Toulouse, day 4

We really must have stayed up too late the night before, because we had to peel ourselves out of bed to meet Mr. and Mrs. BoatMonster for lunch. They’d invited us to a fancy dessert house called Flower’s; all the desserts are lined up in the window to draw in passers by.

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Desserts at Flowers; the elevated tart has sweet hazelnut or walnut paste filling; a currant and blackberry crumble is behind it; then a custard tart with a huge meringue top; also in back, a chocolate tart with chocolate icing and a layer of hazelnut; a chocolate in the front with some sort of orange business inside, a red berry on pistachio paste tarte, and just out of frame a banoffee tarte. Yes, this is all from memory, I don’t forget this sort of thing. Banoffee was a common flavor around Toulouse, showing up at ice cream stands, burger joints and fancy patisseries alike; it’s a bit like tiramisu, but without the cream layers and soaked in rum. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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The BoatMonster family enjoying their meals. They have some sort of fish, salad with cheese and Asian-inspired salad variations. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

Of course in the US we have multiple-course restaurants with set menus, but “make it a menu” in the casual sense usually means upgrading your sandwich with chips and a drink. In France most sit-down restaurants offer a menu consisting of entree (i.e. appetizer), main course and dessert, often with wine (or coffee, if it’s a brunch place like Flower’s). You get two or three choices for each (most places nowadays even offer vegetarian) but it’s essentially the recommended way to eat a meal in its entirety, so if you’re unsure what or how to order in France, the menu is a good bet. And it’s usually a pretty good deal.

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My lunch has fans. The set lunch menu at Flower’s was salad or a savory tarte, dessert and coffee. Mine was some sort of delicious fresh salad, toast, and a pot of mildly tangy melted cheese that fell somewhere between brie and limburger. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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…and our desserts and coffees. We got the pistachio creme tarte with raspberries. It was excellent. But not quiiiite as good as the fruit tart I made myself for my birthday last year. That was a tart for the ages. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

After an excellent lunch Mr. and Mrs. BoatMonster left to pursue houseboat and canal-related endeavors, while NachoMaid, CarrotCakeMonster and I wandered out into Toulouse with vague plans to tour the Capitol if it was open (it wasn’t) and the art museum or air & space museum if either was nearby (they weren’t). But we decided to hike to the art museum anyway, and on our way through the city we stumbled upon the Musée de Veux Toulouse (Museum of Old Toulouse). It’s the kind of small, sundry museum that I enjoy very much.

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The biggest draw of the Musée de Veux Toulouse is touring the building itself, which was a 16-17th century mansion that has been historically preserved. The courtyard and its arches look Italian; the clunky rectangular wooden spiral staircase feels like being inside an old ship; and the interior rooms remind me of touring antebellum homes in the American South. Look how inviting this private enclosed courtyard is! One of the best parts of walking around Toulouse is peeking into the private courtyards of old buildings when someone has left the gate open. They’re so peaceful and luxurious.

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A look down the well in the courtyard. Waaaaay down there you can see a reflection in the water. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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NachoMaid standing in front of an old oxen yoke on display. The egg shape sticking up on top is covered in bells. I don’t know why I didn’t take more photos inside, but they showed pottery and archeological remains from the prehistoric Toulousians, the Celts, the Romans, the Rennaissance and Victorian era. Also exhibits on woad dye, paintings and photographs of Toulouse and its landmarks through the centuries, mannequins dressed in traditional outfits and Napoleonic uniforms, antique furniture and fittings for the house and other bits of historic ephemera.

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As a special exhibit the museum had assembled portraits by Toulousain artists from its collection. They were all new names to me, and I can’t find any traces of the existence of these paintings online. It is so frustrating that so much of the shared heritage of world art is not accessible to the public but stored away in some private collection, church library or museum basement. Anyway, I thought this method of shading was novel. This drawing is a portrait of Georges Gaudion, by Luce Boyals, 1924.

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The Studio of Luce Boyals, by George Gaudion (spelled differently in this label), 1930. The woman behind the easel is the one who drew the portrait above; the drawn portrait is of the artist who painted this canvas. They were both working artists when they met, and they married in 1920 and often painted together. Gaudion also taught chemistry, music and jazz. A little over a decade after this was painted, they both died in different accidents while hiking in the mountains, 4 years apart. Thanks to the museum’s website for the biographical info; they note that little was known of these artists and their works were not valued after their deaths until a pair of local art history students’ research recently put them back on the map.

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Self Portrait by Dominique Baron, mid-1800s.

This video of a woad-making demonstration showcases the architecture and courtyard of the Musée de Veux Toulouse nicely:

We finished up at the Museum of Old Toulouse and continued to the Musée des Beaux Arts. It is housed in an old church which has alternately served as a convent and abbey throughout history, now renovated as a museum. The central courtyard is maintained with traditional fruit trees, roses and herbs that the monks and nuns would have cultivated. All of the wings of the museum branch off from this central courtyard; it’s a wonderful ground plan for a museum.

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The colonnade around the central courtyard.

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The ornamental quadrant of the courtyard garden.

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A row of howling drainpipe gargoyles lining one side of the courtyard colonnade. Of course they reminded me of my cat. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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A view of the bell tower from the courtyard. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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CarrotCakeMonster opted for a midday nap instead of touring the museum.

