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Europe 2013: Gijón, Spain

Gijon Spain

I had never heard of Gijón, the Big Apple of Spain, until I read an article in American Way magazine, an American Airlines in-flight publication. Curious about the former fishing village, known for its cider, we decided to check out the port city. We woke to a gray day with storm clouds hovering low and threatening. Drizzle chased us from Suances to Gijón as we motored along the Bay of Biscay, but as we entered the town, the sun peeked through the clouds.

Playa de San Lorenzo

Playa de San Lorenzo

We began our exploration with a walk along the waterfront. Playa de San Lorenzo is a beautiful, crescent-shaped, golden-colored beach and has a five-thousand-foot-long promenade that stretches along the water. Parts of the coastline are rocky, and areas do have strong currents as well as big waves, but we had no plans to swim or sunbathe, merely to take in the scenery.

Gijón marina by the promenade

Gijón Marina by the Promenade

At the end of the promenade, we retraced a path to San Pedro Church, which is located at the foot of the original village Cimadevilla, the oldest part of Gijón. The style is Romanesque Asturian, typical of the architecture seen throughout the Cantabrian seaboard. Unfortunately, the church was locked, so we began the steep climb through the narrow cobblestoned street to Cerro de Santa Catalina, a park at the tip of Cimadevilla’s peninsula, to see the stunning coastal views. On our way down, we came across the ruins of an old Roman settlement and baths. We explored them, then toured the city square, before our thoughts turned to lunch and fabada asturiana. Fabada is a rich Spanish bean stew, a hot and heavy dish best served for lunch and best eaten on a day like that one: chilly and rainy. Ours was served with crusty bread and a glass of Asturian cider. For dessert, we purchased turrón at a nearby bakery to nibble on during the drive back to Suances. Turrón is either duro (hard) and crunchy, or blando (soft) and chewy. The candy is made from toasted Marcona almonds, sugar, honey, and egg white.


San Pedro Church in Gijón

San Pedro Church in Gijón

I knew from experience that the Spanish eat dinner much later than we do in the US, so we had made reservations at Restaurante La Dársena for nine. Even then, we had the restaurant to ourselves until the stroke of ten. When we arrived the maître d’ gave us a quizzical stare, as though he was stunned to see anyone looking for a table at this early hour. After some scurrying around, we were shown to our table with a view of the marina. Our server informed us he was Argentinian and had recently relocated to Spain. When it came time to order, we couldn’t understand him and he couldn’t understand us despite our Spanish, which is pretty good. Suddenly, he threw his arms into the air in exasperation and walked off. Not the best start to a meal, but he soon returned with a platter of raw fish. He pointed and we nodded or shook our heads. He understood “broiled” and looked rather pleased with himself as he walked away to fill our wine order.

San Pedro Church in Gijón and Author Pat Krapf

Me at San Pedro Church in Gijón

The incident reminded us of another dining experience. We were at a small family restaurant in Croatia, and the lunch menus weren’t in English. We asked for help, but our server just nodded to anything we said. Not very hungry, we ordered three starters—at least that’s what we thought. When the meal came, we were dismayed to see three main courses. Before we touched the food, we asked to see the owner. We explained our mistake and told him we would pay for the third meal, but could he please take one back. He simply nodded and whisked away the beef stew, which he handed to a man behind the counter. The man took a seat at a nearby table and proceeded to eat it. The check came and the owner had removed the dish from the bill. However, we included the cost of the stew in our bill, paid it, and gave our server a good tip. As we were leaving, the owner said in perfect English, “I hope you enjoyed your meals, and please come again.”

At La Dársena our wine arrived, and twenty minutes later our meal came. Oh no, I thought. Déjà vu. No way could we eat all of this seafood, one large and two small platters of fish and shellfish. But we did. And other than a loaf of crusty bread, that’s all we had for dinner, and every bite was broiled to perfection. Fish, bread, and wine: a fine meal indeed.


