Chinon

On Saturday an unlikely group took a train ride together to visit the small ville of Chinon. A man originally from Taiwan, now relocated to Boston where he practices general medicine, a nurse practitioner from Washington DC, Barbara, a Swiss teacher studying in Tours as part of her professional development program (WOW!), and Bill, from Australia, joined us as we ventured to Chinon, a tiny town on the Cher River.

Highlights from Chinon included a relaxed four-course lunch with our new companions, and learning how to geo-cache with Barbara.  The view back on the chateaux and the town from the opposite side of the Cher river was spectacular, too.   After visiting the chateaux (which we preferred viewing from the exterior, as opposed to the tour inside), and after losing a member of our group who wandered off unknowingly, we all recognized that our growling tummies could be put off no more.  Thankfully, on our way to lunch, Andrew relocated Jack enroute to our destination, and our group of 6 reunited. Lunch at Au Chapeau Rouge started with a petit amuse bouche, followed by a fois gras portion for both Andrew and me.  For the main course, fish from the river Cher, along with mushrooms and other veggies, arrived bathed in a burgundy sauce.  After our cheese plate, my favorite course arrived:  chocolate ganache with saffron ice cream.

 

We all decided that quick spin through town would help us digest our rich lunch and wine, so off we went, me as “madam-guide” as Bill dubbed, and Barbara ever snooping around for a geo-cache treasure. We even took advantage of the Chinon Jazz festival while visiting. Even though rain interrupted the jam session, we enjoyed jazz on the river, too.  A lively group played melodic jazz music in the afternoon from a boat parked on the Cher, and when weather threatened to end the party, the group just moved under a cluster of trees, and started again.  Most interactively, they proceeded to lead the crowd on a jazz march through town, stopping every 200 meters or so to finish a song, and then moving along through the streets again, so even folks who opted to stay home could hear the music from their windows and balconies.

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Jazz dans le bateaux
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Jazz dans la rue
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Should we eat at Chapeau Rouge? Should we not? Where do we go?

Most impressively, though our group of wayward traveling friends were almost all anglophones, we managed to speak mainly French the whole day!  While Andrew thinks the amount of distressingly poor French might have caused him to regress in his abilities, the comprehension level was just about right for me!  Anyway, I appreciate how others are willing to play along with the immersion experience, and recognize that when learning another language, the other second (or third, or fourth) language learners can often be the most sympathetic listeners, and provide the most appropriate input.

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I think the look on my face explains just about how well we communicated during our time together!

Le Chateaux de Langeais

After morning class, we zipped over to the Hardouin boulangerie (our favorite bakery in Tours – it comes highly recommended), bought baguette sandwiches for lunch, and set off for the Tour train station.  Our afternoon adventure took us 25 km from Tours to a small town in the Loire Valley called Langeais.  Once we crossed the Loire River, the train arrived to the Langeais station in minutes, and from there, the Langeais castle was a 5 minute walk away.

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Flowers blooming everywhere!
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Le Chateaux de Langeais

IMG_2822IMG_2812Langeais is smaller than Tours, but offers an easy afternoon getaway.   The garden featuring plants from medieval times caught our attention especially.  People in the middle age munched walnuts to keep their hair from falling out, and cooked onion to settle the flatulence caused by legumes.  We took notes so we’ll be able to incorporate some healthy habits into our diets!  We’re looking forward to comparing Langeais with the Chateaux de Chinon, which we’ll see tomorrow. For now: Je vais au lit:) A bientot!

L’ecole Française

Our first week at CLÉ French language school in Tours is almost over!  We calculated that today we probably experienced 10 hours of French immersion (6 hours of class + 2 hours at dinner + 2 hours with other students).  I’ve learned a ton of vocabulary, but of course can’t quite fashion all the words together to make a logical sentence every time.  By dinner time, my ability to express a thought in a complete sentence was fading!

A day in Tours at language school starts about 8 am at breakfast.  After using my back teeth to jackhammer through toasted pain for breakfast, we scurry off to school (about a 12 minute walk).  Class takes place in the morning – two 1.5 hour sessions cushioned in the middle by a short but sweet café pause.  On Tuesday and Thursday, everyone returns to the school for afternoon workshops, amounting to 6 hours of class on those days. Atelier caught me by surprise – this vacation includes more hours of schooling than I realized!

This week, our afternoons have included lunch en restaurant, sandwiches on the terrace, a jog along the Loire, a beer or two in Place Plumereau, a visit to the Cathedral St. Gatiens, and strolls in the old ville.

