Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Dives

We dragged all our diving gear with us. With four people in the car and three of them being divers, there was very little extra room. So little room in fact that there was no space to bring back more than a few bottles of wine. We have to re-think this for next time.

We all learned to dive in the Mediterranean so diving in this sea wasn't a new experience, but we have never been diving in the French section of the sea. French regulations for diving are just a bit different to Spanish and Greek rules for diving what is essentially the same water. We all had to have medical certificates that had been signed by a real doctor and the certificates had to be less than 12 months old. With a little bit of organisation, I got all our medical certificates for the trip. The convenient thing was that Gordon, though not our son has been our neighbour his entire life and we share the same family doctor. All the signed certificates went into the bag of important documents along with our proof of diving qualifications and passports, insurance etc. . . . .
There are a number of good dive centres along this bit of coast. We chose one in Argeles sur Mer called Divemania. They were very friendly and professional. If we ever get back to that part of France, I would not hesitate to dive with them again and if you ask me about which dive centre I would recommend in that part of the world, I would recommend these guys. The Man of the Place got to dive a WWII German submarine!
Diving is the only sport where you get to regularly strap a knife to your leg. How butch is The Man of the Place?

The center has a big RIB (rigid inflatable boat) that is employed to get divers to the dive sites. On the last dive of the holiday, the sea was up and the rides to and from our dive sites was better than a roller coaster ride! We had to hang on to keep from getting bounced out! When boat rides are as rough as that, I am usually the first one to puke over the side but these rides were fun! I have learned that if conditions are choppy, the best thing for me to do is to keep my face into the wind and my eye on the horizon. That's what I did and I had a blast!
Gordon and George after a dive.

For me, diving is all about the sea life. I saw a number of nudibranch which thrilled me. I love the brightly coloured animals. Sadly, I am not very good with the new camera and most of my nudibranch photos are too blurred to use.

Here are a couple that were good enough to not delete: This is an old favourite, Spotted Doris. The Spotted Doris were impressively large in this area of the sea.
Here is a very large and beautiful yellow nudibranch that I have never seen before. I thought I had a field guide to marine life of the Mediterranean, but it seems I don't. I have two for the Red Sea and one for the water around Great Britain, but none for the Med. This must be remedied!

The highlight of our diving was a seahorse! I have never seen one before. Lucky Gordon got to see this beautiful creature on his try dive!

In addition to the lovely seahorse, I got to have an interaction with an octopus! Sorry the camera work was shaky. I guess I'll never make it as an underwater cameraman for any BBC Wildlife shows. As gentle as this octopus seemed, I didn't want my hand anywhere near his beak.

Here is Henry doing the dance.

Our young man.

Yours truly.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Oh, This Isn't So Bad

When I was just a kid I didn't know how my life would turn out. I had though about all the things that might happen and then none of it did. I have ridden through some real crud and made some terrible decisions but then some unexpected and fabulous things have happened as well. I must say that I am quite pleased the way things are turning out (knocks on wood). 46 doesn't suck as bad as they said it would. It is kind of nice really.

Just to cheer you guy up who are at work when you could be outs
ide enjoying this lovely summer sun, here is a picture of me in about 1979.These first two photos were damaged in a fire but were deemed by me not to be damaged enough to throw out. I'm glad I've still got them.

Here is me earlier this month.
Middle boy Sean who spends some of his valuable time as a bartender as he works his way through higher education has been making me very yummy margaritas. I'm well on my way to having a lovely day.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Day Trip to Andorra

We set aside an entire day for a trip to Andorra.

To get to this this tiny landlocked principality one has to drive high up into the Pyrenees on roads like intestines!The mountain roads are full on with lots of warnings of falling rock and loose rock containing nets.I had to take this photo through the car windscreen, so please excuse the quality. I wanted to document the rock nets. Some of the nets had been doing their job and contained substantial chunks of the mountain! Little rail tunnel along side the road.

Beautiful rail bridge/viaduct.

Eventually we got up past the tree line and it was at this point we took a couple of available short cuts through tunnels.
Tunnel entrance.
Coming out the other side into . . . . alpine meadows!
It is all very beautiful up here. Andorra seems to have the same sort of look about it as the photographs I've seen of Switzerland. This is where we had our picnic lunch. There were two mating pairs of gray wagtails at this particular spot. It was just so clean and clear! I wish I could tell you how fresh and invigorating the air smelled!
There are lots of ski chalets and ski resorts. Everybody seemed to be busy cleaning and repairing skiing related things in preparation for the next busy season. They were doing that or walking around being exempt from taxes.The fuel was the lowest we'd seen on our holiday so we filled up while we were there.

We got stopped by customs going back into France and asked if we had purchased any tobacco or alcohol while in Andorra. We said "No, none at all." and we were waved off (dismissed) to go on our merry way.