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Some doors in the museum.

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An ancient Celtic or medieval epitaph from a tombstone (I don’t remember which, sorry) from the tombstone collection lining one spooky Gothic underground passage.

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Having finished with the tombstones and the elaborately carved medieval column capitols displayed in an oddly Verner Panton 70’s style, I returned to the colonnade to find CarrotCakeMonster relocated to a more comfortable chair.

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CarrotCakeMonster and some like-minded visitors.

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This was his view. The building with the chimneys across the courtyard is a row of beautiful apartment buildings visible over the museum entrance, not part of the old abbey.

To my great dissatisfaction, the large collection of artwork 1700-early 20th century (my favorite general era) was completely closed so they could fix the big Victorian skylights. Of course that explanation only made me want to see the space as well as the art. All that was left to see was Gothic and medieval art. Ancient art is… fine, but I’m honestly never as impressed as I know I should be. Ancient architecture is another story, I can’t leave any ruin unexplored (who can?). However they did have a large exhibit in the former big church hall (chapel?) about the Renaissance in Toulouse. They had some very impressive tapestries, religious paintings, swords and manuscripts.

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Because of the darkness of the old church alcoves, it was tough to get a good photo of this angry cherub in the middle of a huge religious painting. So I have recreated it here:

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My faithful rendition of the angry cherub in all his fat flying wrath. The painting, which depicted a boilerplate Madonna & Posse in Heaven scene, didn’t make it clear why he was so pissed off; there were other cherubs flying around near him that seemed just fine.

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Returning to the courtyard to find CCM deeper asleep.

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Returning to the colonnade yet again after poking around the gift shop and wishing the modern wing were open, I found CCM in an even more relaxed position.

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Seconds before he woke up to a camera in his face.

I don’t recall how we filled the remainder of the afternoon– trying to find a public bathroom maybe, or eating cheese in our apartment, but we eventually found ourselves walking over to the BoatMonsters’ houseboat to meet NachoMaid and borrow the BoatMonsters’ bikes and ride up the Canal du Midi to have dinner at a canal-side restaurant in the next town over.

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Here we are walking to the canal to pick up the bikes. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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The inside of a WWI memorial on the way to the Canal. Toulouse is famous for defending France and for patriotism in general: in ancient times, in Napoleon’s armies, against the Germans in the 1800s, in WWI and II, and Toulouse was a major hub in the WWII resistance. The Museum of Old Toulouse illustrated this as well. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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A close-up of the incredible relief carving in the WWI memorial. It didn’t come across very well in this photo, but the liveliness and freedom of composition isn’t something you see often in relief statuary.

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A beautiful boulevard lined in plane trees leading to an enormous old garden in the center of town. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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More of the tree-lined boulevard. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

And here we are biking along the canal. These are the old tracks trod by mules pulling boats down the canal; today they are bike and jogging trails. It takes you out of the city of Toulouse in about a fifteen minute bike ride, then you’re riding past fields of sunflowers and countryside. The canal is unbelievably beautiful.

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Me biking. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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A nice view of the canal.

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Taking a break, because we needed one. I don’t know why CarrotCakeMonster’s bike’s gears were fixed in such an odd way, but he had to peddle about twice as fast as NachoMaid and I the entire time. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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A seed pod along the way with perfect little star shaped openings.

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NachoMaid waiting or us to finish our break.

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An especially pretty field next to the canal.

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Another view of the same field.

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Me biking past CarrotCakeMonster. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

Thirteen kilometers later, we arrived at the restaurant… and it was closed. Indefinitely. Until the guy who ran it could hire the staff he needed. Meanwhile he was enjoying a beer in the yard with a neighbor. But luckily we’d just passed another restaurant about a km back, a picturesque old building next to a canal lock. It turned out to be so good that we completely forgot about our first choice being closed.

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Attacking the appetizer, which was way too much food for the three of us. The salad had little pieces of duck gizzard in it; duck comprised most of the menu here and around Toulouse. The drink is rosé with grapefruit syrup (sooo good). This photo is taken seconds before I discovered that I really dislike fois gras. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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A view of the full lock (the water level goes up and down to hoist boats up and down uneven elevations) and a little house beyond it. Lock workers used to live in those houses and hand-crank the locks when boats came through, but now it’s mostly automatic. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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More appetizer. The weather was perfect, the view was beautiful, we had worked up a hard-earned hunger, and the atmosphere was just the right mix of fancy and friendly. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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Talking. Being a very slow eater usually in the company of very fast eaters, I enjoyed the multi-course system in France because I got to hang out without being rushed or guilted and still finish the meal with everyone else. We didn’t get any photos of the main dishes because we were enthusiastically eating them. Dinner was absolutely excellent– and there was a lot of it. No one went hungry. CCM had grilled duck with potatoes gratin, NachoMaid had fish with potatoes gratin, and I had some sort of duck drumstick with an amazing risotto. Very astute readers will notice I ate meat while on vacation; I do occasionally eat meat while traveling, as I have a weak spot for anything novel or a local specialty I’ll never see again. Je ne regrette rien. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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My dessert: crème brûlée. CarrotCakeMonster ordered fruit salad for dessert, and we ended up splitting the two to mix together. A very good combination. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

When we were finished we were so full that biking home seemed like an insurmountable hurdle. But there was no other way to get back. So we took quite a few more breaks on the way back than the way there, balancing our flashlights and bracing our tired butt muscles.

