Friday, July 31, 2015

Africa-Europe 2015 Day 24. Joy ride around Terceira and a delayed flight to Lisbon

My flight was scheduled for 5 pm, and I was not willing to spend all day in the lobby of the hotel, so once again I rented a scooter, with the idea of going around the whole island one more time. Unfortunately the weather turned on me, and I was facing some very grim clouds as I started in my ride. It was a fun ride, with many detours from the peripheral ring to look at impressive sea cliffs and boiling seas. I did get wet. In fact I got very wet, and then I dried off, got wet again, and so forth. Still, it was exhilarating to be on the scooter, free of care and wandering without aim.

I did stop in some of the bathing areas around the coast, and I have to say that the folks here are really adventurous and tough. All the signs indicate that on warm days the swimming holes are ready to accept many people for swimming and picnicking. 

I got back to Praia around 2:30 pm, had an excellent lunch, and then stopped by the hotel to pick my backpack. By 3:30 pm I was at the airport, in plenty of time for my 5 pm flight, only to find out that my flight was delayed until 6:30 pm. It seems I cannot avoid long waits at airports!

I landed in Lisbon around 9:30 pm, took the metro by 10:00 pm and then the train, and by 11:00 pm I was walking in the area of Belem toward my hostel. I was tired and hungry, so I stopped at a small restaurant to eat the equivalent to a ham and cheese sandwich, but baked into a flaky pastry, accompanied by a cup of milk and coffee. By the time I got to the hostel, around midnight, I found a beehive of activity (people here go to bed late) and was very happy to get a big hug from Maya.

Africa-Europe 2015 Day 23. Another Conde Naste Travel day.

Not much to report, because we had another luxury travel day, getting in and out of our comfortable mini-bus to look at yet another fabulous view of this verdant island. We also made a nice stop for coffee and cake at 11, and had another delicious and abundant lunch around 2 pm.

One thing we did that was different, was to visit the house that Elmano and Albertina Costa (who are part of our touring group) maintain here in Terceira. It is the house that his maternal grandparents built, and that they gutted and remodeled 10 years ago to keep as a vacation house. The remodel took them 5 years, but it is now a tastefully decorated house that blends old architecture with gleaming wood and all modern comforts. The floor of the garage is now a terrace from which you get a stunning view of the ocean. The concept of having a vacation house like this is certainly an appealing one.

For the evening we got together one more time for cocktails and “a light supper”, which ended being yet another very late night with way too much food. It was a congenial celebration, however, as we all wanted to thank our Azorean friends Elmano, Albertina, and Isabel Cabral for having lent us their tongues and their eyes so we could see deeply inside the Azorean land and its people. The islands are quite literally jewels in the middle of the Atlantic, and we are all glad we got to know them.

Africa-Europe 2015 Day 22. Around Terceira in a scooter.

The day seems perfect for a scooter adventure, which I started by going up the hill to see the statue of the Immaculate Hearth of Mary, who blesses the mariners who enter Praia da Vitoria, which is the small city where our hotel is located. I should note that out hotel is called Varandas do Atlantico, which I recommend without reservations. It is small, very comfortable and modern, and the staff is great (

Soon I came to the NATO base (established during World War II) and the airport, and then I was in open country. My plan was to cut across the island to look at the Caldera of Guilhemo Moniz (a name that simply shows who owned the land), which turned out to be a pretty drive through greenery, but with very little geology. Then I saw a sign that led to a volcanic cave, but the place was not open until 2 pm, so I would have to come back. I did stop to walk through a small fumarole field, whose main attraction was the fact that a golden red moss likes the warmth and sulfurous steam, so the vents were easily distinguished as fiery spots imprinted on the green vegetation carpet.

From the highlands I dropped to the city of Angra do Heroismo, the largest city in Terceira. Angra means a small bay, and apparently this was the only naturally protected bay when the islands were colonized in the early to mid 1400’s, so for centuries it was the de facto capital of the Azores. The city is heavy with history, and after reconstruction from the ravages of an earthquake in the 1980’s was rightfully included in UNESCO’s roster as a World Heritage Site. The topography around the bay is steep, so the city has a helter-skelter development pattern of narrow streets and public buildings huddling precariously against each other.

Serendipitously I met the other members of my group by the waterfront, and together we went to visit one of the fortresses that protected the town against the depredations of pirates like Francis Drake and other privateers of the same ilk. We parted ways after the visit, and I went for a cup of coffee and a sandwich in the old town, and to browse through a bookstore in search of a book by an Azorean author. I settled for the book Mar Rubro, by Dias de Melo, a native of Pico who has made a name for himself by writing about the life of the baleen hunters of Pico. I finished my midday with an informative visit to the city museum, which occupies what used to be the old Franciscan Convent. It is a very good museum and I highly recommend it.

Back on my scooter (and under a steady rain) I headed back inland, to visit my volcanic cave. Now, I have been in a couple of amazing lava tube caves, where the lava makes a stream, crusts over to make a tunnel through which the now insulated lava can move more efficiently, and eventually drains quickly at the end to leave behind a largely horizontal empty tube or cave (I in fact saw a fair example of this phenomenon later in the day at another cave, the Cave of Natal). But the cave of Algar do Carvao was completely different: It was a wide (10 m) shaft that descended almost vertically for a good 100 m, where the sides had been eroded by the swirling of the hot lava. The walls had structures typical of the draining of a fluid magma, although in some places the walls had partially spalled in. Water, dripping through fractures, had accumulated some stalactites and drape structures just like in a limestone cave, but in here the structures were formed by chalcedony (silica) rather than calcite. In short, what we have here is a fossilized volcanic vent. Normally such a vent would be full of tephra or crystallized lava, but in this case the lava that filled the conduit must have drained quickly and the spatter of the cone around it must had been agglutinated enough that it couldn’t roll back into the cavity. It is the first time I get to see such a thing, and I was dully impressed. This really looked like a point of entry for a Journey to the Center of the Earth!

I spent the late afternoon exploring secondary roads, all of which took me to places of great beauty. In one of the many vales I met a small milking operation, in which the operator had a portable, two-stalls milking machine, and the cows simply came down the slope, two at a time, to be milked and munch on some hay. All 60 cows must have taken a couple of hours to milk, after which the farmer would pull the machine and its tank back to the farm. The cows remained on their pretty pasture and never saw the inside of a barn. Talk about happy cows! 

Africa-Europe 2015 Day 21. Going around the island of Faial.

Easy-piecey kind of day, driving around the island and stopping here and there to take some pictures. Unfortunately it was raining, so I was the only one to get down from the bus to go through the tunnel (the wind was howling) and come to the vista point overlooking the caldera of Cabeço Gordo, a small but very impressive caldera depression, maybe 4 kilometers in diameter and 500 m deep. If you follow in my footsteps make sure to take the time to walk all around the caldera rim (about two hours) or even descend to the bottom (another couple of hours). Unfortunately the wind was blowing a storm right into my face, so I don’t even have a picture to prove I was here.

The island is beautiful, and the hydrangeas are in bloom, which makes for a very pretty countryside. In fact, given that these flowers grow like weeds the farmers have planted to border the pasture fields, creating the ultimate tableau of happy cows.

At lunch I had the chance to talk with our guide Lucia, a pleasant woman of 40 something, who freelances as tourist guide whenever she gets a chance. So what does she do in the meantime? Well, a few years ago she went to the US with her family, and they stopped in Dunkin’ Donuts to buy a few, very expensive cookies. Years later one of her sons moaned that he would like to have one of those cookies, so Lucia sought a recipe through the internet, experimented a few times, and finally settled on something she liked and baked a batch for each of her sons, who were going to be camping that weekend. The “Cookies from Cousin Lu” became an instant hit with the boys and their friends, and now she runs a profitable small operation known through the whole island of Faial. And to this day Dunkin’ Donuts stands high in her mind among the top American pastry makers!

One of our last stops was the westernmost end of the island, in Punta dos Capelinhos, where we came across the products of an eruption that took place in the mid 1950’s. What was peculiar about this eruption is that started out of nothing under the ocean. The water started boiling, and now and then an explosion would blast unto the surface, with black jets of tephra shooting through the air, and seconds later transforming themselves into plumes of the white steam. Powerful blasts of tephra rushed over the surface of the ocean, and slowly built up a low mound that was quickly washed away by the waves of the ocean. The tug of war between the volcano and the sea continued for several days, until eventually enough tephra had accumulated to isolate the vent from the sea, and the eruption slowly evolved into a Strombolian eruption, and the quiet eruption of lavas shielded the nascent island to secure a permanent addition of 2 square kilometers to the area of Faial. Unfortunately the Portuguese failed to publish the photos and reports of the eruption of Capelinhos, and a similar eruption in 1965 off the coast of Iceland got the glory of the name. So this type of submarine-to-subaerial eruptions are now called Surtseyan rather than Capeloan. No better proof of the old academic adage: Publish or perish.

In the afternoon we took the plane to Terceira, where we will spend the last three days of our adventure. Tomorrow is a free day, so I think I will rent a scooter and see what I shall see.

Africa-Europe 2015 Day 20. Fog and drizzle in Pico.

Early this morning I got a message from a friend, reminding me that “it could have been fog and rain instead”, and that is exactly what we got today: Windy, drizzly, and foggy. Still, brave tourists that we are we took a boat to cross the strait between Faial and Pico. Our trusty guide, Lucia, was with us and keeping her chin up got us into the bus to start the tour around the island.