We went there through some beautiful mountain scenery and scary twisty roads. We discovered that Andorra is stunningly beautiful in the summer. Most visitors will never know this as the bulk of Andorra's tourists show up in the winter.

I thought I had seen some small fields of tobacco and I was right!!! It turns out that the meagre 2% of Andorran soil that can be cultivated. A portion of that 2% is where tobacco is grown. Who'd a thought?

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Once You Are In

I don't have vast experience of traveling overland on the continent of Europe. Most of my trips have been made via the gift of air travel. This means that when I travel from the UK to other countries, I'll have to go through immigration and customs each and every time. This trip was a little different as we were making the journey by car.

We weren't stopped by French immigration when coming into Calais and during our holiday, we crossed over into Spain a couple of times. One day we made a day trip to The Principality of Andorra. Although we had our passports on our person, they were not needed for any of these trips across country borders.Here is the now redundant border crossing between France and Spain. Henry and I were thinking wars that had been fought between France and Spain and how fiercely these now open borders had been fortified. Now we don't even have to slow down. Amazing! We just ran around taking photos and it was a non-event. No guards, no guns or offical stamps, just a lot of sun and wind and happy holiday makers. With the introduction of the Euro, this Bureau de Change is no longer needed. Its a shame because it has a great view!

This is the big public beach in Llansa, Spain. We preferred the quieter, rocky beach. Tucking into the picnic!
There was a nice view point on the rocks above the beach. We could see these knucklehead kids jumping off the rocks into the sea. It made my stomach lurch every time they jumped. In the end, I just stopped watching.

Here he is looking out to sea!

This water is the reason that we just don't ever travel without our snorkeling gear when we're on holiday. I don't want to be stuck looking at warm clear water like that and not be able to get in it with a mask and snorkel!

Torreilles Plage where we were staying sort of marks the end of the long golden sandy beach area of France. The coast becomes much rockier as it approaches the Pyrenees. It doesn't mean that there are no beaches, it is just that the beaches that are on this bit of the coast are smaller, pebbled and much more intimate.

It was on these smaller beaches that I collected all my sea glass. I just love those bits of broken bottles that have been made safe and opaque by the action of the sand and sea. In addition to the very common green glass, I found some amber glass and a small bit of the very excellent cobalt glass! I turned it into a fish on our caravan's kitchen table. I have all these bits of smoothed glass in a plastic container with the best of the shells and other seaside treasures in the kitchen here at the house. I always think I'll do something creative with these things when I get home. Sadly when I get home, I never have the time.

This is a placemat from a day when we didn't pack a picnic and had lunch under umbrellas.
I think it is one of the most joyful works Picasso made.
On our way home from one of our days on a Spanish beach and back over the twisty roads where there is NO overtaking, we were stuck behind this motorcylist and his girlfriend. I don't know if she had an ipod stuck in her ears or if her helmet was wired for sound but this lovely creature was dancing on the back of this bike, waving her arms about, jabbing the sky with an index finger and obviously enjoying the day. She mirrored my mood, but I was driving and couldn't dance.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Bread!

One of my favourite things about France is the boulangerie. From the ordinary local baker up to the grand artisinal boulangerie, they are all wonderful. There were two near our campsite to choose from while we were there. The closest one was only open during the tourist season. It was a satellite shop. The bakers bought in frozen dough and baked it there on site. They will be referred to as Bakery 1. The baker that was a few steps further and across the road, made their own dough. They will be referred to as Bakery 2.

Products from both place were very good and the baguettes were light, crispy, the perfect French baguette! There was nothing really wrong from the baguettes from Bakery 1 and the bread actually kept a little bit longer but the baguette just wasn't as flavourful and it was a little denser. If you were going to eat the bread straight away, then it had to be obtained from Bakery 2. The baguette was superior, having that wonderul open texture you only get in real French boulangeries. If you were going to use the bread for sandwiches that weren't going to be consumed for a couple of hours, then baguettes from Bakery 1 were used. Both boulangeries had equally gorgeous croissants, pain au chocolate and pain au raisin (a personal favourite). I'm sure that if given time, I would have been able to get to the level where I could identify the oven of origin for these products as well.

We used to send the kids off to get the breakfast bread, but we actually prefer the walk ourselves these days. A typical breakfast order for us was; four croissant, four pain au chocolate and two baguettes. Occasionally Henry and I would order an extra croissant each to fortify us on the walk back to our caravan. This usually occurred when the products were still warm from the oven. I defy anybody to not pull apart a croissant and devour it when it is fresh from the oven and you haven't had your breakfast yet. It didn't need butter or confiture, it just needed to be in my mouth!

One morning The Man of the Place and I were determined to go to a local market. We were told there was one at Canet en Roussillon, a little village near us. We must have come late because there were only three stalls, two vegetable stalls (we didn't need any that morning) and a stall selling big ladies underpants. Though the market was a let down we did discover two things. There was going to be a Bastille Day Commemoration Ceremony on the 13th of July with speaches and awards to local services and there is a great boulangerie in the centre of the village! Actually there were TWO really fab-o boulangeries in the village.

