Paris and Beyond

Our Personal Tour de France & Other Exciting Adventures!

I’m a Duck!

AFC5D2C7-3807-4C5F-9FA2-E546651D0314And the adventure continues! You just never know what will appear around the next bend. As it happens, I’m going back to work. Wait! What? I’m retired, aren’t I?

When we moved to Eugene two years ago, four of my former middle school students were attending college at the University of Oregon. I kept in touch with them while they were here and it was really a lot of fun to see where they were going in life. Eisa was the last to leave. A few weeks ago, she finished her Masters in Education and was ready to head off to Washington to begin the first job of her career. Before she left, I invited her for a drink and we chatted about what she had accomplished and what she hoped to do. It’s wonderful to know that there are still people who are excited to take on the challenge of teaching these days.

The following day, Eisa was speaking to her favorite professor who mentioned that she had a position to fill in her research project. Given the parameters, Eisa felt like I would be a good fit and recommended me to her professor. She introduced us via e-mail. Mind you… this is my 25-year old former middle school student giving me a job recommendation. Think about that! Suddenly that resume I never thought I would ever need again became important and I knew I had to dig it out and update it. Since I didn’t need this job and, truthfully, wasn’t planning to go back to work, I wasn’t too stressed, but I did want to get it right. I forwarded my resume to the professor and received a call from her the next day which resulted in a job offer. At this point, I was rather shocked and amused because it just didn’t seem real. This is a small state and the University of Oregon is literally its highest academic institution. It would be quite an honor to be even a small part of it!

The research project involves developing a progress and monitoring assessment tool for preschoolers in Spanish similar to one that is already being used in English. I know, I know… this doesn’t sound too exciting to most people, but I was ecstatic to learn that bilingual education was alive and well again! This was right up my alley. Bilingual education was the inspiration for my career choice. During my 40 years in teaching, I worked through every iteration of it including the period when it was basically forbidden. This opportunity would allow me to come full circle and return to the root of my motivation for becoming a teacher.

While I do not possess the advanced degrees that almost everyone connected to this project has, I do have some invaluable qualifications which I never really thought would be recognized. Forty years of practical classroom experience, the environment for which the assessment tool is designed, has given me the ability to communicate effectively with school district staff, parents, and students participating in the project. In addition to that, being fluent in Spanish and knowledgeable about bilingual education provide significant advantages.

So, obviously, I accepted the offer and after jumping through all the HR hoops for the past three weeks, I will finally get to set my foot in the office this week and get started. Yes, I even get an office! Even though I was originally told I could do most of the work from home, I am pretty excited about the office aspect. My official title is Project Coordinator. I really have no idea exactly what I will be doing yet, but I’m pretty sure it will be challenging and interesting.

When the professor said, “You are exactly the person I was looking for”, I jokingly finished her sentence by saying “and can’t afford.” While they certainly cannot pay me what I’m worth within the constraints of a research grant, I believe the work is totally worth my time. I hope my contribution to the project will have a meaningful impact.

So that’s how I became a “Duck”. Since Oregon only has one professional sports team, the Portland Trailblazers, the majority of the population’s team spirit falls on the University of Oregon Ducks. Most often when you hear the word “Oregon”, people are referring to the team or the school, not the state. Duck Fever is extremely high and completely pervasive even far beyond Eugene. Evidence of it is everywhere from decals, license plate frames, and “Duckwear” to homes and businesses painted in UO’s bold green and yellow colors.

Well, now I guess it’s time for me to get to work. All I can say is…

GO DUCKS!

 

And then… there was Paris!

Once we had survived the heat wave and rejuvenated ourselves at the Château, it was finally time to ride into Paris and celebrate the end of our Tour. So Norman joyfully relinquished our car in Bordeaux and we boarded the TGV high-speed train bound for Gare Montparnasse. Riding in style and luxury, we arrived in the City of Light ready for the last circuit in just over two hours.

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Each time we have gone to Paris, we have stayed somewhere in or near the famed Saint-Germain-des-Prés neighborhood in the 6th arrondissement. Since World War II, it has been known as a cultural and intellectual hub frequented by many notable writers and artists such as Hemingway and Picasso who reputedly hung out at places like Les Deux Magots and Café de Flore. Being one of Paris’ wealthiest neighborhoods, we could never afford to live there, but it is always a treat to stay in the area for a few days because it’s so well-connected to everything you would want to see or do.

This time we chose the small, family-run boutique Hôtel Signature located on a quiet side street — oversized room by Parisian standards, inner courtyard view, air conditioning, elevator, breakfast, and champagne — all the requirements for a perfect finale. We knew this would be our last full-length Tour de France so we decided to go all out, but we wanted to do it a little differently.

