Monday, July 27, 2009

Assault on Western Europe: Part VII. Final Fantasy

Thursday, April 23, 2009
How happy am I in the Loire Valley?

I spent just three and a half weeks there and my entire being still aches to be back in Europe; Alisa and Bruce no doubt see this coming and are aching to figure out how not to leave!

This day started out with a visit to a B&B that might have served as a viable option for Bruce and Alisa to stay on the continent. Might have, had it not been saddled with a satanic past. It was gorgeous, but I’m pretty sure the low price was not because the owner was anxious to be generous… it was cheap because she was anxious to disconnect from it.

The B&B did take us within walking distance of the glorious village of Cordes, so after I ran screaming from the house of the well, I high-tailed it to Cordes for a few hours of shopping. Shopping without Edwards hurrying me on to the next café or a spring classic bike race! This was my only chance to get any real souvenir shopping done and I do hope my mom and sisters like their gifts!
Edwards climbing at the Roc de Gorb with Bruce on belay.

After finally, no thanks to the South African realtor, reconnecting with Edwards and the group, we all headed out to the Roc de Gorb for some climbing. Bruce, Alisa, Ben, and Anka cycled there, while Edwards and I took the Hippo. It was nice to see Bruce harnessed up again, and to see him kill a few routes. It was humbling to see Anka so comfortable on her first climb. Darn athletes and their darn athleticism!
Bruce and how he feels about climbing now-a-days.

Later we had dinner in Najac where I learned that there is nothing better than dinner with new friends, old friends, and a view of a castle. I recall that the hot chocolate crepe we had for dessert was so tremendous that it made the entire dinner; whatever it was, fully spectacular! The great addition to the evening was Fenwick, Alan’s dog, the little black version of Ratso. He came in and said hello, but was shortly off to do whatever it is smart, independent dogs do. At the end of the night he came running to Alan’s whistle… just like Ratso would have. It was a cute goodbye to very good people: Ben, Anka, Alan, and sadly, even Alisa and Bruce. The next day we’d be off to the Loire Valley.
A perfect setting for our last meal with friends.

Friday, April 24, 2009
The Manoir les Minimes

After much gratitude to Bruce and Alisa, as well as leaving some climbing gear in case Bruce decided to get out again, we departed to do girl stuff. I’d been a (pretty) good sport about all the cycling and climbing, but I wasn’t leaving France without seeing some fairytale castles!

At Alisa’s suggestion, we booked a room at the Manoir Les Minimes. When we arrived, it could not have been more perfect. I don’t know how to describe it, as I’m not well versed it period furniture, or the different flowers that bloom in France, all I can say is that this was the France that the little girl in me recognized and adored.

Our room was number #12, with a view of the river and the castle, and parlor area in which to enjoy it. The windows were “storybook” perfect and opened to the scent of the freshest purple blooms. I was certain a blue bird would alight on my finger and we would have a song together. Didn’t happen.
Out our perfect window

While I could have lounged in my French Style princess suite for the entire afternoon, Edwards has no patience for such things. We set off to see the home where Leonardo DaVinci spent this last days and to tour around Amboise. The trip to Leonardo’s house was most intriguing; I still can’t get over how many things he invented. The anemometer? We use these to site wind farms today.
The home where Leonardo daVinci spent his last days.

Next we strolled down Town Square and had our first Ricard in France. We sat next to the Amboise castle wall at a bustling café. Edwards ran down to the shop and purchased tobacco and rolling papers for a smoke with his pastis. He’s so adorable.
Amboise Town Square

Our concierge booked us dinner at the best restaurant in Amboise - Pavillon de Lys. The establishment has one seating per night and they had one table left. It was the most incredible dining experience of either of our lives. They had two menu choices: Menu or Menu Legumes. I did the Menu Legumes and this is what I had:

Carrot Soup
Artichoke Spread
Poke Egg
(Each more spectacular than the last)

Tomato soup with cucumber cake – in a glass, with a straw.

Spicy and sweet vegetarian lasagne

Almond chocolate tarte with vanilla glace
Strawberry Ice
Chocolate crisp with mango sauce
Crème in a cup
Macaroons and jam

Two courses of soup and 5 desserts? This meal must have been designed for me personally and it could not have been more perfect.

Edwards had the Menu and with it came four goat cheeses that were unlike any cheese we have tasted on the planet. Surely Wallace and Gromit found them on the moon. They were absolutely spectacular. This is what happens when you can use raw dairy.

