Tag Archives: art

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.

 

Advertisements

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!

A Fulfilling, Less Stressful Life Running an Artsy Bar in Idyllic Altea Spain

7 Jun
saraanddavidaltearte

Sara and David at their artsy bar in Altea

In the same week, Sara Wilson lost her job as a staff writer for a major business magazine, and her husband, David Fernandez, lost his position as a private chef for socialites in New York City. They used that as a springboard to “re-examine our careers and quality of life.” They originally met in France, married and moved to California, then to New York to further their careers. Even though they liked certain aspects of living In New York, their lives were stressful, too money driven, and they didn’t get to spend much time together. Sara reflected, “Life gave us solution when we got laid off within a week of each other.” After considering their options, they initially decided to move to more relaxed Spain with the idea of opening a restaurant with David’s father. When that didn’t work out as anticipated, Sara and David started exploring other options, and eventually settled on opening a bar and eatery.

 

Sara reported, “My six years at the magazine job interviewing entrepreneurs helped us in the process of starting our business.” She added, “Ironically, I learned from people’s stories and their tips for success.” David had previously completed culinary training in Paris. She noted, “David is more of a visionary and risk-taker than I am, but it was our joint talents that helped us develop a successful business.”

altea

Picturesque and historic Altea

They spent several months exploring towns in the Costa Blanca area along the Mediterranean. They briefly looked at touristy Benidorm, but it did not possess the attractive and friendly location they were seeking. Then, “Unexpectedly we encountered a village paradise…called Altea,” recalled Sara. “We loved Altea’s stunning coastline, white pebble beaches and inviting and tasty restaurants lining the promenade.” But it was when they entered the old town, once a fortress, that they were really “awestruck. We loved its picturesque, narrow, pedestrian streets, punctuated by small artisan shops, that lead up to the hilltop church plaza.” Thus they set about on finding a place in the old town, known as Casco Antiguo.

 

Not long thereafter, they found an apartment and a place to start their dream business, a café/bar which was promoting various forms of art. “The rent was the cheapest we had found, and was the right size for just the two of us to run.” It consisted of two floors that had been transformed from an old house. We liked the fact that it had a mezzanine, a decent stock room, it was just one street down from the church plaza, and was on one of the most charming streets of Altea.” The business had been operating primarily as a sports bar, with a focus on the arts, as well, hence the name AlteArte. Importantly, “The bar already had a local clientele.”

They bought the business, but not the building. Sara stated, “We had been warned that it was important that the business have an existing business license. Just as we were ready to finalize the purchase, we learned that AlteArte did not have a business license.” The owner had applied for it and it was reportedly in process for a substantial period of time, (not unusual with the Spanish bureaucracy), but it had never been completed. Once the owner was aware that this unresolved issue was holding up the sale, the license was quickly approved. Sara and David speculated that the business license application was likely languishing with the local authorities, and that the owner, who was a local native, got the process completed quickly. Sara said, “It helped to buy a turn-key business, with an established clientele.” The prior owner, who sold them the business, wanted Sara and David to be success, and was supportive in a variety of helpful ways.

alteartegrouppix

Typical evening with friends at AlteArte

Sara and David “wanted to change the ambience to a cozier environment, which we did by adding tables and changing some of the décor.” They later hung their now iconic multi-colored bicycle upside down from the ceiling, and added some other kitschy design elements. They provide Wi-Fi, and show major soccer matches (“fútbol”).   “By changing things, we lost some of the former clients but gained others.” During their first year in business, they were often complimented on their tasty mojitos, so they decided to make that a focus. They setup an increasingly growing mojito menu, and identified AlteArte as a “mojiteria,”which set it apart from the other bars. They also make “nojitos,” alcohol-free mojitos. Adapting to client demonstrated preferences, “We abandoned our early idea of making it a coffee-centric business, instead focusing on our excellent selection and preparation of teas,” in addition to other typical bar beverages. Although their service focus is primarily on beverages, they also have a small selection of tapas and quesadillas, the latter being a popular, but rare item in Altea.

 

alteachurch

Casco Antiguo in Altea

Asked if they have encountered any problems or challenges in setting up their business, they reported initially the neighbors complained about noise and the tables and chairs they had placed on the stairs adjacent to their building. “Eventually, we were able to make peace with the neighbors, after convincing them that we would keep the noise down, and not cause them any problems.” During the slow time of year, they do minor renovations to AlteArte, but they noted it is hard to find qualified people who complete the work in a timely fashion. After deciding to start their business in Altea, Sara quickly began learning Spanish, something she felt essential in running their business.

 

The owner of their building had been renting out the top floor to various people as a shop with touristic and artisan items, but after a series of several failed businesses there, he asked Sara and David if they were interested in adding the top floor to AlteArte. “We decided to take this opportunity to expand. The top floor is primarily for special events and gallery exhibits, as well as weekly intercambio (Spanish English language exchange.)” AlteArte exhibits “one or two artists’ works each month.” The middle floor is an inviting area with pillows and populated with board games.

