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Saturday, August 25, 2012

In the course of visiting 18 countries and more than 60 cities, we've encountered a wide variety of food.   We've had some great meals, some good meals and some lousy meals.  We've had some cheap meals, mostly in Asia, and some expensive meals, mostly in New Zealand and Australia.  One of the best meals we had was in Valencia, Spain, which would be a taste (sorry) of things to come in our final stop in another Spanish city before heading for Paris.

San Sebastian was at the top of my list of places I wanted to visit on the trip.  I think I first noticed it in an episode of Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations when we were obsessively watching pretty much every travel show on TV.  It's on the northwestern coast of Spain, in the Basque region.

During our time ensconced in labradoodle puppies on a house-sit in the Pyrenees, we spent much of our time (when we weren't scooping poop) planning our next stop.  A house-sitting job outside of Paris began on July 20th, giving us about eight days between the pups and Paris.  The high cost of flying from anywhere in the south of France or northern Spain to Paris resulted in the decision to keep our rental car and drive to Paris, especially since the cost of returning the car to where we picked it up was the same as dropping it in Paris.  So we said so long to the dogs and the cat (au revoir!) and drove east toward the Atlantic Coast and the town of Biarritz.

Biarritz is an old-school French holiday destination.  It dates back to the 12th century where it flourished as a fishing village.  It was also the site of some important battles in the Napoleonic Wars in the early 1800s, but gained prominence about fifty years later when Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III, built a palace on the beautiful beach there.  Biarritz has also been a favorite vacation spot of the British Royal family.  Plus it's got some great waves and attracts a lot of surfers, so it's got an interesting mix of haute couture and hippy.

It was definitely more on the hippy side of things our first couple of days there as we stumbled onto a surfing competition.  The weather wasn't cooperating from a spectator standpoint as a strong wind was coming in off the Atlantic, and the gray skies did nothing to ease the chill.
Plus, when the tide comes in, the water goes all the way to the rock walls, making it unsuitable for surfers to surf, so the competition was timed to the tide being out.  We had seen surfers compete when we stayed in Manly Beach, just north of Sydney and really enjoyed that.  So, we hoped to catch some of the action in Biarritz.

The apartment we booked was in a decent location, about a ten-minute walk to the beach and a fifteen-minute walk into the part of town teeming with restaurants and shops.  The second day of our stay happened to come on Bastille Day,  July 14th.  We expected to be awash in a sea of French flags and banners, much like you see nothing but the Stars and Stripes in the US around July 4th, but we saw nothing of that.  There were some impressive sounding fireworks shot off at eleven that night, but that was about it.  Seems outside of Paris, where a military parade is held on the Champs Elysees, La Fete National is not that big of a deal.

The biggest attraction for us was the strikingly beautiful coastline.  The city sits on a series of rocky bluffs, with a peninsula of stone knifing into the ocean and separating the two beaches.  The one closest to our apartment was accessible by some steep stairs.
The beach on the other side of the rocky peninsula is the one that is famously depicted in paintings and on postcards.  It's where Napoleon's wife built her palace and you can see why.  The beach is gorgeous and long.  Unlike her husband apparently.

Most of our stops along the way have not been in resort-areas, so it was kind of fun to soak in the "we're on a holiday" vibe of the people on the streets of Biarritz. 

By the time we figured out that the surfing competition ended on Saturday, it was Sunday, so we missed out on that.  Just like in Australia, the buzz from the surfers washed well ashore, with cafes and bars filled with surfers and their followers.

Some of our time in Biarritz was spent trying to figure out how to fill in the four or five days we had before we headed to Paris.  My first attempt at finding a place to stay in San Sebastian had come up empty.  Everything seemed to be booked up.  So we briefly thought of heading there for lunch one day, before turning back around and driving north to some city on the way to Paris for a couple of days.  That didn't seem like a very exciting plan so I dug a little more deeply into the interwebs, and finally found what turned out to be a great place in a great city.

The location of the apartment we rented was perfect.  Like many European cities, San Sebastian has an "old town", and our place was on a tree-lined plaza in the old town.  The front windows of the apartment overlooked the plaza, which was also lined with restaurants and cafes.  It could get a little noisy at times, but for our four nights there, we were fine with the atmosphere and the noise died down by the time we were ready to call it a night.   

One evening, we heard what those of us over the age of 50 would call a ruckus.  People started gathering in the square, banging pots and pans and blowing whistles.  There were well over one hundred of them, and some local TV stations showed up to cover the protest.
The signs and banners they carried were all written in Basque, and the best I could tell was that they were upset over the governments financial policies. (Occupy Madrid anyone?) The protests attracted demonstrators of all ages, including a few kids in strollers who were very happy to be encouraged to make noise for a change.

