Saturday, July 10, 2010

On the Road (Europe 2010): Berga, Montserrat, and Barcelona

Left Berga on the morning of July 10 for Barcelona by way of Monsterrat. Berga redeemed itself the evening before with one of the best meals of the trip, at Restaurant Sala (Paseo de la Pau, 27, Berga 08600), following perhaps the worst meal of the trip at Hotel Estel. The hotel itself was fine--nothing fancy, but serviceable--but I'd avoid the restaurant there at all costs. Having said that, breakfast was pleasant enough on the terrace the following morning, which was blessedly cool for a change.

The meal at Restaurant Sala featured carpaccio of shrimp, apple ravioli (ricotta cheese in paper thin slices of apple, on top of even thinner slices of tomato with a light olive oil and balsamic vinegar dressing), a wonderful mushroom soup, Scampi, baby squid with vegetables and wild mushroms (pictured), and other tasty things. The chef seems to really like mushrooms. There were many dishes on the menu that featured one kind or another. Washed it all down with a crisp, fragrant 2008 Vionta Rias Baixas Albariño.

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.

Arrived in Barcelona in the early evening. It took about an hour to get to the hotel because many of the streets were blocked off, for reasons that weren't clear. Had time to walk around a little and have a late-night meal. Tomorrow will be the start of a couple of days seeing the sights.

[It later became apparent that the blockages were related to the World Cup soccer matches.]

Friday, July 9, 2010

On the Road (Europe 2010): Cardona, Spain

Yesterday spent the day in the Cardona area, visiting the main local attraction, which is the mountain of salt that first made this area prosperous. The mine in the folded mountain formation is no longer active, but you can tour part of the old works, which allows you to see some of the tunnels miners used, but, more interestingly, it allows you to see the salt formations in detail. Mining in this area goes back to neolithic times and the Romans extracted salt here as well. It wasn't until fairly recently that vertical shafts were dug into the deposit to mine it.

There are only three places in the world where salt deposits have been folded vertically into a mountain. One is in Colombia, one is in Romania, and one is here. The deposits originated in an arm of the Atlantic Ocean that once covered most of Catalonia. They are about 40 million years old. Stained with iron oxide, they are mostly shades of brown and orange, but fresh crystals of white sodium chloride (common table salt) have formed on the surface of the ancient deposits in many areas because of water seepage. There are impressive salt stalactites in places.

At least three kinds of salt are present, sodium chloride (halite), potassium-magnesium chloride, (carnalite), and another, that I've forgotten the name of that is mostly potassium chloride. The carnalite crystals were especially pretty, looking like topaz and in some places like the stone carnelian (the names share a root, of course; carne, or "meat," which is appropriate as some of the ubiquitous Spanish hams look rather like carnelian, too).

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.

On the road (Europe 2010): Carcassonne to Berga, Spain

Spent most of yesterday looking around Carcassonne. Carcassonne is really two cities. There is a new city and the old walled city. The two are separated by a river crossed by two bridges, the Old Bridge (now for pedestrians only) and the New Bridge, reserved for vehicles. The new city looks fairly prosperous. There is a substantial railway station, several large squares, and a long, pedestrian-only shopping street with fashionable shops. But even the modern city is here and there dotted with the occasional old building, sometimes several centuries older than what surrounds it, decorated with carved stone. The old town consists mostly of old stone structures, but there is a thriving tourist trade, so many shops sell the usual post cards and souvenirs. Had a fair dinner at Le Saint Jean and a very good lunch at L'Auberge des Lices, which is very hard to find, but probably worth seeking out.

Like so many places in Europe, the old city is a layer cake of construction and destruction over the centuries. If I understand correctly, most of the lower level of the walls is Gallo-Roman, but much of that is itself built on older construction. Medieval additions were made over hundreds of years. Carcassonne fell into ruin (and was to be torn down at one point) after the border between France and the Kingdom of Aragon was moved further to the west (to the Pyrenees) and Carcassonne was no longer a border stronghold. When the ever-present Viollet-le-Duc began restoration work in the 19th century, Carcassonne appears to have been in rather poor shape. Viollet-le-Duc attempted to restore the walls to what they would have looked like at the time of King Louis IX in the 12th century, but he seems to have taken quite a few liberties. Notably, he added the pointed tops to the towers that today everyone associates with Carcassonne, but these are actually of a style common in northern France and probably were never present at Carcassonne.

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.

In the new town, I just happened to find the church of St. Vincent, about which I knew nothing in particular (or so I thought). However, an English translation of one of the pamphlets at Tourist Information mentioned that the tower of the church was one of the high points used by Delambre and Méchain in their work laying out a meridian through France during the Revolution. The tower is more than 150 feet high and from what I can see it is still one of the tallest structures anywhere in the area of Carcassonne. Cassini and his sons also used the tower for their mapmaking work. I really enjoyed seeing it just for these associations. I recommend Ken Alder's excellent book The Measure of All Things (Free Press, 2002) if you want the full story of what Delambre and Méchain were up to.

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.

The drive into Spain was marked by extremely twisty mountain roads--the sort that love a sports car--and a violent thunderstorm, complete with pea-sized hail. There was no border control. French wine regions announce their presence with bigger signs than the one I saw indicating the start of Spanish territory. Wildflowers were in bloom everywhere. Crossing the mountainous terrain involved two long toll tunnels that saved a great deal of time, but we arrived late in Berga. Happily, Spanish restaurants serve very late. Unhappily, we chose the hotel restaurant, which had food I'd generously describe as barely edible.