We are staying with Marc and Armelle near the center of Tours.  Dinner each evening is ‘al fresco’ in full view of their blooming rose garden.  Armelle prepares dinner for 7:30, and so far we have feasted on the French versions of grilled sausage, chicken pasta with mozzarella, eggs and sausage, white asparagus, roasted fish, lots of salad, fresh fruit, and a gateaux a citron.  A bottle of rosé always shows up at the table, too!

Tomorrow, to celebrate a successful first week of class, we plan to visit Chateau de Langeais.   This weekend we’ll also participate in our own “Tour de France” by hopefully biking to Chateau du Villandry.  Bon week-end!

In the beginning…

I guess it’d be only fitting to document some of our Camino adventures here. I was looking back through the archives of this blog the other day, and noticed a post from 2012, mentioning how one day we’d like to make the pilgrimage.  Less than two years later, we’ve finished our long-dreamed of adventure, and after a month off the Camino, I hope I can offer some interesting and useful insights into the experience. 

St. Jean Pied de Port

We started our pilgrimage in the traditional location, just over the border into France in the town of St. Jean Pied de Port. Situated in the historic Basque country, St. Jean espouses traditional Basque architecture highlighted by the cleanliness and care found in French villas. 

Panorama of St. Jean

We stayed our first night in a hostel here, and since it was still a somewhat novel experience, I look back on it as one of the more cozy and caring establishments in which we over-nighted. 

8 to a room, Andrew took the top bunk 🙂

Some highlights from this hostel included a get-to-know you session before dinner led by the hospitalero (those who run the hostels on the Camino) team, a vegetarian meal with curry sauces and roasted vegetables abounding, a dorm room of only 8, and a generous breakfast provided. Along the Way, commodities like these would soon become scarce, and the distant memory of a clean, well-run albergue, would surface later, reminding me I should have been more grateful for the “amenities” at the time. 

Most guidebooks, and even those who have completed the journey, warn that the first day is by far the most challenging day of walking. This is based on the fact that you climb virtually straight up for the first 20 km of the day’s hike, and complete a steep descent for the last 4km down into the Spanish hamlet of Roncesvalles.  There is only one café along the way for a warm-up rest, and the weather can be brutal, even in June.  I’d argue that the first day, while it is a test of your physical endurance, is not the ultimate difficulty described by some.  I found the first day to be full of unexpected surprises, and that the excitement and adrenaline of starting a trip you’d planned and saved for for so long to far surpass the steep inclines and aching knees on the descent. Further along on the Way, putting one foot in front of the other became not only a physical trial, but a mental one as well. Fatigue and routine are much more demanding to overcome than a single ascent. 

Some thoughts that have stuck since this day, June 4, 2014: 

Stop at the 8km mark in Orisson for a coffee

The 2 euro café con leche stop was well worth the overpriced beverage, as it was our only real rest stop between 8:00 am and 4:30 pm. 

Before the rain began

I am shocked by how cold we were on June 4th. Lulled by the warmth of the beginning of summer vacation in the states, this is still technically Spring, and we shivered and shuffled our way through blasting wind, forty degree temperatures, razor like rain on our faces, and foot-deep mud-ravines. None of us was prepared for these types of conditions. 

Near the top of the ascent. Frozen, angry red knuckles from the wind.

The omelette sandwich prepared for our lunch by the hospitaleros was the grossest baguette and egg concoction I have ever eaten. Hungry, cold, hoping to warm up in the emergency shelter located on the Spanish side of the mountain, I am sure my body temperature dropped even further when I quit moving. The lunch was supposed to give me energy to continue, but it only made me feel worse! My jaws couldn’t chomp through the chewy, tough resemblance to bread, and my throat wanted to spew up the dryness of it. 

On the way down the “easy” path

Why did the sign tell us that the upcoming descent was the “easy” way down? 

Bone grating against knee bone. Lots of mud.

Have you seen the movie the Way? Where Emilio Esteves’s character dies crossing the Pyrenees the first day of his pilgrimage? I scorned this story-line, ensuring others that there is no way you could die on the Camino by getting lost or falling. I now understand perfectly well how this could take place. Fog, rain, little to no visibility, and fatigue could all lead to wandering off the trail and never finding it again. Take my word for it, it is definitely a plausible story line. 

Why did it take us so long to finish this stage? 8:00 am to 4:30 pm, really? 

My legs don’t hurt quite as badly as I thought they would. 

Historic monastery, our albergue for the night

I don’t have to sleep in a bunk bed tonight?  What a deal!

Third floor dorm room

Where is the advil? 

Madrid, España

I can’t believe we’ve been home from Spain for a month tomorrow, or that we’ve already almost finished our first week back to school!  Summer is gone. (Although both Andrew and I would like to point out our school calendars have completely missed actual summer, which doesn’t end, according to the seasons, until September 21st.) 

