Thursday, October 29, 2015

Rambling in Barcelona

Barcelona - what a fun city! It's got history, with walls erected in Roman times, and churches and mansions built centuries ago. The city is dominated by monuments and bizarre architecture, many of the Alice-in-Wonderland, curlicue style of Gaudi especially the famous church, Sagrada Familia, with its immense spires soaring into the sky. More than a century in the making, it’s still a construction zone.

The people are friendly, but many speak a
strange foreign tongue, Catalan, as their first language. They all, however, know Spanish, and are eager to break into broken English (unlike the French, who prefer to parler en Français). Getting around is easy for their subway system is extensive and we used the T10 ticket (10 rides for 10 euros). The wine is even cheaper than in France, but just as abundant and high quality. Tapas and paella are delicious and inexpensive. Outdoor cafés are everywhere.

On Sunday, we savoured a gelato while rambling along the broad Las Ramblas boulevard, which was jam packed with strollers. And the buskers are high-class! We enjoyed a classical pianist, guitarist and two opera singers, whose voices echoed beautifully along the narrow stone-walled streets of the Gothic Quarter.

We wandered to the Columbus statue on the waterfront at the foot of the
Ramblas. It looked familiar because it is a takeoff of Nelson’s statue in London’s Trafalgar Place.
Two groups of tourists whirred around the base on Segways. Barcelona was a kaleidoscope of markets, parks, churches, art galleries and quirky buildings.

Although we received many warnings about pickpockets, nothing was filched. Perhaps instead we should have been advised to bring good walking shoes, for that is a must, to enjoy all this delightful city has to offer.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Pretty, Perfect Pezenas

Awakening in Pezenas is like opening your eyes in paradise. Living here amongst the narrow twisting streets hemmed in by tall buildings is like being immersed in ancient history. This was the local capital in the 1600s attracting nobility who preened in luxurious lifestyles and built magnificent mansions, many of which remain today. Even the King visited. 

The town is built like a dartboard, laid out in concentric circles. The inner core is centred on a hill where a castle once stood and was once surrounded by a high, thick stone wall with only
remnants left today. The streets are cobble-stoned, narrow and twist sinuously like a serpent. The high stone buildings date to the 1600s, or earlier. The next circle was built in the 1700s with more narrow streets, straighter, and narrow, tall four-storey buildings crammed together. This is where my dearest and I resided, loving the narrow spiralling staircase and old scarred beams of Chuck and Steph’s pad. The rest of the town, what little there is when the population is only 8,000, then peters into the vineyards of the surrounding countryside.

How can you not love this area, for rural France has a character and
elegance not found in the New World's countryside. Even in this tiny town women dress with sophistication, art and culture flourish and the cuisine and wines match those of Paris. And it all comes together at the Saturday market, which offers an incredible selection of gourmet choices.

When we went for drives, we were overwhelmed by the thousands and thousands of acres of vineyards and hundreds of wineries. The Languedoc wine region is immense, explaining why wine is so plentiful and inexpensive. Even gas-station kiosks sell wine: red, white and rosé. 

Location is everything, and only 20 km to the south is the vast, blue Mediterranean with long sandy beaches and incredible seafood. Also nearby are many historic, picturesque towns and great hiking.

Ah, life in Pezenas is simple, but oh so pleasant.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Paris – A Monumental City on Every Scale

 Paris is Alive! Yes, it's throbbing, pulsating with life, history and culture. The sun beat down from a cloudless sky as my dearest and I walked and walked and walked, drawn by incredible monuments, attractive parks and brasseries spilling onto sidewalks at every corner. We gawked in awe at the gargoyles and flying buttresses of Notre Dame. Artists of every ilk splashed paint on canvas in a crowded, boisterous square in Montmartre. At the towering Eiffel, which dominates the skyline, most of the immense crowd were obsessed with taking “selfies.” The garden at Museum of Rodin offered a quiet respite as well as glorious, bronze companionship. Markets abounded and were filled with mouth-watering cuisine, flowers in technicolour and friendly vendors. A small statue near Notre Dame served as a memorial for Princess Diana and was crammed with photos, flowers and thousands of padlocks clamped onto the railing (a Paris fad).
We sat for hours at sidewalk cafés, sipping a coffee (too tiny) or, better, a vin blanc or pression (draft beer), watching the hustle and bustle go past. I can’t help but mention, strictly as a scientific observation, that Parisian women are elegant, even striking. I loved the tight-fitting jeans, the colour–coordinated scarves, and their confident, haughty, poise. And don’t get me started on the sexy French

