Friday, April 30, 2010

San Sebastian, Day 4

(Kayak class making its way around the island at low tide.)

Bus travel so far has been a snap. That's going to change. Once on the bus, yes, things are ridiculously easy. It's getting on the right bus, with a ticket, at the San Sebastian bus station, that's not obvious. (Looking for shellfish at low tide.)

First, you have to speak Basque, though Spanish will do for dullards. And then you have to figure out that the big bus schedule panels in front of each bus parking space have in fact nothing to do with the bus that might happen to be parked there. Don't try to buy a ticket from the driver, either, once you've found one going where you're going - no, tickets are sold from the cubbyhold offices way up the block and not even visible from the busses. (It would appear that the bus company with the office closest to the busses has a real advantage in getting passengers.)
(School group at the Wind Comb sculpture.)

Thus it is that, being a novice at this sort of foreign bustaking, it takes far longer than planned to get on a bus to Bilbao.
In the meantime I collect plenty of worries about tomorrow night's 1 am ride home. Eurolines, who so nicely dropped me off here, has no signage at all, much less an office, or even a sticker in somebody else's office. Certainly they will come for me. I have a ticket. I'm on a busguy's list somewhere. There just aren't going to be that many busses passing through here at that hour. And I do plan to be early. Midnight at the very very latest (now that's a pleasant wait, all alone with the idlers and nothing but a stuffed rabbit for security). After all, they were 30 minutes early last time - wouldn't want to miss the boat by being on 'time'.

It's pretty countryside to Bilbao, green for spring, and sharply hilly. Up, down, up. down. The hills aren't high, but steep. No matter how difficult the terrain, every bit is cultivated. The pine trees march down the slopes in neat rows, just like in France, broken up with pastures for horses or cattle or very long-haired sheep. This highway is a busy axis, too. Lots of traffic on the only major road for this half of the border with France, going the west way around the Pyrenees.
In an hour and ten, here we are in Bilbao. The city is not as much to my liking as San Sebastian (sorry, Kymri!). It's too much of a city. Big, grimy, lots of traffic. I find a place to stay without much trouble. Not seeing any hotels in the central part of the city, except for the really big ones beyond my budget (where are the small, reasonable ones??), I just ring at a Pension. I stayed at a pension in San Sebastian and it was very nice. Essentially a small hotel, though no breakfast room and they expect you to be out all day, not hanging around there. At random I ring at the Bilbao and am let into the residential building. The hotel part is on the 4th and 5th floors, and yes they do have a room for the night. It's even vastly cheaper than the Bikian in SS and as we head to my room upstairs I wonder if it's so cheap I've made a dreadful mistake. But no. It's clean and well done and doesn't smell of anything, and there don't seem to be a lot of other guests, at least at this hour. I'll find out how noisy it is at night later.
Off for a walk. It's hot here in Bilbao. On the coast it was chilly in the early morning, and just t-shirt warm at the height of the afternoon. Inland here it's in the high 80's F. They must bake in the summertime.
It's nice, for a city. Lots of parks. Great promenade along the riverfront. Lots of people walking in the central city. Buildings. Many many buildings. Parks and attractions are perks, but cities are about buildings so that is what they have. Old ones, new ones. Eyesores and beautiful ones. 'Nuf said about that.
My little city guide picked up at the hotel says the Fine Arts Museum is free on Wednesdays. It is Wednesday, isn't it? So I figure if I don't like it, I won't feel bad to just leave.
Just so, with their modern collection.