This is a peculiar island, dominated by the Pico stratovolcano, which has fed lava flows all around its periphery, which gives the lowlands a very “volcanic” aspect. There are no beaches to speak of in Pico, but the clever locals have blocked some of the crags to form pools, and apparently they are very popular among the locals when the sun shines. There is not a lot of arable land, however, so when the first inhabitants settled in the 1400’s they had to deal with rocky slopes and howling wind. Quite naturally they started building wind-barriers (thin walls of aa lava fragments), one thing led to the other, and pretty soon they were building walls around any of the plants they wanted to raise.

So this is an island of little walls, defining labyrinths that go for acres and acres, inside of which there are vines or fig trees, from which come the “volcanic” wines of Pico. The story goes that the black rock soaks in the sun, gets hot, and then radiates the heat back to the plants in the course of the evening. Of course the frequent rain does miracles to keep the fruits growing, but the heat encourages the grape to grow sweet, and the highest the natural sugar content of the grapes, the wine can reach a nice high level of alcohol and crate a smooth, dry wine. The figs, on the other hand, are allowed to ripen and then are put through fermentation and distillation to produce a pretty hefty grappa.

For the rest of the day we were simply group tourists, stopping often, getting out of the bus, snapping a couple of pictures, and getting back on the bus.

One rather unique stop was to visit “The King of Yams”, a friend of Elmano and Albertina, who markets yams in California and has build an empire on this lowly tubercule, and who every summer escapes the heat of the Central Valley by coming to Pico for two months. We came, all 14 of us plus Lucia and our driver Sinhor Antonio, to the family house to say hello, and he and his kind wife were waiting for us with all sorts of appetizers and open bottles of “volcanic” wine. The best welcome we could have expected!

We made our way all around the island, and as we were approaching the dock Pico volcano almost showed itself. I sat on the top deck, looking back at the fog shrouded volcano, and had a flashback when I left Sakurajima volcano in Japan, after a similar fog-shrouded day, when all of a sudden the fog blew away and the volcano started erupting! (The only time I have actually witnessed an erupting volcano). Alas, it was but a dream, and Pico kept itself quiet and shrouded, waiting for another time to show its power to us mere mortals.

Africa-Europe 2015 Day 19. From Sao Miguel to Faial

I woke up late, and didn’t come down to breakfast until 7 am. I had to eat quickly, because I had but short three hours to make my final scooter exploration of the island. My goal was to reach Lagoa do Fogo (the Fire Lagoon), which is a crater lake inside Agua du Pau volcano. It was a long steep road, but I was rewarded for my efforts when the shroud of clouds opened at just the crucial moment to reveal the sun-reflecting lagoon inside the deep green crater of the volcano (and at the same crucial moment my camera decided to run out of battery juice).

Agua de Pau was also of great interest to me, because it is here that the geothermal power plant is located, which provides for 40% of the electricity consumed by the island. One must remember that this is a small island, with maybe 50,000 inhabitants. Assuming 2.5 inhabitants per residence to make the math simple that would give us about 20,000 houses, or an average energy consumption of 20 MW, and 40% of this would be about 8 MW provided by geothermal energy. Not huge, but not too shabby either.

I made it back to Ponta Delgada just in time to return my scooter and take a nice, lazy walk to my hotel, pack, and be ready to go at noon. Then I got a reminder of the first of the reasons why I dislike group travel. Somehow everyone else’s ticket had been bought, except for mine! The travel agent was very apologetic, but he would have to find out from California, and it was 5 am there, and … I finished buying my ticket and will have to see if I get a refund when I get back.

A quick 45 minute flight landed our expeditionary force in Faial, the westernmost of the central cluster of islands of the Azores archipelago (the other islands in the central cluster being Pico, Saint Jorge, and Terceira; Sao Miguel is the only island in the eastern “cluster”; and Flores and Corvo form the western cluster). We were met at the airport by our new tour guide, and half an hour later we were installed into our new hotel.

A group got together to go to the afternoon mass in the parish church (today is Saturday June 27, 2015) at 6 pm, and then we learned that a dinner reservation had been made for us at 7 pm. Church was lovely, but I managed to get every prayer mangled trying to say them in Spanish while everyone was reciting them loudly in Portuguese.

Then we headed for the restaurant, and then I remembered my second thing I don’t like about group travel: An order of 14 dishes saturates the kitchen, so your 7:00 pm dinner turns into a 9:00 pm dinner. So you wolf down your meal, hoping that by 9:30 pm you can head for a well deserved night of sleep. The end result is that it was close to 10 pm when we got home, and this is the third time in a row! I am bushed.   

Africa-Europe 2015 Day 17. Another dreaded visit to the dentist.

That’s it. I slept poorly, feeling my face getting swollen. Yes, when I woke up I looked like a hamster. There is no question. I have an infection and will have to go to the dentist today. Crap! That means foregoing the luxury tourist thing, because they are leaving at 9 am. And I so wanted to go to the caldera of Sete Cidades, and the geothermal power plants L

The hotel gave me the address of a clinic on the other side of town, and since I am too cheap to take a cab I only got there about 9:45. The nice receptionist took my info, and told me the doctor would see me in a short while. Fifteen minutes later I was called in, and I met my doctor, a middle-age woman who spoke perfect English (like many Azoreans, she immigrated to the US when she was a kid, got her degree in Boston, and then chose to come back to practice in paradise), and who listened very sympathetically to my plight. She took a brief look and told me that, yes, I have an infection, and that until the infection is controlled by strong antibiotics and anti-inflammatories there is not much more she can tell me. If it is an opportunistic infection then the antibiotics should clear it and I should be able to hold until I see my dentist in Mexico. Otherwise she hopes I can get the thing looked at in Germany (definitely not Morocco); clearly she doesn’t know of my past experiences with German dentists (described in gory, bloody detail in my letters from 1988).

So she wrote me a prescription for Clavamox (875 mg, which is a dose that should be just about right for a horse) and Iboprufen (600 mg), plus an emergency pack of Rosilan (30 mg) corticosteroids just in case I need help during my trip to Morocco. She also gave me a medicated mouthwash from the samples she had in her examination room. Total cost: $50 for the consultation and $20 for the meds at a nearby pharmacy.

Feeling that now I was pretty much healed, I started bemoaning the fact that this untimely visit to the dentist had robbed me of the opportunity of seeing the caldera of Sete Cidades. I was commiserating in this way when, what do I see? An outfit of scooter rentals! A few minutes later I drove out of there in my very own scooter ($40 per 24 hours) heading out of town toward Sete Cidades volcano.

It was a fabulous ride. First I took the road less travelled, around the south side of the island, with fabulous looks of marine cliffs and quaint white-washed towns. Then I started the climb to the soma of the volcano, where I had a sweeping panorama of the caldera, the ring-fracture volcanoes, and the lake that occupies the center of the caldera. I was a good 3,000 ft above the level of the lake, so the view was like that a soaring eagle would have. Fortunately I came up the road less travelled, so none of the tourist buses were there to ruin my view.

I rode into the caldera, to the village of Sete Cidades to have my lunch, which consisted on a plate of grilled limpets with a cold beer, and afterward I rode all the dirt roads around the lake taking beautiful pictures.

Eventually I headed out of the caldera and reached the north shore, once again reveling on the smooth ride, the beautiful coast, and the incredible scenery. But then I started getting sleepy (was it siesta time?), so I stopped at one of the bus stop kiosks, parked the scooter out of the way, and proceeded to have a very nice siesta sitting against the warm sides of the kiosk.

I finally came back to the hotel, and at 7 pm rejoined my group for dinner. We walked a good 20 minutes to Solar de Graça, which looked more like a car garage than a restaurant, but which turned out to be a 60-year old “eatery” that offered a typical Azorean buffet and entertainment. The available menu included rice with fish, a bread pudding with tomatoes, bacalao with spinach, breaded young macarels (not oily at all), and diverse dishes with pork and bacon. The desserts included flan, maracuja pudding, apple pie, and a bean pie that was surprisingly tasty. This hearty dinner was followed by a show of traditional Azorean music and dance by a local group. It was pretty energetic dancing, as Albertina and myself were able to find out when we were invited to the dance floor. I think we did alright for mere beginners.

Africa-Europe 2015 Day 16. My first day as a luxury tourist.

The buffet breakfast was a nice affair, with all sorts of delicacies. I liked in particular a thick slice of fresh cheese with a spoonful of Azorean salsa (yes, Azoreans have seen the light and are beginning to use salsa), and of course several cups of coffee. The damn tooth is still bothering me, so I have to chew with my right molars and have to avoid biting with the incisors.

At 9 am our perfectly charming tour guide, Marco, met us at the lobby and escorted us to our bus. There are only 14 of us, but we have been assigned a 40-seat bus, so we have plenty of space to spread out. The first half hour of the ride was a bit of a blur because I fell asleep, but after that we settled in a regular pattern of stopping at a view point, taking a picture, and getting back on the bus. Marco is very good and kept the story going, so we learned quite a bit about the Azores, their autonomous government (they are like Hawaii, their own state within Portugal), and a bit of its history. The Azores were not colonized until the Portuguese came in the early 1400’s (so even later than Iceland!), and for a long time have been hanging out here on their own. For a time in the 1700’s to1900’s they were big producers of oranges, which first the British navy would load by the barrel in their ships to fight scurvy, and then Europe would import to celebrate Christmas, but a plague hit the trees 30 years ago and that industry disappeared.

