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An Epicurean Odyssey: The Dordogne part I (Bergerac)


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France is a country composed of smaller pieces, each with their own distinct renown. These regions to some extent correspond to the administrative divisions, but also have invisible boundaries that have been shaped by more than a thousand years of history. There's Paris and its surrounds. Provence, of course. Brittany and Normandy. Alsace. The Loire Valley, Bordeaux and Bourgogne. One of the smaller areas to enjoy this legendary status is the Périgord, more widely known outside of France by its departmental name of Dordogne. The Périgord epitomizes everything that is wonderful and unique about France, from the verdant countryside to the iconic towns and castles to the delicious cuisine. We were excited to have four entire days and part of a fifth to work our way through a long list of markets, villages, and historic landmarks.

Our previous forays into the Loire Valley and Provence had taught us well that France can't be approached in the same way as Spain. Whereas Spain has less to offer in the early morning and forces travelers into late bedtimes, France is very unforgiving of slow starts. A typical market in the summer has seen its best moments before ten in the morning and is basically over except for the tourist stragglers by noon. On Sunday morning we set our alarms as early as we could stand and raced a half hour southeast to the weekly market of Issigeac, one of the most heralded in the Périgord.
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The first thing we saw as we walked into the center was a woman tending a counter with an array of enormous pans, each containing a different tantalizing preparation of meat or seafood. We resisted the temptation to begin eating right away, knowing that every minute that passed would bring larger crowds to impede our progress through the market.
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Issigeac was a tiny village with narrow streets, stone and half-timbered houses, and the ancient Saint-Félicien Church overlooking the bustling central square. The atmosphere for our first Dordogne market couldn't have been better.
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After a couple of circuits through the market, we'd selected our bread and cheese, strawberries, freshly-shucked oysters and other delicacies and retired to a park bench to enjoy a messy breakfast.
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It turned out we'd escaped just in time. We ventured back into the market to let the kids play with the soap bubble guy and found it jam-packed. Arriving early had saved us from having to compete with crowds for the attention of every vendor.

We continued southeast to Château de Bonaguil, one of the most picturesque castles in the Périgord. This formidable medieval edifice suddenly appeared at the top of a hill as we approached on the access road, inspiring an immediate rush of traveler's euphoria.
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A castle on a hill like Bonaguil is really two experiences in one, each with its own distinct pleasures. The first part is the climb up the winding path to the castle past ancient, crumbling stone walls and a carefully restored limestone church.
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Once we reached the top of the hill it was time for the main event. A stone bridge crossed the crevasse between the hill and the rocky outcropping, or aigeulle, on which the castle is perched.
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It took a half hour to explore the half-ruined fortress. The crumbling masonry created surreal, Escherian perspectives of the interior elements of the stronghold. We could only imagine the majesty of the castle during its heyday in the 18th century.
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The views of the Périgord countryside from the tall castle keep were spectacular. We were getting a dramatic introduction to this extraordinary and singular corner of the world, and we were energized to continue onward to the other destinations in our day's itinerary.
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Our next stop wouldn't have ideally been another castle, but on the way back from Bonaguil was Château de Biron. Like Bonaguil, this château was a spectacular sight both at a distance from the road and close up. Biron has been preserved and renovated to the extent that the main building can host art exhibitions. By the time we arrived, both the boys were sleeping so I took Cleo for a walk along the side of the enormous castle. I don't think we missed much by skipping a tour of the interior.
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In the Périgord there are numerous villages that have been clearly designated for tourism. They are featured in every guidebook and they have a support system of cafes and souvenir shops for travelers. Are they truly the most picturesque of all the villages in the region, or simply the ones that prefer the financial boost of tourism to peace and quiet? We weren't going to be staying in the area long enough to uncover all the secret towns that the tour guides haven't discovered, so we followed the crowds to Monpazier.

