Micro-Adventure: Musée du Liège

On Thursday, February 8, we headed out to the Musée du Liège, or the Cork Museum. Having just opened from their annual break last week, we had been looking forward to visiting another quirky little museum.

Wow! We never realized how much goes into the manufacturing of cork, or that there is a scale of quality for corks, or that it is a renewable resource or that it all has to be harvested by hand.

Though we were only in the museum for an hour — 20 minutes of which were spent watching a wonderful documentary about cork production in our region — we learned quite a bit!

For instance, cork is a type of oak tree and it takes 30 years to mature enough to be harvested. It is a natural firebreak and in the early days of firefighting it was used for helmets.

Cork oaks only grow in a few regions around the globe and has never been successfully introduced into non-natural climates. Our region and others around the Mediterranean produce more than 70 percent of the cork used world-wide.

The largest cork in the world is housed in a little museum in a tiny village called, Maureillas about an hour by bus from our little village and about 5 minutes from Ceret.

It is a very large cork. 2.4 meters tall and 1.3 meters in diameter, roughly 7 feet, 10 1/2 inches tall by 4 feet, 3 inches in diameter.

Housed in the old cork factory, the museum has four display rooms and a small gift shop. The modern room upstairs has a 20-minute documentary playing on a loop, samples of items that cork was historically used for, and a beautiful photo exhibit showing black and white photos of cork being harvested as well as a few historic photos of cork being hand processed after harvesting.

The second upstairs display is housed in part of the old warehouse and has many beautiful works of art all created out of cork. The room is has a large opening in the center of the space where you can peer over the railing into the display room below.

The room below features cork and wine products from around the world all housed in six enormous old wine casks. These are seriously large enough to add in 2 sets of bunkbeds and call it a cabin. I loved the dimmed lighting and colorful displays, especially the one with a large assortment of old jars that all have old corks in them.

The other room downstairs has the world’s largest cork, a large assortment of old machinery used in cork manufacturing. All of which are easily identifiable if you watched the film in the first room upstairs. My favorite in this room, other than the giant cork, was the small display on the quality of cork. With samples of what is the most desirable to the least.

This small museum is easily traversed within an hour, even with time for photos, and oddly enriching and educational. We completely enjoyed ourselves and highly recommend stopping in for a few minutes and checking it out.

Watching the Super Bowl . . . from France

As many of you may remember, we do not own a television here in France. Most of the time it isn’t a problem, there are so many other things to do than sit in front of the television that we don’t miss it at all. Until the Super Bowl comes around.

The search for a way to see the game starts about a week before game day. We need to find an online option as the game doesn’t air until 12:30 am Monday morning for us. At that time of the morning NOTHING is open — the one day of the year that we miss living in Nevada with open 24-hour options.

Last year we found the game aired on France’s W9 station with commentary in French. Sadly our French isn’t good enough to follow the play-by-play action. We enjoyed the game but missed a lot.

This year we looked for options with commentary in English. Alan found one option: log into a VPN, have it appear as if we are viewing from the UK, watch the game on BBC-1. At least it will be in English.

With the game switching to NBC we tried downloading their app, but sadly it doesn’t work in our area (or country, really). But NBC had a great list of how to watch the game from countries around the world, including which stations were broadcasting the game.

I did a Google search to find the BBC website and noticed just below the link an option that said watch tv from anywhere. So I clicked on it. A free site called FirstOneTV.net popped up. It took just minutes to get a free account and when I went to the “Watch TV Now” tab there was a very long list of countries to choose from. I scrolled down and saw that there were 81 stations available from the U.S. When the page opened, NBC was available so I selected it, after a 10-second ad it took me directly into NBC’s streaming content.

Other than one moment of having the screen freeze in the first quarter of the game, the rest of the game — all four hours of it — were viewed without incident.

Next year, we’ll just start with this as the option for viewing! Perhaps we’ll be able to catch some of the Winter Olympics this year as well, at least the opening ceremony!



Micro-Adventure: Villefranche-de-Conflent

Part two of our micro-adventure was to visit the fortified city below Fort Liberia. Built before the fort, this ancient city was the capital of the region when it was part of Catalonia. The principality of Catalonia was divided in half in the mid 17th century when the Treaty of the Pyrenees was signed. The northern region, including the fortified city of Conflent, became new lands of King Louis XIV.

The main industry here for centuries was the manufacturing of material. The village was famous for its fabrics and they sold throughout the European continent. Each bolt of fabric was labeled with the towns crest as proof of its origin. This emblem consists of two towers, a star and water, surmounted by the Catalan colors of red and gold and topped with the crown of Aragon. Because the fabric was so highly sought after the weavers of the city were not taxed for this commercial asset. This move on the part of the government gave the city its name “ville franche” or “free town.”