Another historic industry has been dairies, and that is why many of them immigrated to America to work in the dairies of Stanislaus County. Everyone here has a cousin who lives in Turlock or Delhi. They produce all imaginable dairy products, although I have never really heard of Azorean cheese as being outstanding. They are currently strengthening their banking sector (but being a part of the EU there is only so much they can do), and they are looking at tourism as the next big industry. And it is the next big industry! Sao Miguel is beautiful and incredible scenic, all the towns are gorgeous and newly painted (I see EU grants playing a big role in this), they have some fine hotels, prices are still reasonable, and you are in Europe! Between Hawaii and the Azores I would take the Azores any day of the week!

Three things deserve special mention. The first is the town of Furnas, which extends along the shores of a lake nested inside a small caldera. Furnas means “furnaces” and tells you about the presence of fumaroles and boiling springs throughout the city. In one of the parks (a fantastic example of imported vegetation, because there is very little left of the native vegetation) there is a large, rusty colored pool of hot water where the locals like to bathe. The odd thing about this pool is that the hot water that feeds into it is perfectly clear. My interpretation is that iron is in the Fe2+ form in the incoming water, which happens to be soluble, so of course one cannot see it and the water is clear. As it mixes with the oxygenated waters of the pool the iron is oxidized to its Fe3+ form, forms insoluble iron hydroxides, and gives the water its rusty color. A neat example of geochemistry in action.

Still in the subject of fumaroles, the folks here have a tradition, in which they bring to the fumarole fields their pots of cozido (a mix of meat of beef, pork, and chicken meats, blood sausage and pork sausage, and cabbage, carrots, kale, and potatoes), and for a small fee they can put it inside one of the steaming holes, cover it with dirt, and let it cook for about 6 hours until it is ready at lunch time. Restaurants make a big to do about sending their vans to pick up the cozido at noon, and everybody seats to lunch at 12:30 to big steaming plates of cozido. It is very yummy, but I would like it to have more broth, like in the Spanish cocido.

The second memorable thing was a tea plantation. Now tea these days is cultivated in southeast Asia, India, Kenya, and apparently also in the Azores. Tea was brought to the islands two hundred years ago as a gift from some clueless potentate, and the Azoreans have kept a modest production going ever since. The machines are still of 1800 vintage, and at the plantation they did a great job explaining the different types of tea there is. For example, black tea and green tea come from the same plant, but the black tea is made with the tender shoots, and is oxidized before drying, whereas green tea comes from the not-as-tender shoots, and is steamed instead of oxidized before drying. Both types of tea are “rolled” to give the aspect of little sticks so common in black tea.

The third very memorable thing are pineapples, which under normal circumstances would not grow in the Azores (I believe they need hotter, drier climate). This local family, however, has been growing pineapples in greenhouses for ever, and the fruit is now firmly entrenched in the Azorean diet. First, after you cut a ripe pineapple, you strip the underlying stem of leaves, and bury it horizontally in shallow moist soil. This enhances asexual reproduction by budding. Once the small pineapples have sprouted they are transplanted to another bed, where they can grow for about 6 months. Then you “poison” the plants with smoke (the plant thinks it is in peril, and puts out a flower as an emergency measure to give the next generation a chance). The pineapple is the thickening at the base of the flower, which you let grow for a few weeks. Then the pineapple is “castrated” by removing the inner portion of the flower (so, alas, in all its ingenuity the plant doesn’t get to reproduce), and the resulting “capon” gets to grow fat and sweet for about 18 months. If you want to know whether you have a pineapple that has gone through this process all you have to do is look at the crown. If it is tall and bushy the pineapple was not castrated and may not be as sweet. If it is pitifully small you are probably looking at a very sweet pineapple.

Dinner was way too late, and I had a simple fish soup because my tooth keeps bothering me and I cannot face anything too al dente. It is beginning to feel like all of my upper jaw is numb. Rats! 

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Africa-Europe 2015 Day 15. From Paris to Sao Miguel de Azores

My dear Geraldine woke up very early in the morning to take me to Paris Orly airport, which is quite distance from Treil-Sur-Seine. We left at about 5 am, and even taking advantage of the fact that the roads were empty, and that the maximum highway speed is 130 km/hr, it was close to 6 am when we got to the airport. Saying goodbye is always such sweet sorrow, but I know that our paths will cross sooner or later, so here more than ever the correct expression is A bien tôt (hasta pronto, see you soon).

The flight to Lisbon was uneventful, and by 10 am I was stepping out of the airport, wondering what would be the best time to spend the 7 hours of layover. I soon discovered that the metro came all the way to the airport (what a civilized notion!), so within half an hour I was at the wharf, walking among crab fishers (DJ will be glad to hear this), bicyclists, and other forms of tourists. Maya and I will spend two days exploring this city in a bit over a week, so I didn’t want to jump the gun on her and had to concentrate on something that she might not be interested on. I decided to go looking for the Instituto Hidrografico (the Navy Surveying Institute) because I figured they would have a good museum. They did, but not at the location of their offices, so after walking like a dog I was told I had to take the train to get there. I used the opportunity to sit down and drink a “caňita” of beer (a tall, skinny glass of beer) and had a lunch of bacalao al mojo de ajo (cod fish with garlic). It was delicious, but I didn’t enjoy it as much as would have liked because my tooth started hurting.

A short train ride brought me to Belem and the Monastery of Jeronimos, by the side of which was the Museum of the Navy. Portugal has, of course, a centuries long tradition of being daring explorers and merchants, with their Golden Age starting with the Hydrographic Institute established by Prince Henry the Navigator in the mid 1440’s. Henry himself never went very far from Lisbon, but he amassed an enormous library of charts and captain reports, which were the stepping stones of the great events of Portuguese discovery, such as sailing along the west coast of Africa, turning the Cape of Good Hope, reaching India, and the discovery of Brazil. Ferdinand Magellan was a Portuguese himself, although he sailed for the Spanish King, and some believe that he knew about the passage that now bears his name in South America from Chinese charts collected by Prince Henry.

The exposition has hundreds of ship models from the smallest coracle to some rather modern vessels, but of course the bulk is from the 1400’s to the 1700’s, when Portuguese mariners plied the waters of the world (the museum never mentions slavery, which was one of the trades the Portuguese specialized in). I also learned about some Portuguese explorations of Africa that I had never heard before.

Thoroughly satisfied with my escapade I returned lazily to the airport, in plenty of time to take my 7 pm flight to Sao Miguel, where I landed at 8:30 pm (it was a two and a half hours flight, but the time zone changes). I would have enjoyed the trip a lot more if my tooth had not been bothering me so much. It is not “pain” as much as it is discomfort, but it worries me that it could get a lot worse.

A quick taxi ride brought me to my hotel. Wow! A four star hotel called the Royal Garden, with all the amenities that accompany such designation. My room is small but super comfortable, on the fourth floor, and has a marvelous view of the gardens, the pool, and a nearby green hill that can be nothing else but an extinct cinder cone. I think I am going to like it here.

Africa-Europe 2015 Day 14. Bitter sweet day in Normandie

We had a great pizza dinner last night, and then watched The Fantastic 4 (in French) in our big, comfortable hotel room before going to sleep. Waking up was a different matter, and the boys tried every trick in the book to snatch another 5 minutes of sleep. Eventually they got up, we had petit dejuner, and we were off!

The day was absolutely glorious, and we had but a short way to go to our first stop, Longues du Mer, where we had a look of the channel, the faint outline of England in the distance, and a battery of four cannons ready to bombard anything afloat. The emplacements were built of reinforced concrete, 3 ft thick, so they were indeed a hard nut to crack.

From there we went to Omaha Beach, where the first thing we did was pay our respects to the soldiers fallen in D-Day. The American cemetery alone has 10,000 tombs, marked by either white marble crosses or Stars of David. Many bear the name of the soldier, the company with which he served, and the state from which he came, but there were quite a few that simply said “Here rests a comrade in arms, his name known only to God”. The crosses extend for acres, and give you a real sense of the dire price the Americans paid to land in Normandie (2,500 perished taking Omaha Beach, and the rest of the casualties were largely among the brave assault troops that parachuted in the few hours prior to the landing to cut out communication lines, destroy bridges, and confront the enemy in the batteries).

The cemetery is on a bluff overlooking Omaha Beach, and we eventually got down there. It is a beautiful beach, bathed in sun, but you get the feeling of being in hallowed ground, remembering the events of June 6, 1944.
By the time we were back on the car we were all hungry, so I was on the lookout for a good place to have a late lunch. Fortunately I spotted a gentleman with a grill at the side of the road, who was selling grilled sausages out of his yard. He had a small table and four seats, so we waited comfortably for our sausages and fresh French fries to cook, and we had a marvelous lunch under the Normandie sun (as it turns out, it rains a lot in this part of France, so we really lucked out with the beautiful day).

Our last stop was in Pointe du Hoc, a point in the line of cliffs that separates Omaha Beach from Utah Beach. The enemy had another battery emplacement atop this cliff, so the allies had determined that it had to be taken if the invasion was to succeed. First it was the target of heavy bombing, and as you walk to the point you do so many bomb craters a good 20 ft wide and 10 ft deep. But the bunkers were protected by thick slabs of reinforced concrete, and apparently were not taken out of commission, so the Army Rangers (the elite assault force of the army, similar to the Navy Seals) scaled the cliffs, and engaged in furious battle with the German troops. The battle extended for more than a day, and by the end of it not even half of the 225 Rangers were alive. The French people gave the land of Pointe du Hoc to the United States, to commemorate the ground so dearly paid for by the Rangers, so a memorial site could be built in their memory.