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Europe 2013: Popes Palace – Avignon, France

Popes' PalaceGilded Virgin MaryCumulus clouds drifted across a blue sky as we left our hotel and walked toward the mighty complex of austere buildings sitting high on the Rocher des Doms. Our destination was the Avignon Cathedral, built in 1111. Then, the architecture was pure provençal Romanesque, but in the fourteenth century a cupola added to make the cathedral grander collapsed, so the church was rebuilt in 1425 in the Byzantine style. Baroque galleries were added in the seventeenth century and the steeple topped with a gilded Virgin Mary whose glow can be seen for miles.

Although damaged during the French Revolution, and even used as a prison for a while, the interior is richly decorated and boasts a huge octagonal dome and two organs. And there remain a few Gothic tombs of some of Avignon’s popes. Over the years bells have been donated, and today the carillon is thirty-five strong. Despite being dwarfed by its extravagant neighbor, the Palais des Papes, the church is impressive and beautiful.

After viewing the cathedral, we queued up with a small group of tourists to tour the Palais des Papes and its gardens. The commanding, fortress-like sandstone buildings that tower over the surrounding rooftops have dominated the skyline of Avignon for 650 years and were home to seven successive French popes who preferred to administer from Avignon rather than Rome. Why? The short version: political turmoil. During the French Revolution, the structures were threatened with demolition but were instead used as army barracks and remained as such until a hundred years ago. In 1906 the army vacated the palace, and a major restoration began to restore it to its former sacred splendor.

Popes Palace

Palais des Papes is really two palaces, an old one built in 1335 by Pope Benedict XII and a new one built twenty years later by his successor, Pope Clement VI. Benedict, an ex-Cistercian monk, embraced simplicity, while Clement, who came from nobility, favored opulence and loved art. He commissioned Italian artist Matteo Giovannetti to paint magnificent frescoes to decorate the palace. In the great audience hall, portraits of prophets from the Old Testament adorn the vaulted ceiling on a sky-blue background. Bare, dimly lit halls and chapels are on the first and second levels and are linked by wide staircases. There are two chapels, one on top of the other, St. Martial and St. John, and the ceiling and walls are graced with restored depictions of the lives of the two saints. The Palais des Papes is the biggest Gothic palace in the world, at approximately 162,000 square feet of living space and more than twenty rooms.

Popes' Palace

We spent about a half hour strolling the palace grounds, then walked across the Saint Bénézet bridge, which was started in 1177 and completed in 1185. According to lore, the bridge’s construction was inspired by Saint Bénézet, a shepherd boy who, while tending his flock, heard the voice of Jesus asking him to build a bridge across the Rhône. Ridiculed, he proved his divine inspiration by lifting a huge stone, thereby winning support for his project. His remains were interred in Saint Nicholas Chapel, a small chapel built on the bridge between the second and third arch. Originally, the bridge had twenty arches, but only four remain, the rest being swept away in the raging floodwaters of the Rhône. The chapel is named after the patron saint of the Rhône boatmen, Saint Nicholas.

St. Nicholas ChapelIntrigued by Saint Bénézet’s story, I headed straight for the chapel, which has been reconstructed and restored and is now divided into two floors, each with a nave and an apse. In 1670 the bridge was abandoned and the relics of Saint Bénézet were moved to the Hôpital Saint Bénézet within the city walls.

From the bridge we made our way to the Rue des Teinturiers, where we had lunch at an outdoor café—salades Niçoise. Rue des Teinturiers is a lovely cobbled street that runs along a canal and is shaded by sycamore trees. The French call them plane trees. The main attraction of the street is browsing the shops and galleries and drinking and dining. We wanted to see the water wheels. At the height of the weaving boom, the mills were powered by twenty-three water wheels along the canal; the water was also used to rinse the fabrics. Many wheels were destroyed during the French Revolution, and only four remain today.

We spent the afternoon window shopping, then retired to our room to relax. So far, the weather on the trip had been chilly and rainy, and we both felt as if we were coming down with colds. Of course, the good soaking we got walking back from the Monoprix the day before hadn’t helped. Our sneakers still hadn’t completely dried. We ate dinner that night at a bistro near the hotel—piping hot French onion soup, crusty French bread warm from the oven, and a local chardonnay.


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