Apache Junction Seekers

Al and Linda enjoy visiting new places and having new experiences. In 2006, we spent 4 months in Europe and originally created this blog to keep friends and family informed. After a long delay, I'm trying to catch up with what we've been doing since then and hope to carry on into the future.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Man against the tides.

Wind, wind, more wind. Le Meteo had promised les vents violents and the barometer had delivered. So why were we headed out to sea, or at least to the small island of Noirmoutier on the west coast of France? Because it looked interesting.

There are two ways to get to and from the island: le pont, a high bridge built in the 1970's, and Le Goie, a causeway that is submerged except at low tide. We took the bridge, along with half the camping cars in France, the Netherlands and Germany. The main route winds across the windswept, soggy flat land past ponds where the famous salt of the island settles out from the sea, past beds of farmed oysters, and past fields where new potatoes were being plucked from the black muck.

We checked into a tiny family-run hotel and, after a short rest, set out to defy the wind and explore the island. On all the main roads are signs warning about the dangers of traversing the passage of Le Goie except at the lowest tide, which the helpful signs indicated was about two hours away. We followed the road almost to where it disappeared into the water, then backed up and parked. The course of the road is marked by crude poles on each side and it looked like it would be so,e ti,e before the road dried. Suddenly a tiny red Fiat Punto rushed by, followed by several o ther vehicles, and the entire parade plunged into the water. At first the water was shallow, but then a bow wave started to build up on the Punto. His pace slowed until he stopped, presumably to wait for the tide, and his followers stopped behind him. The wind was so strong it was hard to stand much less use the binoculars, but we could make out a similar parade setting out tentatively from the opposite shore. The Punto edged forward. His opposition, a camping car broke away from his pack but quickly decided on prudence. It had evidently become a duel to see who was brave enough, or fool-hardy enough, to be the first one through the treacherous passage. Apparently waiting for low tide is not an acceptable option in this game. We pulled our windbreaker hoods tight against the wind, watching how the game played out, hypnotized by the feints, the strategic pauses, the tentative advances. Suddenly the red Punto made the winning move, heedless of the depth of the water, the way apprently clear as he rushed across the last gap and onto Le Continent, as the island road signs call it. The camping car had to be content with being the first in his direction and soon the still-submerged causeway was a veritable highway with traffic literally streaming in both directions. Each had pushed his own bow wave through the trecherous waters and emerged victorious.
Our love-hate relationship with France started out on the wrong end of the scale. Maybe it was the bad weather blowing in off the Channel. Maybe it was the 8 euros we were charged for the first 100 kilometers or so of highway travel. Or maybe it was just a too-long day on the road that ended up with stopping at an over-priced hotel because Al couldn't drive another kilometer more. What could have been the final blow was discovering that the price of a beer or an espresso had doubled when we crossed the border. Al threatened to turn back south in the morning.

Things began to look up when we found a small cafe which served a heaping bowl of steamed mussels bread, frites and a beer for 8.90 euros each.

We had made this sidetrip to Arcachon, on the coast west of Bordeaux, after reading a travel article in the New York Times which raved about the fresh local oysters. In the morning we learned that the oysters were 'interdit', forbidden to eat because of toxins. Oh well, things looked better after a good night's sleep and a fresh French pastry for breakfast. Fortified, we struck inland and rediscovered the lovely France that we remembered.

Our next adventure was lunch. The sign on the expressway promised food but the small, semi-deserted village offered two options. One had several large trucks parked alongside so we selected the other, an unpromising doorway that opened into a surprisingly large dining room. The proprietor wished us Bonjour as he hurried by with arms full of plates. We seated ourselves at the first open table set for two. No menu. What did we want for our second course? He recited the list slowly and we both leaped at the salade au geziers, as did most of the other diner, I noticed later. We were given soup bowls and a soup tureen with a ladle to serve ourselves while we waited for the salade. Also a basket of bread and a bottle of wine, no label, no cork. The salad was a meal-sized affair with mixed greens, onions, tomatoes and an amazing amount of geziers, or duck gizzards. Before you turn up your nost at this repast, understand that the French have a way of slicing a duck gizzard into thin pieces and quickly sauteeing the slices to produce tender, tasty morsels that even Al, a confirmed giblet-disdainer, loves as much as I do. Our host dropped by to ask if we would like a little pate with our salad, then returned with a small plate laden with three large slabs of pate compagne, coarse-grained, redolent of wine, bearing the same relationship to meatloaf as Ava Gardner does to Phyllis Diller. Having watched the adjoining table, I had become aware that we were a long way from finished. For our next course, we enjoyed rare bifstec with frites; The cook apparently decided our servings were not large enough because she sent out another plate with more meat. Then she suggested a cheese course, which I reluctantly refused but the gateau basque that she offered for dessert was too good to pass up. She amusingly obliged when she understood that we wanted one piece of cake to split. The price of all this? 22 euros total for two, including coffee. France is a beautiful country in many ways.

Note: On the hate side of the equation, the French keyboard is diabolically similar to but different from the one on which I am a touch typist. Please bear with me on the typos.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Spring in Spain is for watching birds, butterflies and wildflowers.