Monpazier was certainly picturesque, a well-preserved bastide that was established in the 13th century in the run-up to the Hundred Years War. On the day of our visit they were having a book festival, and the central square was filled with vendors of old magazines and used books. Much to the kids' enjoyment, a craftsman was demonstrating the historic method of making paper from the pulp of old fabric.
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We only spent another half hour in Monpazier, enough time to absorb the best examples of medieval architecture and the colorful decoration of the narrow pedestrian streets. In the end it was hard to overcome the feeling of Epcot Syndrome, the term I use for environments that feel more like a theme park pavilion than an authentic travel destination. Perhaps the best examples I can think of in France are Aix-en-Provence and the walled city of Carcassonne, but even central Paris suffers from it to some extent.
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We had skipped lunch in anticipation of an early arrival to our chosen Sunday night market. Monbazillac is a small village just south of Bergerac best known for its château and sweet white wines. On the road approaching the village we encountered a whimsical art installation of colorful bicycles.
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The roadside market wasn't as picturesque as the one in Audrix, but the selection of food was much larger and the vibe was more local. Whole farm animals roasted on spits and a woman tended to an enormous basin of simmering mussels. We ate reverentially in the shadow of the château.
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On Monday morning it was already time to leave our first Dordogne Airbnb. We hoped we could replicate our success with the Pau daily market in Bergerac but it wasn't to be. The market was open in name only, with just a couple of stalls in business and nothing that could be considered a decent breakfast. There was no point in trying to make it to a weekly market as we still had to pack, so we walked around the largely deserted center of Bergerac. There were more than the usual number of attractive half-timbered houses and an intriguing little plaza where an upright piano had been converted into a miniature garden.
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It was still far too early for any restaurants to be open for lunch, so we decided it would be best to head straight to our next Airbnb in Périgueux. Once we were settled there we wouldn't have to worry about rushing back in the evening to meet our host. We hadn't even made a dent so far in our list of destinations in the Dordogne.

Posted by zzlangerhans 14:27 Archived in France Comments (0)

