Monday, July 10, 2017

Back to France! Day Four: To Andorra or Bust!

I read a novel in the early 90s about a bunch of quirky people who lived in Andorra. Since then, I have always wanted to go to Andorra, and last autumn, I finally got my chance! 
Church of Santa Coloma d'Andorra
Andorra was a long 3-hour drive (each way!) from where we were staying, but the drive through the pyrenees was breathtaking. The higher we climbed, the more quaint skiing villages (all mostly shut until winter) we drove through. We had all taken our passports along, hoping there would be boarder patrol so that we could get an Andorra stamp. Alas, after 2-1/2 hours we drove over the boarder and were in Andorra.  
Church of Santa Coloma d'Andorra
We all needed a rest stop and copied a tourist bus that pulled over to what looked like a rest stop. Well, low and behold, there was no loo - instead we found the Church of Santa Coloma, the oldest and most historic church in Andorra! 
Church of Santa Coloma d'Andorra
The nave was built in the 8th or 9th century (!!) The tower is a young pup, having been build in the 12th century. Sadly, the church was closed when we visited, but seeing it from the outside was well worth the stop. Too bad there wasn't a public loo, though...
View from the Church of Santa Coloma
Once we arrived in the capital of Andorra, called Andorra La Vella, we parked and immediately found a loo :-) Then a restaurant for lunch as they would soon be closing for siesta. I think we have a divining rod for locating expensive restaurants, and this day was no different. But it was Brook's birthday, so… 
Lunch at El Tall a Taula
The staff was terrific and quickly sat our table of eight in our own private room...
Decor at El Tall a Taula
with fancy chandeliers and everything.
These are the starters?!
The first starter came out with such pomp and circumstance, we were already tickled. And then…
Starters in ice sculptures
the ice sculptures started to arrive. Tuna tartar, ceviche and grilled pineapple, oh my!
Starters in ice sculptures
I can't remember what was in the dish above, but they tasted and looked phenomenal.
My fancy salmon
I ordered a simple salmon teriyaki, but what I received was far from simple. 
Hot stone beef 
Several folks ordered the flank steak that they cooked at the table on a hot stone. Cindy said it was the best beef she'd ever had, ever. 
My side of veggies
And my side of veg were very lightly battered in tempura, fried, and brought to me in a Cristal champagne box. All of the food was visually stunning and also delicious. 
Veggies came in a box of Cristal
We all ordered something different off of their dessert menu. They also arrived with different, edible artwork. What a fantastic meal! 
A medley of desserts
And then came the 'lemonaide' that was basically a vodka-spiked lemon slushie. After that, the coffee. It was the strongest coffee, I barely drank half of it, but its ramifications were entertaining. (More on that at the end of the post.)
Spiked lemon ices in a giant goblet of ice
We then basically rolled around Andorra La Vella for the next few hours window shopping and sight seeing. After the lunch we were all a bit disappointed in the city - rather modern, loads of high-end shops. However, we got to spend the day in Andorra, ain't nothin' wrong with that! :-) 
Views of Andorra la Vella
Views of Andorra la Vella
One of the coolest things was this original sculpture by Salvatore Dali in one of the marketplace patio areas. 
Original Salvador Dali sculpture
The drive home was rather comical. I was in the backseat, fueled by caffeine and spiked lemon slushie, joking the whole way home. Julie taught me some basic French and I used road signs as practice. Needless to say, we had to stop and take a picture of my favorite sign… you know, the one about watching out for the 'motards.' (I know, not politically correct, but I was cracking myself up!)
Watch out for motards! 

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Back to France! Day Three: Mirepoix

When researching the area near our week's rental home, we learned about a weekly 'not to be missed' market in the nearby city of Mirepoix. We were in need of more food by day three, so off we went to the Mirepoix marketplace. 
Mirepoix marketplace
The best way to describe the fab market is 'French hippy-dippy.' It had all sorts of food, incense, handmade textiles, arts and crafts, and locally produced wine all sold in the medieval town square of Mirepoix. 
Under medieval balcony 
The town square and its buildings were well over 500 years old, with much of the wood, carvings, and construction being unique and beautiful. The people at the marketplace were either friendlier and more patient with us Americans (compared to the Carcassonne marketplace from day one) or we had been in France long enough to acclimate to the people, language barrier, and customs. Either way, the people here were fantastic and their wares were also of the highest quality. 
Mirepoix marketplace
All of the sausages!!
We bought lots of food, including sausage. Bill bought a litre of cheap but good wine (in a reusable gasoline-style jug) and a vest (called a waistcoat in the UK), and I picked up a super-cute handmade dress. I probably also took a hundred photos of the fantastic architecture.
Gorgeous 15th century town hall building
15th Century market with apartments above
In the three photos below I try to show how each of the balcony's wooden beam's end in a carved figure or face. Each carving was unique, but had definitely weathered over time. How amazing they must have looked when freshly carved! 
Wooden beam ends (in shadow)
Up close photo of three wooden beam ends

Another view of several wooden beam ends.

