Brian's Journal - Europe Trip, Summer 2016

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6/24/2016   Getting There  
Monica and Marc gave us a ride to the airport Thursday afternoon. Traffic was really bad getting through the U-district to the freeway; I didn't think we would make it in time for our flight. I was so anxious about that and about the prospect of traveling in general that I might not have minded had we missed our flight but we made it.
Flying British Airways was am unexpected pleasure - a tasty dinner with a Gilbert's pale ale, seats that were almost spacious, free movies (Darchelle watched three) and a view out the window. Mysteriously, we flew North then Northeast then East then Southeast, all in nearly a perfect straight line from Seattle to London. Cloud cover was almost continuous but we had a few breaks between Hudson's Bay and Greenland. Darchelle helped me photograph a mysterious landscape of frozen lakes and dark hills outlined by drifts of snow. An orange glow lingered on the northern horizon with a hot spot which marked first the sunset then the sunrise. It remained in the same relative position to us just forward of 90 degrees all night. I'm still not quite sure how that worked. At Heathrow we labored through security then found a restaurant where Darchelle, who hadn't slept at all during the flight, was able to take a little nap. My fish pie, with pink salmon and shrimp under a green crust, was quite good.
Repacking at SeaTac
Sunset east of Hudson's Bay
Breakfast at the Arlanda Radisson Blu
We both slept some on the flight to Stockholm. While awake, I amused myself estimating the number of ripples per mile in the clouds below. Averaged 5 to 10 per mile, every six seconds.
At the Stockholm airport, the last train to Avesta/Krylbo had left and the rental car places were closed. The first several hotels we checked were full. As one of the helpful information attendants told us, midsummer in Sweden is a holiday like 2 times Christmas.
We found a room at the Radisson Blu just a few minutes by shuttle from the terminal. We slipped into the hotel restaurant just before the kitchen closed at 11 PM. It felt late but it was basically lunch on Seattle time. I had grilled salmon served with a salad of sour cream, peas, hard-boiled egg and dill. Delicious. Maybe traveling wouldn't be so bad after all. Our room was quiet and dark even after the sky outside grew light, very early around 3AM local time.
6/25/2016   Welcome to Sweden  
Over the years I have not infrequently heard my Swedish brother-in-law Roger make the claim that the way things are done in his native country are better than how they work in the US. I've always dismissed his claims as just home-team loyalty but within a few minutes of arriving at the Stockholm airport I began to see things his way, an impression that only got stronger through our first day in the country. The airport had cushioned seats and benches without obstructions so if you needed to you could actually lie down on them comfortably and catch some sleep. There were even places provided for children to play. Everyone we met working at the airport was courteous and helpful, even though it was essentially Christmas Eve and they were missing the party. The buses connecting the terminals to the parking, rental car lots and hotels ran every five minutes, in both directions. All the doors opened automatically. And the continental breakfast included in the price the hotel was amazing.
Figuring we needed sleep more than food I had planned to skip it and wake up just in time to catch the 10AM train. That would have been a mistake. In quantity, variety and quality, the Radisson Blu hotel breakfast rivaled the best breakfasts I've had in England, which in turn are among the best I've had anywhere. Bake-apple berry preserves, organic yogurt, smoked salmon and three kinds of soft cheeses were among the highlights for me. And the coffee. Sweden has arguably the best coffee in Europe. Perhaps I should have known that, given Roger's taste for the stuff.
We should have made the train even with breakfast but we couldn't figure out the ticket machines in time. Those ticket machines were the only fly in Sweden's ointment. Seduced by the breakfast, we didn't leave for the terminal until 20 minutes or so before the train left. After several frustrating attempts to figure them out on our own we finally asked one of the attendants to get our tickets for us. He did, but not in time for us to catch the 10 AM train. Sarah and Roger were gracious about it when we arrived two hours late.
Before the trip I managed to delude myself into thinking that I wouldn't do all that much birdwatching. After all I can't use binoculars at all and I can't use the camera very well either. I didn't spend any time reviewing European birds or bird songs and I didn't even think to ask Susan for one of my copies of Birds of Europe. Well, even before the plane had fully slowed down to taxiing speed I found my first Swedish bird, a Northern Lapwing in the mowed grass between the runways. Looking out the window at breakfast I added another nine species, though half of them I had seen in the previous week in Washington state. One in particular really puzzled me at first, a stocky bird with a pale-tipped tail which it raised in a distinctive manner when it landed. It took me several days to recognize it as a Eurasian Collared Dove, ubiquitous in Washington state.
I passed the hour-plus ride on the train to Avesta/Krylbo with my nose glued to the window. The landscape is best described as bucolic - hay fields with flowers and agricultural fields of summer wheat and legumes interspersed with patches of mixed woods and scattered homes and farms. Dark red with white trim appeared to be the preferred color for rural homes and outbuildings. We passed quite a few lakes but very few hills. The towns were not quite as neat and orderly as the countryside, and for the most part the buildings seemed fairly new. We only saw one big IKEA store, on the outskirts of one of the larger towns.
The wooded areas were a mix of birch, cottonwood, spruce and an orange-barked pine with occasional alder, mountain ash and cherry, and Willow in wet places. Often there was little understory other than moss and low shrubs - blueberry, evergreen lingonberry, heather and bracken. Upland woods are full of boulders of granite and gneiss embedded in glacial till but somehow the intervening agricultural fields and hay meadows are free of rocks, without even any stone walls or rock piles as evidence of past rock-clearing efforts. Hay fields were often dotted with flowers - Queen Anne's Lace, red and white clovers, yellow hawkweed, daisies and buttercups, a showy lavender one, and other yellow and white ones that I didn't recognize.
Lunch offerings at Stockholm Arlanda airport
Folkärna kyrka in Lund
Inside the church
Sarah and Roger met us at the train station. We stopped the church on the way back to their house, the 17th century Folkärna kyrka in the village of Lund - very attractive inside, white and blue with gold trim. White Wagtails were flitting about in the churchyard. Roger explained that every Swedish village has its church and I suspect every churchyard has its wagtails.
Coffee and pastries
19th century stove and wall art
17th century room
Maypole and birches
Hawkweed and daisies
Lake shore
After stopping by their house we drove over to the Näs bruk folk museum where the local Midsummer's Eve festivities were held last night. We sat outside and had coffee and pastries then walked down to the lake past the Maypole, a tall cross with a ivy garland wrapped around the upright and rings of ivy hanging from the crossbar. People danced around it at the party last night but today all was quiet. The folk museum consists of several buildings, restored in the styles of different periods in the past. I liked the decorative painting on the walls, some of it done by itinerant artists over 200 years ago, and the floor to ceiling enameled white cast-iron stove. Roger explained that folk museums such as the one we were visiting were quite common in Sweden and I realized for the first time that his fascination with folk crafts is not his alone but is part of the national character.
Nesting Common Tern with White Wagtail
Yellowhammer
Tree Sparrow and Barn Swallows
Woodpile with windows
Folk fence and red house
Peonies and red house
Roger drove home to fix supper while Sarah, Darchelle and I walked home. People were quite friendly, greeting us as we passed and interested to find out that we were from the United States. Sarah explained that she lived part-time a mile or two away in Rudö. Peonies and lupines were blooming in front yards. We found a few almost ripe blueberries by a sunny boulder under a power line. Birds were singing and I began to remember some of their songs, with the help of the Birds of Britain app still on my phone.
