Remember how I was going to the shipyard in France for work, fly then to Istanbul to meet Elizabeth, enjoy the glories of Turkey, pick up a Seabourne ship and cruise to fabulous destinations throughout the Aegean ending in Athens where we were going to spend a magnificent few days absorbing culture?

Remember how I worked on these plans for months and how I was going to leave September 12th? Didn't work out, did it.

So then Elizabeth was NOT going to Turkey and anyway by the time flights were available the yard was grumbling for me to 'get to the meetings, and now would be good'.

Amazingly enough, for me anyway, without even an hour on the internet, without calling for days to get agent rates, without even a guide book I decided to stay in France, rent a car and visit the Pyrenees.

This is Le Castel Marie-Louise in La Baule, a very elegant resort town just down the road from the very less than elegant shipyard. Usually we stay in shipyard facilities and this time I got to stay in La Boule at the Marie-Louise. Things were looking up.
St Nazaire. Work.
I was dawdling around admiring this wonderful area and by the time I'd chosen the exact perfect place to stay - sorry, no space available. Not at the exact perfect place or the next place or the next or the next. It was dark and cold and there was No Space Available.

Everyone was very kind and sent me on to the next place hopeful, but no. Around 9pm one of those classic French Hoteliers, tall, exquisitely groomed, precisely correct yet so excruciatingly charming, this gentleman said he knew a place rather far away and not up to the standards I would be expecting, but was I willing to take it. Oh yes, merci.
Up Up Up I drove in the darkness through country that was getting darker and colder by the mile. When I found the little village called St Alvere, this was the place, lit up and warm and so welcoming. I drove to the door to make sure it was the right place and a sweet couple hurried out smiling and waving me in. By now it was maybe 11pm and what looked like the whole neighborhood had gathered here.

Hungry? asked the sweet woman. Oui. She set me a little table in the corner and the sweet man went into the clearly closed kitchen and a few minutes later came out with the most extraordinary food - an omelet like I never had before or since or could hope to again and fried potatoes and toast and jam. It was beyond a dream.

Then I went to sleep in this tidy but funky Funky room, bathroom down the hall, on a pre-WWI mattress and with linens from the sweet woman's grandmother's hope chest.
A friend arranged that I could meet the manager of one of the wineries, L'Union De Producteurs - St Emilion, and he would offer me a tour the next day. Little could I have imagined such a treat.

The every-tourist-has-one shot in St Emilion. This was my one and only accommodation snafu. Sorry, no space available!
Meet M. Patrick Foulon (the gentleman in the tie). This man created a day so grand you'd be bored of hearing about it before I was even half done. Here is my thank you note that felt poor beside the richness of the experience:

Dear Monsieur Foulon,

I am home now and want to take this first opportunity to express my most earnest appreciation for your generosity and kindness. Although I enjoyed many wonderful meals during my time in France our lunch together will live in my memory as the most unforgettable. The delicious menu and its complement of perfectly suited wines along with your interesting and delightful commentary made for an entirely perfect afternoon.

Thank you also for the tour of the village, of the vineyards, of the cellars and the extensive and informative wine tasting. There is no doubt that I was treated to the best tour in all of France!

The bottles of wine made it safely to LA. I will carefully choose with whom to share this special gift and I will then take the opportunity to repeat the story of my beautiful day in Saint Emilion.

Fond regards,

As evening came on so did rain. I was basically exhausted by the day's glories and decided to drive an hour or so and then to stop at the first agreeable looking auberge.

These women exemplify a common experience - you just stop and then you have three new best friends. The ladies were from Belgium. They had spent the last month sunning themselves in Portugal and that day drove through Portugal, through Spain and into France on their way to Belgium the next day. Between them they spoke a dozen languages and we chatted away the evening.