Then this. The White Monks, by Daniel Vazquez Diaz. Four monks around a table, standing. On the table a ball of bread on a plate before each monk. A pitcher, a single glass of water, a platter with two modest-sized fishes. Trout, perhaps.
Monk One, on the right, fingers an open book & stares down into space, worried that these two fish will no way feed four guys for a whole day. Monk Two scowls, angry at Fish! Again! Hates fish. Knows he should not hate fish and hates them more for it. Monk Three is sternly grateful for what the Lord has placed before him. Monk Four, in profile, squeezes his eyes shut, hoping for a miraculous transformation of two fish into four fine steaks, one glass of water into four goblets of wine. Through the window we see Monk Five, the only one surrounded by any color, on his knees, too weak to make it back to the refectory, pulling a dandelion leaf for his lunch. Never mind me, he says; eat your fish, eat your bread, pour your water and pass it around.
My fun with the White Monks aside, every painting tells a story. These monks seem terribly serious and unhappy. There's no joy or serenity. Often with art from the past century, whether they call it modern or contemporary or whatever, I can't figure out what it is. I'm not moved, or awed, or drawn in or happy, sad, angry, at peace, delighted, intrigued, or fascinated. I'm just bewildered, a state I don't find particularly edifying. So I move on. Today I'll wander about, poking around small squares and obscure fountains, enjoying the walk along the river; tomorrow I'll see the Guggenheim, catch a late bus back to San Sebastian, and stalk my ride home.

That's a statue she has her arm around.


Thursday, April 29, 2010

San Sebastian, Day 3

A bit late with this, but the wifi at the hotel was not functioning on Tuesday. I'll just post one day's adventures as I can. I'm in Bilbao now, with only semi-functional wifi, so no pictures. Later!

Staying in town today, relaxing.
First thing is a long stroll up and down the main beach. With the tide this far out, the central beach is connected to the one further west, and it even looks like you could rock-hop out to the island. In the rocky part of the shore, people armed with plastic bags and pointed sticks are chasing shellfish. There's a large tractor out raking the sand beyond the tide line, a sort of beach zamboni.
I go all the way to the famous sculpture at the far western point, beyond which is onlt the sheer rocky coast. This is not where yesterday's trail takes up again to go to Compostela. No path at all. The sun is out in force today, clearly warmer already than the past two days. The waves lick the rocks, but not seriously. The wave of high school students and their chaperone comes and talks loudly and smokes, and goes.
Back east again, this time barefoot, along the edge of the gentle surf. The die-hard tanners are out already, setting up for the day with their towels on the sand above the tideline, though they have hours and hours before it gets that high again. The tide rises about eight vertical feet here. For a beach this flat it's quite a change.
I don't usually visit a lot of museums, but the San Telmo's art collection and local culture looked interesting. Ah. yes, it's in one of the massive old buildings currently shrouded in the scaffolding and hammering and sawing of renovation. Closed for the year.
Lunch (lunch figures large in this blog!) is finger food in one of the ubiquitous bars. There are 44 platters of little tasties lined up two deep along the bar, and only a dozen stools to sit on. Happily for me there's a table free, and not too many people crowding around the edibles. I'm getting the hang of getting a plate and picking what I want, not too shy waiting for the staff to do it for me.
Four bits and that's lunch. For the last one I pick something that looks like goat cheese drizzled with caramel or honey, with a walnut on top. Unexpectedly, the waitress wants to heat it for me. As she whisks my chosen away and shoos me back to my stool, I wonder if those were onions I saw, peeking out from under the cheese. That's fine. I love onions. They're just not usually dessert.
On to the Aquarium. It's not a large one, but nice. About half is not an aquarium at all, but a museum of San Sebastian and shipbuilding and fishing. Lots of models. And yes, live fish. Oh, and here comes the big school group. A small place, but effective. Some tiny tanks, but mostly they give you multiple views of a few large tanks, including one built over and around the walkway so you're in a tunnel of fish. The little spotted sharks in that one like to hang around motionless, in large groups, just on the surface of the plexiglass tunnel. They look like stickers of sharks until you notice them breathing (er, pushing water through their gills).
After the visit I just wander about, looking for a good picture book of the town. I don't find one. The various bookstores I come across all have the same three, none of which is particularly well done. So never mind. I might find a pretty book in tomorrow's destination, Bilbao.
More tapas for dinner (no, nobody says "tapas", it's "pintxo" here, like a 'pinch'), and I'll try that sangria, thanks.
Better internet luck later, I hope!