The protestors certainly couldn't have been upset over the food in San Sebastian.  Pintxos are the local specialty.  They are basically tapas, small servings that can be down in a bite or two, and pretty much every restaurant we saw offered up a menu of pintxos. 

It took us one brave attempt at lunch our second day there to get the handle of how the ordering process goes.  In some places, you order off the chalk board menu on the wall, while in others you grab a plate off the bar and just pick something from the different offerings and show the server who keeps track of what you've taken.
The first place we had pintxos was very creative in its presentation.  One of the items we ordered was a dish involving rabbit, and the chef had formed something possibly out of a turnip or rice paper in the shape of a Playboy bunny head.  It didn't add anything to the flavor but did add something to the key ingredient in the experience: fun, and you can't get enough of that, can you?

Once the trepidation about being unfamiliar with the ordering process was eliminated, we dove in head-first.  We couldn't get enough of pintxos and the entire experience.

Luckily, our apartment was within walking distance of dozens of restaurants featuring pintxos, so we left the kids at home with some pasta and wi-fi our final night there and Annie and I went on a pintxos crawl.  Most of the places were fairly crowded, but that just gave us a better chance to get to meet some people and share some fantastic food!
As we stood elbow-to-elbow with other pintxos enthusiasts at the bar, we struck up a conversation with a woman from Japan.  Hitomi was traveling by herself, on something of a foodie tour.  She left her husband at home and was traveling for a few weeks, just sampling the local food offerings along the way.

We shared travel stories and chatted about food of course.  Plus Annie and I now have an awesome photo to enter into a Biggest Noses Contest (couple's division).
The atmosphere in the cafes and bars selling pintxos was electric and eclectic, with people enjoying the food and drink and the experience.  

Besides great food, San Sebastian also offers a nice menu of natural beauty.  The older part of the city sits on a peninsula that has two bays on either side.  Those bays both feature gorgeous beaches.  

The sand is beautiful enough to distract a male observer from staring too long at the many women who sunbathe topless.  It's a pretty good bet that in the picture above there are at least a dozen or so women with their tops off.  Being a healthy red-blooded male from the States unaccustomed to seeing such displays on a public beach, at first the spectacle really grabs one's, shall we say, attention.  But after a while, uncovered breasts are so commonplace that they just blend in with the rest of the bronzed skin and colorful swimwear.  And I ensure you that the prevalence of topless sunbathing has NOTHING to do with the fact that I agreed with Annie as we headed north toward Paris that San Sebastian was our favorite stop thus far in the trip.  It's just another delightful ingredient in the many delicacies that the city has to offer!

Saturday, August 11, 2012


About six months before leaving on our journey in December of 2011, I signed up for a website called Caretakers Gazette.  It featured ads from people looking for house-sitters, usually to take care of a variety of pets/animals.  That site sent out weekly emails showing available house-sitting jobs, and each time the email arrived, I scoured it for something that might fit with our schedule and needs, but nothing really ever came close.

Once we launched the trip and started sharing tales of adventure with other world travelers, (we’re not the only ones!) we found out about a site called  It had a much greater variety of house sitting gigs, mostly in the UK and Australia and New Zealand, but also some in Europe.

We applied for a few jobs starting around mid-May, and got a few nibbles but no serious offers.  Then when we were in Greece in late May, a listing really caught our eye.  It was a property in theFrench Pyrenees just across the border from Spain that needed someone to house-sit for a cat and 7 labradoodle puppies and their mother for a week in Early July.  The property featured a pool, wi-fi and plenty of space along with gorgeous landscape.  I applied and was very excited to get an email back that we were one of two finalists. 

Our excitement was due to a number of factors.  We loved the idea of being around so many dogs, plus it was a couple of weeks away from a month-long house-sitting assignment we had lined up outside Paris, and it was free accommodation for a week.  Being on the road with two 12-year olds for six months was very expensive and we needed to save cash wherever and when ever possible.  If we got this job, we would have a period of five out of six weeks where we would be staying for free.  That would be big as this stage of the trip.

I exchanged emails with the owner of the puppy property and we set up a time to talk on the phone one night.  Doing my best to display my responsible nature, (I was after all, president of Luther League at my church in high school for an unprecedented two terms!) I called him precisely at the appointed time and we had a nice chat for about ten minutes.  He asked some basic questions and I told him our story, and how we had pets back in the states, plus a house with a pool, so we were experienced in handling those duties.  We had posted a profile on the website, with pictures of us and the four Pomeranians we spent time with in Thailand, plus a couple of references from back home.  As we ended the call, he promised to have a decision within an hour or so and would be sending me an email informing me of his decision.