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We encountered a pair of gigantic snails while taking a break near a bridge on the way home. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

We were physically tired when we got back but not ready to go to sleep, so we went bar hopping– as much as you can really do when your comfortable drink limit is one. We watched some people play darts at one end of an English pub while a drunk girl had a dance party of one at the other end of the pub, then we went to a hipster dive bar with an arcade machine. I guess I could have stayed to watch two grown men play Street Fighter, but instead I took a walk that I don’t remember at all except that it was especially nice. We all met back up and went back home.

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NachoMaid braces himself against the nightlife. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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Me locking up, going out to a bar dressed like Martha Stewart. Turns out no one cared; I really don’t think it matters what you wear to a bar or club. All that generally matters, even in Berlin mega-club culture, is if you’re entertaining and if you have drugs you’re willing to share. We didn’t have any, and we were too tired to really interact with anyone around us. So we called it an early night.

 

 

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Toulouse, day 3

NachoMaid and CarrotCakeMonster hatched a plan at lunch the previous day to rent a car and drive to a little town called Mèze on the coast almost two hours away from Toulouse. The morning of the car trip, we realized we’d both left our American driver’s licenses in Germany (and we don’t have German driver’s licenses– that’s 200 hours of German driving school, a pile of paperwork, and about €2,000 when we can take the subway or taxi just as well). But luckily NachoMaid had his license with him.

We picked our rental car up from the airport, which I won’t describe because the process sucked far more than it needed to thanks to Europecar’s unholy marriage of clownish European bureaucracy with middling corporate crappiness (though the actual workers were nice enough). A few hours later, we were on the road!

But not before picking up a few slices of tartes and cakes from the airport restaurant and singing Happy Birthday to NachoMaid in the retro-modern airport lounge. I hope NachoMaid got a second chance at a proper birthday cake later in his vacation, because airport cake is probably the worst cake in France. Sorry about that, NM.

NachoMaid is a superb driver. Driving in France doesn’t seem especially difficult or different from the US, especially as Southern France has a relaxed vibe that starkly contrasts with the boulevards of Paris, and as we spent most of the trip on an uncongested country highway. It was the ultimate scenic route, with cathedrals, historic towns, stone farmhouses and castles scattered through fields of sunflowers. We could see the Pyrenees in the distance (or the Massif Central, I’m not sure). We listened to Alice Coltrane on the stereo.

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If you look closely, there’s a medieval castle in the background. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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A field of sunflowers, one of many in the region.

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Some fields. The drive was mostly through some very scenic countryside.

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A few fields and trees.

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A church or cathedral in a small town on a hill.

CarrotCakeMonster ran into a slight problem once we got to the beach. Though every clothing store in Europe is currently decked out in summer beach displays, I cannot fathom CarrotCakeMonster actually entering one in his leisure time, much less willingly shopping for swimwear. He already owns several swimsuits, but he has a peculiar habit of planning pool and beach outings so that when he arrives at the water’s edge, and not a moment sooner, he announces that he has no swimwear and will go in search of some. Whatever the local gas station or bodega has on offer will do, and this time he wandered off and returned ten minutes later wearing some neon orange swim trunks that I like even better than the snug orchid pink trunks he procured last year from a pharmacy in Toledo, Spain. If I could simply walk into the first place I see and find shoes and clothes that fit me, I’d probably live this way too.

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The town across the bay is Sète. According to GoogleMaps, Sète boasts something called a “Super Public Bath.” Meanwhile the beach in Mèze displayed a super public parade of Speedos. I recently found out that New Zealanders call Speedos “budgie-smugglers.” Budgies are small birds. I guess the elderly men of Mèze must shop at a different bodega than CarrotCakeMonster. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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Local student sailboats. The beach was everything I hoped it would be. We swam, got sunburns and loafed until we grew hungry and restless.

We’d been recommended especially to eat mussels at The Pirate, a hokey looking restaurant with extremely good seafood. But it didn’t open for another hour or two, so we bought some beer and strolled around.

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The main drag in Mèze. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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It took us longer than it should have to figure out that “vapor boats” are steam boats.

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Strolling along the shore. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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A photo by the main docks, taken by CarrotCakeMonster.

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We spied on one of the acts in that night’s music festival while they rehearsed. All day we could hear the pre-opening acts projected over the sound system all over the town. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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Having a beer while we waited for the restaurant to open for dinner. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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Having a beer, waiting for dinner. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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Waiting for patriotically for dinner.

Tired, hungry and sunburnt I lay down on a park bench to rest while unbeknownst to me NacoMaid and CarrotCakeMonster snuck onto one of the jousting boats. Let me explain: Mèze is famous for the sport of boat-jousting, where two boats row toward each other with a person on a platform on the front of each boat, and as the people pass they try to knock one another off the platforms. Here is a video:

The jousting boats were sitting unattended, so here is NachoMaid committing his crime. On CarrotCakeMonster’s behalf, I’ll point out that the beer went straight to our heads because we don’t drink often at home. I don’t know what NachoMaid’s excuse was, birthday madness perhaps.

