Donkey Crossing

Welcome to Donkey Crossing! Donkey Crossing is an on-line account of one Limey and one Yank living one Dream. From September 2006 until the end of 2007, we plan to visit friends and family on five continents and immerse ourselves into various cultures, natural phenomena and ways of life. We hope you enjoy our tales and visit often! Cheers, Jason and Rachel Napoli

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Heading For The Hills...Spanish Style
After ten memorable days of eating, drinking and exploring our way through the streets, parks and museums of Barcelona, we were ready for a change from the urban mood and pace. It was time to discover rural Spain. We waved goodbye to Spain's Mediterranean cultural capital and headed deep into the Pyrenees Mountains.

We made our way toward the hills in our Citroen C2. This compact car had more 'Va-Va-Voom' than you might think, which resulted in an encounter with a courteous, but unrelenting, Spanish police officer. Enough said.

Our first stop was Olot, a small town in a pretty region of northern Catalunya. We hiked up and around many of the region's dormant volcanoes, enjoying greenery, woodland, and picnics along the way.

We stayed at a cosy 'Casa Rural' near Olot with pleasant mountain views and friendly Catalan owners.

Taking full advantage of the kitchen facilities in our 'casa', we enjoyed several home cooked meals with local 'vino tinto'.

We were gently awoken each day by curious cows peering into our windows and jangling their cowbells.

The region was full of heavily pruned trees like these, which would soon bloom into gorgeous greenery.
Heading even further into the hills, we made our way towards Parque Nacional Ordesa, a stunning National Park in the Aragonese Pyrenees. We ended up in Gistain, the most remote village we could find. We were awestruck by the surrounding green valleys dotted with stone shepherd huts and crowned with snowy peaks.

This friendly dog was our self-appointed guide, inviting himself on many of our hikes around Gistain.

We couldn't resist veering off the path to scramble up this hill. We were rewarded by 360 degree views of the snow capped Pyrenees; a truly incredible experience.
Our accommodation was a gorgeous 'Casa Rural', converted from a medieval home in the heart of Gistain. When we weren't enjoying beautifully prepared regional specialties, such as blood sausage and roast lamb, courtesy of the casa's owner and chef, we were sitting belly up at the village bar drinking cava and feeling rustic. What a life.
Gistain is truly a rural village. There are no foreigners living in the village, and few foreign visitors. The sight, sound and smell of sheep being herded through the village streets is a typical one.

France proved to be the ideal destination for a day trip from Gistain. This sign showing the border is actually in the middle of a long tunnel through the mountains.

We ascended above the snowline during our day trip to France and enjoyed a bracing hike in the snow.

Our brief visit to France was great, although we were anxious to get back to Gistain for a soak in the jacuzzi and a hearty Spanish dinner.

Another breathtaking view of the Pyrenees.

We may have found our mountain paradise. The Aragonese Pyrenees proved to be one of the most stunning landscapes we have ever encountered. Coupled with wonderful, inexpensive accommodations, excellent food and Spanish rural culture, we both felt delighted to have discovered this part of the world. We will no doubt stay longer next time. We could even be the first foreigners living in Gistain. How hard can sheep rearing really be?

Next on Donkey Crossing: a brief glimpse into our low profile visit to our home turf...Chicago!

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Monday, May 21, 2007

Culture, Cava and Chorizo: Barcelona has it all!

After our two week stint in France, we crossed the border into Spain by train. The attractive coastal route overlooked by the snow capped Pyrenees was a suitably spectacular introduction to the country we had eagerly anticipated. Jason and I felt an inexplicable affinity with Spain before we even arrived.

Bring on the tapas: we've arrived in Spain!
Our first stop was Barcelona, and we definitely experienced love at first sight, sound, smell and taste. We were quickly sucked in by the stylish and sexy city. Barcelona was all about good looking people, wine with breakfast, siestas, late dinners, balmy weather, beaches, mountains, and delicious, affordable food. In fact, we’re both feeling a bit more generously proportioned after our time in Spain.
The Spanish take 'ham' to a whole new level. Fine Serrano ham hangs in delicatessens everywhere.

A gentle reminder to the hopelessly lost
Barcelona is crammed with things to see, and even with the luxury of ten days to explore, we didn’t see it all. We enjoyed strolling around the Barri Gòtic, with its cobbled streets, medieval Gothic style buildings, scary gargoyles and talented street musicians.

A Gothic arch in the Barri Gòtic

The Ramblas, a boulevard jammed with people (think a blend of Times Square, Michigan Avenue and Covent Garden with a Spanish twist) was the perfect place to get lost in the crowd and catch Barcelona’s buzz. We took a memorable cable car ride over the city and down to the port. The views were stunning, though I’m not sure Jason will forgive me for the 15 minute death defying experience after queuing 45 minutes and paying a vertigo inducing nine euros each for the privilege.

Don't look down!

We visited the Contemporary Art Museum with the naive expectation of seeing paintings, especially since Barcelona was home to Picasso and Joan Miró. However, the museum displayed only a handful of paintings by somewhat obscure contemporary artists and lots of weird but engaging installations. The Picasso and Miró museums will be top of our list for next time. We also bought tickets to a concert at the Palau de la Música Catalana, an incredibly colorful building with stunning stonework, mosaic and stained glass inside and out. The beautiful setting really brought the classical music we heard performed to life.

The view from from our balcony seats in the Palau de la Música Catalana

We wore our African garb to the concert, turning a few heads on the style-conscious streets of Barcelona

Barcelona is bursting with treasures for architecture buffs, especially the buildings of Antoni Gaudí. Like every other tourist in town (there are thousands, possibly outnumbering the locals) we visited Gaudí’s famed Sagrada Família church, still under construction after 125 years and truly a feat of art and engineering, even in its incomplete state. There’s also a public park called Parc Güell full of Gaudí architecture which is worth a visit if you persevere past the hordes of visitors to see Gaudí’s colorful mosaic work and fantasyland spires.