And oh yes, they were smuggling home a Lot of Portuguese wine. They had taken the wine directly from barrels and funneled it into big plastic water jugs. After dinner they poured this wine into water glasses and shared Freely.
Speaking of languages - I was now well into the Basque country and despite my rudimentary French and Spanish most of the time unless someone was speaking directly to me I could not recognize a word. I could not even recognize what language it was I was hearing!
It could have been Eskuara, the Basque language which is widely spoken (even aggressively spoken!) or Catalan or any of the other local dialects of French and Spanish, even some Castilian pronunciations on the Mediterranean side. Also there seemed so much sharing of vocabulary between these languages and English, German etc., I was mystified.

Based on shifts in intonation and audience I could hear the shopkeepers switch between languages as naturally as blinking. The people here didn't look like they had particularly big heads but their language-brains must have developed very early and Very Large.

This guy is pure definitive Basque.
Mushrooms that are in season for just a few weeks and during that time are the specialty at every restaurant. They cut them into chunks and then fry the chunks in a pan deep with sizzling butter. That's it. Perfection.
The last several shots, this one and the next are in towns along the Atlantic coast of the Pyrenees.

The windows and the market man are from Bayonne my favorite of the coast towns, this one and the next are in Biarritz, the ritziest of the seaside resorts.
That's me there in the mirror of the blind-turn. What one won't do for a picture...

I missed taking a shot in St Jean de Luz and San Sebastian because of rain and agitato. It was pouring by the time I hit St Jean de Luz and anyway I had planned to spend the night in the much praised Spanish town of San Sebastian so I decided to move along.

Ah! San Sebastian. Yes the architecture and street scene is memorable but Ah! there is a film festival and the place is mercilessly Packed so I decide to take another hour and drive on to Bilbao.
A big question before I got there and an easy answer after - is it worth the detour? Yes, it is worth the detour!

Everything you've read is true. The town is blue collar top to bottom. The museum is nestled there between the train tracks and the oil refinery. This powerful symbol of - of what? good question - anyway it is a powerful symbol and you are forced to consider the conflict inherent in so much money being put to such use - like seeing a poor town support a magnificent cathedral.

Inside it is as spellbinding as outside and if you get a chance and can daytrip in you won't be sorry.
So there's the industrial area housing the museum. Then there's the residential area that you end up in only by getting lost, and the commercial area with hotels, banks, etc.

I was even glad to spend the night. I stayed in this place and after two nights in auberge it was pretty darn exciting. A bathroom with a Shower! AND a Bath! and a minibar! and a Fireplace and a Sitting Room with Computer Connection to download my Pictures! Oh WOW!

This was my first night in Spain and I was impressed by the dressed-up formality of these workin' folk and, as I was through most of Spain, surprisingly unimpressed by the food.
Driving through the most Basque of the countryside, from Bilbao to Pamplona, I was recalling all the stories about the terrorism of Basque separatists.

I saw countless flags and signs touting Basque-ness, bars and clubs and restaurants in the same colors and signs. But for me I felt outsiders were considered beyond worry and welcomed warmly as the tradition of welcoming strangers requires.
I didn't really like any of my pictures from St Jean Pied de Port although the place was delightful. Too bad about the pix because now I don't have a story.

On to Lourdes.

My conclusion was this: although Rome is the intellectual and academic capital of Christendom, Lourdes is of-the-people and represents its spiritual heart.
I have traveled to many exotic places in my years and Lourdes is at least as exotic as any.

Pilgrims flood here to be healed. The air was literally electrified with desperate and passionate faith alongside the crassest of commercialism.

I lived for a day in an Ingmar Bergman movie.
Candles must be able to provide some deep spiritual satisfaction in people as their use seems so universally ceremonial.

The rap here is that you say a prayer and light a candle and as long as the candle burns your prayer is repeated, carried by the flame and smoke to God and if one prayer is good to get God’s attention, hey, more prayers are better. So why not buy as big a candle as you can afford?
The Cathedral at Lourdes.

