Sunday, August 31, 2014

Petite Paul does relocation to Barcelona, Gaudy Apartments (or is that Gaudi?) and Haute Cuisine

Andorra. We sure will miss you.
Today, we slipped the surly bonds of Andorra and our newfound friends from the UK, Ireland, Australia and Nederlands. And our lovely family run hotel in Soldeu. We made the 4 hour bus ride back to Barcelona. To anyone who is looking for a very economical vacation walking in the Pyrenees, we highly recommend EXPLORE, which is a British company for this and many other types of vacation. They make it affordable and you stay in tourist class hotels, eat in reasonably priced restaurants, and meet other interesting low key people. And our guide, Bert, was stellar.

Once we arrived back in Barcelona and said our goodbyes, we trekked to our new hotel, ABAC. Paul and I found this place on line and booked it in March. At that time,they offered a crazy low rate if you paid in advance. So we thought why not? I had planned to walk the St James Way after this trip and although that feel through, one of the reasons we ended up in this non-tourist area was that it was near the overnight train to Sarria...the starting point of the last 100km on the St. James Way.  Wow, were we living in a  state of grace. This hotel is amazing...this is like a hotel ROCK STARS would stay in. Seriously.
Queen sized bed. Nice after sleeping in Ozzie and Harriet's cribs recently. The blinds are remote control!

Chairs in our desk and TV area. Comfy.

You see this balcony???THIS IS JUST FOR US. Nobody else. Eat your heart out BONO and Mick Jagger!

Jacuzzi tub and rain shower.

Paul and I gloating on our deck.

Lunch. Yum.

The cat on the roof next door.
There is also a spa we can use free of charge and some gardens, a lounge, a restaurant that we cannot even get into....maybe they have heard me singing in the shower?  They let us walk into the kitchen and observe whenever we want and pretty much wait on us hand and foot. It's awesome. Better not get used to it. We were actually tempted NOT to go into Barcelona to sight-see at all.

But we did and we revisited La Pedrara, Gaudi's apartment building in the center of the city. What a lovely building. It's very complex in design and has a central atrium.
Looking up from the atrium.

Looking down from the roof.
Casa Milà, popularly known as ‘La Pedrera’ (the stone quarry), an ironic allusion to the resemblance of its façade to an open quarry, was constructed between 1906 and 1912 by Antoni Gaudí (1852-1926). Its uniqueness, artistic and historic value have received major recognition and in 1984 was inscribed on UNESCO World Heritage List. It's quite an architectural and artistic icon.
La Pedrera also known as Casa Mila.
We love all the artsy fartsy details...meaning they blow us away!
Vents or flues...and Paul.

An more artistic interpretation!

Paul in one of the archways on the roof. In the background is one of Gaudi's other masterpieces, Catedral Familia Sagrada.

This is the attic. Kinda nice for a storage bin!

I love the apartment they have left set up to represent the period that the apartment was built.
The office. No Steve Carrell :)
I love some of the detailed furnishings and decor.
The maids quarters.

Lovely floors in the potty. A bidet included.

Paul studies his reflection in the old timey dressing mirror. Notice metalwork on the balcony.

Nice stove!

Art deco candy dish

 I loved the dining room and small serving items of the kitchen.
Dining area. The chandelier retired from its career as a flapper!

That olive oil is probably pretty rancid...but I love the container.
Overall, this was definitely worth going back for a second visit since 2011. There were a few interpretive changes, but overall, a nice look into the mind and creativity of Gaudi.

From here, we navigated the subway system back to Avenuida Tibidabo and our hotel and got ready to visit Petit Pau. This is a great tiny restaurant of only 6 tables and two owners/chefs. The food was amazing.

A gourmand considers his options

Scallops with truffle and shaved zucchini. Nothing fishy about it.

Duck breast with mixed berry glaze and a pear from a pear tree.

Squidiliciousness and brown rice. You ain't eating this in Knoxville!

Turbot with lemongrass and carrot slaw. It made me slobber.
Petit Pau owner and Chef in Center

Petit Pau Interior

Seriously, this meal was over the top. I am sure Paul is still pondering it....

Paul's Ponderings:   A great day out in Barcelona, or what was left after the drive down from Andorra!   We had visited the Gaudi apartments before, but they are always stunning and remain that way.   It really is a masterpiece of architecture and design.   The highlight of the day was food at Petit Pau, which turned into a 3.5 hour meal, in typical Catalan style.   We had Cava to start, followed by some exquisite seafood beginners to whet the appetite, then mains of duck breast and fish.   Two guys were running the entire six person restaurant, the owner/chef and a cook.   We booked this a week ago and were not disappointed.   He sent quite a few walk-ups away, due to no booking.  You can tell the owner puts his heart into this food and the experience of providing it to patrons -- he is quite an engaging guy and we talked with him at length, since we closed the place down.   It's a small menu with about six starters, six entrees, a small number of desserts, and three alcohol choices -- a red, a white, and cava.   The menu turns over once a month.  This is really outstanding food for Barcelona, which is a haven for incredible dining, and in total it ended up costing us about $150 with tip.   Wow, it was just great is all I can say.   On top of all that, it's located in the Sants area of town they were having a huge festival for St. Bartholomew outside, with fireworks and more.   Scads of folks out and about in typical Catalan fashion.   Bueno!