The impressive Sagrada Família
Another gem of modernist architecture is Barcelona’s Casa Asia. It’s a gorgeous building with stunning stone & glass work, great exhibitions and a fabulous library facility. Our friend Marta is the curator there, and we were treated to a private tour from her and her dog Sancho.

Marta & I in a bay window at the Casa Asia
We saw our share of the sights in Barcelona, but truly experiencing the city was more about being it, than seeing it. The city is so cool you just want to fall in with the pace, watch the people and go with the flow. People-watching is the perfect Barcelona pastime, since it’s such a stylish, fashionable city. We couldn’t resist going clothes shopping and visiting a trendy salon. Jason wasn’t able to persuade me to get a mullet hair cut though, even though every other young Spaniard sports one. Bad hair and boring clothes simply won’t do in Barcelona.

No mullets here, but Barcelona's older generation aren't lacking in style
We spent many contented hours in plaza cafés, wandering around the least touristy bits of town, chilling out by the beach, and eating and drinking in all manner of establishments from trendy tapas bars to down at heel covered markets. One dining highlight was a rustic cavaria (Spanish champagne bar) we stumbled upon where three kinds of cava were served for between 30 and 50 cents a glass. We stood at the bar with locals and munched small plates of chorizo, cured ham, anchovies, manchego cheese and blood sausage while sipping our cava. We left more than satisfied having spent next to nothing. Another good find was a 1930s Absinthe bar. I always wondered why the potent libation is illegal in the States. After just one admittedly large glass, I began to get it.

Jason tucks into a tapas feast of mussels, patatas bravas, goat cheese salad and tomato bread. Buen provecho!
All in all, Barcelona was a big hit. We will undoubtedly be back to visit Spain’s cultural capital again. If any friends or family would like to plan a reunion there, count us in!

A typical Barcelona scene: narrow streets with colorful laundry drying on the balconies

Next on Donkey Crossing: driving over sheep dung in northern Spain. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Donkey Crossing's European Vacation

Greetings to all Donkey Crossing fans from sunny Spain! We've been in Europe for nearly a month now and are excited to share our experiences with you. Sorry its been so long. Surprisingly, public high-speed internet access is easier to come by in the furthest corners of Africa than it is in Europe. Besides, our time has been spent visiting friends and family, consuming mass amounts of fine French and Spanish delicacies and exploring the natural wonders of France and Spain. We had been anxiously awaiting our arrival to Europe during our final week in Africa and were extremely excited to be reunited with Rachel's parents (Helen and Oz) and family friends (Kate and Roger Woods) in the beautiful, medieval village of Vezenobres, France. Our first day with Rachel's parents was also our fifth wedding anniversary!

We spent many hours walking the narrow lanes and green surroundings of the gorgeous village of Vezenobres. Oz, Helen, Roger and Kate pause for a minute as we explore the beauty of Vezenobres. Kate(Rachel's godmother) and Roger were extremely generous and welcoming hosts. We had a great time catching up over delicious food, pleasant drives and walks and the odd bottle of wine.

Here we are taking time in one of Vezenobres' excellent outdoor cafes. Many hours can fly by at European cafes in such picturesque settings.

A major focus during our time in Europe has been on the amazing culinary wonders. The French certainly know how to feed themselves. Whether it was wandering through a local outdoor market or a gigantic "supermarche", we were amazed by the quality, variety and care that is put into the French diet.

Helen, Rachel and Kate take a moment to smile between glasses of rosé and preparing gigantic prawns.

Ahhh, the vines...its all about the vines in the Languedoc region of France. Visiting in Spring gave us a chance to see the vines at an early stage and has encouraged us to see the progress of the vines later in the season during a future visit.

One of our first excursions around the region was to the Pont du Gard, an ancient Roman aqueduct and one of the most visited sights in France. Although it was a rainy day, we had a great drive through the countryside and a wonderful lunch just beneath the impressive structure. I quickly recalled I had visited the same location 14 years prior on my bicycle tour through Europe.

Other major highlights during our time with Helen and Oz was an evening horseback ride through the vineyards and an excellent hike through the Cevennes Mountains. Above is a shot of Rachel and Helen gearing up for their ponies!

Rachel, Oz, Helen and I stop for a moment somewhere in the middle of the Cevennes Mountains.

The fresh, crisp air of the Cevennes was a very welcome change from the respiratory challenges we faced in Africa.

Oz takes a moment after our picnic lunch to look for the old chateau we were told was up on a random mountain. He never found the chateau, but Oz always enjoys utilizing his "bins" nonetheless.

Between walks, talks and meals we all managed a couple fierce battles on the ping-pong table.

One of the final culinary pleasures we encountered in France was the "oyster and mussels lady" in the parking lot of the local shop. She is expected every Sunday morning with her large trays of the fresh shellfish. We walked away with a kilo of both and enjoyed a delicious lunch of freshly shucked oysters and tasty "moules frites". It was very yummy and I managed to slice myself only twice during my first oyster shucking experience.

Lunch is the garden.

We will never forget our time with Helen, Oz, Kate and Roger in Vezenobres. It was an excellent opportunity to catch up with family, recharge our batteries after three intense months in Africa and experience life in a small, French village. We know we'll return one day to visit with Kate and Roger in their beautiful home and, of course, the oyster lady on a Sunday morning.


Next stop: Spain. Stay tuned to hear about our amazing week in Barcelona, followed by our exciting experience of renting a car and exploring the Spanish Pyrenees Mountains!

I anxiously await our Barcelona bound train from Perpignan, France.