An Epicurean Odyssey: Over the Pyrenees and into France


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This was our second time driving from Spain into France through the Pyrenees. Two years earlier we had gone through Andorra and the drive had been underwhelming, but the route via Spain's E-7 was a different story. After we passed Jaca, the road quickly ascended and began to wind through beautiful verdant mountains, with the occasional majestic crag projecting upward like a broken tooth.
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The views from the road became even more breathtaking once we crossed the border into France. We were now about mid-level among the mountains, and on every side were steep, lush green slopes dotted with fluffy sheep. There was just enough mist to create an eerie ambience but not enough to obscure visibility. I was the only one awake at this point and I wanted someone to stir and share the moment with me so badly, but I figured we would be better off in the evening with everyone well-rested. One of my biggest regrets from the trip is that I didn't pull over and take some pictures, but there never seemed to be a good spot at the most beautiful locations. I figured that eventually someone would wake up and be able to pose in the foreground of my shots, and then suddenly it was over and we descended to nondescript flatlands. I never got my photo but I was able to find this one from the web that gives some idea of what I was seeing, without all the sheep.
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Pau was an obvious choice for our first night in France despite the fact that I had never heard of the place before I planned the trip. It was the first mid-sized city between the border and the Dordogne which meant it probably had a decent daily market. There was also an old town with enough sights to occupy us for the morning before we got back on the road. We arrived at our Airbnb amidst a chilly drizzle in the early evening. Our host hustled everyone inside where we found a very pleasant and spacious loft-style apartment. Our good fortune with accommodations seemed to be continuing. Once the rain died down we went for a walk in search of dinner. I was surprised to find that we weren't encountering any restaurants, despite the fact that we were relatively close to the town center and the covered market. TripAdvisor only found us one good candidate within walking distance, and when we arrived I was a little disconcerted to see it was a rather dignified family-run restaurant with a prix fixe menu. At this point we had no good alternative and they just happened to have a free table the right size for us. I was very self-conscious with the three kids but they couldn't have been better. They quietly watched their iPads on low volume until the food came and then ate very peacefully. The staff and other patrons didn't even bat an eyelash at us.
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The following morning it was Saturday, the best day for daily markets, so we walked to Les Halles de Pau with high spirits. We were initially crestfallen to see that the market was undergoing renovations, but it soon became apparent there was a lot of activity despite the disarray. I don't know if I can put it into words, but there's a clear difference between Spanish and French municipal markets. In Spain there's an emphasis on cured meats, olives, preserves, shrimp, dried fish, and similarly tangy and salty items. In France one sees much more roasted meat and rotisserie poultry, grilled vegetables, and more shellfish than crustaceans. Which do I prefer? Probably whichever country I happen to be in at the time.
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We had a blast reacquainting ourselves with French culinary specialties and brought home a delicious and savory haul that included a roasted leg of lamb, grilled endives, a head cheese salad, yellow plums, and fresh bulots (whelks). We celebrated our first morning in France with an exemplary French market lunch.
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After the listlessness of the area around our Airbnb and the market, we were surprised to find Pau's old town humming with activity just a few hundred meters away. The most well known sights are clustered in a small area adjacent to the Boulevard des Pyrénées, the town promenade that overlooks the valley of the Gave de Pau river and provides sweeping views as far as the mountains on a clear day.
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The center of the old town had magnificent, perfectly preserved old buildings that looked as though they had leaped right off a postcard. The wrought-iron balconies, wooden shutters, and colorful flowerbeds in the window sills were quintessentially French and almost felt like a personal welcome to one of our favorite countries.
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The Gothic Église Saint Martin dominates one square in the center. The angular, imposing bulk of the church is softened by the lush greenery that surrounds it.
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A few steps from the church is Château de Pau, the city's most well-known attraction. There has been a castle at this site since the 11th century, but the existing Renaissance edition was built in the 16th century. The trapezoidal courtyard creates an optical illusion that the building is much longer than it actually is. Mindful of the long drive ahead, we passed up a tour of the interior. We've seen the inside of enough chateaus for a lifetime.
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Outside of Pau my eye was caught by a colorful mural that was painted circumferentially around a water tower on a hill. We left the road for a closer look at the whimsical painting. Later I looked up the signature and learned that the mural depicts pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago. This artistic cooperative called Ateliers Adeline has decorated countless water towers in the French countryside, and also specializes in remarkably lifelike trompe-l'œil paintings.
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Our afternoon stop was Auch, another lesser known mid-sized city in an unheralded area of south-central France. Auch merited a visit mainly due to my philosophical opposition to driving long distances in Europe. In my experience, if you've driven more than three hours without stopping then you've missed something. Auch once played a more prominent role as the capital of the historic region of Gascony, which roughly approximates the French Basque territory. Like Pau, the old town of Auch is perched on a hill above its river which in this case was the brownish-green Le Gers. Instead of a funicular to the lower level, Auch has the Escalier Monumental. This 19th century stone staircase underwent a comprehensive renovation in 2017 and is supposed to be lined with vines representing Gascony's viticultural heritage, although none were visible from the top.
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The most impressive sight in Auch is the Gothic-Renaissance Cathédrale Sainte-Marie, whose western facade dominates an open plaza at the highest point of the old town. The cathedral had a beautiful beige color and was pleasingly symmetric. Each of the three levels of the twin limestone towers is fronted by decorative Roman columns and clearly demarcated by balconies with stone balustrades.
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Auch's old town was a pleasant place to wander around for an hour. Ancient limestone townhouses with classic French shutters lined the narrow streets, with the occasional half-timbered house disrupting the uniformity.
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On the long drive north to the Dordogne, we passed through an undulating landscape of sunflower fields and farmland. Each new expanse of sunflowers seemed to be more golden and vast than the one before. There's not much written about this unusual love of the French for sunflowers, although one thing I hadn't realized was that the plant is native to the Americas and was only introduced to Europe in the 16th century.
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One of the features that attracted us most to the Dordogne was the famous night markets. These aren't markets so much as communal dinners which have evolved to become commercial events. Assorted vendors provide the local culinary specialties and wine which is consumed by a variable medley of locals and tourists. As one might imagine, the more the mixture is constituted of locals the more authentic the food and the vibe. Of course, finding those night markets that have retained their authenticity is easier said than done. Most of the markets provide such amenities as dishes, cutlery, and cups but these may require a deposit and also tend to run out. It's much better to be prepared with one's own supplies, with the plates preferably sturdy enough to be laden repeatedly with juicy entrees. I would recommend buying inexpensive hard plastic plates and wine glasses that can be deposited into a plastic bag when used and then washed at home. It's also advisable to arrive early or you might find yourself forlornly circling the tables or sitting on a doorstep to eat.

