July 03, 2004

A Few Days in the Pyrenees

The mellowest, and possibly most delightful, part of our European tour were the few days we spent in Foix, a little town in the Midi-Pyrenees, about 50 km south of Toulouse. Our attraction to this region had two main causes: 1) paleolithic cave paintings (at Niaux), and 2) Cathar castles. We ended up specifically in Foix because, looking for lodging in the area, we stumbled upon the website for Pisciculture de l'Arget, a bed and breakfast that also happens to be a trout farm -- and she loves the fish.

The chambres de l'Arget. Our room spanned pretty much the entire second floor facing this side.

The choice proved excellent. Corinne and Patrick run the place, and are excellent hosts. We were given "La tahitienne" (scroll down), a huge room with a huge bath. Among the first things we did was take deliriously lengthy soaks in the tub. This was what we saw when we looked out the window:


All this space and comfort, for only 45 Euros a night. The only cheaper lodging we had on this trip was in the hostel in Barcelona. It's one of the nicest things about the Ariege-Pyrenees region -- it's not overrun with tourists, so prices are reasonable!

For an additional 15 Euros for each of us, we ate at Pisciculture, where we had tasty dishes that utilized trout in ways you've never thought of. My favorite: the trout carpaccio appetizer (essentially trout sushi). Yum!

Okay, so we didn't spend all of our time at the lodging. (Not that that would have been a bad thing). Our first excursion was to la grotte de Niaux, the site of 15,000-year-old cave paintings, and one of the few that allows visitors inside. At 13h00 every day in the on-season they have an English-language tour. It cost about 10 Euros. We were the only North Americans -- the bulk of the people were German, and there were a few Brits. The entrance:


You then walk in about 800 meters, led only by your provided flashlights, until you reach Salon Noir, the Black Room, which has, well, 15,000-year-old drawings of bison and horses and ibexes. You can't photograph inside the cave, so you'll have to make due with the pictures on the site linked earlier. Though, that page doesn't include our favorite painting, the smiling horse:

Image stolen from here.

Making your way into the cave is a transformative experience. You wonder just what on earth lead these prehistoric peoples to explore so deeply into the rock, especially since their illumination technology was even more primitive. And why so deep? Were they hiding something? Protecting themselves? Or was it just not such a big deal?

And that link that you're given to the past, through these drawings... You so want to touch them, just so you can connect to these predecessors.

After you've traveled forward in time and emerged from the cave, this is the view you get:

What's most distressing about this image is that such views are pretty much dime a dozen around here. Cute little villages nestled in verdant hilly areas. (The red tiled roofs are the buildings in the little town of Niaux.)

We remained firmly rooted in prehistory by following our cave excursion with a trip to Parc de l'Art Prehistorique. It's a remarkably well-planned museum/park thing focused on things like cave paintings. The park has a path that leads you through a variety of experiences:

how archaeologists work:
archaeology demonstration

demonstrations of spear-throwing (a favorite with the kiddies!):
spear throwing demonstration

and my favorite, the Labyrinth of Sounds:
This is an entrance into the Labyrinth. You stroll these paths through this growth, accompanied by a variety of wildlife sounds meant to evoke life back in the day. A simple, but really effective, immersion.

Our other big excursion (the following day) was to Montsegur, the last stronghold of the Cathars.

Arriving at Montsegur, you park in a lot at the foot of the mountain. You then hike up for about 20-30 minutes to reach the castle.

A view from inside the castle. It's seen better days.

Looking down at Lavelanet, the nearest biggish town.

Frankly, and this might upset the Board of Tourisme of Ariege-Pyrenees, I found Montsegur disappointing. It's really just a set of ruins high up on a hill. Not much to see. There's no attempt to interpret or situate yourself within the historical context.

The Town of Foix
Surprisingly, we stayed in Foix, yet we didn't do the one thing everyone else does when you visit Foix - go to Chateau de Foix, the big castle in the middle of town. Frankly, it didn't even occur to us.

Foix is an adorable medieval town, which means lots of little twisty turny streets and really old buildings. Sadly, they allow automobiles down these sinewy paths, which means you're constantly dodging cars.

