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Carcassonne: worth the trip?

4 Sep

Carcassonne Towers

I have long wanted to go to the historic, fortified walled city of Carcassonne, a UNESCO world heritage site, located in southern France, with its fairy-tale looking defensive double walls, castle, drawbridge, watchtowers and cobbled streets.  Not only was I fascinated with it, I had read about and seen enticing photos of the five-star Hôtel de La Cité, located in the heart of the medieval citadel, and relished the idea of staying within the walled city. The hotel has the traditional, comfortable luxury that I favor, with inviting outdoor spaces and great views of the expansive valley below.

 

I had initially flown directly from Alicante, Spain to Toulouse, in the region of Occitanie, scheduling the first three days in Toulouse. For the fourth day, I booked the Hôtel de La Cité. Carcassonne is only a short, scenic 40 minute train ride from Toulouse. Unfortunately, I misjudged how long it would take to get from my hotel in Toulouse to the train station due to having to navigate around the old town and to get a ticket for my dog from an agent. Fair warning, I was able to book my seat on the train via the internet but not for my small dog, which had to be done in person at the train station. So I took the next train, an hour and a half later, with my small dog, Pepper, (AKA Pimienta) in his portable, wheeled carrier.

Pepper (aka Pimienta)

 

The train station in Toulouse had a piano permanently located in the waiting area, and many people spontaneously sat down and played. It’s these little serendipitous things that contribute to my passion for travel. There was also a foosball table, which kids and adults stopped to play. Be aware that in many train stations in France you need to get to your train by walking under the train tracks via stairs. If you have mobility issues and/or a heavy suitcase, it can be challenging. Allow extra time or if you are disabled, request help when booking your ticket.

 

Barbacane alfresco dining

Whenever I take public transportation like a train or bus, I try to go one timeslot earlier than my needed arrival time, in case something like this train trip goes awry. So even though I left an hour and a half later than initially intended, I still arrived on time at the hotel where I had scheduled to eat at the hotel’s Michelin star restaurant, Barbacane. Lunch was in the lovely garden area with views of some of the wall, watchtowers, and the valley below where Carcassonne residents now live. The prix fixe three course lunch which included two courses, each served with a glass of wine selected by the sommelier to pair with the food. Water was included and a choice of dessert or a cheese plate at the end, all for a quality, reasonably-priced meal of €39. Pepper sat quietly under the table.

 

Dog-friendly garden patio

 

After lunch, we went to my room, which was spacious, with elegant furnishings, a great bed and a menu offering a variety of pillows from which you can choose. Knowing I was bringing my dog, they gave me a room with stairs that led down to a garden area, where Pepper could do his outdoor duties. There also was a table and chairs on the upstairs patio. I was surprised and pleased to see they had a dog dish with water in the room ready for Pepper, the first time I have ever experienced that. And there was no extra charge for the dog, whereas normally there is.

 

After settling in to the room, I went out to explore the rest of Carcassonne within the walled citadel. The area is pedestrian with the exception of an occasional delivery vehicle, but it was very crowded with summer day trippers. There are a few buildings and museums worth exploring.

Saint-Nazaire

The Gothic-Romanesque Basilica Saint-Nazaire dates back to the 12th century and has beautiful stained glass. The rest of the buildings largely house touristic shops selling regional specialties including food (foie gras, cassoulet, truffles, and olives), local wines, knight-themed items, and cafes and restaurants.  It felt more like a crowded theme park than a historic site. I had only booked one night at the Hôtel de la Cité, as I first wanted to see if I enjoyed it enough to stay longer; I was glad I did. I considered exploring some of the other areas of Occitanie, but ultimately decided to head back to Toulouse and explore it further.