The village was built at the confluence of two rivers, the Tet and the Cady. Literally built at the river’s edge as part of the city’s defense. More formal fortifications were made and Cova Bastera (barracks built into an existing cave) added at the same time Fort Liberia was being built to strengthen the defensive system of the village under the direction of the king’s military architect, Vauban. Though these additions did not stop General Ricardos’ Spanish army from taking the town without a fight in August of 1793.

The town consists of just two narrow streets and several open squares with four main entryways, none of the original gates exist and the drawbridges have been gone for awhile, but the inner workings of the bridge lifts are still in place near the Porte de France, the place we first entered.

We ate lunch at the only restaurant available, Cafe Le Canigou, which thankfully advertises that it is open 7 days a week, 365 days a year. The restaurant overlooked a small square which had views of Fort Liberia and the Mushroom Museum.

Probably the quaintest feature we found in this tiny village was the continued use of signs advertising the wares of the businesses. Though more modern, we loved the use of this medieval advertising method from a period in history when the average person could not read and thus signs advertising the type of business were necessary.

As is often the case, we always notice that each new village or town has at least one thing we have not seen in other small locations. For Villefranche-de-Conflent it was the marble signage with instructions on the correction of the sundial to have the exact time in any season.

Villefranche-de-Conflent and Fort Liberia receive over 80,000 visitors a year, but our suggestion is to avoid the crowds and visit during the off-season when you have the opportunity to visit at your leisure and enjoy the quaint beauty without hordes of people pushing you through the street.


Micro-Adventure: Fort Liberia

Today’s micro-adventure was to Chateau-Fort Liberia in Villefranche-de-Conflent . . . well above it actually. About 1,000 steps above it.

We arrived early expecting a bit of a climb and set out immediately, once we found the starting point. Just off to the left of the parking lot for the train station is a narrow trail along the fence keeping people from the train tracks. This is starting point for those who are walking up to Fort Liberia. There is a summer shuttle for about €3, well worth it I imagine in the summer heat.

We followed the narrow trail, walked over the bridge crossing the train tracks and up to the gate allowing entrance to the private property of the Chateau-Fort. Approximately 100 meters from the gate is the start of the climb . . . a few dozen cement and stone steps. From the top of the steps the climb gets much steeper and there are less and less “steps” but more and more rocks and at this time of year, mud.

The sign at the bottom of the staircase said a 20 minute climb, it took us 30 minutes. We still arrive 45 minutes before the scheduled opening of 10 a.m. Though in reality the place didn’t open until 10:30 and we had already started back down the hill when the three-person team came up in a jeep to open up the fort. Turning around and reclimbing the last 200 meters, we finally made our way into the fort.

First, we hit the bar to pay for our entry and grab a cup of coffee while reading through the tour literature.

Built by Vauban — Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban (1633-1707), a military engineer of King Louis XIV — Fort Liberia is 337 years old and played a big part in defense of the French-Spanish border after the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659 which gave the northern part of Catalonia to the French. Built above the walled city of Villefranch-de-Conflent a good two-thirds of the way up the Belloc mountains, this sandstone and marble fortress is both functional and beautiful. Used as a fort, prison and private home, it is in remarkable condition and has many of its original features, such as shutters and doors.

Vauban is well known in this area for building some amazing forts and military bases. In addition to Fort Liberia, he has another in this region called Mont Louis that we plan to visit in the near future. He was the leading military architect of his time throughout the world and his designs were emulated for nearly 2000 years. Fort Liberia is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site along with 11 other Vauban military installations throughout France.

Very little has changed through the years, though in the mid-1800s they adapted guard towers to deal with more “modern” warfare and in the early 19th century an underground tunnel was dug which links the fort with the fortified city below.

The most stunning features were the ramparts, the poisoner’s cell and the church. Though I favored the poisoner’s cell and the story of the six women who were imprisoned there. One lady was chained in a cell for 36 years and another for 44 years. The women were not allowed to talk for fear that they would name women of King Louis the XIV’s court who also took part in purchasing poisons from La Voisin, another of the inmates who was imprisoned for not only supplying the poison but also practising black magic. One of the court ladies who the king feared would be implicated happened to be among his favorites, hench the gag order on the prisoners.

The church dates from the 17th century and though small has a lovely alter and two tiny stained glass windows. After the army’s departure the chapel was turned back over to the church by the last private owner so that weddings and baptisms could once again be held.