By the time we left Pointe du Hoc it was 3:30 pm, and we had to turn east to get home. It was an easy ride, always in Freeway A-13, and by 7 pm we were entering Triel-Sur-Seine, which is the small town where Geraldine and her men have their happy home. We had a good family dinner, laughing a lot with the kids, and I got to say goodbye to all. Maya and I will get together in a week in Lisbon, but tomorrow she will explore Paris on her own while I fly to Ponta Delgada, in the island of Sao Miguel, in the Azores. I don’t know when I will see again Geraldine and her lovely family, but we have tentatively agreed that “next time” will be somewhere in Mexico

Africa-Europe 2015 Day 13. Normandie.

Geraldine and Nicolas have to work, so they kindly lend me their car so Maya, Lucas, Theo and I can do a two day trip to Normandie, on the coast of the channel between France and England. It is an educational trip, because it was here that on June 6, 1944, the allies landed to engage on the battle for France.

Our first stop, however, was the charming town of Honfleur, in the estuary of the river Seine. The town looks like it is hundreds of years old, with very characteristic tall and narrow houses around the marina (I believe they favored tall and skinny because taxes were levied based on the width of the building at street level). We meandered through the streets for a good half hour, prior to reaching the shore of the river and following it to where it opened into the ocean. It was a bit cold and overcast, but the rain held just enough for us to finish our walk and eat the sandwiches and fruit we had brought for lunch.

The next leg took us to Caen, where we were going to visit the Memorial to D-Day. It is a very nice museum space, with extensive gardens, but we spent most of the time inside, partly because there was so much to see, and partly because it started raining. The displays started at the end of World War 1, when Germany got crushed by the sanctions imposed by the victorious powers. Under these circumstances the ideas of the Nazi party found a sympathetic ear, and as the world was reeling from the effects of the Depression Germany started arming itself again. Brief descriptions of the rise of Benito Mussolini and the Spanish Civil War eventually led to the “addition” of Austria and Hungary to the Third Reich, and the invasion of Poland. It was at this time that England and France declared war on Germany. France was kind of prepared behind a series of fortifications along their border, known as the Maginot Line, but fixed fortifications were not a match for the German Blitzkrieg, and in a few months half of France was occupied, and the other half remained “free” under the collaborationist Vichy government (this was around 1941).

Many horrible things happened between 1941 and 1943. On December 7, 1941, Japan attacked the American fleet in Pearl Harbor and forced the United States to enter the war (the US had been helping Britain with munitions and equipment, but had remained neutral up to that point). The US fought most of the war of the Pacific, whereas the war for Europe was mainly fought by England and Russia, but in 1944 the US agreed to join Britain and Canada in the landings in Normandie, and to play an important role in the liberation of France. The French Resistance joined the allies in this powerful effort to regain their country.

On June 6, 1944, the United States, England, and Canada, under the general direction of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, landed 150,000 soldiers in a matter of about 12 hours, but at a horrendous cost of life (12,000 soldiers didn’t see the end of the day). From there, over a period of 90 days, the allies fought a bitter step-by-step war that eventually culminated in the liberation of Paris.

The visit was interesting, but it wore me down. The horrors of war are not something that I like to expand on, and although I appreciate the historic value of this amazing memorial museum, at some point I felt ready to leave. Tomorrow we will pick up the story, but for now I am done.

We wasted an hour in town, looking for a movie theater. Theo and Lucas have been very patient, and I wanted to reward them by taking them to see Jurassic World. Alas, we found one movie theater but they were only doing art films, and the second movie theater apparently has closed since the GPS program was loaded. So we simply came to the hotel where we will spend the night (a very nice apartment with a room for the boys and one for Maya and me), and will indulge in a pizza before we finish the day watching TV.

Africa-Europe 2015 Day 12. Happy Father’s Day!

Feliz Dia del Padre! Bonne Fete d’Pere!

Today the grand event is the trip to the countryside, where Geraldine’s family is getting together to celebrate Father’s Day. For us is going to be a drive of an hour and a half, but for the many family members coming from Orelans it will be only an hour.

When we got there the party was in full swing, so it took the best of half hour to meet the uncles and aunts, cousins, and nephews and nieces. Everybody was delighted to meet “the friends from America” and we were smothered with double beises and the multi-language expressions of greeting that characterize a European family. Some of the family came from Spain, so we got to talk in Spanish, and the young generation was quite fluent in English. Maya did wonderfully, going from English to Spanish, and then back to the few words she has learned in French (we played Guess the Character in the car, and by the end of the game she was quite able to ask if the character was from real life or imaginary, alive or dead, man or woman, or a comic book or movie character).

The hosts were Olivier and Axel, both of whom make a living training dogs. Their ranch house is large and ideally suited to boarding dogs, and to train them in open spaces or narrow winding paths (Axel trains sight-seeing dogs).

We met Geraldine’s parents, and her Mom’s sisters, as the senior generation. Geraldine, her sister, cousins and other halves made the next generation. Finally, their children, ranging from 8 year-olds Lucas and Mateo to the 20-somethings Julie and Laura, made the third generation. In total there must have been a good 30 people at the table, all speaking and laughing loudly at the same time, as befits a happy Mediterranean family.

After a glorious dinner we had the chance to play Molkky, a game in which 12 pins are stood up, and in which you have to knock down with a wooden cylinder. If you knock only one of them, then you get the point number marked in the pin (say I knock down the one marked 7, then I get 7 points). If you knock down 2 or more, then you get as many points as pins you knocked down (so if I knock down the 7 pin and the 11 pin I only get two points). The goal is to get 50 points. If you overshoot the 50, then you get thrown back to 25. Maya did quite well at Molkky, and got second place in the competition.

I, on the other hand, joined the game of Petanc (the game we call Bacci Ball) being played by the uncles, Nicolas, little Mateo, and myself. I was delighted to be able to play with the pros, although I must confess that I didn’t do any better than Mateo. Oh well, you cannot win them all.

Saying goodbye was quite the production, because by this time we had been accepted as part of the family, and everybody wanted to exchange a few kind words, welcoming us to France, wishing us a good stay, and hoping for the best of lucks in the rest of the trip. Baises flew right and left as we said goodbye to this wonderful family.

It was a great Father’s Day!

Africa-Europe 2015 Day 11. A glorious family day.

Saturday in a French household is the day to wake up a little later, have a nice petit dejuner with croissants, and do the small chores that are left undone along the week, such as doing the laundry, finishing homework, or going shopping. Geraldine made the list, and Nicolas and I went shopping for the dry goods (plus the makings of paella for this evening), while Geraldine and Maya went to the small shops to buy fresh vegetables and fruit. That took almost until lunch time, which we took in the terrace under a very benign happy sun.

In the afternoon we went to walk in the gardens of Versailles. These are among the most beautiful gardens in the world, and many people take the opportunity of coming to them for a pic-nic, a jog, a bicycle ride, or simply a stroll. We were treated to the rather uncommon event of having all the fountains going, which certainly added to the beauty of the place. Nicolas and Geraldine explained to us that, in times of Louis XIV, whenever the king went for a walk in the gardens, a gardener would rush ahead of him, to turn on the pump of the fountains through which he was passing, and another came behind turning them off after he had passed, because apparently at that time there was not enough pressure in the system to have all the fountains going at once. Incidentally, I had the idea that Louis XIV was an indolent monarch, but Nicolas told me that, on the contrary, he was a hard working administrator that did much for the people of France.

For dinner Maya and I prepared a nice paella with sausage, chicken wings, fish, shrimp and vegetables, which was much praised by one and all. The best accolade came from Lucas, who asked for seconds (and Lucas never asks for seconds!)

To finish the day we went to a music festival that was taking place at the music school of the town. The school is in a beautiful Maison de la Belle Epoque, which apparently belonged to the music teacher (who was no doubt independently wealthy, because the maison sits in about 5 acres of woodland by the side of the river Seine), and who gifted it to the city in his will, with the restriction that it was to serve as a music school. We only went there for about half an hour, on time to listen to, and dance to, music from Latin America and the Antilles. The group was excellent, and there was much merriment in the crowd to celebrate the arrival of summer.

Africa-Europe 2015 Day 10. The long and winding road to Paris

I woke up early, packed, and got on my way back to Perigueux. I had to stop at the post office, to send to myself back in the US the statuettes I had bought (the post office had the perfect box for the job and, though expensive, the cost was totally worth not having to juggle yet another piece of luggage). Then I returned my faithful little Fiat at the rental place, and was ready to go. Wait . . . the train doesn’t come for another 2 hours. The people at Avis were kind enough to let me leave my backpack there, so I decided to go visit the remains of the old Roman city. It turns out that in the first couple of centuries AD a large Roman city was built in the meander of the river where Perigueux now stands. This city was the provincial capital of one of the four provinces of Gaul (the Roman name for France), and developed into quite the small metropolis, with its own Forum (the seat of government) and Coliseum. Most of these structures have been studied by excavation between modern buildings, but the remains of a beautiful mansion have been preserved as an archaeological park and museum. I tell you, Romans of the upper class had nothing to envy from their equivalents of the modern age!

