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Europe 2013: Suances, Spain

Santander Spain

Sunday morning I stood on the balcony of our room at the Altis Avenida Hotel in Lisbon and watched people pour from the underground metro. Across the street policemen gathered. Curious, I glanced up and down the avenue. More officers hiked the gradual grade and lingered at the corner to converse. I wondered if Portugal’s terror alert level had shifted higher after the murder of Lee Rigby in London. As more officers and then men in military uniforms began to gather en masse, I moved to the balcony off our bathroom, which had a better view of the street that ran in front of our hotel. Now, military personnel flanked both sides of the avenue and stood in the median strip. Erring on the safe side, I told Dave, then called the front desk. The woman on duty said it was an annual military event but didn’t say of what kind. She seemed nonplussed, so I thanked her and hung up but kept a watchful eye until we had packed and were ready to leave for the airport. We had a plane to catch to Santander, via Madrid.

Security at the Lisbon Portela Airport was tight, but all of Europe was on heightened alert, the TAP agent at the terminal informed us, especially after the murder of Lee Rigby and the stabbing of the French soldier Cédric Cordier. Her comment came as a surprise, as we hadn’t heard or read about this latest incident. We boarded, and the hour-and-fifteen-minute flight went fast. From Madrid we flew to Santander, a short fifty-five-minute ride, then rented a car for our three-day stay in Suances, which is on the central coast in the province of Cantabria. I had questioned Dave about visiting this part of northern Spain, as I had heard it can be cold, wet, and somewhat dreary in May, but his mind was made up. Since I had never been disappointed with his travel choices, I went along. And as I’ve stated in an earlier blog post, growing up overseas had taught me from a young age to simply go with the flow. Well, my “flow” was about to be put to the test…in a minor way.

Suances SpainRain followed us on our drive from Santander to Suances, and we never saw the sun again that day. As we closed in on afternoon, the temperature began to fall, and a cold breeze snaked its way into the car. Thankfully, the antibiotics had knocked out our colds, so I wasn’t concerned about the inclement weather. When we pulled into the front lot of the Albatros Hotel, Dave looked at me and said, “Uh, this wasn’t exactly what I had in mind.” I asked him what he expected from a hotel with the word “albatross” in its name. We checked in and followed the directions to our room. I have a keen sense of smell, and a faint musty odor hung in the dimly lit hall. The room was sparsely furnished, the bed resembled twin cots shoved together, and the shower drain in the dated bathroom was so clogged with hair, the water would not drain. I called housekeeping to unclog the shower and went to the window to see the tranquil view—cows grazed in a lush pasture, and patches of blue peeked through an overcast sky. We unpacked, and I suggested we go downstairs for a cocktail before dinner.

CilantroOn this trip we had two inside jokes. We could never find mustard for our sandwiches in any of the French delis we ate at, and no green olives for Dave’s vodka, not even in Italy of all places. We kidded each other about packing mustard before leaving on our next European trip and carrying olives as well. This reminded me of my father, who loved cilantro after being introduced to the herb in Mexico City. He would carry it with him in a small baggie and put it on almost everything. No wonder we kids love it.

Albatros Hotel SuancesIn the bar lounge, I ordered wine, and Dave a vodka on the rocks. When the server left, I asked, “Why didn’t you ask for olives?” He replied, “I’ve given up.” The server returned with our drinks, and to our surprise placed a bowl of large Spanish olives on the table “for us to snack on.” We explained our dilemma in Italy, and she said, “I know. There they make olive oil from them, but in Spain we eat them.” As for finding mustard in France, she said, “A lot of French people holiday in Suances, and the French love their mayonnaise.” We were about to find out just how much they loved it. We finished our drinks and went into the dining room for dinner. Because of the rain, we had decided to eat at our hotel rather than walk into town.

Our server handed us menus and left. We chose the fresh catch of the day, but the moment we placed our order, our server said, “Oh sorry, we don’t have any more fish. We have a French tour group at the hotel and they ate all of the fish. We only have beef.” We inquired about shrimp cocktail as a starter. Oh yes, they had plenty. The boiled shrimp arrived in the shell and with the heads on, which was fine, but swimming in mayonnaise? Not even tartare or spicy mayonnaise—just plain, warm mayo. I scraped the bland condiment off the shellfish, and we shared the starter. The meal did not improve. The beef was round steak: thin, the texture of shoe leather, and tasteless. We enjoyed our green salads, passed on dessert because the French tour group had eaten all of it, and instead finished our meal with a good Madeira. Although our stay hadn’t started as planned, the visit ended on a positive note. Overall, the room was clean and provided the basics, and the hotel staff was friendly and helpful, making up for any shortcomings in the accommodations.


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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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