Coimbra, Portugal, and its baroque library

We found the town of Coimbra simply because we wanted to find somewhere interesting to stay to break up our drive from Lisbon to Porto. The drive is only about 3 hours on the autoroute, but it is more fun to discover new places than just to pass through. With a little research on TripAdvisor, it seemed that Coimbra would be a good option: only an hour or so from Porto, a very old university town, and out in the countryside.

From Wikipedia:
The University of Coimbra is a Portuguese public university in Coimbra, Portugal. Established in 1290 in Lisbon, it went through a number of relocations until it was moved permanently to its current city in 1537, being one of the oldest universities in continuous operation in the world, the oldest university of Portugal, and one of the country’s largest higher education and research institutions.

We arrived late in the afternoon, finding our little studio vacation rental and its welcoming owner easily. We had spent a busy hot sunny day in Sintra outside of Lisbon, and were a bit tired and dusty. Our host recommended a walk up the hill into the town, and a restaurant for dinner. We thanked her as she left. We freshened up, and as the sun set, trod up the stone streets into the old town. The meandering streets were mostly quiet. The sunset lit the views across the red-tile roofs, the river valley and the rolling countryside. A heavy romanesque church sat silently and sideways against a loose sloping plaza. Startling mid-twentieth-century university buildings topped the hill, garish against their much older neighbors. The recommended restaurant had a table for us, and offered a dinner of local tapas and wine: pleasant enough and filling. We always enjoy walking in historic streets after dinner when they are warmly lit by street lights, when there are fewer people, and when there are little noises of restaurant liveliness and real life behind the shutters. We usually have just a little wine in us, so perhaps that contributes to the ambiance.

First thing the next morning, as I was starting to wonder what we might do in Coimbra — I wasn’t that enthused by what we had seen the evening before — Mike said the he had been looking into what turns out to be a famous library up on the hill. The photos showed an exuberant baroque interior. Our host had marked on the town map the location of the library and the ticket office, so we decided to head up the hill straight-away, before breakfast, to see what’s what. Very glad we did!

We discovered a luminous vast plaza overlooking the valley, a gorgeous ensemble of university buildings, the stunning 18th century library, and more.

We arrived a few minutes before the opening of the ticket office. The sky was completely clear. The sun blazed against one side of the plaza, and cast striking shade and shadows over the rest. We were the only two people in the huge square for quite a while. Once we were able to purchase our tickets, we were warned to be at the doors of the library at exactly 9 am. If we were a minute late, the doors would be closed once again. Obedient tourists as we are, we stood at the door at 9. At exactly 9 (the church bells were ringing), the immense door swung open, and a small woman silently and seriously ushered another tourist couple and us into the library. She shut the door right behind us. From the very bright square outside, it took a few minutes for our eyes to adjust to the dim interior. Little by little, the tall, three-chambered library emerged, quiet, poised. We were almost alone: it was just ours for about a half an hour. We had been admonished not to take any photos. But we couldn’t be completely obedient tourists, so we snuck a few shots, worried that that typical iPhone fake-camera-shutter noise would catch the attention of the attendants. No problem, as it turned out; the two women were happily deep in their own conversation the entire time.

One story about the library comes in response to the question about how can the 300+ year old collection of rare books not decay to dust? Portugal enjoys a range of weather through the year, from cool wet winters to hot dry summers, and a healthy insect population. The thick stone walls of the library moderate the temperature variations in the library. But what about insects that love to feast on paper and book bindings. The answer is a community of tiny bats. They roost among the baroque details of the library decorations during the day. At night, they emerge to feed and preserve the books. The only problem is that all the tasty insects turn into bat poop. Every evening, the library attendants (the human ones) cover the tables and furniture with sheets of leather. We saw the leather rolled up on some of the tables. We didn’t see any bats, however.

Some more historical information about the library, from the World Monuments Fund:Built in the early eighteenth century at the behest of Portugal’s King John V, the Joanine Library was constructed to house the book collection of the University of Coimbra. The structure was built in the university courtyard on the ruins of a medieval royal prison. The exterior is characterized by stone walls, brick vaults, and a timber roof covered by clay tiles, and throughout the 1720s bronze workers, glaziers, painters, and other craftsmen ornamented the interior. The stone floor is patterned with geometric motifs, and the plaster ceilings are decorated with allegorical trompe-l’oeil paintings. The library was finished in 1728 and housed its first books in 1750.

Today it is one of the most significant archival libraries in the world. It contains some 56,000 volumes, many of which date from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. The library represents the importance of education and knowledge and was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 2013. It maintains its original function while also serving as a museum and cultural events space.

We completed our tour, visiting the adjacent fine chapel, and some of the university’s very old formal convocation and examination rooms.

While the library was certainly a pleasure to inhabit, it was the plaza, with its one side open to the distant hills, that remains vivid and wonderful.