In the haze of the lower right corner is the sacred healing spring and beside it are spigots where pilgrims wash their hands and fill containers (conveniently sold in the literally hundreds of souvenir shops that line the streets of Lourdes) to take water home to their loved ones.
Every day, twice a day, morning and evening thousands (!) of people line up for a procession around the gardens and through the huge complex ending in the area in front of the Cathedral. Loud speakers Everywhere blare organ music and songs in language after language.

The church organizes nuns and nurses for all who wish to come to Lourdes no matter what the condition of the patient. Everywhere I saw people in wheelchairs, on crutches, with oxygen and hospital drips, being attended by these volunteers.

France in general does not encourage a terribly multi-cultural environment but in Lourdes I saw people from every continent and of every shade and shape who all had such a similar reverential expression that I couldn't help but appreciate our common face.
I loved this town of Foix. It's a government town, like a state capital I think, with a very well preserved medieval center and plenty of good jobs.

You swing through a place for a night because it's convenient, not expecting much and then bam, a highlight. Maybe it's as simple as that of the 20 people I had dealings with, every single one of them was pleasant. I also think it is possible that a place itself can have good vibes and that makes the people pleasant. Or maybe I was feeling pleasant.

For whatever reason, Foix is a pleasant place to visit and a great kickoff point for Cave Man Country (Tarascon sur Ariege).
I must comment about dogs in France.

Say for example you are an aged woman and have tragically lost all those near and dear except for your one beloved grandchild who represents everything in the world that is good and beautiful and you want the world to know your joy and you speak to this child in cooing tones and in the restaurant you give her the best seat and save the tastiest bits from the roast for her delight.

That is how French people treat their dogs.
Standing on a viewing platform at the Grotte De Niaux. The above picture is looking into the valley, very characteristic of the Pyrenees and this picture is looking into the cave where 13,000 year old paintings are protected, totally intact.

They only allow 10 people at a time to enter and you must be with a tour. Each participant has a flashlight and that is the only light for the whole three hour walk. As I scrambled along trying bravely not to hold up the group by breaking my leg, the guide pointed out the basics of cave tours - stalactites, stalagmites, deep water pools, etc. until, long into the cave and without warning she raised her flashlight for our first glimpse of a cave painting. It really was breathtaking.

The group then played flashlight-follow-the-leader on many paintings in different rooms all with what I am sure are the most fascinating stories. I got most of what I learned from the brochure as the tour was conducted entirely in French.
This is an auberge, like a B&B except Mom and Pop often run the best restaurant in town - like the place in St Alvere for example. I didn't stay here but the look is typical of the area. I went in and said may I have lunch please. The only question they asked was red or white? and then food and wine appeared and I was happy.
At this point I could have gone to Andorra. It is a country after all.

And it was, literally, down the road a piece but everyone I talked to had the same comment. Going to Andorra is like driving in an hours long traffic jam so you can get to the mall for a frantic sale of second-rate goods.

I gave it a pass and went on to the college town of Gerona in Spain for my first two night stay.
Along the waterfront in Gerona. I liked this town in every respect.

The historic sections of all these medieval towns are, rather obviously, unmanageable by car. You park and walk. Even the best hotels usually cannot provide parking.

I won't tell another how-I-got-a-great-hotel story but in the end, there I was as the streets darkened, schlepping my bags from a parking garage from what felt like the suburbs back into town. And I started getting a strange and uncomfortable feeling. What's going on here? Ragged and disheveled youth were lounging in door ways while I sensed ominous sounds around every corner.

How unpleasant I thought, so I must be wrong, and took a more careful look. Oh yeah, what was I thinking. Students. Just a bunch of college kids hanging out to avoid studying. All of a sudden I could see clearly that this was a happin' little college town and I felt completely at home.
From street vendors here I had my best meal in Spain.

I got a soft fresh roll from the bakery man and then two slices of yummy sharp cheese from the cheese man and a couple of fresh figs from the fruit man. I jammed the cheese and figs into the roll and waited until the hot roll softened the sharp cheese and the fig juice soaked into the bread and then I ate it.