We didn’t stay long, the entire tour took less than 90 minutes and though we would have loved to take the underground tunnel to the fortified city below, we didn’t think it was worth doing in the dark! Had the lights been on, we may have decided to travel 1.5 kilometers underground . . . perhaps next time!

Micro-Adventure: St. Genis des Fontaines

This week’s micro-adventure was to the small community of St. Genis des Fontaines. Specifically we went to see the 8th century Abbaye St. Genis des Fontaines, a Benedictine abbey which was part of the kingdom of Aragon when the Catalan people lived and ruled this area. Built between 778 and 780 AD it is dedicated to the martyr Saint Genis (303 AD).

This little abbey was destroyed by Norman looters in the 11th century and rebuilt throughout the medieval period, including architectural evolution of the 12th century church ceiling vault and the 13th century cloister construction.

In 1507 it was united with the larger Catalonian abbey of Montserrat, also a Benedictine abbey, near Barcelona. This alliance is what caused its decline in the 16th century during the French Wars of Religion. It became French governed under the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659, when the northern kingdom of Aragon was turned over to France.

Only seven monks remained when it was finally closed during the French Revolution. It remained empty until 1850, when the church became a village parish once more. The abbey and cloisters, sold off in 1924, were finally returned to the parish in 1995.

The abbey has lovely Roman origins and though some parts are still privately owned or still in need of restoration, we certainly found a lot to see in this small, but lovely, little abbey.

The entrance fee also included an art exposition. Most of the photos included in the expo had been taken in Cerbere and Port Vendres in France and Port Bou in Spain. We recognized them immediately and appreciated the artists unique angles having just done photos in this areas recently ourselves.

The town itself had only a handful of businesses, but we still managed to find a place to grab a cup on coffee while waiting for the abbey to open and lunch (mushroom, bacon and cheese quiche) at the little boulangerie as the restaurants were not yet open and we wanted a quick bite before heading home on the bus.

The photos below are mine, Alan posted his to Facebook!


Micro-Adventure: Cerbere

For our goal of getting out and about more for 2018, we instituted Travel Tuesday (or Thursday if the weather is awful!). Yesterday for Travel Tuesday we hopped on a train to Cerbere. The last French city before you reach Spain, this lovely little community has quite a lot to offer for the day-trip traveler.

We opted for the train as there is frightfully little bus service to this tiny port town. So at 9 am we got on a train, rode for 31.5 km, and hopped off 15 minutes later. Round trip for two, under €20.

The very first thing we did was to go up to the oldest part of the station and take a ton of photos of the station’s gazebo-like outdoor structure. We see a lot of this type of design on older train stations, but this one has a secret — or more  truthfully a “little-known” fact — it was designed and built by Gustave Eiffel. Yep, THAT Eiffel, as in the giant world-renown tower in Paris! Cool, huh! We thought so, hence the tons of photos. The station’s border guards smiled and laughed at our enthusiasm, they obviously know the history and were likely more amazed that WE knew the history.

In addition to being built by such a famous architect and artist, the station also has a link to our home town of Argeles-sur-Mer in that nearly all of the refugees of the Retirada (the Spanish Civil War) passed through the tunnels under the Pyrenees, to the train station in Cerbere and then over the hills the 31.5 kilometers to the beaches of Argeles-sur-Mer. Between 1936 and 1939 Argeles received over a 1/2 million people fleeing from the infamous, Francisco Franco.

After our photo shoot at the station we hiked over to the beautiful Hotel Belvedere. This beautiful hotel built in 1928 is still undergoing restoration work, but the completed facade facing the sea is absolutely lovely. More photos, of course!

From there we hiked down on the elevated roadway that includes a nice, wide pedestrian lane which offers great views of the Mediterranean as well as the surrounding hills and town below.

We spotted the new breakwater near the empty harbor and headed down to walk out to the point. From that vantage point we had great views of the small pebble beach and sea-side homes and businesses.

Walking back toward the main street through town, we noticed a couple of backpackers and their dogs. We enjoyed watching their puppy try to play with the larger, older dog who wasn’t really interested. After smiling our good mornings, we went looking for the tourist office . . . which was closed. Not unusual for this time of year but we do love visiting and finding out new things nearby to go and see so it always feels like a missed opportunity when the tourist office is not open.

The small square at the end of the main thoroughfare was a bit lively with a couple of vendors selling their fruits, vegetables and meats. There was a boulangerie in one corner and a small corner grocery store to our right as we entered the square. However none of the restaurants on the square were open so no coffee . . . bummer.

After leaving the mini-market area, we headed out of town to go visit the lighthouse. Cap Cerbere is the most southern French lighthouse on the Mediterranean. It also looks a lot like the Space Shuttle. Seriously. From the lighthouse you can look across the large bay into Spain, which we did.