Roger and Sarah's house
Red shed out back
Dinner on the shed porch
We ate dinner on the little porch of the shed, painted red in the traditional Swedish style, in the backyard. Roger served smoked salmon with hard-boiled eggs, pickled herring, new potatoes with dill and sour cream and stubby little sausages called Prinskorv (Prince-sausage) in Swedish, all, according to Roger, traditionally served on Midsummer's Eve. The new potatoes in particular are highly prized, and the first to appear on the market in early summer are highly priced as well.
6/26/2016   Rudö to Lustplatsen  
Hooded Crow
Great Spotted Woodpeckers
Willow Warbler
White Wagtail
Eurasian Tree Sparrow
Fieldfare
Eager to learn the local birds, I was up and out by 0600 (9PM Seattle time). Though there were several songs and calls I couldn't identify I did pretty well overall. Most of the birds were familiar from visits to England over the past several years but there were some differences too. As in Ireland, the local crows are Hooded not Carrion. Willow Warblers were common but I heard no Chiffchaffs, and the common warbling song came not from Blackcaps but from Garden Warblers. I verified that by sight. Fieldfares and Eurasian Tree Sparrows were new for me as well. On the other hand, the Mallards and Mergansers, Magpies and Barn Swallows were all familiar from home. I relearned (almost) the distinction between Blue and Great Tit calls and deciphered the local dialects of Robin and Chaffinch. It was a very satisfying couple of hours.
Roger had coffee and breakfast going by the time I got back. I had brought our favorite coffee from Seattle for Sarah and Roger to try but was a little embarrassed to discover that I preferred their local Swedish brew.
Brother, sister and orange Lily
Sarah amidst flowers
Darchelle
After breakfast we went for a run. Sarah and Roger led us on one of their favorite routes, through the pine forest northwest of town where in a month or two they will be picking blueberries and lingonberries. The forest we ran through was all managed, mostly small plots in various stages of maturity and virtually all carpeted with berry bushes. There were flowers too, including a showy orange lily in a roadside clearing grown up to grass and buttercups. Flowers were even more abundant along the old railroad right-of-way we followed back into town.
Red coffee shop church at Bäsinge
Common Crane
Arriving at Lustplatsen
A friend of Sarah and Roger's named Kjell, a fellow musician whom they met at a music festival, join us for lunch and for a visit afterwards to an informal coffee shop located in an old church at Bäsinge. We spotted a Red Kite nearby which Kjell, who is also a birder, noted as rare this far north in Sweden. The ID was clear though; no other Swedish raptor has long wings and a deeply-forked orange tail. Kjell and I identified a few other birds outside the church while the others were finishing their coffee, including a Greater Whitethroat, another Eurasian Tree Sparrow and a pair of Blue Tits feeding fledged young.
The highlight of the day was yet to come. Kjell knew the location of a nesting pair of Lapp Owls not too far from Avesta and he offered to take us there to try to see them. A Lapp Owl is a European Great Gray Owl, the same species as in North America and just as prized by birders. Their habitat was a broad meadow of tall grass and flowers mostly surrounded by relatively mature spruce and pine forest. Kjell told us the area was named Lustplatsen (pleasant place) in Swedish.
Lapp Owl appears
Watching the Lapp Owl
Lapp Owl watching us
I could see the name fitting on a sunny morning but it looked rather more foreboding when we arrived around 9PM under a heavy overcast. Mosquitoes and No-see-ums targeted us as soon as we get out of the cars. I am averse to both species since I can either slap them nor scratch myself after they bite so I had Darchelle spray me down with the bug dope we bought at the Stockholm airport. The Swedes think of everything when they design an airport, even bug dope. The mosquitoes respected my chemical shield but unfortunately the No-see-ums did not and after a hiatus of several days, their bites resumed itching and I thought maybe I had fleabitus until I realized that the bites were just around my collar and cuffs where the No-see-ums gained access to untreated skin.
We hiked about a quarter mile down the road along the edge of the meadow, each of us trailing an invisible plume of interested insects. A pair of cranes flushed from out in the middle of the field. Near the far end we stopped and waited. The insects caught up to us. About 20 minutes later Darchelle spotted an owl. It was hard to see, perched low to the ground on what appeared to be a cross made of bamboo. We watched through Kjell's scope as the owl lifted off its perch, drifted over the meadow, lazily flapped a couple of times then dropped into the tall grass and disappeared. We didn't see it emerge but after several minutes it reappeared, this time perched on the leader of a young spruce tree out in the meadow. It stayed there a while then flew even closer and perched on top of a big boulder right where Kjell had told us he'd seen it the last time he was here. I tried for a photo but while I was still fumbling with the camera the owl flew back to the spruce tree, floating over the meadow with improbably slow wingbeats.
We were almost back to Sarah and Roger's, the overcast sky still shedding a little light long after dusk, when three wild boars suddenly charged out into the road in front of us. They were the size of large dogs with humped shoulders and heads lowered. Roger braked hard but we struck one nonetheless. With a dense thud it bounced off the bumper and all three galloped back into the woods. The car was unhurt.
6/27/2016   Rudö to Falun  
Kjell knew about another special owl and Sarah and Roger knew about another coffee shop, but first we would go for another run in the woods then we would enjoy another delicious lunch of Roger's making, perhaps a potato omelette or frittata. After lunch we would visit the school where Roger taught for many years before heading north to meet Kjell at Falun.
For our run we drove a few miles north to Västmossa and parked a few hundred yards up a gravel road into the forest, basically the other side of the same patch of woods where we ran yesterday. The forest habitat was similar, with perhaps a few more mature trees and a small wet hollow with willow and alder. I fared much better with the birds though, it being my second day out. Perhaps the Lapp Owl gave us luck because about 15 minutes into the run we flushed a Capercaillie. The largest grouse in Europe, it is almost as big as a Wild Turkey but a lot harder to find. Shortly afterwards I came across Willow Tits making "SiewSiewSiewSiewSiew" calls up in pine and spruce trees. Having seen and heard the very similar Marsh Tits this morning in a deciduous grove, it was nice to see Willow Tits for comparison. My only Swedish Wood Warbler was singing a little farther down the trail along with a loud thrush which I couldn't find but presumed to be a Mistle. We emerged from the forest to the songs of Yellowhammers and Whinchats in the meadows around Västmossa. A harrier was hunting over the marsh out in the center of the valley. Warm brown above with no white rump, it was my first Eurasian Marsh-Harrier, and my first European harrier of any kind in four visits to the continent.
Sarah and Roger with old barns
Butterfly
Log barn in Västmossa
On the way back to the car we stopped by some old barns built of squared logs, though maybe not that old since the logs appeared to be sawn rather than hewn. Idiosyncratic nonetheless, their textures accentuated because their traditional red paint was wearing a little thin. We also paused to pick a few ripe strawberries but Roger discouraged us, saying it was not polite to pick berries so close to someone's house. The berries close to the house should be left for the children of the home to pick.
Sarah and Roger's pear tree
Canoe building at Sjöviks Folkhögskola
Canoe building at Sjöviks Folkhögskola
After lunch we stopped at Sjöviks Folkhögskola, the folk high school (somewhat equivalent to a community college) where some 30 years ago Roger and his friend Bo began teaching "friluftsliv" (literally "free air life"), a philosophy of experiencing and interacting with nature, through extended canoeing, hiking and Nordic skiing trips in remote natural areas of Sweden and Norway. Bo was currently teaching a canoe building course and showed us wood and canvas canoes in various stages of completion. We toured the renovated community hall as well. The school offers an eclectic mix of programs, from log building to textile arts and music.
