A Retreat for the Weary

Before he was a saint, Guilhem of Orange was a soldier. Born in the mid 9IMG_1386th century, he was cousin and confidante to Charlemagne. Renowned as a warrior, he fiercely defended the southern borders of the Frankish empire, battling Gascons, Basques and Moors, ultimately forcing these last to retreat to Barcelona. Then he retired.

Seeking peace and quiet after years of battle, Guilhem founded a Benedictine monastery in the remote Gellone valley in 806. For the next several centuries thIMG_1370e abbey thrived, drawing pilgrims with two reliquaries: one containing the remains of the abbey’s famous founder; the other, several small pieces of wood, said to be part of the cross on which Jesus was crucified and given to Guilhem by Charlemagne. Indeed, the abbey became an important way station alongIMG_1374 one of the European routes to the shrine of St. James in Compostella, Spain. By the middle of the 11th century, the monks at Gellone Abbaye, now renamed the Abbaye de St. Guilhem, in honor of its recently canonized founder, were wealthy enough to build a new church and cloister.

In succeeding centuries, however, the abbey declined, suffering first from neglect and then from desecrIMG_1344ation and pillaging. Abbots drawn from aristocratic families and named by the King, rather than elected by the monks themselves, allowed the  vitality of the monastery’s enterprises to dwindle. During the 16th century religious wars, militant Protestants pillaged the abbey and defaced or destroyed much of the sculpture. By the French revolution, only six monks remained; the monastery was dissolved aIMG_1335nd the buildings sold to a local stonemason, who carted off the stone for use in other buildings, peddling choice bits to wealthy clients. Eventually, parts of the abbey–columns, windows, statuary and more– woundIMG_1359 up scattered across Europe. Some even came to rest across the Atlantic; several  columns dating from around 1200, were purchased by a wealthy American collector. They’re now in New York’s Cloisters Museum.

Today, what’s left of the abbey and the starkly IMG_1349beautiful Romanesque church sit in the middle of a well-preserved medieval village, with a population of about 250. Some grapes and some olives are grown nearby, but the village survives mainly on tourism. IMG_1354 IMG_1346In the height of the season, in July and August, thousands of visitors will make their own pilgrimage to St.-Guilhem-le-Désert. On a beautiful, warm Sunday in mid-May, the number of tourists already equalled the number of residents.

It’s no wonder. The old soldier was clearly on to something. It’s an idyllic retreat.  The lush greenery and craggy peaks are a IMG_1387stuIMG_1357nning setting for the mellow old stone walls and tile roofs. Flowers bloom profusely in the sun. And everywhere there is the sound of running water—from the small riveIMG_1310r that runs by the town, providing a series  of picturesque  waterfalls, as well as from the numIMG_1392erous spigots and fountains –flowing with potable water — scattered around the town. Even underfoot, clear water runs, criss-crossing the village in a series of open gullies and stone-topped drains.

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Montpellier: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

After nearly four weeks here, it’s time to admit it. I don’t particularly care for Montpellier. I don’t wake up with a smile, eager for  some new adventure every day the way I did in Valencia. Somedays I haven’t really wanted to get up at all.

Perhaps it’s the mostly cloudy weather.  Or that this apartment is depressing. 61745_Home_Rent_House_Rental_Montpellier_France_Filename1_AppartementpanoramaWith its ancient ceiling beams, marble fireplace surround, monogrammed linen lamp shade and antique prints on the wall, it looked so charmingly French  in the online listing. And it is in many ways  a very typical old French city apartment: small, dark and smelling slightly of damp and mildew. What else would you expect from a building several centuries old with stone walls nearly a meter thick?

I knew the apartment was small—45 square meters (about 480 square feet) when I rented it. What I hadn’t realized is that there would be about 18 inches of space between the bed and the closet wall. And that only about half of the reasonably sized shower cubicle shown in the pictures is usable space. If you fail to draw the shower curtain which divides it in half or turn the shower on full blast, you turn the entire bathroom into a wading pool. And because it also has a nicely inclined floor, the deep end is near the door. Ask me how I know.