I wasn't the only one taking photos of the amazing architecture! 
Photographer Dan (carrying his sausages)
Bill and Reg talking about their purchases. I think this was the stall where I found and purchased my French dress.
Discussing purchases
Someone's happy with their purchase!
I found another vest! 
One thing I absolutely love about France is that they pay attention to detail and enjoy beauty in the commonplace items. For example, here is a planter that includes an ongoing motif found throughout Mirepoix. 
Mirepoix planter
I also loved how, in Mirepoix, adjoining building looked so very similar yet so very different. 

I don't know if it's the same in France, but in England people used to be taxed on how much land their home/building occupied. This led many during the middle ages to build on a relatively small plot of land only to build the upper floors with a larger footprint. One of the many ways historically people have pulled a fast one on 'the man.' 
Mirepoix architecture
Ground floor smaller than the upper floors
I also loved the amazing brick work on some of the buildings. The photo below showcases a fab zig-zag pattern that we saw on a few different buildings. I think the building below had at one time been a warehouse or some such thing, given the upper-floor doors that would have been useful for loading/unloading wagons. 
Window with shutters on upper left, loading door on the upper right
One of the many crests seen in and around Mirepoix

We hung out at the market until all of the vendors starting shutting down. We ventured over to the city's cathedral, which was small, but very pretty. The cathedral's foundation was laid in 1298 but construction continued (off and on, due to wars, etc.) for the next six hundred (!!) years.   
Mirepoix Cathedral
Mirepoix cathedral 
The stained glass seemed to be fairly new (within the last hundred years, by my guess), but it sure caught the sun! 
Cathedral's stained glass
Reflection from the stained glass
If I remember correctly from reading the info panel inside the church, it boasts one of the largest (or maybe the largest?) gothic arches in all of Europe. All I know is that the arch was pretty darned impressive! 
Cathedral's gothic arch

Monday, July 3, 2017

Back to France! Day Two: Limoux

Our second full day in France was a Sunday. Not much was open, so we decided to go to a nearby town, Limoux, to see what we could see. 
Statue in Limoux town square
Alas, even in Limoux there wasn't much open. We strolled around the shuttered shops, the streets eerily devoid of people. We found one shop open, a wine shop, of course, where I found some wine from one of the wineries I had recently visited. 
Old door knocker in Limoux
Since the town was a bit of a bust, we walked over to the check out the 13th century bridge over the river Aude before popping into the church (we think it was a small cathedral) to have a look around.  
On bridge over river Aude
Limoux cathedral as seen from bridge
The church of St. Martin was open and we finally found where all of the people were located — in the church! The service was about to begin, so we took a brief look around and then had to skedaddle. Who knows how long mass would have taken once started, and we didn't want to get stuck inside or be rude and leave during the service. 
Inside Limoux cathedral
We struck out in the town and we struck out in the town's church, so we decided to drive ten more minutes down the road to see another historic site, Saint-Hilaire Abbey. The Benedictine abbey was founded in the 8th century and was later named for a Bishop of Carcassonne because (they think) his relics (bones) were kept there. 
St. Martin's Church cloisters
The abbey surrounds a beautiful, grassy cloisters that I can imagine being filled with contemplative monks back in the day. On the day we arrived, it was the site of a French low-level government gathering and picnic. We felt a bit odd walking around all of the schmoozing, so we didn't take a lot of photographs.  
Ornate ceiling
During the 13th century the clergy at the abbey were accused of heresy (being Cathars) and the monastery was demolished by Catholic crusaders against the Cathars. But the Catholic king eventually gave the clergy back their land eventually and things went back to normal. 
Creepy fresco inside church
It is said that the monks at this abbey were the first to create the sparkling white wine drink called Blanquette de Limoux that was later made famous in the French region called Champagne (or prosecco, cava, etc.). We all went to the cave where the first bubbly was fermented, but it was a very unimpressive, small, dirt cave that didn't lend itself to great photographs. Oh, well. 
Abbey chapel

Abbey Chapel
The big arty piece that they're proud of is the Sarcophagus carved by the an unknown sculptor from nearby Cabestany. The sarcophagus holds the relics of Saint Sernin and depicts men and animals in fine detail. The guy at the front desk upon entering the abbey talked a lot about this piece, but it was in broken english and none of us really understood what he told us. But, I took a picture, and there it is!  

Sarcophagus by Cabestany sculptor