Carcassonne to Porto via Ryanair

There are two ways to read this post:

A:  “I don’t care about airports and airlines and I just want to get there.”

We took a pleasant Ryanair flight from our little Carcassonne airport to Porto, without problems.

(If this is you, you are done; no need to read further. I’ll post about something else shortly, hopefully more interesting, and with pictures! On the other hand…)

B:  “I am fascinated about every detail of airports, airplanes, and airlines.”

There are a number of Ryanair flights in and out of Carcassonne (airport code CCF), most connected to the UK, but also a twice-a-week flight nonstop to Porto, Portugal. Our goal is to get to Lisbon for Mike’s niece Sophia’s wedding. Flying non-stop to Porto, even though Porto is a three hour drive from Lisbon, is a less expensive and more pleasant option compared to the multi-flight alternatives. And we get the opportunity to explore Porto, home to — wait for it — port wine; and some drives through the Portuguese countryside.

So, first time with Ryanair. Ryanair is the biggest low-cost no-frills airline in Europe. We were a bit wary of flying with them, having vaguely recalled news stories about their charging for every little thing, extremely cramped planes, and bad customer service. But the flight to Porto is short, only about 90 minutes, the cost good, and the schedule convenient.

Buying the tickets online was easy, not at all different from other airlines. Mike found and shrewdly purchased a “priority” upgrade that included checked bags, seats with more leg room, and priority boarding. During the week before the flight, we received emails instructing us to check in online to avoid the 49 euro charge to check in at the airport. We wondered if the nickel and diming was starting.

The Carcassonne airport is only about 7 minutes away from our house. We regularly see the Ryanair planes on their approach to the runway. So we called a taxi, which came promptly at the requested time (we hadn’t been sure what the French small-town attitude toward punctuality and reliability would be). A few minutes later, we’re at the little airport. This is quite lovely, almost just strolling over to the airport to catch a little flight.

Simple bag-drop, since we had dutifully checked in online. The agent at the bag-drop desk was a tired looking woman who spoke barely above a whisper. I kept having to ask her to repeat herself over the noise of the airport. She assumed that I couldn’t understand French, so switched to equally silent English. The line for security wound around a potted plant and a kiosk with examples of all the things we can’t take on board the plane. It was rather charming: a few casually dressed hometown folks checking boarding passes and passports, friendly, relaxed (which also meant not in a hurry), and in good spirits. Even the passengers were relatively calm and patient.

After the usual wait in the gate area — the gate is a glass door to the tarmac — the same quiet woman, this time benefitting from the PA system, called us priority passengers. We were led out of the gate door, turning left along the side of the building, again to the left parallel to the aircraft blast screen wall, turning right along the same wall, finally to emerge behind the parked jet. It was fortunately a pleasant sunny cool day out there on the tarmac. We are used to walking to the plane; that is the way Kona airport operates. This, however, seemed like someone built a little airport building, and then later had to figure out how to get the passengers to the planes. Some striping on the asphalt, a barrier or two, and problem solved. Admittedly, the view across the tarmac to the distant hills is pleasant.

The flight was unremarkable, fortunately. The flight attendants were good natured and personable. As expected, we were charged for the snacks we wanted. Our credit card didn’t work in their machine; we are so used to airlines not allowing cash payments, that we were taken aback when the flight attendant said that of course cash is just fine. We selected two ham and cheese sandwiches (wondering how many weeks ago they had been sealed in their plastic packages). The flight attendant quickly took them from us, said they would be ready in about 10 minutes, and disappeared into the front of the plane. A few minutes later, the sandwiches returned, nicely heated with the cheese melting. No-frills airline? Not bad! I guess when you start with low expectations….

Tasting Port Wine

The river Douro bisects the city of Porto. The old and picturesque town cascades down the northern banks of the river. Along the southern shores, in the district of Gaia, is the concentration of warehouses and tasting rooms for the main port producers, among them: Taylor, Cálem, Kopke, Sandeman, Quinta do Noval, Vasconcellos, Ramos Pinto, Offley, Cockburn, and Graham’s.

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On our beautiful warm day, we crossed the river on the river taxi, and started our stroll along the river front. We planned on stopping in whatever port producer’s shop appealed in the moment. We came upon the Vasconcellos storefront area. The main doors were closed, but next door in a covered entry, two young men were talking at what looked like a desk. As we approached, and while we were still on the sidewalk, a short middle-aged man started talking to us. He asked if we were looking to taste some port. He looked a bit disheveled. In our years of traveling, we have developed a resistance reflex if anyone approaches us out of the blue, especially if they are asking if we would like something. So we brushed him off. He persisted. We turned away from him, still walking toward the entrance. He exclaimed, indignant, that he worked for Vasconcellos. We spied a small metal name tag. OK, we said, sorry about that; yes, we would like to taste some port. He, however, turned away from us, saying that if we were going to act this way, he would have nothing to do with us. He stomped off, offended. We were stunned. Don’t vendors know that you can’t just accost people on the street and and convey authenticity?