Our favourite place was the immense, rambling Luxembourg Gardens and Palace, a short stroll from where we stayed. Like everything in Paris, it is elegant and historic, yet comfortable and liveable. Parisians flock there on sunny days, enjoying the lawns and statues, playing pétanque, sailing boats on the pond, reading newspapers and smoking, all in view of the grandiose palace where the French Senate meets. Every once in a while, a soldier wearing a beret and carrying a lethal-looking automatic rifle, was a reminder that Paris has recently suffered terrorist atrocities.

Ah, Paree, Paree. Indeed, one of the great cities of the world. Probably the best.

Friday, March 20, 2015

San Diego – Kissed by Sun, Surf and Sizzle

San Diego took me by surprise. It had sizzle, lots of it! Set against the boundless Pacific, the city is blessed with sandy beaches, rocky headlands, crashing waves, and a climate where flip-flops, shorts, and a T-shirt are all you need.

Furthermore, it has far more major attractions than most cities. My dearest and I clambered over the hulking aircraft carrier, Midway, impressed by its gargantuan size and the number of airplanes it once shot into the air. We rode a tram to historic Old Town, settled in 1769 and the birthplace of California. We wandered past a haunted hotel, bands playing, theaters and sipped margaritas in a cantina.

Next up were San Diego’s two major family attractions. We wept for the whales at Sea World. And grinned at chimps at the Zoo.

Balboa Park, the world’s largest cultural park, boasts 15 museums plus theaters, gardens, and more. We visited the Tutenkahamen exhibit at the Natural History Museum, watched buskers, visited artisan shops, and rode a carousel. Balboa Park is San Diego’s greatest asset.

Another surprise! San Diego may have surpassed Portland as the nation’s craft-beer capital. At the Ballast Point Brewing Company, where they offered 50 of their own beers, all on tap, we lined up a Habanaro Ale (hot!), a Thai Chili lager, and an Indra Kunindra (a curry stout). What frothy, foaming fun! San Diego has more than eighty craft breweries and their number is increasing rapidly. Next day at Draft, we could choose from 100 different local beers, 70 of them on tap.

The culinary scene is hot. At Indigo Grill, renowned executive chef Deborah Scott explained our dishes including a Korean Bibimbap in a fiery-hot tureen and an Anticucho Board of Peruvian and Chilean street food of skewered and grilled meats. Bliss! Two days later, we enjoyed another over-the-top dinner at Oceana Coastal Kitchen at Catamaran Hotel.

At Cabrillo National Monument, a statue on the end of a jutting peninsula honours Juan Rodriquez Cabrillo, the first European (Portuguese) to land on the U.S. west coast (in 1542). We strolled along sun-washed pathways to an old lighthouse while enjoying sweeping views. At the adjacent Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, thousands of white tombstones marched dramatically up and down the rolling landscape.

My dearest and I enjoyed Mission Bay and La Jolla and the sight of
surfers, sea lions lazing on rocks, flotillas of kayaks, long seaside walkways, wild bars, and the sun staring down from an azure sky like the eye of a Cyclops. Torrey Pines State Reserve offered great hiking with waves crashing on rocky headlands.

Sadly, the time to leave arrived. Driving north, we soon arrived at Temecula. The Old Town looks like a western movie set, and I expected John Wayne to emerge with drawn pistols. The surrounding dry rolling hills host a rapidly growing wine industry with about 40 wineries. We sipped an oaked, complex Sangiovese at Robert Renzoni Winery before
heading off.

