I’m halfway through my 10-week-long trip and I haven’t updated in a month. The only excuse I can offer is that I wanted to include pictures, but my relationship with Flickr has turned out to be strangely complicated lately, and the whole process of uploading them (often via dodgy hotel wifi) has just seemed too hard.
Actually, I’m noticing something new in my picture-taking this trip. Just as, a few years ago, I purged any book from my shelves that was effectively obsoleted by Wikipedia or Project Gutenberg, now I am avoiding taking pictures that would be available by a Creative Commons image search. What’s the point of taking a photo of Notre Dame when so many other people have done so already, and undoubtedly better than I could? Sure, a photo of me standing in front of Notre Dame would actually have some individuality, but I’m not that big a fan of photos of myself in random locations, so I haven’t been doing that. Instead I’ve been carrying around a somewhat clunky, heavy camera (not a DSLR or anything, but an Olympus PEN camera) and using it to take pictures of odd, quirky things here and there, which I might as well just use my iPhone for. Ah well.
So, places I have been since my last update, and what I thought of them.
The week in A Coruña for the conference was a mixture of hanging out at the conference venue, sleeping in the university residence where we were staying because I had come down with a fairly nasty cold, and a bit of wandering around the city. I saw the ancient Roman lighthouse, but didn’t go inside; I spent more time wandering around the old part of town looking for food than I really wanted to; and I found a pretty good craft/artisan market near the bus stop where I had a awkward (due to language incompatibility) but pleasant conversation with a handweaver and bought a linen and alpaca shawl she’d woven.
On the second-last day, I daytripped to Santiago de Compostela, just 40 minutes away by train. Touristy, but I felt okay about it, somehow, knowing that it was a thousand-year-old pilgrim site and that many of the tourists had walked a long way to be there.
After the conference I took a night train to Madrid (cramped, overheated) and whatever the Spanish equivalent of a TGV is to Cordoba, in the southern part of Spain that had been Islamic during the middle ages. I loved Cordoba, its narrow streets and white-and-ochre houses with their courtyards and fountains. The cathedral-inside-a-mosque (or “mosquedral”, as I like to call it) was mindblowing. The city was hot and quiet and empty, as all the locals had gone on holiday, but I spent a few pleasant days wandering around and sitting in parks and eating tapas and drinking cheap wine. I’d love to go back to Andalusia and spend more time exploring its other cities and its architecture and its food.
On to Barcelona, which I hated. Crowded and unpleasant and I spent the whole time worried about people trying to steal my bag. To be fair, the Gothic quarter is pretty cool, and the Barcelona History Museum is amazing, especially the parts of the Roman town that they’ve dug up and you can walk around in the basement. The bits that fascinated me most were the dyeworks with the stone troughs still stained blue, and the place where they made garum (fermented fish sauce) in enormous round pots. I’m not much into Gaudi, so though I went past some of his works (the Sagrada Familia, etc) I didn’t get off the tourist bus to actually go in. I did try to go to Parc Guell, on the recommendation of many friends, but I’d somehow got the impression that it was a park, with, you know, green space. Actually it was a pile more building-sized Gaudi blobs, crammed full of tourists, and it made me angry. I got straight back on the tourist bus, and two stops later found myself at a 13th century convent (Pedralbes) which was operating as a museum, free on Sundays, and had a beautiful courtyard with fountains and grass and trees and no more than a handful of tourists, none drunk. I spent half a day there.
I’d heard that the food in Barcelona was amazing, and it was the best I’d had so far on the trip, but I don’t think it was enough to make it worth the unpleasantness of my visit. I suspect I would have enjoyed it more if I had been with friends and we’d been able to sit around and drink and eat and enjoy the nightlife. As it was, I found some delicious tapas that actually contained vegetables, which after a couple of weeks of subsisting on not much else than ham, and not seeing anything greener than an olive, was lovely. I had a wonderful dish of spinach, chickpeas, and some kind of pork that pretty much made my week. At a pinxtos place in El Gotic, I had a tartlet with some kind of sweet fruit paste, goat cheese, and fresh mint, and another where a sort of fish salad was topped with fresh dill and tiny slivers of candied lemon peel. They were delicious. And yet, I have lots of delicious food at home. Coming from Melbourne, it takes a lot to blow my mind, and Barcelona didn’t manage it. Sorry.
On to Avignon, which I was using as a stopover and to have a quick minibus tour of Provence because, well, if I’m going to pass through I may as well take the time to look around. It was, as expected, very scenic. I visited a lavender farm where I saw sweat-sheened young men exerting themselves heaving bales of lavender into a still to make lavender oil (they were well aware of their decorativeness, and posed for photos; there was also a tip jar for them by the exit), any number of medieval villages full of gift shops, where I wondered how or indeed whether anyone actually lived there full-time; and the Pont du Gard, an ancient Roman aqueduct, which was pretty awesome — you actually walk across it, or rather across a modern footbridge set up right next to it, close enough to touch. For the most part, though, Provence rubbed me the wrong way. I think I associate it too much with the sort of people who use it as a style of home decoration, and the result was that it all felt terribly twee to me. It didn’t help that the place was packed full of gift shops that seemed dead set on promoting that sort of thing: “Provençal” table linens made in China, and whatnot. Ugh.
Then the TGV to Lyon, and then a local train from there to meet Anatsuno who lives in an adorable little village, in a house that’s about 500 years old and is right on the village square, next to the bakery. We spent a lot of time sitting around, knitting, and eating cheese. By this point I really needed a few days of downtime, and especially of not walking on cobblestones in barefoot shoes, as bits of me were pretty achey. One day, though, we went to visit the Romanesque church at Anzy-le-Duc, which was gorgeous, and filled with amazing medieval frescos. My last night there, we went into Lyon and stayed over at another friend’s house, where there was a cluster of fangirls and pizza and watching Vividcon vids and then, in the morning, a visit to La Droguerie (the famous French button mecca) before the train.
My next stop was Strasbourg, or rather Mutzig, a little town just outside Strasbourg. I stayed with some people from AirBNB, who turned out to be an ex-sysadmin-perl-guy-turned-professional-origamist, and his wife who’s a guild-trained painter who does things like restore Medieval churches. They were completely delightful, as was their village. On my first full day I went back into Strasbourg, which was an interesting architectural and cultural change from the more southern areas I’d previously been in: definitely more German, with lots of steep-roofted half-timbered houses and sausages and the like. On the second day, my hosts offered to take me for a drive up into the hills to sample some of the local food and wine, which was utterly delicious. I had some kind of pork thing in a creamy sauce with mushrooms, and spaetzle, and the local pinot noir, Rouge d’Ottrott, which is unusual because Alsace mostly goes for white wines. Anyway. Strasbourg and environs: surprisingly awesome!
After that I went to Paris, but I’ll save that for a subsequent blog post. I’m glad to have caught up this far, at least.