Monday, April 30, 2012


We had spent the morning and afternoon in Barcelona, at Park Güell, so our arrival in the French coastal town of Sète took place after sunset. We arrived from the northeast (a quicker route than the smaller roads connecting from the southwest), passing through industrial areas, shipping and train yards. In the darkness we saw groups of younger men hanging out under the streetlights, and I wondered out loud if I had made a mistake in scheduling our homeward bound trip through Sète. We checked into our hotel which was completely normal, but upon exiting for dinner the eerie feeling returned as the streets were deserted, the storefronts dark and our stomachs empty.

Both restaurants I had taken note of in the Michelin Guide had since publication closed their doors, so we quickly abandoned the vacant Grande Rue Mario Rouston for the supposedly more touristy Quai Général Durand and picked one of the almost empty seafood restaurants facing the water. The food was good, the return to the hotel furtive, and the thought that we might shorten our stay front most in our minds.

The view from Mont St-Clair to the north over the Thau lagoon

Sète is at the foot and climbing the slopes of  Mont St-Clair, a 541 foot limestone outcrop on the edge of the Thau lagoon. It was once an island, and today is linked to the mainland by two narrow sand spits, the one to the east we had come in on and the other to the southwest that stretches along the Plage de la Corniche, a 7.5 mile long sandy beach and conservation area. There are several canals cutting through the town and the old harbor, Vieux port, which is still used as a port for fishing boats and yachts. The town had caught our attention due to the famous joustes nautiques that take place on the day of St. Louis in August. I found it hard to believe that it was a Thursday during the holidays and the town was deserted.

The next morning we woke, enjoyed the breakfast buffet at the hotel and ventured out to see if first impressions would be corrected. Daylight made an enormous difference. The streets were filled with people - tourists shopping and strolling, fisherman having returned from the sea, locals with a coffee and paper. It was a different town than we had entered the previous night.

A fantastic octopus and fountain in a square on our hike

We set out for a hike up to Mont St-Clair, which is named after a saint who was venerated there sometime in the middle Ages. Once covered by pine forests and oaks, the hill is now swathed with summer houses and high, solid fences. I wouldn’t recommend this steep climb to others; take your car instead. Lacking pedestrian paths and utilizing roads with cars whizzing by around sharp curves, the way up has some nice views but isn’t worth the risk. However the view from the top made the whole stop in Sète worth it! From the esplanade with the large cross that is lit up every night there was a superb view of the town, the Thau lagoon and the coast. (The Bassin de Thau covers 19,768 acres and is the largest lagoon on the Languedoc coast. It is separated from the sea by the isthmus of Onglous, the beach to the south. The east shore is a busy industrial complex and the north shore villages specialize in oyster and mussel farming.) We could see the Pyrenees to the southwest and the Alpilles to the east!

On our hike down I was ready to jump a fence to get to this pool

On our descent we stopped at the museum dedicated to Paul Valéry, poet and singer-songwriter born in Sète. While Roberts explored the museum I took advantage of an extremely rare occurrence – both boys were asleep! I parked Lauris in the shade, transferred Mikus from the bjorn to a lounge chair, ordered a café and relaxed with a view of the sea, the town and the cemetery.

The final resting place of Valéry and Jean Vilar, the cliff top cemetery stretches across the side of the hill facing the sparkling Mediterranean with a sea of crosses. We stopped there too before continuing back down to the quay.

Lauris spotted a little tourist train making its way through town, and so we found the tourist office to find out where to hop aboard. The tourist center was helpful with brochures and information, as well as bins of toys Lauris could play with while we organized ourselves. Then, with tickets in hand, we set out on a little train ride around town, informing us of the history and landmarks of Sète.

The town developed in the 17th century, although the harbor, rail lines and maritime canal were developed in the 19th. Today the port ships bulk goods, passengers and containers to North and West Africa, South America, the French Caribbean and Australia. We were already familiar with Quai Général Durand, and after the little train ride we saw Quai de la Marine (but we missed the 3:30pm electronic auction or criée électronique!).