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Sneaking onto the jousting boats. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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Sneaking onto the jousting boats. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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Sneaking onto the jousting boats. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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Sneaking onto the jousting boats. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

NachoMaid and CarrotCakeMonster roused me from the bench just as two cops strutted toward the now-empty jousting boats, so we moved along quickly to The Pirate, which had finally opened for dinner.

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Waiting for dinner at The Pirate. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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Judas: the beer that betrays you. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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CarrotCakeMonster wearing the pot he’s meant to use to discard empty mussel shells. I think he looks like Tom Waits in this photo.

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Mrs. BoatMonster had coached us previously on how to order une grande carafe d’eau: “uhgruhkrahfdOHsvooplay.” Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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Our lovely bottle of water, which I think might have previously been a vodka bottle.

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NachoMaid strikes a noble pose in front of his moules (mussels) in curry sauce and french fries. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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CarrotCakeMonster also got mussels in curry cream sauce.

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An incredibly fresh salad with anchovies, fresh grilled tuna and eggs. The region has famously tasty local produce; even the lettuce was impressive during the entire trip. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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Moules aftermath. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

We dithered around trying to decide whether or not to stay in Mèze for the music festival and call it a very late night (or early morning), until we found out how much the entrance fee cost, and immediately started home. It’s just as well in retrospect, since the raging thunderstorm we drove back through would have been headed directly for Mèze.

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The sun setting on Mèze. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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The music festival was just starting; you can see the white tents in the background.

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Getting one last coffee for the road. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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Walking back toward the car. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

We drove back through a thunderstorm and got back very late.

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NachoMaid drives us home. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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Scenic plane trees. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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Watching the scenery. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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Though he tried, CarrotCakeMonster never got a decent photo of lightning. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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Driving through a small town on the way back. This is a ridiculous speed trap, just like it would be in the US. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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The Gothic church tower in the small speed trap town. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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Arriving home very late. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

Toulouse 2018- day 2

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There are several worthy marchés in Toulouse but everyone says Victor Hugo market is the best. It’s open every morning and spans an indoor warehouse and its outdoor perimeter, with a large restaurant on the second floor. But first, coffee.

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Believe it or not, I actually know what all this stuff means from working in a coffee shop. And it actually makes a difference. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

The Marché Victor Hugo was a little overwhelming.

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Skinned rabbits at Marché Victor Hugo, with eyes and little tufts of fur.

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Intestines. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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Cow tongues in front, tongues of some smaller animal in back.

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Spices in the outdoor section of the market. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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Looks like large sausages wrapped in bread.

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One of many lobster tanks.

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Cubes of quince jelly. The Fromagier forbade the pairing of our purchases of soft sheep’s cheese and stilton with quince jelly, and in doing so puffed out his cheeks and made a particularly French “pffft!” gesture of condemnation. He was very friendly and helpful, even though we could do little but gesture at the cheeses and say, “what is…?” Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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Me walking down one of the aisles. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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NachoMaid on the balcony terrace of the restaurant above the Marché Victor Hugo

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CarrotCakeMonster on the balcony terrace of the restaurant above the Marché Victor Hugo

After leaving the Marché CarrotCakeMonster had to find a quiet spot to take a meeting online, so we found him a picturesque grate over an air duct in the middle of a garden in a park, where he nestled in and took a very dignified call with his colleagues.  Meanwhile I stumbled upon the famous flea market in the square behind the Capitol.

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One of the most famous landmarks in Toulouse, the square behind the Capitol. There has been a market in this square for many decades. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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Finding some sunglasses for NachoMaid. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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Vintage books for sale.

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We bought this book about ancient obscure medical practices, CarrotCakeMonster got a blue checkered belt, and NachoMaid bought one of his favorite Asimov books in French to help him learn the language. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

We headed back home to make a late lunch from what we bought at the market.

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Pain au raisin

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fresh bread

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“salad herbs.” We weren’t really sure how to use these, but CarrotCakeMonster mixed them up in a simple vinaigrette.

Mr. and Mrs. BoatMonster called and invited us to meet them at the famous Basilica Saint Sernin for a free organ concert that night. We took ourselves on a tour of some Toulouse architecture on the way over to the Basilica.

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A beautiful bay window over a restaurant.

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Most old buildings in Toulouse are made from clay brick, giving the entire city a yellow-orange cast.

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A glimpse of a beautiful courtyard through an open gate. I love this mosaic pavement made of river stones turned on their sides. Toulouse is located on the Garonne river. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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A beautiful tiled art deco building

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A detail of the tile covering the art deco building pictured above

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A window on the Capitol building

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More windows on the Capitol

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The many turrets in Toulouse are not for defense, but a way to show off wealth in the 15-1600s. Toulouse became very wealthy in those centuries through the manufacture of a blue plant dye called pastel or woad.

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An ally way

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This is a good representation of just how hot and sunny it was. Toulouse is about an hour’s drive north of the coast, but it has the hot dry climate of the Mediterranean. We all got tans. But then again, all of Europe seems to be in a heat wave; it was just as hot when we got back to Berlin– so maybe the heat was uncharacteristic.

