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Aisling I
Calanques, Cassis and La Ciotat
05/08/2008, La Ciotat

La Ciotat is not exactly the Provence of books and movies, but the setting is glorious. It reminds me a bit of industrial Cape Breton, with beautiful scenery, slightly run-down buildings, a sprinkling of elegant houses and brightly painted fishing boats. The townspeople are very friendly, the food in the cafes is delicious and the selection of produce and delicacies in the shops means that even dinners on board have gone up a notch! La Ciotat is a working fishing port, and there are stalls along the waterfront where the fresh catch is sold each morning.

The town has some interesting history- the world's first motion picture, filmed by the Lumiere brothers, was of a train arriving in the La Ciotat station. The theatre where the film had its first public showing is still standing. It reminds me of the old Majestic Theatre in New Waterford, but a bit older, a bit smaller and perhaps a little less majestic. The game of Petanque was also created in La Ciotat, or so they say.

Katherine arrived at 1030 p.m. on Saturday night (10 hours later than scheduled) after being rerouted through Paris because of a mechanical problem with one of her flights. This was very disappointing since we had to cancel our planned celebration dinner (of my birthday and Katherine's finishing law school) but we made up for it the next day.

There is a huge market on the La Ciotat waterfront every Sunday morning where you can buy everything from food to cheap shoes. The huge selection of gourmet treats brought on a serious case of impulse-buying and we tried a little of everything for lunch. In the afternoon we took the dinghy out to explore "l'Ile Verte", an island lying just off the town. There's a great view of the "Bec de l'Aigle" (a spectacular rock formation that really does look like the beak of an eagle) from the fort on the island. We had dinner in one of the local cafes that evening-delicious and inexpensive. The fish soup might have tasted even better if we had realized that we were supposed to put the rouille and cheese into the soup instead of eating it on our bread!

The cliffs outside La Ciotat are the highest in Europe (394 meters according to the leaflet provided by the Office de Tourisme) and the area is famous for the "calaques"- deep fiords that cut into the cliffs. We decided to putter around the corner to Port Mioux- an absolutely breathtaking spot where the boat was surrounded by high limestone cliffs. Anchoring is not permitted there, but mooring balls are available. After tying on to a mooring, you must also tie a stern line to the cliff face. The calanque was crowded with other boats, but it was still an amazing setting. Our post-arrival entertainment was watching young men jump off the cliffs into the water- some with much bravado, others after much contemplation. Then we had visitors aboard- three customs agents. Two of them made a cursory inspection below but asked Rick three times if we had guns aboard. One stayed up top chatting with Katherine and me- he was very friendly, told us a bit about the area and complimented Katherine on her excellent French.

From the calanque at Port Miou it is only a 20 minute walk to the town of Cassis. Katherine needed to book her train to Paris, so she and I decided to go exploring. As we approached the town, we could see the wonderful view barely visible over the high fences of the elaborate villas along the way. As we stood on tip-toe to peer over one fence, a fierce guard dog suddenly stuck his snout out and snarled at us. Yikes! Then we noticed a sign that said "Chien Mechant et Perspicace!" We understand mechant, but perspicace?? After consulting two dictionaries back at the boat, we decided it meant "Perspicacious". Intruders in France are obviously well educated.

A little further on, the view really came into its own, and we could see the old chateau that looms over the town. The train station was another 3 km outside the town so we took a local bus. For an 80 cent fare we had a very pretty drive through the countryside, past vineyards and gardens-totally charming. France is even nicer than I remembered. The bus driver gave us a free ride back, too.

The next day, we anchored off Cassis, did a bit more exploring and had lunch in a cafe. By the way the liquor "Cassis" is not made in Cassis, but the Cassis white wine is very good. Today we are back in La Ciotat, and we hope to rent a car tomorrow to do some land-based exploring.

Southern France
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The Gulf de Lion and Now,..Provence��..
05/05/2008, La Ciotat

Palamos , Spain and its headlands faded into the sunset, literally, as we powered our way into the 20k breeze. We were a little nervous of this crossing of the Gulf de Lion as it has the same reputation as the Bay of Biscay, to many. I was advised to wait, pick the right window and then, go for it, as quick as you can. Power on, to keep the speed up. So that's what we did. The wind eventually died and the seas settled down and the crossing was uneventful, except for the traffic. We had 23 vessels in close proximity to us over the 20 hour crossing. We had to take evasive action 6 times as the other vessel's closest point of approach(CPA) was within a mile. Most of these were at night, of course and the craziest one was when Bonnie was on watch at about 4:00am. She had five fishing boats, dragging nets, going every which way within about 1/2 mile and none of the fishing boats have AIS, as well she had the 940' "Emerald Princess" on a collision course. I was asleep down below but had woken with the sound of her running back and forth from the helm to the chart table. It took the two of us to get them all on MARPA (mini automatic radar plotting aid) and tracked visually to make sure we had no accidents. In the midst of the fishing boat fleet we found that shining a strong light on our sails worked well: one fishing boat immediately altered course after he saw the lit sails. The fishing boat thing reminded me of similar experiences we have had in the Bay of Fundy, where the herring fleets chase the big schools of herring. Everything worked out well and later as we were closing the coast at 10:00am, the Maersk Radiant actually altered course without being asked, to save us from tacking. He was very accomodating and we thanked him for it.