And finally, a stop at the park so that Lauris could expend some of that energy before dinner. As the sun was sinking in the sky, we noticed that the crowds of people were disappearing. Although nowhere as empty as the previous night, on Friday night the phenomenon was repeated; we once again felt very isolated after dark. There is a marked difference between daylight Sète and nighttime Sète.

The following morning we had only two destinations in mind. The first, Parc panoramique des Pierres Blanches, which is located at the top of Mont St-Clair (although this time we took the car). From a viewing table there is a wide view over the west end of the Thau lagoon, the lower Hérault plains, the sea and the beach, our second destination.

Free parking and an empty beach, what more can I ask for? While Lauris and Roberts chased the waves, my hunt for sea glass was on with Mikus dozing in the shade of our umbrella. It was with sand in our hair and salt on our feet that we packed up the car for the last time to head home.

"I walk the line"

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The people of Barcelona

Playing boule in the park next to Sagrada Familia

From all the cities in Europe I have visited, Barcelona is my favorite.

Texting "Honey, will you come pick me up? I found the pair of shoes I was looking for"

There are quite a few famous reasons, like Gaudí, but I base my choice on other grounds as well: the tapas, the historic Catedral, the flamboyant Ramblas, the green spaces, la Boquería, the magnificent architecture, the ocean… the people!

"You missed one"

I am already formulating my list for returning. I wish to stop on Costa Brava on my return trip to Barcelona, witness a sardana dance, eat more tapas, enjoy the nightlife, visit Museu Picasso, see the “Magic” fountains, hit the beach…

Just another day, clocking off the construction site... at Sagrada Familia

There are the places in this world that have a magnetism that draw me back again and again. To that list I add Barcelona.

Santa Maria del Mar square

Tuesday, April 24, 2012


Even after a Gaudí day on our first day in Barcelona, there was still so much to do and see. It seemed overwhelming looking at the map, so instead of intensive scheduling we just headed south from our hotel towards Plaça de Catalunya with the thought to see what we could see. A hub that divides old and new Barcelona, four famous boulevards radiate out from the plaza; la Rambla, Passeig de Gràcia, Rambla de Catalunya and Avinguda Portal de l’Angel. We had spent some time on Passeig de Gràcia the previous day, as La Pedrera and Casa Batlló are both located on this boulevard, and so after a stop to harass the pigeons and bask in the sunshine we headed down Avinguda Portal de l’Angel. Named after the angel that crowned the gate in the medieval wall that once encircled the old town, it is today a pedestrian-only street that leads to the Cathedral.

On Plaça de Catalunya

A 14th century Gothic construction, supposedly the Catedral was where the Native Americans Christopher Columbus brought to Spain were baptized. Weekly Catalan sardana dances occur in front of the cathedral, and the geese run the show in the cloisters.

The Catedral, note: Roberts is not the one in the Michael Jackson jacket

We cut across to la Rambla to find la Boquería, a produce market bursting with fragrant fresh fruit, strung up legs of ham, olive selections I couldn’t believe, fruit juice stands, little one-counter cafés, curtains of colorful peppers, spices with unpronounceable names, baskets of eggs all sizes and colors, fish and lobsters and crabs galore. More strawberries in our stomachs and fresh fruit juice in hand, we emerged back out onto la Rambla to find Plaça Reial.

A booth in la Boquería

Neoclassical buildings surround the square which is lined with cafés and outdoor seating. We found a spot for lunch and watched the show; it seemed the street artists/panhandlers had some sort of unwritten schedule; they rotated around the plaza, completed their act and then asked for money at all the nearby tables, but they rotated clockwise around the plaza stopping at almost identical locations. While we were seated an acrobatic group, an accordionist, a juggler (on stairs) and perhaps a few others performed, keeping Lauris well entertained.

All smiles in Plaça Reial

La Rambla is something else. One block with flower stands, one with newsstands, one with live animals, interspersed with tourist shops, tapas joints and benches, there is a never-ending parade of characters passing by. Keep your children close and your wallets closer (as advised everywhere in Barcelona), enjoy a coffee or a beer, ignore the continuous din from the men selling noisemakers, and stroll on south to the seafront.

