Sunday, September 25, 2016

Biert - French Pyrenees

While we were in Paris visiting Monica and Olivier (and seeing the Tour de France), they mentioned that they were going the following weekend to the Pyrenees to get their kids who were with the grandparents. From there, Olivier and the boys were going camping for a few days then they'd all spend time in Spain. Monica's not big on camping so it'd help them if she could go back to Barcelona with us to wait for the guys.

Diana's talked about Olivier's parents before and especially how I needed to meet his dad who's a big wine fan. Monica and Olivier invited us to meet them and, with Diana's brother in town, Monica needing a ride, having no real plans, and, of course, the promise of some great French wine, how could we say no? I reserved a car as soon as we got back to Barcelona.

During the week, I continued to check for cheaper car rentals and found one on Thursday night, which I booked immediately canceling the original reservation. I went to the rental place Friday afternoon but, when I got there, the agent asked me like three times for my name. I finally just gave her my identification but she couldn't find the reservation. Pulling up the email my heart sank when I realized that I had booked the new reservation with the website-default date a couple of months later. Argh!

The agent's reservation computer wasn't working so she needed me to book a car using my phone but the system showed nothing available. Panicking, I was finally able to find a car at another agency and went to get the car all the while Diana and her brother were waiting for me at home. Our original plan was to leave about 6 p.m. so that we could arrive around 10.30 p.m. We ended up leaving at 8.00 p.m. meaning we'd get to their folks house around 1 a.m. Oh well, no big deal. At least we were on our way.

The house is basically a farm house kinda' like Diana's parents' in Chiquinquira, which meant that finding it at 1.30 in the morning proved to be a challenge. A couple of U-turns at various houses (and waking up one poor family), we had finally arrived and headed straight to bed. It wasn't until the next morning when I went outside that I realized just how rural the "neighborhood" was. That's their house on the right:

After proper introductions all around, Oliver's mom made us breakfast Saturday morning. She included an assortment of breads she had bought at a shop in town along with some different homemade jams and the craziest rock-salt butter. It's exactly like it sounds, butter with big, crunchy rock salt throughout. Apparently, every family uses it. I. Was. Hooked. You know when you're making chocolate-chip cookies and you've mixed the brown sugar, white sugar, butter, and vanilla how you just can't resist sneaking a little of the mix before adding the eggs? Yeah, it's that good.

To work off the buttery goodness, we went for a nice looooong walk...

...all the while enjoying the scenery:

My only experience with the French side of the Pyrenees was a quick stop just across the Spanish border with Juan and Carol a couple of years ago. Biert, which is the closest town to their house, is basically a village a bit more than an hour or so past Andorra. In quite a few ways, the "tri-country" Pyrenees feels a bit like the mountains inland from San Diego and Los Angeles; good views, clean air, fairly dry, nearby snowboarding/skiing, and a good place for a weekend away. In the case of this trip, there's one major addition...French wine!

After our walk, it was time for food...again! This time the meal was a team effort with everyone helping out in some way. Olivier's dad lived up to his reputation by opening bottle after bottle of the good stuff. And, in classic French style, dessert was another bottle of wine and a big spread of cheeses from a local cheese shop.

Olivier's dad giving Diana and me an overview of the yumminess yet to come:

All of this relaxation and gluttony got the best of me and I crashed for the next hour or two. Diana woke me and said Olivier's sister would take us into to town so we could buy cheese at the shop where our dessert was from. Biert has all the requisite sites, a church, some cafes, a plaza, and a bunch of family-style shops including where we bought cheese:

Later that evening, it was even more wine, snacks, and conversation. I've mentioned this in other posts but I love, love, love hanging out talking story with groups with such diverse backgrounds and experiences.

A big thanks to Olivier's family for hosting us. You've all got a place to stay whenever you're in Barcelona. Hope to see you all again soon!

The drive home from France involved much less mystery but I think the key was that Monica was guiding. As a bonus, and consistent with our seize-the-moment planning, we even did a quick detour at Montserrat on the way home.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Tour de France In Paris!

Back when I lived in California, I watched the Tour de France every year. Often, I'd Tivo it (remember that?) and catch the highlights at like 3x speed. It's always been on that loose list of things I'd like to see in person one day.

