Wednesday, June 16, 2010

on automatic

And here’s what I else I love about the little Smart car we’ve rented: it allows you to switch back and forth between automatic and manual transmission. Though typically I do not mind manual shifting, when I am navigating inclines in places where I’m also searching for the right roads, while my traveling companion is comfortably taking one of his many cat naps – I prefer automatic.

This is to be the last day of the wet front passing through and so my plans are tentative – depending on the extent of the bad weather.

Morning, though, is set aside for the market.

The market rolls into Sorede twice a week and in my mind this should be a highpoint for us. Mediterranean markets are full of color and the foods are better than great.

But here’s the caveat: Sorede is a village. A small village at that. A place this size is going to have a market that suits its needs. Sorede’s market is, therefore, really small.

Unlike our farmers markets, French markets are only mostly local.


The produce stand will have local zucchini (three types!), local berries (the best!), but in addition, it may also have cheaper berries from Spain, and artichokes from up north, and avocado from across the ocean. There will be a farmer who brings his cheeses and sets up a small table, and there will likely also be a cheese vendor who sells cheeses from a number of producers of the region, or even from other parts of France. It’s a grand mixture of a person selling only a few small plants and another selling a cacophony of colorful blooms.

If you’re wondering why I am not supporting these assertions with numerous photos – well, it’s because like in the car, I get distracted when exploring new places. It may seem that I’m all the time concentrating on photographing things around me, but the fact is that I take photos only as an aside. And so, because I am not focused primarily on the camera, most often I leave the camera on automatic focus and I take a photo quickly, instinctively, without too much forethought.

Today, during some moment of distraction, the camera slipped out of its automatic function. I hadn’t noticed and kept on snapping under the mistaken impression that the camera was doing the thinking for me. I have a lot of out of focus photos from the first half of the day.

On the up side, it became obvious that the weather front was done with the rains. As we sat at a café and watched the locals come with their baskets to pick up their artichokes and berries and grilled rabbit, I unzipped my sweatshirt and relaxed. It may well be that we’ll get by on this trip without once having to regret not packing an umbrella.

We move seamlessly from a breakfast of pain au chocolat at the café bar, to a lunch of baguette and market cheeses, tomatoes and berries back at the apartment. We eat indoors. No one feels like wiping the outdoor chairs after the night rains.

Convinced that the rains are over and done with, I suggest a coastal trip south. We are nearly at the Spanish border, but even so, there are three coastal towns that lie between here and Spain and they all have great virtues:

The first, closest to us, is Collioure, a known tourist destination. I’d been there during my Languedoc stay four years back. I thought then that it was picture perfect – colorful, artsy (it was a favored spot for Les Fauves – painters who painted with wild brush strokes and vivid colors), nestled around a natural bay, sheltered by the lovely Abeilles hills and mountains.

The second, some five kilometers further south, is Port Vendres -- a now quiet fishing port.

The third is Banyuls sur Mer – a name that rolls out on the tongue in the most unFrench manner (its Catalan and you say the “u” like “oo” and the “s” is not silent). Banyuls is known for its fantastic wines, made from grapes that rise precipitously on the rocky soils of the surrounding mountains. The Banyuls wine that is quite special is a sweet red dessert wine. I love it quite a lot, though it’s not on my purchase list as no one I know in the States likes sweet dessert wines. Still, there are other Banyuls wines to buy. And hills Banyuls to climb.

With this trilogy of towns in mind and with a hiking guide thrown in the car, we set out for the coast.

Before even entering Coilloure, we park the car and walk along the rocky coast to admire the suddenly cliffy sea border.


Who would not find this enchanting? Well, there’s Ed.

As we drive into town, following a trail of cars and even an occasional bus, I notice that “tune out” demeanor that befalls him when he loses interest. Never mind that the place is so perfect that thousands drive great distances to see it.




Ed walks along dutifully and occasionally looks out with great longing -- at the clear waters of the Mediterranean.


Even the anchovy shop fails to rouse him. (Collioure is well known for its sublime anchovies.) There is no point in lingering. Too many tourist trappings. Too many people. Within an hour we were out and heading south.

Port Vendres is entirely different. Empty, quiet, without the fuss of tourism. We walk along the water’s edge and admire the fishing boats, at rest now, with colorful nets piled to the side.



And this is when I noticed that the hills to the west were no longer shrouded in cloud cover. Indeed, the day is rapidly growing warm. The weather front has moved on.


A few more minutes at the port, watching the men fish. And talk. And talk some more...




...and we drive south once more. No great distance – just a handful of kilometers. Banyuls sur Mer. Not nearly as crowded as Collioure, but still keeping an eye toward tourism – with a bayside line of cafes and restaurants that may have great visual appeal if you love that post card look. I do. Ed does not. But it hardly matters. We’re here for the wine and the hills.

We find the winery that I pick out rather randomly from a quick Internet search of preferred Banylus family-operated, small producers – Domaine du Mas Blanc.



I could spend a few rhapsodic paragraphs on how wonderful it is to taste the wines here, but perhaps you do not want this amount of detail. Still, it is a delightful experience and I buy three bottles to take back to the States. My little carryon had in it not only all the clothes that I need for a three week trip, but also a folded up nice big duffle bag to fill with wines and send through on our way back.

And now it is four, and the sun is out, and we are at last able to do a hike up the beautiful hills and mountains to our west.

We have a trail guide and so we more or less know where to begin. In the hilly, colorful outskirts of Banyuls.



The turn off path is hard to find, but local residents help us and very quickly we are out of town and climbing the rocky path toward the ridgeline.


My camera is functional again and I am enchanted with the views. I’ll put up just a handful for you to consider:



If you stay with the trail, within a short distance you will be in Spain. We don’t quite do that. The trail is marked well enough, but we are stupidly without water again and going forth for more than a couple of hours is foolish. You start to wonder if sucking on baby grapes or even the vine leaves will give you that needed burst of moisture.


Still, it is a most wonderful climb. And you have to admire the history of winemaking in this region. How terribly difficult it must be to harvest these grapes that grow on steep, rocky ledges.


At the summit (these are small mountains – around 2000 feet) we give a wave toward Spain and turn around to head back toward Banyuls.


The sun is out, Ed is feeling bouncy again, the breeze is steady and cooling -- there could not be a better way to spend an afternoon.

We approach Banyuls with a sprightly step. In the town, we come upon a man who is singing and Catalan flag waving on his balcony perch...


We shout greetings and walk on. I’m thrilled that we are so close to stores with water. Ed, forever his own person, is, however, sidetracked by a bakery. Will you share a flan? – he asks. Yes, but only after drinking at least one bottle of water.


On our ride back to Sorede, the car is on automatic and I am alternating between bites of flan, sips of still water and sips of the perfectly thirst quenching citrus Perrier. Almost as good as lemon Klarbrunn back home.

The edge of hunger has been well treated by the flan. But I push for dinner nonetheless. We return to the very simple Chez Patou. It has a separate menu page which lists Halal dishes and so we think it must address the needs of an immigrant population. I know that Perpignan, the district capital just 25 miles north of Sorede, has a thriving north African community.

I like the creative waiter who adds tables on the sidewalk, and his wife who helps out when she is not affectionately holding their daughter or talking to their son.


I order a dish they call “Sea and Mountains” (the sea is the mussels, squid and shrimp part, the mountain is in the sausage and chicken), Ed has the spaghetti with seafood. Each dish is cheap and satisfying.


We sit outside and watch the night seep in. The village may well be at its loveliest now.

We make our way back slowly. Walking on automatic pilot now, because that’s what you do at the end of a good day and a full meal.