Back to Avis to pick up my stuff (folks are so nice around here) and to the station to wait for my train, which went from Perigueux to Limoge, where I had to transfer to the TGV to Paris. Now, according to me, I had to stop in the station Thivier-Limoge and, yes, that was the next station. I made a comment to that effect to the nice people around me and promptly fell asleep. … All of a sudden I was woken up by a very concerned group of people, telling me that I had reached my station and had to hurry up. Many hands helped me gather my luggage, and half asleep I tumbled out of the train, thanking my good Samaritans for their help. I stood, numb and dazed, on the tiny platform, and then my brain mumbled “it sure is a tiny station for the TGV to stop at”. Realization doomed on me that something was not right. I grabbed at my ticket and there, in black and white, said clearly “Limoge-Benedicti”. By the time I realized my error the train was departing and I was, for the time, stuck in Thivier. Still under the delusion I was in a suburb of Limoge I went in the station to find out if there was a bus or taxi that could take me to the main station in Limoge, but alas no. I was 80 km from Limoge, and would have to wait for another hour before another train to Limoge would come. This upset my connection to Paris, of course, but most important it affected the arrangements I had made to meet Maya and Geraldine at Gare Saint-Lazare at 6 pm. Nothing to it but wait.

When I got to Limoge I was able to shoot a WhatsApp message to both Gerladine and Maya, and it turns out that I was going to be only one hour late to our appointment, so nothing was broken. Maya? Yes, my spunky Goddaughter decided to come join me for four days in Paris, from her base of operations down in Basel. She was supposed to be on a grand tour of Europe with her irascible grandfather, but that was like bringing fire and gasoline together, and after a few days the mixture exploded, she grabbed her Eurail pass, and is now exploring on her own for a couple of months. Fortunately one of the Swizz aunts adopted her, she has a couple of cousins of her own age, and is gifted with a happy personality and indomitable will, so she will do grand. In the meantime I get to have her for a few days, and I am delighted about it.

So we three met as planned at Gare Saint-Lazare, took a local train to the small village where Geraldine and her family lives, and by 8 pm were happily ensconced in their beautiful kitchen exchanging news. Geraldine and I met 25 years ago, in Germany, where she was earning some credits in Economics before starting her PhD in France. Faby was 12 years old at the time, and we and other American and German friends became a core family, often getting together for dinner or fetes. She and her husband Nicolas live in a village about 40 km west of Paris, where they could buy an independent house with a large backyard, ideal for their sons Theo and Lucas to grow up. Theirs is a historic old house (the barnyard of the farm that King Louis gave to his nursemaid in her old age), that they have modernized with a lot of good taste. The ceilings are still tall and with exposed beams that are several hundred years old, but the annex of the kitchen and the bathrooms are super modern and very comfortable. It is so nice to visit old friends! 

Africa-Europe 2015 Day 9. The Valley of the Dordogne

Today I learned that the Dordogne is a river! A very nice river indeed, which meanders through one of the most beautiful regions of France, so next time I come to France I am buying a canoe and will paddle down the Dordogne to the ocean. It should be fun.

Yesterday I was so tired that I misspelled several words and forgot to mention a couple of pieces of trivia. For example, I didn’t know that the Perigord is the self-proclaimed Queen of the Foie Gras (which I knew is goose liver but here is also “produced” from ducks) and the nougat (candy made with walnuts). The foie gras is excellent without doubt, but has attracted bitter criticism from animal right activists. Basically you over feed the goose or duck until their liver grows a few times its normal size. The Perigordiennes consider it a tradition, however, and everywhere you see shops and farms devoted to the raising of ducks and geese.

I also forgot to mention that I am having a great time hurling my little Fiat through the narrow roads of the Perigord, recklessly defying death around each blind curve. I am now convinced that God has not only blessed this region with incredible beauty, but everyone who enters the region gets assigned at least two guardian angels.

Today I started by getting a little lost (just what one needs to see this beautiful region), but eventually reached Les Eyzies, to visit the National Museum of Prehistory. It is a fine collection, which tracks the evolution of early Australopithecus and Hominids, and eventually explodes in detail about the Neanderthal and Cromagnon presence in France. The key to the study of the last 500,000 years are the stone tool kits used by the different Homo species, which has given rise to a beautiful series of stage names:

Homo erectus (400,000 to 200,000 years ago) had the Acheluian stone tool kit (Paleolithic), dominated by large, tear-shaped, bifacial flint. Since they are sharp all around they are not simple axes, and the current thinking is that they were blanks from which other tools could be flaked.

Homo sapiens neandertalensis (300,000 to 30, 000 years ago) had the Mousterian stone tool kit (Mesolithic), without bifacial flint, with short and stubby cores as blanks, and relatively thick and large tools.

Homo sapiens sapiens (40,000 years to present), for which the Neolithic stone kits are named, from oldest (40,000 years ago) to youngest (10,000 years ago), Aurignacean, Soloturian, and Magdalenian. I will spare you the details, but the key trend is that the tools become smaller and smaller, and the workmanship becomes finer and finer with time. The cave paintings I talked to you about yesterday are either Soloturian or Magdalenian.

A key development during the Soloturian and Magdalenian was the invention of “portable” art, that is, small ornaments in the atlatls (spear throwers) and spear shafts, and very significantly the small female figurines we have come to call “Venuses”. Characteristically these Venuses have no prominent facial features, but rather emphasize the fertility-related attributes of females, such as wide hips, large breasts, and engorged vulvas. Nobody knows what their function was, but it is easy to believe that they were representations of fertility, perhaps both in humans and in the bountiful Earth. Now, you may not know this, but I am a collector of Neolithic portable art, and now my collection has been increased by four pieces: The Venus of Sireuil (24,000 years old and found in La Dordogne), the Venus of Lespugue (25,000 years old and found in Garonne), the Venus of Eliseevitchi (17,000 years old and found in Siberia), and a beautiful small carving of a laying bison, the Bison of the Madeleine (15,000 years old and found in La Madeleine). I am a bit poorer after my shopping spree, but I am a very happy man J

At noon time I went for the long walk I had promised myself in the forests of the Perigord. They are dense forests (too many trees for my Icelandic taste), and it is easy to imagine yourself with a shotgun in the crook of your arm (you never know when a hare or pheasant may jump out of the brush), following your pig in the search of the elusive truffle (the gold of Provence). Incidentally, one of the ad spots I see everywhere is that Foie Gras, c’est la truffe de Perigord!  

The rest of the day I spent becoming acquainted with the medieval history of the area, which has a large concentrations of castles of the 12th and 13th centuries, and a large number of medieval towns, all of which vie for the title of La plus belle village de France. The towns of Serlat, Domme, La Roque Gageac, and Castelnaud la-Chapelle were particularly lovely. 

Africa-Europe 2015 Day 8. The Valley of the Vezere

Today was a perfect day … well, almost perfect because the first thing I had to do was to drive down to the Brico Marche, buy Crazy Glue, and stick back the crown that I lost last night. It triggered a deep pang of pain, so I am wondering if my Icelandic dentist, who has drop several notches in my estimation since last night, did a proper job at the root canal. I just need to be very careful and put no stress on that tooth for the next two months L

Well, going back to my perfect day, you should know that for many years now I have been an enthusiast of the study of the prehistory of man, and today I had the invaluable chance to indulge in my hobby, visiting some of the most famous sites of the Paleolithic cultures.

First I made a beeline for Montignac, where the famous site of Lascaux is located. Lascaux (together with Chauvet near Lyon and Altamira in northern Spain) is one of the finest exponents of polychromatic cave paintings, and I had dreamed for years to get a chance to see it. Before walking into the cave, however, I should tell you that there are four versions of Lascaux. Lascaux 1 is the original grotto, discovered in 1940 and first open to the public in 1944, at the end of World War II. It was an immediate success, but the traffic of millions of tourists eventually started to damage it, and in 1963 became permanently closed. That is when Lascaux 2 started to be built. In an amazing display of ingenuity, workmanship, and artistic talent, the half of the cave where 90% of the paintings are found was duplicated, to the smallest detail, so we tourists would not be disappointed if we made a trip to France. The rough shape of the cave was dug with heavy equipment, and then a fiber glass “skin” was cast using LIDAR measurements and glued onto the rough excavation. Then a group of super talented artists carefully painted the original motifs, using the same pigments and techniques used by the Cromagnon inhabitants of the region.

Since they had the molds to cast the fiber glass skins, the clever French created Lascaux 3, a traveling exhibition that has toured the world, showing the incredible paintings. I had the chance to see Lascaux 3 in Vancouver a year ago, and ever since have been in love with them. A second set of fiber glass skins has been installed close to Lascaux 2, in the educational center of La Thot (more about this in a later paragraph).

Finally, the city of Montignac has started a monumental new project, where the whole of the cave will be reproduced, and where modern museography will allow millions to enjoy this marvel of ancient art. This new reproduction is called Lascaux 4, and will open to the public in 2016.

So, here I am, clutching my ticket and waiting with mixed feelings for the first visit of the day, at 9:45 am. What if it is a dud? I have so many preconceived ideas based on my memories of Lascaux 3 that I may be expecting too much from a pokey ol’ cave. Our guide, a pretty young woman whom I can actually understand very well, forewarns us that only half of the cave has been reproduced, and that the cave is not very long (50 m). Not looking good. But then she tells us that the gallery that has been reproduced contains 95% of the paintings, so at least I will not be missing much. OK, she opens the door and we walk into a cave that is maybe 3 m wide and 6 m tall, and my jaw drops. It is an explosion of color, with hundreds of delicately painted auroxes, deer, horses, and bisons, and in which the artists have overlapped perfectly recognizable paintings at different scales and orientations. They may have been stories told at different times by different artists, or independent creations in their own separate dimensions to let the shape of the cave walls bring the spirit of the animal out. There is no doubt that they are alive.