After playing around the lighthouse for a while, we took photos of the wine tasting building (only open during the summer) that offers free tastings for tourists during the “season.” We did laugh over the idea of something similar in the US, a road-side, free wine tasting booth with plenty of parking . . . probably never likely to see one there anytime soon!

Heading back into town we had lunch at La Cacerne, the “Happy Pizza” place, a small terraced cafe with views of the harbor. Ordering a small pizza  to share we were quite surprised when it arrived sliced American-style. So surprised, in fact, that I asked Alan if his French was that bad that the server didn’t bring us forks and knives which is standard for pizza consumption in Europe. Later a group of locals also received their pizzas pre-sliced so we figure it must be a “new” thing for the region!

After a delicious lunch, we headed back toward the square to check out the tunnels connecting the lower town to the hilltop above. One of the main tunnels leads to an interesting cistern like break between two tunnels, but includes an abandoned small home and overgrown yard, and a unique staircase up the curved walls to the train station above. Heading back toward the seafront, we decided to explore a smaller tunnel (pedestrian only size) off to our left. It lead us over the the opposite side of the railyard above us and allowed us to get much different views of the town below and the Mediterranean beyond.

Done exploring and wanting to get home while it was still beautiful out, we headed back to the train station. While waiting for our train we ran into the backpacking couple and their dogs. They were heading in the opposite direction toward Spain taking the 2 minute train trip into Port Bou. Vanessa and her boyfriend, whose name we didn’t quite get, have been traveling for a few years now. She was lively and fun to chat with, offering to play her ukelele for us if we run into each other in Argeles, as they visit up this way on occasion. We told her we would welcome another opportunity to visit and would love to hear her play.

Such a lovely day, warm and sunny with hardly any wind at all. Amazing for mid-January. Much appreciated by us both.

Today we woke up to winds at 87 mph blowing around the furniture on the balcony. It reminded us of a simple trut

h . . . Gustave Eiffel definitely understood the weather around here. The beautiful structure that we admired at the train station yesterday is brilliant in its design as it allows the wind to blow . . . through it!

A Hidden Gem

We met a new friend a while back, Beth. Another American expat who lives here in Argeles-sur-Mer with her two daughters. She’s a friend of the lovely Lisa who assisted us with Lou’s adoption. Beth and I corresponded via Facebook and email and set a date to meet for coffee. She’s a super fun lady and we really enjoyed getting to know her a bit.

After our initial meet, she sent me a note about a new exhibit in nearby Rivesaltes. The exhibit is on the grounds of the Camp du Rivesaltes, one of the many camps set up during the Spanish Civil War. We were really excited about visiting as were our friends Joan and Greg. We set a date to go visit together. Joan found a lovely winery where we could stop and grab lunch; Greg offered to drive.

Greg’s offer was great. When we finally found this new place without ANY signage to help direct us, we had been traveling for over an hour . . . mostly in circles. Several people helped us out along the way, a lineman working on a telephone line, a truck driver at a utility company, a receptionist at a hotel, an employee at a government building. All of them knew about the place, all of them gave us directions, NONE of them actually helped us find the location. We did get excellent directions to the memorial, but the Camp and the memorial do not share the same space and were on different sides of the freeway. One must be quite specific when requesting directions Camp du Rivesaltes Memorial and Camp du Rivesaltes Museum are two completely different things.

We arrived about 20 minutes before our lunch reservation so we hopped out of Greg’s car and took a quick look around at the buildings and inside the lobby of the museum. Then headed back for lunch into the historic district of Rivesaltes.

Lunch at Cazes was amazing. Joan used to run her own catering business and her ability to find delicious and beautiful food never fails to impress. We had a great lunch, some yummy wine, took a look around the small winery, tasting room and gift store. Across from the entrance to the wine tasting room and gift store (they share the same space) a roll up door allowed us to watch the labeling machine at work. A small assembly line machine with two people at the end of the 8 foot track boxed labeled bottles of wine into boxes. Just past the labeling room toward the restaurant and behind the wine tasting room was a small warehouse filled with barrels of wine. This tiny warehouse faced a lovely outdoor dining area. Definitely worth a return trip!

After lunch and our mini-tour, we headed back to the museum getting lost for just a moment on the return trip.

The camp was like taking a walk through time. Many of the buildings that still exist are easily identifiable: barracks, showers, bathrooms, etc. The museum was built into the ground, like a basement. We were expecting to learn more about the Spanish Civil War and the refugees who fled from Spain and were temporarily housed here.

That isn’t want we found.