We spent our time doing simple things most of which were within walking distance though we did take the metro once or twice. The best part was seeking out non-traditional French food every day. In the process, we discovered some great international cuisine. The first evening we went to Saigon d’Anton and enjoyed a delicious and very authentic Vietnamese dinner of Pho and Bun, two favorite dishes we have been missing since moving away from California. I also ordered a unique lemon sorbet served in a real lemon providing a refreshing ending to my meal.

Afterwards, we made our way to the Luxembourg Gardens for an evening stroll on the way back to our hotel.

02E4AB0D-BBF6-48CF-BC70-5A19BCC39336On Day Two we found our way to the Lupicia Tea shop, a tea brand we’ve loved to drink for years. This Japanese company has just recently closed all but one of its US outlets (inconveniently located in Hawaii) so I was thrilled to pick up some more of their excellent teas.

Later, we crossed the Pont des Arts taking in one of the most iconic views of the city. You may have noticed that we updated the header photo on this site with the panorama Norman took from where I’m standing. The original version was taken in 2006. Interestingly, the view hasn’t changed much which I suppose is a good thing.

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We continued on to explore the grounds of the Louvre and beyond…

…where there’s some cool architecture —

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Then we stopped for a quick Sushi lunch.

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For dinner, we chose Evi Evane (which translates as “Cheers!”), an upscale Greek restaurant run by two very talented sisters. We squeezed ourselves in to a perfect little table in this tiny place and what an absolutely fantastic experience it was — probably the best Greek food we’ve ever had. No surprise once we learned that sister Dina Nikolaou who is responsible for creating the menus (supervised in-house by sister Maria) is a highly-trained and well-recognized Greek chef.

Below left – Pikilia (Assortment of cold appetizers): Tarama, ktipiti, tzatziki, fava, mélitzanosalata, purée d’olive; Center – Dolmas; Right – Grilled Octopus

Wednesday, July 31st, was not only the last day of July but also the final day of our tour and, additionally, my birthday. Making every effort to fit in as much as possible, we began by revisiting the beautiful royal chapel, Sainte-Chapelle.

From there we walked through the Île de la Cité until we reached Paris’ most renown cathedral, Notre Dame. Since the fire in April, it has been well-barricaded making it difficult to appreciate as a tourist destination. However, due to its size you can still see quite a lot. It was interesting to observe its current condition and the progress rapidly being made on its restoration.

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Returning to the hotel for an afternoon siesta, we popped in for lunch to another tiny establishment this time run by two brothers called Cook’n Saj specializing in Lebanese fare.

Of course, we had to check out the inviting array of sweets at the cleverly named Hugo and Victor Patisserie just around the corner from the hotel. What’s a birthday without cake?!

Finally, we took the metro directly to the Louvre for an evening visit. Last time we employed this strategy for a time with fewer visitors, it worked out really well but such was not the case on this night. It was crazy busy! We were only able to spend a couple of hours before we had to escape. We’ll be back another day.

After already having had champagne and cake, you would think the day would be over. But NO! It was still relatively early so we decided one more dinner at Evi Evane was in order. Fingers crossed with no reservations for such a small and extremely popular place, we set off on our conquest. As luck would have it, there was one table left for the evening and it was ours. Maria remembered us from the previous evening and we were rewarded with an even more spectacular meal.

To top it off, she surprised me with a birthday dessert, dimmed the lights, and led the entire restaurant in singing “Happy Birthday”… in English! Wow! I was not expecting that! We couldn’t have achieved a better finish.

Sharing Our France

E669DF9D-A0BD-4094-B67D-02F1F3F95750As you learned in the previous post, part of the inspiration for this trip was an opportunity to stay in the manor house at the Manoir des Granges. But truthfully, the majority of the motivation was to share all the things we love about southwestern France with our son and his friends. And share we did!

At first, Lorenzo’s friends were a little skeptical about spending a week out in the middle of nowhere with his parents. You can’t blame them. They really had no idea what they were getting into. However, our various recommendations for daily adventures worked out well for them. Coupled with the availability of a large private pool and fabulous local food and wines plus the unique qualities of the Manoir, they seemed to have a really good time. We were really pleased to see them enjoying much of what we love about the Dordogne and southwestern France. As you can tell from these photos, they do know how to have fun!

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“The Kids” started off their journey with a short stay in Paris including a spectacular dinner at Bernard Pacaud’s Michelin three-starred restaurant, L’Ambroisie — quite a contrast to what awaited them in the Dordogne. Here they are decked out in their finest for that evening.

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Ryan, Amy, Lorenzo, & Jacob

They even managed to squeeze in a few major sites especially for first-timer, Amy… Lorenzo’s friend since 5th grade, 22 years ago.