La Rambla

Within Port Vell is a shopping center, aquarium, IMAX cinema, and a shopping center. We walked out past the Columbus monument (where Ferdinand and Isabel welcomed Columbus home after his first trip to America) onto La Rambla del Mar, a wooden pedestrian bridge linking the mall and other attractions, and enjoyed the people-watching. Once back on dry land we headed into the La Ribera district.

I travel light...

The centerpiece of La Ribera is Santa Maria del Mar, a Catalan Gothic church that took only 55 years to build. To the south is the monument to the September 11, 1714 massacre of Catalans by the Bourbon king: an eternal flame burns at the site of the mass burial.

Santa Maria del Mar

We still had some energy left, and so we headed northeast to the 70 acre Parc de la Ciutadella. Built by Philip V to control Barcelona, the citadel was demolished in 1868 and replaced by gardens. It hosted the 1888 World Fair and today is home to the Barcelona zoo and Parliament of Catalonia. I fell in love with the waterfall; designed by Josep Fontserè, it has a touch of Gaudí who was a student at the time.

Parc de la Ciutadella

We thoroughly enjoyed the various playgrounds, took a ride on the giant stone mammoth, and spent a relaxing couple of hours wandering the numerous pathways.

See, I told you there was a mammoth!

Our route home took us back out to la Rambla and through Plaça de Catalunya, which in the setting sun took on a completely different hue. And for dinner, what else than tapas at a tiny little corner restaurant? Twelve little dishes capped off with a dessert that left us feeling sated and happy, wishing for another week to explore the city further! However, after a trip to Parc Güell the next morning it was the start of our journey home, with a stop in coastal Séte…

MJK on La Rambla

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Election day in France

It's Election Day here in France! The first round takes place today, as the French elections are a two-round system. If one candidate doesn't receive absolute majority in the first round, a second round is then held with only two of the candidates from the first (the two to receive the highest percentage of the vote). If necessary, the second round will be held May 6th.

For a quick overview of the nine candidates the incumbent, Nicolas Sarkozy, is running against, I found the wikipedia entry for the 2012 elections to be informative. Although we are sitting this election out, I wish all my friends here in Clermont-Ferrand happy voting.

The mairie in Park MontJoly, in Chamalières

On a different note, Happy Earth day! The weather has started to once more warm up after a cold spell despite several April showers, and we've enjoyed enough sun to head to the park a couple of times this week. It is hard not to be in a bright, sunny mood when the tulips are blooming, the cherry trees afire, and that light green associated with spring evident everywhere. Before we know it summer wil be here!

Friday, April 20, 2012

A Gaudí day

We left Andorra right after breakfast in order to have enough daylight left to jump right into Barcelona. We succeeded; the roads were relatively clear, the children relatively quiet, and the navigator relatively reliable on how to get there. After a harrowing descent into the bowels of the hotel to park our car, we skipped unpacking to head right out for our first taste of modernisme, the Catalan version of art nouveau. In the early 20th century Barcelona was transformed by this movement, and this influence is most visible in L’Eixample, the grid-plan district that was developed from the 1870s on, in which our hotel was located.

The most famous modernisme architect was Antoni Gaudí, whose family originally came from somewhere in the Auvergne, our neck of the woods. You can read more about his life and architecture here and here, but in my opinion the key is integration of ceramics, stained glass, wrought iron and woodwork into his structures, in addition to the recurring themes of religion and nature. Our first glimpse was Casa Milà (La Pedrera), with its ice-cream eaves. The building was finished in 1912 and is now on the UNESCO World Heritage list along with his other works in Barcelona. Steel structure and curtain walls enforce the façade (which is self-supporting), and an underground parking area and separate lifts and stairs for the owners and their servants were pioneer features in architecture of this type.

We were still blocks away from our next destination when we could already see the construction cranes and towers of Barcelona’s landmark Sagrada Família. Gaudi spent the last years of his life working on the church, and even now, 100 years later, the church has yet to be finished. The construction is funded exclusively by private donations and entry fees, and I found estimates of date of finish starting with 2020.

