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Of food, technology, movies, music, and travel—or whatever else strikes my fancy


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Finding things to do in Ottawa

  • Why don’t you use Air Bnb?
  • Why does anyone stay in hotels anymore?
  • A whole apartment in Budapest for just $60!

After hearing reports like the above for a couple of years now, ith our Ottawa leg, we decided to give this Air Bnb thing a whirl. We wanted a place close to downtown, that would be self-contained, and cheaper than a hotel (or why bother)? We picked one that met those qualifications and otherwise seemed OK, per photos and reviews.

We got there and… Well… It sure was a contrast to the Château Frontenac in Québec City.

The place was kind of… run down. Creaky, uneven floors. What looked like a hole punched in the wall. Water pooling at the bottom of the fridge. Trash strewn around out back. An electrical outlet of dubious safety. And we could really hear the next-door neighbours.

On the other hand, it was basically clean, we spotted no insects of any sort, the location was very convenient, it had a strong the wifi signal, and after a visit to the Byward Market to add fresh fruit and Montreal-style bagels to our arsenal of produce from Ile d’Orléans, we made ourselves the best breakfasts of the trip.

Still, now I have an answer when people ask, why would anyone stay in a hotel anymore?


Ottawa during the golden hour

Unlike our accommodations, Ottawa looked very regal while we were there

Our first Ottawa dinner was at Fairouz, a restaurant specializing in high-end Middle Eastern food. It’s a smallish place, and somewhat noisy, but with very good service. We had with spicy olives, salmon pastourma, lamb kofte, and date cake for dessert. It definitely was a step above your typical Middle Eastern food—but that type of food still isn’t our favourite.

We then had to decide what to do with ourselves in Ottawa, a city we visit rather more often than Québec City. We decided to give the Museum of History another chance, now that the Canadian History Hall was open. They also had a special exhibit on The Franklin Expedition that was of interest, especially since we’d been watching AMC’s The Terror.

The walk to the Museum of History

The Franklin Expedition exhibit was really terrific. It was interactive and laid out in a way that gave a good sense of what the men went through. The bit about the recent discovery of the two lost ships was featured less than I expected it would be, but it was featured.

The Canadian History Hall, which is on two floors, is also really well done. It starts with Native history and their story gets included throughout, much more than if this Hall had been put together a decade or so ago, I suspect. We then get the stories of the French explorers and settlers (and the Filles du Roy), the Acadians, the United Empire Loyalists. We revisit Confederation, Louis Riel, the building of the railroad. Exhibits continue on to more current events: the world wars, Expo 67, Trudeaumania (the first), the two Quebec Referendum, the October Crisis, the legalization of gay marriage, the Idle No More movement, and so on.

It was all very interesting, and we ended up spending far more time at that museum than we’d expected to. At one point we took a lunch break to eat at the fairly indifferent (nowhere near as good as Apsara) Thai restaurant across the street (the Green Papaya), then headed back. We were there til 3:30.

The day had turned lovely, so we then did some ambling about Ottawa. I also stopped off at clothing boutique near the Air Bnb, featuring local designers. I tried on a number of items and did end up purchasing a pretty cute little black dress (about $120).

Look what happens when you have guests ... what a mess!

Ottawa

For dinner, we met up with some friends at Play Food and Wine. The service was a bit error-prone: a cheese plate including blue cheese despite an allergy having been reported to that very thing; duplicated dishes arriving when different dishes had been ordered. But everything got rectified and we did enjoy our various small dishes, though nothing especially stood out this time.

Saturday was predicted to be rainy, but in the end, less rain fell than expected. We started the day at National Gallery. It was partly under construction, and featured no special exhibits, but we hadn’t been in a few years, and so just enjoyed the regular collection, particularly the European and American works.

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Jean was there!

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So were camels!

We then had a decent lunch in the Market area, resisted the offerings at the Poutine festival on Sparks Street, and did some shopping around the Bank street area, mainly picking up books and magazines (like, on paper!). The independent coffee shops all seemed to be overflowing with patrons, so made our way to Starbucks at the Chapters.

Our final dinner of the trip was at the Beckta Wine Bar, and it was quite lovely. We started with some oysters, and both had the Parisian gnocchi (ricotta, asparagus, pine nuts, peas), which was worth doubling up on. (I suspect we had dessert as well, though I can’t remember what, now.) Service was very good (not error-prone) and helpful with the wine matching.

A nice ending to this leg of the trip. Then it a blessedly uneventful drive home on Sunday (during which we didn’t quite finish Ready Player One).


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Visiting l’accent de l’Amérique

Our next destination after Prince Eward County was Québec City—currently branding itself as l’accent de l’Amérique, which is kind of clever. The 6-hour drive there seemed rather long, and a bit of a waste of another nice day, but we passed the time listening to the audiobook of Ready Player One, a fun, near-future sci-fi novel recently turned Stephen Spielberg movie. (The audiobook was read by Will Wheaton, which made one detail in the novel especially amusing.)

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Guess what was playing in Picton while we were there? Didn’t see it, though; didn’t want to spoil the book

We had booked a room at the fancy and historic Château Frontenac, which was having anniversary specials. So we had the door man, and concierge services, and a great, central location. The room was just one of their “basic” ones, but it was still a good size and comfortable.

Chateaux Frontnac lobby

Our modest little hotel

And the outside of it. It’s huge! You can get lost in its corridors.

We had wanted to have dinner at Toast, but—cue the jokes—Toast was closed due to fire. So we booked (or really, had the concierge book for us) at their sister restaurant, Simple Snack Sympathique, or SSS. We found it just as delightful as we remembered Toast being, with creative food combinations and lovely presentation. I had the Québec Exquis special, which was a prix fixe of three courses all incorporating maple syrup in some way. (Québec Exquis was a one-week period in which Québec restaurants featured three-course, prix-fixe menus built around items from québecois food producers .)

First up for me was snow crab, then duck (the maple sauce was amazing), then maple éclair. Jean went with the regular menu for foie gras, smoked pork, then fromage fermier (farmer cheese!) for dessert.

Tastes as good as it looks

We enjoyed a selection of wines from the Languedoc region with that—also part of the Québec Exquis special. (By the way, we had no idea before leaving that all these restaurant specials would be on.)

Jean took to getting up early for photos, while I had more leisurely mornings. Worked out for both of us.

How the world looks to morning people, apparently

Our first full day there, after a joint breakfast (not at the hotel), we walked down rue St-Jean, the shopping street outside the Old Town. This time we didn’t find too many treasures worth buying, though: just a bargain-priced collection of sheet music, for me.