 

I used the internet to find a last-minute hotel reservation for the next three nights in a different area of Toulouse than my initial stay. After I arrived, I told the taxi driver the name of my hotel, he said it was just a short distance, waving his hand toward a large boulevard. So I walked, and walked, and walked. The hotel was not straight down the street, and I wandered for a while, luggage and dog in tow in the heat. I stopped for a cooling beverage, where I could ask the staff for directions. Feeling slightly refreshed and optimistic, I again set off for my hotel. An unexpected finding was that there were three hotels within a two block area that had the same name as the one I booked. Well actually, the main name was the same, with a slightly different second name. I finally found my hotel, which I initially found shockingly spartan after my stay at a five-star hotel. After I got over my initial dismay, I found the room adequate, particularly as I don’t spend much time in my room, and it was a dog-friendly hotel. I spent the next three and a half days in Toulouse exploring different neighborhoods, historic sites, and scouting out delectable food. I am already thinking about a return trip to Toulouse.

 

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Toulouse Travel Tips

20 Aug

Capitole Plaza, my hotel on the right

Living in Spain provides me the luxury of being able to travel to nearby places, like Europe and Africa, at very inexpensive costs. I initially explored the idea of travelling in central Spain this August, but it was too hot, and then Prague and Budapest, but the direct flights from where I live were not available in August. Preferring direct flights, which have a decreased chance of delays, I explored other options and decided to go to Toulouse and nearby Carcassonne, which are at the base of the Pyrenees in southern central France, not far north of Andorra. The flight is only about an hour each direction, which cost me €61 each direction, and €72 round trip for my small dog, who traveled in the cabin under the seat in front of me. I spent a week in the Toulouse area.

 

Typical building

Toulouse is the fourth largest metropolitan area in France, and the Occitanie area (formerly Languedoc-Roussillon) in which it and Carcassonne are located is the largest geographical region in France. Toulouse is known as the “pink city,” due to the many buildings made of pink stone and bricks. It is a walk-friendly city with distinct neighborhoods, which are the types of large cities I favor. When I first arrived, I stayed for three days at the Grand Hotel Opera, centrally-located on the large Capitole Plaza. It was a good starting spot, with cafes and restaurants serving drinks, snacks and higher-end cuisine. I do not like shopping, but there were a variety of shops/stores on or near the plaza, surprisingly including a number of U.S. stores like Sephora and Foot Locker, and other popular European stores.

 

Before I arrive at vacation destination, I try to get a basic familiarity with the areas and places I would most like to visit. I am a foodie, so I read up on the typical regional cuisine, recommended restaurants, as well as live entertainment. Obviously once I arrive, I get a better feel for the area, and make my plans accordingly, but I leave room for a great deal of spontaneity which can result in serendipitous finds. One such occasion occurred when I walked to the local fruit and vegetable market, where I decided to have lunch at one of the many nearby restaurants. I noticed it was cloudy and looked like it could rain, so I found a restaurant, Le point Gourmet, with a good awning coverage of the outdoor area, and most importantly, good food.  I was too late to get the daily special of duck hearts, fresh from the market, as they were already sold out. But my duck breast, duck-fat fried pommes frites (French fries), and salad were delicious.

 

Seafood pasta

While sitting at the restaurant and waiting for my food, it started raining. Many of the diners not under cover frantically arose, trying to grab food, beverages and belongings. Most handled it with aplomb and humor, but one family where I was dining, got into an argument with the owner, which became quite heated. After they diners left, the French owner, who spoke very good English, (I only speak English and Spanish), said the three patrons were blaming him for the rain, and he replied he was not God. He correctly mentioned that there was only a brief rain, and the patrons nonetheless said they would not pay for the food. There was some more heated discussion, with their continued verbal attacks and complaint about their mother being disabled, to which the owner said his wife, who was still working long hours at the restaurant, had cancer. They finally left. The owner then told me the following story: “God made France, with beautiful landscapes, oceans, vegetation and so on. When he finished, God said, France is perfect, everything. It is too perfect, so I am going to put French people there.” Hilarious!

 

Salade Gourmande

The food in the Toulouse area is regionally-based, as is common in Europe. They are famous for their cassoulet, foie gras, sausages, many types of offal (veal kidneys, gizzards, hearts, and sweetbreads), fantastic variety of cheeses, predictably delicious bread and baked goods. Most places offer quality, affordably-priced prix fixe menus, not as inexpensive as where I live in Spain, but far cheaper than you would pay for comparable food in the U.S. Also, the regional wines are excellent, usually inexpensive, and frequently available in varying amounts like 15 ml, 50 ml, and 75 ml (respectively, a glass, a little more than a half bottle, and a full bottle.) For those who live in Spain, Toulouse does not cafés on every block or even several on every block like there are in Spain, which I realized when I looked for a place to duck into when it started to rain.