Saturday doesn't have a one of the larger selection of night markets in the Dordogne, but we didn't have much difficulty finding a seat when we arrived in Audrix an hour after the official start time. It was clearly a more touristic market, with the predominant flavors of patrons being English and German. There were dishes and utensils available and the vendors were a little impatient. We didn't know it at that time, but it was also the smallest assemblage of vendors we would see at a Dordogne night market and the most limited variety of food. Nevertheless we ate well and were pleased with the communal atmosphere in the small, quaint village.
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Our Airbnb was almost an hour away to the east in the larger town of Bergerac. I had rather carelessly chosen the two largest cities in the Dordogne as our pieds-a-terre without noting they were well to the east of the Dordogne's most attractive villages and castles. I'd also underestimated the travel time due to the paucity of major roads in the region. The results was an hour or so of extra driving most of our days in the Dordogne, but the sting was eased by the rich landscape of the region. Our apartment in Bergerac was also one of the best of the entire trip, with two spacious levels and a large pool that delighted the kids.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 06:50 Archived in France Comments (0)

An Epicurean Odyssey: Aragon part 2 (Zaragoza and Huesca)


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When we're in a city with a market it's easy to organize our day. The market has to be the first destination, and then we head to whichever on our list of sights is closest. Zaragoza's covered market is a beautiful building reminiscent of Mercat Colon in Valencia, but unfortunately it was in the process of being renovated. Bummer. The temporary replacement was a block away, but it was overcrowded and devoid of atmosphere, with barely anything to eat.
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Just a few steps from the rear entrance of the temporary market is Plaza de la Seo, which is one of the most breathtaking public squares that I've seen in Spain. At the eastern end is the tall Mudéjar belltower of the Zaragoza Cathedral, La Seo del Salvador. Occupying most of the north side of the square, bordering the river, is a far more impressive structure than the Cathedral. The Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar is the tenth largest Christian church in the world. The square that these two churches preside over is elegant and unique. At the western end of the Plaza is the magnificent Fuente de la Hispanidad, which was constructed in 1991 as a part of the most recent remodel of Plaza de la Seo. Water runs down a concrete incline and spills over a jagged rent in the otherwise smooth surface into a pool. The water then runs underneath a walkway into another pool with a strange irregular shape. I didn't learn until later that the open space in the fountain including the pools forms the shape of Central and South America. Behind the fountain is yet another church, the stately Iglesia de San Juan de los Panetes, this one in Romanesque style with a precariously leaning tower.
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Closer to the center of the square is another quirky modern sculpture, an enormous sphere whose provenance and meaning I never learned. After the sphere, the rest of the square is wide open to admire the amazing Basilica. The only building in Spain I can think of whose exterior is comparably spectacular is the Catedral de Sevilla, and I have to say I prefer Zaragoza's Basilica. Not only is it massive, but also colorful and satisfyingly symmetrical. We spent a fair amount of time trying to figure out a way to photograph the entire structure in one frame without using panorama and ultimately concluded it was impossible.
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Although a striking building in its own right, La Seo del Salvador seems almost like an afterthought after the Basilica. The prodigious bell tower was a conversion from the minaret of the mosque that formerly occupied the site. In the foreground of the cathedral is the unusual cubical structure that marks the entrance to the subterranean Museo del Foro de Caesaraugusta.
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We hadn't found much to eat in the market so lunch was becoming a pressing need. Fortunately, we were now adjacent to Zaragoza's "Tapas district", El Tubo. This small pedestrian quarter was colorful and atmospheric, although we found the restaurants to be touristy and not particularly good.
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After lunch we walked north until we reached the Puente de Piedra, also known as the Bridge of Lions for the statues that guard its entrances. From the bridge we had another view of the Basilica as well as the greenish, uninspiring Ebro.
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By this time the sun was at its peak and Spenser was sleeping on my back. Ian was passed out in the only stroller we'd brought and Cleo wasn't going to last much longer. Mopping the sweat from our brows, we abandoned our plans to explore modern Zaragoza on the northern side of the Ebro and headed back to the Airbnb for siesta. In the late afternoon, once some of the heat had dissipated, we ventured back out in the opposite direction towards Palacio de la Aljafería. The Aljafería was originally a Moorish palace, but it was repurposed by the Christians after they conquered Zaragoza in the 12th century. Today the building houses the Aragonese regional parliament, although much of it remains open for visitors. It's an appealing building, but not something I would have visited Zaragoza for specifically. We had time to kill before dinner so we looked through some of the dry exhibits. It was enough to remind us why we don't drag the kids through museums when we're traveling.
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We don't usually eat at the same place twice, but there were no second thoughts about returning to Puerta Cinegia Gastronómica for dinner that evening. We weren't excited about walking all the way back from the Aljafería, so we tried our luck at the nearby bus stop. Although it was a straight line down the road to the old town, we learned that only one of the bus lines that came through would be heading in that direction. Naturally, it was the last one to come and it was packed. Mei Ling tried to shoo some people in further in order to get our stroller on but the driver waved us off. We had to walk, but the silver lining was that we found a cheap barber to lop off Ian and Spenser's shaggy manes.
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Puerta Cinegia Gastronómica was great again, although we arrived a little early for a couple of our favorite stalls to open. After dinner, we walked down the main pedestrian street of the old town, Calle Alfonso I, at the end of which hovered the luminous central dome of the Basilica.
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The only thing we saw in Zaragoza more amazing than Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar in the broad light of day was the illuminated Basilica at night. The Fuente de la Hispanidad was also eerily lit up with an ever-changing series of vivid colors. If anything, the Plaza de la Seo was more busy than it had been during the day.
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We left Zaragoza having seen much less of the city than is typical for us. Perhaps because we'd seen so many neighborhoods in Valencia we hadn't felt the need to explore as much. We had definitely made it to all the important highlights of the central city, and I think that's likely going to remain our entire experience of Zaragoza. It had been worth the visit just for Plaza de la Seo and Puerta Cinegia Gastronómica, but there's no compelling reason for us to return. Of course, we have many years of traveling still ahead of us so there's no way of knowing for sure. On the other hand, I'm confident that we'll be back to Valencia, Madrid, and Barcelona in the future.