Well sometime in late June, our friends in Paris said their kids would be with their grandparents and that we should come for a visit. When I noticed the dates coincided with the last day of the the Tour and, oh, that Diana's brother would be in town, I blurted out to Diana that we HAD TO GO! It took me about twenty seconds to buy airplane tickets once Diana confirmed with her brother that he was interested.

I decided that this would finally be the trip where I'd pack super light and actually use every single item in my bag. In the photo below you'll find every item (except my flipflops) that I'd have with me. One pair of shorts (that I wore on the plane), a plain T-shirt and undies for each day, my toiletries, camera charger (why can't I charge my camera with a my phone charger?), my lifeguard hat, and my backpack. That's it, super lightweight and I even had space for the jamon Iberico I picked up for our hosts!

Monica met us at the bus station and we headed into central Paris to walk around for the afternoon. Here we are about five minutes after arrival in front of Notre Dame:

Our first day in town was spent seeing the city center as Diana's brother, visiting from Colombia, had never been to France. We walked through the Marais (the Jewish quarter), had lunch in the Sorbonne (the Latin quarter), and then went to visit the Louvre, which is something I've never done.

First off, if you've never been there, it's MASSIVE! So big that I have no idea how actually big it really is. The plan was to stay for a few hours and see some of the important works like the (copy of the) statue of David and, of course, the Mona Lisa.

We passed by these two sculptures on the way into one of the museum's wings. They're sort of like before and after images. On the left, you can see the guy's holding (what looks like) a bottle of wine up to his head probably thinking to himself I probably should stop now and not drink the whole thing then, on the right, you see the same post-full-bottle guy pawing some chick and biting one of her nipples while she seems to be thinking oh great he's drunk again. I'm sure the artist intended some lesson here.

I had heard that the Mona Lisa was a bit of a let-down from more than one person so I didn't expect much. I figured that it'd be super crowded with selfie-taking masses and, on this, I wasn't disappointed. It was way better than I had expected and it was great to see something that's such a part of world culture. Oh, and about those other paintings in the room with the Mona Lisa? They could have been the most amazing works of art but, like the not-to-be-missed Casa Amatller next door to the Casa Batllo in Barcelona, they get NO love at all.

Apparently, in the entire Louvre, there are no (working) fountains. It was getting to the point where I would have drank from a random bottle in a trash can. The only choices you have are to pack in your own water, go all the way back to one of the shops in the lobby and pay like five euros per tiny bottle, or do what I ended up doing which was to drink from the faucet in one of the bathrooms. I get that this is a total first-world problem but, really, no water anywhere. So, take heed weary Louvre visitor, pack in water. It's a loooong journey through the desert!

Other than the Louvre desert, Paris really is one of the all-time-best cities. I'm not sure how it'd be to live there as I'd imagine, like London or San Francisco, it's best if you're a millionaire but some things you encounter really are very cool. On our way to meet up for dinner, we saw this orchestra playing in one of the metro stations. Talk about impressive public art/performances:

Another only-in-Paris item we saw was this public fountain located along one of the river walkways. Public fountains usually don't get much attention (although it'd be nice to have one in a certain museum) but this one offered not only 'regular' water but also sparkling water! At a public fountain on the street! Love it!

Dinner that evening was at the Boullon Chartier, which is a popular French restaurant complete with traditionally dressed waiters and typical cuisine. I opted for the steak tartar because, well, it seemed the French thing to do. Our group, which included some of Monica and Olivier's local friends had a great time sharing travel stories and more than a couple of bottles of nice French wine.

The three of us were on our own for day two so we decided to visit Versailles where I had also never been. Wow - talk about crazy! The serpentine line out front reminded me of our visit to the Vatican with Diana's parents a few years ago. I'd guess there were more than a thousand people waiting with us.

We spent maybe three hours visiting the impressively-detailed palace. I was telling Diana how it reminded me of the palaces (like Hohenschwangau and Ludwigsburg) we visited when we lived in Germany and she laughed at me (definitely not the first time!). Ah, yeah, she said, they were copying this one. Oh. Okay.

A note about visiting Versailles. A friend of mine said that we should stay to see the evening light and music show so booked tickets for both in advance. After spending the better part of the afternoon visiting the palace and surrounding (amazing) gardens, we hung out for a couple of hours in the park waiting for the gates to reopen (they kick you out around 5pm and reopen around 7 or so). When the time came, we went to the gate and...they said sorry, this is a daytime ticket, which is no good for the show. Argh! Well, it seems we're not the first to have this happen. Turns out the company that runs the show is completely different and it needs to be booked separately.