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Something Old, Something New, and Something Else near Soldeu: Adorable Andorra

Believe it or not, Andorra is the tax free shopping mall of Spain and France. No joke!
Parliament members in traditional Andorran dress in the ancient parliament.

One thing is for sure. Unless you are a "naturist," dirty laundry just happens. After all the hiking and literally pounds of sweating we have done into our hiking clothes, it seemed prudent to have a go at the lavanderia/bugaderia. We walked up the hill a-ways and spent the first two hours of our day making sure other people weren't put off by our magnifiSCENT.

Then we were off to the center of the capital city, Andorra de Vall (literally,the valley of Andorra--which is a country composed predominantly of two valleys). We had read at least one guide book that said, "Skip the capital. It's a mall." And I have to agree that this is pretty true. Many stores which seem to predominate in high end clothers, watches, electronics and perfume. But there are some charming areas, particularly the old city. We made a beeline there...once we figured out where the heck we were! For future sojourners, no there are no traditional street signs. But if you look about 1/2 way or 1/3 way up a building, now and again you may spot a small gray plaque. Provided your vision is good enough, you might know what street you are on! Otherwise, there are any number of tourist offices marked with a big blue letter I--presumably for information, but maybe they are just trying to attract narcissists? 
The highlight of the ancient city is the Casa de la Vall Andorra. This was a nobleman's home and family chapel in the 1500s but by 1700, there was a paucity of heirs, so the government of Andorra purchased the home and have met there in Parliament and the Supreme Court until 2011. 

External view of the old Parliament. I am sure they also had coca cola in 1508!

The parliamentary chamber. There are 7 parishes and some deputies of various regions. This was once a bedroom.What you don't see here is that there is a little chapel built onto this room and until the 1970s, all sessions started with a mass. The mass is no longer conducted but the altar is still there.
There is an old kitchen in the house too. The Parliament members in time past had to come there and stay several days and had to stable horses and such.
The old kitchen. THe cooking takes place right in the middle of the floor.
We also visited the Judicial chambers but no photo sorry to say. The room was small but there were areas for onlookers as well. The country of Andorra has holding cells still present in the old Parliament which can house a prisoner for up to 8 months, although most of the prison area is used as a passageway to the new Parliament. They didn't let us tour that area. :)  Also, the country of Andorra has capacity to house 100 prisoners only. Currently, about 40 people are in prison in Andorra. When I asked what the crimes were, I was told "nothing serious or violent." I think most of it is white collar and DUI .

We did walk a bit in the city but unless you are a major shopper, you might not find it interesting.

Many stores. Lots of perfume...they must not have known we spent the morning washing.
Here's about the only thing I was tempted to buy:
We did have a nice pizza though!
Pizza Reina. Like the South, everything here has some sort of bacon or ham on it.

Two things we would have liked to have seen but ran out of time: The tobacco museum (the former major cash crop now defunct...they grow it but they burn it up?) and the Museum of Modern Art. They also have a ferris wheel similar to the London Eye.

We returned to Soldeu by bus. Our dinner was in an old stable in the city and was very delicious and charming.
The Popaire Family has lived here for centuries

They converted the winter stable of the home to a restaurant.

The cook actually uses this old steel grate to make many of the dishes.

This was the farewell party for the group of hikers. So many wonderful people to spend our week with in the picturesque country of Andorra. In Spanish: Andorra adoramos!

Paul's Ponderings:   This was a somewhat mundane, but relaxing, day.   A chunk of it was laundry, with the only excitement there being related to figuring out how to run the machines :-)   Beyond that, we went to Andorra La Vella, which is the capital of this small country, via bus.   We rediscovered that everyone closes up shop between about 1 pm and 4 pm to eat lunch and relax!   Basically the city is a big mall, which, if you want buy an Iphone or a watch is great, but if you want to relax and shop for local relics, forget it.   It's a bit gaudy and over-touristed.

That said, we visited L'Antiquari, the ancient part of town, and the Casa de la Vall, which was built in the 1500s and was the seat of the government until recently.   As Andorra is a bit of an odd fish from a government view, the former parliament chamber has pictures of Francois Hollande (president of France) and the Bishop of Urgell.  Andorra is a small place, which apparently was among the last countries in Europe to give women the right to vote....less than half a century ago.   There was an old kitchen dating back centuries that still hosts an annual dinner for married men from the original Andorran parish and no one else. Quite feudal in a way.   We also saw the "supreme court" space, at least until recently.  The whole government, save for the president, who still has an office in the building, has moved to newer digs nearby.   After that, it was back to the spa for a relaxing massage and a quick dip in the pool, plus a relaxing glass of Cava (watch out France, it's as good as champagne), then a group dinner at a rustic place near the hotel -- great beef stew for me and more great red wine.   This is quite a scenic and unique part of Europe and well worth a visit for those inclined....not too hard to get here from France or Spain.   But, you might want to *not* stay in the capital....outside that, the towns are a bit more relaxed and less touristed, at least in summer months.  In winter, it looks like a huge ski area, so things are no doubt different.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Weak Knees in the Pyrenees: The High, The Low, and the In-Between in Soldeu

Today's starting point for the hike: Our Hotel!