Sunday – Bastille Day

43DB8976-E12C-4AD9-B1D3-08D1495D893FAfter arriving in Bordeaux from Paris via the high-speed TGV train, the Kids hung out there for a few hours and even whisked through La Cité du Vin, Bordeaux’s new wine museum.

Still reeling from jet lag and lack of sleep, they made it to the Manoir ready to experience a week in the countryside. Coming from their home cities of San Francisco and Los Angeles and spending some time in two of the largest cities in France, they were looking forward to a less hectic lifestyle for a few days.

Monday

The Kids made the requisite trip to the local grocery store stocking up on all kinds of local delicacies and treats for the week. Meanwhile, we headed off to Sarlat on the first in a series of “revisits” and ate a light lunch surrounded by some medieval grandeur.

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That evening, Ryan, who served as Activities Director & Food Connoisseur during their stay, produced this delectable dinner spread for all to enjoy.

Over the week, the Kids also became well-acquainted with the large private pool and took advantage of many opportunities to spend idle hours there simply relaxing — something they rarely get to do in the midst of their typical daily grind in the tech industry.

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Most mornings began with breakfast often featuring eggs cooked-to-order by Ryan and/or Jacob accompanied by fresh pastries Norman acquired from the bakery just a five minute walk away.

Tuesday

It was time to explore farther afield, so we set the Kids off on a 27-mile loop through the Périgord that encompasses the quintessential towns of Sarlat, Domme, La Roque Gageac, and Beynac. We had driven this route in 2012 (read about it here) and knew it would be a great introduction to the unique history of the area. Later, Norman prepared a delicious meal of Cassoulet to finish off the day.

Wednesday

Requesting another recommendation, we suggested a visit to Bergerac and the Château de Monbazillac that we had discovered on our 2015 trip. Read about our experience.

Continuing the theme of revisiting favorite places, we returned to the beautiful village of Brantôme where we ate a tasty bistro lunch along the river and wandered the charming streets.

 

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Despite being seemingly out in the middle of nowhere, there are a few notable restaurants in the vicinity of the Manoir where you can make reservations for a special meal. One of these is the Auberge du Coq run by a former Michelin star chef who decided to leave the stress of the big city and retire with his culinary skills to the country. We all dined there together choosing some delicious options from the three-course menu. Merci beaucoup, Ryan!

And, yes, I had Foie Gras twice on this day!!

Thursday

Officially declared “stay-at-home” day. Even if you are young, you have to stop and rest sometime! Directly across the road from the Manoir is an archeological site called La Roque Saint Christophe — an easy walk and entertaining window into the past. The Kids ventured over in the cool of the morning to check it out and returned with intentions of canoeing, but, in the end, the relaxation of the pool called to them again. Time to kick back and take it easy.

For this evening’s gourmet dinner, we were all able to walk right up the road to La Table de Moustier, a small restaurant with big flavors and superb enthusiastic, multilingual service provided by a very talented husband and wife team. Once again, we ordered from a three-course menu and were extremely delighted with the results.

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Below is just a sampling of our various dishes…

I have to say that eating well and drinking some fabulous wines played an important role in the success of this week.

Friday

The Kids went all out for the grand finale of their week making the 5-hour round trip to Toulouse. It had been Jacob’s lifelong dream to visit the Airbus Factory located there and his friends were determined he should have the experience. There was a slight compromise… Ryan accompanied Jacob on an engaging tour and museum visit, while Lorenzo and Amy spent the day hanging out and shopping in the Place du Capitole, the central square of the Pink City. We made our own Toulouse trek in 2012.

While the Kids were out and about all day, Norman and I made one last revisit to the hilltop bastide of Domme for that spectacular view of the Dordogne River and Valley it so uniquely provides. Another light lunch and we were on our way back to the Manoir through the lush green countryside.

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Since three of us had upcoming birthdays, a small celebration seemed a fitting way to end this wonderful week. I arranged for a traditional French cake called a Croquembouche which is a tower of vanilla pastry cream and caramel-dipped profiteroles decorated with sugared almonds.

With candles lit, we made our wishes, and served up glasses of our favorite Bonhoste white and rosé Crèment while pulling apart and devouring the delicious pastry. When asked if we would reveal our wishes, Lorenzo stuck with tradition and kept his to himself. Jacob admitted his wish was to move to New York. I replied that I didn’t make a wish because I had already gotten mine… to return to France and have the opportunity to share what we love about it with others exactly like we had that week.

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Joyeux Anniversaire and May all your wishes come true!!