A little shaken, we continued along the route. Just behind the Vasconcellos establishment was a small port house called Quinta dos Corbos. The entry was simple, some glass in the face of a stone building. This time it was obvious who worked for the port house, and he welcomed us in. A short tour in English was just starting, so we were able to join in. A lively South African woman was leading the tour. She explained to our group about the different types of port, which depend on how they are aged (in bottles, tanks or barrels). She explained about the grape varieties, and the processes of cultivation, harvest, fermentation, addition of alcohol, the development of final alcohol content, the contribution of the oak from the barrels to the tastes, and how some ports (not aged in oak barrels) retain their fruity qualities. Of course, the tour concluded with some port wine tasting. We always enjoy experiencing and articulating the nuances of how wines smell and taste. We were able to compare white and red ports, tawny and vintage ports, 20 and 40 year old ports. Port wine alcohol content is a bit high, at 20%. The more you taste, the more you feel it (happily)! And the more likely you are to buy more port. Which, of course, is what we did. We selected one bottle that is 30 years old, and a few more younger (more affordable!) bottles as well. They are just so helpful, offering to ship the bottles home for us!

As you’d expect, the whole process of touring and tasting primes us malleable tourists to purchase. We are willing participants. Our South African tour leader / salesperson was delightfully personable, making the process a pleasure. What do we really know about port wine? But we enjoyed what we tasted, and we look forward to enjoying our Quinta dos Corvos with French cheeses or desserts, while recalling our fun time in Porto.

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Porto, Portugal

We ended up in Porto purely because the Ryanair flight non-stop from Carcassonne landed there. (We were heading to Mike’s niece’s wedding outside of Lisbon.) We knew nothing about this large city (number 2 in Portugal) except that port wine comes from here. What a delightful surprise! Everyone we met was warm, charming, and interesting. The old central part of town is extremely picturesque, with winding hilly streets, views over the river, churches and palaces. And the weather was spectacular: sunny and warm. (We, as usual, forgot our sunscreen, and needed to buy yet another outlandishly expensive tube to add to our collection.)

Wonderful vertical buildings, full of windows and metal railings, define the streets of the historic center. No single building is in itself that spectacular, but together, the atmosphere is delightful.

Lovely parks and public spaces, sometimes with a sense of humor.

This part of the city tumbles down the hills to the Douro river.

There are plenty of monuments, especially churches. The use of the blue and white tile on the building facades adds interest and depth. I think that modern buildings would greatly benefit from the lessons of these 18th century and older buildings.

Porto’s buildings reveal periods in its past with bursts of economic activity, and the stagnant periods in between. Among the older residential and commercial buildings, there are frequently mid-twentieth century buildings, not always that attractive. But the signs from the 50s and 60s are still there, fresh and evocative once again. The shadowy side of this preservation is the decades of economic and political hardship between then and now. Currently, there are construction cranes everywhere; we’re not sure why.

The main hall of the 19th-century São Bento railway station is the passage between the busy city outside and the hectic rail platforms within. However, the space is so grand and celebratory that you must halt in your tracks. Blue and white tile panels cover almost all the walls. There are approximately 20,000 azulejo tiles (which are painted tin-glazed ceramic tiles), dating from 1905-1916. Jorge Colaço, who was an important painter of azulejo at the time, composed grand tableaux of 12th – 15th century events, such as battles, meetings of kings, and noble weddings. At the same time, there are dioramas of rural settings and common people. While all the history can engage, I was most struck by being surrounded by these amazing scenes which make the walls dissolve around you. The space is luminous and elegant.

The guidebooks as well as the people at reception in our hotel say that you must visit Café Majestic — so we did. From the 1920s, the design of the café is somewhere between Art Nouveau and baroque memory. In its early days, this café was the place for the elite and chic, and the artists and intelligentsia, of Porto to gather and to be seen. More recently, reportedly, J. K. Rowling spent quite a lot of time in the café, writing the first Harry Potter book. Today, it seems that it is tourists like us who stop by for a coffee and the café’s own take on French toast, mostly to imbibe the ambiance.

We made a point of doing some port wine tasting. But that is the subject of another blog entry…

Abbaye de Fontfroide

Our friends Paula and Jerry, while house sitting for us, visited Fontfroide Abbey and wholeheartedly recommended that we visit. We chose a sunny cool March day for our outing. Because we were so early in the season, we were almost the only people there. I had expected a diminutive stone church, perhaps with a small court, mostly in ruins. The Abbey is instead grand, beautifully restored and maintained. We intend to go back as the seasons progress to enjoy the aromatic gardens that fill the site.

The photos tell most of the story.