The history of the Camp du Rivesaltes was far more complex and covered far more world events. During most of its history, the site at Rivesaltes was both a military camp, it’s original function, and an internment camp. The French War Ministry’s decision to build the camp dates back to 19 December, 1939.

Beginning in 1940 on over 600 hectares of land, 19 blocks were built — 13 of the large quadrilateral buildings were used for housing troops the other six for services. In May of 1940 there were already 12,000 men living there It had been a camp for Spanish Civil War refugees, but also Vichy’s Undesirables during WWII, then a camp for assembling Jews before deportation to Auchwitz, then a transit camp for Harkis after the Algerian War, then it was released to the military.

There are over 600 hectares of land, divided into nineteen blocks: thirteen reserved for accommodation for the troops (large quadrilateral buildings designated with a letter), six for services. It was intended to set up a Transit Center for indigenous colonial troops. The first to arrive were Senegalese battalions. In May 1940, there were already nearly 12,000 men. These troops were to be sent to the Front, and after defeat, were soon followed by others who retreated before being demobilized. The sharp decrease in men in the French army after the signing of the Armistice on June 22, 1940 with victorious Germany, made the vast military camps, like Rivesaltes useless. However, in the context of the new Vichy regime’s exclusion policy, the idea of giving a portion of the site for installing an internment camp became obvious. It was accomplished a few months later. What remains is reminiscent of Manzanar in California. Here there are far more buildings and the museum itself is very modern using technology as a great advantage in telling the story of the camp, the people who were forced to live here and similar places all around France.

It is humbling to spend time in such a place.

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And . . . we’re done!

We made the final move on the last Friday in February and just ahead of the worst wind and rain we’ve seen since our arrival in Argeles-sur-Mer in April 2015. We spent the first two weeks enjoying the upgraded internet speed while watching hail, wind and rain from those incredible windows.

Sami and Lou protested the move at first and we weren’t able to leave them alone for the first two weeks without some major howling complaints. They both started up barking when we put them in their crate and tried to leave. Not wishing to upset our neighbor downstairs, Denis, I stayed in with the dogs. Eventually we were able to get it under control just in time for our appointment at the prefecture in Perpignan to renew our visas.

We have had quite a bit of fun exploring this new neighborhood. This end of the plage is a bit more developed with beautiful sand-set brick paths, large grassy areas, lots of trees for shade, beautiful lighting. Which makes walking the dogs in the rain a bit less messy.

The unpacking is being held up by the lack of places to put things. The bedroom has a small but serviceable closet, more than enough space for our minimized wardrobes, but without a dresser for all the things that don’t hang we’re using the closet’s floor and upper shelf for clothing. Eventually our luggage will store up there, but first we really need the rest of our purchased shelving to arrive . . . hopefully this week.

When you haven’t owned furniture in three years it can be a challenge to decide what you want from all the options available. It can be a little more challenging when everything you purchase must serve a dual purpose. For example, the microwave cart that we purchased at Conforama had to be able to hold the induction cooktop, a toaster oven, offer storage for cookware and utensils. It’s a big ask for one item to do all that and fit into a space that is 13″ deep by 26″ wide, the unit also had to be a minimum of 36″ tall so that both Alan and I can comfortably use it. Oh, and did I mention that I wanted something that could be mobile so it’s easier to clean up around it?

Our online shopping prowess has assisted in the purchasing of everything we need. Even if we plan to purchase in the store we do all the research online first to make sure that we are getting a good deal, that the item will fit in the space we have and that it matches the rest of the decor (which isn’t much yet).

We still need to purchase a dining room set, a rug for the tile floor, a few kitchen items that we just can’t live without, and a console table to use as a charging station. Did I mention that we have only 9 outlets in the whole apartment? We have more things that need charging then we have plugs to charge them in . . . first world problems for sure, but still a challenge for our digital lives.

Everything is coming together slowly, but we are completely enjoying this new space. Spring has brought quite a bit of cold, wet weather but now that the jasmine is blooming it’s gentle fragrance is a reminder that warm, summer weather is just around the corner.

Ahoy matie!

Every day in France offers unique experiences. This evening as we were preparing to take Sami and Lou for their evening stroll along the promenade I noticed some activity outside our apartment.

Sitting on a green chair next to a green couch (neither of which were there earlier in the day), was a pirate. Yep, a pirate. He was wearing a tricorn hat, bright pink shirt and drinking a bottle of rum . . . nope not kidding!

As we left the yard (after I snapped a few photos from the balcony) he offered Alan a seat in the empty chair next to him with a pirate-y smile.

Last week we sat with a gypsy, this week a pirate . . . wonder what will happen next week~ 🙂