We arrived by train from Toulouse:
Gare de Foix

We then walked about a kilometer into town (we didn't realize that we could have taken the Navette, a little bus line.):

Entering Foix
Crossing the river, entering the heart of the old town.

If, like us, you don't quite know what you're doing, head straight for the Office of Tourism ("cliquez ici"! ha!), which is very centrally located. We found them very helpful.

We rented a car from a Hertz on the Peysales. Our three days of rental totalled around 155 Euros, including hefty taxes and, I think, insurance. Not too bad. We did learn that you want to plan your car rental in advance -- it took us a long time to find a reasonable rate day of.

Our one meal in town was at "Le Mediéval", a moderately fancy restaurant. Upon seating, Stacy showed me her menu -- which, unlike mine, didn't show prices. We both ordered prix fixe, and were pleased (though not knocked out). It was one of those restaurants where you get little mini courses in between the normal courses. I also had a hockey-puck-sized entrée of foie gras, which proved to be too much -- I felt ill the next day, and I know that was the reason why.

I love the Ariege-Pyrenees region. A future trip of mine will be a road trip, starting at the eastern end of the Pyrenees, and heading west toward Basque country. Along the way, a variety of stops in little villages, at cave sites, and for day hikes in the mountains. A guide book at the B&B showed all these delightful "randonnées" that take you from village to village nestled in the mountains. This region isn't overrun with people, so it sounds most blissful.

Posted by peterme at 12:20 PM | Comments (4)

June 30, 2004

I Read DUNE While Traveling In Europe.

If you're around my age, when you think of Dune, an image like this comes to mind:

And you just know of it as David Lynch's film that failed massively, was supposedly incomprehensible, and features Sting in leather. Which means you can't really take it seriously.

Well, I hadn't given Dune much thought until two recent occurrences:
- Living with a woman who went very far out of her way to find the fifth Dune book, because she loves the series so much
- The Believer Issue June 2003 featured an essay which not only took the series seriously, but felt it illuminated some aspects of contemporary life.

So, I found a used copy, and read it on the trip.

It's pretty good. It's most impressive as a history -- the world that Herbert creates is remarkably rich and textured. It has a real presence. It's less impressive as a narrative/story -- the plot is pretty hackneyed (Christ figure story, very melodramatic good vs evil, some awkward devices to keep the story moving). But those shortcomings didn't prevent me from enjoying the book. And recommending it to you, dear reader.

Posted by peterme at 05:44 PM | Comments (3)

Rick and Ilsa Can Keep Paris

On our trip, we visited three cities -- Amsterdam, Paris, and Barcelona.

Of the three, Paris is the best known, the most lauded as a "world-class" city.

Visiting there, I couldn't help but have the impression that people "love" Paris because it's "Paris". Of the cities we went to, it resonated least with me. It's the least beautiful, charming, engaging. It's crowded, and filled with people, mostly tourists. I mean, it's not a bad place, but, really, it's not "all that."

We spent a few days there. Some photos:

baguette in front of Sacre Coeur
10 years ago, a I took a picture of myself eating a baguette in front of Sacre Coeur. So, I thought I'd do it again on this trip.

un front of Un Zebre a Montmartre
Our first night, we ate at Un Zebre a Montmartre, a hip little restaurant just down the street from our hotel. Reasonable prices (appetizers were 6 Euros, main courses 11 Euros), and good food.

Hotel Bouquet de Montmartre
We stayed at Hotel Bouquet de Montmartre, in the 18th arrondisement, right at the foot of Montmartre. It's crazy inexpensive (60 Euros a night for a double), well-situated (one block from the Abbesses metro station, a short climb up the hill to Sacre Coeur), and really teeny. The only drawback was that the bars in the neighborhood stayed active until late in the night, which was shameful, since there are a lot of just normal folks trying to lead their lives here, too.

peterme on Pont Neuf
peterme, excited, on Pont Neuf.

The European Parliament elections (which had the lowest turnout, and was overwhelmingly Euroskeptic) took place during our trip. This poster, on a wall in Paris, has a potent illustration. I really dug it, until I read the smaller type below "MONSTRES." Still, cool drawing.