Torsångs café - Bykrogen
Falun mine buildings
Falun mine pit
Juvenile Eurasian Eagle-Owl
Black-headed Gull
Baby gull
Back on the road, we followed the valley of the river Dalälven north from Avesta to Torsång where we stopped at the Torsångs café for coffee, pastries and ice cream. We sat outside in the sunshine at tables on the lawn next to the river. Most customers arrived, like us, by car but some pulled up in boats. The pastries were tasty.
The big attraction at Falun is the copper mine. Now a UNESCO world heritage site, the mine was first worked over 1000 years ago with production peaking in the 17th century when when it essentially funded the national treasury. To extract the copper the rock was heated in place by fires which made it brittle enough to work with hand tools. The broken rock was then roasted to burn off the sulfur, producing toxic smoke which killed all the vegetation for miles around Falun. The mine was not an open pit until 1687 when the maze of underground shafts and tunnels collapsed on Midsummer's Eve. Midsummer's Eve was one of the only two days in the year when the miners did not work so no one was killed. It is a bit ironic that the miners in Christian Sweden were spared by and while celebrating a pagan holiday.
When metal production began to decline in the 18th century the company came up with a new product, Falu red paint. Initially popular as an imitation of more expensive brick, use of Falu red was deprecated by Swedish authorities in the early 19th century but soon regained its popularity and has effectively become the national house paint, at least in the countryside.
Though the area in and immediately around mine remains mostly barren, it is not devoid of wildlife. The most famous residents are a pair of Eurasian Eagle-Owls, the European equivalent of Great Horned Owls, which nest in the mine. Kjell already had the two young owls in his scope when we arrived at the mine but though we scanned The cliffs and benches of the pit several times we were unable to locate either of their parents. Darchelle and I walked the trail around the rim of the pit and found several White Wagtails and a family of Northern Wheatears.
Åsgatan Falun
Square in front of Falu Kristine kyrka, Falun
Back at the train station
From the mine we drove back into town and walked to a nice restaurant that Sarah and Roger knew about. The Banken Bar & Brasserie apparently occupies an old bank; perhaps that's why their prices seemed a little high. The food was worth it though. Darchelle ordered something vegetarian and loved it. I splurged and got the reindeer and it was one of my most flavorful meals of our entire trip. We walked back through town as the sun was setting. It was our only time in a Swedish city and it seemed orderly and colorful, not unlike the rest of the country.
6/28/2016   Rudö to Chartres  
I had purchased all of our train ticket for travel in France online through Rail Europe and had typed up an itinerary which I thought had all the information we needed. At the train station in Paris I discovered that it did not. We were not able to retrieve our tickets either through the machines or at the customer service desk despite the helpful SNCF personnel. Finally, and just in time, we boarded the train without tickets. The conductor never came by to check though I worried all the way to Chartres that he would.
We arrived at the Chartres train station at 8PM on a bright cloudy evening. We walked to the Cathedral, parked ourselves in front of our AirBnB and texted Marie, who turned out to be on the cathedral steps just 50 m away. Her apt small, spare, bedroom up steep stairs, big skylight on steep tile roof, view over old city and down to corner Cafe. So so supper at Brasserie Annexe where waiter suggested hamburgers as best thing on menu, but told us the duck was also OK. Somehow it seemed a shame to order a hamburger for my first dinner out in France so I ordered the duck. It was reasonably good but the Mousse au Chocolat was gooey and too sweet. We ordered there and elsewhere half in English, half in French, the latter a team effort.
From our bathroom upstairs in the apartment we could look out the dormer window and see the front of the church. We were settling in for the evening when Darchelle, seated on the toilet, glanced out the window and was startled to see the façade of the church begin to glow orange and blue. It was still changing colors when we went to bed but by morning it was back to normal.
6/29/2016   Chartres  
Slow morning. We set out around 11 to find coffee and breakfast. Olives (Violettes, Noirs herbees, Verts a l'aile) at an outdoor market, quiche and Chausson aux Pommes at a corner boulangerie, a Serrano and pesto baguette sandwich at a baguette shop and cafe reguliere, dark and flavorful, at Café Bleu in front of our apartment. The baguette sandwich was the best food I found in Chartres, with the possible exception of Darchelle's salad last night.
While we were eating in the park (large crowded planter boxes separated by broad expanses of orangish flint gravel) in front of the cathedral, Darchelle decided she wanted to tour the city on the tourist train with the little blue and white engine that was parked across from us. Despite my misgivings about cute little tourist trains, and only understanding about half of our conductor-guide's English, the tour around the old city gave us an decent overview of the history and highlights of Chartres.
We followed that with a paid tour of the cathedral and its crypts. Renovation and cleaning of the interior glass and stone began in 2007; only the transept remains to be done but the floor of the West end of the nave, with its famous labyrinth dating to around 1230AD, was covered up by construction materials. The stained glass windows portraying Christian scenes, stories and saints in vivid blues, reds, yellows and greens were mostly created by 1230 as well; it is amazing that they have endured nearly all intact since then.
The intricate exterior ornamentation of the church, though defaced to some extent by corrosion and French revolutionary vandals, has held up well too. Overall though I was disappointed with the Cathedral. It is an early example of Gothic architecture and so is a little less airy than the cathedrals we visited in England, and the decor less flashy than the Granada Cathedral in Spain. Chartres' claim to fame is its stained glass but most of the windows are high up and hard to see well in place, though they look wonderful in photos.
The high point of the day for me was climbing the 300 polished limestone steps up to the base of the cathedral's Gothic tower, . It was fun to see flying buttresses up close and personal, and to spy on the little people of Chartres far below. It was also scary to realize that I was standing 200 feet above the ground on a 1000-year-old man-made pile of rocks. Darchelle descended ahead of me and posed in the Cathedral Square for photos. A couple of the local stoners joined her.
Anxious about our train tickets for tomorrow, I emailed and called Rail Europe several times. It turned out that I had not received the confirmation email with the six character code I needed to retrieve our tickets. They sent it to me, but I was still a little worried that it might not work, though not worried enough to walk back to the train station to pick up our tickets in advance of our departure tomorrow morning.
Dinner was difficult. The first two places we tried, both highly rated on TripAdvisor, were full. We ended up settling for a creperie with quite ordinary food which felt like a waste of an evening out. I was upset by that and frustrated by struggling with my hands all day in my efforts to take pictures. Traveling was supposed to be more fun than this.
We returned to the café blue for dessert. I ordered Baba au Rhum. The waiter brought the Baba, a sort of pound cake cut in half with whipped cream on the side, and a bottle of rum. He doused the pound cake with rum then left the bottle on the table, in case I wanted more I guess. I had plenty with what he'd already applied to the cake. Afterwards we walked out into the courtyard in front of the church to watch the light show. Though historians believe the exterior of the church was originally painted and therefore much more colorful than it is now, I doubt it was as colorful as the light show made it out to be. In the videos Darchelle took I joked about how the rum must be affecting my vision but in fact I did not notice any effects from my desert.
6/30/2016   Chartres to Toulouse  
We got our train tickets and made it onto the train in time, though not by much. In Paris we were hungry. Darchelle wanted to look for a place outside the station but I was afraid we didn't have time so we settled for a café in the corner by the main entrance. I got another chocolate croissant for breakfast, and a smoked salmon sandwich and a Chausson aux Pommes for lunch on the train. The sandwich was good but I forgot the pastry and it was stale by the time I accidentally dropped it onto the floor of the rental car and stepped on it.