The only other interesting note about the crossing is the water temperature dropped from about 18 degrees to 15. But once we arrived the air temperature increased from about 18 degrees to about 25 degrees.

At the start of the passage we were heading towards Cassis, but upon reading the pilot a little closer we discovered the fees for the marina there would be any where from 50-70 euros in high season. I discovered that just 5 miles away was the village of La Ciotat where the rates were closer to 20 euros, so you know where we then headed.

La Ciotat is a delightful little Provencal town, a bit run down at first glance but bustling each morning with the citizens doing their morning shopping and the caf�s are full with the chatter of concern and happiness. The markets are full of fresh vegetables, that look beautiful, compared to home. The stores are full of the yellows, oranges and blues of Provence. The boulangeries..., charcuteries.., patisseries and on and on. The aromas of lavender, garlic, fresh bread and spices tingle the nose. It's a new world to us and we like it. The only downside is we miss the price and taste of the Spanish wine. Sorry, that's not totally true as we still have about 2 cases of Spanish wine hidden throughout the boat. Bonnie has lots more to tell you about the Village and the area in a future post.

La Ciotat has become an important repair yard for those with super yachts. When we arrived, Abramovitch's boat was here and so was Paul Allen's and most interestingly that large 200'(?), French, three masted yacht that had been captured by Somali pirates a few weeks ago off Somalia was here as well getting its bullet holes repaired. There are lots of others here too, both sail and power, in the 80 to 150' range. It's quite a spectacle.

We've now been here a few days. Our daughter, Katherine has arrived. We've explored the Isle Vert and had lots of Cremes (cafes). It's time to move on. The next passage(?) will be to Port Miou which is five miles west of here. It sounds nice in the pilot. Apparently we have to tie our stern to the cliff face and hang to the bow anchor. We will let you know how it goes. A bientot......

All the Best from Aisling I

Southern France
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Hasta Luego Espana!
Bonnie/Sunny, but cooler
05/01/2008, La Ciotat, France

In the early Sunday morning sunshine, I lace up my shoes and randomly follow a runner heading north along the Barcelona waterfront. The run takes me past beautiful beaches, the Olympic Village, and a futuristic structure that I later learn is Frank Gehry's goldfish. It's shaping up to be the perfect day until Rick's perusal of the grib files leads him to the conclusion that we should leave the next morning. What, already?? Better make the most of today then. A quick perusal of the guide books gives us a shortlist of places to visit: the Palau de la Musica (a world heritage sight), the Arc de Triumphe (bet you thought that was in Paris) and the Picasso museum. On go the hiking shoes again, and we head straight for the Ribera district.

After a short walk, Rick beckons me toward a narrow side street with a fantastic structure that appears to be topped with Ukrainian Easter eggs. It's the Palau de la Musica-designed by a Catalan architect Montaner as a home for the Catalan Choral Society. The guided tours of the auditorium are fully booked until Tuesday-how disappointing; we'll be long gone by then. There's another possibility though- we can buy tickets for the 6 p.m. performance of a Catalan operetta. Doesn't that sound perfect? Rick is not so sure. The box office doesn't open until 4 p.m. anyway, so we move on.

Animal activists are staging a lively demonstration under the Arc de Triumph, complete with oversize float-figures and dancing percussionists. There is an Oxfam event being held inside Ciutadella Park, and families lounge on the grass. We have a tapas lunch in El Borne, then tour the Picasso Museum-well worth a visit. We backtrack to the church of Santa Maria del Mar, and have coffee in the square. By five o'clock we are both very tired, but Rick indulges me and agrees to go back to the Palau de la Musica for the operetta. When he sees the auditorium he is glad he did. It is an astonishing place- whimsical and ornate, with rich colours, intricate carving, a brilliant stained glass skylight, three-dimensional figures leaping out of the mosaic backdrop behind the stage...can any performance match the artistry of this setting? Rick manages to take a few photographs before being told that this is against the rules (and, it must be said, a few after being told!). The operetta is sung entirely in Catalan, with full orchestral accompaniment. We can't understand a single word, but it doesn't matter.

