I’ve grown a little behind on my blogging. Since Barcelona I’ve spent a week in Paris, one day in Slovakia, and now I’m in Vienna for a week. I’ll try to do my best to keep as up to day as possible. But at least there is no worry that I’ll run out of stuff to blog about, I’ve got a ton of great stories to tell. Stay posted and thanks for reading!
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Barcelona is a city overflowing in modern art and architecture. It is as if Barecelona is the Mecca of Surrealist art. While in the city, we witnessed the works of Joan Miro, Antoni Gaudi, Pablo Picasso, and Salvador Dali. But if one character would rise up to be the symbol of Barcelona it would be Gaudi. He worked primarily with architecture and is known for his ability to create form through the examples of nature. At an early age, he found inspiration in various natural objects like tree bark and sea shells. Throughout Barcelona, parks, churches, and even apartment buildings can be found that bear mark of Gaudi. His most famous creation by far is La Sagrada Familia. Let me put this church into perspective. Construction began in 1883 and it is still not finished. No, it’s not being constructed by the hard workers of Penndot. Save for a period during the Spanish revolution, it has been worked on quite vigorously since its beginnings but requires so much time due both to its size and incredible detail. Its construction has been in the hands of several people since Gaudi died, though he remains onsite in the crypt below. Luckily Gaudi left very detailed instructions on how it is to appear in its completed state. Some of its distinctive characteristics include its spires which resemble melting wax on a candle. On each side will be 4 façades (2 are completed) depicting scenes from the bibles, each done in a different style. One side is the nativity façade in which characters look like they are emerging from caves, while on the passion façade, all characters are much more angular and look as though they are made of stone, which they are made of stone but that’s beyond the point. The inside is just as striking with just as much consideration for detail. As of now, the basilica is missing its central spire which will rise to a modest 171m (or roughly 513ft) tall. Even the height has meaning, as 171m is the tallest point of the nearby hills on the edge of Barcelona, the point being that “no work of man can out do that which has been created by God.” Every aspect of the church is phenomenal, which is why it receives around 10,000 visitors every day. It’s set to be completed in 2026, so mark your calendars and I’ll see you there!
Other Gaudi notables include La Pedrera , an apartment building that resembles rolling waves with rooftop like none
other. One book even liked some of the rooftop creations to the mask of Darth Vader, which gives it some extra bonus points in my mind. Another Gaudi classic is Parc Gurell. This large park overlooks Barcelona and is unique for its stonework of columns that look like they should fall down from leaning so far and stone fences that look like they should be made of out wood instead. Turn a corner and your surrounded by building that are from a gingerbread village.
Finally after our time in Barcelona came to a close we journeyed to Figueres a little town on our way back to France to visit yet another surrealist legend, Mr. melting clocks himself, Salvador Dali. The Dali Museum houses the largest Dali collection in the world and Dali is even buried in the crypt of the museum. Most of his work makes your scratch your head and say why would he do such a thing? Such as: Why paint a melting face on a stick next to a slice of bacon and title it “Soft Self-portrait with Grilled Bacon. Maybe it was an anti-McDonald’s ad. My favorite was a painting of a classic portrait of Abraham Lincoln. At a distance you see Lincoln, but up close it was an entirely different matter. After the Dali Museum we crossed back into France and woke up from a very weird surrealist dream, then fell back asleep from sheer exhaustion.
I know that it has been a while since the last blog, but don’t worry I was just working on creating some more adventures, although instead of French Adventures, we decided to cross the border into Spain. To do so we had to cross the Pyrenees, which serve as the physical border yet at the same time once across those mountains the cultures is entirely different. First of all, and most obvious, is the language difference. In our area of France, french of course is one of the languages spoken, but there is also another language that is unique to the Languedoc region called Occitan (more on that in a later post). As you cross into the Spain the languages changes to Spainish and Catalan. That is just the beginning differences.
Another is food, which is also one of my favorite things to talk about, so sorry in advance for the rambling.
To begin, eating times are different. What time would you say is a good time for dinner? 5? 6? In Ambialet we usually eat around 7:30. In Spain, its unheard of to eat before 10pm and the best usually eat around 11. Yeah you think you would be starving by that point, but the Spanish have a solution – Tapas. Bascially tapas is a small appetizer of a variety of foods from cheeses to shrimp to patates bravos (potato wedges with a light creamy mayonnaise/hint of ranch dressing and a touch of Tabasco). So the tapas fits perfectly into the day between siesta and dinner. I really came to love tapas, which in many ways are the perfect family meal. Everybody orders a tapas or two then everyone can pass around the plates so that everyone tries a little of everything. This worked especially well for our group and thus the great explanation of patates bravos.