Of interest to maybe no one I know other than Courtney and Sharon, on a walk through the 18e, we stumbled through the textile district, which included this store offering 4 floors of product. And it was just one of like three right in this neighborhood, and that doesn't include the innumerable smaller sellers.

Seen here are THE GATES OF HELL. Like the Van Gogh Museum, the Musee Rodin allows visitors to witness the evolution of a great artist in a beautiful setting. It and the Musee d'Orsay are my only two "must-see" museums in Paris.

Only one other note (this time without photos) -- for dinner one night, my friend Frederic introduced us to Chez Janou, a delightful restaurant near his house. I can recommend the magret du (de?) canard without reservation. They also serve crazy big bowls of chocolate mousse.

Posted by peterme at 03:25 PM | Comments (3)

This Napoleon Doesn't Have Much Of A Complex

Last night, had to choose between waiting in a long line for Fahrenheit 9/11 or walking right into and sitting down for Napoleon Dynamite. I chose the latter.

Describing the film's plot pretty much misses the point, but the setting is important -- barren Western town, and a lot of action taking place at the high school that the film's title character attends.

The movie is both resolutely normal -- dealing with the well-trodden miseries of small-town and high school life, and what it means to be a geek in those milieus -- and profoundly weird -- though set in contemporary times (as elements like mobile phones and online dating attest), the sets, clothing, and music all come from the late 70s and early 80s, as if Preston, Idaho was stuck in time. And the character's behaviors -- playing tetherball, rollerblading while towed by a bike, having hunks of steak thrown in your face, taking "glamor shots", etc. etc. -- are just so... odd.

This is not a great movie. I'm not sure that it's a good movie. But I enjoyed it, and laughed, and found myself surprised at some of the things I laughed at. The character of Napoleon Dynamite, as embodied by Jon Heder, is amazing -- eyes perpetually half-closed, mouth-breathing, shock of red curly hair, a combination of abusiveness ("You're a flippin' idiot!"), insecurity ("I went hunting for wolverines"), loyalty ("I'd vote for you, Pedro"), and a can-do spirit (pop-locking to Jamiroquai). All adding up to a surprislngly endearing persona.

The various subplots (the uncle's attempt at returning to his glory days, the tupperware sales, the chat room pay-off) weaken the film, but I suspect they're there because they simply didn't have a full movie's worth of Dynamite material.

Should you go see it? I don't know. If you're around my age (31), and a child of too much pop culture, with a taste for the absurd and ironic, it's definitely worth a look-see.

Posted by peterme at 08:51 AM | Comments (11)

June 29, 2004


I know this isn't a very original sentiment, but I adore Amsterdam.

I had the opportunity to turn work-related events (a plenary at SIGCHI.NL and Adaptive Path's 2-day workshop) into a delightful European adventure, with more time spent in Amsterdam than any other city.

I last visited Amsterdam in 1994, and was surprised at how little had seemed to have changed -- which is for the better, since I loved it back then, too.

Forthwith, a few notes on our travels in Amsterdam, with some suggestions for other folks visiting there.

The Canals
Of course. Particularly the Prinsengracht, Keizergracht, and Herengracht, and particularly on the west side. Peaceful, lovely, relaxing. And with good shopping, cafe-ing, etc. It was on our first walk of our first day that we settled into a delightful cafe at the corner of Prinsengracht and Leidsegracht, a cafe that became our "local." (Of course, I don't know the place's name). You can sit at tables overlooking the canal, while drinking screwdrivers made with fresh-squeezed orange juice. By the time we got here, we were quite hungry, and noticed the table next to us had a plate of meat snack appetizers. We asked our waiter for it, who at first discouraged it, "It's raw meat--a very Dutch food." But we insisted, and it was quite yummy.


Stacy enjoying the best screwdriver ever.

A key canal excursion are the ever-present boat tours.
Here we are, at the start of the tour.

Though unrepentantly touristy, the tours offer a great perspective on the city. We took the Holland International boat tour, the audio for which was pretty lame. We heard later that the Lovers tour is widely appreciated.

peterme with a canal behind him.