Our train was one of the high-speed TGV routes, very smooth, quiet and fast. We crossed all of central France to Bordeaux in a few hours then doubled back to the southwest towards Toulouse but had to wait in the station in Montauban for an hour while the authorities cleared a suicide off the tracks, a sobering delay.
AirBnB apartment entrance
The kitchen
The bathroom
Darchelle had arranged an AirBnB apartment for us for one night in Toulouse. We knew the address but the Internet on my phone was very slow in Toulouse so we couldn't use maps to locate it. We left the train station and walked down the main street leading into the city, Rue de Bayard. The street and sidewalks were crowded with people - young and old, scruffy and fashionable, white, arab and black - lending the city a very different feel from Chartres. Conveniently, we spotted a Budget car rental office. Unfortunately the door was locked but FranceCar just up the street was open so we stopped in. Isabel, the young woman behind the desk, spoke some English and assured us that she did have a car available tomorrow so we booked it. Problem solved. I had been worrying about whether we would be able to get a rental car ever since we began planning the trip. After walking another block down Rue de Bayard we spotted a sign for Rue Jacques Laffitte, the address of our apartment for the night. We had to call the owner for help in finding number 9; it was a decrepit green door not anywhere near numbers 8 and 10. The hinges on the door looked as though they dated from the 18th century but the door opened automatically after we typed in the numeric code on the electronic keypad.
We entered a paved courtyard enclosed by ocher-colored buildings two to four stories tall, each story with a row of windows trimmed in orange brick with white shutters. On our right was a dark red-leafed beech? and straight ahead a cluster of potted trees and flowers framing a white door. That was our door. Inside we hiked up a spiral staircase of wood steps, warm chestnut brown, all the way to the fourth floor and dug a key out of a shoe in a small chest of drawers by the door. We stepped into a room with white stucco walls and a slanted ceiling supported by dark brown hand-hewn beams. The floor was made of uneven planks scarred with gouges and worm holes but polished to a satin finish. The kitchen on the far side of the room had walls of mortared brick and stone with triangular openings such as those used by archers in castle walls. Whether authentic or not I don't know, but it certainly had character.
The bed, tucked away in a low-ceilinged alcove off the main room, was very comfortable but the toilet was a mystery. We had to call the owner in order to find out how to flush it. A button in the back on the right side - a good thing to remember. The tub was spacious. The view out the windows was of orange tile roofs with TV antennas, every one different, balconies with clotheslines and potted greenery, and packs of swifts racing between the buildings with wild "screeee" calls. A very loud bird was warbling in the beech tree; I never did determine whether it was a Robin or a Blackcap.
AirBnB apartment building
Alley near vegan buffet
Dining with Brian
Dinner was again a bit of a divisive issue for us. Darchelle wanted me to find a place where I thought I would get a good meal regardless of whether they had vegetarian options. I instead selected a restaurant which offered only a vegetarian buffet and no meat dishes at all, asssuming that she would be upset with me if I actually did as she requested. She, though, did not want to feel responsible should I end up with yet another disappointing dinner out in France. In the end that's what happened but I had adjusted my expectations downward so I was not unduly disappointed. The food was pretty good for a mostly vegan buffet but I could have found a comparable meal in Seattle. As Daniel pointed out before we left, people don't go to France for vegetarian cuisine.
7/01/2016   Toulouse to Carcasone  
After wondering a bit we settled on La Boulangerie Saint Georges in Place Saint-Georges, in the old city I think, for breakfast. I hadn't been able to get the coffee maker to work in the apartment so we ordered coffee and pastries and sat outside in the sunshine to watch the people go by. Darchelle was impressed by the popular sense of fashion; both men and women took care in how they dressed. We didn't see many overweight people either, nor many that we could identify as tourists.
The neighborhood - Rue Denfert Rochereau
Darchelle at breakfast
La Boulangerie Saint Georges
After breakfast we wandered through the old city towards Pont-Neuf. I wanted to walk through a park on the far side of the river. A Hoopoe had been reported nearby on eBird so I thought maybe I might find one in the park, or maybe a Kingfisher along the river. I did find some birds though only the Little Egret was new for the trip.
Toulouse - the old city
Place Sainte-Scarbes
Le Wallace, Place Saint-Georges
European Starling
La Riviere Garonne from Pont Saint-Michel
Little Egret
We returned to the apartment, packed up and left. It was an hour after our scheduled checkout time so I felt a little anxious but nobody seemed to mind. We hauled our luggage back to Place Saint-Georges and selected (Café cantine du Bon Vivre) because it was convenient and not empty. We arrived too late for the lunch specials but had a decent meal nonetheless.
Lunch at Café du Bon Vivre
Lunch crowd
Rental car
We were about two hours late picking up our rental car. It didn't matter, but the agent was surprised that we had not showed up on time. It hadn't seemed to be too important to be on time because we didn't know where we were going, so we had lingered over lunch. We were almost back to the rental place when Darchelle realized that her Fitbit fitness watch was no longer on her wrist. We stopped and immediately a man walking behind us asked in French if it was black then told us that he had seen it fall off not far back there. We thanked him quickly walked back to look for it but it was gone. Only then did we realize that the man who had spoken to us had probably picked it up himself and directed us to go back and look for it so he would have time to disappear into the crowd.
Carcasonne fortress
Waiting for the boyfriend
Black Redstart
We drove out of town amidst rush-hour traffic using my phone for navigation. That was particularly helpful on the several occasions when we missed a turn and had to find our way back onto the route. We had considered visiting Carcassonne so when we saw that exit on the freeway we took it. As we drove into town I tried to find a hotel but the first two I called were full. Around 7PM we pulled off the road into a little parking area near a bridge below the walled fortress. Darchelle located an AirBnB apartment while I tried to photograph a Common Kestrel. Unsuccessfully, though a little later I did get a few photos of Black Redstarts while we waited in the parking lot for the AirBnB owner's boyfriend to come let us in. I don't know if the owner was female or not but the apartment did not look as though it was decorated by a woman. The walls were finished with faux leopardskin with faux ancient stone masonry for accents. At least it was cool. Outside was hot, about 32C.
Basement apartment
Kitchen and bathroom
Cassoulet and vegetables
We ate at a "Restaurant familial" a few doors up the street, an unadorned place with mostly empty tables recommended to us by the boyfriend. We were grateful that they were still serving dinner after 9PM. Recognizing one of the wines that Daniel had talked about, I ordered a glass of Blanquette de Limoux, demi-sec, before dinner instead of a beer. It was sweeter than I expected, light and flavorful. I ordered a glass of house red with my food. It was ordinaire, low tannin, med acid, ephemeral floral fragrance; Daniel probably could have named the grape. For dinner I ordered Cassoulet, which is the characteristic dish of Toulouse, since I had not ordered it when we were there. It is a stew of beans, pork and sausage in a tomato-based sauce, hearty but not as flavorful as the plate of various roasted vegetables and garbanzos flavored with thyme, cumin and a hint of cinnamon which the owner-chef cooked up as a vegetarian option for Darchelle.