We’d never been to Ile D’Orléans before—an island about a 30-minute drive from Québec—and had been planning to visit it this trip. But after driving around Prince Edward County, which is nearly an island, visiting various food-related destinations, we weren’t sure if we wanted to get back in the car and do the same here? On the map provided by the hotel, though, I noticed that there were bus tours we could take to the island. So we signed up for La route des saveurs, starting at 2:00, and running for 2.5 hours

Joining us on the tour—which started right at our hotel—was a friendly couple from Carolina, on an anniversary vacation, and two young women from South Korea, in Canada for what seemed like an absurdly short time for such a long trip. We found out that a popular South Korean show was filmed in Québec City, leading to an increased number of Korean tourists going there and looking for the “red door”. (CBC story: How a popular Korean soap opera is drawing Asian tourists to Quebec City.)

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Not the red door, but still a cool shot of Old Québec

Our guide was a lively young man with an enthusiasm for both Québec and the culinary products of Ile d’Orléans. Being early spring, with snow still in the fields, the island landscape wasn’t as lovely as it presumably becomes when plants are in bloom. So, we don’t have too many photos from this part. But, we did enjoy the tastings at each stop.

  1. Chocolaterie: Your typical artisanale chocolate shop, except that they also had an ice cream shop with chocolate-dipped cones. We enjoyed the chocolate maple sample, and bought another set of maple-based chocolates for later consumption, but resisted the ice cream, figuring that would give us a sugar overload too early in the tour.
  2. Maison Smith: A coffee shop where we sampled a maple latte. Normally I don’t care for sweetened coffees, but this one had a very light touch with the maple, and I quite enjoyed it. The owner gave an interesting overview of his business as well. We bought some ground coffee here, for planned use at our Ottawa accommodations.
  3. Sucrerie: Probably the most interesting stop, as the maple syrup was currently being gathered here and we got an overview of the whole process. We tasted various strengths of maple syrup and the maple jelly, which we bought a jar of.
  4. Cidrerie Bilodeau: Here they make dry and sweet apple ciders of various types, from dry sparkling to iced apple, any of which we were able to sample. We bought a cassis / apple blend that we figured could make interesting kir-like drinks. And also a jar of the most delicious apple butter I’ve ever had. Should have bought more. [There was no obligation to buy things at each stop. We just did.]
  5. Nougaterie: Run by an originally European couple who immigrated to Canada and established this business. They had nougat in an extraordinary range of flavors, all super-fresh as it was made on the premises. We restricted ourselves to purchasing a single salt caramel bar. Amazing-tasting caramel, though.
  6. Cassis Mona et Fille: Probably the most famous destination on the island. They make a range of products based on cassis (black currant), and gave us an overview of them all. In the summer, they also run a restaurant that is supposed to be quite good. All the drinks were lovely, but we especially blown away by the creme de cassis, which we bought (more kir!). We also got some cassis mustard (yes, it’s purple).

All that eating did not stop us from going out to eat later! We went back to an old favourite, Thai restaurant Apsara. We had one of the set menus that is a real bargain, even when we upgraded the included wine to be a Blanquette de Limoux. Each course was fresh and delicious. And the ladies got a lovely change purse as a gift at the end.

Assortment of Thai desserts—and note the cool teapot

The next morning we spent more time wandering in the Old Town, as we’d previously been rushing through it.

 The afternoon we spent at the Québec Art Gallery, which has only modern and contemporary works. Our favourites were the Inuit sculptures, which were just amazing. The building was formerly a prison, and we also had a look at the old cells. Not big!

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One of the exhibits at the Quebec Art Gallery. (Photo by me, hence the blurri-ness.)

Our last dinner in Quebec, on a somewhat rainy evening, was at Le St. Amour. We’ve always loved Le St. Amour. It’s in this gorgeous, high-ceiling roomed with a sunroof. And the food is always amazing. It didn’t disappoint this time, either.

We started off the evening trying to work in French—French menus, speaking French to the waiters (an ongoing amusement of the trip was Québecois complimenting Jean on how good his French was, for an Ontario. Well, I hope so.). But we detected a bit of an anglo accent from one of our waiters—bit unusual in these parts—and it turned out he was originally Australian! And still had that accent in English.

L’amuse bouche at Le St. Amour. Or as they call it in English, the amuse bouche. (Food just sounds better in French.)

So he was happy to English-it-up with us, and then we were hopelessly back in English-land with everyone, with even the native Québec waiters. Oh well!

This part will come as a shock to you all, but I had the Québec Exquis special, while Jean ordered off the regular menu! For me this meant a main course of escargot and Jerusalem artichokes, a main course of duck, and a chocolate mousse-themed dessert.

Dessert

Jean started with foie gras, then had a lamb leg and ground lamb ravioli, and concluded with a cheese plate. We shared a bottle of Languedoc red, a Grenache-Syrah blend (no Mourvedre). With dessert I had a red banyuls (“a little French love letter to chocolate”, is how this wine is described) while Jean was recommended a sherry, which he enjoyed.

Cheese for dessert

A great capper to a very enjoyable visit. Our next stop on the way home was Ottawa.


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Traveling between storms

This year in Ontario, the spring thaw was very much delayed: March and April were just persistently cold, and occasionally snowy. (Apparently, this was somehow due to melting in the Arctic, pushing the cold down to us.) It was capped off, April 14 weekend, with a terrible ice storm that made driving treacherous and caused power outages. (and wasn’t even that pretty). The only sensible thing to do was hunker down at home. Fortunately, we had no plans anyway, so that was pretty easy for us to do (and we luckily did not lose power).

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The ice storm produced more clear, deadly ice than the pretty white frosty (though also dangerous) kind

Then this past weekend, large swatches of southern Ontario had crazy high winds that knocked down trees, shingles, fences, road signs, and bus shelter frames. Again cue the power outages (including us this time, for about 2 and half hours), followed by (in many cases, including ours) Internet and cable outages.

So it was fortunate that our vacation occurred between there, during a week of pretty normal spring temperatures: pleasantly warm (even if a jacket was still required), with the occasional bit of rain (timed such that it didn’t really interfere with our activities).

Our first destination was Prince Edward County. Though just starting their tourist season, it was already pretty busy—it was challenging to find weekend accommodations. We ended up staying in the Picton area, instead of the usual Bloomfield, due to the Picton County Inn having room for us. We figured we’d take advantage to spend more time in that part of the county, which is bit smaller in population and sparser in the number of wineries.

