My Spain Portugal and France Travels 2000

by Marc H. Mehlman

written 11 June 2000

12 May: Madrid, Spain

Hombros and Mujeres,

I made it to Madrid! Its only 7-8 hours from Pittsburgh, but after getting to and from the airport and switching planes it takes about an entire day. I'm traveling with my parental units and they had an even longer time in transit. They came from Los Angeles and their plane missed a connection.

Madrid is a city of four million people, yet the downtown is quite small. The national language is Mexican. Puerta del Sol is the center of both Spain and Madrid, and everything of interest in Madrid is within a 20 minutes walk from there. Our first and only full day in Madrid was spent in the Prado, one of Europe's finest art museums. Afterwards we visited the Atocha train station. The modern, tasteful and large station houses Spain's ``bullet trains". We finished the day with a walk through Plaza Major - a huge encircled Plaza that I remember from my 1992 trip.

The Spanish live on a different clock than we do. They don't even think of dinner until after 8:30 PM and love to stay up late. They are friendly and affluent. Madrid is both an old (about 400 years) and a modern city. The buildings are quite grandiose in style - often with lavishly adorned facades with statues and impressive roofs. Madrid knows it is the capital city.

A nice thing about Spain is how inexpensive it is for Americans. For instance, a two star hotel room in the center of Madrid goes for only $25. Fancy meals (feasts) can be had for $7-10. Finally, a place made for a UPJ salary.

Today we rented a car (a new Toyota Corolla). We drove to El Escorial, the Monastery/Palace King Phillip II built in just 20 years. It is overwhelming in its size and grandeur. It is all built from cut granite. It is also a monument to evil and demented religious fanaticism. This was the center of the Inquisition and cruelty knew no bounds. The kings that reigned here had unbelievable power and wealth, yet it seems that it was death that held their fascination - the death of their so-called enemies, the death of Christ and various Saints and not the least, their own deaths. El Escorial has some of the most lavish crypts I've seen. One crypt, in black marble and gold, deep below the Palace has 23 Spanish kings. Many other crypts have lesser royalty. What power evil and death can hold! One senses the evil is still there, in the crypts.

Afterwards we visited El Valle de Los Caidos (Valley of the Fallen). Under a huge cross perched on the top of a mountain is buried a giant basilica dedicated to the dead of Spain's bloody civil war. Since the fascists won, it was the Leftist prisoners that dug this huge underground basilica into the granite. Fifty thousand dead are entombed here - there is room for the entire Abraham Lincoln Brigade and much more (both Fascists and Republicans are buried here). The only two marked graves are Franco's and the founder of Spanish Fascism. Fresh flowers are on each of their graves. Like El Escorial, this place is inhuman and harsh - a monument to someone's ``ism" taking precedence over those living and breathing.

Tonight we stayed in Segovia. Boy what a great place! It is an ancient hill town (there is a modern part too) of the same class of wonderfulness as, say, Sienna. One first sees a gigantic Roman aqueduct stretching across the valley into the old town. It really looks none the worse for the two thousand or so years it has been standing. Built out of granite with no mortar - and it still works! The old town is a charming maze of narrow cobbled stone streets, pedestrian streets, restaurants, Romanesque churches, hostels and pastry stories. And of course, it has its own incredible Gothic Cathedral. Medieval wonderfulness.

More later,

Marc

17 May: Caceres, Spain and Lisbon, Portugal

Homes and Mulheres,

Since I last emailed we drove to Caceres, halfway between Segovia and Lisbon. We stayed in the old city in Caceres, below the walled city. There was a festival in Plaza Mayor, the main plaza, with many happy, thoroughly drunk young Spaniards everywhere. The old city is beautiful and Caceres seems to be a very nice place to be, long tree-lined boulevards with pedestrian walkways. The only thing this city seemingly lacks are restaurants. We had a hard time finding a suitable place. One thing this place does not lack is posters everywhere demanding freedom for Abu Al Jamar, the Black Philadelphia policeman murderer. Such empathy for a ``victim" of Amerikan domestic policies is quite touching.

Portugal is a very pretty country. They speak Brazilian here. Very few natives speak Spanish; they speak French or English, or no second language at all. Portugal is not as affluent as Spain. Its buildings are as magnificent as Spain's and more colorful and ornate, but often more run down. A combination of Moorish architectural influences and glazed painted tiles makes for beautiful buildings.

Lisboa (the name the Portuguese use for Lisbon) is a great city, though lots of areas could stand some repair. Many of the sites and museums were closed for restoration. The old Afama district was my favorite. It is on a hill with an old castle (originally a Moorish fortification) on the top. The entire district has only crooked streets, some with small San Francisco style trolley cars laboring up and down the hill. Every house is an architectural masterpiece, and all the streets are cobbled stone. One senses that the same families have lived here for centuries. Even with a street map and compass one can get pleasantly lost.

The Portuguese are a very friendly if demented people. They try their best to help with directions. There are many beggars. Others dress casually but modestly; only tourists wears shorts. One also senses the large amount of unemployment here. In the USA unemployment seems to inflict damage on our sense of community. Here it seems to show in missing personal opportunities. A street corner shoe polisher or street vendor of pocket combs is the career path of too many.

Oh yes, and they are demented. The Portuguese are a much more homogeneous lot than we Americans, so I feel it is safe to refer to them collectively as demented. We first observed the entire nation in an altered mind state, a religious stupor, when we arrived. The Pope was in Fatima while we were in Lisboa (more on Fatima later) and every TV station and newspaper and magazine was focused on the Papal visit. Half the nation was in Fatima, the rest in front of their TVs. This is a country that is 99.99% Catholic, and very, very religiously so. Homogeneous, not like the USA.

The next night we went for dinner and this time everyone was paying attention to a soccer game on TV (they call it football, not knowing what real football is). Later that evening there was a huge explosion over the city, car horns blasted and dogs were barking. Were the Moors attempting to recapture the city in a surprise night attack? No. The home soccer team had won! Thousands of cars jammed the street, horns blasting with soccer flags and sports paraphernalia hanging everywhere, fans hanging out of car windows, car trunks, car roofs, everywhere. Strangers met in the street countless times, reacting emotionally as if they had found a long lost brother or sister, as they shared their mutual joy. This went on to four in the morning, thousands of car horns blasting for hours. Very few in downtown Lisboa got much sleep that night. The next day was a workday, but then, I have already talked of the great unemployment here.

It is not clear what is stronger in the Portuguese soul, religious stupor or soccer mania, but they are not in conflict. I respect religion and like soccer but I have never seen either to this extreme. Fortunately, I have no favorite soccer team and feel kindly to Catholics, so Portugal should have no problems with me. It's just so homogeneous. They all play and pray so feverishly together. It is different.

Still exploring Portugal.

Marc

18 May: Central Portugal

Grande Amigos,

It is not easy to visit a country you've never been to before, with a language you neither speak nor read and in just a few days make profound observations about the people, the culture and the political climate; but let me continue.

On leaving Lisboa we drove north to a small tourist walled city called Obidos. It is small, but real cute - a photographer's dream. Rick Steves (author of our sacred guide book and patron saint of Americans in Europe) warned us of horrible crowds and a lack of parking, but we were there before the official tourist season so it was perfect.

From there we continued north to Alcobaca for the Cisterican Monastery of Santa Maria. That night we portaged in Tomar, home of the Portuguese Templars. Tomar isn't advertised as a tourist site, but it seemed interesting to me. I was right! The old city is gorgeous, fully the equal of most of the Umbria hill towns. It is very clean and well taken care of. It has a beautiful square, an old cathedral, and good food. Surprisingly, in the home of the Knights Templar here is one of Portugal's only surviving synagogues. There are two Jewish families in Tomar (consisting of nine of the approximately 1,000 Jews living in Portugal). The two Jews we talked to claimed that there is neither intermarriage nor anti-semitism in Portugal. They also said that there were no Protestants.

The old city runs along a river that has an ancient Roman water wheel (that still works) and other Roman waterworks. Above, on a hill is an extremely impressive Templar castle.

The Templars were formed in Israel during the Crusades (I toured their fortress in Acre, Israel) and consisted of knights of many nationalities. The organization continued and thrived back in medieval Europe. In Portugal, the Templars were given great wealth, power and lands in return for their help in the eternal (it seemed) war against the Moors (Islamic Arab North Africans). The Templars were disbanded by the Pope, then in Arguva, France, under pressure from King Phillip II of France. Phillip feared the Templars because of how powerful they had become in France. So ended one of Europe's first NATO's. The Portuguese Knights Templar continued after the disbandment under the name ``Order of the Knights of Christ".

D. G. Palis, the founder of the Portuguese Knights Templar, founded Tomar in 1160 AD. The citadel in the castle is the most impressive I've ever seen. There is a pseudo-copy of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, only it was designed so that the knights could attend church on their horses (shades of current-day Los Angeles drive-through churches). The church is beautiful, highly decorated on both the interior and the exterior, yet at the same time it is clearly designed to be a fortress as well of church (the Moors could always return). The Romanesque church and surrounding cloisters (barracks) are in the Manueline style (after Portuguese King Manuel - the style comes from the Moors and I love it). Very impressive and an unexpected window into the medieval world.

The next day we visited Fatima. In 1917 three children supposedly saw the Virgin Mary here. Mary made more appearances and the site became one of Catholic pilgrimage. The (elaborate) story of Mary's various sightings and her words (she made three prophesies - two have come true and the third is for the future and predicts something so awful that the Church won't tell us what it is) is now officially recognized as true by the Catholic Church. Many of the pilgrims were having the emotional experience of their lives. Some were walking on their knees out of piety. Others were burning huge candles. You can buy candles in the shape of a particular human organ if that is what ails you. I particularly like a set of wax hooters. Besides the intensity of emotion, it seemed strange that most of the praying and chants concerned not God or Jesus, but the Virgin Mary, numerous Saints and the children who first saw the apparition.

We spent a day in Coimbra, a sort of Portuguese Bezerkeley. It has Portuguese's most prestigious university. The university was established in its current enlightened form by King John III, who, in 1537, also made Coimbra one of the centers of the Inquisition. The city is beautiful. There are gypsies here - dirty, seemly desperate, proud, answering to their own mysterious moral codes, and always on the make. I'd like to understand Gypsy society better, but it is best to avoid them. A hated, yet surviving, fringe European group.

There seems to be a following for the local Communist Party here. After all the mass murdering (for social progress) in such disjoint situations as the Soviet Union, China, Cambodia, Vietnam, North Korea and South America, one might hesitate to live under such Leftist thugs - but the lesson seems unlearned. How many learn this lesson only when facing a bullet to the back of the neck (and how many don't even learn then)?

The people of Portugal have been friendly, open and honest with us. Unfortunately, the language barrier has kept us from knowing them better. They are a different people from the Spaniards - the two seem to have little to do with each other. The Portuguese seem to feel Spanish is a silly sounding language. They are more religious, more fanatic, more homogeneous and have are less international than Spaniards. And they have gorgeous tiles and ceramics.

On to Salamanca,

Marc

20 May: Salamanca and the Basque Country, Spain

Amigos,

Salamanca turns out to be a real to-be-place. It fills up on weekends and the center of town becomes one big party lasting until three or four in the morning. After that it is pretty quiet until at least noon. Salamanca has some of the most beautiful cathedrals I have ever seen. The collection of (mostly Catholic) cathedrals in Europe has to be one of mankind's most impressive achievements.

Salamanca is also home to a famous and well-regarded university. We visited it, but personally, I must question its academic reputation. I saw no evidence of a Black Studies Department, no Feminist Studies, not even a Gay or Lesbian Department. There isn't even a learning center or a center for cooperative learning - nothing. The school seems simply fixated on old and worn out areas of study.

One of the open secrets of Salamanca's considerable charm is its abundance of pedestrian streets and its Plaza Mayor (main plaza). Such public places, away from car traffic, are sadly lacking in the United States (are public areas too dangerous in the US? or just not directly commercially valuable to city planners?). These public places are not parks, but places where one can eat (often outside, if one chooses) have a beer, shop or just stroll, or compare pastry shops. How nice.

Burgos (further north) on the other hand, seems to be a paradise for its residents. Franco chose Burges for his headquarters during the Spanish civil war. Tree lined walkways along its river invite evening strolls, and grassy areas are fine for picnics or naps. There were even some natives fishing in the river. All this downtown! Burgos, of course, has its own incredible cathedral (third largest in Spain, complete with a giant star of David in the stain glass on the front) and a lovely Plaza Mayor, but the old city is for strolling, for kids to play in, and for eating in outdoor cafes. Burgos is clean, affluent, and relaxing. Historically, it is a resting place for religious pilgrims on the way to Santiago de Campostel, where St. James is buried.

The following day, and our last in Spain for a while, was devoted to Basque country. Bilboa has a flavor somewhat different from the rest of Spain. It appears much more proletariat and somewhat drab. Signs and conversations are in Basque, as is the abundant graffiti. My Dad claims the Basque language has similarities with Korean, while some of the locals say Japanese. If either is correct, there is certainly an interesting missing piece of Euro-Asian history. One thing is for sure, Basque is not a dialect or derivative of Spanish.

The strikingly modern Guggenheim Museum is a centerpiece in Bilboa's effort to evolve from a proletariat feel to a more cosmopolitan one. It is a good start. The riverfront is quickly being transformed from an industrial site to a park. In addition Bilboa's main avenue is turning into a pedestrian only street and trolley lines are being added throughout the city.

The museum building itself is of the type that one either loves or hates, but leaves no one impartial. I loved it. The titanium shell, novel shape and imaginative use of glass, limestone and water works for me. The architect is Gehry - the guy who would later do the American Music Experience in Seattle.

The main exhibit was by Clemente, an Italian artist now living in New York. The work was quite narcissistic, nihilistic and politically correct. However, I liked it since it was quite aesthetically pleasing, clever and very pornographic. New York City's Mayor Guilliani would not be pleased.

We spent the night in San Sebestian. This is a Basque city on the Atlantic. It has a gorgeous fishing port, an interesting old city and great beaches. Behind the port and old city is a tall hill devoted to a park. At the top there is a very large statue of Jesus. At night it is lit up, giving the eerie illusion of Jesus floating above the city. I wish we had more time here.

Tomorrow it is on to French land. My folks frequently talk of retiring to Biaritz (are they not retired already?). They want to show me their future retirement city. Tomorrow.

Marc

24 May: Biaritz and the Loire Valley, France

Mes Amis,

Biaritz was everything my folks promised. It is a wealthy seaside resort with a gorgeous beach and harbor. Small boats are marooned at low tide only to be refloated at high tide. Everything here is clean, well thought out, and in great taste. Many of the French are sunning themselves on the beach, reading books. This being France, the French women are topless. While many Americans would find so many exposed breasts titillating, the French are much more mature and sophisticated about hooters. The beach was gorgeous.

As any decent and moral person, I, of course, detest the French. (Mark Twain said that mankind was somewhere between the angels and the French). Just the same, finding myself in France, it is hard not to become a Francophile. There is a lot to be said in favor of the French. Their food really is superior. They have superb taste. The countryside is well maintained and extremely beautiful. French women have fantastic breasts. Everything is well thought out, efficient and has a French touch. And, amazingly, the French people we have run into have all been very friendly. I like France.

From Biaritz, we journeyed north on good, non-crowded French highways, spending one night in an inexpensive, clean hotel consisting of many identical, efficient, and modular chambers (rooms). My Dad and I loved it; my Mom felt otherwise. France has many convenient hotels and restaurants along its roadways.

We spent two nights in Amboise, just east of Tours, in the middle of the Loire Valley chateau countryside. We managed to bag four Chateaus:

Charles Dickens' ``Tale of Two Cities" describes the lush and undisguised wealth of the French nobility and the extreme, desperate poverty of the peasants before the French revolution. There is no evidence of ``peasant poverty" in France today, (we have seen no homeless people or beggars) but the excesses of the pre-revolution upper classes are plain to see.

Castles were an important in the Loire during the Hundred Year War with England. Later on, the nobility build their chateaus here. During World War II, Chenonceau was the border between Germany and liberated France (a site of several prisoner exchanges). Other chateaus where used as various army headquarters during the war.

We are eating very well. We usually dine at places recommended by Rick Steves (author of our guide book), and his recommendations are quite good. Frequently, we run into other Americans in these restaurants with Patron Saint Steves' book. Meals are not that expensive (without wine) - (tips are not expected and either there is no tax or it is already included). The French eat leisurely and the waiters make no effort to hurry things along. This is French culture - and mine, at least while I am in France.

The French pride themselves in being different. Unfortunately, their keyboards to their computers are much different from ours, making it very hard for me to send email. It is actually very clever - if I were to type in my email as I do with an American keyboard, it would be produced in perfect French. Similarly, when a French person types on an American keyboard, it comes out in English. For instance, typing ``God save the Queen" on a French keyboard gives ``Tu es grande Formage". Still, the French keyboard makes it hard for an American, like me, to write in English.

Tomorrow we are off to Beynac in the Dordogne Valley.

Marc

27 May: Dordogne Valley, France

Mes Amis,

The drive to Beynac, on the Dordogne River, once again impressed us how beautiful the French countryside is. Forest and farms, tree-lined roads, stone cottages ... everything seems perfect.

On our way south we stopped at Oradour-sur-Glane, a French village where the Germans massacred 642 men, women and children during World War II. The site of the former town is now a national monument, and there is a museum there too. Such a French museum must face some interesting issues, such as French collaboration. What about the French citizens who were Jewish (and offered up to the Germans by French collaborators)? The museum did a much better job confronting these issues than I expected. Interestingly, many of the ``Germans" who committed the massacres were from French Alsace. After the war the Alsace region stood by their brutish murderers and as a result the post-war French government pardoned virtually all the French and German soldiers for this massacre. As one can imagine, this did not sit well with the survivors of Oradour-sur-Glane, or the relatives of those who had perished. There was somewhat of a row between the citizens of the town and the national politicians. The French Communists made a big thing about this tragedy, and after the war the town elected a Communist mayor. (At the time, the French Communist Party was directly and secretly controlled by Moscow.) The Communists, of course, are and were the world's leading experts on mass murder.

In any case, Oradour-sur-Glane is an interesting place.

That evening we made it to the Dordogne, home of foie gras (the pate made from the liver of force-fed, i.e., forced to over-eat, geese). The region is also home to cave drawings by prehistoric humans. We stayed in Beynac, a small village along the river, under a French castle high above. The area was contested during the Hundred Year War. There are English castles nearby, but they are not in as good shape; they lost.

The next morning we made our way to Lascaux II, a painstakingly exact copy of Lascaux I (made using a computer technology). Lascaux I is a cave, sealed for 17,000 years until it was discovered in the 1940s; it has Cro-Magnon cave drawings. The original cave was open to tourists for about 15 years, but the variation in temperature, drafts and the CO2 from tourists' breath - all not present for 17,000 years - started destroying the cave paintings. Hence, Lascaux II.

The cave drawings themselves are quite impressive, due to their aesthetic quality, the great skill and effort it took to create them, and the mystery of what they mean. (There are no signs of the cave being occupied for any reason other than for painting.) The paintings are polychromatic, and were painted from a elaborate system of scaffolding. To prevent damage from soot Cro-Magnon man illuminated the pitch-black cave with lanterns, not torches. The drawings are of animals (some are now extinct) along with some strange symbols whose meanings are unknown.

As it happened, when I wandered off a bit on my own, I discovered a formerly unknown cavern in Lascaux II. It has drawings that show early Frenchmen's (Cro-Francois man's) unsuccessful efforts to make foie gras from wild bison. There were also paintings of woodles - a terrifying, now extinct, prehistoric animal that was half wolf and half French poodle. How this cavern, in this artificial, man-made cave, was never before discovered, I know not.

This region makes for great vacations. When the weather turns slightly warmer there are hundreds of rented kayaks and canoes floating down the Dordogne River. One can make an entire day of this, coming ashore to eat or picnic, and to explore the castles and towns along the way. While afloat, one can appreciate the exposed French flesh sun bathing along the shores. Also, the river, itself, makes for good swimming.

The town of Sarlat, nearby, has an old town and a great market day each week. There is great food and produce, leather goods (I got another belt), used French books (my Dad bought some), and various other valuables.

Tomorrow we are off to Albi and the Languedoc region.

Marc

27 May: Longuedoc Region, France

Mes Amis,

From Beynac, we traveled through incredibly gorgeous countryside to Albi in the Languedoc region of France. We traveled on small (sometimes very small) country roads often lacking in signs indicating where they are going. Luckily, I'm pretty good at directions and besides, the countryside is so gorgeous and sprinkled with interesting castles and farms that getting lost is almost a pleasure.

Originally France started around Paris and expanded from there. England controlled a huge swath of what is now western France. In the Hundred Year War, France took it. Later France invaded the land of Languedoc. With the blessing of the Pope, the French introduced the Inquisition to Languedoc and waged a genocidal war, called the Albigensian Crusades (the only Crusades against a Western people), against local Jews, Moslems and Cathars. By the mid 1300's the last Cathar was dead.

The Cathars were Christians who believed in several unorthodox religious doctrines (unorthodox by today's Christianity). For instance, they believed in reincarnation, and because of this were vegetarians. They were a fairly peaceful lot, but because they didn't follow Roman Catholic doctrine, the Pope considered them a threat to the Church. They left behind a number of (often damaged) castles. Many were burned at the stake. One senses their (reincarnated?) ghosts still inhabit this area.

It seems that Modern day France was built on medieval genocide and massacres. Besides the massacre of the Cathars, Jews and Moslems, one can add Protestants to the list (St. Bartholomew's Massacre comes to mind). Perhaps this is the story of how great nations are born. Perhaps such cruelty is a Darwin survival tactic.

After taking control of Albi, one of the first things the French did was build a proper Catholic church. The Basilique St. Cecile is immense and the plain exterior looks like a huge fortress. The interior is anything but plain; it is beautiful with lots of nice art. It took about a hundred years to build the church. For those hundred years the construction must have taken an elephant's share of Albi's resources. Could you imagine nowadays anyone in the USA starting a building that would take 100 years to build and finance? Even the half built super collider in Texas was abandoned because it would have cost each American $10 and taken another three years to complete. But then, what is unlocking the secrets of the universe compared to building yet another church?

The Church, like the rest of Albi, is constructed of red brick. Next to the church is a former palace now converted into the Toulouse-Lautec Museum. I find Toulouse-Lautec's work boring, but the museum does have great views of the river and the old bridge below.

From Albi we drove to the well-preserved medieval walled city of Carcassonne. The old city is swamped with tourists and shopkeepers selling their trinkets, but the place still has its considerable charm. The old city is circled with a moat and two tall and formidable walls, with yet another wall surrounding an interior chateau. The gates and towers are designed for maximum military defense. Medieval military technology is interesting. One can walk below the old city and view the walls from a medieval pedestrian bridge. I returned there after my folks turned in for the night and saw the walls all lit up at night.

Our meals continue to be superb. Surprisingly, it is difficult to eat one fantastic meal after another. Dinner always consists of appetizers, a soup or salad, a main dish and dessert (and sometimes a course of different cheeses) all for about $12. I've been eating duck, rabbit and beef for my main dish. I think the French can make even boiled water taste delicious. It takes an evening to recover from such wonderful gluttony.

Next, a few days in Provence.

Marc

31 May: Provence, France

Mes Amis,

Parts of Provence are obviously imitations of Napa Valley in California. The beautiful vineyards with yellow and lavender wild flowers growing everywhere remind me of Napa in the Spring. There are wine tasting drives in the country. The French are so shameless in their Napa plagiarism that they even serve French cheese and bread everywhere - just like in Napa Valley.

We spent three nights and two and a half days in Provence, staying in the old city of Arles. Arles has lots of Roman ruins - it was an important place during Roman times. Then the only bridge over the Rhone River was here, and hence the Via Domitian (the major road connecting Rome and the Iberian Peninsula) went through Arles. By favoring Rome's Julius Caesar over the Greek city of Marseilles, which was allied with Pompei, then the enemy of Rome, Arles gained favor in the Roman Empire when Caesar won. Rome stationed a legion here and built a large amphitheater (seated 20,000), a theater (seated 10,000), a forum, a circus (for chariot races), thermo baths, and walls for the city. Much of this still remains though these Roman constructions suffered less from time than by being ``quarried" during the Middle Ages. During the Middle Ages the Mediterranean coast of what is now France was frequently raided by Moslem North Africans - sort of like Hezbula Vikings. Arles needed cut rocks to fortify their city.

While the city is built on the banks of the mighty Rhone, it does its best to ignore the river. (The river is semi-walled off and there are no parks or walkways along the river). I don't know why. The old city consists of a maze of one-way narrow streets that a single car can barely navigate. Our hotel (recommended by Rick Steves, of course) is in a great location and is very tasteful and pleasant. Two blocks from here is the famous cafe Vincent Van Gogh painted in his ``Le Cafe de Nuit." We ate there one night (its aesthetic value is greater than its gastronomic qualities).

Arles is a pretty and an attractive city - though its narrow, crooked roads take a little getting used to. However, since this is a civilized country; there are pedestrian-only streets and plazas.

The first day we drove out to Les Baux and Pont du Gard. Les Baux is the ruins of a 1600's chateau/castle on the top of a magnificent rock. While the defenses of Les Baux were formidable, they could not hold off the royal army of Louis XIII. Les Baux' offense - heresy (it was partially Protestant). Les Baux was felled with impressive siege machines - catapults that could throw 200 pounds of rock, flame, and diseased animal carcasses 200 yards, and armored battering rams. Medieval artillery! The site is best explored with audio guides.

Pont du Gard is an intact portion of an immense Roman aqueduct built sometime in the BC. Roman engineering and construction is incredible. It makes one realize that we haven't come as far as one might otherwise think. A cool, refreshing dip in the river below the aqueduct had me totally refreshed.

The next morning we visited the Roman amphitheater in Arles. Again, impressive engineering. Amazingly, the design is the same as in many contemporary stadiums. It even had a retractable roof.

Later we drove out and visited three Luberan hill towns. Oppede le Vieux was nice, but just a touch too rustic and forgotten (great views of Provence though). Gordes was quite nice, but perhaps a little too chic and expensive to be entirely authentic. Just right was Roussillon. A small town on the top of a large hill with red soil and rock. It's like a little of France in the middle of slick rock country in Utah. The place has the right number of eateries, shops and seemed authentic. All in reddish stucco and rock and great taste.

It is easy to see why Provence has attracted (created?) so many great artists - Van Gogh, Cezanne, and Picasso to name a few. The French here in Provence, as in the rest of the France we have visited, have been very friendly and nice. Can this really be France? We have had pleasant experiences even with most French waiters while mangeying among French patrons and their dogs (who accompany the French to their restaurants).

In fact, most of the hotels we've stayed at will charge a few francs extra for Fido. My Mom and I are keeping this information secret from my Dad, who will be better off learning at some later date, if at all, that he has shared beds and linen with innumerable poodles.

On the subject of poodles, French scientists are working to create a breed of poopless poodles. If they succeed, French cities and culture will undoubtedly be forever altered.

It is sad to be leaving Provence.

Marc

5 June: Collioure, France and Catalunya, Spain

Grand Amigos,

From Arles in Provence we drove to Collioure, a French resort town just north of the Spanish border. Collioure has few historic sites worth visiting; it is mostly a perfect seaside resort. It is typically French to walk out to the beach and find a statue of Jesus on the cross (a little rusty from the salt air) and underneath it many topless French women sunning themselves. I entirely approve of such religious enlightenment. Besides the wonderful views from the beach, there is a very nice harbor, a quaint church, and an impressive fortress.

We found a sculpture honoring a score or so of Jews who were saved here, in Collioure, in 1493 from the Inquisition (on ships with the same names Christopher Columbus used when he sailed to the New World a year earlier, according to the plaque). We also found a Protestant church. We know little of the meaning of these discoveries.

The French go on mass vacation June 1st and the place was hopping. There was also a three-day festival going on (we arrived on its first day). As a result, it was not so easy to find a place to stay. We found a so-so place, but had to park the car far away.

The festival environment here seemly could not exist in the USA. People drank their beer, sang sports songs, paraded and partied all day and night long, but I saw only one policeman the entire time. Children ran free in maze of pedestrian alleyways, among the revelers, free of parental worry or supervision. Shopkeepers and restaurants showed no apprehension toward the partiers and welcomed everyone. There were no drunks and troublemakers!

We found another Cyber Cafe, but again the keyboards were Cro-Francois. It was these keyboards that prevented me from sending my email updates earlier. However, this time I figured out how to use Windows 98 to reconfigure the French keyboard into the one G-d intended for humans to use. Better late than never.

Collioure turns out to be a perfect base for exploring the northern reaches of Spanish Catalunya. One day we drove down and visited the Salvador Dali Museum in Figueres. This is a very interesting and amusing museum. One senses that Dali was a little eccentric. He was also a genius. His technical painting abilities were as good as the Renaissance masters. Indeed, some of his more conventional paintings are real masterpieces. The museum and most of sculpture inside was designed and created by Dali. Cat-a-loony. I loved it.

Another day trip was to Cadaques and Point Lligat (just north of Cadaques). Point Lligat is where Salvador Dali's house is. We didn't have reservations so we didn't get to see it, but the bay was so beautiful that it was worth coming. And not just the topless sunbathers.

Cadaques itself is a beautiful town with whitewashed buildings. A little like one of the Greek island towns. The harbor is quite nice. I rented a kayak for a while and then went swimming. Cadaques is a special place.

It is quite easy to maintain 160 kilometers per hour on the autostrada to Barcelona. This is quite fast, but I was still being passed. We had a good car (Toyota Corolla), the road was good and there was little traffic, so it felt perfectly safe. It was possible to travel at high speeds in Portugal and France too. It will be quite hard to settle for 80 or so kilometers per hour when I return to the States.

We only had a day and a half in Barcelona. We ended up in the exact same hotel I stayed in my only other visit to Barcelona, in 1992.

The Ramblas and Gothic district were much as I remembered them in 1992, but seedier. We ate dinner at a looked-OK-but-wasn't restaurant in Plaza Reial. Eating outside we got to see a small gang of bums, some semi-conscious, who cooked some crack, tried to sell some stolen goods and bought drugs from a well dressed woman who was obviously the local drug pusher. The bums themselves seemed like they were all pretty close to comatose or worse.

The Ramblas is, in my opinion, the most impressive walking street in any city anywhere. It is also pickpocket heaven. I had one try to unzip my daypack. If you catch a pickpocket, he'll just look at you and move on. However, as long as you guard your valuables, the Ramblas still has all its charm.

We asked some locals later if Barcelona had fallen on bad times. We were told that Barcelona was doing fine - better than the rest of Spain. It is just that the local bums and pickpockets have chosen the tourist areas (the Gothic district) to do their mischief. Madrid has its seedy district too, we were told - it just isn't a major tourist area.

The architecture here is incredible. Rick Steves describes many of the buildings as Art Nouveau. They are dignified, majestic and often very creative. Gaudi has had an immense influence on the city. Another Catalunya genius. I love his work. We visited several of his buildings including the Sagrada Familia, a tremendous cathedral whose construction started over a hundred years ago and still has decades or more to completion. Since Gaudi was involved in designing it, it is both wonderful and unique. Work is being done at an intense rate and I can see progress from 1992. Even half finished, it is a very fascinating building.

Five thousand kilometers, twenty-five rolls of film and thirty days after arriving to the Old World, our journey comes to an end. It is always sad when a trip comes to an end. When traveling, it is always almost as sad to leave one location as it is fun to arrive at the next. But for thirty days there was always a next location. Now, however, the New World beckons and I look forward to returning to friends and family.

Marc

Postscript

Tuesday June 13 11:19 AM ET
Italy Grants Amnesty to Pope's Would-Be Assassin

ROME (Reuters) - Italy Tuesday granted clemency to Turkish gunman Mehmet Ali Agca, jailed 19 years ago for the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul, the presidential palace said.

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The granting of clemency comes exactly one month after the Vatican revealed one of its most closely guarded secrets it said was received by three Portuguese shepherd children at during apparitions by the Virgin Mary at Fatima in 1917. The secret foretold the attempt on his life. The Pope has long believed the Virgin of Fatima saved his life.


Copyright 2000 Marc Mehlman
Last revised: 14 September 2000


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