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We had to be in France by dinner time so there was no time to waste getting back on the road. It took us less than an hour of highway driving over featureless Aragonian landscape to get to Huesca. Like Teruel, Huesca was a small city with a good-sized old town. We wandered through a few picturesque alleys and squares before finding a tapas restaurant that seemed right.
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The central part of the old town was a rising maze of small streets that eventually culminated at Catedral de Huesca. The 14th century Gothic church is most recognizable for its ornate arched doorway flanked by stone statues of the apostles. We treated the kids to ice cream in the nearly-empty plaza before heading to our last stop of the first Spanish leg of the road trip.
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Castello de Loarre is just a half hour from Huesca via scenic one-lane roads. After taking the turnoff from the route that proceeds to the town of Loarre, the road rapidly ascends into the foothills of Sierra de Guara. At the highest point, a well-preserved medieval fortress commands sweeping views of Aragon's countryside. Castello de Loarre played a critical role in the reconquest of the surrounding area from the Muslims in the 12th century, and is now considered to be one of the most well-preserved Romanesque castles in all of Europe. Kids love castles, and this one had all the elements necessary to generate happy oohs and aahs from Ian and Cleo.
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The views from Castello de Loarre reminded me a little of Rocca Calascio in Italy, although the access here had been much simpler. There were plenty of rooms, staircases, and ramparts to explore. As we ascended into the higher part of the castle we heard beautiful music which I assumed was being played on a speaker. We arrived in a chapel and saw two people already there who had such an understated presence that it took a few moments before I realized the amazing sound was actually their voices. They were taking advantage of the acoustics of the chapel to create exquisite, resonant music. It was over far too quickly, but it was a great reminder that the most memorable and wonderful moments of a trip can come at unexpected times.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 13:26 Archived in Spain Tagged zaragoza huesca aragon Comments (0)

An Epicurean Odyssey: Aragon part 1 (incl. Teruel)


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By the fifth day of our trip, we were already traveling through our fourth autonomous region of Spain. These regions are not analogous to the provinces or states of other countries, such as the US or France, although the differences are sometimes difficult to understand. Anyone who keeps track of world events knows that over the years there have been significant issues related to the desire of some of these regions for complete independence from Spain, occasionally resulting in substantial bloodshed. Other regions are so closely affiliated with the central government in Madrid that their autonomy is superfluous. I won't claim to be an expert on Spanish domestic politics. Suffice it to say that Spain is a different animal from its Western European neighbors when it comes to the diverse priorities of its regional populations.