The visit was, alas, all too short. The roof of the cave is loaded with fantastic prehistoric beasts, and is a veritable Sistine Chapel of prehistory, and just like in the Vatican you have to move along because another group is coming behind you. Taking photographs is not allowed, so I will have to rely on memory to see the polychromatic shading on the flanks of the auroxes, or the running herds of horses (and will definitely buy a picture book once I get back home).

From Lascaux I went to La Thot, where a very clever educational center has been built. They have a zoo with cattle that looks almost like the auroxes depicted at Lascaux, Prewalsky horses, American buffaloes, deers, and antelopes that could be goats (or viceversa). There are also open air activities to teach students how flint is knapped, how to draw on the wall of a cave, or how to build a grease lamp. Finally, there is an audiovisual space where a lively docent shows holograms of mammoths, rhinos, cave bears (did you notice that I didn’t mention any of these animals when I talked about Lascoux? That is because they are barely represented there. I will have more to say about this when I tell you about Rouffignac.) Then the docent walks you to a hall with the reproduction of the walls of Lascaux, so I got a second chance to hear the explanation about the paintings. Then the kid turned out all the lights, and turned on a UV light and like magic a band of horses appeared running all along the length of the cave! I was flabbergasted. The young man then explained that in addition of the painted images there are engraved images all over the cave (remember how I said that these magnificent beasts seem to live in parallel universes?). My theory is that they become visible under UV light because the calcite under the skin of clay of the cave is slightly fluorescent. Alternatively, the sub-millimeter resolution of LIDAR allowed them to “see” the engravings through the mineral paints.

My next stop was in the tiny hamlet of La Moustiere, from which the Mousterian stage of prehistory takes its name (ca. 40,000 years ago). A pleasant walk across the Vezere brought me to a long limestone cliff, La Roque Saint Christophe, the abris of which were occupied almost continuously from 55,000 years ago to the Middle Ages. An abris is basically a shallow cave or space under an overhanging cliff where one can get out of the rain, but during the Middle Ages a veritable city was developed against it, complete with a defending fort (on their way to settling in Iceland, in the late 800’s AD, our friends the Vikings took a liking to pillaging and plundering along the rivers of France).

After a very French lunch of Turrine de Canard (duck pate) spread on a baguette, eaten under the big tree in front of the medieval church of La Moustiere I headed for the cave of Rouffignac, from which I had heard while at Lascaux 2. Now, this is a cave formed by a subterranean stream that followed soft Cretaceous limestones loaded with chert nodules. The cave is several kilometers in length, but you only get to see one kilometer, comfortably (?) seated on a little train that takes you deep into the vowels of the Earth. Now and then the guide would stop to show the black on white outline of a wooly rhinocerous or a mammoth, but the real show was when we got to the end, where the flat roof of the cave came down and formed a small cupola, where dozens of wooly mammoths had been artfully represented with just a few strokes of black manganese oxide. I am very fond of simple, black on white designs, and these ponderous processions of giants of a bygone era totally captured my heart. Careful inspection revealed additional horses, ibexes, and goats, but this time auroxes, buffaloes, or deer were prominently absent. The guide told us that since deer were their main source of food, current thinking was that the designs were probably not related to propitious hunting, as had been believed for many years.  

I almost falling asleep, so I will continue tomorrow night. I will tell you, however, that eventually I reached the town of Les Eyzies, and that after a long walk along the Vezere I stopped at a local brasserie, where I had a superb dinner of Foie Gras (duck liver) and casoulette Perigordienne (bean stew with sausage and duck) that delivered all that I had come to expect of French cuisine. C’est ci bon!

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Africa-Europe 2015 Day 7. From Paris to La Dordogne

I landed in Paris way too late due to the Icelandair delay, so I missed Nicolas and had to follow plan B (a hotel in the north of Paris). I had remembered to bring some euros with me (25 Ɛ), but it was not enough, so I tipped my lady driver generously in dollars, and had a very nice half-night of sleep. By the way, the drive through Paris at 1 am was very nice, but had the lady not had a GPS I am not sure we would have ever reached the hotel. Talk about a city full of cut offs and cul-de-sac!

In the morning I got in touch with Geraldine, and we finalized plans for meeting in three days. Afterward I headed for the train station on foot, enjoying the scene of seeing Paris wake up. It was the time for kids to get to school, so I kept looking for Madeline and her friends (you never know, stories might come through). Anyway, I made it with no problem to Paris-Montparnasse, with plenty of time to take the Train de Grand Vitesse (TGV) to la Dordogne (in the southwest of France). I was looking forward to a ride in the Bullet-Train, but the views of the beautiful French countryside were not as beautiful because I could barely see anything because of the goddamned trees! Really! Do they have to have trees everywhere? There is something to be said for unimpeded views of the countryside, you know? Ask any Icelander about it.

By 4:00 pm I had arrived to Perigueux, rented a little Fiat (with a sunroof), stopped at the tourism office, and after the initial confusion was happily away traversing one of the most beautiful regions of France. The only problem is that I had forgotten to print the precise location of the hotel where I had reserved three nights, so I had to go on trial and error. The first hotel I stopped in told me they had no reservations for the night, but were kind enough to let me use their internet to find where I had made reservations. Aha. It was L’Ecluse, on the other side of town.

L’Ecluse is … wow. I don’t think I have ever stopped at a most beautiful place. It is a small chateau, by the side of the river, in the most beautiful setting. It is three stories high, and my room is in the third floor (the garret, really). It is nice and roomy (certainly for European standards), and my window faces the river. The day has been very sunny, however, so the garret was hot!

I had dinner at the restaurant in the base floor (a delicious dish with lamb riblets), but to my dismay my new crown got loose. Rats! I think I will go to the local version of Home Depot tomorrow and buy some heavy duty foundation glue to cement it into place.

Africa-Europe 2015 Day 6. My last day in Iceland

I am at the Keflavik airport, waiting for my flight to Paris, and have just received the bad news that the flight is delayed and will not depart at 16:15 as planned, but at 19:00 instead. That means that I will be landing in Paris CDG a little after midnight. Pobrecitos Geraldine and Nicolas, who kindly offered to pick me up at the airport L

Yesterday I forgot to mention that, while munching on a piece of fish jerky I pulled a bit too hard and broke the crown on one of my incisors (actually, I broke the tooth post on which the crown rested, but I was not going to know that until later). Since yesterday was Sunday I had no chance to do anything about it. Today Monday (June 15, 2015), however, I made it a point to be at the door of the local dentist by 8:30 am. There was a person already there for an 8:30 am appointment, but the doctor told me he could see me at 9 am. I waited and was called at 9:00 sharp. I showed the crown to the doctor, who immediately tut-tutted, and after a brief examination explained that the tooth had broken, and that the nerve was now exposed (and yes, I had noticed the little flesh-colored spot in the center of the tooth). So, he promptly anesthetized me, did a root canal, inserted a thin post where the root had been, drilled a hole in the crown for the post, and proceeded to cement the crown in place. He warned me that this was a temporary fix, and that my own dentist would have to decide what to do later when I get to Mexico. He also suggested that I be very careful with that tooth, and use it mostly for smiling rather than tearing fish jerky. The final tab? $200 for half hour of work, which I think is extremely reasonable. Health care is the one thing that doesn’t seem to be wildly expensive in Iceland.  

Still with a numb upper lip I walked to the local attraction: The Settlement Exhibition and the Saga Exhibition. Both are actually related, because the settlement story is based 25% on archaeological research and 75% on the medieval saga, or tale, of the arrival of the Nordsmen to Iceland. It seems that during the middle ages, from about 1100 to 1250 AD, there was an explosion in the number of written documents describing the events that had transpired since 870 AD, the genealogies of the different chieftains, the Norse gods, and the legends of trolls, magicians, and witches that inhabit the fjords and mountains of Iceland. I must confess that I knew nothing about this extraordinary literary output, and had to shed a tear at not being able to bring with me the very fat tome on Icelandic Sagas that was for sale at the gift shop of the exhibitions.

The Settlement Exhibition went basically through the same early history I described in Day 2, so I don’t need to repeat it here. The Saga they chose to tell about was about this kid, who got into all sorts of troubles when he was young, picking fights and cheating in the market place. Not surprisingly he grew up to be a trouble maker, and ended killing a man. According to legend he became a very old man, crabby and distrustful of all, who at the end packed all his silver in two small coffers, and accompanied by his two servants went to bury them in the glen. According to the legend he came back alone, so folks are sure he killed the two servants and buried them with his treasure. The treasure has never been found, so here is a chance for anyone to get rich!

To conclude this leg of the blog I want to say something about the Icelanders, who may have originated as pillaging hordes, but who in the 21st century are as delightful a people as anyone could ask for. Genetic research has shown that men have a dominant Nordic genetic pool, but women show a much more varied genetic pool, showing that pillaging of women folk by the Viking men brought enough variation to make the modern Icelandic people a pleasant mixture of blond and brunette, tall and short, attractive and homely. One feature that totally fascinates me is that all of them are perfectly bilingual. They can switch between Icelandic and English right after they say good morning, and you never feel like a dumb foreigner. They are very helpful and service oriented, and as my experience with the dentist show they can be relied upon in an emergency. I would totally recommend to those coming from the US to Europe to consider flying with Icelandair, and to take advantage of their offer of a free stopover for up to 7 days in their beautiful country.