7/02/2016   Carcasone to Camon  
Though I ate a little too much for supper I slept pretty well nonetheless and awoke to subdued street noise outside. Skipping breakfast, we set out to explore the medieval Cité de Carcassonne a short ten minute walk from our apartment. Darchelle wanted to circumnavigate the Cité by walking around the base of the wall at the top of the hill. We crossed the Pont Vieux and followed narrow streets between shuttered buildings until we reached the Église Saint-Gimer at the foot of the hill. A walled ramp, now little used, led us up to the base of the wall outside the Château Comptal but did not lead us to an entry way to the Cité so we walked around to the Porte Narbonaise and entered there instead.
Rue Georges Brassens and Rue du Pont Vieux
Pont Vieux
Ramp above Église Saint-Gimer
Barbican above Église Saint-Gimer
Wall outside the Château Comptal
I didn't take any pictures inside the fortified Cité because it just seemed to be all hotels and restaurants. We walked through it for a while, somewhat confused as to where we were, then found our way back out through the wall and descended from the southwest corner into an area of gardens and small farm fields. We followed a pedestrian trail along a shady stream past the campground then returned back towards the Pont Vieux via a small road to which access appeared to be forbidden to all "Sauf Riverains". Suspecting we were not Riverains, we were a little nervous about being on the road but the one or two cars that passed us didn't seem to mind. We ended up finding a pedestrian walkway across the river then following a park back downsteam to the Pont Vieux. I was able to photograph a couple of Magpies and a White Wagtail but in general I found the birding frustrating because there were too many songs that I didn't really recognize and I couldn't get a good looks at any of the singers. No Hoopoes or Kingfishers either but we had a nice walk.
Magpies
White Wagtail
Lunch - Duck confit and vegetables
We didn't know where we were going from Carcassonne so after returning to our apartment and packing up our stuff into the car we decided to walk into the old town. The streets were very narrow and no sooner had we speculated that accidents might be common because of all the blind corners, two cars crashed into each other at the corner we had just passed. That was scary. We found a bookstore and went in to peruse local travel books. They had a good selection, all in French of course. I found one about hikes in the nearby area of the Pyrenees while Darchelle discovered the book titled Les Plus Beaux Villages en France. We were still studying our books when the sales clerks came over and explained that the store was closing for lunch.
We bought the Villages book, then walked down the street to Place Carnot where the market was just starting to close. Darchelle bought a shirt then I bought some cheese and some olives, then together we bought some sweet and fragrant apricots. I wanted to get some bread but the bread places had mostly closed. despite having resupplied with lunch stuffs, I wanted to eat again at the Restaurant Le Brassens where we ate last night. They were still open so we did. this time I had the Duck Confit, which as I understood it was a duck leg marinated in duck fat then roasted. It was rich but the accompanying vegetables were more flavorful.
Entering Camon
Side street
Village of roses
Darchelle studied her Villages book during lunch and found a couple in the hills south of Carcassonne that she wanted to check out. After winding around the forested countryside west of Limoux, source of Blanquette de Limoux, we turned the corner, crossed a stone bridge and drove through the beaux village of Camon, a dozen stone houses and a couple of big sycamore trees clustered below an old chateau. We passed right through town before we found a chance to stop so we pulled over just outside of town by another stone bridge. Darchelle checked her book and got the phone number of the local lodging, the old Abbey/Château itself. Feeling the frailty of her French, Darchelle wanted me to call so I did. In French I asked if they had a room for two people but the woman replied that they were full. I hung up and Darchelle asked me to call back and ask if she could suggest somewhere else for us to stay. Feeling the frailty of my French, I asked Darchelle to call instead. She did. A man answered. She asked if he spoke English. He did, with an impeccable British accent, and yes, he told her, they could fit us in for the night.
Chateau de Camon
Chapel window
Chateau de Camon front hall
Courtyard garden
Sitting room
Upstairs hall
At the door five minutes later, we felt as though we had stepped into a 14th century château. Actually, we had. It was beautifully restored, with a charming garden in the central courtyard and a suit of armor down the hall from our room overlooking the gardens. "Did we want dinner?" our hostess asked, because if we did she would need to notify the chef. She refrained from any hint of recognition that just ten minutes earlier she had turned down my request for a room. It was clear that this was the sort of place where dinner would be very good so we said yes even though we were still full from lunch.
I didn't note, and cannot remember, what we ate but it was the best meal I had eaten in France so far. Even though I was still full from lunch. The chef fixed vegetarian versions of each of the five courses for Darchelle, whom I'm pretty sure was the only vegetarian there that night.
7/03/2016   Montségur and Roquefixade  
Continental breakfast
Breakfast in the garden
Brian at breakfast
Today was probably the high point of the entire trip for me. We hiked up to two dramatic ruined castles, saw lots of birds and flowers and mountains, met interesting people and conversed in French with some of them, and started and ended the day with delicious food at the Château de Camon. As if that weren't enough, at breakfast I discovered that our host Peter is an avid birdwatcher and he offered to take me birding tomorrow morning. He even pointed out a Hoopoe in the garden, the very bird I most wanted to see during our time in France. It did not stay long enough for a photo.
For today, Peter suggested Darchelle and I visit the castles at Montségur and Roquefixade, both short hikes offering spectacular views.
Montségur castle dungeon
Montségur castle courtyard
View south, fog clearing
View over Montségur village
Montségur castle from below
The pog of Montségur from the southwest
As we drove up into the hills from Montferrier towards Montségur we approached closer and closer to the overcast obscuring the mountains, and when we came over the pass to the parking lot the castle was also hidden in the clouds. We hiked up to the entrance booth, paid the €13 entry fee for the two of us and continued up the dark, damp and increasingly steep and rocky trail towards the castle. The clouds broke up as we reached the entrance and scrambled around to the left to get a view of the arched dungeon and the walls of the keep above it. Continuing around the outside of the wall to the north gate, we entered into the courtyard and lodging area still enclosed by high thick stone walls. A guided tour group was listening to the French-speaking guide explaining the history and architecture of the castle. We listened briefly but couldn't understand enough of the French to make it worth joining the group. Exiting by the main gate we scrambled around the south side of the castle over ledges and through patches of tall grass filled with flowers. It was scary steep in places but as the clouds opened up they revealed spectacular views across to the mountains and down to the village almost directly below us.
Pyramidal Orchid (Anacamptis pyramidalis)
Great yellow rattler (Rhinanthus alectorolophus)
Octopus Stinkhorn (Clathrus archeri)
Dunnock
Yellowhammer
Red-backed Shrike
We agreed not to take the time to drive down to the village and visit the museum included in our entry fee. Darchelle wanted to continue directly on to Roquefixade but I very much wanted to hike up a track on the south side of the pass which climbed through meadows and beech woods up onto open ridges offering direct access into the mountains. We compromised. I agreed to limit my hike to 40 minutes so I hiked up as fast as I could while she lagged behind but after five minutes I had to go back down to her because I needed to pee but couldn't unzip my fly by myself. Resuming my hike, I made it far enough up the hillside to look back down on Montségur, now in full sunshine, and photographed my first Red-backed Shrike, though at the time I misidentified it as a Stonechat.