In part because I’m pretty competitive, I really wanted to win, and beat out who ever else the owner of the puppy property was considering.  It was with great disappointment that I read the email that said they were going with the other candidates, in part because they had been to the area a few times and knew the lay of the land better than we did.  The news hit me harder than I thought it would.  I really, really wanted that job, and was crushed that we didn’t get it and concerned about the financial implications of what it meant to the trip.  In addition, the house-sitting jobs on rely a lot on referrals, so to get more jobs down the road, we needed to get our first and do a good job.

We continued on our trip, checking the house-sitting website on a daily basis, but had no other offers as we went through Hungary and then into Croatia.  Then, a few days into our stay in Croatia, I got an email from the owner of the puppy property with Change of Plans in the subject line. Turns out the people they had chosen over us had gone dark on them, and they hadn’t heard from them for more than a week despite several phone calls and emails.  The owner said he was thinking we had already made plans for early July, but if we hadn’t he was hoping we could be their house sitters.  We were thrilled and wagged our little pet-loving tails at the prospect of being ensconced in puppiness for a week!

After more than a week in Valencia and Barcelona, we left Spain on a Renfe regional train that took us from Barcelona just across the border into France to a town called Latour De Carol.  We had to change trains there because the regional trains in France run on a different sized track than the regional trains in Spain. 

Our train trip from Barcelona to the town of Foix in France was the first time we had taken a major train trip by buying tickets the day of.  I don’t like leaving things to chance or the last minute when we have a major location change, and always bought tickets ahead of time and printed out the tickets, usually at an internet cafĂ©.  In our final full day in Barcelona, we went to the train station where we would be taking the train the next day and learned that we didn’t need to buy tickets ahead of time, we could buy them when we got there shortly before the train was due to depart.   I also found out through a very good website on traveling by rail in Europe that you didn’t need to buy tickets ahead of time on the segment of our trip in France, either. 
Everything went as smoothly as I could have hoped as we left Barcelona to head to France.  We got to the train station in plenty of time and got decent if somewhat uncomfortable seats on the train for the first of our two segments.  We left Barcelona around 9:45 and got to LaTour de Carol around 12:30.  The train from there to our destination of Foix didn’t leave until 1:21, giving us plenty of time to buy tickets at the train station there. 

It’s interesting that if you go to the French rail website for their train system, SCNF, you get a variety of options for stating your home country.  If you choose the USA, you get re-directed to the Rail Europe website, where fares are almost always more expensive than if you try to navigate the SCNF website as someone who says they are from Europe.  For instance, the trip we were taking from LaTour De Carol was 18 Euros a person on the Rail Europe website, but only 13 Euros a person on the SCNF website.  And by purchasing our tickets at the train station in LaTour De Carol, we paid the local rate of 13 Euro.  So know you now.  You’re welcome.
The SNCF train was very nice, with comfortable seats, much more so than the Renfe train from Barcelona.  When we got on the train in Barcelona, we had plenty of room and the pick of where to sit.  We chose to go to the left and up a couple of steps into an unoccupied section of about 24 seats, that led to a similar-sized area that was separated from the rest of the train car by a sliding glass door. It was a very peaceful and pleasant experience, at least for the first half hour or so.
After a couple of stops, several people who seemed to be traveling together got on board and headed into the enclosed area.  They were armed with a decent amount of beer and seemed to be enjoying themselves and for the most part were not annoying.  One guy in a white t-shirt that clung to his belly which was clearly a safe haven for beer, seemed to be enjoying himself just a bit more than the dozen or so other people who were in the enclosed area.  He would emerge through the sliding glass door every fifteen minutes or so, apparently heading to the bathroom. 

Annie and the kids were in a four-seat area with a table in between them, and I was across the aisle in a similar area, using the table to do some writing and look at the map and try to follow the progress of the train as we headed north from Spain through the Pyrenees.  On what was probably his third excursion from the drinking cabin, white t-shirt guy (WTG) paused as he headed out, and barked something at me in French. I had no idea what he was saying, even when he repeated it.  So I cleverly responded with a brusque “bonjour!” which he repeated back to me with a minimum of menace and then stumbled toward the bathroom.  WTG paused before he went down the stairs and barked the same words to a teenage boy who was traveling by himself and clearly had no more of an idea of what this guy was saying than I did.  He then moved on to complete whatever task he felt he needed to complete. 