The flowers change as the season unfolds, as we go north and as we gain altitude. The butterflies change with the flowers and the birds, of course, also change with the habitat. In the south of Spain we saw magnificent fields of cobalt blue, vivid purples, brilliant pinks, all punctuated with whites and yellows and with bright red poppies lining the roadsides. Hordes of big black and white butterflies dance ecstatically among the blooms while the yellow and the orange-winged varieties seem to be more solitary.

There are white storks all over Portugal and western Spain. Their nests adorn the special platforms at the tops of almost all the large power transmission line towers and every church tower is shared by two or three or more pairs. They fill the skies and cluster in the fields in groups of five, ten, or twenty, diligently hunting whatever it is these huge birds eat and need to take back to the nest to their hungry and rapidly growing young.

In the very southwest of Spain, the Donana National Park is a broad marshy river delta filled with wading birds--gray herons, white egrets, black-winged stilts and of course the most prized, the spoonbills and lesser flamingos. Noisy black terns squabble in the air a few feet over the marshes and there are swallows and martins everywhere. Flashy green-and-gold bee-eaters the size of robins are almost as common as the soaring black kites and the noisy azure-winged magpies.

The Donana is a subtle place but at Montefrague National Park, in the west-central part of the nation, both the birds and the scenery are grand and magnificent. Dozens of Griffon vultures, larger and more beautiful than any of the American eagles, soar by the dozens along the face of the cliff where the Rio Tejo breaks through a great rock massif on its way to the Atlantic at Lisbon. The dramatically named "Gypsy's Leap" is a dark cliff studded with perches for vultures and small caves in which the black stork nests, emerging to soar low over the water like some prehistoric proto-avian. The blue rock thrush and the rock bunting flit almost unnoticed on the nearer rocks, overshadowed by their much-larger cousins.

Thanks to the kindness of a British birder who loaned us the views through his spotting scope and literally led us to the proper viewing locations, we saw both the black vulture and the Spanish Imperial Eagle on their respective nests as well as the lovely white Egyptian vulture who obliging came out of its cave nest to soar and show us its lovely markings.

Yesterday we were able to "pass forward" the kindness of strangers. We are in a beach resort on the north coast of Spain, staying in a hotel room with a balcony directly overlooking the beach. While walking along the tiny commercial waterfront the other day, we had encountered a Canadian from Saskatchewan who is in his second year of spending his summers making a planned multi-year voyage around the world in his 40-foot sailboat. Yesterday while returning from the bakery with our lunch supplies, we saw our Canadian friend sitting on a bench waiting for the bus. One thing led to another and we invited him to join us for a day of birding in the nearby Picos de Europa, the mountain range that begins about 10 km south of our beach and goes up to over 8,000 feet with its highest peaks. The scenery turned out to be superb with fantastic granite peaks and winding roads that kept Al´s full attention. When we got out for hiking, the whole new set of wildflowers, including vivid blue gentians and spikes of tiny purple orchids made it hard to decide whether to look up or look down. The birding wasn't that great but we were able to introduce our guest to a couple of species that he had wanted to see and we had the additional pleasure of sharing with him just as others had shared with us.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Last night we sat at the beach and watched the sun set into the Atlantic Ocean. As it sank toward the horizon, a layer of wispy clouds decorated its swelling girth with alternating stripes of gold and pale orange. A moment before it touched the water, the bottom of the disk elongated into a river of gold, spilling the remains of the day into the sea. If you listened closely, you could hear the sizzle of fire meeting water as the fiery globe emptied out, sagging like a deflating hot air balloon spreading across the edge of the world. Down, down, down sank the bloated ball until only a tiny arc of molten brilliance remained unquenched by the mighty Atlantic. This last fragment persisted so long that we held our breaths, wondering if this was time standing still, but finally even this remembrance of the day disappeared. Now we know why the ancients imagined a great dragon lurking beyond the Pillars of Hercules, swallowing the sun each evening.

"Our" little town of Conil is perched between the ancient port (and modern city) of Cadiz and Tarifa, the southernmost city of Spain, on a section of coast labelled the "Costa de la Luz." Beach development here is much different from the blight of the Costa del Sol and Conil has the perfect mix of tourist facilities, wide sandy beach, cliff-tops for walking, and remnants of an older town. Although it is a smallish town, every day we find something new. One day it was the municipal market, with its fish stalls displaying things we'd never heard of before but some of which we recognized from the plates we'd been served. Who knew that anchovies are wonderful when quickly deep fried? I had thought they only came oversalted in a can. And the fresh tuna, not cut into thick steaks but into thin fillets, grilled quickly with olive oil, sea salt and garlic--heavenly.