Picton, looking moody

Our first stop was at the original Prince Edward County winery, Wapoos. We had lunch there—fish and chips for Jean, mushroom risotto for me, both of which were good but not great—and noted that their wine list featured a number of unusual grapes. We enjoyed the wines we tried at lunch enough to then visit the tasting room (after walking the lovely grounds). It was a nice experience, and we emerged with a Seyval Blanc that we’d had at lunch with the fish, a Geisenheim (see what I mean about the unusual grapes? This one tastes like grapefruit!), and a 2017 Shiraz of county grapes, which was a huge contrast to their 2015 Shiraz of Niagara grapes (the county version being much lighter).

Dinner that night was a late one at the Merrill Inn—we weren’t able to get in before 8:30. They were having a County-licious three-course prix fixe dinner here, which is what I had, while Jean ordered off the menu. (This would prove a theme for the whole trip.) We enjoyed the meal, with good service in a nice room, and well-prepared food. I had a salad and cioppino while Jean went with gnocchi followed by osso bucco. We shared my included dessert of affogato (and despite it being walking distance, were very responsible on wine: just one glass each).

Exterior view of the Merrill Inn

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Interior view, during the appetizer round

We attempted breakfast the next day at our Inn, but it was packed, so we walked up the street to Lydia’s Cafe, and had very nice breakfast there: They had Montreal bagels! We also picked up some yummy wild blueberry chocolate fudge (for later eating, not for breakfast. Although, you know, fruit…).

It was quite a nice day, so we then drove off to do some hiking at a bird sanctuary—even though we don’t know much about birds. Indeed, it was a bit early and there weren’t that many types of birds out, but we saw some, along with snakes and frogs. Really it was the sound of birds, and frogs, that was most striking there, this time of year.

This guy—or gal—was kind enough to pose. Wonder what kind of bird it is. (I’m kidding!)

We then visited what would be the highlight winery for us: A small one called Exultet Estates. They’re especially known for their Chardonnay, which they were out of, but everything else we tried, we really liked as well. And it was some unusual stuff: a dry apple wine (be good with chicken or pork), and an apple port. A white wine made of Pinot Noir grapes (would work with fish). An orange wine made of Pinot Gris grapes. A lovely red Pinot noir (could have this on its own), and a Pinot noir rosé (in a dry, food-friendly style).

Anyone interested in drinking more than just big reds (none of their wines are of that style) should consider a stop here, even though their small-batch production means some higher prices. We left with nine bottles.

After an aborted attempt to lunch in Millford (the restaurant Google suggested wasn’t open yet), we went back to a creperie in Picton for that, which worked out fine. We then headed out to one more winery: Del Gatto. At this time of year, they only had two types of wine available for tasting: an off-dry Riesling and a red Frontenac. Both pretty good, but we bought the Frontenac, as that’s yet another unusual grape. We then made a stop at Fifth Town cheese, which is small and somewhat crowded, but does have wonderful products available for sampling. We came away with quite a haul from here. (We had a cooler, and fridges in our rooms on this trip.)

Our dinner at Blumen Garden Bistro, at the more normal hour of 7:00, was even better than our Merrill Inn one. I started with beet soup, followed by delicious rabbit gnocchi. Jean started with a bison appetizer, then had the roast duck, which he liked, but he was even more impressed with the vegetable sides.

We walked the 2.2 km there and back, which allowed for enjoying a bottle of Pinot—especially Jean. He insisted we each get dessert, and he had a really delicious banana pudding thing. I had a chocolate marquis with raspberry.

The next morning we managed to have breakfast at our Inn (it was all right), and then it was off to Québec City. (More to come.)

 


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Four days in January

Now that I’ve come up with it, the title of this post seem vaguely ominous, as though I’m about to recount some tragic event that, in four short days, changed my life forever.

But no, sorry, this is nothing that interesting, I’m afraid. (Mind you, I am glad I haven’t recently experienced a great tragedy.)

Jean’s work has been requiring more travel lately, including three weeks in Barrie (about a 2-hour drive away). The first weekend in between, he came home. The second one, he decided to go a conference in Toronto. I would join him there.

This conference is annual, and normally I just stay over for one, maybe two nights. But with us having seen less of each other, I went there Friday after work and took Monday off, such that we could spend three nights and (part of) four days together.

Due to heavy Toronto traffic, my Friday bus was late arriving. Meanwhile, Jean was dealing with the fact that he couldn’t get into his hotel room, because the hotel (Doubletree by Hilton) had mistakenly registered him as staying only one night, even though we had booked for four (and had the paperwork to prove it). Initially, they also weren’t sure where his luggage was. (Turned out it was still in the room.) That all got straightened out shortly before I arrived.

Originally we’d been planning to meet with my younger sister and her husband for dinner, but she’d contacted us a couple days before with the realization that her son had a basketball game and her husband would be out of town, so… We made other plans. Which was just as well, as with the bus delay and hotel troubles, we would have been late for dinner.

But we were on time for the alternative we booked, old reliable Ki, where we once again had a really nice meal of their “modern sushi”, with a bottle of Grüner Veltliner.

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The jalapenos gave this a nice kick

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Sushi and sashimi assortment

Saturday morning Jean had more conferencing, and we had an early dinner booking, so in the afternoon, we just did a bit of ambling about on Toronto streets…

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Hospital street art

Til the weather became rainy and unpleasant, at which point we decided to explore the Toronto underground. This told us that… A lot of stores in the Toronto underground are closed on Saturdays. Kind of weird.

Dinner was at the very popular Richmond Station, which we’d really enjoyed this past summer. Given its popularity, we were only able to get reservations at either 5:15 or 10 pm. We went with 5:15 pm. We were able to do the chef’s surprise menu, which made it easy. They were able to give us five courses before they needed the table again, and everything was lovely, from the raw oysters…

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To the truffle mushroom soup, and on to the trout with cauliflower and barley…

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to the beef main course, and the hazelnut ice cream dessert, and polished off with some chocolates and macaroons.

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The wine we had was a French Pinot noir that was a pretty flexible match.

We were back at the hotel early enough to watch Eddie the Eagle on Netflix. Pretty much the definition of “feel good movie”, that one, but it’s well done. Eddie the Eagle was the British ski jumper at the Calgary Olympics who had taken up the sport only a year before, and came dead last in the competition, but was thrilled just to land on his feet (and, incidentally, set a British record for that sport). This movie was good at showing that this really was an accomplishment! Landing at Olympic ski jumping is not easy.

So, I’d recommend it. (Canadians, though, will have to look elsewhere than Netflix to watch it. They dropped it on February 1. Hence my hurry to watch it in January.)