There are two nice-sized windows, which might, in theory, let in some reasonable sunlight. But the apartment is on the ground floor (admittedly a relief after schlepping up four flights of stairs in Valencia). So opening the curtains means youIMG_1250 can easily carry on a quiet conversation with the folks sitting at the café no more than 8 feet away, across the narrow street. In fact, the squeal made when you open the window shutters usually prompts most of the café’s patrons to turn and look. They nod hello and smile, and I adopt a rueful grimace and shrug an apology for the noise. At night, one draws closed the heavy wooden shutters and it’s pitch black inside the apartment. In fact, it’s still pitch black at midday the next day. If it weren’t for calls of nature, I might sleep right through from one evening to the next.

Though the apartment offers some theoretically nice modern conveniences, I am somewhat puzzled as to their operation and/or usefulness. The small bathroom, for example, has a large electric towel warmer rack. But getting up two hours before your morning shower to give it enough time to warm up rather dims the appeal of using it. Also, it’s located right next to the narrow 18-inch-wide opening to the shower, so I’ve got scorch marks on my arms from squeezing by.

And you’d  think the combination washer/dryer would be a great convenience. But after two hours of drying time, a small load of laundry is still very damp and requires hanging it on a rack in the kitchen overnight to reach a wearably dry state. (No lovely Spanish sun beating down on a window clothes line here.) The stainless steel hood over the ceramic range looks great, but the fan doesn’t seem to be connected to any exhaust vent. Glad I’m not frying any fish.

There’s no oven either—something I probably should have anticipated from all those International House Hunter episodes I’ve watched. This, I admit, doest bother me much. Why bake, when you can buy such good bread and luscious pastries, right down the street? Roasted chickens, too.

As for the city of Montpellier itself, the gray weather has done little to brighten the appeal of street after street of monochromatic limestone and shutters, by ordinance, painted a uniform cement color. Flower boxes, climbing vines and other greenery–so cheerfully prevalent in cities I’ve visited in Germany—are missing here. Many of the pedestrian-only streets in the old quarter are unattractively—and poorly–paved with asphalt, though some retain the original stone.

Still, the city does have some charms. Thanks to the zeal of religious reformers who tore down many neighborhood Catholic churches during the religious wars of the XVIth century, there are many open spaces scattered throughout the city–small plazas filled with open-air cafes. It’s often frustratingly slow to catch a server’s attention and order, but there’s also no rush to turn the table. Servers don’t hustle  you out once you’ve finished your meal or glass of wine. Indeed, they don’t seem to mind if you linger for hours over a single, long-since emptied glass. Meanwhile, there’s usually entertainment nearby–street performers of all ilks, including a New Orleans style band and a troupe of  swing dancers.

It’s a kick, too,  to step into the boutiques and restaurants nestled into the ground floors of Gothic mansions. Whether to spareIMG_0998 the expense of remodeling or to evoke some historic charm, many expose the original stone vaulting and heavy beams. Touching the carved arches around a 14th century door and the iron rings where peasants tied their donkeys when they came to town connects me to history in a very real way. My special guilty pleasure: Reimagining the scenes from my favorite historical novels.

I’m guessing that in centuries past, the dog poop that litters the streets and walkways was even worse and almost certainly accompanied by donkey and horse poop.  I’d forgotten what it was like to have to watch where you’re walking. Like the haze of cigarette smoke in restaurants, shit on U.S. sidewalks was common not so long ago. But Americans now take the absence of both for granted.

In the last few days, the weather has brightened; the sun is out, the skies are blue and daytime temperatures are toasty.That’s done a lot to improve my mood and help me remember  why I wanted to come here. But what’s probably done more is escaping the city. Montpellier and the surrounding area have a remarkably good and wonderfully cheap public transportation system. For one euro, I can take the tram to the far outskirts of the city. For one euro sixty,  I can take a regional bus to a variety of charming towns within an hour or two’s travel. Suffice it to say that I’m aiming for at least 5 day trips a week from now on. Today, I went to see an acre or two of irises in bloom. Tomorrow, there’s a goat cheese festival  that’s calling my name. .

Flowers and Fireworks, Las Fallas- Part II

I’ve already posted about two major parts of Valencia’s annual spring festival: the exuberant noise-making and the fabulous artistic creations of the fallas (giant sculptures) themselves. BIMG_0448ut there are other elements to impress visitors as well.