The cloister: the heart of the spiritual life of the abbey:

The Lay Brothers’ refectory:

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The abbey church, which was much grander and more austere than we expected:

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The windows in the Lay Brothers’ dormitory come with a poignant history. By the early twentieth century, these window openings had no glazing. After the First World War, from fragments of much older stained glass windows in northern France that had been destroyed in the bombings, new windows were fabricated for this space. At first glance, they seem to be pleasant modern interpretations of traditional windows. As you get closer, you can see bits and pieces from many designs. The compositions are very pleasing, almost traditionally symmetrical, with deep colors. Then the beauty and sadness of these little disembodied quotes, tiny remnants of horrible destruction, flows over you.

Lots of beautiful contemporary metal and glass work:

 

For more detailed history, I’m quoting the following from the abbey’s materials:

The founding of the Fontfroide Abbey
The abbey of Fontfroide was founded in 1093, on land given to some Benedictine monks by the Vicomte de Narbonne. The abbey takes its name from the nearby spring, the Fons Frigidus, the Cold Fountain. Besides the water, the monks found in this hilly area the wood and stone for the construction of the monastery. But Fontfroide did not really develop until after 1145 with its attachment to the Order of Cîteaux. The Cistercian monks, under the direction of St Bernard of Clairvaux, wished to return to the purity of the rule of St. Benedict, advocating poverty, austerity and architectural sobriety.

An abbey in the land of the Cathars
In the 12th century, a Christian religion different from Catholicism developed in the south of France: Catharism. This new belief spread rapidly throughout Occitania [the southern part of what is now France], demanding a return to the Church model of early Christianity. This ‘heresy of good men’ was condemned by Pope Innocent III and became the target of Catholics, first and foremost Cistercians. Since the monks of Fontfroide could not convince the Cathars to abandon their beliefs by preaching alone, the papacy decided in 1209 to set off against the Cathars of the South the first crusade organized in Christian land against heretics and those who support them. The assassination of Pierre de Castelnau, a monk of Fontfroide who became a legate of the Pope, was the triggering act of the Crusade against the Albigensians.

Benoît XII, The Pope of Fontfroide
In 1311, Jacques Fournier succeeded his uncle Arnaud Novel on the abbey seat of Fontfroide. He was appointed bishop of Pamiers in 1317 and directed the tribunal of inquisition against the last Cathars. Transferred in 1326 to the bishopric of Mirepoix, he was promoted cardinal in 1327. He was elected pope in December 1334, succeeding John XXII under the name of Benedict XII. Barely elected, he revoked all the commands and undertook the reform of the monastic orders, beginning in 1335 by his own Cistercian family of Fontfroide Abbey. He built the Palais des Papes in Avignon where he died in 1342 and was buried in the cathedral of Avignon. With this disappearance, the abbey lost its last great protector. Then came the times of change.

Castle life in an abbey
From the 15th century onwards, the King of France put in his own abbots, mostly noblemen who were little concerned about monastic considerations. New buildings were erected, giving a castle look to Fontfroide: Cour d’Honneur, pediments, terraced gardens … The monks, few in number, forgot in their turn the rigor of the rule and ate meat and chocolate, some even played billiards ! The French Revolution put an end to all monastic life, and Fontfroide was given to the Hospices de Narbonne in 1791.

The renaissance with Gustave Fayet
Twelve monks of the abbey of Senanque (Gordes) came to reoccupy Fontfroide in 1848. But the laws of separation of the Church and the State provoked their departure in 1901. In 1908, Gustave and Madeleine Fayet bought the abbey at auction . Artist and curator of the Museum, Gustave Fayet is best known for his talent as a visionary collector and his commissions for symbolist works: Gauguin, Van Gogh, Cézanne, and especially Odilon Redon, whose Day and Night decorates Fontfroide’s library. He also undertook a vast campaign of restoration and redecoration of the abbey. Today, the descendants of Gustave Fayet still maintain the Abbey of Fontfroide with the same passion.

30 Hours in Barcelona

Our friends Carol and Suzanne inspired us to go together for a short visit to Barcelona. It is, after all, only three hours away by car. We had just bought our new car so we relished taking it out on the road. Some notes:

The drive was 98% very easy. There are good highways through France and Spain all the way to the Barcelona exit which is only a few blocks from our targeted parking garage on the Ramblas. But that last 2% was the adventure. Our exit pushed us right into the thick of a major urban roundabout. The multi-lane roundabout encircles the iconic column holding up Christopher Columbus who is pointing out to sea, presumably to the New World, not just out of traffic. In France, roundabouts are everywhere. We have become enamored of them because for the most part you don’t need to stop to navigate the intersection; traffic generally flows really well. The success of the French roundabouts is that nothing is in the way once you spin around them. You can drive around the circle as many times as you need to find your turnoff. (We have had to do that a few times as we figure out what the GPS is trying to tell us.) However, this busy Barcelona roundabout includes four lines of stop lights at the cardinal points. You pull into the roundabout like in France, although there are about three lanes feeding into approximately four lanes. Then you stop at the first line of lights. At the green light, cars to your left turn across the front of your car to exit right. Cars to your right go straight ahead, at least at first. Everyone speeds in all directions until quickly coming to a stop at the next set of lights a quarter the way around the circle. It took us two rotations, one exit in error, seat-of-the-pants return to the circle, and finally down a road that said Buses Only, until we made it to the garage. I was driving, so was flush with adrenaline by the time we made it; my passengers were pale with terror. I kept thinking, “On our first day out with the new car, I’m going to crash it up in a Barcelona roundabout!”

Mike and I have had the good fortune to have visited Barcelona twice before. I have always loved walking into and through the Plaça Reial, just off the Ramblas (the major pedestrian avenue in the tourist district). It is a lovely formal square plaça, ringed by arcades full of cafés. Part of what makes it so remarkable is that the surrounding district is the medieval part of the city (the gothic quarter), all meandering narrow streets. Then, unexpectedly, you pop into this calm, formal, sunlit urban space. Palm trees and ornate lamp posts populate the open space. While the facades surrounding the plaça are classical, their composition hints at relaxation; on the day of our visit, open tall windows here and there showcased people enjoying the early spring sunshine.

Last year, our friends Sergio and Sandra stayed in a hotel overlooking the plaça, the Hotel Do, which they seemed to like. Fortunately rooms were available and, presumably because this is not high season, reasonably priced. While we knew that the location was perfect, even with TripAdvisor and Booking.com previews, we weren’t prepared for how welcoming and beautifully designy this boutique hotel is. The hotel footprint is tiny. The drum of a circular staircase in the middle leaves a ring of quirky space around it; but every jog and nook is cosy, with a contemporary club feel. A composition of traditional multi-pane glass doors, now filled with mirrors, covers the ceiling. Delicious faceted and mercury light fixtures cascade through the center of the circular stair. The rooms are a bit small as one would expect in an urban hotel, but the ceilings are high, the windows tall and grand, and the bathroom worthy of a spa.

Our first planned stop was the Sagrada Família, the master work designed and executed by Antonio Gaudì. For Mike and me, this place is one of the most wonderful, awe-inspiring, beautiful spaces we have ever been in. We have visited twice already, and were completely happy to make it three. We also were looking forward to being with Carol as she discovered this amazing place for the first time. It turns out that the work of Antonio Gaudì has always been on her bucket list, and we got to share the experience with her. The problem with the Sagrada Familia is that you can’t stop taking photos. Every angle, every detail, every wash of colored light demands to be saved. When you pull back from looking at the building, you see hundreds of other visitors, phones and cameras held out in front of them, filling the cloud with more Sagrada Familia images. Here are few of ours from this visit:

(It was I who had arranged for our tickets. The only catch was that I had bought them for the day before we were actually there. This we discovered in line to get into the basilica. Fortunately we were able to buy new tickets because of the season. The staff were very kind, saying that quite a few people make the same mistake. I think it is early-onset retirement.)

We chose Restaurant Agut for a dinner of Catalan food. Being good Hawaiian tourists, we arrived at 7:30 pm and were the first people in the restaurant. Even by the time we finished a few hours later, the real Barcelona diners were just arriving. We selected tapas-style dishes to start: roasted potatoes with a spicy sauce, catalan bread (toasted, rubbed with raw garlic, spread with fresh tomato, finished with Spanish olive oil), olives, pimientos de padrón (small green peppers, roasted, dressed with salt and olive oil). Our main plates looked modest, but all were well prepared. The small filet mignon was a delicious surprise: simply grilled perfectly, a little salt and pepper. I tried the octopus tentacle, which was exactly and only that, laid out the length of the plate. Of course, some Spanish red wine; OK, a couple bottles of Spanish red wine. Fortunately, our hotel was an easy meandering walk from the restaurant. After dark, the streets of the gothic quarter (where we were) are wonderful: all pedestrian, angled, lots of little shops and restaurants, stone walls and paving, seductive street lighting, just the sounds of people talking and walking about.

We settled into our comfortable hotel rooms. In the early morning, when I got up and headed to the bathroom, I couldn’t make the light switches work. They had looked a bit complex the night before; perhaps there was a master switch somewhere. After feeling around a while, using the iPhone light, no success. I peered through the viewer in the door to see that the lights in the hall were working. A call to the front desk led to the explanation: there were power outages throughout the district. The halls were lit by emergency batteries. So we washed by iPhone light, dressed by early morning light through the tall windows, and headed downstairs to meet Carol and Suzanne for breakfast. The young staff in the reception area were apologetic and positive, insisting that we sit on one of the sofas overlooking the arcade and the plaça so they could bring us any breakfast item that didn’t need to be heated. They presented us with immense croissants and almond pastries, fruit, cereal, orange juice (“We are sorry that it is bottled.”) The alternative, if the power had been operational, would have been a breakfast in the basement dining room, without windows or view of the plaça. The improvisational feeling of the breakfast, the attention from the staff, and the club-room setting added spirit. After about 30 minutes, the power re-engaged. Almost instantly, one of the servers arrived with fresh-squeezed orange juice, seeming relieved as if an imbalance had at last been righted.