Aragon has been closely affiliated with Madrid and the central Castilian regions since medieval times, a union that was formalized by the royal marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella in the late 15th century. Because of its low political profile and lack of famous cities, Aragon has generally remained below the radar of international tourism. For us, that's a positive attribute. Our northward course to the French border would take us through all three provinces of Aragon: Teruel, Zaragoza, and Huesca. We arrived in Teruel towards the later side of lunch time, so our first priority was to make sure we didn't go hungry. Once we'd wolfed down some gourmet tapas at Gastrotaberna Locavore, we were able to focus on our exploration of the town.

Teruel's old town is relatively small but there's more than enough to see to make it a worthwhile stop if not an overnight stay. The Iglesia de San Pedro was our first exposure to Mudéjar architecture. This movement was a fusion of Gothic and Islamic influences that came about from the period of peaceful coexistence between Catholic and Muslim populations in the aftermath of the reconquest of central Spain. This coexistence ended when virtually the entire Muslim population was expelled from Spain during the Inquisition in the early 17th century, but fortunately the Muslim-influenced art and architecture has survived to this day. The church has a polygonal apse with minaret-like towers at the vertices and a separate bell tower that looked like it had undergone a modern renovation.
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Some more wandering took us to Teruel's main square, Plaza del Torico. which is at the confluence of seven streets that extend into all different parts of the old town. The square had buildings whose beauty rivaled the most impressive specimens of Valencia and Barcelona, especially the surreal and lavender Casa del Torico.
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Despite the allure of the old town, the streets were quiet and empty on a weekday afternoon. Perhaps that's why the unofficial motto of the town is "Teruel exists!". Of course, nothing makes us happier to encounter an atmospheric jewel in the middle of nowhere and have it almost entirely to ourselves. We explored more of the old town which contains several impressive Mudéjar towers, one of which is part of the Teruel Cathedral.
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We had saved Teruel's most famous attraction for last, the Escalinata del Ovalo. This lengthy and elaborate outdoor staircase was only constructed a century ago, but was carefully designed to complement the original Mudéjar landmarks of the town. The staircase descends from the edge of the old town to the railway station below. We didn't have the time or the energy to descend the entire way, but we got a close look at the ornate landings and intricate brick banisters.
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Half an hour from Teruel via a small local highway is Albarracín, reputed to be one of the most beautiful villages in Spain. The ancient town covers a steep hill nestled in a curve of the Río Guadalaviar, with the main road passing through a tunnel underneath. Once we arrived both Ian and Spenser were sleeping so we had no choice but to strap Spenser onto my back and take a stroller for Ian. We were already winded from climbing partway up the hill once we arrived at the foot of the town. High above us we could see the old city walls at the top of a hill. Facing south from the city we had views of the Albarracín Cathedral and the Castillo. To the southwest across the Guadalaviar were the classic scrub-covered rolling hills of Aragon.
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Upon entering the town, we immediately found ourselves in the main square Plaza Mayor. From the square, narrow roads squiggled off upward and downward into the different levels of the town. We probably could have done more exploration if everyone was awake, but pushing the stroller up steep cobblestone roads quickly lost its appeal and we decided we had captured the essence of Albarracín.
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We had a typically complicated arrival in Zaragoza. A main avenue brought us to the central neighborhood of El Gancho, where our Airbnb was situated, but the GPS then directed us into a narrow alley that I worried might lead us to an impassable situation. There was nowhere to stop on the street, so I drove up onto the sidewalk and I set out on foot on my own to locate the Airbnb. I soon found it and had the host explain to me the best way to bring the car up to the door. When I got back, Mei Ling had moved the car off the sidewalk and into the bus stop on the street. Apparently the cops had come by and forced her to move, although I can't imagine why it was better to have the car obstructing a bus stop than partially blocking a sidewalk. She told me they said they would be back shortly so we hurriedly took off and made our way back to the Airbnb, where the best news was that there was a working AC that hadn't been mentioned in the listing. It's rarely simple to find parking in Spanish cities, but central Zaragoza was locked down. I drove around the local streets for about fifteen minutes but every block was lined bumper to bumper with parked cars. Eventually I realized it was futile and parked in a supermarket garage, which turned out to be the most expensive one in the area.