On March 17th and 18th, it seems like all 800,000 Valencians dress up in traditional native costumes and parade through the city streets.

The women and girls carry bouquets of red or white flowers, whiIMG_0456le some of the men wheel or carry huge floral arrangements. And by huge, I’m talking 6 or 7 feet wide and of a similar height.

Each neighborhood group winds its way to the Plaza of the Virgin, where the bouquets are used to form the robes of an enormous statue of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus. The first group enters the plaza at about 3 PM each day. The last doesn’t arrive until well after midnight.

IMG_0434 Just getting the flowers placed is a ballet. Each bouquet is handed off to a helper who piles them by the side of the giant wooden structure. From there another helper tosses the bouquets to someone else, standing on a narrow ledge bIMG_0452uilt into the statue 8 to 10 feet off the ground. That person tosses the flowers up to someone clinging to the wooden struts near the top of the statue. And he hands them to someone even higher up who wedges them into the structure, carefully following an elaborate red and white pattern that’s different each year.

Nearly all of these helpers are male, though a few young women, clad in traditional men’s short pants and embroidered vests could be spotted.  One young lady was having trouble tossing the bouquets high enough to reach her colleague, and I was heartened to find that the crowd was encouraging rather than disparaging. She eventually got the hang of it.

IMG_0454 Meanwhile, the huge arrangements are massed together to the side and in front of the adjacent Bishops’ Palace. By the time all the flowers are in place on the 18th, the blocks surrounding the plaza are perfumed with their scent.

Across town, crowds gather every night on the sides of the old riverbed that now forms a miles-long public park curving around the ancient part of the city. For four nights in a row, the city sets off a spectacular fireworks display. On day 1, it starts at a relatively reasonable hour of midnight. By day 4, the show doesn’t begin until 2AM. I’m not sure anyone sleeps at all during Las Fallas.

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The fireworks themselves aren’t much different than those in New York or Washington or Boston on the Fourth of July. There’s the usual assortment of sparkly golden spheres, silver showers and colorful bursts. What is different here is the number of fireworks theIMG_0341y set off at the same time. There are times when you can see only a blur of light, there are so many going off at once. The Spanish also seem to like to set off rows of rockets that streak color from the ground up—sometimes crisscrossing in mid air—while simultaneously huge blossoms appear overhead. It’s a wonderful sort of chaos.

And finally there’s the light displays in the Ruzafa neighborhood. Traditionally,   each neighborhood strings decorative lights across their narrow streets, marking their territory with a distinctive design. Most of them are qute pretty and quite tasteful. But the CaIMG_0483lle Cuba and Calle Sueco are really something. Remember that Danny DeVito movie about the guy whose Christmas lights could be seen from space? He had nothing on the Ruzafa guys.IMG_0493

From a 100 feet away, one display looked like some sort of neon cathedral, soaring into the sky. It wasn’t until I was practically underneath it, that I realized it wasn’t just a two-dimensional lighted outline. It was a block-long canopy of coordinated lights. That was amazing enough, but when they started blasting the music and the lights began a syncopated dance, the crowd roared. Me, too.

Le Supermarket

So how would you expect a French supermarket to differ from your average suburban Safeway?  Some of my expectations were right on the money. Others, not so much. The French cheese selection was pretty phenomenal–got that one right. Ditto, the wine department. The variety there dwarves the pretty meager selection of soft drinks–the reverse of what you’d find in a U.S. supermarket. IMG_0931 IMG_0932

IMG_0937 But the prominence of Red Bull?  That was unexpected, though maybe it shouldn’t have been. I didn’t realize that it was a European (Austrian) company. Slurping up sweet, super-caffeinated soft drinks seems so quintessentially American. IMG_0925

The French don’t have Americans’ mania for low-fat, low calorie versions of everything. Lots of yogurt, for example. But in that whole big dairy case, there were only two low-cal fruit-flavored versions. Plenty of “cane-sweetened” ones and lots of plain–aka.”natural”–yogurts-plus a smattering of Greek style yogurts. But no flavored Greek yogurts with low-cal sweeteners.  I miss my Chobani!