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

San Sebastian, Day 2

Hey! My breakfast bar is closed.
No worry. There are many others. I take my Economist off to a pastry shop with tables, a few blocks away, and have a very good cup of coffee and a Spanish-style chocolate croissant. Next time I'll leave the French pastries to France.
At the bus station I learn that the one for Hondarribia is considered a local bus, so I go off in search of it near the convention center (this new convention center, a huge glass and steel modernstrosity figures on all the postcards, alas!). And here it comes! My bus. 1.90 € for 45 minutes to the end of the line, sightseeing of local bits included.
As my bus passes the real fishing port (as opposed to the show port with its two boats in old San Sebastian) I make a note to get off early on the way back. Now that's a place to explore.
On we go. Errenteria. Other, unspellable, towns, Irun, Hondarrabia. All the guidebooks show a tiny, picturesque fishing town. I wonder where that town is. There's a long long inlet from the sea, and boats piled every which way along muddy alleyways. Further on there are two large marinas full of pleasure boats. Where are the guys mending their nets??
But whatever. This is a great little town. They're working on a lot of the waterfront, with backhoes and other major equipment. The views over the harbor are serene. A view over the ocean is quite a hike - I save that for later. The old town is partly piled up on a hill (the main church and old government buildings), partly down along the elongated waterfront. The hill is interesting and well-preserved. The inhabitants in the pedestrian district all have their laundry out to dry on this fair Monday. Several of the key old buildings are now hotels, so visiting inside is a No, but it means the outsides are kept up. The church is locked. On a corner a crew of four is doing preservation work on the ancient city wall, whose battlements in the southern perimeter are now kept up as a historical monument.
Where to lunch, where to lunch. Lunch is my main meal of the day, so I don't want a sandwich of a kebab&fries. There are several fresh seafood places along the main street (which is divided into two main streets, one each way, making each both narrow and friendly), but I'm waiting on the one advertising a fixed-price menu with Fish Soup number one on the options, wine included, cloth napkins on the shaded tables, to have customers. They appear to be open, but when I peek inside, nobody's home. Yet. It's not quite 1. Only tourists eat this early.
At One on the dot, a family of four shows up for their reserved table, followed by myself and four other tables in quick succession. It's funny how that works. Once somebody is there, other people come, no matter if they've been walking up and down these two blocks the past half hour. The identical restaurant next door never attracts that first table, and stays empty. Better luck to them at dinner! Farther up the square I noticed the same thing at the twin à la carte seafood places. The one that got those first early English tourists filled up to half its outdoor capacity before the crowd spilled over to the other.
Just a few kilometers down the coast, fish soup is similar, but quite different. In my lunching spot today it's spiced differently, heavier on the tomatos, and has tiny fish bits but no hearty chunks. Still an excellent choice. On reflection, it could just be a restaurant difference - who's to say that even right next door to yesterday's fish soup that it would have been identical? I'll be eating somewhere tomorrow, could find out... Now the main course - rice with shrimp and clams. Oh, my goodness. I know why they spend the afternoon sleeping, and it's not the heat!

After lunch, another stroll around town. The tide has come in, way in, and the muddy alleys full of boats are now canals with boats floating in them. Or, most of the boats float.

On the flats to the south of the town, there are garden plots belonging to the townies who don't have yards attached to their houses. And there are some small farms. One thing that makes me laugh is the use of unusual items for scarecrows. In some fields I see stuffed animals like you would win at a fair, and in two others there are cutout cats. Yes, those black things are fake cats.
On the way back west, I get off the bus at the town with the industrial fishing port - what is its name again...
There are plenty of boats, large and small. Most of them have crew on them, and I feel self-concious about taking their picture while being stared at, so I find this one. Nobody watching me watch!Along the long, narrow neck of the bay it's much like San Sebastian - a tight row of houses along a single street, everybody their boat.There's a man standing next to the lighthouse at the entrance to the bay, looking out to sea. The trail here is marked in the same way that the national hiking trails in France are. I seem to have stumbled onto the route from Hondarribia to San Sebastian. Hooray! It's about 4:30 now. I have plenty of time to hike back to town along the coast.
And it is a spectacular coastal hike. From some vantage points you can see for miles. This fishing boat is headed home past that same lighthouse.
Barely visible in this photo is the ruin of an old house, a big one. I bet it was a fantastic place to live, once. Just the sounds of the seabirds calling to each other, and the waves crashing on the rocks.
Yet another finger out into the sea. They were glorious, but my feet were wondering if the next one would be the last one. When was finally the last one, my ears knew it first: the sounds of traffic and dogs and children and people yelling strange languages announced my arrival in San Sebastian.
More tomorrow!