 

Statue Joan of Arc

The other thing I did not anticipate were the operating and closing hours for businesses, with many shops closed either in the afternoons or early in the evening, and also many places, including restaurants, are closed on Sundays, holidays and during parts or all of August.  I failed to check the holiday schedule before I booked my vacation, only to learn that there was a religious holiday, Assumption Day, in which many businesses were shuttered.

 

The Toulouse and greater Occitanie area offer numerous entertainment and outdoor activities. In Toulouse, there are the expected ancient and historical buildings and museums. There was a jazz concert series during the summer featured such icons as George Benson and Wynton Marsalis. The Garonne River and Canal du Midi offer great spots for events and leisure. There and in the Montagne Noire, nearby mountain range, offer opportunities for outdoor and physical activity enthusiasts. Winery tours in the region is another popular and easy day trip from Toulouse. Toulouse also boasts Europe’s largest space center, which also offers venues oriented toward children.

 

Garonne River

After my first three days in Toulouse, I took the short 45 minute train ride to the walled city of Carcassonne, where I spent the night, at the fabulous 5-star Hôtel de la Cité and ate at their Michelin-star restaurant, Barbacane, which I will write about in a subsequent blog post. I also plan to share my restaurant reviews from Toulouse which I will publish on TripAdvisor: they recently reported I have over 100,000 readers of my reviews!

Top Five Things To Do in Elche Spain

6 Aug
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View from the top of Altamira Castle of Basilica of Santa Maria

Located in the southern area of the Valencian Community, just south of Alicante, Elche makes a great one or two day trip. It is the third largest city in the Valencian Community, with Valencia and Alicante being more populated. The Palmeral de Elche (the Palm Grove of Elche), which consists of approximately 200,000 palm trees, was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000, and is one of the main draw for tourists.

The area is believed to have been settled by Greeks, then Carthaginians and Romans, followed by others including several centuries of Moorish rule. The city offers a mix of nature, history, an engaging city centre, and the option of lovely beaches and great shopping, with over 1000 shoe factories!

 

The following are my recommendations for the best sites to visit:

 

  1. I recommend starting at the Museo Arqueológico y de Historia de Elche (MAHE), located in the Altamira Castle, built during the 12th to 13th century. The museum provides visual, written, and verbal information on the history of the area in displays which provide a summary of each of the periods of occupation. The most famous archaeological find was the statue “The Lady of Elche,” believed to be from the Iberians in the 4th century. A copy is on display, with the original being in the National Archaeological Museum of Spain in Madrid, which is a source of contention for the people of Elche who believe it should be returned to Elche. During my tour of the museum, I found the succinct overviews of each era to afford adequate information without museum fatigue. The MAHE facility is modern and mostly accessible, with the exception of the very top of the castle. Take those remaining stairs to reach the top of the castle for a panoramic view of the city and the adjacent Palmeral.
  2. As soon as you exit the MAHE, you will find part of the Palmeral, and the municipal park. The Palmeral is thought to be established during the 5th century by the Carthaginians. Sophisticated irrigation systems were added during the Arab occupation during the 10th century. It is the only such palm grove in Europe, and the northernmost such palm garden. In this part of the Palmeral, there are paths where one can observe the varying vegetation, ponds, swans, historic buildings, a restaurant, exercise stations, playgrounds, and more. The Palmeral is not only confined to this area, but is spread around the city. There are maps available at the Tourist Office or hotels, which provide suggested paths to view the palms.
  3. Across the street from the MAHE and Palmeral is the city centre where there are a number of visit-worthy historical sites. The Basilica of Santa Maria has layers of history, with a beautiful Valenciana Baroque façade. Originally a Mosque, after the Reconquista, a Catholic Church, probably Gothic style, was built. It was here that the liturgical drama, Misteri, Elche Mystery Play, was first presented. In 2001, it was declared a UNESCO “Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity,” and is performed every August in conjunction with the Assumption of Saint Mary. Later the church was rebuilt with different styles over the centuries, eventually with the current emblematic regional blue tile domes.
  4. Nearby the Calahorra Tower, built in the 13th century in the Amohade style, was the most important entry gate to Elche, with the road leading to Alicante. Note the shape at the base of the Calahorra is wider to provide structural stability. However, this did not prevent severe earthquake damage in 1829, which resulted in the loss of the two upper floors. On the surviving back wall, there is a colorful vertical garden, flanked by a gastro-restaurant, which is an inviting place for a meal or refreshing drink.
  5. The Huerto de la Cura is a 12,000 square meter garden displaying Mediterranean and tropical plants. It is famous for its Imperial Palm, which features a unique date palm with seven branches. It got its name from a visit by the Empress Elisabeth of Austria, Sissi, in 1894. The park’s inviting paths, plants, and ponds provide an enchanting and tranquil respite. There is a souvenir area where you can buy plants and regional food and craft items.