The main morning event was a tour of Gaudí’s Casa Battló, a masterwork residence for a prominent and ostentatiously progressive turn of the 20th century family. Some photos will have to convey some of the wonder, from artisanal details for door handles and stair rails, to overall color and light. In addition to the remarkable forms and designs (which touch the heart), I find it fascinating that Gaudì’s fundamental drivers for the form and function of the residence were systemic approaches to bringing natural light and air throughout a six-story vertical townhouse, through innovative light well forms and materials, and air ducts and operable internal panels. Gaudì’s unprecedented forms, inspired by / expressive of plants, animals, water, growth, and submarine worlds, are obvious and astonishing, especially if you think about the force of will it must have taken to bring them into the bourgeois end of the 19th century world. And his mind was so deep and creative that he also focused much of it on technological innovations to make the lives of his clients more comfortable.

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Our next stop in our ambitious 30-hour Barcelona visit was the Picasso Museum. The Museum is located in the Borne district, which is a about a 30-minute walk from the Casa Battlo. It was a gloriously sunny warm early-spring day. We walked down the Passig Gracia, which is Barcelona’s Fifth Avenue. Carol spotted this store window; we all agreed:

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Then an ad-hoc lunch in a terrace restaurant one story above the shopping street, a pass by the Barcelona Cathedral and a flea market in its fore-court. We stopped in the Santa Caterina Market, one of my favorite places in Barcelona. During a previous trip for an AIA Europe Chapter conference, we met the architect of the renovation. The market is notable now for its multi-colored flowing roof that spills out over the street, sheltering the market stalls. The architect related that she, her architect husband, and their young family had set up home and office in the district some thirty years ago when the area was working-class and down on its luck. The market functioned for the neighborhood, but the powers that be in the city thought it should be removed to make way for housing that the residents of the district wouldn’t be able to afford. The architects turned activists. After much time and many struggles, the city managers relented. The architect couple won the ensuing design competition and brought this remarkable market renovation to life. The verve of the roof forms and colors, all in service of the vitality of the neighborhood, always moves and delights me. Of course, we also needed to buy some cured ham, olives and cheese!

The collection in the Picasso museum includes works from his student and early years, and then, pockets of work from later in his prodigious life. Much of his work is elsewhere. I have to admit that, while I respect Picasso’s life story and his place in 20th century art, not much of his work really moves me. Nonetheless, it turned out to be fascinating to glimpse his development from young astonishingly talented painter and draftsman toward his mature life of invention and restlessness. You can see his absorbing influences around him, testing them out, and moving on.

Fortunately, the drive out of the parking garage, through my now favorite traffic circle, and onto the highway, was smooth. The afternoon was sunny and calm. Barcelona charmed us once again.

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Buying our new car

Next step on our path to really living in France: buying our own car. The rental cars have been OK, but expensive. And having a rental car feels like we are still just visiting.

(A warning: I couldn’t resist putting in lots of detail, probably too much detail. I need a good editor, and you may need a glass of wine. Proceed at your own risk!)

We had been compiling our wishlist for the car for many months; it is at last time to put it to good use. In essence, we wanted a car that looks pleasant and even modest on the exterior, and feels luxe inside. 5-door hatchback. Stick shift. Lots of gadgets. Great fuel efficiency. Fits in on the French road. And really important, a toit panoramique, or glass roof. We had rented a car with a toit panoramique on a previous trip and really enjoyed it. Instead of the little hole of a sunroof, almost the entire roof is glass; like a convertible without the endless wind.

When we rented our most recent car, we chatted with the agent, explaining that we were on a mission to buy a new car. She (in English) was very interested, asked us what we had in mind, and proceeded to offer her recommendations. She does, after all, deal with cars all the time, and undoubtedly hears detailed complaints and comments. She had specific models in mind from Seat (pronounced say-yacht, which is a VW company, with production in Spain), Peugeot, Audi, Fiat (The 500X, but definitely not the 500L, she warned!) and Renault. She cautioned against Citroen, one of the most French of brands, saying that, while the cars are reliable enough, the interiors are less well made, leading to knobs and buttons falling off.