Short-toed Snake-Eagle
Trail to Roquefixade
Roquefixade village from Roquefixade castle
Roquefixade castle ruins
Roquefixade keep from courtyard
Eurasian Griffon
The little town of Roquefixade was well off the beaten track but Peter's directions were clear and we found it without much difficulty. As we drove into town I spotted a Short-toed Snake Eagle hovering over the valley so Darchelle stopped the car and I jumped out to try to get photos. We continued to a little park on the other side of town and pulled out the cheese, olives and apricots we bought yesterday Carcassonne. I immediately got involved in a conversation with a French couple about my camera and the birds and the trail up to the castle. The woman had a little point-and-shoot with which she had photographed a Black Redstart, which identified for her though unfortunately I didn't know the French name. The man remarked that my wife was probably grateful that I photographed birds rather than other women. Concluding our conversation I looked around for Darchelle but she was gone. The couple pointed into town and said she'd gone that way. I noticed that the car was locked but overlooked our lunch sitting in the shade on the grass, so I walked into town to look for Darchelle. Not finding her I thought maybe she had started up to the castle so I walked part way up the trail. When I didn't see her ahead of me I returned to the park about the same time that she came walking down the road. We converged on lunch. The cheese was just ripe enough to be interesting and the apricots were fragrant and sweet.
Above Roquefixade
Darchelle in meadow
Roquefixade and view west
Butterfly on Wild Thyme (Thymus serpyllum)
Wildflowers
Wildflowers
The ruins of the Château Roquefixade are perched on the split limestone crag for which the château is named. Behind and above the crag a more rounded ridge carpeted with flower meadows extends east and west, a remnant of the limestone beds once draped over the Pyrenees. For such a short hike, the views are stunning, south to the Pyrenees, east to the pog of Montségur and west down the valley towards Foix. Though potentially pressed for time, we hiked up on top anyhow, briefly savored the views and the flowers then returned back to town.
Roquefixade Auberge
Pottery from Mirepoix
Friendly Ass
At the little shop associated with the Auberge Darchelle bought attractive ceramic bowls as gifts for the folks back home. The proprietor was Australian; it is interesting to find native English speakers scattered around the countryside of southern France.
At dinner, first course
Darchelle at dinner, Katie at upper left
Brian at dinner
We made it back in time for dinner which was even better than last night, perhaps because we were hungrier. Katie, Peter's wife and hostess of the Château, came by our table part way through dinner and said to me only "Very privileged, very privileged." I thought she was referring to me and birding with Peter as my guide tomorrow morning so I agreed with her. Afterwards it occurred to me that she was probably referring to her husband instead, in his good fortune at having someone to bird with and a morning off to go birding.
Beet and tomato salad
Pesto artichoke risotto
Scallops with carrot sauce
Potato leek soup
Duck breast
Mushroom lasagna
The salad was Darchelle's first course, the Risotto her second in place of the scallops that I received. The potato leek soup is vegetarian; the duck breast was not so the chef fixed mushroom lasagna for Darchelle. I was too full to photograph or remember the desert.
7/04/2016   Camon to Foix  
On our birding outing this morning Peter took me to four different sites within about ten kilometers of Camon and I felt privileged to be able to share in his knowledge of the area in the local birds. Here is a list of the 50 species we heard or saw.
After a quick cup of coffee, we left the Abbey around 0745 and drove south on Route de Léran up the L'Hers valley from the village of Camon, leaving l'Hers after a mile or so to take the road up to the dam at the north end of Lac de Montbel. Just below the dam we came across the mixed flock of small birds with Long-tailed Tits, a Coal Tit, a Nuthatch, a Short-toed Treecreeper and a family of Goldcrests. From there we followed tertiary roads through woodlots and hayfields east to D107 south of the village of Belloc. We stopped in a couple places and walked the road. Highlights included a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, a pair of Red-backed Shrikes, two Spotted Flycatchers and four Golden Orioles, one of them singing - a brief throaty whistle. Peter was particularly excited about the orioles.
Hay meadow near Camon
Red-backed Shrike pair near Belloc
By the river at Mirepoix-Chemin de l'Hers
Nightingale singing
Unknown bird in Butterfly bush
Yellow Wagtail
Deciding he could spare little more time, Peter drove us over to Mirepoix where we parked at the end of Chemin de l'Hers and walked down to the banks of l'Hers. In the riparian trees and thickets we heard and saw a Nightingale singing, and heard a Cetti's Warbler as well but did not see it. As we were standing by the water a Kingfisher flew by with a small flash of teal and orange. That was new for me as was the European Bee-eater roller-coastering over a field on the far side of the river. Our final stop was a couple miles east of Mirepoix along about a mile of D106 north of the village of Moulin-Neuf, through agricultural and hay fields with scattered hedgerows and a narrow wooded riparian border along l'Hers. There Peter spotted two Yellow Wagtails out in the sunflower field above which about a dozen Bee-eaters were sailing around, presumably eating bees.
Mirepoix market
Cliffs above Sinsat
Lunch stop below the cliffs
Peter suggested a couple of birding spots higher up in the Pyrenees along the N20 south of Foix so our plan was to head into the mountains for an afternoon of birding and hiking, stay up there somewhere tonight then head north and east towards the Gorges of Tarn and the Massif Central tomorrow afternoon.
On the way out we stopped in Mirepoix to catch the last few minutes of the market around the church square. We bought the last of one vendor's fried rice and chicken à la something or other. The portions were huge. I bought some olives, Darchelle bought a blouse and together we selected a few croissants and apricots. Shopping is a challenge for me because I can neither hand the vendor the money nor receive the produce in return, and as if that weren't enough, I find it quite difficult to tell which apricots, peaches and nectarines will be good ones.
Darchelle pointing out vultures
Eurasian Griffon above Sinsat cliff
Lammergeier above Sinsat cliff
We found the cliffs above Sinsat and a quiet street from which to view them, on the back side of town by the river. Spreading out our food from the market, we had a little picnic in the shade of a little tree. Darchelle took a brief nap while I tried to photograph vultures above the cliff. She woke up while I was struggling with the camera and offered to take some pictures for me. It was she who photographed the Lammergeier, which I presumably saw but identified only from her photo.
Rental car and wall
Selfie in the rain
Leaving Les Cabannes
The high semi-open ridge around Beille was our next destination. According to Peter it is one of the easiest places in the area to access subalpine habitats by car. We never made it. We pulled off the road in Les Cabannes and parked in front of a low stone wall by a tourist information sign to check the location of the turnoff to Beille. When we started up again we forgot about the wall. Despite having only a few feet in which to gain momentum, we rammed into it hard enough to break a radiator fitting and put our rental car out of commission. Darchelle was horrified at what she had done but I felt that I shared the blame equally. In any case, we were in trouble. the sky clouded over and it began to rain with thunder and lightning in the mountains. We took some some consolation in that, that we would barely have arrived at Beille before the storm chased us away again.
We called l'Assistance and they arranged for a truck to tow us to the nearest garage. It was 100 meters down the street and looked like a husband and wife operation, he the mechanic and she out front. When l'Assistance had difficulty contacting us she let us use her phone but she told us ominously that the car was very badly damaged and that the repairs would be very expensive. They could not fix it for us so l'Assistance told us they would find another car for us. They had not called us back by 7PM when the garage closed. We took shelter from the rain by the gas pumps and waited for another 20 minutes or so before realizing that l'Assistance was probably closed for the day as well. Les Cabannes had no hotels but it did have a train station. We caught the last train out of town, retreating from the Pyrenees with our tails between her legs. Figuratively speaking.
7/05/2016   Foix to Lautrec  
Foix and Château
Breakfast at Hotel restaurant Lons
Street up to Château
In Foix the Hotel Lons was unremarkable aside from the price. For supper we ate leftovers from lunch and threw the rest away lest it poison us in the morning. Breakfast overlooking the river was nice, albeit a bit skimpy. I watched Gray Wagtails flit around the bridge abutments and heard and glimpsed a Dipper, I think. After breakfast we called l'Assistance again. They had no details about our case so I provided them again. They had not found a car, but thinking that they might yet find something in Foix, we decided to stay in town and visit the Château while we waited.