Well, what do you know? They have just announced that because the Paris flight is delayed we can go and pick up a voucher for some food. I think I will try their lobster pizza ($25) and a beer ($8).

Africa-Europe 2015 Day 5. Around Iceland – Part 3

The one thing about my remote youth hostel is that there were no nearby stores or restaurants. One would think that the hostel manager would then consider carrying some things like ramen noodles or rice, so that unprepared guests like me would have at least something to munch on. Same thing for coffee in the morning. But no, there were no such accommodations, so I had to tough it out, and the next morning I was a bit grumpy when I took off. Since I was already 30 km into the dirt road I figured that I had to finish going around the peninsula, and in retrospect I am glad that I did because it was a glorious sunny day, and the sights of the ocean against the backdrop of the snowy walls of the fjords was spectacular. In fact that was the case for the rest of the day, so you will thank me that I don’t go endlessly about how pretty this was, and how spectacular that was.

By 8 am I was thirsty and falling asleep for lack of my caffeine dose, and by 9 am I was in need of an injection of caffeine direct to the heart. One thing missing in Iceland are    7-Eleven stores all over the place, but I felt salvation was at hand when I spied an N1 service station in the distance. This particular chain of service stations advertises with the motto “Come for the petrol, stay for the food”, and I was very glad to spend a small fortune in two small cups of coffee. Maybe this is a good point to talk about prices. Iceland is expensive, things being anywhere between two and three times as much as in the US. For example, a small cup of coffee at the gas station costs $2.50, and a bag of chips costs $6. Breakfast will see you back by about $12, dinner will be anywhere from $15 for a personal pizza to $25-$40 for a main course, and a pint of beer to go with dinner will be $6.50. Gasoline is about $6.50 a gallon, an individual room at the remote youth hostel without food will be $50 per night (and that does not include linen), whereas a bed in a dorm room will run you about $30 per night. This is traveling on the cheap, eating and shopping where the locals do. Tourist hotels are a lot more expensive, and just about anything touristy you want to do (e.g., a boat ride to go see whales, or a raft trip down the river) will run $100 to $200 on the average. Entrance to a museum or exhibition costs between $8 and $20.

Even though I believe that tourist attractions are horrendously overpriced (and I think this is a purposeful policy to take advantage of tourism as a source of employment and income), the fact remains that the average Icelandic citizen drinks the same beer and eats the same pizza at these high prices. Still, they can afford it! Unemployment stands at about 2%, they have socialized medicine (the value-added tax is 25% to pay for their social services), their houses are small but pretty, and cars are small but all look fairly new. So they are doing well, but once again I have to ask, how to they do it?

Industries, as far as I can tell, include fisheries and small craft building, wool products, sheep husbandry, tourism, and services. That is it! What kind of magic key do they have that we don’t know about? I believe the surface area of the country is about 100,000 km2 to the US 10,000,000 km2 (100th of the surface of the US). On another measure of comparison they have 300,000 inhabitants to the US 300,000,000 (or 1,000th of the US population). In short, they have about 10 times more land per person than we have, but if you have been reading the previous days a lot of their land is pretty grim and unsuitable for economic activities. I think the key is that there is less of an economic disparity between people. They don’t seem to have filthy rich people, but nor do they seem to have very poor people, so with most people being in the middle they all fare reasonably well.

I said I was not going to go on and on about the landscape, but there are a couple of things I want to say about three days of travel. First, this is a mountainous country, so I am totally amazed at the number of people I have seen doing bicycle treks. In three days I saw maybe 10 to 15 pairs, loaded like burritos, huffing and puffing but undeterred by sun, rain, or sleet. A goodly number of these pairs were he and she, middle age, presumably out to have an Icelandic adventure. As a flat-land bicycle enthusiast I have to admire their moxy in undertaking such and adventure.

The other thing I have admired are the flocks of sheep. Clearly lambing must have happened, because all ewes are happy guiding their extremely fat little lambs from one patch of grass to the other. The little ones look like small barrels of wool on extremely nimble and spindly legs. Now and then you see only one ewe and one lamb, or one ewe and three lambs, but the rule seems to be two per ewe. I did try Icelandic lamb in Reykjavik and found it delicious and not gamey (the Icelanders say it is the good grass they eat), so I can believe it is of good export quality, and the wool sweaters are nice and expensive (but really, you would only use them at an ugly Christmas sweater party), so here is to the little fuzz balls that so ably support he economy of this country.

Icelanders are also very proud of their Viking ponies, which you see all over the place. Mama ponies are foaling right now, and some of the babies I saw seemed to be at best a few hours old. Spring is late coming to Iceland, but it is here in force right now.

Africa-Europe 2015 Day 4. Around Iceland – Part 2

Last night, as I went to bed, I admired the view out of my dorm room into the fjord. Hard to believe it was almost 10 pm, because there was a lot of light out there. I fell asleep, and awoke to the morning light, except it was not the morning light. It was the midnight light! Yes, I am very close to the Arctic Circle, so now we have light for 24 hours (I believe the sun actually dips behind the horizon for just a few minutes, but the light never really dims out). It was cool, but wrecks havoc with your biorhythm.

The sun was shining when I got out of Seyoisfjord, so I was looking forward to a beautiful day. This simple thought jinxed for me, for as I went over the mountain pass I encountered a blizzard that stayed with me for at least half the day. Icelanders build their roads on very narrow, tall embankments, so I was afraid that a gust of wind would blow my little car off the embankment.

I descended to the valley of Lagarfljot (looked for the monster but couldn’t see her), and started crossing the northern slopes of the island. It is an eerie, desolate landscape, more akin to a moonscape than to anything else I have seen before. No trees, no grass. Only vast plains of black scoria, interrupted now and then by a lava flow that could have formed yesterday. From the standpoint of the volcano aficionado it is a fine show piece of lava types and lava flow structures, but the blizzard deterred me from stopping to take many pictures (since I am practically by myself in the Ring Road I have taken to position the car at the right angle in the middle of the road, opening the window, and taking the picture from the inside of the car to keep the camera dry).

I did stop to look at the 87th waterfall, Dettifoss, and to reach it walked about a kilometer under the pelting of flakes of wet snow. I am definitely not dressed for this type of weather, with only a thin wind breaker between me and the elements, so when I got to the waterfall I was a sopping mess. The waterfall was nice, yes; perhaps it was even beautiful, but in the eyes of this beholder the agony to satisfaction ratio was much larger than one.

A lull in the weather allowed me a rare sighting of Askja volcano, about 100 km distant. I would really like to hike to it, but my next trip to Iceland is going to be in the winter, to see the Northern Lights, and I think the only way to get to Askja would be to do it with a snow cat. At least I can say I saw it.

I was bemoaning my bad luck regarding the weather when I came to the Krafla fumarole field and geothermal power plant. I get all excited when I see the big plumes of steam, so I can only wonder what the medieval inhabitants felt walking out of a blizzard into a land where steam warms the air. Adjacent to the fumarole field is a very young lava flow with great examples of gas blisters and hornitos (spatter cones that form chimney-like structures dotting the surface of the lava flow).

Then the world changed for the better. I got into a beautiful fjord, and as soon as I did that the sun came up. At the land end of the fjord is the pretty town of Akureyri, which vies with Reykjavik for the distinction of being the prettiest town in the country. For one thing, it has trees! This is also where I bought myself a bag of fish jerky, which I found to be very tasty and entertaining as a traveling snack.

For the next 100 km the road went through green glacial valleys, at the bottom of which the locals are actually practicing agriculture. Most seems to be hay, to support the sheep and cattle industries, but now and then I found a patch of corn and a patch of baby trees. Could it be that there is going to be an attempt at reforestation? I think this is the case, because in one of the slopes I actually saw a small but rather credible pine forest. Q. How do you find your way through an Icelandic forest? A. You stand up.

I selected a youth hostel in Osar to spend the night. It turned out to be an interesting choice. It is a good 30 km from the paved road, perched on a slope overseeing Hunafjord. I am writing this log from my room, which overlooks the fjord and a black barrier island that blocks an inner lagoon from the main body of the fjord. The view is spectacular, and since the sun will not set I may spend several hours just gawking out the window. 

Africa-Europe 2015 Day 3. Around Iceland – Part 1

On a whim I have decided to go around Iceland, counter-clockwise. It is a big undertaking because it is not a small island, but I simply couldn’t make up my mind about what part not to see. So today the goal is to look at the Vatnajökull Glacier (this is a tautology, since jökull means glacier, but I think it is allowed for the sake of making the meaning clear), which is the largest in Iceland, and probably makes the top 5 in the world.

I started at 6 am from Reykjavik, heading east on Highway 1 (aka The Ring Road). My first stop was at the Hellisheidi geothermal field, where I took a self-guided tour since there were no gates and no one else was awake to tell me otherwise. The cross I have to bear because I am a morning tourist.