Sunday late morning we met with my other sister at the Crown Princess for dim sum. Food and conversation were good, as usual.

Then we headed to the ROM, where they were featuring three special exhibits. Once we got through the rather long entry lineup, we went to the first one, on the Vikings. And found it somewhat underwhelming. Definitely I learned more about the Vikings, but that included the fact that they didn’t leave behind that many artifacts. I was expecting something more spectacular, I guess.

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I was amused by Zuul’s tag line

The Wildlife Photography exhibit, on the other hand, was really great. Lots of fantastic photographs (none of which we could take photos of, of course). As for Christian Dior exhibit? Honestly, we didn’t go ub because of the lineups. Which is really unfortunate, because when we first got to the exhibit door, there was no lineup. Had we realized, we would have gone in then and looked at the Wildlife Photography afterwards. But we didn’t, and we didn’t.

Our dinner that night, with some friends, was at our first new (to us) restaurant, Pearl Diver. It was a little bit noisy, but friendly service and definitely good at preparing its signature cuisine, seafood.

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Jean’s meal was Spanish-style: No sides! But they weren’t all like that.

And snowy Monday was basically about getting ourselves on the road, back to our respective destination cities.


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Christmas 2017

The Christmas season started with a lot of dancing. Mid-December, our dance class event in community centre gym was very well-attended. For Jean and I, it was one of those nights where our dancing was just clicking and we were able to move around the floor with ease. (Which we could bottle that.) We also enjoyed the music choices (our dance instructor played DJ), which included a slow-fox version of Prince’s “Purple Rain” and a strict-tempo jive of Queen’s “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.”

The following night was a fancier dinner/dance at The Victorian Park Pavilion, which is a beautiful venue. We forgot to request seating with people we knew, though the people we ended up with were fine—until one lady started bending Jean’s ear about the wonders of raw-food veganism, or some such.

The meal served was not raw-food vegan, though, but a traditional turkey dinner—and quite good, particularly considering the $35 per person fee. No booze on offer, though! Since we couldn’t bottle it, our dancing didn’t click quite as well that night. Music was a bit more “traditional” as well. But still a nice night out overall.

Finally on this theme, one couple in our dance class hosted a house party that did not feature dancing, but was still a very enjoyable evening of food and conversation. Amazing what these dance classes have done for our social life.


Jean and I did not do a gift exchange with each other this year—though a few new kitchen gadgets still trickled in, as Jean had planned ahead in case, and figured we needed them anyway. But we did do a Christmas dinner à deux, featuring roast duck, wasabi mashed potatoes, broccoli with tahini, and cranberry-pear sauce. Served with a nice California Pinot noir. Then, sugar pie for dessert.

Though we haven’t had the greatest luck with Christmas air travel in the past, we decided to book flights to Timmins this year. Our departure was set for 11 pm the night of December 21—we thought that the airport would be less busy at that time. I had that day off, but Jean was working. Or, he was until about 10 am. At that point he called me to come pick him up at the office, as he was experiencing the serious low back and abdominal pain that indicated kidney stones.

At home, he sat in the tub and drank tea until the worst of it passed. It would still be a few more days, though, until he really felt right again.

It was snowing, and Christmas, so we allowed for a lot of time to get to the airport and check our baggage. Everything went really well, though, so we had a lot of time to wait. At least I got plenty of reading done.

We boarded the plane pretty much on time, but then had to wait in a lineup on the runway for de-icing, for what turned out to be an hour. After about 45 minutes I finally turned airplane mode off on my phone so I could email Dad that we were still in Toronto, so maybe he didn’t want to wait up for us. He agreed that he didn’t.

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Ornament from Dad’s tree

Timmins was nippy when we arrived, but our rental car was already running and setting out front of the airport exit. (And boy was the rental guy happy to see us. We were his last customers, at about 1:30 am, and he’d started at 7 am that day.) Dad didn’t even hear us arrive; the next morning, he wondered if we even had, until he noticed that the guest bedroom door was closed.

Friday and Saturday were pretty mellow, partly because Jean still wasn’t feeling up to snuff yet. We did visit with his Mom, of course, and saw some of his other siblings at her house. And Neal and Sarah-Simone came over to Dad’s for a visit on Saturday. We also tested out the Skype connection with Joanne and Jon ahead of Christmas morning, and ran an errand at the LCBO (booze store, for non-Ontarians). But that was about all the excitement.

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Though this might have provided some excitement, had Dad’s brownies actually contained the ingredient suggested on the lid! (Hilarously, Dad stores his homebaked brownies in a container that previously contained hemp products.)

Christmas Eve morning Michelle, Jackson, and John arrived—Hugh decided to stay in Toronto for the Macphie family Christmas this year. That livened up the house a bit. And in the afternoon we paid a visit to our friends Paul and Sylvie, which is always nice. We got tales of their new cottage, and Jean and Sylvie exchanged photography tips that Paul and I pretended to understand.

We had a nice salmon Christmas Eve dinner at Dad’s that night, then they went to church while we got ourselves (eventually; we did get a bit lost) to my cousin’s for Réveillon #1. Fewer people in attendance this year; my uncle Gilles, for one, was not feeling up to going. But that made for a nice opportunity to talk to those that were there—my cousins, their kids, and their kid’s kids, and my aunt and uncle.

We did have to leave before the game portion of the evening to get to Réveillon #2, at the Lefebvre’s. And now I have to apologize because Jean was kept so busy at this event—first playing Santa to hand out the kids’s gifts, then reciting the left/right story for the random gift exchange—that he didn’t take any pictures. And it just didn’t occur to me to do that instead.

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Ornament from Jean’s Mom’s tree. Not taken on Christmas Eve.

And this year’s gift theme was hats, so that would have made for a lot of amusing photos! Jean, for one, got right into it and provided a whole collection of ridiculous hats: a poop emoji mask, three pucks in a nylons (a hat trick! Think about it), and so on. I supplied this book:

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Which did greatly amuse the recipient, niece Natasha.

A large-format version of the following photo from our anniversary party was provided as a family Christmas gift to Jean’s Mom.

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The Lefebvre family (with part of the McNair family in the background)

The McNair Christmas gift exchange was still the stealing game, but with a couple differences this year: The price limit was set at $30, and the number of gifts to be bought was divided up such that Neal and Michelle didn’t have to buy extra just because they had kids. So each family bought three and Dad bought two, and that covered everyone…

(Except that Michelle was so busy she didn’t quite read all the rules, so she caught the $30 limit but not the fact that she didn’t have to buy as many as item, so we had a couple extras, but that’s OK.)