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Wisteria growing over a gate in an alley.

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Old wood beam construction.

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More seafoam green Toulouse ironwork. Photo by CarrotCakeMonster.

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The tower of a church on a major shopping and tourist road.

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A balcony garden

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Painted ironwork on a gate

The Basilica itself is clay brick and stripped completely bare in comparison to the cathedrals in Italy and Southern Germany which were absolutely dripping with gilded metal work, sculptures and paintings. The bare ochre arches made the entire space feel like being inside an incredibly elegant terra cotta pot– warm and inviting, and strangely reminiscent of the Grand Canyon (but in reverse).

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Little stars painted on the ceilings of a side chapel in Saint Sernin Basilica.

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Another side wing of the Basilica. Different areas of the church date back to different eras (the oldest from the 1100s); the Basilica was formerly a convent or monastery.

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The main area of the Basilica. The front has beautiful murals all over the ceiling.

The organ concert wasn’t amazing, though the instrument itself is very impressive and the player did a good job. An excited man talked on and on in French (perhaps it would have been interesting if I could understand it) about the history and mechanics of the church organ, and when the concert was over the organ player walked out of an obscure little door near the ceiling, wound around some hidden passageways, and some time later emerged out of another obscure little door on the ground, then came over and stood quietly with his hands clasped while the other man spoke many, many more words. He looked exactly how an organ player should look.

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The organ player

Then we went to dinner at a restaurant recommended to us by the owners of our AirBnB apartment.

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Paté. I discovered on this trip that I don’t like paté on its own, and also that the cat food industry has completely ruined it for me as well.

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smoked salmon with egg yolk, onions, and capers.

Despite my fears of receiving a petite pile of vertically stacked food when I was so hungry, it was actually too much food. We split a bottle of wine that went straight to our heads, went home.

 

Toulouse 2018: Day 1

In the middle of writing about our 2017 visit to Madrid, CarrotCakeMonster and I took a trip to Toulouse, France. I hope it won’t be too confusing that I’m bouncing between 2017 and 2018 from post to post. Madrid was last year, Toulouse was last week.

Coat-of-arms

Coat of Arms of Toulouse

Our old friend from the US who comments here as NachoMaid (and whose nym I cannot improve upon) invited us to meet up with his parents in Toulouse as they traversed France’s canal system in their houseboat as they do every year. Certain readers may remember NachoMaid from last year, when he visited us in Berlin while CarrotCakeMonster’s parents were also in town. For some reason I couldn’t get in the spirit of my usual hurricane of pre-vacation research, but luckily Mr. and Mrs. BoatMonster were very well-informed and happy to share their recommendations. And as different travelers have different vacationing styles, we looked forward to our first fully NachoMaid-style vacation: unplugged, improvisational, and operating on a casual trust that whomsoever wanders off will eventually show up again.

Our first real taste of Toulouse was trying to find our AirBnB apartment, then hunting down a snack for CarrotCakeMonster. The French are leisurely eaters, but eat strictly during meal times. So the restaurants are open only for lunch (12-2) and dinner (6 or 7-10ish). We were in that desolate late afternoon hour, but CarrotCakeMonster located a cafe selling a board of fancy sandwich meats. The man selling it was plainly disgusted that CarrotCakeMonster spoke no French at all, and ate inelegantly.

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The sandwich meat.

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The stern cow on the label.

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It looked like rain, so NachoMaid and CarrotCakeMonster grabbed the last parapluie in the shop nearby.

After settling in our AirBnB apartment, we took a short walk through the rain to visit Mr. & Mrs. BoatMonster at their boat in the canal’s dock.

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That short orange object to the bottom left is my head, wrapped in a makeshift rain jacket from my scarf.

The Canal Midi is an engineering marvel of the 1600s, connecting the Mediterranean coast with the Garonne river, which in turn flows into the Atlantic across southwestern France just north of the Iberian Peninsula. Pierre Paul Riquet– who wasn’t a professional engineer but a tax collector– adapted ovular rather than rectangular locks from Da Vinci’s writings about rounded forms being stronger than rectangular ones (as well as ancient Roman examples). Amazingly, Riquet (who had originally proposed the canal) had no technical training and learnt on the job by conducting field experiments. Further technical expertise was gained from peasant women laborers who came from ancient Roman bath towns and who had traditionally operated the ancient Roman hydraulic systems still in operation. The construction was all done by pick-axe and simple tools, but the workers were paid well, offered benefits (sick leave, holidays, etc) and men and women were payed equally– all unheard of at the time.

The canal actually flows over other rivers, like an aquaduct (and today it flows over highways, too) and through the world’s first canal tunnels. The water level was controlled via two separated channels at the water’s source in the mountains, with runoffs and spillways built into the design. Mules hitched to small barges trod pathways at either side of the canal, and a beautiful parade of plane trees on either side shade the water and help hold the river banks in place. Though Toulouse was already an old wealthy city by the 1600s, the construction of the canal helped to ease the financial blow when indigo trade replaced Toulouse’s traditional export of woad or “pastel,” a labor-intensive blue plant dye. (Thank you Mr. and Mrs. BoatMonster, Musée de Vieux-Toulouse, and Wikipedia for the history).