From there the road took me through beautiful exposures of basaltic rocks, and I think in at least one instance I was able to recognize a tuya or table mountain, which is a unique volcanic form that develops as an eruption takes place under ice. The lava chills against the ice and forms an enormous pile of pillow lavas, which grow into a mound eating the glacier from within. Eventually a lake forms inside the glacier, and phreatomagmatic eruptions further expand the edifice at the expense of the ice and glacial lake. As the edifice grows the lava gains on the water, and the former lake is filled by a lava lake that forms a cap or table top on the edifice. After the glacier retreats the leftover is a steep sided, squat edifice with a flat top. Maybe I am just seeing what I want to see, but some of these mountains sure look like a short stack of pancakes.

I did have a rare sighting of Mount Hekla, of tephrochronology fame. It looked alluring but it was also far, far away, and covered in snow, so I think this is the closest I am ever going to get to it. Around here is also where the Laki fissure eruption took place in the late 1700’s. It was the largest fissure eruption in recorded history, and the massive amounts of sulfur oxide it belched unto the atmosphere caused that year to be the “year without summer” in the northern hemisphere. Unfortunately the road that gets you there is only open in July and August, and you need a 4-wheel drive vehicle to get there, so, alas, I didn’t get to see it.

At the southernmost portion of the island the road hugs the Myrdalsjökull Glacier, which may not be very big, but has prime examples of valley glaciers and moraines. However, the main thought crossing my mind is that this is a lonely barren land. Beautiful but harsh.

The real shock, however, came a couple of hours later, when the road crossed the largest lahar field I have ever seen. A lahar is a debris flow dominated by volcanic fragments. In Iceland everything is basalt, so the lahars look black, and it is quite the shock to see this vast black plain, 10 or 20 km wide, without a sign of life and formed by black sand and boulders (maybe with the twisted remains of a steel bridge here and there). This lahar field is called Skeidararsandur (or the sand flats), and has been built over time by a number of major debris flows. 33 of these flows have occurred during historic time, and of these only 6 were the direct result of an eruption under the Vatnajökull Glacier. The others are related to torrential rains, or the bursting of an ice dam and delivery of a big slug of water unto pre-existing debris. If I recall correctly a bursting of melt water from a glacier is called a jökullup.

The Vatnajökull Glacier is … wow! Of course one cannot see the snow field itself, which is the core where the snow accumulates, compacts, and eventually becomes glacial ice. Instead what the visitor gets to see are the tongues of glacial ice that flow away from the overflowing snow field. The tongues of ice form valley glaciers, which deliver big hunks of glacial ice to the lagoons formed between the front of the ice and the terminal moraine (a sign that the glacier has been retreating for the last 200 years or so). The lagoons are both beautiful and eerie, with icebergs of deep blue ice forming a labyrinth through which adventurous rafts can weave their way through.

Moving unto the eastern part of the island one enters the fjord fields. A fjord is a glacial valley (long, narrow, and with very steep sides) that has been invaded by the sea, as sea level rose at the end of the last ice age, 18,000 years ago. The problem for the car traveler is that to go around a fjord takes a long time, and according to the map there were at least three fjords between me and my destination for the night. So I took a shortcut. And what a short cut it turned out to be!  It was a dirt track, which took off straight up the mountain, so my poor little car was having a hard time taking on the inclines, but eventually it brought me up to a landscape of angular, snow-clad mountains and valleys that reminded me a lot of my crossing of the Andes between Chile and Argentina. I even had a blizzard hit me as I crossed from the south shore to the east shore!

Eventually I made it to the other side, where the beautiful lake of Lagarfljot extended in a straight line toward Egilstadir. Legend has it that this long and narrow lake is the home to a serpent-like monster, last photographed in 1992 (check it out in YouTube!). I still had one more leg to cover, however, because I had decided I was going to spend the night in Seyoisfjord. What I didn’t know is that to get there I was going to have to brave another mountain pass. This one was a bit more genteel than the previous one, and the sun was shining, so the snow fields reminded me more of the crossing of the Pyrenees, particularly since at the end I arrived to the charming town of Seyoisfjord, where a beer and a nice dish of grilled cod revived my trust in Alpine landscapes.

Africa-Europe 2015 Day 2. Reykjavik

Ah, another beautiful day in Iceland! Actually, I had no idea what the weather outside was like, but after a good night’s sleep I felt rejuvenated and ready to go. But first a shower in the city with endless hot water (the whole city is served by geothermal water). If only it weren’t for the smell of rotten eggs, which wafts around me as I luxuriate under the stream of hot water (nothing in life is perfect). Speaking of water, here they only know two types of water: hot smelly water or freezing glacier water, and if you push the knob just a little one way or the other you are in for quite a surprise.

Today I devoted to an exploration of Reykjavik, which I found to be a very charming European city. Many parts of it remind me of Geneva. It is a small city, with maybe 200,000 inhabitants, but it manages to pack the punch of any other European capital, with very chic neighborhoods, lakes, parks, museums, and lots and lots of places to eat. To me the Icelanders seem to be pretty prosperous, although outside of fishing and services I cannot see any major industry around. This bears more study.

Iceland was one of the last major islands to be colonized (compared, for example to Ireland, Hawaii, or Madagascar). Curiously, Icelandic archaeologists know, almost to the day, the time at which the first settlement was established: A wall had been started, right here in Reykjavik, when Hekla volcano erupted in 870 AD and blanketed the whole island with a distinctive layer of tephra. The builders continued their labors after the eruption and established a small group of long houses (which I was lucky enough to see in person). All other known archaeologic sites are younger than this “Settlement Tephra”, which was followed by other layers, so the chronology of development of different sites is well known to volcanologists and archaeologists.

The first settlers were undoubtedly Vikings, who were well known for being pillagers, traders, and settlers. By the time they got here they had done all the pillage and plunder they could manage, so the ones who landed on Iceland were mostly interested on creating new settlements. From here they went to settle in Greenland and in New Foundland (which apparently they called Vinland because one of them discovered grapevines and got drunk like a skunk on the wine he made out of them). Yes, this happened between 900 and 1000 AD, when the Warm Period of the Middle Ages was just beginning to kick in.

The Icelandic Vikings may not had been into pillage and plunder, but they sure did a job with their local environment, and in less than 200 years denuded the land of its birch tree forests. Nowadays there are small ornamental trees in the urban areas, and small forests of dwarf pine trees can be seen tucked against some of the mountains, but overall this is a land without trees, which is a very strange sight for those of us who grew up in central Mexico or California. They undoubtedly used the lumber to build boats and long houses, but the biggest consumptive use seems to have been energy generation (i.e., burning directly or to form coal) and iron smelting. Iron is found in the red clays so common in bogs, so what they did was to create a coal-burning closed oven (reducing conditions), where the red clay would be allowed to “roast” until the iron separated in big gobs, which would later be “refined” by alternate heating and beating, until all the impurities had been beaten out of the mass.

The Icelanders/Vikings had an interesting system of government. There were about 60 chieftains in the whole island, and every now and then the chieftains would get together at Pingvellir (mentioned in the previous day and pronounced Thinkvellir), and sitting astride the Atlantic mid-ocean ridge, the Council of Chieftains would promulgate laws, and would judge any issues brought before them. This was before writing came to the land, so the Law Master would have to remember all the laws by heart, and would recite them to the whole assembly every time they met (I know professors who would do a marvelous job as Law Masters).

Alas, such felicity could not last. First, immigrants from Europe brought Christianity with them, so by 1000 AD the council had to deal with the spiny question of whether the religion of the land was to be that of the old Norse gods (Odin, Thor, and the rest of their buddies) or Christianity. Much argument went back and forth at Pingvellir, and ultimately the assembly chose to follow a don’t ask-don’t tell approach, where the official religion would be Christianity, but nobody would come ask you what you were doing in the privacy of your home. The second blow to the Old Council system was human nature, which demanded that one chieftain should be greedier than the others and would want to take over. From 1100 to 1250 AD the land was torn by feudal wars, until someone went and asked ol’ King Olaf, from Norway, to come intervene and establish peace.

And so it was that Iceland, a perfectly free and democratic land, came to be annexed by Norway in 1250 AD. Fortunately the Norwegians had a pretty light touch, so things calmed down under the benign dictatorship of the Norse governor. Enter the Reformation in Europe toward 1500 AD. The Danish King became a rabid Lutheran, and fought the Norwegian King in all fronts, including Iceland. Norway was unable to protect Iceland, which rapidly became a vassal state of Denmark (believe it or not, it was the fish that wicked king was after). These were dark times for the Icelanders, since the Danish government appointed a governor and sheriff, and all important posts were filled by Danes.

Enter the 1800’s, and the modernization of the fish industry with first the sailing schooner and then the steam trawler, and Iceland was doing real well (but most of the profits were being funneled out to Denmark). So the politics got ugly, and Iceland pushed for freedom from Denmark. The result was that in the early 1900’s they were granted some autonomy, by 1930 they were allowed to form their own government, and in 1944 they finally declared their independence.

I may have mentioned fish in the previous paragraph. If you look at a bathymetric chart of the North Atlantic Ocean, you will see that from the Faraoe Islands, through Iceland, and to the waters of eastern Canada the ocean floor forms a vast and comparatively shallow plateau, in which cod thrives. Iceland, with its cold and dry climate was ideal for the harvesting and drying of cod, which could then be exported throughout Europe, and through the European slave colonies in eastern North America, the Caribbean, Brazil, and Africa. It was slave food, but without it the whole colony system would have collapsed.

Well, I think this history lesson needs to come to a close. I cobbled it together from fabulous visits to the National Museum of Iceland, the Settlement Exhibition, the Maritime Museum, and the Saga Museum. I will tell you more about Icelandic sagas, or tales, another day.