Eating and Drinking
While the Dutch aren't known for their cuisine, we actually ate very well, in large part due to helpful pointers from locals.

Perhaps the most "Dutch" food we ate was Nieuwe Hollandse - raw herring.
The Dutch love food that can be eaten with toothpicks. Even better if it's got a flag on it!

We had good contemporary meals at Cafe de Jaren and Cafe de Koe. De Jaren scores many points with me, as it's a great place for coffee and reading -- they even have library tables with the arced late placed over your reading material.

For drinking (whether it was coffee or booze), de Balie was great -- spacious, with free-wifi. Peter turned us on to de Zotte, a beer bar specializing in Belgian brews. Oh, and we had a delightful afternoon coffee-turning-into-beer at Cafe in de Waag, which has a prime spot on the Nieuwmarkt.

Cafe in de Waag, picture stolen from their site.

One of the nicest things about drinking in Amsterdam is that no matter where you went, you could simply order a "Beer", and trust that what would be brought (which would be whatever was the primary house tap), would be good. So easy!

Out and About
Amsterdam is not a museum town, not like a Paris or New York. While we were there, both the Rijksmuseum (art throughout the ages) and the Stedelijjk (contemporary) were closed or greatly reduced. The Van Gogh Museum, however, was open, and it's a treat unlike any other in the world. In my book, it's the only "must-see" museum in Amsterdam. Being able to trace this great artist's evolution is an enlightening treat.

A spot we enjoyed returning to was the Albert Cuyp Markt. It's a bustling open-air market, with bargains on everything from cheese and produce to ticky tacky souvenirs or cosmetics. It's also a good place to score fries. We were told that this is the best place to get fresh stroopwaffels, but we never figured out where.


Drinking a beer near the Cuyp Markt

Amsterdam is an interesting architecture town. It's not uncommon to see startling modern boxes next to 18th century gabled houses. One morning, we headed out for the Java Island, which is the site of some remarkable contemporary urban residential architecture.

Architectural madness
Click to enlarge

If we had been in town on a Saturday, I would have most definitely taken the canal tour that winds through these new developments. (I can't find reference to it online. You can get information from the Holland International dock near Centraal Station.)

Since we were footing our own bill our first couple of days, we stayed at the Albay Homestay, a kind of bed-and-breakfast without the breakfast out near Oosterpark. It was reasonably priced (€85 a night for two people), and we stayed in the Marhay room, which was quite spacious, and had access to a large private garden. (Apologies -- we neglected to photograph the lodging).The Albay is definitely out of the way for most travelers, but it's only one block from two major tram lines that will take you to where you want to go (Central, Museumplein, etc.).

Our next two days were paid for by the good folks at SIGCHI.NL, so we were able to upgrade and get a little more central, and we ended up at the Crowne Plaza Amsterdam-American, formerly known as the "American Hotel," through a deal we found on Hotels.nl. This proved to be a perfectly serviceable business-class hotel, which meant that it was disappointing -- the American Hotel has a reputation of an art nouveau delight, and I was hoping for nifty classic design touches. While the exterior, and the Cafe Americain still provide the swoopy glory of nouveau, the interior of the accommodations was renovated a few years ago, and felt remarkably undistinctive.

Upon returning to Amsterdam, the company put us up at Dikker en Thijs, located very near Leidseplein, along then Prinsengracht (a canal). Our room was the same size as what we had at the Albay, only it cost more than twice as much. Also, "service" seemed to be a novel concept -- calling down for an iron and ironing board did no good, I had to go down there and schlep it up. We also find out that when the list "Internet connection" as a room facility, what that really means is that there's an available phone jack you can use for dial up. Huh.

We had wanted to stay at 't hotel, which looks very cool and got good notices from friends, but it's a small place that was all booked up by the time we called them.

For our delightful time in Amsterdam, much thanks to Peter Boersma (and his lovely girlfriend), Peter Bogaards (as strapping as the photo suggests), and Tjeerd de Boer, for pointing us in all the right directions.

Posted by peterme at 11:12 AM | Comments (6)


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