Yet another dish famous in Barcelona is paella. This dish is usually cooked in a large skillet with rice and all the seafood you could imagine: fish, clams, oysters, shrimp, and the possibilities continue. When done right, you have quite a seafood medley, but not all paella is created equal as some of the group found out and felt it for a few day.
As for Barcelona itself, it is a city steeped in modern art and architecture and teeming with life (at all times of the day). The main street of Barcelona is a street called La Rambla. On one pass down the street you can see people poses as statues, buy fresh flowers, watch artists of all kinds work right on the street, sit and enjoy some tapas, indulge in some gelato, and if you’re really daring buy a whistle that makes you sound like a monkey. Also in this area are little pedestrian streets filled with shops with anything from clothes to pastries to fresh fruit juices. One store sold these amazing looking cupcakes with names like Marilyn Monroe and Darth Vader.
To end the day, yet still way before dinner, we strolled, the street for a little while longer just soaking in the atmosphere. At the end of La Rambla is a giant statue of Christopher Columbus to commemorate that he first reported his discovery of America his to the king and queen here in Barcelona. The statue is a long column with Columbus at the top pointing as if he has spotted land, we’ll overlook the fact that he is actually pointing in the wrong direction.
Recently, we went to Toulouse, which is about an hour and a half drive from Ambialet. Located in south western France, it is the fourth largest city in France after Paris, Lyon, & Marseille. It is also known as la ville rose, or the pink city because the majority of the building within Toulouse are made of brick, giving the city an overall pink color.
The history of Toulouse dates back to the pre-Roman times with evidence of in habitats as early as 8th century BC. Roman ties to Toulouse (then Tolosa) occurred around 100 BC. Around 10-30 AD, under the rule of Augustus the city was moved to its present location. While the city has greatly expanded from its Roman era, foundations of the original walls still remain. With so much rich history, it was only right our first stop was to the Roman museum, which explained the history of the city and had a very nice collection of roman statues and other artifacts.
After lunch, we then went to the city’s other main historical stop, St. Sernin Basilica. Built around 1115, the basilica
was a major stop for pilgrims during the middle ages. The story of St. Sernin, the basilica’s namesake is an interesting story. St. Sernin was the first bishop of Toulouse (around 250 AD) before Christianity was accepted by the Roman empire. Since Christianity was not welcomed by the Romans, he was murdered by being tied to a bull and dragged down the streets of Toulouse. Miraculously, at the one point the rope broke, and where his body lay, a church was later built in his honor. Soon miracles began to occur and more and more pilgrims came to worship over the relics (the bones of St.Sernin) to the point that a larger church needed to be built and thus stands the Basilica of St.Sernin.
This past Saturday we were set to work in Ambialet in preparation for “le jour de patrimoine” the day after. This is a special day celebrated throughout the whole of France. In a way it is a heritage day and being that some of the earliest settlers were from Roman times we’re talking about centuries of history. In fact in our town of Ambialet alone it has remains of a castle that thrived in the 12th century. Nearly everyday we walk from our home on top of the mountain down to the village via a path called the “chemin de croix” aka. the way of the cross. All throughout this rocky path are the stations of the cross. Each of the stations consists of a sign placed inside a carved out square. Now it works out perfectly that these signs fit there, but these carved out areas once served as homes to some of the first settlers to the area during the middle ages. Quite literally, history is just a few footsteps away. But the way is rocky, so watch your step.
Back to heritage day! We woke up and were read to roll at 9am (which is asking a lot when considering its Saturday and college kids are involved. But some how we managed. Our task…building bridges. We followed a few locals down the other side of the mountain (across from the chemin de croix) down to the river. As the we walked the path
alongside the river we came to sections where the path ended and water filled its place. So we set out to finding rocks. Lots of rocks. We had a really good system of rock finders, rock carriers, and bridge builders. Once we had enough stepping stones to get across, we then worked at it from both sides. All in all we built two bridges along the path.
Once the second bridge was finished we got the best part of the path–the Winding Stair. Ok so we’re not in Mordor, but those back in the middle ages built stairs right in the middle of a rock. It is really impressive. at the top of the stair is what appears to be a large chimney on atop the rocks. From there, there is a great view of Ambialet and the dam below. Hands and arms sore and cut up from the sharp rocks, we walked back up to our place and Bernard, our french chef, had the perfect meal (he has a knack for making the perfect meal for the occasion). We dined on Spaghetti and loved every bite.
There is also a lot of fun things to do in Ambialet as well. As if you couldn’t already guess it is a hikers dream, which I happen to love hiking! Besides the chemin de croix, there are several other great hiking paths. One of them is a path that leads to the ruins of the medieval castle on an adjacent mountain. The castle was perfectly placed to watch boats coming and going down the rivers as from this single point of view you can see two different stretches of the river. Continuing up the trail takes you to the top of the mountain. The mountain is higher than the one on which our building sits, so once again, it provides a great view.