Plane trees
Square tower
Darchelle in round tower
Château de Foix round tower
Model of construction of the round tower
Arrow slot and ancient door
The Château is well-preserved, having been in more or less continuous use since the 11th century, and having been spared destruction by Cardinal Richelieu in 1630 following the Wars of Religion. We joined a free tour by an English-speaking guide who told us about the construction of the Château and the successive nobles who occupied it, with particular focus on a renowned Count of Foix in the 14th century named Gaston Fébus who wrote a treatise on medieval hunting methods which was featured in displays in one of the levels of the round tower. She also told us about the medieval armor and weapons displayed in another level of the tower. The round tower was the newest of the three towers, its shape and extra thick walls being innovations to defend against recently invented gunpowder shells.
Yoga pose and buttress
Brian birdwatching on the grounds
Brian talking with l'Assistance
Exploring outside the walls, Darchelle found a good site for a yoga pose and I did a little birdwatching. At Darchelle's insistence I called l'Assistance again from the castle grounds. They found the case number but told me there were no notes on the case and asked what we would like them to do. Without belaboring the point I suggested they try to find us a car. They promised to do that and call us back. We decided to return to Toulouse and rent a car ourselves so that we could resume our trip.
New rental car
Château Moncuquet near Lautrec
Entryway staircase in Château Moncuquet
We got off the train in Toulouse and feeling like puppies caught pooping on a new carpet, walked over to FranceCar. Isabel was there, from whom we had rented the first car. Awkward. She had heard about our predicament and as luck would have it, someone had unexpectedly returned a car a day early just a few minutes earlier. It was nicer than our original rental but if we were okay with that we could take that car. We were totally okay with that. Shortly before we hopped in it to drive away, my phone rang. It was l'Assistance calling to tell us that they were not able to find a car anywhere.
Direction to dinner
Dinner menu
Darchelle at dinner at Au pied du Moulin
We drove about an hour northeast of Toulouse to Lautrec. It seemed appropriate, and moreover Lautrec was another of Les Plus Beaux Villages en France. Château Moncuquet was one of the places to stay suggested in the book for Lautrec. It was a great choice, a 15th (17th?) century family home in the French countryside 4 km out of town. Mme Vène suggested Café Plum in town for dinner but though the young woman there appeared to be delighted to see us, and it appeared to be the happening place in town, the kitchen had closed for the night. A young man at another table suggested his parents' place, Au pied du Moulin. There we ate outside at a table on the lawn, very pleasant. I had Foie Gras de Canard for an entrée and Carré d'Agneau for my plat. Those were so good I forget what I had for dessert. The house wine was a respectable red.
7/06/2016   Lautrec to Saint Enimie  
Darchelle reviewing photos
Brian taking photos
At breakfast at Château Moncuquet
Our bathroom
Our room
Dining room
I have happy memories of Lautrec. Our room was spacious and appointed in a style that felt authentic and comfortable. From our window we looked out over the formal garden and across a field and woods rows to the hilltop town on the horizon. We slept in, visited with Mme Vène entirely in French over breakfast in front of a massive fireplace that had been used for cooking for probably three centuries. Mme Vène still burns wood for heat and the room was suffused with a faint smell of wood smoke. The preserves accompanying our croissants she had made herself and the coffee was very good.
Château Moncuquet garden
Lautrec in distance
Lautrec and wheat field
One of eight gates
Lautrec street
Healthy glow
After breakfast we ran the 4K into town, walked the narrow streets then hiked up to the old wind-powered grain mill. Labels named the trees and shrubs along the path and a tile map at the top named the landmarks in the view.
Le Moulin
Tile map
View southeast from Lautrec
Lautrec church
Lautrec church
Candle of hope
Descending, we stopped by the church. The organist was wrapping up her practice session and sunlight was streaming in the clerestory windows. Above each window was written either an aphorism or a short Bible verse. Instructions for the faithful, they were considerably easier to understand than the stained glass at Chartres, though not nearly as colorful. We walked most of the way back to Château Moncuquet. It was hot, but pleasant nonetheless and I accumulated a pretty good bird list.
Via de Millau from visitor center
Via de Millau from valley rim
Parasailing above the Tarn valley
We checked out of Château Moncuquet sometime after 1:30PM, headed for the Gorges of Tarn. It was a long drive. We used the phone for navigation and followed mainly secondary roads through countryside and little towns, along avenues classically lined with coppiced sycamores and past houses curiously armored with square panels of gray slate. We passed a field filled with wildflowers and another with half a dozen black kites sitting in the recently mowed grass. Thinking we would see more, I didn't stop. We did stop in a town called Lacaune I think. There we bought some vegetables, including a variety of tomato descriptively named Beefheart, in a little shop where the proprietor was delighted to talk with us when we told him that we were American. The tourist information office was just closing as we walked up to the door but the attendant took time to give us a couple of maps showing places to visit and hike in the Massif Central.
We ate our lunch, usual tomatoes, cheeses, olives and crusty bread and in a hayfield along the D32 on a ridge with a spectacular view, just south of the hamlet of Calcadieu. We didn't stop again until the Via de Millau. After visiting the visitor center, we spent too much time driving a very narrow road up a very steep hillside to the canyon rim overlooking the Via. Parasailers were launching off the bluff, landing below and driving back up quite a bit faster than we did.
Not realizing that we would pass half a dozen cute hotels in rustic little villages in the Gorge of the Tarn, we booked a room in advance at the Hotel Chante-Perdrix in Le Plus Beaux Village of Saint Enimie, then had to drive straight through the gorge in order to get there. We arrived at 10PM after the respectable restaurants had stopped serving dinner. The hotel itself was clean and comfortable but without much character. Driving on into town, we parked and walked around looking for a restaurant, finally settling for a rather touristy bar where I bought a beer and a Crocque Monsieur, basically an open-face toasted ham and cheese sandwich. A solitary but persistent mosquito woke me up a couple of times during the night.
7/07/2016   Massif Central  
Trail from Col de Finiel
Sommet de Finiel
Eurasian Skylark
Alyssum, Hawkweed and Thyme
Spotted Orchid (Dactylorhiza sp)
Bistort
We drove all day except for about a two hour hike on the high tablelands of the Massif Central. It was a pleasant hike but I was grumpy from all the driving, not that I did any of it; I just sat in the passenger seat with my hands in my lap watching the scenery go by like a TV show with no plot. Darchelle had set her heart on hiking up to the highest place in the Massif Central, the Sommet de Finiel, but neither of us realized what a long drive it would take to get there. The Sommet de Finiel turned out to be a vast cow pasture accessed by driving up to a high pass called the Col de Finiel. It was a beautiful day up there, sunny and comfortable with a light breeze. I hiked in flip-flops after getting frustrated trying to put on my sneakers. Annoyed, I wasn't going to take any pictures but the flowers won me over and I spotted a few birds as well.
After our hike we drove southeast about a fifth of the way across France to a small city called Gaillac between Albi and Toulouse. We got there in time to hang out in a tacky Spanish-themed bar and watch the European football championship semifinal match between France and Germany. I ate a salad with pieces of roasted duck in a vinaigrette dressing and drank a beer. France won the match despite being consistently outplayed by Germany. We all cheered.