Monday, April 26, 2010

San Sebastian, Day 1

In the morning I have a good coffee and a raisin pastry at the bar & sandwich place on the corner, before going out to walk along the beach toward the Castle de la Mota on Mont Urgull. On my way, many groups of runners pass me, each dozen or so dressed in club colors. There's a festival on today, and the first event is a nice run up and down and around Mont Urgull. I take a more sustainable pace. I notice the aquarium on the bay is open daily from 10 to 8 - I'll be back for that.
This isn't a castle that royalty lived in; it's a fortress and collection of strongpoints on the large promontory that guards the entrance to the bay. A place of continual conflict here on the frontier of Spain and France. Not much is left of it but a lot of gun emplacements and a few old cannon for show. Inside the building on top there's now a small museum presenting the history of the town and this fortress, in Basque and in Spanish. It looks like the town hasn't grown all that much in the passing centuries.
Outside, most of the hill is covered with trees, hiding the scattered parts of the fortress. As a result, there are plenty of views of town, but none of the castle itself. The top is surmounted with a huge concrete Jesus, blessing the town, his back turned to the Atlantic ocean. From the right angle, you can't see how many fingers he's holding up, and it looks as if he's flipping everyone off. There's nothing but Jesus and warfare up here so I hurry back down to see more of the rugged coast, and end up wandering back into town.
It's heated up over the course of the morning, so I stop at the hotel to change into cooler clothes. As I head back to the waterfront festivities, it promptly clouds over again. Just can't win. There are storytellers, and artists, and every ballerina from age 4 to 24 is lined up along the promenade overlooking the beach. There's music, but the dancers don't seem to be doing anything with it at the moment.

Lunch, when I finally decide where to have it, is Fabulous.
You can't get paella for just one person, but that's not all there is on offer. First: the fish soup. Delicious, but with just a touch of garlic, not the thick garlic mayonnaise they serve with bouillabaise in Marseille. Then squid in black ink sauce. Perfect. Not rubbery, but tender and savory. A glass of the local white is an excellent counterpoint, light and dry, almost bubbly. Oh, no, no dessert thanks. I'm stuffed for the moment, and plan to graze on ice cream or pastry later in the day.
San Sebastian's old town is a treat to wander through, with it's narrow streets overhung by three and four-storey buildings. Much of the decoration is Art Nouveau, though the town is centuries old. The festival continues. People walk by on stilts. Random music blares out, and I come upon show after show in some little square just as they're ending. At 7pm there's a classical concert in the large square that has city hall at the top and the beach down one side. It's an interesting take on classical - two or three pieces are played, but then it's as if they're passing the microphone around the public, and the quality of the singing becomes variable. Much fun is had by all, in any case, and the whole thing wraps up by 8:30.
I think of going into a bar to try the fresh tapas laid out in copious platters everywhere, but they're all quite crowded. I'd like to be able to sit with a beverage, nibble something, and type my notes into my laptop, so instead of a happening bar downtown, I end up in the little place on the corner where I had breakfast. Nobody much is there. Lots of table space. A football match on tv. They have a few platters of miniature sandwiches on the bar, but I get confused with the waitress, who speaks neither English nor French (nor perhaps Spanish, since French is often close enough to get by with Spanish speakers), and she ends up handing me the menu, with all the tapas choices listed on it. Installed at my table, I decide on one, but it turns out to be something that will take 15 minutes to prepare, just for me, and I'm obviously the only person around insisting the cook fire up the stove. I try and try to tell them never mind, but 15 minutes later I have a very tasty and hot wedge of tortilla of my very own. It is really good.
And that's it for the first day. Done typing!