“The customers, new and old, shaped AlteArte’s atmosphere by natural evolution.” They have about an equal percentage of local and expat customers, with “most ex-pats in this area of the Costa Blanca area of Spain being Scandinavian.” In the beginning, most of their clientele came through word of mouth and Facebook. After opening the gallery on the third level, we reached out to local newspapers and magazines to promote those events.”

After they first opened in February 2010, Sara and David ran the business by themselves. “During our second and third summer, we hired our first employees. In our fourth year of operation, we hired Emily as our first full time employee. She had been a patron, and she had a good work track record of seven years at one local restaurant.” They emphasized it is very important to check out the reliability and work history of potential employees in Spain as there are generous laws favoring them, such as being allowed substantial sick leave just after being hired. A few months later, they hired another young woman, Ampy, full-time. Both employees are friendly, competent, and able to communicate with the clients regardless of what language they speak. “We pay them a little more than the typical local wage, and uncommonly, we also give them one day off a week including during the busy summer months.”

saraanddavidaltearte2.jpg

Sara and David inside AlteArte

When asked about other start-up or ongoing expenses or requirements, “there was an initial food safety course, basic business insurance, and nominal annual taxes.” They have not had any tax liability in the United States based on their Spanish net income. “We recommend using a gestoria,” which is a person whose task is to deal with the idiosyncrasies of Spanish government departments, for paying complex fees and taxes. “We receive an annual visit from the health department to check for correct refrigerator temperature and proper sanitation.” With regard to promoting AlteArte, “We have done some marketing by advertising our business in local tourist maps. Because we are in the Old Town, which is a steep, historically-protected area, we are not required to have handicap accessible facilities.” Sara reported, “AlteArte has allowed us to cover all of our expenses including the luxury of having two employees” which affords Sara the opportunity to spend long visits with her family in California. This year she has had two separate one-month visits with her family. AlteArte has given David, now 40, and Sara, 37, “a more comfortable, and significantly less stressful lifestyle than at our prior high pressure jobs, and the opportunity to spend more quality time together.”

 

When asked what advice they would give to others considering opening a business in Spain, they recommend, “Be patient and committed.” They said, “One cannot expect to open a business just for a summer, and turn a profit.” They also stated it is important to understand the demand for the type of business one is considering, and the required permits if starting from scratch. “It is also essential to have enough capital for start-up costs, slow periods, and unexpected expenses.” Sara said, “I’m kind of glad I didn’t know before we started how many businesses end up closing down.”

Now celebrating over six years of operation, AlteArte, is a favorite with local ex-pats, Spaniards, and international travelers. They feature monthly art exhibits by local artists; a book club for which Sara often arranges for the author to be present in person or remotely; live music; weekly Spanish-English language exchange (intercambio); movie nights, craft, drama and dance workshops, cooking competitions, and many more. Asked about her most cherished memory, Sara quickly reported it was when director Eugenio Mira, an Altean native, chose to premier his movie Grand Piano at AlteArte, and afterwards had a question and answer session.

WEEK-END IN PASO ROBLES CALIFORNIA

8 Aug
courtesy sloballoon.com

courtesy sloballoon.com

Soaring slowly over the alluvial golden hills punctuated by mature oak trees and orderly rows of grapevines in a hot air balloon can be a transcendent, once in a lifetime experience. This is just one of the many offerings stay in the bucolic wine country in northern San Luis Obispo County.  Every month has its unique activities, so determining travel dates warrant consideration of when the weather and activities meet the needs of the types of travelers: families, couples, friends or singles.

If arriving on Friday, head for the Paso Robles City Park for the weekly 2013 summer concert series which occurs through August 26, starting at 5:30. Watch the concert from one of the restaurants that have outdoor seating just across from the park: Reservations can be made for patio seating just across from the park at Berry Hill Bistro, Estrella, La Cosecha, or Chico’s or take a chance without a reservation at Artisan or Villa Creek. Food and beverages are also sold at the concert. Bring a sweater or jacket as it sometimes quickly cools down in the evening.

002

La Consecha charcuterie plate

“Paso” now boasts many of the best restaurants in the county. One of the newest, La Cosecha, (Spanish for harvest) Restaurant + Bar serves Spanish, Central and South American fare.  This casual eatery has the feel of a casual, friendly ambience of a neighborhood watering hole. They are open daily for lunch and dinner, with options of indoor regular or tall table seating, a communal table for large parties, and outdoor patio seating. Some of the highlights are the braised bone marrow appetizer, Iberico ham with figs, Honduran-style empanadas, Black cod mofongo and the delectable paella of the day. The bar stocks Spanish sherries, food-inspired wines and beers, and has a dedicated mixologist who concocts seasonal craft cocktails such as the seasonal caipirinha made with Brazilian chaçaca, St. Germaine, limes and blueberries.