The Prequel

Our two stays at the Château de Courtebotte served as bookends to our (almost) final destination — our beloved Dordogne Valley, specifically the Périgord Noir — land of walnuts, truffles, medieval towns, and the caves of early man. This is the area where we had hoped and planned to make our retirement home. In fact, one particular location was the entire inspiration for this trip.

This is how it came about…

We first discovered the Dordogne on our 2012 Tour which took us throughout many regions of France. One of our stops was in the tiny community of Peyzac-le-Moustier where we stayed for a week in the Haybarn, a self-catering gîte at the Manoir des Granges. We didn’t sit still for a moment and took off in every direction day after day exploring all the amazing sites in the surrounding areas. For some background, read The Three C’s of the Périgord. It was the perfect home base for a wide variety of experiences which helped us narrow down our choices for a retirement location. Here we are enjoying the gîte life at the Haybarn…

Tour #2 in 2015 was focused entirely on southwestern France with the goal of pinpointing our retirement spot. We stayed in many different places including the Manoir des Granges once again. We enjoyed even more daily jaunts to beautiful places like Brantôme and the community of Annesse-et-Beaulieu where we located a house to rent for the following summer. Here’s an account of some of our experiences in the Perigordian Countryside.

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Beautiful Brantôme

True to our plan, we set off on Tour #3 in June of 2016, settled into our little house, and prepared ourselves for a serious French property search. Of course, if you have followed the blog, you know how that turned out. Even though weren’t staying with them, when I got sick, our hosts Paul & Philippa from the Manoir des Granges came to visit us in Annesse-et-Beaulieu offering advice, translation assistance, and moral support during a most difficult time which we so greatly appreciated.

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Our House in Annesse-et-Beaulieu

In August of 2018, after a year-and-a-half of treatment, I was feeling brave and anxious to make another French trip. At the Manoir des Granges, in addition to several gîtes, there is a large manor house (Manoir) available to rent. With its 6 bedrooms and 6 en-suite baths, it easily accommodates 12 people.

Here’s a video about the Manor House.

I had always wanted to stay in the Manoir, so I suggested to our son, Lorenzo, that he round up some friends and plan to join us for a week in July of 2019. To be honest, I never really expected this idea to come to fruition. Low and behold, a couple of months later, Lorenzo informed me that he had several interested parties and we could move forward with our vacation plan. That’s when I decided to organize one last big trip centered around this week in the Dordogne… starting in Spain, the country that had been so elusive in my life for so long.

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The Manoir

I studied the calendar working backwards from our planned stay in the Dordogne and came up with an itinerary for Tour 2019 that would include many of the most popular cities in Spain plus some favorite previous destinations such as San Sebastián, and the Château in Saint-Jean-de-Blaignac. Originally, we were going to fly home from Bordeaux but chose to add three more days in Paris as a bonus making it somewhat easier to return home via Portland. As the saying goes, Paris is always a good idea.

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Norman was a bit nervous about whether or not I would be able to handle the trip. While I certainly didn’t have the stamina I had for this sort of travel in the past, I managed quite well with my important (and culturally appropriate) daily siestas.

Now that you know how it all began, I imagine you’d like to know just exactly how that week in the Dordogne turned out. Check in tomorrow to read the full story.

On to France

At this point in our journey, it was time to say “adios” to Spain and “bonjour” to France. So after a long, relaxing week in San Sebastián, we set out for our favorite French château. It turned out to be such a relaxing portion of our trip and certainly the last time we would ever undertake such a long vacation, that we completely left the blog behind in favor of being present in the moment. But now that we are finally home and almost entirely recovered, it’s time to begin to tell the rest of the story.

Every once in a great while when you are traveling, you encounter a place you could visit time and time again with equal or more delight. The Château de Courtebotte is one of those rare places. This is where we began our aborted 2016 trip so it was important that we return and do it right. Located in the tiny community of Saint-Jean-de-Blaignac on the bank of the Dordogne River at a bend that provides a spectacular view, this 17th century Château was purchased by its current owners about 10 years ago and renovated in a unique manner. While still maintaining important period features, they have redone the interior of the house with utmost attention to detail and elegance. There are modern touches and finishings everywhere making it the most inviting and comfortable historical building we have ever experienced.

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There are five luxurious bed-and-breakfast type rooms located upstairs in the Château itself as well as several self-catering suites and gîtes on the property. Our favorite accommodation is the air-conditioned Suite Ô with a kitchenette and its own very lovely, private patio where Norman has spent much time drawing and painting in addition to serving up some delicious meals. We also experienced a few days in the double room Suite Capri — no kitchen but lots of comfort.

The entire Château is yours to enjoy no matter where you stay from formal living room and entertainment room to a billiards room where we brushed up on our pool skills. It would be the perfect setting for a live game of Clue.