We have bought new cars only occasionally during our lives in Hawaii and California, so this was a great opportunity to have some fun. We get to test drive all sorts of cars, hopefully finding a new car that will be fun to drive and experience (while staying in our budget!). On the other hand, we are buying a car in FRANCE, in FRENCH, with French SALESPEOPLE. I translated our wishlist into French as best as I could (thank you, Reverso.net), and printed out a dozen copies. At each dealership, I said Bonjour, followed by “We’d like to buy a car” (en français), and then showed the salesperson the list. That took care of all the details without too much tricky conversation.

Here’s whom we met and what we discovered over the course of a week:

Audi: All about attitude. Static photo, Colour: Tango RedThis was our first stop, so our first try at doing all this in French. A serious stylish young salesman finally approached us as we milled around in the showroom. He was trim, with dark hair and eyes, and a day’s beard. He studied our list with a set face, checking off each line item. He pointed to the model that we already knew matched our criteria. He took us to his computer, where he worked up a price quote including the toit panoramique. He presented us with a statement of features and prices, which were about 8,000 Euros over our budget. The first price wasn’t really a huge surprise; we didn’t expect that that a new Audi would necessarily fall without our budget. But the assertion that the car wouldn’t be available for 2 – 3 months was a surprise. I immediately was calculating in my head the cost of 3 more months of rental car. His attitude was mostly take-it-or-leave-it. It was disappointing that this salesperson offered so much attitude of “Well, this IS Audi.” The worry was, more significantly, that all the salespeople would not be accommodating, that this process would be a slog.

Seat (which is next door to Audi): Friendly and comfortable. IMG_0197Completely different experience! A pleasant salesman, an Everyman, interested in what we were looking for. We are, after all, eager to buy a car, with the money ready. OK, we are two Americans, looking a little scruffy, relaxed and retired, but money is money! The salesman was patient with us, with my French, and happy to explain all the attributes of the Seat Leon. He was forthright about how the Seat differs from its more expensive Volkswagen Golf cousin. The first quoted price was in our budget. He sent us off on our test drive with ease. (The car was acceptable if uninspiring.) Again, however, 2 – 3 months wait for a new car.

Peugeot: French intellectual. IMG_0194Another easy experience. Maybe Mr Audi was the outlier. By now, we are getting more comfortable with the preliminary discussion of our list. When it came time for the salesman to show us the list of features and prices, he invited us to sit at his desk. The conversation turned easily to global, US and French politics, Trump, Le Pen, thoughts about political cycles in history, different attitudes of generations (he didn’t look old enough to have twenty-something children but he does), migrants, and cultural similarities and differences. He was convinced that the current teenagers and twenty-somethings are lost in their devices, unaware of how it is that they have so much privilege. You’d think all that could be contentious, but somehow it was just a pleasure. There is an observation that the French really enjoy intellectual and political debate, and here was the evidence. Another good test drive, this time with the salesman in the car, being our GPS along a very attractive country and city route. Again, long delay to receive the new car. Price quote was just above our budget cap. (A bit more solid and attractive than the Seat, but still uninspiring.)

Toyota: Eager. IMG_0193We have driven Priuses for years, happily, enjoying the mileage of the hybrid engine. While the agent at the rental car company hadn’t mentioned Toyota, we thought we’d at least see what was on offer. All the cars tested so far had been conventional diesels, purportedly with really good fuel efficiency: on the order of 55 – 75 mpg! It turns out that the Toyota hybrids, including the Prius, don’t offer any better mileage. We found another positive, communicative salesman. He explained that they don’t sell many Priuses any more since about half of their models are hybrids now. We could get a Prius if we wanted, but it would take the now-expected 3 months. We realized that he was focusing on “Prius,” so we invited him to suggest an alternative that would fulfill our wishlist as best as possible. He thought for a minute, smiled, and led us over to a C-HR, which is a compact SUV. And really SEXY looking. No toit panoramique, alas, and only automatic. The price quote was over our budget by a few thousand euros. We took it on a test drive nonetheless, with the salesman on board. It was great fun to drive. Mike was particularly smitten with its assertive style; I liked it too! It was the first car that generated some excitement. But no toit panoramique! Need to sleep on this.

VW, Fiat, Alfa Romeo and Volvo: All these showrooms are next to each other. Fiat and VW were on our list; the others were just conveniently there. We were enjoying the search, so why not see as many options as possible. We came to the Volvo showroom first from our parking spot. A few nice cars in the showroom, much sportier than what either of us had ever seen from Volvo. The posted prices weren’t as high as we had expected. We conspicuosly looked at each car and wandered around. No salespeople. We saw a woman in a glass office, so we went over and said Bonjour. She said that the salesman would be right back. We waited a few more minutes before giving up. On to VW.

The VW salesman was helpful in the usual way. His proposed prices were above our budget. The Golf models were not any more inspiring than the Seat or Peugeot. We didn’t spend much time there.