    Seven branch Imperial Palm

    Seven branch Imperial Palm

Altea Spain: Architectural Features

8 Jul

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Photo Gallery: Treviso Italy

23 May

Here are some photos of my recent trip to Treviso, Italy, in the Veneto region, just north of Venice.

 

 

 

Affordable Luxury in the Jewel of Spain’s Costa Blanca

17 Apr

Altea

Here is an excellent article about Altea written by my friend, Ted Williams (aka Paul Theodore Williams) for International Living magazine.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Dear Fund Your Life Overseas Reader,

One of the challenges of moving overseas is selecting the right place for you. Cost of living, climate, convenience, and several other factors will play a big part in your decision.

But when you find the perfect place for you, it’s something you won’t be able to put a number on. You’ll just know it.

Texan native Paul, who tells his story below, is one of the folks who has found his perfect overseas home. Read on, and discover why he’s so taken with this little town on Spain’s Costa Blanca…

Shane Ormond

Shane Ormond
Managing Editor, Fund Your Life Overseas

P.S. If you like the romance and culture of Europe…then Spain is calling your name. It offers sophistication, charm, comfort…and at a price you’d expect to see in Latin America. In fact, it’s the best bargain in Europe today. Uncover the insider secrets to find your ideal Spanish destination in our comprehensive Spain Uncovered Bundle—available this week only at an almost 50% discount. Act before midnight tomorrow and you’ll receive a free report on Spain’s Secret Income Opportunity.

***

Affordable Luxury in the Jewel of Spain’s Costa Blanca
By Paul Theodore Williams

This morning, I awoke to the spotless Altea seaside, refreshed by an early spring shower. These March mornings are cool, and showers are frequent at this time of year, but the afternoons are sunny and warm enough to peel off the jacket.

I took my two dogs for our morning ritual, walking down to the craggy beach just a couple-of-minutes from my home. The crisp morning air is a refreshing and energizing start to the day. As the waves crashed rhythmically against the shore, I began to wake up and turn my thoughts to the day to come.

These mornings, walking the coast in Altea, the jewel of Spain’s Costa Blanca, may feel like part of a vacation commercial. But it’s my normal everyday life, compliments of working as a teacher in Spain.

I teach at a school about seven miles inland from Altea. Is that why I came here? Not really. Teaching, for me, is a means to an end—a way to live life on my own terms. I’m not making a fortune by American standards, but compared to the cost of living, I live comfortably, have a constant flow of disposable income, and get plenty of time off to do what I want.

Coming from Texas, I was used to a lower than average cost of living. However, Altea is even drastically more affordable than that. My first home here was an apartment on the seafront, which I rented for just for $485 per month, with my utilities totaling at about $100 monthly. Since then I’ve met my wife—she was the landlord of that apartment as it happens—and I’ve moved on from that apartment to something bigger.

Fuel is more expensive here but my car gets 45 mpg and we only use it for going to work and our weekend adventures, since the whole town is happily accessible by foot. One stroll through the jasmine-filled streets and you’ll never want to get back in a car again. Fruit and vegetables are at least half the cost of back home and finding organically grown produce is the norm, not the exception.