IMG_0922 It was surprisingly difficult to locate the milk in the store. That’s because the packaging in France makes it look like a cleaning product and it isn’t located anywhere near a refrigerated case. IMG_0929

Prepared entrees are more exotic  than in the U.S.   That “Lapin” in the lower corner…it’s rabbit.

IMG_0919 cropped And if you think Americans demand convenience, check this out: The French can buy their bread with the crusts already trimmed off! IMG_0934 cropped

And finally, the French are known for their design esthetic, right? But  neon-colored toilet paper? Really?

Of Saints and Shoes

Easter and Holy Week in the U. S. are pretty wan affairs these days. The Easter Egg Roll at the White House, a neighborhood or family egg hunt and perhaps dinner with the extended family. For many of us, the highlight is sneaking some jelly beans from our children’s candy filled baskets or perhaps nibbling the ears off their  chocolate bunnies. For my family, at least, it’s also pretty nonreligious. Not so, in Spain, predominantly Catholic, at least nominally. Intricately woven designs made of palms make their appearance on the Sunday before Easter and concerts, processions, special masses and all maIMG_0715nner of holy business fill the next seven days. In Valencia, the highlight of Santa Semaña is the procession on Saturday evening, when the men, women and children of scores of religious fraternities march through the ramshackle maritime district of El Cabanyal. There’s a sameness to much of the procession, which was not yet finished when I and fellow American visitors Gerry and Dennis called it quits after more than four hours. But the colorful costumes and exotic religious nature of the event easily holds the attention of someone like me, whose religious upbringing might best be described as half-hearted. As children, my siblings and I were trotted off to my mother’s Methodist church on most Sundays, but her enthusiasm for organizing and enforcing our attendance waned as we grew older, and my father’s lapsed Catholicism did nothing to bolster it. Most of what I know today about the Bible and early Christianity comes from movies and novels – entertaining but not entirely reliable sources. So I was glad to have Gerry, a graduate of a parochial school education and product of a dyed-in-the-wool Irish Catholic family, as my guide to the various Bibical characters and saints marching by us. IMG_0699 croppedSalome—yes, she of the seven veils—was easily recognizable and clearly the prize role for the neighborhood sexpot. Though the Biblical Salome would have been a teenager when she danced for her stepfather King Herod and demanded the death of John the Baptist in return, the Salomes we saw ranged in age from a prepubescent 10-year-old  to a siren well past the likely age of Salome’s mother. All, however, strutted their stuIMG_0705 croppedff imperiously, uniformly posing with hand on hip and a haughty sneer on their faces. The Herods, the legions of Roman soldiers and the occasional Jesus were also easy to identify. Ditto, the personage Gerry refers to as the BVM—Blessed Virgin Mary, for those of us who didIMG_0711 croppedn’t have the benefit of a nun-led education.. There seemed to be multiple incarnations of her—one with a crown of thorns and another who clearly took pride of place in each fraternity’s group: of marchers.This Mary wears black mourning clothes and a long veil, topped with a halo, a combination which  I can’t recall ever encountering in Methodist Sunday school classes. In fact, I don’t remember Methodists making much of Mary at all, except in her role in nativity scenes. IMG_0710 croppedA slew of other female characters paraded by, some carrying grapes and others dates, bread, wheat, bandages and a cloth, which sometimes had an image of Jesus on it. The one carrying this I assume was St. Veronica, whose claim to fame was wiping Jesus’s face as he struggled to carry the cross up ;Mount Calvary. How does someone with a severely deficient religious education know this? It once came up in a semi-drunken game of Dictionary in college. (Did you know that a veronica is a handkerchief?) IMG_0735Like any good parade, this one also included some beautiful floats, many covered with flowers.. Each fraternity carries or wheels what seems to be essentially a mobile shrine, often with a statue of Christ on the cross or the BVM or some other Easter-related holy body.  Some of the floats are especially pretty after nightfall, when dozens of votive lights twinkle on them. And then there are the hooded guys. Their outfits would look an awful lot like Ku Klux Klan robes and hoods if it weren’t for the vibrant colors of most of them: green and yellow, royal blue and white; red and purple, etc. In this case, they wear hoods not to terrorize or to escape responsibility for their actions butIMG_0707 to symbolize their belief that the acts of charity they perform should be anonymous. So what does all of this have to do with shoes, you may ask. Well, you see, Gerry and I noticed that all of those guys marching in their rainbow-hued robes had shoes—sandals, actually—that matched their robes. Purple sandals. Teal sandals. Gold sandals.  Orange sandals. Where do you suppose they get them, we wondered? The colors were far more likely to be found in women’s shoes, but they would hardly be large enough. Though Spanish men aren’t typically very big guys, their feet still seem to be considerably larger than your average ladies size 8 or 9–or even a 10 or 11, which are hard enough to find my big-footed female friends tell me. It wasn’t until a few days later that the shoe dropped for me–when I found out that Spain, particularly, the area around Valencia and south of it, in the Alicante region, is a major world shoe producer. Though in total output it’s dwarfed by China, Spain is the 6th largest exporter or shoes and the 7th largest in per-capita shoe consumption. (And, yes, Virginia, the U.S.is number one in per-capita consumption.) IMG_0766So, it’s probably pretty easy to get mauve-colored man sandals made. And lest any of you conclude that Spain can only produce espadrilles or colorful chunky sandals, let me remind you that American fashionistas (including, notably, Sex in the City character Carrie Bradshaw) adore the designs of Manolo Blahnik. Though his company is now American, Manolo is definitely Spanish and got his start designing for Spain’s very style-conscious females.