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Lets try this travel thing again

Getting there:
The drivers squat by the open luggage compartment, leafing through their sheaf of ticket stubs, double-checking their list of passenger names. The crowd mills around outside, partially on the sidewalk, partially spilled out onto the parking area. Each has marked out their seat (windows very popular). Now they take advantages as they can, of a last chance to smoke, to stand up, to buy something from the corner store.
Families are parting. Hugs, kisses, weekly tears. The bus is going to Portugal, home of many housekeepers and restaurant workers here. Visiting is constant. Not much French is being spoken, and some of the drivers speak none at all.
Departure at "17:20" on the bus clock. I had figured it for an hour off, either daylight savings time forgotten, or is Lisbon time different? If it's an even hour, we're leaving ten minutes early. We must all be checked off the list.
There's no itinerary. Each person knows where they're getting off; nobody but the drivers know where all we will stop and what sleeping towns we'll pass on the way. I wonder which route we'll take: south through Toulouse and then west? Or west first to Bordeaux? We're not taking the freeway to get there...
It's a beautiful drive through the spring evening. Remnants of snow still decorate the Massif Central heights. Sheep and cattle are out on the newly soft green fields. The high meadows are carpeted with wild daffodils.
After an hour or so of this idyll, we join the A89 at St. Julien, without making any stops. Why then did we not just catch it in Clermont?
First stop is Brive le Gaillard, where three new passengers are waiting at the curb. All the smokers leap off. An announcement is made in Portugese and everyone shuffles off the bus. We have 40 minutes. The drivers head for the cafeteria I've just noticed we've pulled up alongside. The regular passengers grab their picnics and stake out territory on the boulders scattered about to keep cars on the road and out of the pedestrian areas. It's 19:30 bus time, and the sun is preparing to set.
While I'm inside enjoying a proper restroom, our sibling bus pulls up. They were together in Clermont, passengers divided by destination, but 90% of the route from here to there is the same. We make a little convoy in our matched vehicles. As I write this in comes a third bus, a yellow one headed for Madrid. No wonder this edge of town cafeteria is so huge!
So far, this bus travel thing is not so bad. The bus is new and clean, the seats comfortable and padded for the long haul. Plenty of leg room. I haven't yet discovered how far back the seats recline, but it isn't even dark yet. It's not too loud, not too crowded, not too bumpy, and the windows are remarkably clean. If the next several hours are like the first two, I'm game for this bus travel all over.
Our guy in charge even promises that if I'm sleeping when we get to San Sebastian, he'll be sure to wake me. So I'm good to sleep in peace. It's his job to know who's on his bus, and where they're getting off, and he probably even remembers my luggage. I'm happy not to have to remain vigilant for my stop at 3:15 in the morning, in a strange town in a foreign country.
The sun sets. Once underway again it'll be night. See you in Spain! But. Not before we have the pleasure of watching a movie on the little screen up front. You, me, and Dupree is subtitled in Portugese, and the English soundtrack is on just high enough not to be completely ignored, not quite high enough to catch all they're saying. And then there's a little stop in Bordeaux. The mystery of the route revealed.
The bus clock says 1:42 when we pull into a town, just half an hour after the language of the toll booths becomes Spanish and Basque. I think it must be Irun, or the fishing town of Hondarribia. But no, the boss guy is shouting and waving at me, ordering me off his bus. San Sebastian! Okay, okay, I'm going. Just let me get my shoes back on.
And here I am.
After studying the map at the bus station, I figure I can get to my hotel easily, but on one condition: that I leave the bus station headed in the right direction. "You are here", alright, but which direction am I facing? Street signs are hard to find. In the end, it turns out to be not so hard, and not so far.
My hostess Theresa answers the bell eventually, after I possibly wake all of the other guests (I realise once I come inside that her room is the one farthest from the door, alas), groggy but welcoming. She waves me inside, whispering 'mañana, mañana'! Ah, it is so nice to be in my room. A very nice room, recently redone, beautiful wooden floors, clean, spacious, doesn't smell of anything. A good place to stay, if it weren't for the guests ringing the bell at all hours of the night. Oh, that was me. Sorry! I have a key now.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Friday Photo Shoot Out: Trees