So we Skyped in Joanne and Jon for the whole thing. Jackson got Hugh in on Facebook on his phone, but only as required—that is, only when Hugh had to pick or was involved in a steal. Otherwise Jackson would just hang up on him. This turned out pretty funny, because I don’t think anyone was involved in more steals than Hugh! So he kept have to be reconnected and then brought up to speed on what exciting new items had arrived since he had last been with us.

The most laughs, though, were courtesy of Jean’s contribution, a leftover ridiculous hat.

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Jackson modelling the hat along with a VR headset, another contributed item

Also somewhat amusing was that Thérèse had accidentally grabbed an individualized gift (slippers for her grandmother) instead of one for the exchange. So we had to imaginarily include what was intended.

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Isaac with his “invisible” hammock

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Some of the kids, mid-play

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Caleb’s cozy gift ends up with Michelle

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And there were a few “Godchildren” gifts to hand out at the end

That afternoon, the temperature hadn’t quite plunged to the depths it was about to in the coming days, so we finally got outside. The snowshoe trails weren’t open at the Ski Club (not enough snow!) so we just walked on Carium Road.

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Outside!

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Winter wonderland, I guess?

The rest of the afternoon was mostly about food prep. Late afternoon Jean headed to the Lefebvre family dinner. Happily, Gilles had recovered enough to join the McNair supper, along with Terrie.

After dinner and cleanup, we played a game of Telestrations, which was one of the items Jean and I had contributed to the McNair gift exchange. It’s like the telephone game, except that you had to draw what the word was and then the next person had to guess what you had drawn. Very simple, but absolutely hilarious, some of the results. (Though should be noted that Neal’s family has enough talented artists that a number of items got through 8 people successfully.)

Boxing Day we were scheduled to fly out at 10:20 am; Jean had to work on the 27th. All seemed good as we boarded the plane and took off on schedule. It didn’t seem we were elevating as much as usual, and drink service seemed a bit slow, but I didn’t think too much of that until the captain came on and said: “I’m sorry for what I’m about to tell you.”

There was a mechanical problem with the plane. The good news was, we weren’t all about to die. The bad news was, we had to fly back to Timmins. The wheels of the airplane weren’t elevating into the plane as they needed to. The drag that caused on the plane meant there wasn’t enough fuel to get us to Toronto.

Then it was a waiting game. They did first try to see if the plane’s problems could quickly be repaired, but that turned out to be a no, and then it was flight cancellation and rebooking time. We recalled that we had purchased On My Way travel assistance for this flight, which was supposed to give us priority in being rebooked. When we called that number, and they suggested that we should be able to get on the 4:00 pm flight that day, but weren’t able to do that immediately as the flight was “frozen” while all passengers were processed. When we finally got our rebooking email, though, had us on a 5:20 am (AM!) flight the next day. We called again, and they said there was nothing they could do.

So we’re following up with Air Canada about that.

Meanwhile, we took a taxi back to Dad’s (who then had to dash out to the grocery to get more food for his now larger number of dinner guests). One upside is that it did give me a chance to visit with my Aunt Irene, who is 88, and my cousin Monique and daughter Simone. They dropped by at Dad’s on their way to bringing Simone to the airport. It was also nice having more time with Dad, Michelle, Jackson, and John. And the lasagna dinner was very delicious.

Getting up at 3:00 am for our next flight was less delicious, particularly as it was -35C at that point, but we did it. Dad very kindly drove us to the airport at 4:00 am. And yes, that flight took off in time, and managed to get all the way to Toronto. Where it had snowed considerably and was pretty darn chilly!

Wishing everyone a happy new year.


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Walking the Basque country: Part 2

This is a continuation of Part 1

A little interlude…

I mentioned that our hotel had some interesting architectural features, including a glass partition dividing the bathroom from the bedroom, which I had nearly walked into the first day.  Overnight Tuesday, I was awoken by the crashing sound of Jean hitting it from the bathroom side. I had assumed that he just hadn’t quite seen it, same as me, but there was a bit more to the story.

He woke up in the night to use the facilities and, seeing a familiar bowl shape in the bathroom, proceeded to sit on that. Only it wasn’t a toilet; it was a bidet. And he sat on it in such a way that he activated the faucet, spraying water both on him and the floor, which he then slipped on, causing him to crash into the glass door.

He wasn’t really hurt, and I’m still giggling about it.

Wednesday

Wednesday was our “free day”. After the included breakfast at our hotel—which was very good—we decided to head back into San Sebastian and spend more time in that city. We didn’t catch the “express” bus we were expecting, but it still got us there, just with some extra stops on the way.

Since we didn’t want to lose our hiking momentum, the first thing we did was climb up Mount Urgull behind the Old City to get some views. We also visited the free museum in the castle there, which covered San Sebastian’s rather lively history. (As an aside, I was still battling a cold this day, and concluding that Spanish nasal decongestant wasn’t quite as effective as North American. But overall the congestion didn’t stop me from doing anything.)

Streets of San Sebastian

Mount Urgull in the background of San Sebastian streets

When we descended it was around lunch time, and we had resolved to have a pintxo experience. Pintxo are what the Basque call tapas, but apart from the different word, they also serve them differently that in other parts of Spain. Instead of just ordering them from a menu, they prepare them and lay them out on trays all over the bar. You pick up a plate and go through collecting the items you want to try. You then order a glass of wine, enjoy, then traditionally pay at the end (though sometimes have you pay before).

Some recommend having just one item per bar so you can try lots of them, but given that I think you’re expected to order a drink at each place—well, we didn’t want to be that hung over. So we aimed to try two places.

The first was just a random pick among the many bars available. It was a pretty good assortment of appetizers, and a nice Rioja, and we even found a place to sit (though again, it’s more traditional to stand and eat).

For the second we decided to aim for one recommended the Rick Steeve’s book, called Bar Zeruko, which had an “award-winning chef”. And it is true that everything we had here was a step above the first bar. For example, after putting our items on the plate, they took them from us to get all items to the proper temperature and re-plated nicely with the appropriate sauces and seasonings. It was quite busy here (as most places were), but we shared a table with a nice Indian family.

Playing in San Sebastian

Another San Sebastian scene

We then walked over the San Telmo Museum, which featured art and exhibits on Basque culture. Jean was overtaken with an “afternoon sleepy time” feeling (maybe it was the wine, maybe it was the crashing into glass walls), so he mostly rested while I visited the exhibits.

We then bused back to Getaria.