Completed, the church will have 18 spires: a dozen 330 ft spires representing the apostles will stand in groups of four and mark the three entry facades. Four taller towers dedicated to the Evangelists will surround the two tallest central towers: a 400 ft tower of Mary and a 550 ft Jesus tower. Circling the building will be an exterior ambulatory, and the recently finished Passion façade will chronicle the life of Christ along with the Nativity (only façade Gaudí lived to see finished) and Glory facades. Gaudí lived on site for more than a decade, and is buried in the crypt which is visible from windows within the church.

The interior was like no other church that I’ve seen before – in place of a hushed, severe, dark atmosphere was light, curves… beauty. I can’t find the words to describe it, you must visit it yourself.

A quick train ride and we emerged near Casa Batlló. Gaudí based the work on the legend of St. George and the dragon, conveyed with skull-like balconies and a dragon-back roof. Gaudí introduced several new techniques in the treatment of materials in his architecture, and one example is trencadís, which utilizes waste ceramic pieces. The façade is covered with mosaics utilizing this technique.

We spent two nights in Barcelona, and I’ll jump ahead to our final morning because we hopped aboard the #24 bus to Park Güell, the 30 acre garden that was supposed to be a 60-residence gated community. My favorite feature of the park was the mosaics, possibly best represented by the dragon fountain near the entrance of the park, but visible throughout with the largest-scale being on the grand terrace.

The focal point of the park, a long mosaic bench in the form of a sea serpent surrounds a plaza that has a great view over the city. Rumor has it that to design the curvature of the bench surface Gaudí used the shape of buttocks left by a naked workman sitting in wet clay. True or not, what is a fact is that he designed a water system in which rain that falls on the plaza flows into and through the columns of the “market” and power the park’s fountains. (The market is a forest of columns with an undulating mosaic canopy under which the communities produce market would have been staged, and a good example of Gaudí’s incorporation of nature into his work, just like in the arcade of columns that imitates a surfer’s “perfect wave.”)

And here we had reasons 1 through 7 why Barcelona is my favorite European city to date, #1-4 being the four Gaudí works, #5 being the ease of public transportation, #6 being the grid plan (with the blocks of houses with trimmed corners forming octagonal squares at all intersections) and #7 the buttock bench in Park Güell. More reasons to follow as the second day in Barcelona was spent on the Ramblas and in the Gothic quarter, Barri Gòtic.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012


Andorra has more than 2000 shops. That’s more than one for every 40 inhabitants. Does this have anything to do with the world’s highest life expectancy of 83.5 years? Or is it the skiing in resorts that have invested way more than €100 million in high-speed lifts, car parks, snow-making machines and groomers, hotels and restaurants?

This mini-country is only 468 square km but has some of the most dramatic scenery in the Pyrenees, and we were on our way to the capital of Andorra la Vella after a stop in Carcassonne, France
. Famous for skiing, shopping and smuggling, all three were immediately obvious upon crossing the north border. A long line of cars waited to pass through the French border control, and an even longer line of cars was parked on the sides of the road leading out of Pas de la Casa, the first shopping opportunity sans the high French taxes levied on goods by the neighbor to the north. The setting of all this drama was a single road leading up through the town, past perfectly white skiing runs to what seemed like the end of the world. We were surrounded on walls of white on all sides and the road continued on until the very cusp of this whiteness, with nothing visible beyond except blue sky.

Having reached the highest point on the largest road leading through the country the scenery changed, as we could see the road continuing on down into the valley, curving its way down along with the Valira d’Orient river. We passed a dozen little villages, and it was then I understood what our Lonely Planet guidebook had been hinting at when it warned that “greed and uncontrolled development risk spoiling the valleys.” The sparse villages were filled with giant cranes, brand new stores lined the sides of the roads and the few old farm buildings that remained were abandoned and probably slated for demolishment.

Having arrived at Andorra la Vella we checked into our hotel, discovered that the locals speak even more quickly than in France, and then went for a walk down the main shopping street. There were four main types of stores: clothing, jewelry, electronics and pharmacies. We made our first purchase, a car charger for my iPad (which was/will be used very often to help the almost-two year old survive these road trips) and discovered that the electronics stores sell a lot knock-offs. Most of the jewelry and clothing stores had their own security guards manning the door, and there was an obvious police presence enforcing parking regulations, directing traffic and helping tourists.

