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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!

Quality, Bargain Travel within Europe

8 May

Water Wheel: Treviso

While I loved my new life as an ex-pat in the lovely Mediterranean village of Altea, Spain, I relish the opportunity to affordably travel to other destinations. For my most recent trip, I went to Venice, Paris, then back to where I live, with all three flights costing only 150 Euros.

 

There are many low-cost options available for transportation and accommodations. My original plan was to go to central Spain to the historic, beautiful and interesting cities of Salamanca (with arguably the most beautiful plaza in Spain), Segovia (with its intact Roman Aqueduct), and Avila (with its intact medieval city wall), all UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Spain has the second most UNESCO World Heritage Sites, after China.

 

Piazza San Marco

However, getting to those locations from where I live is not easy to do in a timely manner via train or flight. I did not want to rent a car or take ride-sharing Bla Bla Car. As I did not want to spend many hours to get to my destinations, I looked at the direct (non-stop) flights that departed and arrived from the two airports closest to me, Valencia and Alicante. Originally I found direct flights from my preferred airport of Alicante to many destinations, and I decided to go to Venice, then Paris, then home to Alicante airport. I also checked for airlines and hotels that accepted dogs, as I initially planned to take my small dog, Pepper. I subsequently decided not to take him because it would preclude us from going to events like the ballet in Paris, or restaurants which have only indoor seating.

 

Often flight, bus and other transportation schedules within Spain and Europe are not published until a few months before departure. Whereas my initial search found direct flights from Alicante to Venice, when I went to book it, there were no scheduled flights for March, none until July. Being flexible and willing to search for other options can yield reasonable alternatives. I was going to meet my son in Venice on a Sunday in March, and all the flights with more than one leg took a ridiculous length of time. I then found a flight the prior day, a Saturday, to Treviso, which is only a mere 30 minutes train ride to the Venice train terminal for only 3,40 Euros. I decided to get a hotel in Treviso, “The City of Art and Water,” that Saturday and explore the town, which has interesting history and culture. The next day, I strolled around town before heading to Venice. Of course, I had researched, and where necessary, scheduled all the connecting ground transportation for the whole trip. That was not necessary for the train from Treviso to Venice. In Italy, (and some other European countries), after you purchase your ticket, you must validate it in one of the machines on the wall or you risk getting a large fine when they train staff check your ticket.

 

As private water taxis are very expensive in Venice, as are taxies in Paris, I scheduled them on Alilaguna, a group water taxi for about 14 Euros one way and 25 Euros roundtrip, and Blacklane for a roundtrip private transfer from Paris Orly airport to our hotel in the Plaza Vendôme area for about 50 Euros each way.

 

One unexpected issue we had on the flight from Venice to Paris on Transavia was just as we got to the staff to present our boarding passes we were told we could only have one carry-on, and that we would have to put any other items including my purse in my carry-on suitcase, which was already stuffed full. I had to throw out a few items in order for my purse to fit. All three flights were about two hours. It was the first time I had taken low cost airlines, and found them organized, and comfortable enough.

 

We enjoyed stops in historic churches, art museums, live music venues, and public gardens. Included in this article are some of the interesting sites we saw on this trip.

 

For me, one of the many considerations, albeit not the most major, in making a decision to move to Spain was the ease and cost of travelling to relatively nearby European and African countries.

 

 

 

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.

NOSTALGIC TRAIN RIDE…IN HELL

27 Nov
Thello train from Dijon to Venice

Overnight train from Dijon to Venice

As I am planning a trip to Venice and Paris soon with my middle son and am in the process of making transportation reservations, I am reminded of our disastrous overnight train ride from Lyon France to Venice.

I had always fantasized about a nostalgic overnight train trip. Thus, on my last trip to Europe before moving to Spain, I was determined to realize that overnight dream on the leg from Lyon, the gastronomic capital of France, to Venice, Italy. Admittedly, I had trouble figuring out exactly how to book the rail trip over the internet, so I eventually enlisted the more competent staff from the travel department of my credit card. Even so, it took them considerable effort to negotiate the details.

I was ecstatic when they were able to book a sleeper compartment for the two of us. The cost for the compartment was more than it would have been for both of us to fly from Lyon to Venice, but then that wouldn’t have been much of adventure. Little did we know what an adventure it would be.

We excitedly boarded the connecter train in Lyon which took us to Dijon where we were to transfer to our “sleeper” compartment. Alas, due to the late hour, none of the shops in the train station were open, so my plans to buy Dijon mustard from its town of origin was foiled. Perhaps that was an omen.

After boarding, we expectantly made our way with our suitcases through the jostling, narrow corridor toward our special place. When we opened the door we were shocked to see two people already sleeping in the compartment. They appeared just as surprised as we were, but since they didn’t speak English, we couldn’t be sure of what they said.
In spite of the language barrier, they kindly arose, helping us with our luggage into this micro area and then showing us how to convert the seating area on our side into two beds. The thin back of the seating area was raised to be horizontal above the bottom seat. The top “bed” appeared to hang perilously from the straps which allegedly supported it.

