led us all over the Alhambra site as well as the gardens called "Generalife". (Those of you who have an inkling of Spanish know it's not pronounced like it's spelled.)

For those of you who are wondering, the restrictions on entering the palace stipulated that no flash pictures could be taken, and you had to wear a backpack on your front side, not your back, so as not to inadvertently scrape the pack against the walls and pillars. Everyone seemed to ignore the flash photo rule, but you can see the dudes in the photo above did rearrange their packs.

Our guide pointed out that the Moors built the palace with no exterior decoration; all the ornate work is on the inside. She contrasted that with the later additions by "Christians" which had and ornate exterior and interiors which didn't hold a candle to their Moorish counterparts. Here the Moorish construction is on the left and the Christian construction on the right.

If I understood our guide correctly, this pool is where the sultan's wives and concubines bathed and relaxed. The sultan would look out from the window and point out to one of his castrated employees which woman he'd like as his bed partner for the evening.

During the tour, which was very long, but actually felt quite rushed due to the many things to see, it was very difficult to get a photo without other tourists in the foreground or background. There were other tours in other languages going on as well as free lancers, and independent private tour guides. I've forgotten the number on people who see Alhambra in a given year, but it was impressive.

Washington Irving, the American author is credited with bringing the dilapidated condition of the Alhambra to the world's attention with his book "Tales of the Alhambra". He apparently lived in the Alhambra for awhile in the room where this plaque now resides. I must admit, I knew Irving only as the author of "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow".

What you might imagine being carved stone is actually plaster cast from a wooden carving, placed on the walls and ceilings and painted beautiful colors, most of which are now gone. Nonetheless, it boggles the mind to imagine the amount of work which took place in Alhambra. Also, something tells me very few of the workers made the 'minimum wage'.

Unfortunately, our visit came at a time when the most remarkable of the items inside the Alhambra was under restoration. Here, there normally resides the twelve stone lions, each with a unique face, with a stone fountain perched on their backs. However, we were able to see pictures of the fountain, and the lions that were finished being restored.

The whole idea of a garden and pleasure palace in this hot dry portion of southern Spain is made possible by the waters from melting snows high in the Sierra Nevada just to the south, between Granada and the Costa del Sol. The Sierra Nevada is Europe's second highest mountain range, after the Alps. A system of aqueducts brings water to the Alhambra, and few places inside the palace are without it. Fountains and pools are everywhere.

The water was also used to grow ornamental plants and food as well, all inside the former fortress and safe from the rabble of the ordinary peasants in the village below.

The Spaniards finally managed to kick the Moorish sultans out of Spain, but not until 1492, the year Columbus sailed off to the west to get to the "East". Ferdinand and Isabella, you will recall, used a room in the Alhambra to meet with Columbus and grant him his ships and funds to make his voyage. What came next was a flood of Aztec and Inca gold to Spain, unspeakable crimes against the Native Americans, not to mention the expulsion of the remaining Muslims from Spain and then the Jews and the Inquisition. Oh, my! What a sordid history has Spain.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Away From Home

We've been away from home for the last week and perhaps, judging by the photo above, you can guess where we've been.  We'll be back in Leran tomorrow and will fill you in on all the details.  If you have some idea where this photo was taken, tell us in the comments.  Click on it to enlarge it and you will have lots of clues.  I'll give you one hint.  It's not in France.