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Pierre-Paul Riquet

Today the canal is mostly used for leisure, traversed by houseboats and péniches (the small mule-drawn barges of the 19th century) and its banks traced by joggers and bikers. Houseboats can rent affordably in the docks and tie up most places along its banks. People visit year after year and get to know each other. By the time we arrived, Mr. and Mrs. Boatmonster had already been traveling the canal for several weeks and just arrived in Toulouse.

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Mrs. and Mr. BoatMonster’s boat in the dock, with sun shades because it was very hot during our time in Toulouse.

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This creature is an otter.

The rain cleared up, so we walked to a nearby Italian takeout place with great food, and got some pasta salads and pizzas to take back to the boat and share for dinner. We meandered back to our place as the sun set.

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A grand building near the canal with Toulouse-style pale blue-green iron work and window trim.

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Typical Toulouse residences in the historic part of town.

Italy: day 4

Later, when we got back to Berlin, CarrotCakeMonster’s co-worker confirmed the phenomenon of the Italian breakfast. Her Italian boyfriend will eat nothing for breakfast but sweets and pastries. I’m someone who enjoys big breakfasts full of fats (avocado, coconut oil, walnuts, eggs, etc), whole grains, and green vegetables. It’s not a health thing, it simply makes me feel good for hours. And nothing makes me feel worse than sweets for breakfast, although the Italians appear to be doing fine. At sleepovers when I was a kid, the parents would generously top off our pizza dinner and sleep deprivation with a breakfast of cinnamon buns and soda. I think the trick to a successful sleepover is to send all the kids home before they start barfing and fighting with each other.

So let’s talk Italian pastries. They’re delicious! I never encountered a poor mix of textures or a flavor without complexity while in Amalfi or Naples. We missed trying many of the region’s specialties, save the Babà al Rum. It’s a rum-soaked cream puff shaped like an oversized champagne cork, and much better than it looks.

The Delizia al Limone is another standout: a perfect dome of lemon cake with a cream center and vanilla frosting, with a little nipple of lemon garnish.

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the delizia al limone, photo from the Andrea Pansa website.

While the first two were favorites of CCM, I set aside my general dislike of cream fillings for the perfect pastry: a tiny pie-shaped shell filled with custard and topped with fresh fruit, called Crostata di Frutta (Stagione, or seasonal).

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the crostata di frutta. photo from the Andrea Pansa website.

And then there are Tegole al Cioccolato Fondente, which are sturdy, crunch hazelnut crisp cookies with a smear of dark chocolate. It’s what those grocery store Milano cookies wish they were. I could eat these forever, or until my jaw becomes too tired.

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tegole al cioccolato fondente. Photo from the Andrea Pansa website.

I was also pleased to find whole wheat croissants regularly on offer through the region (usually served with a drizzle of honey or sweet filling– I got funny looks and protestations when I asked for it plain, but that’s also true when asking for plain croissants Germany). I might like them even more than regular croissants; the flavor is nuttier and toastier, though they’re less flaky.

We ate at many impressive bakeries and cafes, but Andrea Pansa in Amalfi easily stood out as the best. We enjoyed a small, sweet breakfast here and then dealt with a looming problem.

The day’s plan was to hike the Sienti degli Dei (Path of the Gods). But CarrotCakeMonster’s one pair of shoes was soaking wet. He’d been so deeply concerned by their odor the night before that he washed the shoes in the bathroom sink, but they hadn’t dried out at all. So we stopped in a shoe store on the way back to the flat and he found some perfect hiking boots in the first five minutes of looking. I was more than a little jealous, since I’d spent six straight hours shopping for suitable shoes for this trip. I thoroughly hate shoe shopping because my feet are shaped like strange trapezoids, so I’d let my collection of comfortable, intact shoes dwindle to zero. Isn’t it always when you NEED something that it cannot be found in any store? Unless, of course, you are CarrotCakeMonster.

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Here we are waiting for the bus next to the ferry port. Even after our breakfast we had ice cream for lunch. I couldn’t even finish this cone, and I wanted to.

We took the bus to the small village of Bomerano, where the trailhead begins. The trail was a highlight of the trip, and I can’t imagine there are any better views on Earth. We got started a little late in the afternoon, so we took the shorter version to avoid hiking on a remote cliff after dark.

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All in all, it was meant to take about 2.5 hours, and took us between 3-4 hours. This was partly because we took our time and enjoyed the hike, but also because CarrotCakeMonster was really struggling with heights. It didn’t become a problem until we’d already been hiking for a while, but then some switch flipped in his brain and he had to stop and hug the mountainside for a while. He had no choice but to continue hiking, which he did, commendably.

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It was hard to get a photo that captured the narrowness of the path and the straight-down abyss at the crumbly edge. But this is a typical stretch of path, and you can see that if you topple over there’s nothing to stop your plunge.

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Safety first!

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A vineyard near Bomerano. This is where a lot of the region’s wine comes from. According to the website of one local vineyard, you can taste the minerality of the rocky soil and the “tenacity” of the vines. They also waxed… poetic… about the foggy terraces being like untamed nymphs.

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One of many natural spring fountains along the path. We saw several local residents walking along, an old man gathering wild berries in a plastic grocery bag, a farmer with a machete slung casually over his shoulder, farmers carrying bundles of stuff. There seemed to be goat herders around too, so these springs are probably much more for them than the hand-washing convenience of mostly German hikers.