After dinner we walked down the dark, narrow streets. It was so beautiful it reminded me of Zurich after our elopement. We went back to the hotel and enjoyed ourselves as we did on our honeymoon, but before I slept I wrote:

If rural France is about the lifestyle, the Loire Valley is about the Fairytale. Even though I’m tucked tightly into my bed, my heart is doing cartwheels down the street.
The streets of Amboise from Amboise Castle

Saturday, April 25, 2009
Amboise Chateau

Chateau Day in the Loire Valley. My notes were slim; the memory was captured digitally.

We on-sighted four Chateaux:

All pictures are from the Chateau in Amboise. There are more photos, from the other castles, available on my Facebook page.
Even the instruments were glorious
A beautiful reason to go to church? The Chapel at Amboise
Our Manoir from Chateau Amboise

Loved, loved the luggage!
Edwards, always attempting to be where he shouldn't be.
Artistry in architecture
Amboise castle grounds
How beauty was captured before the photograph

Sunday, April 26, 2009
Fontainebleau, France

Our last B&B outside of Fontainebleau

After cramming the girl stuff into two days, we were back to climbing and both of us were excited about it.

Edwards had been going on about the boulders in Fontainebleau since our plane landed in Paris. Upon seeing the forest, yes, there is very much to go on about!

The forest is quite lovely, if you like that kind of thing (I prefer the SKY), but it does have 20,000 boulder problems going for it…
The only dry area in the rainy a.m.

Unfortunately, the rain had picked back up in France and the sandstone boulders were soggy. We managed to locate the one dry, overhanging area in the forest and shared it with a couple of nice chaps for most of the day.
Edwards getting a spot from one of the Brits while he worked this traverse.
Bill on a dry boulder in the afternoon

Bill Lucia, who had just returned from Bangladesh, was at this dry boulder and he shared the rest of the day with us as well. We bouldered; went into town to view the Fontainebleau Chateau from the outside, have some pastis, the’, café, and snacks; and then went back to bouldering. Later in the day things had dried up a bit and we were able to mess around on some Fontainebleau boulders for real.
Edwards working a dry problem in the afternoon

We had a wonderful B&B our last two nights in France with very kind owners and a perfect, perfect breakfast. While the dinners our last two nights were utterly disappointing for France, the ambience of the restaurant couldn’t have been better. Adjacent to the Dame Jouanne area was a real back-woods, climbers paradise of old shoes, equipment, rugged service, and cheap eats. The autographed pictures of Lynn Hill and other famous climbers were bonus.
Our last room, fitting that it was called, "Voyager"

And that’s it. Our entire trip in a nutshell.

While this ending to a very, very long blog might seem abrupt, it is not so jarring as having to tear ourselves away from Europe after three and a half weeks, only to come home to Salt Lake City – where our food is dead and our responsibilities lie. The final note I made from our final day…

“Must leave tomorrow. TERRIBLE!”

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Assault on Western Europe: Part VI. Escalada Conquistadors

Rodellar, Spain
Tuesday, April 21, 2009
Rolling into sunny Spain

Although it was still pouring buckets of rain in Luchon, our gorgeous hotel was warm and dry inside. With coffee and tea for breakfast, and the company of swallows painted and diving happily all over the walls - artistic and joyful - our moods were warmed for the adventure that lay ahead.

After an exciting drive up the Pyrenees - with Edwards chattering endlessly about cranking on his bike up this twisty mountain road - miraculously, there it was, like a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, El Sol.

The Spanish mountain towns were glorious with new stone architecture that perfectly mirrored the old, and lush spring mountain climates. Down in the valley's it was a much drier landscape, but familiar and beautiful. Not to mention, the highways were straight and well signed, though we still managed to get turned around a bit on our way to Alcazar.
Alcazar, Spain

Alcazar. A lovely tourista town. The mountain guide there was very friendly and recommended that we get chalk for climbing at the large market in Anahuesca. "Well, large for around here." In my minds eye I pictured something the size of, gasp, a Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market. I should have been thinking more along the lines of a large 7-11! Anahuesca was pretty much on our way to Rodellar and the mercado was magical. The couple was very nice, and though the wife spoke very good english we still tried to do our best with Espanol. We found chalk, cheese, pastries, other odds and ends, and my favorite Brian Froud book, 'Faeries", but in spanish, "Hadas" Oh, glorious day! The Mercado owners booked us a room near Rodellar in a hotel where we could also get cena - dinner.
Our inn near Rodellar