If You Go You Gotta Know
General San Diego info:
Old Town:
Midway Aircraft Carrier:
Balboa Park:
Sea World:
San Diego Zoo:
Draft (great beer restaurant):
Sofia Hotel (downtown):
Catamaran Resort (Mission Beach): www/
Indigo Grill:
Oceana Coastal Kitchen:


Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Palm Springs a Sun Haven

Palm Springs, California, draws Canadian snowbirds like a neodymium super-magnet. Visitors love the posh, clean, multi-malled region of gated communities where golf carts roam the streets, happy hours rule, and the sun beats down from a cloudless sky. This urban paradise is set in a hot, hilly desert terrain which is starkly different to anything in Canada, especially in winter.

My dearest and I discovered that Palm Springs first gained prominence in the 1950s when movie stars including Frank Sinatra and Rat Pack settled here so they would be within driving distance of Hollywood studios. We saw memorabilia at the Hard Rock Hotel, which is like a museum. Sammy Davis Jr.’s day and night funky suit was one of my favourites.

Many activities kept us busy. I loved walking amongst and clambering into about 45 airplanes at the Palm Springs Air Museum, all lovingly maintained by volunteers. I chatted with Chris Demarest, an artist who has painted about 100 pictures of the airplanes and related scenes.

Ally enjoyed the Sunnylands Center & Gardens, part of the historic Annenberg estate, with its phenomenal desert gardens. And there was much more including the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens featuring a train set that stretches over an enormous area — as a wannabe “engineer” I was enthralled.

Sprawling malls are everywhere inviting shoppers to enter. Golf courses abound. Restaurants and bars are numerous, and they all offer great Happy Hours, and with real deals!

One day we passed through the San Gorgonio Pass, the northern entrance to the Coachella Valley and a place of mighty winds. The air was hazy with dust and desert sands blew across the highway. More than 2,500 (!!!) giant turbines were spread everywhere across the desert and hills, looking like an enormous plague of giant white locusts.

The surrounding hills proliferate with good hikes and fantastic views including the trace of the feared San Andreas Fault. Best is the nearby Joshua Tree National Park with its rolling desert landscape of precariously piled reddish granite boulders and distinct, isolated Joshua trees. We climbed to the top of a large granite massif and enjoyed hauntingly beautiful rock formations like the Jumbles and the Skull, which became more intense and blood red as the sun sank lower.

Little wonder snowbirds flock here.

If You Go You Gotta Know
General Palm Springs info:
Air Museum:
Sunnylands Gardens & Annenberg Estate:
Hard Rock Hotel:
Joshua Tree National Park:

Friday, November 28, 2014

Chillin’ in Chiloé, Chile

Visiting the archipelago of Chiloé, about halfway between Santiago and Patagonia in the long string-bean of Chile, was like stepping a century back in time. Driving to our hotel we crossed a soft, rolling, green countryside not unlike New Zealand dotted with fluffy sheep and yellow gorse. A farmer was turning his field with two oxen yoked to a plow, seagulls flocking behind.

The island, I discovered, is an exotic place of subtle appeal. In Castro, the main town, we saw palafitos (houses on stilts), fishing boats unloading salmon and shellfish, and a man building a large wooden boat using a chainsaw and hammer. Entering the market, the aromas of
strange spices, meats and cheeses enveloped me. Another section displayed a kaleidoscope of colourful woolen scarves and handicrafts. The rolling Rs and sibilant Ss of Spanish filled our ears. I was surprised by the amount of seaweed being sold, especially bull kelp, which was tied up in box-like form. And potatoes of many strange shapes and colours reminded me that Chiloe is where the world’s spuds began. It has about 400 varieties.

A favourite memory is of the approximately 75 churches dating from the18th and 19th centuries, made of native timber and found in even the tiniest village. Many of the domed roofs look like ships’ hulls, reflecting the local talent for ship-building. Sixteen churches are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Best … the indigenous people, the Huilliches, believe in trolls, ghouls and mythological lore. Although mostly Catholics, they often visit shamans, instead of doctors. Witches are powerful and deal with many disputes. And there are enchanting legends. The Trauco, for example, is a forest dwarf who covers himself in bark becoming irresistible to virgins, a scenario often used to explain unwed pregnancies in villages.

