27 February 2013
With no schedule and no itinerary, we followed some extremely curvy roads through spectacularly wild and very sparsely populated country.
In the province of Castellón we spotted a wonderful hilltop town. We drove up the hill, through the gates and pulled into what appeared to be the only vacant parking spot in Morella. It was directly across from Hotel El Cid, so we decided to spend the night. The town traces its past from Stone Age cave paintings and Bronze Age graves. More modern history includes the Greeks, who established a treasury here. Later it was the scene of conflict between the Carthaginians and the Roman Empire during the Punic Wars. The town was Romanized and then in 714 the Moors captured it. The castle, which overlooks the town from the top of the rock, is reputed to have rebuilt by El Cid, and in 1084 he is said to have defeated Sancho Ramírez of Aragon at the Battle of Morella. Then there is the recent history from the twelfth century onward.
After the tasting we drove northward to Beaune, where we spent Tuesday night in Hôtel Henri II. This four-star hotel is a lovely renovation of an old residence and adjacent buildings dating to 1626. It is located just outside the north gate of the city, within easy walking of the medieval centre of town. On many occasions during the 1980s and 90s I had used it as accommodation for the participants in my small-group wine and food tours. It was fun to see it again.
We paused in a small restaurant in the heart of Beaune for a lunch of jambon persillé and boeuf bourguignon to help ameliorate the wine we had absorbed during the tasting. Although the rule during tastings is to spit, there is always some absorption of alcohol through the skin in the mouth. Compounding this is that with great wines, the direction of spitting is often toward back of the mouth, rather than the front; down the gullet, rather than out into the sink or crachoir. There had been too many great wines in this tasting. With the alcohol suitably dissipated over the slow lunch, we drove northward to Reims, where we found a very comfortable room in Hôtel Port Mars.
As we walked back toward the car, we looked back and saw her unlock the door of the house and begin manoeuvring her bicycle in. We went back and introduced ourselves and she invited us in. We had been in the house in September to see it being restored and renovated. It was still in disarray with finishing work yet incomplete. Betty introduced herself as the wife of the shipyard owner. Her husband had been born in the house and last year when he was diagnosed with cancer, he decided he wanted to move back in to finish his life here. He died in October before the work on the house was completed.
Edi told Betty of having taken photos of some of them while she was there in 1979, and in her computer she found a digitised version of a transparency that she had shot back then. Both Edi and I were aware of British-built boats on Titicaca, but not of Dutch; we will have to dig deeper.
From Edam we drove out to Wijk an Zee and paused in front of the house in which Edi had been born, then we continued up into the coastal dunes to look out over the North Sea. From there we continued southward to Haarlem to look at the fine old buildings and to visit Edi's cousin, El, who had invited us for lunch.
After a very pleasant couple of hours enjoying an Italian-Dutch lunch, we continued southward to look for a place to stay within an easy drive of the airport in Brussels. It was threatening to snow, and we wanted an easy drive on Sunday morning for our 1030 flight back to Canada. Just past Antwerp we left the highway to head into Mechelen to find some accommodation. We drove for many kilometres through very bland city and its urban sprawl and saw no hotels, inns or any other form of lodging. As we continued through mundane linear communities, we became increasingly convinced that people mustn't stop in Belgium; we could find no public accommodation. Finally, after more than an hour of urban and suburban traffic, we found an Ibis Hotel in the centre of Leuven, about 20 kilometres from the airport.
Sunday morning as we swept the snow off the car, we were pleased that we had stayed so close to the airport. As it was, it took us nearly an hour to drive the short distance. The flight was nearly an hour late departing because of weather, so we missed our connection in Montreal and had to wait over four hours for the next flight to Vancouver, which was also weather-delayed. Finally, at just past 2300 we arrived home after more than 24 hours in transit. We were travel weary, but very upbeat from our wonderful three weeks of adventures in Europe. We couldn't believe we had been gone only three weeks; the time had been so stuffed with such a diversity of places, people and experiences that it seemed more like three months.