At one stop toward the end of the trip, several of the people from the drinking cabin got off the train and took advantage of the five-minute pause in the trip to have a smoke.  Which was fine with me, but I was looking forward to getting to Foix as the group was giving off something of a weird vibe.  They would occasionally exchange some loud words and the sliding door kept being opened as traffic in and out of the drinking cabin increased.

As we got into Foix and were about five minutes from the station, things had gotten oddly quiet in the drinking cabin.  That quiet was shattered by a woman who burst through the sliding door, coughing as though she wanted to find out how her lungs would function outside of her body.  There was a cacophony of voices and coughing from the drinking cabin and a chemical smell.  Annie said she saw one man holding a small canister and saying something that sounded like Le Securitad!  Perhaps they were re-creating a scene from a traveling show of Les Miserables, but things were escalating at that point to an uncomfortable level.  Fortunately, right then the train was pulling into the station, and your faithful world travelers deftly grabbed their backpacks and pulled their luggage down from the racks above them and positioned them by the doors.  We made a speedy exit, and informed one of the workers outside the train what had happened.  The train pulled out of the station before anyone in a position of authority could get on board, but she said they would call ahead to have someone waiting at the next stop. 

After that weirdness, it was great to get to the peaceful house near the village of Nescus and have a tail-wagging welcome.  Sean and Laura were the homeowners who were leaving the next day on a holiday to Spain, and they had a Labradoodle, Polly who had given birth to seven puppies.  Two of them had already found homes, but we still had five to take care of and enjoy.

Sean and Laura were from Sheffield, England and had decided about five years ago that they were looking for something different and they found it in the French Pyrenees.  It was a large old house that they had renovated about a third of into living quarters for themselves and their two kids.

A separate part of the building was converted into what's called a gite, which is pronounced "jeet".  They are vacation getaways that Europeans rent out on holidays.  Sean is a professional remodeler and had done a nice job of making a very nice two-bedroom gite, with a modern kitchen and large living area.  
The puppies were kept in the barn, and one of our first duties of the day was to get up by around 7:30 and feed them and let them run around.  Ben and/or Marley did that most of the days and they will have more to report in their own blog posting.

The puppies were the highlight of our stay in the south of France, but not the only aspect of our time there that we enjoyed.  We arrived on a Thursday and Sean and Laura had told us about a weekly market on Saturday in the town of St. Girons.  The picturesque village was about a 20-minute drive away.  We got there around mid-day and some of the vendors were winding down their activity, but there was still plenty to see.  
The market attracts an interesting variety of people.  Sean had said before we went that it would be like visiting middle earth, and he was spot on.  A group of traveling troubadours had put on a show earlier in the day and some of them were still hanging around in costume that they seemed to be on no hurry to get out of.
It was a great atmosphere and the most unique open-air market we had been to on the trip.

The drive to St. Girons and back also gave us the chance to see some of the gorgeous countryside in the region.  The Pyrenees are beautiful, rising as high as 11,100 feet.  Even a few weeks into summer, some of the peaks had snow remaining in the higher valleys.  

On Sean's recommendation, we took a drive into the mountains just south of his property.  The narrow, twisty road brought to an overlook that gave us a view that went for miles.  
Two days before the end of our stay, we took a slightly longer but easier drive to see the castle at Carcassonne.  We had heard and read a lot about it, and having a few days on our hands, plus a rental car we decided to make the 90-minute drive to see the ancient walled city.  
The ancient castle towers about the even older city below, perched on the hill giving a sense of protection.  And for your benefit, I'll cut to the chase.  We didn't like it all that much.  It's impressive and beautiful, but once inside, it's elbow-to-elbow tourists.  

The streets are crowded with all kinds of shops and restaurants and there wasn't much room to move around.  It's kind of like Gatlinburg in July but without the fudge shops.  We walked around a bit, decided not to stand in the long lines to get access to some of the areas of the castle, grabbed some gelato and a meringue and hit the road.  

That was the best part of the day: the drive.  The road takes you through the foothills of the Pyrenees which happen to feature field after field of sunflowers.  Annie became Van Gogh like in her obsession with them, and we stopped to take several pictures.

They are beautiful, especially when you see this many spread out over so many fields and hillsides. 

On our last day, Sean and Laura returned home and the following day two more of the puppies were taken to their new homes.  We were sad to see them go, but it was time to say goodbye to them and say hello to the Basque region of France and Spain as we continued our trek toward Paris.