So, we bailed on paying an additional like 20-something euros each and went for dinner at the nearby Notre Dame (not the church) Market where there's a bunch of outdoor, cafe-style restaurants.

La Creperie. So very France!

And so came the big day! Sunday, the final day of the Tour de France when the peloton arrives for a mostly ceremonial run through the cobbled streets of Paris!

I had read that a good spot to see the action was, surprisingly, right out in front of the Louvre. I had my doubts but our group headed that way and arrived just as the parade was going by. The spectacle of floats, funny costumes, and freebies is every bit looked forward to I'd image in the same way that people watch the Super Bowl to see the commercials.

When we arrived there was still about an hour or so until the peloton would pass by and we were able to claim a spot opposite the museum right up against the railing. Woohoo! All the sudden a line of fast-moving cars with advertising on the side and bicycles on the roof went rushing by. Not more than 30 seconds later, the first rider went by. FAST! Like a rocket. Then, 20 seconds or so later, the peloton arrived! There's this year's winner, England's Chris Froome, in his yellow jersey (just above the photographer):

Diana was excited to see Colombia's Nairo Quintana who's been tearing it up and finished second this year. Not only is he from Colombia, he's from Boyaca, which is the state where Chiquinquira and Villa de Lleyva are and where Diana's parents are from. You can see Nairo with the blue jersey and yellow helmet just at the bottom left corner of the pyramid:

The disadvantage of our amazing viewing spot was that the peloton only passes once. We decided to head over to the other side of the Tuileries Gardens where the peloton disappears into the tunnel. The riders passed by twice in the short amount of time we hung out there. Actually, it's amazing how fast they go up to the Arc de Triomphe and back. I would guess it was like 10 minutes but it has to be more. They move so fast; that was probably the biggest surprise of the day.

From there, we walked over to another of the park's edges and watched the riders go by a couple of more times. After the final lap and it was clear Froome had won, we found a nice place to get a bottle of Champagne to celebrate. Oh, and one of the last surprises, they served those amazing peanut butter flavored (cheese) curls I love from when we lived in Germany!

Thanks to Monica and Olivier for hosting us at their new Paris place! Last time it was Istambul, Turkey. Like whereisdarrennow, I wonder where they'll end up next! Something I do know, if they do go somewhere new, we won't be far behind! :)

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Colombia 2016

We got back to Bogota after our trip to Cartagena and spent only one night before loading up the car with our stuff and Diana's mom and dad to go to Chiquinquira. If you're not familiar, this is the small town about a three-hour drive north of Bogota where Diana's parents are from and where they still have a small farm house and a some milk makers.

It had been about a year-and-a-half since my last trip and I was excited to be back. A few minutes after arriving, I wanted to see the family's donkey, Pepe, who sometimes acts like a big dog. Being that so long had passed, I figured he wouldn't remember me. Umm, I was wrong.

As I walked around the house, I saw him up on the hill. He took a quick break from eating and glanced my way and actually did a double take before running down towards me while making that donkey hee-haw sound. The family was a few steps behind and couldn't believe it. Apparently, this wasn't standard Pepe behavior; I was honored.

The view of Rancho Grande and its immense herd of cows as seen from Pepe's favorite hang out:

Pepe is now retired. Normally, on a farm, animals have a very short "retirement" (read: maybe one day), which, while I understand the cost and upkeep, especially for older animals, is still sad. Well, Diana's dad had decided that, because Pepe means so much to the family, he would get a nice long retirement instead. Thanks Juaco!

Happily hanging out with the farm's new pet "dog":

Pepe's pre-retirement job was to cart cans and other supplies at milking time. Diana's dad mentioned during a call a few months ago that he had hired Pepe's replacement. Breaking with family-donkey tradition, he contracted Lucero who, as you can see, is...a horse. Gasp!

Maybe it's farm life, or maybe being in Chiquinquira, but Lucero is every bit as mellow and friendly as cousin Pepe. It was funny to watch Pepe watching Lucero get tied up to the cart at milking time as if Pepe was thinking, "hey, that's my job" before turning back to his current position of watcher-of-all-things-going-on and maintainer-of-short-grass.