No group dinner was booked this night, of course, but our attempts to find a place to eat were frustrating. Almost every place listed in Trip Advisor was closed this day. Still not entirely sure if that’s a typical for Wednesdays in October, or if it was because they were resting ahead of the national holiday the next day, when every restaurant was open again.

At any rate, we ended up eating at yet another Pintxo bar, even though I didn’t feel like having that kind of food again, which at any rate wasn’t anywhere near as good as either of the bars we’d been to at lunch. Jean was saved from dealing with my full grumpiness about this by the fact that someone else from the group joined us for dinner, so I had to act at least semi-civil.

We redeemed the evening slightly by then going to a small deli restaurant for dessert—at least those were quite good. I had molten chocolate cake and Jean had this very interesting lemon-lime sorbet with cava (sparkling wine) thing.

Thursday

Today’s walk was apparently the shortest of the trip, and ended with a walk on the beach. Our start was delayed a bit, though, as it was Spain’s national day, which meant reduced frequency of public buses. So our bus ride to the town of Zumaia departed a half hour after we were expecting it to.

Zumaia

Zumaia is not too hard on the eyes

That also meant that there were lots of other people out hiking on this beautiful day. We did part of the el Camino again (again the less popular part). Then we did some walking on rock formations called flysch.

Cathy on the cliffs near Zarautz, Spain

Life on the edge

We ended up walking back in town, early enough in the day to take a little coffee break. With the holiday, though, we had to split into two groups at different establishments.

We then went to hang out at the beach. (It was really a tough day.) A lot of people took their shoes off. A few were surprised by a rogue wave, though no damage done—just slightly wet pants.

Flysch at the Beach in Spain

Most of the beach looked like your regular sandy beach, but it did have this neat part, with more flysch

There were also some caves to explore.

from inside the flysch cave

We then headed back into town to find an ice cream shop, and wait for the bus back to Getaria.

Reward after a tough, tough day 🙂

The group dinner that night was at a restaurant where the waitress didn’t speak much English, which provided some challenges. Now I’ll mention that the vegetarian couple on our tour had limited eating options all week in these small French and Spanish towns; none had a concept of vegetarian entrees. But at this place they weren’t even able to get minimal accommodations, such as putting an egg instead of ham on a salad.

For the rest of us, the food was pretty satisfying, I think, but there was the strangeness that at every course, everyone received their food except one person, who had to wait another 10 minutes or so for theirs. Even though it was inevitably another one of what  someone else had ordered. Not sure what was up with that.

Jean and I ordered clams, done two different ways, as main courses—not realizing they were more of an appetizer size serving. And of course, served with no veg or starch. Very good, however. And did leave us with ample room for dessert.

For that menu, we took out the Google Translate app, which caused considerable giggling as one of the desserts was being translated as “panties”. (Very avant-garde of them, serving edible underwear.) I stayed away from that item and ordered a truffle tart, which was very good, not overly sweet. Jean ordered the same lemon-lime sorbet and cava dessert he’d had the night before, but didn’t find it quite as good here.

For wine with dinner, we had the local white, txakoli, which was nice and fresh.

Friday

Now might be a time to mention that I had missed packing a few clothing items I intended—forgot to get them out of the laundry and into my suitcase. Thus answering the question I usually ask myself when packing: Do I really need to bring so many clothes? The answer to that is YES.

It was just a daily annoyance trying to pick among the clothes I did have to find something clean enough, suitable for the current weather, which turned out to be warmer than the original predictions. So those people who say you only need two pairs and three shirts: You’re nuts! Clothes are not heavy. And you don’t want to spend your vacation time hand-washing them. Bring enough to cover your days away, already.

Anyway. On Friday I hiked in my oldest, rattiest hiking pants and re-wore my lightest T-shirt, as this was predicated to be the warmest day yet: 26 degrees + humidity. Two people on the tour decided to skip this one. Both of them had sustained injuries after booking this trip (one to a knee, another to both feet) and though they’d managed to complete all hikes to date, they had decided that was accomplishment enough.

For me, the runny nose had stopped, so that was a relief. (It really was a cold of short duration.)

We started by taking the bus to the nearby town of Zarautz, from which we walked back to Getaria. Zarautz was distinguished by having one of the longest beaches in the region.

Zarautz Beach

Zarautz from the Mountain

View of Zarautz from above

The hiking route took us by many vineyards, all producing the txakoli wine we’d had the night before. Stéphane said that none were open for visiting, though people did seem to be waiting at one of them? I dunno. Would have been interesting to visit if we could have.

On this walk we did get into a little bit of political discussion, on Brexit (they opined it was a bad idea, and the fault of older people who won’t have to deal with it), Justin Trudeau and Canada’s native problem (Jean brought that up—ssh, don’t air our dirty laundry), and hunting policies of various countries. It all stayed pretty civil except for the Londoner insisting that London economically supported the rest of the UK, which the Manchester folks didn’t appreciate. But it didn’t seem to create any permanent tensions.

I guess because the two slowest members were not participating, the walk (billed as 12 km, but measured at more like 10) was done before we knew it, and Getaria came into view before 2 PM. (We also felt, even though it was just a week, that we had definitely improved our fitness compared to the start.)

Walking in the Vinyards above the Village of Getaria

Walking the vineyards above Getaria

We got back, showered and changed, than had a drink with the group and Stéphane at the nice hotel lounge. No group dinner was booked for the evening, and the rest seemed to be leaning toward pizza at the deli. Jean and I decided to just do our own thing.

We ended up at a place called Txoko. After we’d been seated, given our orders, and had started drinking our txakoli, we noticed the rest of the group arrive! They’d changed their minds and decided to eat here as well. But we anti-socially stayed at our own table.

We got quite good service here, and splurged a bit on salad, followed by clams, then a shared grilled sole, one of the more expensive fish options. It was all very good and fresh, though. We were kind of excited that the menu said the fish came with potato and tomato side, but it was such a tiny portion, it was sort of hilarious. (Tasty, mind you.) For dessert I went with rice pudding and ice cream, while Jean had creme brulee.

Saturday

Today was the last day of the tour, so the only items on the agenda were hotel breakfast followed by shuttle to the Bilbao airport at 8:30. Jean and I were not flying out this day, however. We’d had trouble finding any reasonable flights back to Canada with a Bilbao departure time of 11:00 AM or later. So we booked a flight back on Sunday, and added in a night at a Bilbao hotel.

From the airport, we expected to take a taxi to that hotel, but the bus driver agreed to drive us and the other three people on the tour who had also extended it by a day, which was very nice of him. Our hotels were only 200 m apart.