Catedral de Santiago Andrew and I with our “Compostellas”

This was one of those summers that makes you feel like you’ve lived up to your goal of living life to the fullest.  We spent a month and a half in Spain, mostly walking the Camino de Santiago, but we also, gloriously, spent a week in Madrid. 

Andrew with Don Quixote y Sancho Panza
La Plaza de España

I’ve encountered Madrid before, but never in ideal circumstances.  I know, how could it be that, while in the capital of Spain, across the ocean, in my most favorite country, that I’d failed to see Madrid for all it has to offer, from top-notch art museums, to beautiful green spaces, and efficient public transportation? Well, during my maiden journey to Madrid, I landed alone, for the first time in a Spanish speaking country, and met the rest of the group from the USA that would be studying abroad together in Granada, Spain.  It was a confusing meet and greet type-time, clouded by jet-lag, and punctuated by a visit to Madrid’s rowdiest discoteca with a group of over-ambitious sorority girls. I did not enjoy myself.

Puerta del Sol

The second time I tromped around Madrid it was after eight weeks spent in Germany with a love-sick boyfriend. I was ready for a real, hot shower, meals at home on a kitchen table, some good foundation, and no pressure. To be clear, Andrew led this Madrid expedition, and he exhausted every resource he had in the city, introducing me to a myriad of sweet, kind folks. Unfortunately, Madrid in August is a furnace, and sleep is out of the question, especially when air conditioning isn’t a typical amenity in homes. After allowing a bactrum acne pill to disintegrate my esophagus, and after dealing with red, itchy eyes caused by wearing the same contacts for so long, I couldn’t take this trip anymore. (Admittedly my issues were entirely self-inflicted, but stress will do these kinds of things to a person.) So, despite an effort worthy of the boyfriend of the year award, I left Madrid without much desire to return anytime soon. 

El palacio de cristal, Buen Retiro

While we lived in Spain, amazingly, we only spent a couple of hours in Madrid, mainly at the FedEx outpost in the airport complex to mail our outrageously heavy suitcases back to the US. Priorities.

Maybe it was the lack of expectation, or the fact that I’d spent each day for a month before that walking insanely long distances, but after my most recent adventure, Madrid now tops the list of cities where I’d one day love to reside. Andrew and I spent hours wandering the streets of the old town, walking the Paseo del Prado, and enjoying El Parque del Buen Retiro.  We had a successful night of tapas in La Latina, and even tried out one of the city’s only craft beer haunts. 

I was also impressed with our planning, as we found places to visit that Andrew had never seen before.  He is basically a Madrid expert, so it a challenge for us to find new sights that we could experience together. 

We shopped on Gran Vía, a first time experience for Andrew, and an anytime please experience for me. 

The Sorolla Museum, the former home of the successful Spanish impressionist Joaquín Sorolla, is not only a beautiful home, and a picture of what a working artist’s studio looks like, but it is also impressive architecturally and decoratively. 

Paddle boats on the pond at El Buen Retiro come highly recommended. 

And the Plaza Mayor induces a stand and stare moment for just about anyone. 

El templo de Debod offers a free, fun spot to explore, and enjoy the views of Casa del Campo, as well as el Palacio Real. 

I couldn’t ever pass up a free visit to The Reina Sofia or El Prado, Madrid’s premier art museums, and the Reina Sofia is worth the time it takes to gain entrance just to ride up and down the outward facing glass elevators to see Atocha, Madrid’s main train station, from above.

Finally, while Madrid isn’t a city bursting with beautiful, awe-inspiring Cathedrals, it is fun, if you speak Spanish, to visit San Francisco El Grande and chat with the two guides who lead the tours.

I’m plotting my return to Madrid already, armed with a list of places to go and restaurants to try, inspired by our most recent trip.  I’d have to say that Madrid isn’t one of those places that tries to romance you immediately.  Hidden under the tarnish of a confusing daily time-table, and lack of any real monuments, like an Acropolis, or an Eiffel Tower, is a warm glow, a city that offers up world-class art, a humble park where all are welcome, and the glitz and glamour of a Royal Palace and 18th century avenues. Patience, and the willingness to operate in line with a Spanish lifestyle is all it takes to discover the allure of Madrid. Andrew’s kayak alert is accordingly set for fares from TYS to MAD-Barajas, and with any luck, we’ll be headed back soon. 

Guanajuato

The second half of our second adventure to Mexico was spent in Guanajuato, Mexico.  A brilliantly colored university town set in a valley, it was a quaint spot to relax, but really didn’t charm us as much as our first stop in Querétaro.

A couple of highlights:  The view from our B&B’s balcony.