36 Hours in Barcelona

Barcelona is way too big and too crammed full of interesting stuff to spend just a day and a half there. Still, the long train trip from Valencia to Montpellier, France (my next home base) meant either getting up way too early in the morning for my taste or arriving too late in the evening for my landlady’s convenience. So, I broke the trip with a short stop along the Mediterranean coast in Barcelona. IMG_1134I had dinner with friends visiting from the U.S., toured Antoni Gaudi’s as-yet unfinished masterpiece, the Sagrada Familia, walked for miles and took a sightseeing tour bus for an overview.

Forthwith: Some random observations, which I’m  looking forward to confirming or refuting in a future visit.

1). Motorcycles are to Barcelona what bicycles are to Amsterdam.  Well, there may not be quite as many, but it sure feels like it!. They run the gamut from big powerful hogs to cute little Vespas, with a smattering of those speedy and colorful Japanese bikes that look like they should be ridden by mutant Ninja turtles or some kind of spiky-haired anime character with a bandana around hiIMG_1126s or her head. Oh, and skateboarders abound, too!

2) The food is great. Terrific tapas. Fabulous fish and fresh fruit. And wonderful wines, of course. And sometimes, it’s  very colorful, too!

3) It’s a truly lovely city, with the high green spaces of Mont Juic, the wide streets of Eixample, the yachts and sailboats IMG_1140at the port and gorgeous architecture everywhere. One small thing I noticed: in much of the city, the corners where streets intersect are clipped off, creating wider, diamond-shaped spaces, and buildings located there usually have a diagonal face looking out on to the intersection. It makes for much lighter living spaces and wider vistas, I’m sure, and it gives the city a more open lighter feel than the density of the population would suggest.

4.) As for Gaudi and the Sagrada Familia? I’m not usually a fan of more outré  architecture, preferring the quiet grace of Gothic arches and classical columns. . (Yes, I know, they were all probably originallIMG_0905y painted, but I love the natural stone.)  In the case of GaIMG_0898udi, however, all I can say is OMG. Just OMG.

Barcelona, I’ll be back!

Las Fallas — Part I

It’s impossible to decide which aspect of Valencia’s city-wide festival is the most impressive: the explosive volume of the Mascletàs; the controlled chaos of the nightly pyrotechnical fireworks; the 800 or so elaborate IMG_0489monuments, some nearly 100-feet tall; the neighborhood light displays; or the thousands of traditionally clad men, women and children who march to the Plaza of the Virgen to offer flowers, used to decorate a 45-foot wooden statute. Add in the food—giant pans of paella in makeshift sidewalk cafes, churro stands, sausages sizzling over hot fires and more—and well, it just can’t be compared to anything in the U.S.To even come close, you have to imagine New Orleans Mardi Gras crowds and parades combined with the family atmosphere, IMG_0283 croppednoise and pyrotechnics of IMG_0287 croppedthe Fourth of July, plus over-the-top Christmas decorations and the religious pageantry of Easter. Then picture it all pumped up on steroids—for four days.