So much for my romantic notion of a luxurious, relaxing overnight rail trip. Now it was just about survival. I decided my best option was to head for the train’s bar to drink my way into a somnambulant state. After about an hour into imbibing in the train’s dining car, the train came to an abrupt stop. We sat motionless for an hour and a half. Meanwhile, the lights inside the train flickered and then went completely out.

After the train finally resumed moving and the lights came back on, we inquired around as to what had occurred. No official word, but other passengers related that here was some suspected illegal activity and that when the train stopped, those allegedly involved fled. At least those suspects weren’t my cellmates…I mean roommates.

Weary, we finally proceed to the room where we are greeted by the loud snores of our rather corpulent male roommate. I barely slept, but my son demonstrated one of the benefits of being a young adult male—being able to sleep anywhere.

As daylight broke, I stumbled to the communal bathroom to freshen up and change clothes. Obviously we slept in our regular clothes due to the unexpected roommate situation. Yet another surprise awaited me–a flooded, filthy bathroom. Guess I wouldn’t be changing my clothes or spending any unnecessary time in that area.

At least with the sunlight, we were able to enjoy the bucolic scenery of the Veneto, with its rows of grapevines, and villas dotting the countryside against the backdrop of the craggy Dolomite Mountains. As we approached Venice, I was thrilled to unexpectedly see one of the Palladian villas of UNESCO-fame. When I shared this information with parents travelling with young children, instead of thanking me, the mother corrected my pronunciation. Killjoy. For what it’s worth, much later, I learned my pronunciation was correct.

Is There Customer Service in Spain?

11 Nov

I love most things about living in Spain, but customer service is not one of them. I have even contended they should remove the Spanish words for customer service, “atención al cliente,” from the lexicon. I have previously recounted my problems in receiving packages with my personal belongings from California. When I first reported no monetary value for the old personal items mailed to me, the Spanish authorities returned the package to the U.S. I tried unsuccessfully twice more to have my belongings sent. The last time, I completed all the requirements within the mandated time period, paid nearly 100 Euros in customs fees, and they still returned my package to California. By this time, all the potentially breakable items had broken. I never received the refund I requested. One package I did eventually receive was gaping open and the contents from the top of the box were missing; the Spanish postal service was not even professional enough to tape it closed. Then the postal worker who “delivered” the box claimed it was heavy and asked me to help carry it into my apartment.

 

If I mail order something from the U.S., there are huge import taxes, but there are some things worth paying extra for that I cannot get here in Spain. I have also mail ordered items from Spanish companies, and more often than not, the couriers claim they tried to deliver my package, even when I had been home the whole day. When I call the number they provide for the supposed missed delivery, they argue with me, saying they did come to my place and ring my doorbell. They are never wrong, and never apologize. One agent insisted they had a photo of the courier at my door, but when I asked them to send it, I was told they could not.

 

My friends and I have had similar difficulties when using a taxi. Some drivers will ignore directions I provide to avoid traffic snarls. They may bark at you for having an inadequate command of Spanish. The other day, our cab driver from our town of Altea was unfamiliar with any of the streets or major landmarks in our village.

 

Most of the time the food here is great, but there are occasions when the restaurant serves sub-par food. If they ask how the food was, and you give an honest assessment, most of the time, I have received the blank “Bambi in headlights” look, with no offer of any reparations. Once, when I tried to return or exchange a podiatry device which broke after one use, the pharmacist looked at me, shrugged her shoulders and said there is no guarantee on products they sell. WHAT?!

 

I recently learned of an even more ridiculous incident. A woman bought a pair of shoes, and when she got home and looked at them, she discovered they had given her two different sizes. When she went to correct the error, with receipt in hand, they insisted they had made no mistake, even suggesting she may have gone to another store to buy another pair to make a mismatched set. Her husband had no better success in attempting to rectify what should have been a simple exchange, accompanied by an apology.

And I won’t even start on confounding, changing requirements of the government bureaucracies in getting required documentation for a visa, registering your living address, getting a bank account and more. There is even a hilarious videos representative of many people’s  exasperating experiences, which I have previously viewed on YouTube, although it seemed to have been removed when I tried to find it.

My recommendation in Spain is to remember, The client is always wrong.

A Humorous Guide to Smoking in Spain

2 Nov
  1. img_1410Although smoking is not allowed indoors, it doesn’t count if you light up while heading for the door.
  2. Nor does is count if you stand in the doorway and smoke.
  3. You can stand at the outside window counter of a bar/restaurant designed for serving people outside, and while facing the inside, blow smoke inside.
  4. You can smoke in an outdoor restaurant patio, even if enclosed or babies/children are present.
  5. You can hold your baby or child while smoking.
  6. You can throw your lit cigarette into the street when finished, regardless of whether you are walking, driving, or are on your third or fourth floor home balcony.
  7. You can publicly smoke at your job.
  8. You would rather sit outdoors so you can smoke, even in inclement weather.
  9. Don’t worry if your smoking bothers anyone else.
  10. You can smoke outside the gym door before and after exercising, and if you need a smoke break during your workout.
  11. Buy household items that can be used both as vessels for serving food and as an ashtray.
    IMG_0398[1]

    Cups that can be used to serve food such as allioli (Spanish version of aioli) or can be an ashtray.  I’m not kidding. See the four protrusions on top designed for putting cigarettes when vessel is empty.