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One of many shrines in cliff crevices

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Someone’s house. How did they even build this?

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An abandoned farmhouse.

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We heard a distant steady jingle of bells before we rounded the corner and saw this. All those terraces are covered in grazing goats.

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A close-up of the goats.

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It took us a while, but we eventually caught up with the goats. This one investigated us, edging closer and closer, but never once pausing from eating.

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Another Mary shrine.

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You can never stop paying attention on this trail. If you sprain your ankle up here you’re out of luck. Two guys passed us, separately, who were running the trail, not walking it. It was extremely impressive, but also seemed needlessly dangerous.

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Hikers had piled little stacks of rocks at certain lookout points. There’s a tradition on the Appalachian Trail where you carry a pebble from one end of the trail to the other, and some cool pebble formations where people have stacked their pebble at the end of the trail. I wonder if this is some similar hiker thing.

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CarrotCakeMonster taking a break to adjust his new hiking boots, which have started to rub. He was impressed by how well my band-aid technique worked. That’s the art you master when you have trapezoid feet. My other master tip, by the way, is to use BodyGlide runner’s anti-chafing stick on your feet. Unfortunately that had been confiscated at airport security because I had too many liquids with me.

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We were glad we’d chosen the shorter hike, because the sun is almost down. The longer hike is the same path, but it simply continues from the village where we called it quits (Nocelle).

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We were feeling like we’d reached the ends of civilization, when suddenly this house cat popped out and said hello. It followed us a short way, handling the cliff-side like a mountain goat.

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CarrotCakeMonster enjoys the view. We’re approaching Nocelle, the village where we’d take a bus to Positano, and on to Amalfi. We could finally stop worrying about the sun setting while we were in the middle of the woods.

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Waiting for the bus.

A bus took us to nearby Positano, zig-zagging slowly down the entire mountain. We had intended to take the ferry from Positano back to Amalfi, but it wasn’t running. I’d read that ferries were the most practical mode of transport along the Amalfi coast, but the ferries never ran when and where we were told they would. You just have to go up to the person at the ferry stand in the morning and ask. That left the bus as our only option. In the process of locating our stop we inadvertently explored the town of Positano. You could tell it was similar to Amalfi fifty years ago, but it felt much more like a tourist Disney Land than Amalfi. It was, however, the only place you could enjoy in the region if you were in a wheelchair or unable to climb endless stairs. It was still a nice cute town.

While waiting for our bus we had a good pasta dinner at a bar with a string of sidewalk tables set up overlooking the sea. Given our ferry and bus troubles, and low blood sugar, CarrotCakeMonster had entered a brief but intense foul mood. So he was in no mood for our spastic waiter in a sailor shirt who I’m pretty sure was enjoying some cocaine. The East Coast couple at the table next to ours was completely enchanted by him, though, and by the Positano ambiance and romantic pronunciation of Italian dinner menu items. He entertained them at length while CarrotCakeMonster glared at them all from underneath his drawn hoodie. Dinner thankfully drew to a close, and we caught our bus and cheered up a bit.

Somewhere on the winding road from Positano to Amalfi, we passed another bus that had collided with a car on a blind curve. So, I guess the inevitable does happen. The car driver seemed to be fine, but we took on the passengers from the other bus and they seemed understandably shaken.

We were exhausted, so we went straight back to our flat to sleep.

 

Italy: day 3

We woke up to more construction and opera, as well as heavy rain. We had seen a sign the day before on Main Street advertising a “full English breakfast” (English tourists are most heavily catered to in the Amalfi area; nearby Sorrento is full of English pubs). Why not try a full English breakfast for the first time in Italy?

Unfortunately the sign was no where to be found, and no one else was serving anything for breakfast other than pastries, so we walked up and down the long street in the rain until we settled on a horrible tourist cafe serving small, greasy omelettes. The coffee, though, was good. Drinking good, strong coffee when it’s raining is always a satisfying experience.

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The plan for Day 3 was to take a bus up the mountain to nearby Ravello to see its famous estates. But things went quickly awry. First there was the rain. Then a work situation arose requiring about 2 hours of CarrotCakeMonster’s time and anger before we could go anywhere. Then there was my defeatist mood to contend with, so when CCM finished his work he got us a cab up to Ravello before the sights closed for the day. Our cab driver says the Amalfi coast is a completely different place to live in the off-season, but that he was happy to raise his kids there because it was so safe. By the time we reached Ravello, the rain had slowed to a periodic drizzle.

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Ravello is very small, so we found Villa Cimbrone easily. The estate was a favorite for the Bloomsbury group (Virginia Woolf’s posse) and other in-the-know writers and society people. But it became famous when Greta Garbo tried to escape from the Hollywood press by hiding out here with her then-love interest. The press found them and had a field day. Crowd control was so bad that doctors were on standby. She just vanted to be alone.

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The view from the Terrazzo dell’ Infinito. To the right, out of frame, we’re actually looking down on Pontorne and the lookout tower where we’d hiked the day before.

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More of the Terrazzo dell’ Infinito. Villa Cimbrone is now an extremely expensive hotel, but the gardens are open to tour.