Though the details are lost in the murky history of the Middle Ages, the origins of the festival seIMG_0365em to be secular, overlaid with a significant veneer from the Catholic Church. Centuries before electric lights   lengthened the short winter days, Valencian carpenters and other artisans constructed parots, wooden supports for lanterns to allow them to work later into the day. When spring brought more IMG_0307daylight hours, they gave their workshops a thorough cleaning and burned the parots, along with any broken artifacts, leftover pieces of wood and other detritus from the winter. Over time, the night of the bonfires became a sort of celebration of spring, and children would go from house to house begging for any discarded items to add to the piles. By the mid 1700s, las Fallas had become a regular municipal event. Somewhere along the way, the tradition of the spring burnings was co-opted by the church and the datIMG_0439 croppede became fixed as March 19, the day of St. Joseph, patron saint of carpenters.

According to my trusty (and incidentally quite swoon worthy) Valencian guide to the most noteworthy Las Fallas monuments, the tradition of using the discarded parots to poke fun at fellow Valencianos is centuries old as well. Because the contraption looked rather like a pointing scarecrow, the townspeople began to dress them up, often adding features that identified them as a particular person. By the 16th IMG_0292_croppedand 17th centuries, if it was known, for example, that the butcher was having an affair with the baker’s wife, the parot was likely to bear more than a passing resemblance to the meat-cutter, with a heavy dusting of flour. Gradually the costumed parots evolved into tableaus of giant figures, typically surrounded by smaller ninots, or dolls.

The monuments wereIMG_0386 originally made of cardboard, paper mache and wax; in recent years, they are constructed of light weight lumber, moldable cork and polystyrene. Each of Valencia’s neighborhoods erects at least one fallas, and typically two—the main one and a smaller one for children, called the infantil. (WalkinIMG_0355 croppedg around, it sometimes seems there is a giant lurking around every corner; there are nearly 400 fallas in the city itself.)

Neighborhood associations work on their fallas all year-round, raising money to build them, hiring the artists who design and make them and helping to erect them. An estimated one million tourists flood the city for the celebration (more than doubling its regular population) and the event as a whole is big business. In recent years, an estimated 750 million euros a year is poured into the monuments, the fireworks, hotels and restaurants, transit, security, flowers, music and other costs.

Each neighborhood fallas has a theme and nearly all use the opportunity to issue stinging commentary on public affairs and to mock loIMG_0372 croppedcal, national and even international public figures.This year’s winning fallas (yes, this is a fiercely competitive exercise) espoused the idea that “everything is play-acting”, and the ninots surrounding a 100-foot-tall dancing couple included IMG_0375_croppedStalin, Hitler, de Gaulle, Kim Jong-il and other departed world leaders, dancing and drinking, suggesting that they weren’t really dead, but living it up in Benidorm, a popular Spanish resort town. Fidel Castro waited nearby to join them when his time came. The country’s major newspapers were  represIMG_0361_supercroppedented as fun-house mirrors, distorting the facts they reported. Even President Obama and global security interests got a ribbing.

Other themes: A future in which everything, including sex is pictured quite differently–look closely at this amorous couple!. (Indeed many of the monuments feature some pretty racy figures.) Also, the inevitability of change. And of course, what the Spanish simply refer to as “Le crisis“.

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The fallas are judged on creativity, skill and wit. But there are other criterion as well. Complex engineering is expected, for example, with cantilevered figures, mimicking the original parots’ cantilevered arms. Most importantly, they must be IMG_0303made entirely of flammable materials, because on the last night, the Nit de Cremá, a string of fireworks inside the monument is ignited and the structure is burned IMG_0512to the ground. The last to go are the winner for the year and the monument on the Plaza de la Ayuntamiento, the city’s main square. This year, it was an  enormous lion–beautiful both whole and when burning. By morning, all was cleaned up; not even the ashes remained.