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Outside in the spacious well-manicured grounds there is something for everyone — large swimming pool, saunas, trampoline, ping pong, swings, and playhouse for the kids.

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A strikingly beautiful place such as this would be nothing without superior hospitality to match and that is exactly what you find at Courtebotte. Isabelle, your French host (whose English is fortunately way better than my French), makes sure you well taken care of. For an extra charge, she offers breakfast daily. This is no ordinary breakfast. It starts off with the best French tea, chocolate, and coffee accompanied by traditional freshly baked and delivered croissants and mini baguettes. Isabelle and her staff then prepare a dazzling array of small plates including homemade yogurt, granola, and jams, fresh fruit, juice, cheeses, tarts plus eggs made-to-order. Every morning we vowed to eat less but never succeeded in convincing Isabelle of this fact so the plates kept coming and we kept eating. It was impossible to turn down such a tasty breakfast feast.

There is also an opportunity to enjoy a gourmet dinner twice a week which consists of at least four courses with wine pairing. For this, all guests are seated at one long table turning dinner into a 3-4 hour event with much lively international conversation. We have had French, British, Dutch, German, Canadian, and Australian dinner companions on various occasions. Getting to know people from different parts of the world is definitely one of the best aspects of our travels. When we really hit if off, we even exchange open invitations to visit each other in our respective countries. That is a really exciting proposition.

Aside from simply relaxing and enjoying this unique environment, there is plenty to do just a short distance from the Château which is situated in one of the most famous wine regions in the world. The city of Bordeaux lies one hour west where you will find a new wine museum, river cruises, and the fascinating Miroir d’Eau, the world’s largest reflecting pool.

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A short 15-minute drive will take you to Saint Emilion. This is a cute, touristy little town offering distinct local wines from endless shops that line the narrow, hilly, cobblestone streets. We visited in 2012 and again in 2015. This time we popped in for a quick revisit and tried out the Café Saigon for some Vietnamese fare, a pleasant change from all the rich French cuisine.

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Dotted around the entire surrounding area are innumerable wineries such as the Château de Bonhoste whose wines are featured at Courtebotte. Accompanied by the winery’s adorable mascot, Gabby, we were given an outstanding tour and tasting on this visit resulting in the purchase of more than a few bottles of wine — reds, whites, rosés, and our favorite, the sparkling Crèment. While purchasing wine on a menu at a restaurant in France can be quite expensive, buying directly from a winery is extremely affordable. All our bottles ranged from $7-10 and were far superior to anything we would buy for that price in the US. By comparison, wines featured at American wineries typically run from $25-45 per bottle. At a French grocery store, $3-5 will yield excellent wines as well.

Since we spent much time in Spain on this trip, we have been particularly interested in saffron. We discovered a small winery nearby with a side crop of French saffron where the 5th generation owner gave us a pleasant tour and explanation of saffron cultivation. We learned that when you are using the “real deal” (authentic saffron), you need only use a few threads which differs greatly from the amount Norman has typically used when preparing paella. Of course, we purchased some to bring home and it will be interesting to see if less is truly more. We also bought some intriguing saffron-infused products which we had to consume during our travels: honey, orange jam, mustard, and syrup which can be added to water or sparkling wines. The saffron honey was our favorite and we had to make sure to eat all of it before we left. At home, we get high quality honey from a small local farm and are going to try to make our own saffron infusion.

We were fortunate to be able to visit the Château twice on this trip — once on the way into France headed to the Dordogne and again on the way out before returning our car to Bordeaux and taking the TGV train to Paris. If there were only one reason to return to France, the Château de Courtebotte would be it.

 

Ezcaray

74142366-0EF9-474D-86FC-3936032558DBAs well-planned as they may be, every vacation has its surprises and sometimes the unplanned turns out to be the best. This was certainly true of our experience in Ezcaray, a visit brought about when we fell in love with the gorgeous mohair and wool blankets in our San Sebastián apartment. Early on the last day of our week there, I decided to ask our host where we might be able to purchase them thinking there was probably someplace nearby. He explained that these blankets could only be found in high-end stores at rather exorbitant prices none of which were in San Sebastián. He advised us to make a trip directly to the factory where we could acquire them for a mere fraction of the cost. Furthermore, he informed us that it was a beautiful drive and worth making even though it was located two hours south (back in the direction from which we had to come to arrive in San Sebastián). We looked at each other and said, “Well, what the heck? We’ve got the whole day.”