It was very kind of them to book us this room, for we had a wonderful time chatting in our broken spanish (with some assistance from our English/Spanish phrase book) with the owners. Their son is currently playing basketball for Midlands, TX and is being recruited by the best college teams... Kansas, etc. They wanted to know which team Edwards thought was the best... all of them were impressive teams. Their kid must be an amazing player! We would discover all this over cena a la ocho, but after checking in, we ran to check out the cliffs at Rodellar. First glimpse of the cliffs in Rodellar

Talk about making it to Mecca! Until this day I was luke warm on climbing in general. After a few hours at Rodellar, I have to admit to being pretty stinking stoked! Now I'll climb anywhere, so long as the next time we go to Rodellar I can make a reasonably impressive showing on more of the routes. Of course, I'll only be impressing myself. Most of the climbers there are GOOD climbers. Better than I'll ever be. We explored the entire valley within sight, and crossed the FREEZING river twice, but settled on climbing at El Camino... one of few walls with routes easy enough for me. El Camino, Rodellar

I can't say enough about El Camino. Belay bolts say it all... a secure belay for a 100 pound girl to belay her husband in comfort. AWESOME! The Spaniards have yet to let me down!

All in all, this was an amazing and perfect day. I can't wait to explore more of Spain. Apparently I've made it sound so fantastic even my younger brother bought himself and his friend a couple tickets to Madrid to go see what all the fuss is about. They were not disappointed! Espanya es muy bueno!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009
Round up

Wednesday turned out to be another perfect, sunshiny day in Spain. Edwards rounded up coffee in the morning, and happened to catch the morning sheep round up through town as well. He says it was quite the attraction. After breakfast, a few important purchases (olive oil), and checking out we headed back to El Camino cliff. It didn't take long to get worn out. The climbing there isn't easy, so fully pumped and with a little more exploration on foot, we had to hit the road back to France.
View from our room at the inn
last look at El Camino

We made one last stop at the Mercado to thank them for their help and pick up some more delicious road trip food. We met a refugee there this time. He was from, oh no! I can't remember the African country, but... somewhere and was excited to speak English with us. He was not as in love with Spain and wanted very much to join his brother in New York City. Apparently he wanted to work hard and make some money, and the Spanish lifestyle shuns such things... not a bad in our book, but I can see where he is coming from.
Scenic Drive

Our drive back over the Pyrenees (for the last time) was filled with more spectacular scenery, and while we had much to look forward to during our last few days in France, we were sad to say goodbye to Spain. No worries though, we'll be back for more exploration soon. Yeah, as soon as I have available vacation time again!
Spanish winery. One thing they take seriously.
Parting shot!

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Assault on Western Europe: Part V. Fear and Loathing in Andorra

Monday, April 20, 2009
The Unholy Country of Andorra

Without any real intent to see Spain this trip, we decide to wander on over (and over) the Pyrenees Mountains through Andorra and then to stay the night in our "home country" of France before settling into Spain. I was excited to be on the move and very excited to see Andorra.


Andorra is a sandbag. If you took Las Vegas, NYC, and Vail and put all three areas into Little Cottonwood Canyon you would end up with Andorra la Vella - and that's the best part. Okay, the setting is lovely (you keep trying to think), but what the French politely describe as a "hard edge of tax evaders" was really just a beautiful geography made grotesque by money and greed. Driving through was disappointing, but the appalling nature of what is being constructed and the high end retail of fashion and cars allowed room for amazement, if not actual enjoyment. Instead of stopping in this place for even a souvenir magnet we stayed in bumper-to-bumper traffic to roll through as quickly as possible to the freedom, beauty, and sunshine of the Cataluya Region of Spain.

Crossing from Andorra to Espanya was glorious. Spain has not thought to rub elbows with the gluttony of Andorra, so the border becomes what the Pyrenees aught to be - with no gilded opulence and cheap concrete construction. Just mountains and sunshine.

Unfortunately, we were not staying in Spain this night. We had to head round to Luchon, France. The weather in Spain was perfect. The air was dry and the views lovely. The one town of any notable size, Sort, was perfectly enjoyable. There were happy people and we could communicate just enough to laugh and ask questions.

Also, we were stopped by the police on the way down to Sort and they were SO nice. Obama fans and willing to speak Spanish with us despite our struggle to understand. I liked that!

In Sort there was also a baker, who wanted to speak English a little. She asked where we were from and told us she had never left Sort before. It felt so nice to interact with people again. It was not as easy to do in France. In St. Antonin we could, but still much easier in Spain.