The prices are lower than in France (and Spain, I’m told), mostly due to the lack of all sales tax. However, when compared to the US, the prices still seemed on the expensive side. Roberts quickly started converting liters to gallons and euros to dollars to calculate a universal index – the price of expensive scotch and medium-range vodka. His conclusion was similar to mine, the prices were lower than in France, but not low enough to justify gas money to make a run. (Speaking of gas money, gas was significantly cheap for Europe, but the gas station we stopped at was bizarre. There were about twenty lanes curving in and out of a giant warehouse with pumps. Although there were attendants, Roberts had to get out of the car while the tank was getting filled, and they accepted only cash.)

The next morning we saw the Barri Antic (historic quarter) which was all there was of Andorra la Vella until after World War II. The architecture was beautiful, wood and stone interwoven for a dramatic final effect. This theme often carried over into the modern construction, and combined with large windows the housing looked airy, light and comfortable.

We spent quite some time at the rooftop Plaça del Poble, a gathering place with cafes, basketball courts, children’s playgrounds and plenty of views of the valley. Shortly before leaving we finally found Parc Central, which would probably have been our primary destination if we had known about it earlier. Tourist money at work, the beautiful park had dozens of jungle gyms, swing sets, slides and other playground equipment, along with little ponds, ducks, and everything else a two-year old could wish for (except the “choo-choo” we have in our Clermont-Ferrand park).

Although we did take a look in several stores, most of our shopping was done at the grocery store. We found food to also be priced lower than in France, especially fruit, chocolate and sweets, my three favorite food groups. We must have eaten a few kilos of the strawberries from Spain over the course of our trip; I believe the most fragrant and full of taste berries never make it to the shelves in our supermarket. In Clermont-Ferrand the French strawberries are known for their flavor, but the luscious giants we had on our trip could provide decent competition to the home-grown variety. Before heading on south to Barcelona, we stocked up on chocolate as I found coffee flavored bars and regular M&Ms which are scarce at home.

Verdict? Although I am happy to cross Andorra off my world travel list, I didn’t care much for the shopping opportunities. We decided that our next visit would be for Roberts to go skiing while I enjoy the lagoons, hot tubs and thermal spring saunas at Europe’s largest spa complex, La Caldea.

The brochure - "forget about everything!"
A few more facts about Andorra... The population in 2010 was 84,864. Citizens do not pay any direct taxes or engage in military service. Postal services are free, and most land is communally owned. The traditional livelihood was from stock rearing and crop cultivation until the first roads linking Andorra with the outside world were opened, in 1913 on the Spanish side and in 1931 on the French side.

Monday, April 16, 2012

The fortified city of Carcassonne

Near the upper limit of time Mikus and Lauris will spend in a car in one day (4.5 hours) from Clermont-Ferrand is Carcassonne. We chose the city as the first stop on our spring vacation tour due to this reason as well as its intriguing claim to the title of largest fortified city in France. Founded by the Visigoths in the fifth century, it was abandoned and left to decay until 1853 when it was thoroughly restored and eventually added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites in 1997.

The Cité consists of a fortified nucleus (the Château Comtal) with a double curtain wall. The outer ramparts with their 14 towers are separated by the inner ramparts and their 24 towers by the outer bailey, or lices. I found the view from the outside to be most impressive, and although the incredible detail within the city walls was astounding, the city itself was heavily tourist-oriented. Actors in supposed period costumes staged swordfights in squares surrounded by cafes serving overpriced sandwiches and pizzas and shops selling plastic bow and arrow sets. I was disappointed in the emphasis on tourists over history, however we chose not to wait in the hour-long line to see the interior of the Château and instead to visit a children’s playground outside of city walls, so maybe everyone has different priorities…

We made the correct choice in reserving a room at one of the hotels within city walls. Although forced to be a bit more selective in which baggage to take in from the car (which was parked outside the outer ramparts), we had the Cité to ourselves in the evening. We explored the small streets and found ourselves a comfy little restaurant for dinner before returning to our room to await the arrival of the Easter bunny.