So off we went back through the truly breathtaking Basque Country to the tiny village of Ezcaray (pop. 2,000) that owes its fame to the amazing mantas (blankets) produced by the aptly named company of Mantas Ezcaray in business since 1930. Arriving at siesta time as we Americans often do, the factory was closed and were were “forced” to check out one of two stellar hotel and restaurant establishments in town, Palacio Azcárate. The small, intimate bar had an inviting tapas menu with some unique selections only costing 2-3€ each — prices and quality you often hear people talk about but never seem to find. We tried a few and they were delicious.

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4E21B407-FE11-4005-A43A-B02788E6478EEventually, it was time to head over to the factory. The entrance was adorned with a bench upon which several woven products were arranged enticing the visitor to continue inside even in the heat of summer. Our first encounter was an array of looms used in the weaving process. Then we moved on to the showroom where an extremely knowledgeable and helpful assistant was waiting to show us their wares. She brought out blanket after blanket laying them all out and explaining their various qualities. There were so many designs and colors to choose from that we were like the proverbial “kid in a candy shop”. Purchasing one or two is what I originally had in mind, but Norman had other ideas. As he pointed out, we were never going to be there again. So after much hemming and hawing trying to decide which ones we liked best… we ended up buying FIVE! We chose three large ones for our two beds (so we can alternate??) and two smaller “sofa-sized” ones for each of us to use when we cozy up in front of the TV during the winter. All tolled they added up to less than the cost of a single blanket in a retail store. What a deal!

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Our assistant busied herself folding our beautiful new treasures into two gigantic plastic bags specifically created for their products. While she was doing that, we pondered how on earth we were going to get them home. Our San Sebastián host offered to ship them to us, but that would have meant leaving them behind with him and we weren’t sure how that would all work out. In the end, we decided to carry them along on our journey and figure it out later.

018486EF-5B13-4C9C-8219-886164F103B8These have to be the biggest souvenirs ever, but fortunately, they don’t weigh much. That’s one of the beauties of these blankets. They are 73% mohair and 27% wool making them lusciously light and able to keep you warm or cool depending on the season. Just recently we purchased a large, lightweight, inexpensive suitcase which accommodated all five blankets perfectly. The cost of the suitcase plus the airline’s extra baggage charge will be totally worth it in order to enjoy them in our home for years to come. I know we will experience many comfortable nights and so many good memories every time we use them.

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Mantas Ezcaray… Ready to Roll!

Vamos a la Playa… Again!

82BFBD14-FCF2-4426-86A4-23A16245F65BWith the major sight-seeing events behind us, it was time to begin Vacation, Part 2, also known as “The Vacation from the Vacation”. In order to do that, we had to go to our favorite place in Spain and my first small introduction to the country in 2012, San Sebastián… or, as the Basques call it Donostia. What more fitting beginning to a true vacation than a week at the beach, one of the most beautiful I’ve ever experienced. We returned to San Sebastián for three days in 2015 and really found out what La Concha Bay had to offer so we knew we needed to spend more time here.

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With no agenda whatsoever, we settled in to our sprawling (by Spanish standards) three bedroom, two bath art-filled luxury apartment just a few blocks from Ondarreta Beach. After shopping at our favorite grocery store, Super Amara (somewhat akin to Whole Foods), we were all set to relax… and relax we did. First, however, we had to download some user manuals so we could figure out how to work the TV, the stove, the oven, and a couple of other appliances – more challenges than we had in previous locations for some reason. It took two of us to decipher the magic to manipulating the remote control to login to Netflix, but once we succeeded, we were happy campers… watching the full three hour plus version of Spartacus we realized neither of us had ever seen. Believe it or not, these are our favorite vacation moments.

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We took advantage of the first full day with 85 degree weather to make our way to the beach, rent a cabana, and chill out for the afternoon. Soaking up the sun, wiggling our toes in the sand, and wading in the cool Atlantic waters of the bay were the only physical activities we attempted. Norman started rereading The Basque History of the World then took a long nap while I finally finished Winter in Madrid. 

Returning from the beach quite rejuvenated from our journey to the Basque Country the previous day, we were able to kick back and enjoy the fruits of our Super Amara shopping spree by preparing a Langostino Salad dinner accompanied by an incredibly inexpensive but super delicious bottle of Spanish wine. It was a perfect first day of the rest of our vacation.

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Madrid: Paseo del Arte

¡Ay, Madrid! Capital of Spain and object of my academic desires in 1973. ¡¡Por fin!! (Finally!!)

We exchanged our Córdoba casita for a top floor apartment in Madrid’s upscale Salamanca neighborhood, the family home of our host, Rosa. Unfortunately, she was not able to greet us in person as she spends part of the year in Florida and had not arrived in Spain for the season yet. My disappointment stems from the fact that since I first made the reservation last August, Rosa and I have become friends – pen pals of sorts – regularly exchanging e-mails and learning about each other’s lives. I was excited to have a Spanish friend again, especially one who knew my country as well as her own and had been looking forward to meeting her.