It cost less than a cup of Starbucks and was as satisfying as a grand meal.
The Cloisters. It was after this trip that I became obsessed with PhotoShop. Can ya tell?
Notice all the Judaica in the window. This town had one of the largest and most active Jewish communities during the Middle Ages. The buildings in that part of town are very well preserved and their history noted in the shops and restaurants that now occupy the space.
Driving now from Gerona, which is close to the Costa Brava, inland a bit through an area of the Pyrenees where volcanos were most recently active and that is now a huge state park. These next few lake pictures are from this area.
Volcanic lakes.
not uncommon - an ancient town hanging to the edge of a cliff.
This page looks like a series of PhotoShop Obsessions.

Here, I liked the colors and the shapes.
This was one of the first pictures I 'shopped' and it was a turning point in my relationship to photography. This line drawing was exactly what I felt when I clicked the shutter and after messing around on the computer, this-ing and that-ing for who knows how long, and then to get the look, well, with every new picture I tortured my colleagues at work for days! Look at this one Look at This one Look At This One.

No more standing for hours in stinky sweaty darkrooms! Make it how you like it!

Again another great town, Perpiganan.
Every day for a few hours, this was my view.

As to driving in France and Spain, at least along the Pyrenees, I couldn't recommend it more highly. The highways are perfect, fast, clean, safe, and the rest stops, particularly in France, are even more perfect. I can't imagine what it would take to make better rest stops. There are parks for a stroll and play yards for the kids, pristine bathrooms often with showers, decent food in the gas/food/lodging complex, everything.

The streets are also really no problem at all as soon as you learn the one little trick and now I will save you the trouble of having to learn it yourself.

Plan Ahead. You have to study the map very carefully and learn the names of all the little towns leading up to where you want to go and all the bigger towns after where you want to go. The reason is that there is a round-about with five or six or eight roads meeting at every major intersection with the cartoon classic number of signs pointing every which way and as you go around the exact name of your destination will NOT be one of the signs. Take my word for this and study the map.
Check out those curtains.
artsy schmartsy
this one I call 'NO Mommy NOOOooooo'.
This was the most complete medieval complex of all in the town of Carcassonne. The fortified part of the town was never destroyed, conquered but not destroyed. The Romans started building in 122 BC. You can look it all up...
A lot of the masonry has been repaired and all what you need for tourists like flushing toilets have been artfully added. Inside the walls are tourist shops, restaurants and some accommodation. Even though it is plenty touris-ta-fied still you won't want to miss it if you are nearby.
here kitty kitty. More digital magic.
The fortified part of Carcassonne from the road, grape vines in the foreground.
I decided to take a closer look at the city of Bordeaux and arrive on a weekend afternoon. I know it's tough getting in to the historical part of these towns but this was Ridiculous, driving around and around in circles totally frustrated by roadblocks at every turn. What's With This?

It was Car Free Sunday or some such thing and again I parked waaay out there.
Very French I thought.
The only No Smoking sign in all of France.

When you ask for a table in the non-smoking section of a restaurant they simply remove the ashtray - from YOUR table! Since there is no smoking on Air France flights they offer nicotine patches along with the beverage. A non-smoking hotel room? Forget about it. David Sedaris says he lives in France so he can smoke in peace.
Following are many shots of Le Monument aux Girondins et a la Republique with sections called for example Liberty Breaking the Chains and The Triumph of the Republic.
The parking lot outside my hotel available once Car Free Sunday was over.
I was connecting through Toulouse and spent my last night in a lovely old hotel on the main square.
The colors and variety of brick made Toulouse feel very warm and there were more bookstores per square foot than anywhere I have ever been.
Another color of brick.
My last shot was for Cynthia. French Bread.
Orley. Note the lines...
HomeEurope • France/Spain • '01 Oct: the Pyrenees, France and Spain

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