El Gancho might not have been the best choice for parking, but it was the perfect location for getting around by foot. We didn't touch the car again for the remainder of our time in Zaragoza. Virtually everything of interest to a typical tourist is concentrated in a narrow area on the southern bank of the Río Ebro, the major river that arises in the Cantabrian mountains and courses eastward to the Mediterranean, splitting the region of Aragon in half. A few blocks to our east was the Casco Antiguo, or old town, with the central market and the famous Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar. On our other side was the Aljafería Palace. We headed in the direction of the old town to find a restaurant, passing some amazing urban artwork on the way. At one major intersection I was amused to see the first American ethnic food store I've ever encountered. Of course, it makes complete sense. In the US we have plenty of Spanish, Italian, Greek, and other ethnic markets. Why wouldn't there be an American market in Spain? Unfortunately it was closed so I couldn't find out what typical American delicacies might be. Cheez Whiz? Frozen corn dogs?
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We walked a couple of blocks away from the old town to find the restaurant I'd chosen from TripAdvisor, but it turned out to be full with an impossibly long wait despite the fact that it was only 8 pm on a Wednesday. I hate getting denied by a restaurant I've picked out because I can't escape the feeling that we lost our chance to have a legendary meal, and we'll never know what we missed. I wanted to retrace our steps back to the old town but Mei Ling shook her head and pointed in the opposite direction, which didn't look promising to me at all. I know better than to insist on my own plans, especially when I've just screwed up, so we headed down the wide and almost empty street Mei Ling had chosen. After a couple of minutes, we came across what looked like a little open-fronted mall with an escalator going upward. We could see clear signs of restaurant activity on the second floor and immediately realized we'd arrived at some kind of food court. Once we were upstairs, we knew we had found the most perfect possible place for us to eat. There were about a dozen stalls with every variety of Spanish food, from fresh seafood cooked to order to unusual and savory tapas such as octopus eggs. My favorite dish was the land snails, which I found crawling around a large bowl at the front counter of a tapas stall. When I placed my order, the hostess scooped up a few handfuls of the live snails and had a delicious dish ready for us in about twenty minutes. My regret at being turned away from the other restaurant instantly turned to consummate relief that we hadn't missed the opportunity to eat at Puerta Cinegia Gastronómica. It was our most enjoyable restaurant meal of the trip and overall an amazing experience. Mei Ling had done it again.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 09:33 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

An Epicurean Odyssey: Valencia part 2 (incl. Xativa)


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South of Ciutat Vella, Valencia expands outward in a series of concentric rings separated by wide boulevards. The railroad lines coursing southward split modern Valencia down the middle. My research indicated there was little of interest to travelers in most of these modern, residential neighborhoods with the exception of a small area called Ruzafa (or Russafa in Valencian dialect). Ruzafa has become the hip, Bohemian neighborhood of Valencia with a heavy concentration of boutiques and cafes and it has its own covered market. We decided to start the day with breakfast in the market and explore the area.
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The market was much less busy than Mercat Central, but we found some interesting displays of wild mushrooms and seaweeds that were unlike anything we'd seen the previous day. Of course, the ubiquitous delis with every conceivable permutation of jamon and queso were around every corner.
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We eventually found the small food court where there was just one tapas stall. There was enough there to construct a meal along with some food we had bought in the market. We were obviously the only customers who weren't local, which was a nice change in milieu from the touristy atmosphere of Mercat Central.
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There were a few small, old streets around the market that gave way to wider avenues lined with well-maintained, colorful townhouses that were quintessentially European. It was a pleasant place to stroll but at mid-morning on a weekday there was a distinct lack of pedestrian traffic and energy.
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We had no interest in returning to Ciutat Vella, which meant that it was the perfect moment to embark on a day trip out of Valencia. I had already selected the town and castle of Xàtiva as our destination if we had the time. The town was only 45 minutes south of Valencia, and the castle was supposed to be the most beautiful in the region. Valencia, of course, is also the name one of Spain's seventeen autonomous regions. The region occupies much of the Mediterranean coast with the city of Valencia near the center. Outside of the city of Valencia, the region gets little attention from travelers with the exception of the Costa Blanca resort area to the south. However, there are certainly hidden gems like Alicante and Peñiscola that we hope to explore when we eventually return to Valencia.