Despite our morning arrival, we were able to check into our room. It was a more typical European size, but nice. It was the first of the trip with an actual double bed, rather than two singles pushed together, and with a coffee machine. (No face cloths or Kleenex still, though.)

Bilbao is known mainly for its Guggenheim Museum. But it was predicted to be the hottest day yet—high of 30—so we decided to start with a visit to the Old Town. We toured two churches here, but neither was that impressive—Basque churches are quite plain compared with the amazing ones in other parts of Spain. We also walked through the market.

Stained glass in one of the Bilbao churches

Then we headed in the direction of the Guggenheim. It’s architecturally very interesting, so we walked up and around both viewing bridges before going over to it ourselves.

Guggenheim Bilbao

Guggenheim Bilbao

Outside they have a spider sculpture that is pretty much exactly like the one at the National Gallery in Ottawa (it is the same artist). There’s also a puppy monument that, Jean informed me, was originally just a temporary exhibit, but the people of Bilbao liked it so much, the Museum bought it for its permanent collection.

Puppy at the Guggenheim

Puppy at the Guggenheim

Some people on our tour who’d visited Bilbao on their free day had recommended the bistro restaurant at the Guggenheim, as did my Rick Steeves’ travel book. So we had decided to eat there. In looking for it, we followed the signs marked “Restaurant”. When we got to the entrance, there were a bunch of people crowded around the posted menu. I thought, we don’t really need to look at that, let’s just go eat.

Inside, though, was this very fancy, white linen sort of place. We were almost the only patrons at this point, and were outnumbered by wait staff. Then they handed us the menu.

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So, 110 Euros is about 165 Canadian dollars, otherwise known as notably more than we’d typically been spending for the both of us to have dinner on this trip. Should we just walk out and go to the actual bistro?

But it’s kind of awkward to just walk out, isn’t it? So we justified it. After all, we hadn’t managed to get into the fine dining El Cano restaurant we hoped to dine at in Getaria. We’d been eating cheap bag lunches all week. Let’s splurge!

My friends, all nine course were really exquisite, probably some of the best food we’ve ever had. And it was actually more than nine courses, as they started us off with an amuse of tuna, quail’s egg, and basil gazpacho. The house-made bread was herb, sundried tomato, and olive oil. Each item was sourced in a particular way that they told us about, shrimp from this particular cove where they were especially flavorful, baked beans elevated to gourmet levels but still reminiscent of baked beans.

We did not have the wine pairings, both because of cost and because we didn’t want to end up really drunk, but we each had two glasses that were really nice. I start with an orange wine, which is white wine given some skin contact so it gets colour, while Jean had a jura. He followed with a nice Rioja while I had a great blend of Pinot Noir and Txakoli wine, which I will never be able to find in Canada.

This would have been a great place to take food photos, as you can imagine the plating was also lovely, but Jean was a bit intimidated about doing that. Nearer the end of our meal, more people had arrived for lunch (most dressed somewhat casually, as we were), so I did take a couple with my phone.

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This was an extra dessert, not on the menu, of custard, macaroon, and chocolate beignet

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The coffee cups were interesting

We then went in to visit the exhibits. It’s all modern art, and not necessarily the greatest art collection we’ve ever seen, but I did enjoy this tall lighted work of cascading, thoughtful phrases; the huge Andy Warhol painting of Marilyn Monroe collage; the Basquiat works; and this super slow-mo film by the featured artist, that was strangely compelling.

It’s the 20th anniversary of the Guggenheim this year, and to celebrate they were doing a week of special video, music, and light projections onto the building’s surface at night. When we left our hotel for dinner later, tons of people were heading in that direction to watch it. While waiting for our selected Italian restaurant to open, we saw some of the show.

And Italian food was a nice change, though the restaurant was quite warm. Afterwards, we tried to walk back to see more of the presentation (which repeated in 20-minute loops), but it proved rather complicated getting there, and once we did, it was too full of people to get to a good view. Oh well.

Sunday

Sunday was just a travel day. We decided to avoid the stress of a fairly short layover in Paris by booking an earlier Bilbao flight, which meant getting up quite early, then having a long wait at the Paris airport. We were grateful for its decent wifi, and the comfy seats at the Starbucks, which was tolerant of us buying only the periodic latte.

The flight to Toronto was a couple hours longer than the one from Montreal had been, then on getting there, we had to wait a bit before landing. An early thunderstorm had prevented other planes from landing at their designated times, so our turn got pushed back a bit.

That then meant that more planes than usual were landing at the same time, which made customs a bit of a nightmare. They have this whole electronic scanning, take-your-photo thing happening now? (In Europe, they still just have a person look at your passport, you know?) Then even after that, slight wait for the luggage to be unloaded.

But it got there, we got there, drive home was fine, there you be.


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Walking in the Basque Country: Part 1

Jean had this trip in mind for a while. I was less certain about it, as I knew nothing about these places—San Sebastian, Bilbao, Biarritz—which meant I had no particular desire to go there. But when I read the description of the trip on the Exodus website, it sounded pretty good. So we went ahead with booking it.

We were headed to this part of France and Spain:

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These are the main cities (or towns) there:

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Friday / Saturday

It’s tricky booking travel to these smaller European destinations from Canada. We decided to try to fly into Bilbao around the same time as the rest of the tour group (flying in from London—Exodus is a British tour company). That meant flying to Montreal initially (on Westjet) to catch an earlier evening Air France flight to Paris, from where we got another flight to Bilbao.

So it was a bit of milk run, but everything went well, basically. The “long” flight was only about six hours. Then we had to go through security again (why?) and very slow passport control (unusual for Europe), but basically everything was on time and our luggage made it through. We arrived a bit ahead of the rest of the group, but eventually met up with our tour guide, Stéphane, then the rest of the group. We totalled 11.

We were then bused to our hotel in Ascain, France, which is too small to be on the map above, but isn’t far from Biarritz. Hotel room was small but fine, and the place had a nice patio out front and the staff were all quite friendly.  They also offered a quite delicious and sustaining daily breakfast (as we knew the “typical” French breakfast of coffee and croissant would not suffice for hiking).

Dinners were not included in the tour package, but for most nights, the tour guide did a group booking for us at a local restaurant, which generally worked out well. The only ongoing issue was that the concept of “splitting the cheque” seemed foreign in these parts (in both France and Spain), so each evening ended with us all having to do math to figure out who owed what.

The highlights of our first French dinner were the really great fish soup (mussels, scampi, white fish) to start, the fries that came with our duck à l’orange, my iced nougat dessert, and that Jean’s cheese dessert was offered in the form of: Here are several slabs of delicious French cheese. Slice off as much as you want.