The major focus of our stay in Madrid was to tour several art museums – a paseo del arte (art walk) which was the name of the triple museum pass I purchased in advance. Most famous are those located within the “Golden Triangle of Art” – all within easy walking distance of each other though we could have done with some slightly cooler temperatures. When it’s in the 90’s and climbing, an art museum is a great place to be. You can be guaranteed of air conditioning for the artwork if not for you.

On the first day, we started off at the Thyssen Bornemisza, the newest museum which opened in 1992. This museum houses an immense and varied private collection that was once the second largest in the world. There were so many works of art here that we really appreciated, it was impossible to choose which one we wanted to take home — a game I always play. However, unlike the following two museums, there was no prohibition to photography here so we were able to come away with some nice “souvenirs”.

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After a break in the museum café for a bite to eat, we felt like we were on a roll so we bravely headed over to El Prado, the Spanish national art museum which is primarily dedicated to Spanish art from the 12th to 20th century. The collection is overwhelmingly vast with notables being the works of Goya, El Greco, and Velásquez. While the Thyssen provided endless variety expressing a multitude of emotions, for me the Prado exuded a certain sameness from room to room with a repetition of religious and political themes in dark colors evoking even darker feelings. The one salvation was the opportunity to see Velásquez’s most famous painting, “Las Meninas”. Displayed in its own special space, one of the particular attractions of this very large work is the clever way in which the artist painted it. We see Velásquez standing behind a canvas looking out at us as he paints the portrait of the king’s daughter attended by her handmaids (las meninas) and an assortment of other characters. In addition, we see the reflection in a mirror of her parents as they look on at the proceedings. This painting has been thoroughly critiqued and analyzed over the years so there are many interpretations as is always the case with great art. In the end, it is whatever the viewer chooses to see.

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Las Meninas by Diego Velásquez

Day Two, time for more art… but first a stop at the oldest and possibly best pastry shop in all of Madrid, La Mallorquina, conveniently situated near our metro exit in the Puerta del Sol location of kilometer zero, literally the center of Spain. What a selection! The secret here is to feast your eyes on the delectable offerings downstairs and then head upstairs to order with table service and a great view of the plaza.

Once we were plied with enough caffeine and sugar, we were ready to take on the Museo Reina Sofía which houses an impressive collection of 20th century modern art. While this genre is not usually my preference, surprisingly I found a number of works to my liking here. The central motive for this visit was to view one of the most important pieces of art in this collection, Picasso’s “Guernica” — the painter’s graphic portrayal of the horrific massacre of an entire Basque village by the Germans (with the support of Spanish General Franco) during the Spanish Civil War. We arrived early to avoid the crowds and I was able to spend some time quietly contemplating this historically and politically significant work. Informed by the reading I have been doing about this period in Spanish history, it was a very moving experience for me.

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Guernica by Pablo Picasso

Norman has been an avid jazz fan and musician all his life and has introduced me to the jazz world over the many years we have been together. When we travel, we always look out for ways to connect to the jazz community. This time we hit the jackpot discovering that one of our most favorite musicians, Paquita d’Rivera, would be playing at a small local venue during our stay. So on a warm Monday evening in Madrid we set out for Club Clamores for a 10:30 PM concert. It was a very intimate club hidden away downstairs in a fairly residential neighborhood. We have seen Paquito on a couple of other occasions that were excellent but this was by far the best concert ever. Perhaps it was because Paquito, Cuban by birth, was playing to a truly Latin audience and was more at ease in his element. This was definitely the highlight of our stay especially for Norman.

Last but never least in this city and only because we ran out of days and needed just one more little dose of art, we decided to make a short trip to a museum that Rosa recommended to us… the Museo Sorolla. This museum was originally the artist’s home — one of the few lucky ones who had enough money for a very comfortable life and was able to spend all of his time painting. This is a small, very relaxing place to enjoy some interesting works of art with impressionist leanings.

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Patio of the Museo Sorolla

Happily, I was able to locate another Corte Inglés not far away so we could have lunch. Of course, I did have an ulterior motive. This time I wanted to do some shopping. I just happened to notice a display of some beautiful scarves (one of my favorite accessories) through the cafeteria window. So, of course, I had to check them out. Luckily, it is the season of rebajas (sales) and they turned out to be rather affordable. Even better, I discovered the scarves were all done by Galician designer Roberto Verino making them true Spanish souvenirs. Art in fashion – a piece I could really take home and a perfect way to end our Paseo del Arte in Madrid.