The next morning, after a busy egg hunt in our little hotel room and the traditional olu sišanās, we toured the ramparts and lices, taking in some great views of the surrounding countryside and the Aude river. Once the car was packed up we headed to Pont Neuf bridge for a better look at the city from below. Nearby is the old bridge, which now serves only pedestrians, and it was there in Elle park that we relaxed and stretched our legs in preparation for the next leg of the trip, to Andorra.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Hôtel Fontfreyde and FRAC

Recently I got my chance to see the inside of the Hôtel Fontfreyde here in Clermont-Ferrand. While I’ve lived here I pass by quite often, and since the courtyard with its gorgeous spiral stone staircase is visible from the alleyway that cuts from marché Saint-Pierre to rue des Gras, I've wanted to explore the interior for quite some time. While my mother was visiting we noticed the Centre Photo Graphique was hosting an interesting-looking photography exhibit, so we noted the hours it was open, and returned the following weekend to take a look.

The current exhibit that month was Du jeu dans le je (the game in the I?). Not much of the art displayed was very memorable, maybe only the man with the giant dandelion, but I’ve already forgotten the artist.

It was the architecture of the building I found fascinating, evidence suggests that the current building includes portions of several buildings that date back to the Middle Ages. The rooms are organized around a small courtyard with a spiral stone staircase in one corner. At the beginning of the sixteenth century the property was rebuilt by the family Coustave. Gabriel of Fontfreyde and his wife Gabrielle Hayte then rebuilt it again around 1578. Their son John added the spiral staircase between 1578 and 1588. The Hôtel Fontfreyde then was purchased by the Dumas of Chalendrat.

The facade on the Rue des Gras was modified sometime in the eighteenth century, and only in the second half of the nineteenth century did renovations connnect the building with another on the Petite rue Saint-Pierre side to form the structure we are familiar with today. The City of Clermont bought the building in April 1912, and by May 23 of that year, it had been designated a monument historique. Clermont’s own master glassmaker Adrian Churn made the stained glass windows on the first floor. A final restoration is undertaken starting in 1920 making small changes to the spiral staircase and adding Volvic rock to the exterior. Another large change from the ancient structures is that the modern-day cellars are in fact the former ground floor, as rue des Gras is four meters higher than three centuries ago.

I couldn’t find any information on the remarkable fireplace on the second floor. The intricate detail and the now-foggy mirror above it were one-of-a-kind.

Currently there is a different exhibit being shown, for more information you can visit the Clermont-Ferrand website

Not far from the Hôtel Fontfreyde is the Fonds regional d’art contemporain Auvergne, or FRAC for short. Although really I had only heard of David Lynch because of his television series Twin Peaks (1990-1992), I was surprised to find that he has produced and directed several other familiar titles: Eraserhead (1977), The Elephant Man (1980), Dune (1984) and Mulholland Drive (2001).

The quality of the publicity rivaled that of the exhibit

A filmmaker, television director, visual artist, comic book artist, musician and occasional actor (according to Wikipedia), his art is in a way as surreal as his films. I wasn’t too impressed. You can see for yourself until the 1st of May. There is no entrance fee for either of these exhibits.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Maksīts to the rescue!

I did what I thought necessary upon hearing my husband would be taking a four day business trip leaving me alone with the two boys... I called in reinforcements!

Photo credit: Beatrice's mum
Maksis and his mother came to the rescue from Chatenet, providing an extra pair of hands and some much needed grown-up conversation in the midst of "get down from there!"s and "share, boys!". However, I will admit at times it seemed like there were four almost-two year olds in the house, not just two! I’m not sure if there was a single waking moment spent in quiet the whole time...

We did manage to have some fun. The warm days made for a few trips to the park, including a picnic with some other friends of Lauris (including the only subject of conversation around here lately, Ba-Ba, or Lauris-speak for his friend Beatrice) and their mummies.

Towers were built and destroyed, trains, planes and automobiles driven, flown and choo-choo’d all over the apartment, and night after night we all collapsed into bed exhausted. I believe I’ve had a glimpse of what life with twins may be like!

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