One of the things that's great about being out at the farm is how time changes. No longer are we controlled by the every-15-minute ringing of Barcelona church bells, but rather it's the twice-daily milkings. Other than that, nothing usually happens. Usually.

But we woke up one morning to some excitement. Diana's mom was on the phone yelling, which is HIGHLY unusual. It took me a minute or two but she was clearly upset and was "telling" whoever was unfortunate enough to be on the other end that they needed to immediately come out and resolve whatever was going on. Diana, still with pajamas on, was already putting on her farm boots so I did the same.

On the hillside above the house, not far from Pepe's hangout, we found the following scene. Apparently, one of the neighbors from the other side of the hill had contracted with someone to do some work with a digger on their property and, as they had come sometime overnight, the digger went off the side of the road. They already had it secured to another backhoe and were waiting on a large tow truck to arrive.

It took them much of the day to recover the digger and, by the time we went back later, they had repaired the road. For a place where basically nothing ever happens, it was a big deal.

After the excitement died down (and a nice lunch), I put my boots back on and went to visit the cows. While taking pictures, I noticed one of the cows seemed to be in a bit of distress. She was making usual noises so I went to see what was wrong.

As I got closer, it looked like she had a small blue bag stuck to her backside. Figuring maybe she had eaten some plastic or something, I moved in to see if I could help. When I was about three feet away, I could make out a cow nose and hoof inside the "bag". Being a city boy, it took a few seconds to process. Yes, this cow was having a baby! Right there and right then. In front of me!

It was amazing. And scary. Was she okay? Should I help? There's always a blanket and water in the movies. Should I get those? No, better to get Diana. She's smarter than me; she'll know. I yelled up to the house and Diana came running. We immediately told her parents and called her cousin and his wife who are the part-time caretakers and keepers of the cows.

We kept watch, both not really knowing what to do - oh well. Her cousin arrived about five minutes later just as the calf was almost fully out and just as it gained consciousness, an moment which, on its own, was quite a surprise. He tore the placenta and both mom and baby looked around.

The only thing faster than your baby growing up and heading off to university is the speed at which the calf managed to get up, wobble around a bit, and start nursing. Total time, maybe five minutes. Again, amazing.

Baby's first steps:

Postpartum photo with Diana's cousin, his wife, and some locals:

What excitement! Between that, a bunch of Colombian coffee, and a couple of Arepas Boyacenses, it was a day I won't soon forget. The next day, it was back to Bogota to spend my last few days in town with Diana's family.

Dual-birthday celebration for Diana's dad and nephew:

Diana's nephew asked me to take a photo of him and his grandfather (Diana's dad), which I did. The problem was that her dad's always wearing some sort of hat so his face was all dark in the first photo. I went to take his hat off and, for some random reason, turned it around like her nephew. The result is one of my favorite photos I've ever taken.

As we had been super busy, I mentioned to Diana on my last morning that I hadn't eaten a Bandeja Paisa the entire trip. She immediately set about rectifying this extreme oversight by organizing family lunch at a nearby place with excellent BP.

If you don't already know, Bandeja Paisa, which means basically 'country tray', is one of my favorite Colombian meals. It has all the important food groups including such delicacies as chicharron, sausage, beans, eggs, ground meat, avocados, and fried plantains. Can you say 'yummy, yummy, I'm gonna' put you in my tummy'?

Sadly, it was once again time to say goodbye to Colombia and Diana's family. Thanks to Diana's mom, dad, sister, brothers, nieces, nephews, cousins, aunts, uncles, donkeys, cows, horses, and everyone/thing else that made it (as always) a great trip. Nos vemos pronto!

A small side story for this trip. I flew Air France and my return flight from Paris to Barcelona was canceled due to one of France's regularly scheduled labor actions. As compensation, I got three 'extra' hours in CDG, and a bonus six-hour layover in Amsterdam, which I happily took advantage of.

A few euros and a half-an-hour later, I was eating real Belgian-style french fries for breakfast while overlooking canals. The only bummer was that I, unable to think after my red-eye, ordered ketchup instead of mayo ensuring everyone knew I was an American tourist. Ha! Not important, I was, ten hours after leaving Bogota, in Amsterdam on my way to Spain!