In honor of Earth Day (Every day should be Earth Day. The earth defines days.), this week's shootout is Trees. I was home on vacation yesterday, puttering around, getting the vegetable garden in order, so I decided to give you a tour of the trees right here in the yard.
Mushy yellow plums. You must have to pick these on just the right day, not too early, not too late. I've never been able to figure out what day it is. Fortunately, one of my friends likes them.
The really old cherry. It always has lots of flowers but very little fruit.
The golden delicious apple. Goldens off the tree, not too ripe, are in fact delicious. I've always hated the mushy, tasteless lies from the store. This is my number-one apple producer, the Canada not giving many, and the two red apple trees being still quite small, and I'm still working my way through the dried apple slices I made over the summer & fall.
To it's right, the cherry that ripens later.
Bizzy bizzy bizzy.
This one gives yellow, tear-drop shaped plums. Not my favorites. And there's that rhubarb leaping up again. You'd never know I dug half of it up last season.
Don't know what kind of fruit this one gives, though the flowers look like apples. Again! How about a pear tree...?
Some kind of plum. With cats.This apple gives nice tart red ones. No idea what they're called, but at the market many of the apple names are not the same as those in the States anyway.
Here they come...
Another plum, and the cherry that ripens earlier. I can't tell the difference between the cherries except that one peaks about two weeks after the other. Which is nice! I think they're both Burlats, the large, ruby-toned eating cherries very popular here. They make excellent jam, too.
The Canada Grey apple. Love those apples.
Here we are preparing for the next apple crop.
A mirabelle plum. I trimmed off a lot of dead branches in the fall, but there are more. This tree has a thing about putting out a great many tiny branches, but few major ones.
What's left of the apricot, after losing the major branch last fall. Apricots will be precious this year!
The wild plum, always happy to shoot up again, no matter how much I hack at it to make it stop scraping against the house and the shed in the wind. These too you need to pick on the right day. Too soon and they're too tart; too late and they're tasteless.
With all these fruit trees, plus the blueberries and blackberries I pick in the surrounding hills every year, I try to never buy fruit. Though I always do! The yard is way too heavy on plums, with nary a pear or peach. And sometimes I just must have pineapple, or tangerines.
I'm trying to eat from the vegetable patch, too. Still working on the tomato sauce from last season! Peas and green beans I try to keep up with while they're small & tender. A long row of sweet corn is just in, though the seeds are a little old. The potatos didn't come up - perhaps they spent just a little too long in the sack in the basement and had nothing left when I finally got them in the ground three weeks ago. Onions go in soon, and I'll think about salad greens. The herb patch is doing fine.
Only one tree at the front of the house. I've carved out a tunnel to get from the driveway to the front door. Not that I ever use either one, preferring the gate next to the mailbox and the kitchen entry.
I seem to have missed two trees - a plum that gives the kind of fruit you make prunes out of, and the tree way in the back corner that appears to be a hazel, though it doesn't make worthwhile nuts. Darn! I adore hazelnuts!
So there are my trees for Earth Day. To visit other Shooter, click here!

Thursday, April 22, 2010


Last Saturday, since I was not walking around the Convention Center in DC, touring endless posters and listening to endless talks, I took a hike around the Gergovia Plateau. This butte overlooks my house in Aubière when I look across the yard to the south, and is purported to be The Place where Vercingetorix defeated Ceasar way back when.
Today there's this cherry orchard on the northwest slope. The slopes are divided into small farm plots; on top there are several acres of public space, where they have the medieval times reenactement festival every August, and we go blackberry picking.
A bit of country road.
On the south side, you can see several villages (in fact, the trail goes through one of them) scattered around, near and far. The entire country is covered with villages. France is not really an urban nation.
A bit of the St Verny vineyards.
Auvergne isn't usually known for its wines, but some of the local vineyards are really coming up in the world. They've planted Gamay grapes here, and I like the colorful label on the bottles - more of a California style than the traditional two-tone photo/drawing of the 'chateau'. Next time I need wine I may well give it a try!

And some horses on the western slope. At this point I was about 3/4 of the way around, so 13km, and was starting to feel it in my feet. A shame the last 2km are all asphalt! they're the worst, once you're feet are tenderized from the distance. Next time I should make it all the way around and still have feet ready for more. But it's only the second hike of the season. This weekend & next week I hope to do a lot more.