Our average day goes something like this: Get up around 8, watch the news on TV and get ready for breakfast, which isn't served much before 9:30. Our favorite is cafe con leche, which is not at all like the French cafe au lait but stronger, served with a tostada, which in Spain is a split and toasted roll, preferably served with olive oil and a puree of fresh tomato, seasoned with the ubiquitous sea salt. After a strenuous morning of beach walking or other exploration, we start looking for lunch around 2 pm to beat the three o'clock rush. We might have a selection of tapas, which vary wildly in contents, quality and quantity. We've learned to be cautious and order them only one or two at a time to prevent having way too much food. Along with the deep fried anchovies you can get deep fried tiny squids, fried Iberian pork with roasted red peppers, a plate with a selection of Iberian ham and sausage, and our all-time favorite, eggplant stuffed with langostinos, which are something like shrimp only better. There are many more selections available and we haven't tried them all--yet. To limit the weight gain, we've returned to doing the picnic dinner, which usually consists of either ham or pate and fresh bread, a tomato, some cheese, and a couple of glasses of wine. In a restaurant either a beer or a glass of wine will be between 1 and 1.20 euros, while we can buy a really good bottle of wine at the mercado for around 2 or 3 euros. Al usually drinks something called a "clara" which is beer mixed with a lemon drink to bring the alcohol level down to almost nil. With the drunk driving laws in Spain, non-alcholic beers are commonly available. A six-pack at the mercado is about 2 euros. Some evenings we dine out, but others we have just a glass of wine and a cup of coffee--at ten o'clock at night. Quite a change from our desert rat schedule.

One day we drove down to Tarifa which has become the windsurfing capitol of Europe, meaning of course that the wind always blows. From Tarifa, North Africa is right there, across just a few miles of water, much closer than I had envisioned, with the city of Tangier clearly visible on such a clear day. We had thought about going to Gibralter but the traffic through Algeciras was snarled with construction so we settled for a good view across the bay and turned back, content to have seen both of the Pillars of Hercules guarding the Strait of Gibralter. We took the bypass around the busy-ness of Tarifa and found a restaurant on the beach where we had another marvelous meal overlooking a popular kite-surfing beach from behind a nicely sheltering plate glass window. The sky was full of the kites and the surfline crowded with the boarders navigating at a tremendous speed through the surf. We wondered how they avoided getting their lines tangled but apparently they have it figured out. Watching the boarders going down to the beach was another pleasure since they all seemed to have six-pack abs and ripped shoulders and biceps--probably a necessity as well as a result of the sport. Only one female in the whole lot that we noted.

Back in our town, evenings are terrorized by small motos, most of which carry two persons, sometimes three, often all female. There are a few tuner cars cruising on the weekends, but obviously the cruiser of choice is the Vespa-sized two-wheeler. The people-watching is fabulous with all ages and most sizes represented. On the main beach in front of town it is acceptable for women to be topless, but there is a nude beach to the north, down a perilous cliff path. We found it by accident while taking a stroll along the cliff tops and noticed a group of young boys on bicycles who had obviously ridden out along the dirt path so they could look down at the naked women below. Boys are the same everywhere apparently.

To say we are enjoying it here is an understatement. We stop at the window of each real estate company (immobilaria) and see what they had for sale or rent. Buying is not cheap but rentals are amazingly affordable, except of course for August when the price of accommodations literally doubles. We dream about which luxury apartment we'd like to own, which one has the best view of the sea and, on a clear day, a view of North Africa to the south, with absolutely nothing but the setting sun to the west.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Spain is stone pines with their lovely sculpted roundness, as if the prevailing sea breeze had shaped them, regardless of the distance from the ocean. Spain is rows and rows of scruffy looking olive trees that never quite look like a proper orchard but which produce a sea of gleaming olive oil that annoints everything including our breakfast toast. Spain is also oak trees and wildflowers in bloom along the excellent secondary roads that wind among the steep hills where all the forests grow in rows because the original trees were cut down centuries ago.

Spain is noisy bars filled with smoke and little babies in strollers who are part of the group festivities from a very young age. The place we stop for our morning coffee also has a couple of beer taps, although one is non-alcoholic beer which is stocked here in the supermercado in a section almost as large as that for the regular kind. Spain is the land of cheap, good wine and if we have to pay more than seven euros for a bottle served with dinner, we think we might have been overcharged. But since there is often no printed menu, the bill can be a bit of a surprise but never an unpleasant one.

Young women in Spain show as much midriff as their sisters in the US and their abbreviated T-shirts regularly sport English words in odd combinations, as if the words had been chosen for the number and shape of the letters instead of the meaning.

Spain is moto drivers who pass on curves, on the right, and consider cars stopped at a red light just another barrier to zoom around. They all wear helmets. Spain is parking your car wherever you can regardless of the signage or the amount of road blockage you might create. If it is easier to get somewhere by going the wrong way on a one-way street, then do it. If you can't find a parking place, double park. We see many driving school autos on the roads and wonder what the curriculum looks like: double parking for dummies? Creative red-light running?

Spain is sidewalk cafes that spill into the street so that the passing cars can add a little thrill to that morning coffee. Spain is sitting at the outdoor cafe along the beach watching the sunbathers returning from a hard day in the surf. Spain is walking along the edge of the water, sandals in hand, letting the warm Atlantic waters wash over the toes while trying the ignore the pairs of perky nipples bouncing down the beach toward you as the young women exercise their right to a tan without lines above the waist.

Spain is ordering tapas at an open air bar and wondering just exactly what you're going to get but knowing it will be good.

Spain's Costa de Luz is the beach vacation you always dreamed about.