Sunday

Now’s the time to mention that we were really lucky with weather: Though the Basque region can be pretty rainy, we had nothing but sun all week. Particularly in the beginning, it would start out cool then warm up nicely, followed by a cool evening. Later in the week the temperature trended up, almost (but not quite) to too warm.

The first hike was described as a “gentle walk perfect for stretching out our legs”. This was a ruse, as it actually had more elevation than most of the hikes (470m), and involved climbing and descending two mountains (small mountains, but still) and a hill. Plus, it was listed as 9 km but everyone’s mileage counter (including mine, on my phone) reported it as more like 12 km.

But it was nice.

St Jean de Luz and the Bay of Biscay

Overlooking St Jean de Luz and the Bay of Biscay

We saw some animals here, in the form of wild horses named pottocks. They are small and tough and were previously used in mines. More recently, they were problems with them mating with larger horses, such that they couldn’t get enough food in the mountains to survive the winter. Now, to preserve them—and though they are still considered wild—they have “owners” who ensure they get vaccinated (and presumably try to keep the larger horses away from them).

Wild horse in the Pyrennes Mountain's of Spain

A pottock in its natural habitat

They also do some free-range farming in these mountains, notably of the Basque pigs, who do seem to be living the good life.

It’s a pig’s life

With the first walk, we found we were able to keep up with the group and didn’t have too many sore muscles the next day.

Back in Escain, they were having an annual festival. (Nice of them to time it with our visit.) Part of the involved shepherds guiding some of the pottocks down to a pasture in town, so the tourists could see them without hiking in the mountains. A bit odd, but the horses didn’t look too unhappy being on view, eating their hay. There were also farm animals display, a competition of sheep herding by those amazing border collies, and market booths set up selling food and crafts. We got some lunch items here.

Group dinner was at a place that specialized in fish and seafood. Jean and I shared a very nice cold foie gras starter, with a glass of local sweet wine reminiscent of sauternes. I then had grilled hake, a local fish on many menus, while Jean tried the Basque specialty of squid cooked in squid ink. Very nice texture on that. We shared a crème brulée for dessert. This place was also the only one to help us split the bill: the waitress emerged with a calculator.

Monday

The Monday hike started with a ride to the most popular tourist destination of the area, the train station that brings you up the Rhune mountains. We also took the train up to what was probably the most spectacular hike of the trip. It was a cooler morning, and the clouds were low-lying at that point—it was very neat to be walking above them.

On top of the World

On top of the world

Pittoks (Wild Pyrenees horses) in the Moutain

More pottocks, less impressed than we were by the view

The idea was then to walk down La Rhune, and back up to the train station, take the train down, and walk back to Ascain.

This is the border between France and Spain

On the border between Spain and France, as marked by the stone

But after lunch (for lunch, by the way, we each to buy our own provisions from the local store before heading out), before starting our ascent back to the train station, someone asked about just walking all the way back from where we were. The guide agreed that it was a reasonable option, and that it saved us from having to wait around for the train. The group agreed on that approach, and we did see some interesting things on that stretch of trail.

Sheep grazing n the Pyrenees Mountains

Grazing sheep

A former hunting lodge (vulture hunting) now used by some hikers

Feral Pittok in the Basque Pyrenees

A pottock who isn’t too worried about us

At one point the group got split up, on a rocky path that were more of challenge for some (Jean and I were kind of in the middle) and ended up taking different paths down. But the guide managed to gather us all eventually.

La Rhune: group split on path down to Ascain panorama (Andrew's)

You take the high road, and I’ll take…

Our final French dinner was also nice, at Etorri. I had salad followed by squid with tomatoes and garlic, when Jean had duck and duck: foie gras then roast duck with cherries. And creme brulee for dessert (again).

Tuesday

Today was the day we moved from France to Spain, so we started with a private bus ride to Col de Sainte Ignace. The bus then carried our luggage on to our hotel in Getaria while we took a short boat ride, then walked into San Sebastian, where we caught a public bus to Getaria.

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Where we took a boat to start the walk

The trail head start included the exciting site of a public toilet (rare on this trip), so four of the women decided to take advantage. It had a system of lights we didn’t quite understand, but the door wasn’t locked, so the first one went in.

We outside then noticed that the light changed to yellow, then red, which seemed a bit ominous in itself, and then we heard this sound of whooshing water. Followed by some screaming, then B. emerging, pants unbuttoned.

“I haven’t had time to go yet!” she said. It started squirting water out all over, pointing to her speckled pant legs.

So, this was a self-cleaning system that activated after each person. Light green, you go in and do your thing, you emerge, light turns yellow, then red, and it sprays water onto the floor and seat to clean it, then green and ready for the next person. Kind of a nice system, really, for the rest of us in line. 🙂

This was one of the easier walks, which is good because the intermittent sore throat I’d noticed the past two days had evolved into nasal congestion, which meant hiking with a copious supply of TP (European hotels don’t supply Kleenex, period) for nose blowing. It did start with a quite a few stairs going up, but then was largely flat until we later descended into San Sebastian. Here we were walking on part of the famous El Camino trail, albeit its less popular (because harder—more elevation) northern end.

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Approaching San Sebastian

San Sebastian was a bigger place than most of us were expecting. We had about an hour here before needing to take the bus, so we prioritized finding a place with coffee and washroom. We followed that up with ice cream before getting the inter-city bus to Getaria.

Our hotel there, Hotel Saiaz, was one of the nicest we’ve ever stayed at in Europe: Quite spacious and interesting architecture and room design. (Including a glass door to the bathroom which looked cool, but will lead to a funny story later.) It also had a fridge, which was handy.

We walked around Getaria a bit, getting cold supplies at a pharmacy where the pharmacist spoke excellent English (not always a given in these parts) and locating the Michelin-starred restaurant Jean had read about (El Kano). Unfortunately, with the combination of a food expo in San Sebastian and the national holiday Thursday, they were all booked up for the week.

Our dinner this night, as it would be the case each night, was booked for 8:30, as the Spanish don’t think anyone should eat their final meal of the day any earlier than that. I started with white asparagus, since Spanish main courses don’t include any sides—just whatever protein you order. (Jean nevertheless had foie gras again.) The asparagus was very good—fresh and flavored with olive oil. We then both had the sea bass, which was nice. I ordered a peach dessert which turned out to be… canned peaches. (Seriously?) Jean did better with the rice pudding.

Spanish menus also don’t routinely include wines by the glass so we got a bottle of Rioja. (At least the wine is fairly cheap.) It was good, but we weren’t able to finish it.