Today, we padded right out the door and followed streams, rivers and lakes all day long along a route known as Inclaste'.  As we trod along our way on the side of the river, the guide told us that France was just over the peak on the other side. Our pathway was named something like Shadyside in English.
Our first watery companion.
The first river we followed. It essentially runs through town and out to the beginning of our path. The mountain you see in the distance reminded us of a dragon's back.
Mr Parris enjoying his easy path....for a short time.
This part of the amble was very pleasant and awash in wildflowers even though we are told it is "late" in the season for them.
The name of this one is "that yellow one."
After about an hour and a half of breezy hiking, we turned toward the Lake Siscaro'.
This sign should have also read, "All who intend to hike to this lake prepare to get your butt kicked."
From this point forward, the walk was about 2 hours that can be described as Up, Up and Away...without the benefit of the beautiful balloon. The good news is that the scenery was gorgeous, and we followed streams and waterfalls that occasionally distracted us from the gluteal muscles screaming, "Can we just stop?"
Wonderful distraction from achy muscles.
We eventually had a brief break at a high meadow. This meadow is something of a boggy field or dry lake.
Across a meadow. Have no fear. More climbing lies ahead! France lies beyond the background mountains.
The meadow had flowers of course and some frogs as well. We also encountered a small adder slithering across rocks.
Fields of clover.
I think the ascent to the lake, 800 meters in all (I believe that is 2640 feet in American) was a place where many members of the group faltered a bit. However, our fearless leader, Bert, stood at the spot where most of us were questioning our sanity and said things like, "You are doing good. It's only ten more minutes." He knew EXACTLY where to stand and utter a kind word. He told me," You look great. Lots of willpower!" I was questioning my sanity for sure and definitely not feeling like a strong person, but I made it!
We rounded a bend, and there she was. Our lunch spot, Lake Siscaro.
This photo doesn't really do the cerulean waters justice but the ones of our swimmers give a better hint of the beautiful color.
More swimming for those not faint of heart. I waded in to the knee and estimate the temp was about 40F.
The view back down the valley was especially lovely and a place where 75% of the group took a Kodak moment.
Our lovely companion, Ruth, who seems to be taking care of many people in England!
Our trip down was pretty easy although it took a bit longer. Paul especially enjoyed the contrasting colors of the sky and mountains.
This sort of blue is reminiscent of New Mexico.

Paul stopped for a while to admire this view.
This spot was one of my favorites of the day.
Sky, forest, mountains, trees. What more can we hope for? So lucky to be here!
We wound down the mountain and essentially ended up right behind the hotel.
Our fearless and fit leader, Bert.

Reward for hiking a long way! I think I enjoyed sitting down as much as I did the beer!
This was our last Andorran hike. We were tired but the views were amazing! We love the Pyrenees even if our knees would disagree at times.
We decided that we should pursue some relaxation so we went back to the Sport Hotel for spa and dinner at their Origens restaurant:
Why stop with water at the end of the hike?This spa has great hydrotherapy, sauna, steam and calderas.

Our view out of the restaurant, sans snow. The Origens restaurant is where the lighted windows are.

I'd be happy to rave on and on about the food at Origens, but I have a funny feeling my hubby, Senor Gourmand, will do a really nice job of that in his ponderings.

Overall, a  wonderful day spent mostly in nature. Does it get any better than that?

" bringing myself over the edge and back, I discovered a passion to live my days fully, a conviction that will sustain me like sweet water on the periodically barren plain of our short lives." 
-- Jonathan Waterman

Paul's Ponderings:   Today was the toughest climb up we had this week.   Several lengthy stretches were on rocky paths that required a lot of "high stepping" to move up, which increases the strain on the body.   But, we had lunch by a wonderful lake and a longer gradual descent to Soldeu.   We then went back to the Sport Hotel spa, which solved many problems related to the stress of climbing up!   After that, it was a nice dinner at a restaurant at the same hotel, run by Charles Gaig (pronounced "Gahj") who is here June-August and runs a Michelin starred place in Barcelona.   The food and wine were great, including scallops, lamb, and beef as courses.   The service was a bit uneven, but it worked out OK.   And the price was about what you'd pay for a good meal in the US.   The wines here are astoundingly cheap is a primary reason, versus buying a similar bottle in the US for 2x the price or more (if you are talking about a wine from this region).   Friday is a free day, with a trip planned into the capital and some mundane things like laundry.   We've been incredibly lucky on rain, bright sunny days, cool nights.   A great week overall!

PS:  The title is a sort of homage to Townes Van a weird way simply because it popped into my head.