We went a bit nuts in the boulangerie next to the Mairie (town hall). We bought a normal baguette, two or three somethinglovely au pomme that was all puff pastry and apples, a pain au raisin for me and a sarmentine for The Man of the Place. This odd shaped loaf was described by Gordon as looking like a conjoined rabbit. Henry declared it to be the best bread he has ever had in his entire life. At the end of our holiday we had to make a special trip to Canet village to this bakery to get the wierd bread for the homeward journey picnic.Here is George tucking into his treat.

Then on the 13th of July (more about the ceremony later) we found ourselves walking back to our car from the cemetery when we were lured into another fabulous bakery. This guy was so pleasant. We went in originally to buy ice cream and ended up making an impulse purchase of bread with figs in it.Henry took a bite and made retching noises. He said that he didn't want to spit it out because spitting is forbidden in France. He wouldn't let the rest of us have any to protect us from the horror of this fig bread. We weren't fooled for a minute! None of that loaf made it back to the car. It was exquisite!

So, in Canet village there are two great artisan boulangeries. One is in Square St Jacques across from the church and the other is on the road just down from the cemetery. Go to both!

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Off to the shops

As a family we have used this holiday company, Matthews Holidays a number of times over the years. The price of renting the caravan in some rural part of France includes the cost of the ferry crossing. In September, the prices really drop and that is when we used to go.

For a number of years I wasn't working because George was small and the budget for anything was pretty tight. It was our philosophy that two weeks in another country where the kids had to use another language and experience another culture was just as valuable as a fortnight in formal education. It also true that with only Henry's salary coming in we really needed to take advantage of the prices that were so much better in September. With George in the big school actually being in class is much more important and we keep our family holidays strictly to times when school is not in session. I've been working for a couple of years now and we can afford the peak season holiday a bit better.

The caravans are big enough (approximately 300 square feet of space). They are always clean and kitted out well enough. There are duvets and pillows on the beds but no sheets, so you have to bring those.

Sometimes self-catering holidays aren't really self-catering at all. You are faced with a dormitory sized refrigerator and a hotplate. The kitchen in these caravans is an area where you can prepare a real meal. There is a fully functioning kitchen stove, a refrigerator, sometimes a microwave oven and a sink.

There is cutlery, a couple of knives and kitchen utensils, including that all important corkscrew! There are plenty of nice plates, coffee cups and glasses as well.

Sadly the washing up liquid is not next to the sink. You have to go get some from the French supermarket. It is silly things like salt, pepper, dish soap and toilet roll that are missing. I knew about this beforehand and packed them along but I didn't pack coffee and milk.

We got to our site pretty late and didn't go to the supermarket before we arrived. I don't think we would have had the space in the car for even a small amount of shopping even if we had. So first thing to do after saying hello to the sea was to get to the shops."Boys, do you want to go with me and Henry to the shops?"

"Ung. We're still asleep."

Notice the sunshine streaming through the window.

We left them there.

I love going to buy food in France. I just don't understand why the rest of the world doesn't follow their excellent example. They grow the food right there. We went past fields of vegetables all the time. Artichokes, onions, garlic, cauliflower, it was all grown right there. The best thing about a July holiday is that the peaches and apricots were ripe. There was kilometer after kilometer of fruit trees, branches cracking under the weight of ripe fruit.Up here in the sun-free north, fruit doesn't grow like this. The folks down south have to pick it green so that it won't rot on the way and move it by truck up to us. I had never had a ripe fig until we went on holiday to France. Because the produce has been picked before the flavour gets good, we have become accustomed to things that are just okay. Well down here, the fruit doesn't have to move nearly so far. The fruit can stay in the tree until it's ripe. I swear some of the peaches were still warm from the sun. They were much less expensive and a thousand times better. Some of the white peaches needed to be eaten with a plate under the eater's chin, they were that juicy. There was also no way you could eat these peaches quietly so we stopped trying. There were three different varieties of peach on offer. The yellow peaches, the white peaches and these oddly shaped peaches that looked as though they'd been stepped on while being formed. They were all delicious!The melons were numerous and delicious as well. See? The sign says very good!
It also asks you not to press the melons. There really is no need to test for ripeness or even to see if they are over ripe.

These red onions were very large, about the size of softballs.

This man is organising the pesky tomatoes. There were about seven separate varieties of tomato. A tomato for every occasion!

I have a bouquet of salad.
This euro kept leaping out of my pocket.
The bargain corner. Each little bucket or "plat" cost one euro and contained misshaped or very ripe produce that needed to be used immediately. I love the huge oddly shaped tomatoes.

Next stop the boulangerie!