A benefit of living in Amsterdam a few months every year is among other things, to have opportunities to see other places to in Europe for a few days or weeks while here.
Sandee for example is giving me for my birthday a few spa days in Kortrijk Belgium next week, to which we travel by train in a few hours time. Why Kortrijk you ask? Well is is a beautiful medieval town, maybe not as scenic as Brugge, but it is definitely up there. And how many hours can one be in a sauna or on a massage table? This little outing was a spur of the moment thing.
The above title trip was planned long ago. Beginning of last year our Denver traveling friends Paul and Sue intimated to us that they were retiring at the end of 2016, and to start off their new life, they were going to spend early 2017 a full three months in Europe.
One in Palermo Sicily (Paul has a Sicilian Brooklyn heritage), one month in Rome, 2 weeks in the gastronomic capital of the Spanish Basque Country, San Sebastián and finally 2 weeks in Barcelona. As we had not seen those parts of Spain we begged them to suffer our presence in the last 2 cities for a few days and they acquiesced.
So we took a rental car to travel about 5000 km/3000 mile leaving wintry Amsterdam early April through Belgium, France and returning through Germany to meet them and enjoy the sun.
The first thing worth mentioning about the road trip is that in April the rolling French landscape is dotted with swatches of bright yellow, as the rapeseed is in full bloom all around us.
Our first stop was the privateer nest city of St Malo, made rich by these medieval pirates, although I must correct myself in admitting that we first made a half hour detour to the monastery island of Mont St Michel for quick picture snaps from the overfull parking lot a half mile away.
If you are ever close by and can get lodging on this small spot in Brittany you will enjoy a night with very few tourists as the number of available beds are very limited. We did not get a bed there, not even in the manger. But the walled city of St Malo made up for it with a beautiful sunset on the beach and a good seafood dinner in a local family restaurant.
The next day we overnighted in a little castle in St Emilion, built in those long gone days, that winery owners lived in those "humble" environments to show off.
I chose that location as I have good memories of the wines from that township, such as Pomerol. A deliberate detour to Chateaubriand showed us a sleepy little village that in no way made us believe that that famous dish originated there.
Another detour to the little town of Cognac showed us that the fruit of the vines around that city are all being distilled, although I did not recognize any of the names for sale there.
When we returned to Amsterdam I read an article that stated that when driving in France one should always have in the car an alcohol breathalyzer, an orange highly visible vest to wear in case of a breakdown on the road and a warning triangle, spare bulbs and head lamp converters or otherwise face a high fine. And if we would be glass wearers a spare set. Talking about individual freedoms if everybody by law is forced to outfit their cars with these items. Well we escaped the fine.
France is a country that enriches itself with endless tollbooths and very expensive gas prices. We only realized that we had arrived in Spain, when we entered a gas station with very reasonable prices and a 6 euro car wash.
That evening and some of the following nights we dined on the famous pintxos in places that Paul and Sue had already done exploratory research on, to ensure that we would enjoy the best of the city.
San Sebastián is a beautiful tourist town with a nice oval harbor and a beach dotted with topless northerners as this form of sunning is optional here.
But a few days suffices unless you cannot stop eating 2-3 euro pintxos (the Basque word and variety for tapas) washed down with 2 euro riojas or verdejos.
We took the car for a spin during our stay to neighboring Bilbao to see the majestic Guggenheim museum cramped into an encroaching neighborhood with no appeal. Don't go there for its art collection but definitely marvel at the building.
On the way back we visited the OMA forest, an open air art project of painted trees drawing families with picnic baskets. To get there we had to scale a 700 ft steep knoll that took our breath away before the art project attempted to do the same.
Barcelona with its Sagrada Familia, the unfinished Gaudi cathedral started in 1878 and hopefully finished in 2026 (Gaudi's death year) has many more Gaudi buildings as well as the medieval quarters of kings, great tapas and paella selections and is in short a city to return to even after having seen all the tourist sights since it keeps inviting you to just wander its neighborhoods and observe the locals go about their daily lives.
We promised ourselves to return one day. Our Virginia Beach friends Len and Brenda met the four of us during our stay in Barcelona as they alighted from a relocation cruise to spend a few days in Barcelona before taking another cruise sailing the Mediterranee.
The six of us met daily wandering the city and sampling food and wine.
As we restarted our roadtrip through the beautiful Provence and the Auvergne back home we could not resist a detour to the principality of Andorra one of the oldest feudally run states in Europe, situated high in the Pyrenees mountains. Andorra just recently became a democracy, peddling tax free wares and banking services to those unwilling to declare their wealth somewhere else in the world.
Having been in the capital for less than an hour the Spanish border agents had us open our trunks and show us my billfold to see if we carried untaxed wares or thousands of bills back into the European Union. We were delighted to be selected as potential wealthy scammers.
Since Sandee, as a results of earlier trips I had organized, during an era that I had a habit of not booking lodging, now insists, that she knows where she will put her head on her pillow, it is nowadays my privilege to find interesting places to overnight.
So my next travel tip for you is to make a hotel stop in Château Caze, situated along a babbling brook on the bottom of an impressive gorge in the natural park Gorges du Tarn.
Get a room in the 15th century castle with all the amenities of this century, but with the walls and ceilings of that glorious past of lores about political alliances between feudal lords marrying their daughters into families that benefitted pa and ma.
This castle had 5 daughters to start its history and never saw war and is thus an authentic jewel of historic proportions. The next pitstop was in a Williamsburg type town called Charroux (my European readers will have to Wikipedia Williamsburg VA to understand the comparison) situated in the middle of the Grand Massif, a mountainous plateau, that defines the center of France. A lesser taken road brought us for our last night, before returning the rental car back home, to the city of Heidelberg, where Sandee enjoyed having the Marriott and its concierge floor. One can after all only "suffer" so much foreign experiences.
As always may the pictures do a better job in displaying the essence of this trip