We both love to cook, but we also love to eat out. For an authentic, traditional Spanish meal, you’ll get a glass of wine, starter, first and second courses, and dessert or coffee for about $11 at lunch and $16 at dinner. A great bottle of wine, that I would expect to cost $20 to $25 back home, may set me back about $5. If I’m watching soccer with the boys I can get a pint of beer for $2.70.

One of the best Indian restaurants in the area, Crown of India, sits on high in the old town with a 270-degree panoramic view of the mountains and coast. They offer a wonderful dining experience for about $20 including wine or beer. But I must admit, my favorite restaurant is a Michelin-star restaurant, BonAmb, in Javea, about 30 minutes away. It’s more expensive than the other restaurants in the area but they bring the essence of the Costa Blanca from land and sea to table with a refined, sophisticated touch.

Here, I’m able to indulge my love of food. My wife and I enjoy frequent outings to enjoy the region’s world-class wineries and artisanal cheeses. My favorite winery close to home is Mendoza in neighboring Alfaz del Pi. The extended four-hour tasting includes a tour of the grounds, and a tasting of eight wines along with locally produced meats, cheeses, and olive oils.

I could live in other towns nearby and live on even less, but Altea is my heaven on earth. To my front, I have the Mediterranean Sea with its calming rhythm; to my sides and back, I have a backdrop of rugged mountains. Together, they form a microclimate that means less extreme highs and lows in summer and winter, while also giving the town a magical light that must be seen to be understood.

 

Terrorism and Travel

22 Mar

Gothic Sainte-Chapelle stained glass

A shooting involving a terrorist at Paris’ Orly Airport, while I was going through the security check there, was an anticlimactic end to my 60th birthday celebration in Venice and Paris with my middle son, Michael. Orly is France’s second largest airport. Just before I was scheduled to board my flight home to Alicante, Spain, I noticed the departure gate had changed to the downstairs departure area. As I tried to go to the new departure gate, the airport security officers told me there would be no more flights that day from Orly. Without explanation, they corralled us into the far half of the boarding area, not allowing anyone to leave. The televisions were switched off, and the departure screens frozen, which continued for several hours. We never received any notification from airport staff as to what was occurring, but I googled “Orly news” where I learned that a terrorist had tried to wrestle a gun from an airport police officer, and that he was shot. I did not learn the details until after returning home. Even though I had been told around 845 a.m. that there would be no further flights from Orly that day, around mid-day, without any speaker announcement, the boarding boards were turned back on, although without accurate, updated information on departure times. We finally boarded and departed around 330 p.m. As I write this on March 22, 2017, there has been a terrorist attack in London near the Parliament, and possibly inside.

 

There is no place in the world in which one is free from the possibility to violence, terrorism or even natural

Sacré Couer

disasters. In 1998, not long after the terrorist attack on the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, my oldest son and I went to Nairobi and then on safari the Tsavo Park area. Of course, at the time, we didn’t know that the attack was part of an organized terrorist organization. Not long after an American Airlines flight crashed in Queens, a borough in New York, in November 2001, only two months after New York’s September 2001 attacks, we flew to Europe. It was initially speculated the crash could have been a terrorist attack, but it was later determined to be caused by human error. During a tour of eight African countries, while in Bamako, Mali, the nation’s capital, we stayed at a hotel, where several years later, in spite of security, Islamist extremists took 170 people hostage, shooting 20.

 

Enjoying live classical and Brazilian music at Venice’s Caffè Florian, reported to be the oldest café in the world, dating back to 1720

That said, as a psychologist, particularly a forensic psychologist where we rely heavily on statistics, I make informed decisions based on statistics rather than irrational fears. By far, I have a significantly greater chance of being killed by violence, particularly in the U.S., or by disease, or accidents. I choose to live my life with joie de vivre, focusing on relationships, food, culture, adventure, and curiosity. And if I should meet my end in a travelling accident, for me, that is far better than being holed up in my home or a bunker, or living my life in fear. To that end, I will be providing future blog posts on my Venice and Paris trip, and am providing a sampling of those photos here.