After Sort we drove back over the Pyrenees to Luchon. It was a downpour and town was deserted. It is probably quite nice in the right season, but that night of, "it's raining it's pouring the old man is snoring..." just really made us anxious to get back into Spain.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Assault on Western Europe: Part IV. The French Revolution


Monday, April 13th: Today we drove. It is a long trek from Roubaix to Sanvensa, and just when you think you are almost there, you hop off of the highways and onto country roads. Country roads in France rarely point the direction you need them too and always come in quadruplets (meaning: you’ve got to take at least four of them a long way before you get to where you are going). It is a lovely way to see France though, and Bruce and Alisa sure found themselves a perfectly charming home in the French countryside for their sabbatical. Solid rock, lavender shutters, wood-burning stove, a little bit of rangeland, and a swimming pool. It was so nice of them to share it with us!
Les Costes - Bruce and Alisa's sabbatical home.

Tuesday, April 14th: On the menu for our trip to France turned out to be sleep and food. These are two of my favorite things, particularly when I don’t have to feel guilty for enjoying them. Before we left, I did have dreams about waking up in the morning, hopping on a bike, and riding to the village for bread and flowers. Unfortunately, my sleep patterns were not synching with the French lunch hour (when everything closes), and the weather didn’t want to cooperate either. Never has the adage been truer… “April Showers Bring May Flowers.” Too bad we didn’t get to stay long enough to enjoy the blossoms.

Some shots from a rainy'ish day

Today, after some morning rain, things dried up enough to go explore some climbing areas in the region. First we stopped in Saint Antonin, Bruce and Alisa’s favorite village, and walked around a bit. I, of course, got some Haribo gummy candies at the shop, and we both fell in love with this little town. We approve of the “favorite village” choice!

After St. Antonin, we stopped at a few walls, until Edwards happily found one with a ridiculous approach that he said was perfect… just like a climber would make. At this cliff we met Paul and Lisa, and their German Shepard. Paul and Lisa are two ex-pats who had moved to the area for the climbing. It was excellent to talk to them about their experiences moving to France from Britain. It seems that the language is the first hurdle and then finding work in a country that aggressively protects the jobs of citizens is the second. They were very nice to visit with us for so long, but they clearly wanted to get back to climbing and we hadn’t come prepared so we headed off.
Color-coded routes at Bor et Bar climbing area

Hungry by now, we went back to Saint Antonin and ate at the pizza counter. Really: a window/counter that opens to the sidewalk. I had to muddle through some language barriers having to do with cutting the pizza, how many times to cut the pizza, and whether or not my husband had already paid, but that was fun. The pizza was, of course, delicious. We considered our pizza an aperitif and were already thinking ahead to dinner… Alisa was cooking.

Bruce and Alisa had a marvelous idea to have the couples take turns cooking each night. This is a splendid idea for any kind, hardworking, and unselfish set of couples. Unfortunately, not knowing me, they couldn’t factor in my fear and loathing of the kitchen. Instead of taking turns cooking… we took turns providing meals. Alisa is a wonderful cook and made us amazing dinners. On our nights to cook… we ate out. Fairish, no? Also, we wanted to see and experience French culture and some of the best places to do so are in the restaurants. It was very nice of them to take nights out on the village as a reasonable trade for a home cooked meal (which would have been TERRIBLE if I had cooked it).
Something that doesn't hate rain.

Wednesday, April 15th: Arg, wet again. I think we slept in and went climbing. All the rain was making me disoriented. Of course, finding a dry cliff in the afternoon was a bit of a challenge. When we thought we had, we found wet pockets all over the place. The climbing area was pretty interesting though. Hard and moderate routes that were immediately off the road, behind a bunch of trees, and next to the river. Really not too shabby.
The roadside climbing area

One thing I discovered more fully about myself while we were in France is that unless it is coming down as snow, I really dislike precipitation. Nothing is more depressing to me than rain. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for an afternoon thundershower that dries right up like in the Rocky Mountain West, but the desert in me doesn’t like for things to be soggy.
Penne from the Amiel climbing area.

After climbing a bit, we went to Penne. This hamlet has a medieval castle perched high on the hill. We decided we very much loved Penne, it is so beautiful how could you not? We had un café’ and un the’ au lait at the little lunch place in Penne and met a most friendly German Shepard. He again belonged to some ex-pats. Maybe the only dog they allow to go back and forth between Britain and France is the German Shepard? I’m still bitter that you can’t take a dog with a drop of pit bull blood onto British soil. Poor little Beata, she’ll never see London Bridge!
Edwards' buddy in Penne

After the café’ stop, we went to Amiel, a little cliff that Paul and Lisa had told us about. We only had time for a few climbs, but it quickly became my favorite cliff in the world (this opinion would be amended later).