7/08/2016   Gaillac to LaTour de Carol  
Morning in our room, Chambres d'Hotes Combettes
Staircase and landing
Chambres d'Hotes Combettes front door
Darchelle hit another home run with the Chambres d'Hotes Combettes, a 17th century mansion in the old town of Gaillac. The B&B is beautifully furnished with magnificent marble staircases and spacious comfortable rooms. Breakfast was delicious too.
Waiting to return rental car
Darchelle writing postcards in Toulouse
Auberge catalane
We knew when we left Gaillac that we had barely enough time to turn in the car before catching the mid-morning train to LaTour de Carol. Dropping the car off took forever so we missed our train by over an hour. That just meant that we hiked to the post office in Toulouse instead of doing an afternoon outing in the hills above LaTour de Carol. Those hills turned out to be less interesting than I thought; LaTour de Carol is on the south side of the high Pyrenees where the climate is drier and the topography less dramatic than on the north side. We did not see much from the train either; beyond Les Cabannes we were underground most of the time.
Puigmal from LaTour de Carol
Rue Joseph Marty in LaTour de Carol
Horse paddock at dusk
Not that LaTour de Carol isn't a cute little town. It's a bit of a resort area now but the church dates back to the 12th century. We stayed at the Auberge catalane and were glad to get a room though we needn't have worried because they weren't full. It was comfortable but ordinary. At dinner my roast duck was very tasty but it was served with soggy roasted vegetables and French fries. Really? French fries? I didn't think they even had those in France. On the other hand, we wrapped up our last night in France with chocolate lava cake for dessert. It was a sign.
7/09/2016   Puigmal to Barcelona  
Jorda and drove up early from Barcelona and met us at the Auberge for breakfast. Our plan was to hike somewhere and we decided on Puigmal because it is one of Jorda's favorite hikes and more or less on the way back to Barcelona where we would spend the night before flying home tomorrow. It was a long steep and slow drive up to the trailhead at Collada de Fontalba but once we got there, the hiking was great.
Parking lot at Collada de Fontalba, 2074m
Eurasian Linnet
Lower slopes of Puigmal
From the trailhead (6740') we hiked up the south ridge of Puigmal to the summit (9460'), descended northwest to Nuria (6370') via the Coma de l'Embut and traversed south across the lower slopes of the peak back to Collada de Fontalba. The summit area was mostly gravel and talus. Pine forest (Pinus uncinata) extended from just above Nuria to just below Collada de Fontalba. Everywhere else we were hiking in short-grazed meadows, with patches of rhododendron in the lower parts of the Coma de l'Embut. Despite the grazing there were lots of flowers, especially on the higher slopes.
Brian photographing alpine flowers
Alpine birdsfoot-trefoil (Lotus alpinus) with Dwarf Thyme
Pyrenean forget-me-not (Myosotis pyrenaïca)
Moss campion (Silene acaulis) and Trumpet Gentian
Spring Gentian (Gentiana verna)
Trumpet Gentian (Gentiana clusii)
Parnassus-leaved Buttercup (Ranunculus parnassifolius)
Alpine Toadflex (Linaria alpina)
Darchelle photographing alpine flowers
We stopped frequently on the way up to photograph flowers. I also wandered off in search of birds while Darchelle and Jorda mostly hiked together on the trail. Above the tree line there weren't many birds, just an occasional Wheatear or Skylark, with Alpine Accentors in rocky areas and a Griffon soaring by now and then. Areas of closed canopy pines weren't that rich either; most of the birds were in the areas where the pine forest thinned out into meadows. Altogether I saw or heard 18 species.
Standing at the foot of the cross (on top of Puigmal 2913m)
Lunch on top
Brian and Darchelle on Puigmal (photo by Jorda)
Alpine Accentor
Marmot
Northern Wheatear
We took photos at the top and ate a bit of lunch. Darchelle and I had not brought much to eat but Jorda had a sack full of pears and a package of crackers so we fared okay. Descending into the valley, I photographed an Accentor and Darchelle soaked her feet in the stream. Seeking photos of the Wheatears I flushed a marmot. Below the waterfall the bedrock changed from schist to marble and the stream immediately disappeared, dewatering a rather nice gorge. It would have been fun to explore the gorge a little more but Darchelle and Jorda were ahead of me and scrambling without functional arms is pretty much a no-go anyhow.
Darchelle descending into la Coma de l'Embut
Rhododendron (Rhododendron ferrugineum)
Meadows with Rhododendron
Torrent de la Coma de l'Embut
Marble boulder with Alpine birdsfoot-trefoil (Lotus alpinus)
Darchelle and Jorda descending into Valle de Nuria
As we began to drop into the pine forest above Nuria we startled an Isard but after it got a good look at us it didn't seem too concerned. I on the other hand was feeling a little concerned about how far we were descending but I hadn't noticed any other trail besides the one we were on.
We rehydrated from a spring at Nuria; the water was cold and delicious. I generally avoid drinking when I'm out hiking because water makes me pee and that can be problematic with pants on but I was sufficiently dehydrated that this water had no adverse effect.
Pyrenean Chamois (Isard)
Water stop, Valle de Nuria 1960m
Isard on crag
We were tired but the scenery was inspiring along the trail to Collada de Fontalba, especially when the sun broke through the clouds. The trail weaves in and out of pine forest and culminates in a traverse across open sloping pastures to the trailhead.
We encountered two more Isards after leaving Nuria. One was quietly peering down at us from a crag high above the trail, which exactly what I would expect of an Isard. The other encounter was not what I would have expected. Darchelle and Jordan I were ahead of me where the trail passed through rather dense pine forest on a very steep slope. Suddenly I heard a crashing sound and an Isard hurtled down the slope and across the trail not six feet in front of me, immediately to disappear into the forest below. How it could gallop downhill at that speed without colliding with a tree I have no idea; it appeared to be totally out of control.
Shepherd's hut?
Heading back to Collada de Fontalba
Pine forest
Darchelle and Jorda on the trail
Cow encounter at the parking lot
Map of route (From Collada de Fontalba on trails 2b, 3b, E, B and 2a)
Back at the parking lot Jorda pulled a few goodies out of his trunk, including a quart container of chilled gazpacho which was probably the most satisfying post-hike food I have ever tasted. We stuffed ourselves into Jorda's car and started down the road around 7PM. It was 10PM and nearly dark by the time we reached the restaurant in Barcelona. I don't know how Jorda stayed awake.
Grilled Sardine
Tomato-strawberry salad
Roasted eggplant (photo by Jorda)
Jorda had made the reservation for us at Gresca a few days earlier and did not want to cancel since the chef would be preparing special vegetarian courses for him and Darchelle, so even though we were exhausted from the hike we went ahead with the dinner. We were the last table seated. I'm not sure we received quite all of the regular courses but there were at least six of them and they were nearly all exceptional, so good that I don't even remember being tired during the meal.
Broiled Fish
One egg soufflé (photo by Jorda)
Summer squash
Duck and pigeon with Chanterelles
Mushroom lasagna
Dessert (photo by Jorda)
We left the restaurant at midnight. Jorda's parents hosted us for the night and his father drove us to the airport at 5:30 in the morning. We boarded our plane at 8AM and got off another plane in Seattle at 11PM 24 hours later, having visited Stockholm, Helsinki and Chicago along the way. Delayed by customs in Chicago we very nearly missed our American Airlines flight to Seattle; the gate was closed by the time we reached it but the plane was delayed 15 minutes so they reopened the door and let us board. We were very grateful not have to spend the night in Chicago.

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