View from balcony

Dinner at Las Mercedes.  A restaurant reviving Grandma’s traditional dishes with local, fresh produce.  We especially liked the flourless corn cake with strawberry ice cream for dessert.

The white building in the middle is the university

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Exploring a still operating mine that opened in the 1500’s.  As Andrew pointed out, the California Gold Rush happened in the late 1800’s, so they’ve been finding gold, silver, and copper south of the border for a long time.  We’ve got the Spaniards greedy egos to thank for that.

We're in the mine

Wandering around in the huerta of a former hacienda.

Garden of hacienda

Getting soaked to the gills by a late night thunderstorm.  Water cascaded down the steps up to our hotel like a waterfall.  I walked through water so deep it covered my feet!

Cathedral

Beverage Guide to Mexico

Thinking about travelling to México meant worrying about drinking the water. It’s fun to joke about Montezuma’s revenge when the water spurting out of your tap at home is 100% safe to drink, but once you’re on the other side of the border, ingesting a piece of lettuce washed in unfiltered H2O or opening your mouth in the shower is suddenly terrifying.  Before arriving in México, I assumed that most Mexicans would drink the tap water like we do here, their stomachs and systems being accustomed to the weird bacteria that would give my plumbing a rude awakening.  Instead, almost everyone imbibes only filtered water bought in giant, thick, plastic jugs. I expected for beer to be considered water and to have to steer clear of coffee, but the culinary scene is a lot more varied than the Tex-Mex we normally chow down and so are your options of what to wash down your spicy poblano sauce with.

Street scene in Querétaro

For breakfast, and breakfast is a sit down affair, with typical Mexican portion sizes (read: generous!), you could try out a café de la olla.  Translated roughly to pot coffee, I thought I was ordering a normal drip coffee, a lá Waffle House, but I was served a cinnamon spiced-sweet caramel liquid in a rustic potted mug.  Charming, but not the strong, bitter brew I hoped for.  It’s worth finding out what café de la olla is, but probably not worth a repeat experience.

Another recommendation for breakfast time is a fresh fruit juice.  Most common is orange juice, but sometimes you might be surprised with a twist, like carrot-orange.

18th century aqueduct

At lunch, I’d recommend you find a restaurant where it seems those on a working lunch break are headed and follow them to their local fonda.  Again, my expectation was for folks to have lunch between 11 and 1:30, but really, the locals don’t sit down for their midday meal until 3 pm (though starving tourists don’t stand out too much if they can make it until 2 pm).  Along with your four course lunch, you should order the agua fresca of the day.  (Filtered) Water mixed with seasonal fresh fruit juice is served in a carafe for the table to share. Our first trip we made the rookie mistake of ordering a cerveza with lunch and then we longingly spied those in the know quenching their thirst the true Mexican way.  A couple flavors we tested were hibiscus flower (agua de jamaica), grapefruit (toronja), lemon (limonada), lime (lima), pineapple (piña) and orange (naranjada).  Grapefruit agua fresca stood out as the clear favorite, followed by the pineapple variety.  The drink can be cloyingly sweet depending on the house recipe, but we did ask once for it to be less sweet, which was no problem, as the proprietor informed us it was made to order.

facade of cathedral in San Miguel de Allende

In stark contrast to Spain, México really doesn’t have an all day bar culture. Students might go out in the evening with friends, but a social life that revolves around a glass of wine and a bite to eat at the local watering hole just doesn’t exist.  The culture still seems family oriented and centered around being with each other- great-grandma to granddaughter, walking, sitting, eating, but not drinking (publicly, anyway) much. Beer does have its place though, mostly at dinner time, and there are two distinct ways to have a cold one.

chelada is a dark beer served over a couple of tablespoons of pure lime juice in a salt-rimmed, chilled mug.

michelada isn’t for everyone.  Spicy tomato salsa and lime juice cover the bottom of your red-pepper and salt rimmed mug, over which a dark beer is then poured. Neither a chelada or a michelada taste much like beer, which is a shame as Mexico can brew a decent lager.

Another drink on your list to try should be pulque, made from the fermented sap of the agave plant.  It has a milky, pulpy consistency, low alcohol content (5%~) and is normally mixed with a fruit juice to make it palatable.  I tried it once and that’s enough.

ancient monastery, now regional Museum of Querétaro

Regional Museum

And of course, tequila, made from the agave plants grown only in the region of Jalisco, and mezcal, the same liquor, but made with agave plants grown outside the region of Jalisco.  Many times these are served as an aperitif or digestive with sal de maguey (salt from the maguey worm-sounds gross, tastes good), red pepper and oranges.   Hope you have as much fun figuring out what to try next as we did!

El cerro de las Campanas- Maximilian was shot here.

Hello From Querétaro