We thought, let’s give Volvo another try; we’re here so why not. Again no salesperson right away. Within the same general showroom were Fiats and Alfa Romeos. A pleasant salesman for these brands appeared right away. The Fiat 500X, although a little bigger and taller than what we were envisioning, looked interesting — until we saw its fuel efficiency, which was much poorer than our other options. IMG_0196Off in a corner was an Alfa Romeo Giulietta: a very pretty car, reasonable price, with almost all the items on our wishlist. Again, 2 – 3 months lead time. And we would have to wait a day or two for a model that we could test drive. But it was beautiful! All that great Italian design. So we wouldn’t know if the Giulietta was a contendor for a few days.

Finally, the Volvo salesman, Sébastien, appeared: around 30, animated, big eyes, trim, stylish. Once again we produiced our printed wishlist. With theatricality, he ran through the list out loud. He turned to us and said that we were blessed by fate. He happened to have almost exactly what we were looking for available right now, including the toit panoramique. IMG_4509A new V40 had just been moved from the showroom to the lot outside; it had been immatriculé, which is the official transfer from manufacturer to the public realm. It was to be a demonstration car for test drives. It had 8 km on it! The dealership had reduced the price by about 1,500 euros because of the immatriculation, bringing it almost within our budget. And it was here now, not 3 months from now. The styling surprisingly included a bit of flare. The test drive showed a solid energetic car. Nice gadgets too! While the sexiness of the Toyota C-HR (alas no toit panoramique) and of the Alfa Romeo Giulietta (but, research would show, not terribly reliable) was tugging at us, this Volvo surprised us with how well it fulfilled our hopes and needs. Need to sleep on this too.

At home that evening, we did some more internet research, and we tried not to make a decision before the night’s sleep. Great reliability on the Volvo, and just about the best fuel efficiency of all the candidates; decent driving quality; great safety of course (including an external air bag to cushion the blow to a pedestrian if you hit one!). No great reliability on the Alfa; lots of style, decent driving quality. At breakfast the next day, we both had decided that the Volvo was a really good fit for us. We transformed from overwhelm about the cars we’d seen, all of which included significant compromises, including the 3 month delivery delay, to excitement about this car, a Volvo of all things.

Now on to concluding the deal with Sébastien. The car was a little above our budget, but with saving 2 – 3 months of rental car expense, that seemed OK to us. Then a useful and fun coincidence presented itself. On this day, we happened to have a short conversation with Georges and Michèle, our landlords, about something else, but we mentioned where we were in our search. Michèle announced proudly that Georges was the King of Negotiation. He immediately offered to help us with the final negotiation. Of course, we said Oui! We all enjoyed anticipating the turn of events for Sébastien: He was probably feeling pretty fortunate to have these two Americans who couldn’t make much of a fuss in negotiation; and then we would bring in our ringer, Georges!

Georges joined us at the dealership that afternoon. I introduced Georges to Sébastien, and then shut up. It was a joy to watch Georges at work. He started right in, saying that more discount would be appropriate. Sebastién tried his best to dispute all of Georges’ assertions. Then Georges chatted about peripheral things, about Volvos in general, about his being a doctor, who might want to by a Volvo himself. Then, suddenly, he quoted an “acceptable” number, challenging Sebastién good naturedly but forcefully. Sébastien gasped; he turned to Mike and me, miming with a finger down his face that he was sweating now. He pulled up a folder cover and started scribbling behind it, ostensibly working his numbers. But he also animatedly chatted away with Georges while he was “calculating.” Finally, a number 300 euros more than Georges’ position appeared. Georges turned to us, and we confirmed that we have a deal. A handshake with Sébastien and we’re done. Georges saved us about 1,300 euros. He stood up, turned to Mike and me, asking if all was good. Yes, we said. He said, Bon, and turned and left. Sébastien looked stunned. We looked happy!

Later, when we saw Georges again, it was obvious that he had really enjoyed playing his King of Neogitation role.

After the handshake, we needed to arrange French auto insurance, wire money to the dealership, get the carte grise (registration) and wait a few days for them to finalize their papers and clean up the car. We spent a week managing emails, paperwork and payments to get everything in place so that we could pick up the car. All done with about two hours to spare.

We arrived on time for our pick-up appointment. As you’d imagine, there were various documents to sign related to registration, receipt of safety equipment and car manuals, acknowledgement of warranty details. But there was our car, back in the showroom, under a fabric cover. Sébastien relished the drama of unveiling our car for us. He then proceeded to spend about 30 minutes with us to explain every last button, lever and dial in the car. I don’t think he really wanted to let it go. But he was so cute in his enthusiasm, with his occasional phrases of Texas-accented English (all from movies and TV), that we just enjoyed the show.

We delighted in driving our brand new Volvo to the Toulouse airport the next day to pick up our visiting friends, Carol and Suzanne. The toit panoramique worked perfectly well, showcasing the light clouds of a sunny early spring day.