Written on the TGV
Narbonne, France to Barcelona, Spain
Saturday, June 7, 20h00
I am writing from the train once more. At the underground station where we are stopped temporarily, “Benvenidos a Girona/Benvinguts a Girona/ Welcome to Girona/ Bienvenue a Girona” scrolls across the display screens. We have crossed into Catalonia, the region of Spain at its northwest which some would say overlaps with French territory as well. I haven’t seen “Salida” on an exit sign since we left Chicago, and the signs in Spanish simultaneously convey that we are in a new country, but somehow echo memories of walking around Pilsen or Little Village in Chicago, where the Mexican community is the majority.
Outside, at first glance, the landscape does not look different. Our train has tunneled through the Pyrenees that divide the two countries, but it is still hilly and mountainous, with small villages and towns. Our train is full of English speaking visitors, some young college-age girls and some older English retirees. Steve and Lele both look tuckered out by our travels, and doze a little despite the bright evening sun. It is 8 pm, but of course, because we are traveling further west in the same time zone, we can look forward to more and more hours of sunlight in the evening. Tonight, I predict the sun will set around 10 pm.
The past three days have been equally busy and dizzy as the first three. The day before yesterday, we embarked on a trip to Carcassonne, the medieval city that pretty much everyone had told us we ought to visit. It was located a little west of Narbonne, more inland than most of our destinations, and though it was interesting enough, it was somewhat of a disappointment. For Steve and I, it resembled Dubrovnik very much, with medieval city walls and ramparts. However, this was mostly a 19th-early 20th century reconstruction, and was much smaller than the Old City of Dubrovnik. Lele also found it a bit too touristy, and after touring the chateau and ramparts where there were impressive views of the surrounding city, we put in the afternoon at a café talking and enjoying the sunny weather.
The next day, we got a late start into our second hiking excursion. We went south and west again to Prades, but instead drove on even further into the Pyrenees to the small vacation town of Vernet-les-Bains. In my research, I found that Kipling once spent some time here and wrote a short whimsical story about it called “Why Snow Falls at Vernet”. Enjoy!
After a few detours involving sandwiches, gas, and boulangeries that just weren’t open even at lunchtime, we finally trekked into the hills. Following a hike I had found online, we were supposed to go on a 3-4 hour jaunt that took us up to the Tower of Goa, but we took a slight wrong turn, and ended up making a 300-meter ascent above the town of Vernet-les-Bains onto the peak of Mont Pena, a minor peak in the Pyrenees. Having made it up there, we decided not to trek another hour to the Tower of Goa and be content with the trip we had made. It was pretty trying, as we had not packed our picnic and supplies in proper backpacks for a taxing hike, but somehow we made it to the top.
At the top, it ought to have been an impressive view, at more than a thousand meters above sea level. However, it was an overcast day, and we were treated to the unique experience of standing in the clouds. We could literally see (and feel) the chilly wisps of clouds and fog sweep over our little mountaintop, and obscure most of the scenery around us. It was chillingly beautiful but also lonely and isolating. We sat down to enjoy our lunch, and I did a sketch of the scenery. The fog cleared off a few times, so we could see the town spread out like a little picture book below us, and also to our right, another small village nestled between two peaks. Finally, we made a descent, which seemed quicker but took an hour and a half, about the same amount of time it took us to ascend, and trekked back to our apartment.
This morning, Lele stayed in while Steve and I set off for a vineyard around Rivesaltes. We had seen nothing but acres of vineyards everywhere we looked, short gnarly looking trees with ripe green vines growing in rows upon rows beside the road. I had looked up a few that seemed likely online, and though we took some dubious turns while searching for one, we did end up making it to a vineyard.
Mas Durand was the name of the vineyard we had found, manned by a young couple and two dogs, a small English bulldog and a large Berenese mountain dog named Ziggy. Long live David Bowie! The young man gave us a short tour of their operations, and told us that while his father owned the vineyard, his family had been in this business for about 300 years. We saw the large-scale machinery that moved between rows, squeezing out the grapes, the machinery that filtered grapes from leaves, and then the machine which squeezed the grapes. We saw the large room-sized cisterns where the wine was then poured and left to mature. (There’s a name for that, but I’ll figure it out later!) They made table wine of red, white, and rosé, as well as some more specialty ones, known as vin doux naturels, which are naturally sweet wines that are a hallmark of this region in southwest France. As a taster, we tried three of the vin doux naturels that they offered: ambré, ambré rosé, and tinge. All three were very sweet, as the name suggests, almost more dessert wines like a port, and were also quite strong, between 16-17% alcohol. They had a really deep flavor to them that I had never tasted before in wine, and Steve and I concurred that we had to get a bottle. We bought a bottle of the ambré and also a 3L box of the red wine before saying goodbye to the young couple and the very eager dogs.
After we came back to the apartment in Rivesaltes, we made a hurried lunch, packed, and drove off to Narbonne. After returning our car, Steve and Lele went off for another walk around the city while I babysat our luggage in the café and worked on making a drawing of the scene outside the station, with the café tables, awnings, and brasseries across the street. I wish I had more time to do some art, so I hope to make time for that in Barcelona. The process of learning how to do watercolors is definitely very interesting, and I am constantly being exposed to new landscapes and objects of art which I don’t necessarily know how to draw easily. For example, my last two drawings of Mont Canigou in the Pyrenees and also of the mountain peak on Mont Pena were fun but also a little disappointing to me. With watercolors, I feel like I am constantly trying to strike the balance between drawing realistically and portraying a landscape that is consistent in perspective and scale but also coloring the landscape in a way that is more impressionist, and succeeds in suggesting elements or objects off in the distance that I cannot draw in a detailed way. For example, the mist swirling around the mountaintop and the way the distant hills look like different shades of dark grey and green were very hard to capture, and sometimes in watercolors, you have to be confident in letting the negative or white space do the work for you, which is a bit of a gamble. I’m slowly learning, and Steve and I are both interested in coming back to this part of France in the future, so perhaps I’ll get another chance!
For now, we are pulling into Barcelona Sants, the main train station, in just a few minutes, and we will be off to our Airbnb in the middle of the city. I look forward to a slightly more leisurely pace, and a chance to taste the cuisine for which this country is so famous. We’re off to our holiday in Spain!