After some initial misdirection from our GPS, we arrived at the sequence of sharp hairpin turns that ascends to Castell de Xàtiva. Once we were on foot, it was a fairly easy ascent up wide, shallow staircases to viewpoints from the ramparts of Castell Major. We didn't explore Castell Menor but we had beautiful views of it along with the medieval town beneath us. Outside of the old town was a peripheral layer of apartment blocks which gave way to warehouses and then fields that extended to a thin ridge of hills to the north.
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We decided to have lunch in the old town and found it nearly deserted of pedestrians, although there seemed to be plenty of vehicles passing through. Once we arrived at our restaurant, we found it surprisingly crowded. The hostess gave us a sorrowful look and gestured at the tables, where the diners showed no signs of preparing to leave despite having mostly finished their meals. After about twenty minutes we were seated and had a decent if unmemorable lunch.
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On the way back to Valencia we detoured briefly to Parc Natural De l'Albufera, a favorite weekend getaway for Valencianos. The park consists mainly of marshland surrounding a large freshwater lagoon, and some secluded beaches. The main activity aside from hiking and birdwatching is a boat ride on the lagoon. We found our way to the sleepy little town of El Palmar at the southern end of the isthmus between the lagoon and the ocean. The town is famous for its paella, but it was too early for any restaurants to be open. We drove across the isthmus keeping our eyes out for anyone offering boat rides, but I was inwardly relieved when we didn't spot anyone. It had already been a long day and we still had to find dinner.
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We arrived back in Valencia in time to experience another amazing feature of Jardín del Turia, the Parc Gulliver. This unique playground consists of a 70 meter three dimensional representation of Gulliver tied to the ground by the Lilliputians. His hair and clothes are covered with slides, ropes, and nets that can entertain dozens of kids at a time. The kids had an absolute blast, and fortunately they didn't notice the tumescent gargoyle overlooking the park entrance when we left.
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We thought we might find dinner at Mercat de Colón, a beautiful old market building between Jardín del Turia and Ciutat Vella. Inside we found a large selection of upscale boutiques as well as cafes crowded with Spaniards drinking lemonade and horchata, but nowhere that seemed likely to serve a substantial meal. We tried some overpriced sushi on the lower level, but finally gave up and searched online for a real restaurant in the area. We ended up at Panamera a couple of blocks to the south where we had a decent meal including the requisite Valencian paella as well as sangria.
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Our three days in Valencia absolutely flew by. We regretfully took our leave on the final morning and made a stop at the seaside neighborhood of El Cabanyal. One of the interesting things about Valencia is that unlike other major European coastal cities, the neighborhoods near the beach are residential and largely devoid of tourists. El Cabanyal had some pleasant-looking buildings, but didn't particularly stand out after all the beautiful areas of Valencia we'd already seen. The Mercat Cabanyal was the weakest of the three covered markets we'd visited in Valencia, although certainly adequate for the basics.
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From El Cabanyal, we drove to Valencia's famous Malvarrosa Beach. I had an idea that we might stop for lunch in one of the beach seafood restaurants, but Mei Ling went to scout a couple out and didn't find anything good to report. I was eager to get on the road, as we had a couple of stops on the way to Zaragoza, so we contented ourselves with a distant view of the beach from the road as we drove north out of Valencia. We felt the satisfaction of accomplishing everything we had planned for our stay in Valencia, but we had the distinct feeling there was still much more to discover. We decided that if we ever followed through on our plan to stay in a single city for a month to study Spanish and live like natives, it would be Valencia.

If this entry has awakened an interest in Valencia, I strongly recommend taking a look at this blog. I already linked to a couple of the entries earlier. The authors spend three months in each city they write about and then move to a new one. It's the most comprehensive and helpful guide to Valencia that I've come across in my research, and I plan to read every word in their Istanbul section as well before we go there this spring.

Posted by zzlangerhans 14:28 Archived in Spain Tagged xativa russafa Comments (0)

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