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La Mancha!

Leaving Andalucía and heading north we entered the region of Castilla-La Mancha where we decided to take a very brief side trip on our way to Madrid. This is the land of Don Quijote, a nobleman who imagined he was a knight and his sidekick, Sancho Panza, a farmer who served as his squire. These characters from the 17th century novel Don Quijote de La Mancha written by Miguel de Cervantes carry out an array of crazy knightly adventures including one of the most famous that involves windmills. When Quijote encounters the windmills, he is convinced they are evil giants and tries to fight them albeit rather unsuccessfully as he is thrown off his horse and injured. As part of my Spanish literature studies in college, I was assigned this book and made a valiant effort to get through all 863 pages. Don Quijote has had a great influence on literature and language inspiring other novels like The Three Musketeers, the word quixotic (extremely idealistic; unrealistic and impractical), and the idiom tilting at windmills (fighting imaginary enemies). Even if you haven’t read the book, you are probably familiar with the story due to the fame and recognition garnered by the 1965 musical The Man of La Mancha and its uber-popular theme song, “The Impossible Dream”. As we drove through this area, it appeared we had been transported to Quijote’s La Mancha…

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The capital of La Mancha is Toledo, home of El Greco and one of the most well-preserved medieval towns. In fact, the entire town was given UNESCO World Heritage status in 1986. We exited the motorway, easily found a place to park in this heavily touristed town, and took a quick walk up a very steep hill and through the narrow cobblestone streets to check out a few of the sights.

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Toledo’s Tagus, longest river in Spain

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View of the outskirts from the top

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Finally, we stopped in for lunch at La Malguerida where we enjoyed some traditional local dishes including a very tasty gazpacho and a delicious pork and pea stew called carcamusas with a side of potato chips which seem to be Spain’s current favorite snack.

After returning to our car where we were greeted with a parking ticket on the windshield (Oops! Parking for residents only – no wonder it was so easy – but where was that sign??), it was time to complete the day’s journey to Madrid. Wow, that was an expensive stop but definitely worth it!

Andalucía Pt. 2

Next stop in Andalucía… Córdoba. While the previous city of Granada had a population of about 230,000 people fitted into a mere 34 square miles, the city of Córdoba spreads out over 484 square miles with 325,000 residents. If you do some quick math, you realize that there’s a great difference in population density in these two places. This along with the fact that the land is relatively flat in Córdoba creates a much more open and spacious feeling.

In Granada, sitting on the patio of our modern hilltop apartment in the ancient Albycín neighborhood, we certainly enjoyed the view and appreciated the unique beauty of the area.

However, Córdoba was a completely different experience. We had our own private two-story, three bedroom casita with surrounding gardens and pool situated behind gates on the property of some incredibly generous and gracious hosts. Every afternoon, we spent hours by that pool. It was such a delight and a bit of a welcome relief from the congestion of Granada. We found it quite easy to get around on the local bus and very comfortable to be out and about exploring.

And what did we discover? The other iconic Andalusian landmark commonly referred to as “La Mezquita” (mosque), another curious example of the melding of religious and cultural influences that has occurred over centuries of Spanish history and one of the best examples of Moorish architecture. Currently serving as a Catholic Cathedral, the Great Mosque was built on top of a small catholic basilica in 784, eventually reconverted into a Catholic Church during the Spanish Reconquista in 1236 and finally given a Renaissance remodel in the 16th century. The result is an intriguing structure with architectural features of its various predecessors still present. With each new iteration of this monument, little effort was made to tear down the old so a jumble of different architectural features on are still in place. The most notable feature is the seemingly never-ending multitude of stone columns joined by distinctive red and white arches providing the classic photo op.

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Ancient monuments are not the only draw to Córdoba. On our second full day, we set out on the bus to explore some of the modern downtown area. We encountered beautiful parks and plazas as well as wide, inviting avenues. It was here we had our first “Corte Inglés” experience… something I had been wanting to do for a long time. I learned about El Corte Inglés when I first became friends with The Spaniards. It is Spain’s only remaining department store chain, the largest in Europe, and third worldwide. It’s comparable in quality and price to Nordstrom in the US with the requisite, very affordable cafeteria generally on the top floor and often with a great view… allowing you to rest up and keep shopping, of course! With easy-access restrooms and air conditioned comfort, it’s the perfect place to take a break when you are tooling around the city, especially when it’s so hot. We headed directly to the cafeteria and yearning for something different, chose the traditional Spanish Ensalada Rusa, a non-traditional Ensalada Mexicana, and a couple of beers all for about $23.

Though our tour of the city was short and the weather quite hot, we found that Córdoba was definitely a city we would enjoy visiting again.

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