We entered the Chiloe National Park on the west
coast, a land of wind-blown wetlands and bright green forests. A penguin colony lives near here and blue whales, dolphins, sea lions and sea otters swim offshore.

That evening we recounted the day’s adventures over glasses of full-bodied Chilean wines while savouring a traditional gastronomic treat, the curanto. A hole in the ground is filled with layers of mussels, clams, beef, pork chicken, sausage and potatoes between large nalca (rhubarb) leaves and cooked over hot rocks for hours. Yummy!

Chiloé was fascinating, and I loved its slow-paced way of life. I didn’t, however, wander into the forest at night.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Santiago in 24 Hours

I faced a challenge: to explore Santiago, the capital of the 6,000-kilometre-long shoestring of Chile, in only 24 hours.

My travel group raced up San Cristobal Hill to the gleaming white statue of the Virgin, a focal point of the city. Surrounded by parkland, the site is popular, and I loved listening to rolling Rs and sibilant S sounds of Spanish. Panoramic views of the city and Andes foothills lay before us with the 64-storey Costanera Centre skyscraperthe continent’s tallest edifice—sticking up like a sore thumb. A slight haze hung over the valley, for Santiago is known for smog.

We lunched at an outdoor patio in the fashionable Lastarria district. Platters of ceviche, fried Conger eel, and pulmay, a stew of mussels, pork, potato and lamb were accompanied by fine Chilean wine. Unusually, the chairs had clips to prevent purses and backpacks being snatched.

At Santiago’s historic centre, the balconies and columns of Spanish architecture reflected the city’s long history (founded in1542). In the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral, I gazed at the vast ceiling and ornate design while enjoying the dark coolness. A short walk led to La Moneda Palace (the president’s place) fronted by an expansive parade ground and guarded by soldiers in crisp uniforms, who eyed us suspiciously.

Next was the Central Mercado, one of the world’s best according to National Geographic. I wandered amongst aromas of exotic spices, meats and cheeses; in another section a kaleidoscope of colourful woolen scarves and handicrafts were displayed.

We stopped at the Park Forestal, one of many green spaces lining the Mapocho River. I strolled along the tree-lined walkways, admiring the statues donated by other nations to honour Chile’s 100th anniversary of independence.

From my hotel window, I could see Providencia Avenue below. A mariachi band blared as businessmen in dark suits and ladies, chic and attractive with dark, sensuous Spanish features, flowed to and from the subway entrance. I could see why Chile’s economy is considered the most dynamic in South America.

My best memories are of fine Chilean wine and superb cuisine. We arrived at W Santiago Hotel’s
Noso Restaurant after 9 pm. Excellent Sauvignon Blancs and Cabernet Sauvignons flowed during a dinner of salmon ceviche, pumpkin soup with prawns, and ribs dripping with succulent barbeque sauce.

After, we headed to Bocanariz, a wine bar in the trendy Lastarria barrio, which reputedly serves every Chilean wine. While sampling their best seller, a Pinot Noir Refugio 2012, produced by Montsecano y Copains, we pondered the places we didn’t have time to visit.

The Casa Blanca Valley wine region, for example, is only 40 minutes away. With about 20 wineries, it produces Chile’s best white wine. You can sample cool chardonnays beside green vineyards marching like military platoons up the dry, brown slopes.

We could have visited Valparaiso, a UNESCO heritage city situated on the coast, a mere 1.5 hour drive away. Famous for its multi-coloured houses, numerous art galleries and coffee houses, it enjoys a bohemian, laid-back pace of life.

Leaving, my head was spinning. In spite of a Herculean effort I had only seen a fraction of the exciting, vibrant Santiago.

Currency: 1 $ Canadian = 521 Chilean pesos
Electricity: Chile uses 220 Volts. Bring a transformer & plug adapter.
Chile Information:
Santiago Information: