28 July 2006


I know it has been a while since I have written about current events in my life, and unfortunately it will have to wait a little while longer. But I have 3 tidbits for today:

* Like eveywhere else in the world, we're in the middle of a heat wave. It sucks.
* I found the most hilarious blog yesterday. The Secret Diary of Steve Jobs, Aged 51 1/2. I just can't stop laughing.
* Sometimes, whenever I start thinking that everything I see on the internet is real, I do a search of the multitude of lyrics sites out there and find that after 20 years, they still don't have the lyrics to Big Black's song "Texas" right. Come on, there are only 13 words to the song, and one has nothing to do with Texas (real or stereotypical Texas), yet the others fit nicely. A quick listen to the song will tell you that "moustache" is not right and it should be "mustang". If something this simple is wrong (I mean, come on! Moustache?), it isn't hard to believe that there are plenty of other wrong things out there and I need to take it with a grain of salt. Like, that's not the Steve Jobs' blog.

22 July 2006

Aqueducts and Flamingos (Act II, Scene V & finale)


The day started like the others - we awoke earlier than any attractions opened. But at least we had a plan - hit a grocery store and get something for breakfast in the park outside Nîmes' Tour Magne. At 9:00 when it opens, run up, see the panoramic view of Nîmes then hop in the car and roll on to the Pont du Gard.

Pont du Gard

The breakfast part and the Tour Magne part worked out quite well. But the getting to Pont du Gard thing turned into a nightmare. We had maps of the downtown area and a road map of the region of France we were visiting, but the center of Nîmes maps did not detail how to get to the roads out of town, and the Languedoc-Roussilon map we had didn't have enough detail to navigate a city. So we relied on signs. Let me start by saying that we have never had a problem in Germany finding the way we wanted to go in a city. German towns are really good about having "Alle Richtung" signs, telling us "go this way to get out of town" and there is excellent signage to get to Autobahns and Bundesstraßen. Maybe Nîmes is the exception in France, but we had hella trouble finding signs to get out of town in the direction we wanted to go. We circumnavigated Nîmes at least twice, and once we found ourselves inside a rural suburb of Nîmes that was like driving through a maze, since the roads were narrow and were walled on either side. Not like driving in the city because we couldn't see any buildings - just walls. Eventually we got out of the maze and after another trip around Nîmes, we were able to decode the cryptic signs around the many traffic circles and go to a point outside of town that had a sign that told us we were on the right track to the Pont du Gard. Since web sites and books all tell travellers that the Pont du Gard is associated with Nîmes, you would think that there would be a sign or two inside town that tells us how to get there! Especially considering the huge cluster of hotels in the Villa Active, where we stayed.

Reflecting upon the Pont du Gard

Reflecting upon what should have been a 30 minute drive that turned into a 2.5 hour ordeal, I am hesitant to say it was worth it. As the driver for that leg, getting lost in Nîmes and the maze NE of Nîmes was pure hell. But that makes it sound like the Pont du Gard sucks. But it doesn't suck - it was quite nice. Very nice. Exceptional. Exquisite. And I am sure it still is (it has been standing for +/~2000 years, so I assume it is still standing 2.5 months later). But that drive sucked. At times I thought we would never get out, that we would be stuck in the city like the couch that got stuck in Richard MacDuff's stairway.

Looking up the Pont du Gard

Pont Parallel

The Pont du Gard is a Roman acqueduct, probably built in the 1st century (my book doesn't say BC or AD, so it is 2106 to 1906 years old). It was built to bring water to Nîmes, and the best suitable water source was 50 km away and across the Gard river valley. This portion of the aqueduct forms a bridge across the valley, and is 275m long and 49m above the riverbed.

Us at the Pont du Gard

Me at the Pont du Gard

Jeannette & the Pont du Gard

We hung out for a while, had a picnic along the river and just relaxed in the ambiance of this awesome site. But alas, eventually we had to leave.

We decided to pop into nearby Uzès. There was nice market going on, and we wandered the market in the medieval city for a while before hopping back in the car and heading back to our hotel in Nîmes. We were feeling a bit tired after being on the road and active nearly non-stop for two weeks.

Space Invaders

The next day, we headed for Montpellier, for a late afternoon flight. We wandered for a while, but almost everything was closed because it was Sunday. We did see a nice game of women's beach volleyball in the middle of the city, and some other fun stuff. But we really were tired. It wasn't until much later that I realized that Montpellier is a city that has been successfully overrun by space invaders.

We decided to try to find the flamingos we had seen on the airplane when we landed in Montpellier, so we cruised the Étangs near the airport and found them. They were quite the sight to see, and to wrap up a wonderful vacation, one of the flamingos waved goodbye to us.


14 July 2006

Why Wasn't This Done Sooner?

One of the reasons we decided to move to Germany was that it improved the foreign travel opportunities considerably.

Inside Germany, at least in our neck of the woods, hopping on a train is economical and efficient. But sometimes, when we want to go a bit farther, the multitude of low-cost airlines in Europe open up the possibility to get away for a long weekend at a reasonable price. If you look at our recent trip to Bologna, we had a long weekend coming up and we wanted to go somewhere. The weather was still on the crappy side of spring weather, and we wanted something warm. For simplicity's sake, we wanted to leave from Stuttgart, so I scoured the web sites of German Wings, Hapag-Lloyd, Easy-Jet, Ryan Air, Air Berlin, and probably others (our favorite name is Wizz Air), looking for cheap Stuttgart to "X" trips, where "X" was someplace warm (Spain, Portugul, Italy, Turkey, Greece, Cyprus, etc.). I had to flip between several open tabs before I could narrow it down to Bologna. Why wasn't there a web site with all of these low-cost airlines' prices on one site, like Orbitz or Travelocity does with the majors?

Let's look at another example. Right now, we want to go somewhere for a long weekend. It doesn't matter so much where, we just want to get away. It has been dreadfully hot here the last couple weeks, so someplace in the northern half of Europe (Ireland, Sweden, Finland, Russia, etc.) would work great. The day is unimportant, we're more concerned with finding one of those locations for a decent price. All the airlines' web sites make me lock in a day (sometimes with a +/- 3 or 5 or 7 day window, but it is still heavily constrained) and a start & end point before revealing a price. And by starting at a specific airline's web site, I have already plugged in one variable. In other words, to compare just the 5 airlines I listed above, with the 4 destinations (assuming only one destination city in each), and limiting myself to starting in Stuttgart, I have to do 20 web searches and be more or less committed to a date. And revising the search sometimes means re-filling in the date or endpoints, because the form doesn't play well with the back button, for some reason. (Why do some web forms happily keep your old values, while other annoying web sites even more happily erase them and make you start over?)

Why can't I reverse the process? Why select a date and airline first? To us, at the moment, the crucial variable is Stuttgart. It really is the easiest airport for us to use in our carless state. The destination, airline and date are flexible and the order is less important. But show me the price range all along the way, so I can evaluate the choices of each variable as I go, rather than how most travel sites do it: give me the answer at the end, without any indication of how each choice affects the price.

A few days ago, I found skyscanner.net, and it is the best tool for this multi-variable database lookup that I have found so far. Anyone slightly geeky should see the usefulness of SkyScanner when wilcard options "Any Country", "Any Destination", "Any Airport", "Any Month", and "Any Day" are the inital query options. Taking it through its paces, I plug in "Depart from Germany, Stuttgart Airport; to Any Country, any Airport in Any Month". SkyScanner happily gives me a list, sorted by price, of the countries I can visit and which airlines will go there. At this time, for €40 and some change, I can go to Italy. It's too hot there right now, and they are all crazy-acting after winning the World Cup, but I'll continue to use Italy as my example right now. After selecting a country, I am then presented with a choice of destinations, again in price order. Here we learn that the €40.90 fare was to someplace called Cagliari, but famous places like Pisa (€47.01) or Rome (€66.38) are also on the list of about 12 cities. If I was feeling rich, I would spend €85.30 cents and go to Catania.

But, since I am a cheapskate, and I have never been there before, I'll go with Cagliari. When I select that city, I am presented with a month selector, which includes the cheapest fare for the month. I have to wait until December before I can get that €40.90 roundtrip fare. But I need a vacation sooner than that, so I will choose July for my outbound flight (€40.09 for that leg) and August for the return (€25.05 for that one! €65.14 roundtrip isn't that much higher than the orginal €40.90, unless I go by percentage... That gets the math part of my brain pig-bitin' mad!). Then I am presented with a calendar that graphically shows me that I can't leave at the end of July and return in early August for less than €150, so I will have to rethink the options. Maybe Pisa will work better. A few presses of the back button is a lot easier than tabbing through 5 or 6 airlines' web sites and plowing through the rigid search options they offer.

So maybe my example isn't so great, but for me, it is the most versatile web site I have seen for finding good flight prices. And the wildcard options in the beginning make it so easy. Maybe someday there will be something like this for flights in the US (or, even better, for flights form the US to Germany, so my mom can better weigh the time vs. cost alternatives). For now, I know SkyScanner will save me time when I try to figure out our next short excursion. Which is looking like Dublin or Stockholm right now, thanks to SkyScanner!

09 July 2006

How to Starve in France (Act II, Scene IV)

Despite it being Jeannette's birthday (OK, yeah, I am over 2 months late with this! Sorry!), we did that waking up "early" thing again and showed up at the gates of Perpignan's massive, star-shaped Palais des Rois de Majorque (Palace of the kings of Mallorca) before they opened. Two days in a row we started our day before the rest of the country - how frustrating! We hung out until it opened, and wandered around for a while. Something just wasn't clicking with us that morning, so after a brief visit to the palace, we decided to go back to the car and start driving towards Nîmes, our eventual destination for the day.

We really, truly, shortchanged Perpignan. We slept there two nights and our most vivid memories are of the extremely squeaky floor of the parking garage near the hotel. I think we'll have to go back. It is a big city with lots to see. But I think there is enough to do there and around to justify a 2nd trip. I'm sure when it's getting cold in Heilbronn and we want a last taste of warm weather, we can pop over or something.

Anyway, after leaving Perpignan we took a detour to Lodève, or, more precisely, 8 km away from Lodève. In the woods in the hills above the town is the Priory of St-Michel de Grandmont. A monastary of Grandmont monks, who were not allowed to speak or do much of anything fun. In addition to the decent church on the grounds, there were some Visigoth tombs and even cooler, the Dolmen de Coste Rouge, a Neolithic pile of rocks with a cute little door-hole on it. It almost looks like a dog house from the Flinstones, or something. We were actually quite lucky that we got a tour - normally the only scheduled tour is at 3:00, and we were there at about 12:30. But there was a pre-arranged tour that had started a few minutes before we arrived, and we were allowed to join them. We didn't get a ton out of the tour, it being in French and all and we knowing just enough French to order food that wasn't raw meat or brains, but not enough to do much else. Occasionally the guide would drop into English for a half-sentence, but it was usually to say something we understood anyway (Lac du Salagou in French is Lake Salagou in English. Uh, thanks.) But it was nice seeing the deer, the dolmen and an owl.

Our happiness at that was short-lived, because we were getting hungry and we were approaching a critial time - the 2:00 shutdown of all restaurants. I don't know if this happens all over France or just in Languedoc-Roussillon, but today it was a major issue. Lodève isn't full of restaurants to start with, but when we found one still open at 1:30, we happened to get there at the same time as a huge group of English motorcycle riders. So the two of us were drowned out by 25-30 other people. By the time we realized that we weren't going to get served in a timely fashion (did I mention that we were ravenous?), we left, only to find that we were too late for any other options. We had some verging on stale road snacks to help stave off the hunger until, a few towns later down the road, we found a grocery store. It was a complete zoo (and despite the rare presence of a 10-item-or-less express lane, but nobody abided by that item limit...), but we survived and continued on to Nîmes.

Nîmes is a much bigger city than we had been in for the last 2 weeks of travel. Normally, I would say that the traffic circles in France worked quite well, but I have to amend that statement after visiting Nîmes. They work well in rural or less crowded areas. They became quite annoying in Nîmes, where they were frequently 3 lanes deep and with no pre-indication of which exit to take, we ended up staying on the outside lane, which was probably a major violation of etiquette. Eventually we made it to the "Villa Active" a huge cluster stores and hotels outside of the old city center. We decided (possibly incorrectly) it would be easier to stay there instead of in the heart of the city. We had no reservations (a frequent situation for us that we are perfectly OK with), so we first considered getting a room at a hotel that had been advertising for miles that they had a pool. Jeannette likes to swim, and on her birthday she should be able to swim if she wants to, darn it. We were about to go in to the lobby and get a room when we noticed that the pool had no water in it. As we found out later at dinner, despite it being beautiful and warm to those of us used to the German climate, the residents of southern France still thought it was cold outside - definitely too cold to be swimming. So we went to a different hotel, where we didn't have to pay for a non-functional pool. And after checking in and taking a short break, we got in the car again and drove towards the ancient Roman city of Nîmes.

It wasn't easy - we didn't have the best map of Nîmes. Well, that's not really true. We had a perfectly good map or two of the old city, but none that included the Villa Active. But eventually we made it to the Maison Carrée parking garage and switched to the safer, more reliable and less-frustrating foot transportation units that we had carried with us the entire trip.

The Maison Carrée is a very well-preserved Roman temple in the center of Nîmes.

There is a cathedral that looks nice from the outside.

I had a lot of fun taking pictures of the ancient Roman arena in Nîmes.

We tried to find the ruins of the Roman Tour Magne so that we could have a great view of the town from above, but by the time we found it, it was closed. See, the moon is already out!

After mingling with a crowd of French school children in the ruins of the Temple of Diana, we headed back to the Villa Active for a nice dinner for Jeannette's birthday. There was another comical exchange - we wanted to sit outside in the beautiful weather, but it was too cold for the waitress to even consider that as an option. We eventually cleared it up and got our food. It was a buffet for everything excluding the main dish, so we each got to try snails. Not my favorite. And the swordfish wasn't nearly as good as what we ate in Italy. I think all in all, it was a pretty good birthday for Jeannette. Hopefully she agrees.


01 July 2006

Crumbling Fortifications (or Act II, Scene III)

WARNING: Today's blog entry will contain several photos of ruined castles. These photos of explicit dilapidation may shock and horrify some. These castles, over the centuries, have been the sites of graphic and gratuitous violence, and are currently stripped bare with what should be their most private areas left exposed for all to see.

Really, there will be lots of crumbling walls and the piles of centuries-old carefully stacked stones that are currently not quite as well-stacked as they originally were. They may start to look the same to you, but hopefully I can keep you interested with my witty commentary and links to insightful web resources.

With the disclaimer out of the way, let's get started!

If we had been thinking the day before, we would not have driven all the way from Andorra to Perpignan, instead we would have found somewhere in the Têt Valley or, even better, somewhere along highway D117 to spend the night. As it turns out, we ended up doing a lot of backtracking and also driving through some extremely remote areas to make it to the crazy places I wanted to see. Of course, hindsight is always 20/20, or whatever, so that's easy to say now. And I will admit, that, for the most part, the crazy route we took was a lot of fun and we saw a lot of really amazing stuff.

We started out by returning to Villefranche-de-Conflent, a tiny little town in the Têt Valley. This town is sandwiched between the Têt river and the steep valley, and once you add the massive defensive walls, there's not much room for a town, at least in the direction perpendicular to the river & valley.

Jeannette and I are not the kind of people that sleep in when we're on vacation. When we go somewhere, we go out and do stuff. I am sure we totally miss the "nightlife" in the areas we visit, but we're definitely more interested in seeing stuff in the daylight and collapsing from exhaustion shortly after a relatively early (especially for French standards) dinner. I bring this up because sometimes the strategy backfires. When we reached Villefranche-de-Conflent, we parked at the parking lot NE of town (there isn't room inside the walls of this skinny town for visitor parking), and payed the 2 euros. It was a bit of a ripoff, since there is no more than an hour or two's worth of poking around one can do in town and you have no choice but to buy parking for the entire day. (To be honest, one can catch the "Little Yellow Train", a highly regarded tourist train through the Têt Valley, here, and I suppose those who do this think the 2 euro all day parking is a steal) We considered selling our parking stub to the next visitors for 1 euro when we left, but we didn't have the Eier. Anyway, we arrived around 9:00 only to find out that the sights didn't open until 10:00. We poked around a bit, considered climbing the massively steep slope to the fortress that looms on the valley wall above the town, but decided against it, realizing that we had a lot of stuff to see today, and Villefranche-de-Conflent was merely on the might-as-well-if-we-have-time list. So, after an hour of poking around, we decided to skip the just-opened tourist stuff (add that to the list for next time!) and head to the thing my research really got me drooling over - Chateau Puilaurens.

Before I tell you that that was much easier said than done (whoops, I just told you that... hmmm...), let me explain a bit about the local geography. Simply put, the major roads go east/west and north/south travel is reserved for offroad vehicles or aircraft (and even those would have difficulty). Trouble is, the map shows these things that look like roads going in the northward direction, and they are even marked on the map as being scenic routes. Looking back, the "scenic route" thing should be read as "probably slow". But by the time we were in Villefranche-de-Conflent, we had no chance to get to a non-scenic north-bound road without backtracking almost all the way to Perpignan or Andorra. Villefranche-de-Conflent and Chateau Puilaurens are only 24 km (15 miles for the metric-impaired) apart as l'oiseau flies, so how hard can it be, right? Let me tell you how hard it can be!

First off, there's a mountain range in between the two points. That's not so bad, except that the roads are narrow and there is no center dividing line and no guard rail on the sheer dropoff into the abyss below. The locals drive like... well, like locals anywhere drive - like they know the place and are late to where they need to be. So to the foreigners like us, they seem to be maniacal road hogs. Especially when it's a big, huge truck riding your behind.

About half-way up the mountain, we ran into a herd of cows on the road that were also quite road-hoggy. Yes, even though they were cows, they were hogs. Someone could probably prove they have infinite limbs or something if they tried. Then, we got to go down the other side of the mountain. Turns out that path was through a national forest. The roads were pretty rough in that forest, and it didn't help that there was debris from the freshly-logged trees all over the road. Oh, and did I mention that the few times that there were road signs in the forest, there were no town names listed, only road numbers? And those road numbers didn't match any numbers on our map.

But eventually we made it to Chateau Puilaurens. It only took one hour to drive 24 km, but it seemed like much longer. Once again, in hindsight, we should have gone inside the castle. I had looked at some web sites that made it seem pretty cool, but I got confused with another castle whose name starts with "P", and since the guidebook we had with us didn't make it sound so exciting, we decided to move on after taking a few pictures. It really looks like an amazing castle, perched atop the rocky peak.

By this time, we were hungry. So we stopped in St. Paul de Fenouillet for lunch. We found a nice little cafe and perused the menu. Since we were in Catalan country, I decided to get something claiming Catalan food. The waitress was interesting - normally when people realize that we don't speak the language all that well, they slow down and enter "formal language mode" (that is, avoiding dialect and slang as much as possible). This waitress didn't. She wasn't all snotty and rude about it like the stereotype that Americans have about (usually Parisian) French people, she was OK with us stumbling through and praised us when we were saying things right and corrected us when it was wrong - but she still spoke in a mile-a-minute jabber that we just couldn't fathom. But we got our food & drinks ordered, and all was well until she came back 5 minutes later and informed me that what I ordered was sold out. Or something. For all I know she said that the cook was tired of cooking that. But the fact remains, I needed to pick something else. So I asked if she could recommend something similar, she said something not-so-understandable and "très bon!" so I said "ja - I mean - si - I mean - oui". Well, it turns out she brought me onion-packed blood sausages. As far as blood sausages go, they weren't bad. Especially when drenched in mustard. They are way better than the German blood sausage I have had. I don't want to make it sound like I am a connoisseur of blood sausage. Really, I have only had it one time before, and I didn't like it. This time I was hungry, I always promise to try to immerse myself in local culture when I travel and they were technically Catalan blood sausage. Packed with onions. Drenched with mustard. And beside a huge pile of French Fries. (There they just call them "fries"). So, I survived. Jeannette just laughed. But she let me get a ice cream thingy for dessert, which was a ice-creamy, caramally, nutty, chocolate-covered mass on a stick. So I was happy.

We moved on to Quéribus, another of the Cathar castles. We skipped going inside this one when we saw the row upon row of tour buses in the parking lot and the continuous stream of people flooding into the castle.

So we headed to Peyrepertuse. This one we hiked to the top of. It is amazing, this castle along a 800 meter high rocky outcropping, whipped by wind and ravaged by time.

As you can see, it was quite windy.

Unlike some castles we have been to, it was quite light inside - enough for me to read without the aid of a candle or a fire in the fireplace!

At the highest point of the castle, not only can you see the lower portions of Peyrepertuse, but also the Quéribus castle off in the distance. (It's that knobby bit on the hill in the background on the right).

When we were about to leave, we saw a sign for a "free spectacle" that started in 10 minutes. So we hung out and waited. It turns out the spectacle was a bird show. The show started with a guy and a falcon. The falcon was pretty well-behaved as the guy whirled dead animal bits attached to a leather strap.

The bird would soop in over the crowd when called, and dive for the meat, only to have it snatched away. After several passes over the audience (I seem to remember feeling the *whoosh* of air as it whipped overhead once), the falcon keeper let the bird have its "prey".

It sat and munched on it for a while in front of us, but at some point, it decided that it would be better off somewhere else, so it took off, carcass on lanyard and all. After 20 or so minutes of futile calling of the bird by the bird show duo, eventually the guy asked the audience for something (in French). A woman pulled a measuring tape from her purse and the guy tied a hunk of meat to it. He whirled it for a while and called for the bird, which eventually came back. That bird was promptly shoved back into its travel box and they got a new bird out. By this time, it was getting late and we needed to eventually get to our hotel. There had been some other commotion at the bird show, and the bird people had made several calls on their cell phones. As we were walking down the mountain to our car, we figured out what the fuss was about. Apparently some other falconers had lost their bird. There as a giant raptor of some sort on the path in front of us. It tried to fly away a couple times, but had trouble getting through the thick canopy of trees. It eventually made it, presumably it found its way home, too.

We popped over to yet a 4th crumbly castle, didn't go in, and headed back to Perpignan. We were pooped after a long day, but did manage to take a walk through town and get lost. We ended up in a neighborhood that didn't feel too savory, but eventually we made it to the hotel, safe and sound.