Saturday, July 10, 2010
Spent most of the 10th in Montserrat. The place reminded me of Lourdes, which isn't much of a recommendation. It's rather commercialized (with big souvenir shops), and I was surprised to see that nearly all of the construction is new (only about 100 years old), but the place has its good points as well--and apparently nothing much is old because Napoleon's army razed the place.
The mountains are undeniably beautiful. Montserrat, or "serrated mountain," is aptly named--there is a stark ridge of exposed stone points at the summit. At the top there are good hiking trails (accessible by a very steep funicular railway) that give wonderful views all the way to Barcelona and beyond. The rock is a very attractive pegmatite with inclusions of many colors of fist size or bigger. There is a small but interesting art museum (the collection is mostly modern Catalan and uneven, but there are quite a few paintings worth seeing, including two very early Picassos; I liked many of the Catalan works, but no photography is allowed, so I was unable to remember any of the names). Besides paintings, the museum has a small collection of art from antiquity from various parts of the Holy lands (glass, pottery, cylinder seals, etc.).
The famous Virgin of Montserrat in the monastery was worth a look. It is the most revered piece of sacred art in Catalonia. While standing in the long line of pilgrims and tourists waiting to view her, there was a wedding going on in the church. I couldn't see much of what was happening, but someone sang Schubert's Ave Maria beautifully. Schubert would have been famous if he had written nothing else.
The wooden statue is Romanesque, from the 12th century, and probably carved in Jerusalem. According to legend, it was found in a cave below where the monastery stands today (the cave can be visited, but there wasn't time). The monastery was built to house it. Because it has blackened over the centuries, it is known as La Moreneta, or "the little dark one."
On the bird watching front, I've added four new species to my life list since last writing, for a total of 30 new birds since leaving the US. I got a glimpse of a Eurasian jay and good looks at long-tailed tits in the mountains between Cardona and Berga, and good looks at alpine swifts (bigger than the swifts at Pouzolles, and with a pale belly) and a Dartford Warbler, both at Montserrat, in the hills above the monastery. The swifts came quite close at times, sounding exactly like bottle rockets as they whizzed past.
[It later became apparent that the blockages were related to the World Cup soccer matches.]
Friday, July 9, 2010
Commercial mining in the 20th century seems to have focused on extracting potassium salts. The unwanted sodium chloride was dumped next to the natural formation. In the first photo here, the ancient folded salt dome is the area of exposed cliffs. The flat area with machinery on it and the area just behind that is the dumped mine waste that is itself now being "strip mined" for sodium chloride for industrial applications. Worth a visit.
The defences are impressive. Two complete walls (built at different times) ring the old town. The space in between was used for such things as military training, jousting, and the placement of catapults and trebuchets used to attack besiegers. A good trebuchet, according to something I read, could throw a 100kg rock projectile as far as 600 feet. Many sections of the stone walls have interesting brickwork incorporated into the masonry.
Inside, a funeral happened to be in progress. I listened to the organ for a while. The space was rather interesting. It has no side aisles (which I don't think I've ever seen before), giving the church a very broad, open look. The sides are lined with high-roofed chapels, but the impression is of a single open space. Later I read that this design is fairly typical of the southern French Gothic style.
[Oddly, the best meal on the entire trip was the following night about two miles away. See this post for details.]
Thursday, July 8, 2010
Tuesday, July 6, 2010
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Monday, July 5, 2010
This is supposed to be one of the world's greatest bird watching areas, but July must be a bad time of year, as there were not many birds around and the diversity of species was low--which has been true throughout this trip. It makes me appreciate the extraordinary number of species that live near home, where I can see more species in a morning at my bird feeder on a good day than I've seen on this whole trip--or so it seems. A place like Bodega Bay is overflowing with birds by comparison. Having said that, the birds here are different and mostly new to me. Despite the relative paucity of species, I added seven new species to my life list yesterday, so I can't really complain.
The town of Saintes-Marie de-la-Mer itself was mostly tourist restaurants and cheap shops. Go early if you want to park anywhere. I read that the population in the winter is about 2,500 and that it's around 50,000 at this time of year. The beaches are beautiful, nevertheless. When I enquired about a good restaurant, though, I was told that to eat well in the town you have to leave the town--which didn't surprise me much.
Late in the day, we drove to the ocean again but on the east side of the main wetlands, down to Salin-de-Giraud and the vast salt pans to the south of the town. The photo here looks like Dover, but the white "cliff" is a 40ft-high wall of sea salt. The salty water had a pinkish cast, as briny places always seem to do. I have heard the color comes from myriad brine shrimp--and even that flamingoes are pink because they eat mostly these or other little shrimp. I'm not sure that's true, but salt pans always seem to be pink. When flying into San Francisco I always enjoy coming in low over the pink partitioned areas of water you can see there, which are also salt pans, I believe. French sea salt is famous and much of it comes from this place. I wonder what happens to San Francisco sea salt?
2009 Domaine de L'Arjolle Méridienne Vin de Pays des Cotes de Thongue Rosé
The label offers no information about the grapes used, but this is likely a blend of the usual red grapes of the area, such as Grenache, Syrah, Cinsault, or Mourvedre. The wine was a medium-deep orange-pink, very pretty to look at. It had distinctive citrus rind scents. I was put in mind of orange marmalade. There were also floral scents--rose water, maybe. Fruity on the palate, suggestive of raspberries. Generally, round and generous. Smooth and easy to drink. No rough edges, but with a little attractive bitterness on the mid-palate followed by a lingering, toasty finish. Fairly low in acid. I would have preferred a bit more crispness. Still, this is very well made wine. Delicious, but I'm not sure it's worth two to three times the best values I've come across so far (the following wine, for example). I little bit too round and neat, perhaps.
2008 Les Hauts de Coulinié Saint-Chinian Rosé
A blend of Syrah (60%) and Grenache (40%). From Cave de Roquebrun. A very pretty, medium-deep orange pink--a pale burnt sienna color. Fairly light on the nose but with a hint of strawberries laced with caramel. Clean and crisp on the palate. Compared with the above wine, this seemed just a little rough, but, in the end I preferred its crispness and edge. A hint of tannin. Fruity and light but good body and length and an attractive, toasty mid-palate again suggestive of caramel (although the wine is quite dry). Delicious and reasonably priced. At only €4.50 a bottle (less than $5), perhaps the best value I've encountered so far. If I were living here permanently, I'd go back for a case or two of this.
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