Besides hiking, there is biking and swimming and with the weather the way it has been lately, there is no reason not to do one if not all of those almost everyday. For biking, once you ride down off our hill, you can bike for miles (or kilometers) following the river and the valley, thus, no hills! Then again if you want a challenge that is there too. The whole of France agrees the that one as the route for the Tour de France has actually come through Ambialet the past several years. After a tough or easy (I usually go with the easy) jumping in the river allows you a great chance to cool off. I don’t think I’ll ever get “used to” swimming in the Tarn and looking up at the cliffs and remains of a 900 year old castle.
This week has been quite exciting. To start off the weather has been beautiful, so any outside activity has been great. To start the week off, we went kayaking in the Tarn. This was something I really wanted to do last time I was in France so I was really excited to be able to so this time around. The kayaks were two person kayaks so we each teamed up with someone else. My partner was Beth, who is one of the students (and quite a great painter!). The Tarn river is not an all that high river, so navigation skills are important to make it through without getting suck on rocks. There were a few minor rapids to make it through. I can say we made it through without ever capsizing, though we did have to get out a couple times to push ourselves off of rocks (once because we made the wise decision for follow Chuck and Marie, who
had a tough time of their own getting past one section of rocks.
As for the scenery, it was amazing, as it always is here. There is a whole other perspective that you get from seeing the mountains and cliffs rise before from the river. As we paddled along we saw ruins like 12th century watchtowers and old abandoned houses build right on the cliff-side that could be easily missed by car.
Just as amazing, there is the wildlife. On our 17km journey, we saw herons, ducks, sea gulls, and even egrets both in the water and in the air. The entire was was as if we were in the complete wilderness like a national park of sorts designated to protect the land. Yet, this was not the case. Rather people lived all throughout the valley. Granted, this a the county and not a city by any means, but it really is quite a concept that people can live within a land and in some ways even enhance its beauty by building houses and towns that work with nature rather than add docks every 10 feet with speed boats attached. This is just one example of the french culture. Instead of constantly changing and upgrading to the “new better thing”, the French have found a way to immerse themselves in what is in the present. Hence, the French do not rush from place to place but enjoy a drink be it in a quaint little cafe in Ambialet or a street side Parisian cafe so that they may soak up their surrounds and enjoy life itself. Well there is enough of a French cultural lesson for now..
Also this, we went to a medieval village called Brousse le-Chateux. This village has well deservedly earned the title of one of the “le Plus Beau Ville” , most beautiful villages in the region. Centered around the village is a medieval castle. The castle was equipped with necessary means of protections such as slits in the walls to be used by crossbowmen or holes directly above the main gate so that hot liquids could be poured on enemies while they tried to enter. However, it is quite difficult to imagine battle ever took place in a such a beautiful surrounding. The town sits next the the tarn river, and has a little babbling brook flowing through the town. With the sound of the water tumbling over the rock, weeping willows and other small trees nestled alongside the water, and bushes of colorful flowers and berries, the ambiance is set. Cross the old stone bridge over the brook to enter into the cobble stone streets and stone houses that lead to the castle in the center.
After being in Ambialet for almost four days now, I still cannot believe that I am back here. The entire area is like a walking into a fantasy. To get to Ambialet, we drove through the country-side of southwest France. The land is gently rolling hills covered in fields of sunflowers, grapevines, and occasionally corn. At the time we arrived in France, we just missed the sunflowers in full bloom, but there was still a light yellow covering the fields. These various fields go out as far as the eye can see. Where there are not fields there are houses made of red clay roofs and off-white succo that dot the landscape. With just a single glance you know you’re not in PA anymore.
As we approach Ambialet we begin entering into the Tarn River valley and the landscape changes dramatically. The area becomes much more rugged and now becomes a mix of trees and cliff-faces jutting out from the hills. As the Tarn river meanders through the valley it comes to Ambialet and as a pen draws a circle on a piece of paper, so does the tarn around Ambialet. In the middle of this circle is a mountain with a single building, Le Prieure, and our home in France. As you can imagine a view in any direction is a great view. From one side you can look down into the quaint little village and from the other side see mountains and valleys and rolling hills.
Once an old monastery with parts of the building dating to the 1800s , the building was closed to due inactivity in the 1980s. After several years of dormancy Saint Francis University bought the monastery and began renovations to convert the building into use for study abroad students. Also connected to the monastery is a very old church. I mean very old. Made of all stone the church is said to be over a thousand years old. It is quite amazing to not only see, but actually live near something with so much history.