Il Cortile

Il Cortile

Honduran-born Chef Santos MacDonal and his welcoming wife, Carole, also own one of Paso’s other best eateries, Il Cortile Ristorante, which specializes in rustic Italian food in their upscale, but comfortable restaurant. Dinner specialties include such creative appetizers as grilled octopus, crostini porchetta, pan-roasted quail with prisciutto-filled tortellini, and a bountiful selection of mozzarella cheeses.  Santos’ homemade pastas and, when available, pork osso bucco, are house favorites. Just a half block from the city park, they are open for dinner daily from 5:00 p.m.

Artisan serves locally-sourced, creative American Fare. Now open daily starting at 11 a.m., Artisan is now at their new location, a stylish modern building, just across from the city park. The Kobayashi brothers have added an outdoor dog-friendly seating area, a full bar with some new menu items such as pizza. Chef Chris has a knack for unique combinations that wow the palate such as duck confit salad, spinach, pt. reyes blue, smoked almonds, “fried egg;” abalone tostada, avocado, pork belly carnitas; hanger steak, asparagus, black trumpets, bacon tater tots; and Alaskan halibut, burnt flour orecchiette, peas, morels, green garlic. For a list of best restaurants in Paso Robles, including information about type of cuisine, which meals they are open, patios and whether those seats can be reserved, wine or full bar, family-friendly, and dog-friendly.

D'Anbino Winery and Tasting Room

D’Anbino Winery and Tasting Room

Paso offers an array of live musical and entertainment venues that appeal to varied interests. D’Anbino Cellars, a short walk from downtown, is one of the premier musical venues in the county, attracting local and nationally-renowned musicians who perform varied styles including jazz, bluegrass, blues, rock, funk, soul, and Great American Songbook. Their website provides information about events which include both afternoon and evening entertainment.  Presently, they offer salsa lessons Friday evenings from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. with an opportunity afterward to practice new moves. During the warm months, the Pony Club, the wine bar in the Hotel Cheval, offers nightly solo or duo artists which start in the early evening on Friday and Saturday, and at 5:00 p.m. Sundays. Listen on the outdoor patio under the shade of the large shade tree. Other local bars offering live entertainment include The Pour House, Pappy McGregor’s, and The Cattleman’s Lounge in The Paso Robles Inn. All of these music venues offer snacks or full meals. Also, many of the Paso Robles area wineries feature live music, especially in the summer. Vina Robles Winery recently opened their 3300 seat “boutique amphitheatre” which attracts big name acts like the Moody Blues, Darius Rucker, Tony Bennett, B.B. King, and George Lopez.

Festivals provide the perfect opportunity to experience local culture and food. The “First Saturdays: Wine and the Arts” occurs monthly from 5 to 8 p.m. They feature a wide array of art including mixed media, oil painting, jewelry, photography and quilting, with several wineries as participating venues. At the annual Olive Festival, this year on August 17, there are a number of entertaining activities for adults and children. There are many other family friendly activities in Paso Robles, as well.

 

Paso Robles City Park

Paso Robles City Park

One of the more popular festivals is the Classic Car Show Weekend, which occurs Labor Day week-end. It features members’ cars dating back to 1923 which are displayed at the car cruise and show. Starting Sunday September 29th at 3:00 p.m., The North SLO County Concert Association starts its 65th season, which will include 1930’s era vocalist diva Dawn Lambeth, a band featuring brass instruments, chamber music, and a vocal jazz quintet.

The celebrated Harvest Wine Weekend, October 18-20, visitors can experience the grape harvest up close; summon your inner Lucy for grape-stomping or enjoy more leisurely tours of wineries, many of which offer fantastic winemaker dinners and/or live music. The Paderewski Festival, scheduled for November 7-10, honors Ignancy Jan Paderewski, composer, virtuoso pianist, humanitarian, orator, and the first Prime Minister of Independent Poland after World War I. He visited Paso Robles on many occasions between 1914 and 1939, and owned over 2800 acres where he planted Zinfandel grapes, almonds and fruit trees. The festival features a variety of concerts, a piano master class, documentary, youth competition winners’ recital, and lecture. Traveller beware: some festivals and events can be very crowded, so take that into account when making plans.

Hotel Cheval

The best downtown lodging is the 16 room European-inspired, boutique Hotel Cheval. The cozy rooms have plush towels, quality bedding and many other amenities. Welcome cookies, bedtime organic chocolates and breakfast are included. Options for rooms include fireplaces, outdoor patios, sundecks, and for dog owners, pet beds and food and water dishes.   The inviting central outdoor patio has a fireplace that visitors can stoke. The historic Paso Robles Inn first opened in 1891 and is the only hotel in the area that still offers thermal hot springs in guest rooms. The comfortable rooms are family and dog-friendly. The outdoor area includes a large grassy area, Koi pond, brook and flower garden. Ask for the “locals rate.” Although not in downtown Paso, Tuscan-inspired La Bellasera Hotel and Suites has luxury suites which include fireplace, whirlpool and patios. The outdoor pool also has a fireside cabana. Spa services are available at all three hotels.

article courtesy: slocoastjournal.com