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CarrotCakeMonster standing on the little piece of terrace that juts out over the cliff. There’s just air under that crumbly looking pavement. I wrote previously that he struggles with heights and specifically things that could crumble beneath you. Yet here he is.

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I was the one with a queasy stomach, and here I am getting over the idea of stepping out on the little platform for a photo. I couldn’t do it.

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I managed a photo on this other, slightly less scary ledge.

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Some of the less formal gardens.

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The villa is many centuries old, but this structure is probably part of the early 1900s Gothic-revival remodel.

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I peeked over a hedge just out of frame and saw a tasteful helipad. Next time we visit Amalfi, we’ll just bypass AirBnB and have our private helicopter drop us here.

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We cut the garden tour a little short because CCM was hungry.

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Heading out of Villa Cimbrone and into the town of Ravello.

Unfortunately the only place open to eat was a poorly stocked tourist cafe. Most restaurants in Italy, like France, close down in the afternoon and don’t re-open until 7 pm. We set out for the farther, less posh edges of Ravello, hoping to find better food. Instead we were found only a small bag of chips and had to wait a few hours for restaurants to open.

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I was walking along a less glamorous side street when I peeked through a gap in a dilapidated corrugated metal door which was chained shut. It was on old church bell tower.

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Scooters.

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On another street farther down the mountain we found the little chapel belonging to the bell tower a few photos back. It was open and, despite the lit candles on the altar, no one was in there; so I explored. It appeared to be medieval, and behind the altar were natural caves with ancient eroded stairs carved into them, leading up into crevices where I heard echoing water drops. There appeared to be remnants of a former structure back there carved into the rock. Some carved stairs led back behind the altar, while other carved stairs led through a chink in the cave to a space above the ceiling. I didn’t follow them, which I now regret. This photo is toward the front of the church, facing the street. Part chapel, part cave.

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CarrotCakeMonster waiting at the chapel entrance for me to finish poking around the edges of the chapel.

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More of the town of Ravello. This area is leading back to the wealthy town center. Until the late 20th century Ravello was much like any other farming village in the region, largely unknown. But the mayor decided to attract affluent tourists by hosting a world-famous classical music festival there every year. Now Ravello is a town “for rich old White ladies,” as CCM put it. From the exquisite hotels to the local crafts boutiques, everything caters toward people who enjoy hand-blown glass and truffle-dusted food. We tried to find a place to eat in the hotel neighborhood, but the menu posted at one typical place listed the price of a club sandwich at €35. We kept going. We didn’t mind, though, because the walk was beautiful, and the rainy streets were empty of other tourists.

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More of Ravello. They use this building to host classical concerts, so you have an amazing view down the mountain while you listen. Unfortunately we missed the music festival.

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This guy has half a pig slung over his shoulders.

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A sculpture in the garden next to a large church. The town itself isn’t very large, but it has no shortage of churches or of tiny alters in every crevice. It’s impossible to imagine the Amalfi area without Catholicism.

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Gates to a private estate and hotel.

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A more formal altar in a wall. Many altars were made from odd, cheap found objects that sparkled or lit up, especially in poor areas. Many also displayed a deceased family member’s photo in a frame. In the US we’d keep such a photo on our nightstand or somewhere private, so it felt completely different to see the framed memorial photos and personal altars on public streets.

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We found a pizzeria, but we still had to wait for it to open at 7pm. In the last 30 minutes of waiting, time definitely slowed down way beyond its normal pace. In that scant half hour we examined everything for sale in this upscale ceramics boutique, then enjoyed a leisurely Coca Cola.

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Still waiting for 7pm pizza time, we listened to some of the mass being sung at this nearby church. Then when mass finished and people slowly filed out (I told you time slowed down!) CarrotCakeMonster took some photos of the interior. That’s a sculpture at the front of Christ’s body as if in a funeral casket. The church also had a lovely courtyard very similar to the Amalfi Duomo’s that I posted previously. By the way, this is not the town’s most famous church. There’s another, much fancier one on the town square, but we did not tour it.

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PIZZA TIME! To our surprise, Mimi Pizzeria in Ravello was a completely excellent restaurant. It was Brooklyn-hip (not super common on the Amalfi coast), but not too hip. The people seated next to us were also from Berlin and made great conversation all night. We got a stunning local cheese plate as an appetizer, and it may have been the best cheese of my life so far. Very fresh buffalo mozzarella, and wood-smoked mozzarella. It was still a mild cheese, but much more flavorful than fancy grocery store mozzarella; creamier and grassier. Sharp sheep’s cheese (some sort of Pecorino maybe?) and another deeply funky sheep’s cheese. Something else vaguely similar to Gouda, but with a tangier flavor, and an aged version of that. There was also a creamy cheese in a little pot. We split a bottle of red wine from a local vineyard and each got a pizza– also a probable lifetime best. Predictably, I couldn’t finish my pizza after eating half a cheese plate, but not even CarrotCakeMonster could help me out. I got a personal sized to-go pizza box, and after the bus had dropped us off back in Amalfi an elderly man in suspenders congratulated me specifically on my pizza. “Brava!” he called out, tipping his newsboy cap. Being congratulated for possessing a pizza seemed deeply right.