[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

On the road (Europe 2010): Carcassonne

Not much to report. I've been mostly working the past couple of days. Now in Carcassonne on the way to Barcelona. I have driven past Carcassonne a number of times in the past, but never stopped here. Had a brief look late last night after dark. Today will be a day of exploring the walls.

On the drive over I very much enjoyed the countryside along the River Orb, passing through Roquebrun (of my recent wine tastings, where I found Cave de Roquebrun; the town is beautiful), Murviel les Beziers, Cessenon, Vieussan, Olargues, St. Pons de Thomieres, Albine, and Mazamet. Early on the route were many places to swim in the river. There are rafting and kayak rental places as well. Later the winding, nicely paved roads were in heavily forested areas, which had me wishing I was driving my own car, rather than the rather surprisingly poorly designed Mercedes B Class that we have rented.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Wines I'm Drinking: 2007 Saint-Chinian-Roquebrun "Terrasses de Maynard"

Tonight I tasted the 2007 Cave de Roquebrun Saint-Chinian-Roquebrun "Terrasses de Maynard," an inky purple wine smelling of violets and vanilla creme. Gradually the nose shifted in the direction of oranges and cream, but the scent of violets was there from start to finish. At first the wine seemed harshly tannic, a bit sharp, and excessively alcoholic, but that was mostly because I was drinking it far too warm (it had warmed to a warm room temperature)--hardly fair to the wine or its maker. After cooling the bottle to a more reasonable temperature, it began to seem much more tame. The wine retained a certain rustic brashness, but suddenly acquired the balance it had lacked. The alcohol no longer bit with every sip and the tannins seemed to melt away. Not an especially smooth or sophisticated sort of wine, but attractive nevertheless, with tasty plum and coffee flavors and crisp acidity suggesting it would benefit from another two to three years in bottle. A good value at only €6.5 (a little more than $7).

For many more wine reviews, use the "Wines I'm Drinking" tab on the right.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Birds I'm Watching: Stilts, Flamingoes, and a Pair of Great Tits

Spent the day yesterday mostly near Saintes-Marie de-la-Mer, at the tip of land that projects south at the mouth of the Rhône. The wetlands of the Rhône delta, the Camargue, are the most extensive in Europe and comparatively undisturbed, I'm told--although I saw an awful lot of rice paddies, which, obviously, are manmade (in places the roadside view was reminiscent of Japan). I did see some of the famous Camargue horses and bulls, but few of them seemed to be wild. Horse and bull were on the menu in all the restaurants. I saw signs for upcoming bullfights.

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.

There is a very old church that looks as much like a fortress as a church, complete with crenelations and loopholes. You can climb up on the roof to get a view of the town and the sea in one direction, the marshes of the Camargue in the other. In May, the town hosts a gypsy festival that draws people from all over Europe. Inside the church was a statue of Saint Sara, the patron saint of the gypsies.

I had the best luck birding in some of the marshes flanking the main road through the area, the D570, near Pont du Gau. There I finally got a good close-up look at flamingoes in the wild (this is the Greater Flamingo, a bit different from the Chilean Flamingo better known in the Americas). The flamingo here is the flamingo of Africa, and the Camargue is the only place in Europe that it breeds in the wild, according to what I've read. They are nearly white--barely pink--but with bubble-gum pink legs and pale pink bills, flaming orange and black wings, and impossibly long necks--most obvious with the wings spread in flight.

Other new birds for me were: Grey Heron, Black-winged Stilt, Little Egret, Spoonbill, Black Kite, and Great Tit. I watched a pair of the tits flitting around the small, wiry trees by the side of the marshes. The stilts are similar to our black-necked stilts, but with a white neck. The Grey Heron looks like a whiter, blotchy great blue heron. The Little Egret looks very much like our Snowy Egret. I've probably seen a spoonbill before, but I count it as a new bird as I doubt I've ever seen one in the wild, until yesterday.

The Great Tit is similar to the Coal Tit I saw in England, but it has a distinctive black stripe down its belly. It's also a somewhat larger bird. This is an area that would take weeks to explore. I may have simply missed the best spots. During spring and autumn migration, I imagine there are many more birds. There is a Parc Ornithologique (admission costs €7) that gives convenient access to extensive marshy areas, but I saw nothing there that I hadn't already seen outside the park, except the Great Tits. There was a small group of Common Pochards, as well, but I haven't counted these, as they seemed to have taken up permanent residence at the park--so not completely wild. Still, a Pochard is a Pochard.

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?

Wines I'm Drinking: Two More Languedoc Rosés

Last night I tried two more local rosés, again from the expensive end of the spectrum. Domaine de L'Arjolle has the best reputation of any of the wineries in the immediate area, and its prices are three to four times higher than any one else's. Having tasted what must be about the least expensive rosé in the area early in my stay (five liters for €6), I thought it would give me some perspective to try one of the most expensive (€11, or about $12 for a standard 750ml bottle). I also tasted a mid-range wine (for this area, that is) from St. Chinian. Tasting notes follow.

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.

To read other wine reviews, use the "Wines I'm Drinking" tab to the right.
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