For dinner, we again found much joy in French cuisine! We had a most fabulous pizza dinner in Villefranche. I had a goat cheese and honey pizza… unbelievably good. (In fact, it inspires me to go get a pizza crust, some goat cheese, and apply some of my raw honey. I think I can do this at home…). Also, we had some lettuce that was out of this world. If anyone knows where to locate tasty butter leaf lettuce in Utah, we are in the market!
Funny climbing area at Bor et Bar

Thursday, April 16th: The weather looked like I might stay dry and while Edwards desperately wanted to get some climbing in, it was market morning in Villefranche. Not to mention, we needed to swing by a sports store and get Bruce some shoes so he could come climbing at Amiel with us.

Oh, the market! Beautiful and crowded. We had a little shopping list and a map for the vendors we needed. With very, very little French in our verbal arsenal, we needed that map to be correct. We found everything we came for (plus some gummy candies) and after perusing just a few shops on the square, and stopping for un café’ and the’ au lait, we headed to Les Costes to round up Bruce and Alisa for some climbing at my “favorite cliff in the world.”
Market Day in Villefranche

That day Amiel was sitting in a banana belt for weather. The hours we were there, we watch countless rain storms wrap around us but leave us dry. Blessed location. The climbing at Amiel is mostly really brilliant. Edwards, of course, found some weird route that was super sharp and ultra un-classic, but called it a classic and made everyone get on it. I don’t know how Bruce endured it with such a huge smile, when I would climb it the next Sunday, I would not be smiling. No matter… this day, everyone had fun.

Friday, April 17th: There was probably more climbing this day, but mostly, there was Cordes. Cordes and Gaillac Wine. If Cordes wasn’t a tourist destination it would beat Saint Antonin for “favorite village”. However, it is certainly up there on the list. French Winery in the Gaillac Region

Before we saw Cordes we went wine tasting, we didn’t do the big tour from place to place, but just went one place and sampled from several wineries. I must admit, I’m not a huge fan of Gaillac wines, but Edwards like them and now has a red Gaillac shirt that I can rarely get him to take off… he’s such a little boy. Despite my not loving the wines, we purchased a couple of bottles to have on hand. You can never have too much wine on hand when you are in France.

After wine tasting it was off to Cordes for dinner. Cordes is picturesque. Lovely, quaint, and French in every way. Not to mention, Edwards was in absolute wonder at the steep, steep cobbles. Belgium has nothing on Cordes! It was at the bottom of town that we found our magnet from France… a tiny toy bottle of Pastis. My well traveled little sister has taught me that magnets are the perfect souvenirs: small and fun to look at. Our magnet collection is growing fast! We ate up at the top of town (one of our few meals we have pictures of). Of course, again, it was delicious! Superb!
Restaurant at the top of Cordes

Saturday, April 18th: “THE SUN CAME OUT FOR REAL!” (This is the only note I wrote for the 18th. I don’t think the sun stuck around, but I must have been pretty excited to see it!)
Obviously, somewhere cool.

We went climbing at Amiel again. I only did 3 climbs, but they were all 5.10s. Later, we went back to the cliff that was sorta dry and right off the road. Here, I got on a 5.12, but it was too hard and I stuck my finger in a hole that was already occupied by something slimy (small frog, slug, deadly eel?). Gross. Let me down! I do not like slimy 5.12s!

That night we had dinner with three of Bruce and Alisa’s closest French friends. Ben, the ex-pat; Ahnka, the German; and Alan, the original Beatnik. Not to mention Alan’s dog, Fenwick! Fenwick was awesome! So much like Ratso, but all black and about a third the size. The company was amazing, the food and ice-cream couldn’t be beat, and the whole evening made me wish two things very much: that we could stay, and that we could speak French!
The Rosetta Stone Monument to help me decipher French!

Sunday, April 19th: Today the rain was back, so Bruce and Alisa took us sightseeing. I honestly must admit to not having any idea where we were. I recognized some of the rock from photos I had seen of them cycling, but other than that… no clue. We saw lots of beautiful country, learned about “plague houses”, and bought our way into the Museum of the Absurd! The pictures speak volumes, but kudos to Bruce and Alisa for being able to speak both French and ART! They gained themselves an invite back in the summer for dinner. Way to win over the “outside artists.” The artist is the man holding his dogs’ butt… again… volumes!

I’m not sure what we ate or did after that. We were all still pretty wrapped up in the Museum. What a tremendous amount of creative energy to walk through and explore.

Because the rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain… we decided the next day it would be time to check out the Spanish side of the Pyrenees Mountains.
I know it is sad, but gummy candies really are just my favorite!