We topped off the evening with dinner in a restaurant back in El Borne, and that was the end of our tour of Barcelona- at least for this year. From there it was on to Palamos-a nice little town and a great position to start the crossing of the Golfe De Lion , but be prepared for pricetag shock if you want to stay at the marina- 68 euros a night! (In comparison , Marina Vell, with it's unbeatable location in downtown Barcelona, was 19.66 euros in April, 43.24 euros beginning May 1st- go figure.) Last night we finally crossed the Golfe de Lion, and we landed in La Ciotat, Provence at around 2 o'clock today. French flags, cafe au lait and serious culture shock.. hasta luego Espana, ici on parle francais!

South Spain & Balearics-2008
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If you are growing tired of hearing us rhapsodize about Spain, you will be pleased to hear that we are almost ready to move on to France. But first, Barcelona!

I've been re-reading parts of James Michener's "Iberia" and learning more about Spanish history and culture. Michener says that "To travel across Spain and finally to reach Barcelona is like drinking a respectable red wine and finishing up with a bottle of champagne". Although he wrote this back in the 1960's, it still seems to fit.

The Barcelona that Rick experienced in the days of his long-forgotten long hair would have been very similar to the Barcelona described by Michener. Somehow, I think he expected to find it unchanged, complete with 50-cent roasted chickens sold in paper bags from sidewalk stalls. He was almost bouncing with excitement as we joined the throngs of people streaming past the Christopher Columbus monument toward Las Ramblas-a long, graceful, tree-lined pedestrian boulevard that begins at Port Vell and stretches to Catalunya Square. Stepping onto the Ramblas was like arriving at a fairground...souvenir booths, flower stalls, human "statues" that spring to life for those willing to drop a few centimos, unsuspecting tourists loosing their money (and perhaps their wallets) at sidewalk ball-and-cup games...and yes, Mr. Michener, even stalls selling live birds! A street pigeon, free on the sidewalk, stares through the bars of a cage at the captive budgies inside. What are they thinking, I wonder? Something is reminding me of Madrid- is it the graceful architecture, the hum of a large city? No, I eventually recognize it as the sense of unease, the feeling that my pocket is about to be picked. I satisfy myself that my passport and camera are secure as we move away from the Ramblas and into the huge market. Stalls of vegetables artistically arranged, meats, fish, dried fruits, candy, pastries... is it too early to shop for dinner? Yes, because we don't want to carry the bags.

The 14th century gothic cathedral is shrouded in scaffolding and gauzy canvass, a silk-screened image providing only a vague hint of its grandeur. Do we just have particularly bad timing, or is every famous historic site in Europe perpetually under construction? (Probably the latter, given the age of these monuments.) Much of the Gothic quarter is in shadows, even on this bright sunny day. The city is suffering from a drought, water is being rationed and all the fountains are shut off. No doubt they cannot keep the streets as clean as usual- the delicious smells from the restaurants mingle with less pleasant smells from the gutters.

Rick's quest for barbecued chicken turns up nothing other than one rather expensive restaurant where chickens are turning on a spit in a brick alcove outside the front door. We are too tired to appreciate a sit-down meal, and go back to the boat for sandwiches and an early night. (Later, we learn that this restaurant, Los Caracoles, is one of the oldest in Barcelona and by the way highly recommended by Wally and Martha!) The following day is given over to cleaning, laundry and other chores- mundane, but very satisfying. (At the washing machine, there is a sign firmly prohibiting the washing of robes.What objection could they possibly have to the washing of robes, I wonder. Eventually, I work out that they mean ropes!)

By Saturday, we are ready to resume our sightseeing. We have already seen Wally and Martha's photos of the Sagrada Familia (Gaudi's famous church-in-progress) and are determined not to miss it. Gaudi began work on this astonishing basilica in 1884. At that time, the design must have been very controversial even in a city where Moderisme was already taking hold. Only one tower had been completed when Gaudi died after being hit by a tramcar in 1926, very bad luck. (His tomb-unbelievably, also closed for renovations-is in a museum on the grounds.) The project continued for a time under the direction of another architect, but was interrupted by the Spanish Civil war, during which all the plans and many of the models were destroyed. Eventually some of the models were reconstructed, but succeeding architects have developed their own interpretations. The result has sort of a haunted forest-meets Alhambra-meets Star Wars effect that is difficult to describe or even capture in photographs. Go to Barcelona and have a look for yourself if you get an opportunity- although if you want to see the finished product, best to wait twenty or thirty years! It's massive and an architectural marvel.

We saw a lot more of Barcelona, but I think this posting is already too long. I hope we fill in the blanks in a separate posting within the next couple of days. We have since moved on to Palomos and we are waiting here for a weather window to cross the Golfe du Lion. Too many warnings about the unpredictable weather on this body of water have made us a bit uneasy- this morning we made it as far as the fuel dock, but chickened out when we got a better glimpse of the conditions outside. It seems a bit unfair that the marina fees here are almost double what they were in Barcelona- but we're happy to be here cooking pasta instead of battling Force 7 winds and waves to match!

All the best from Aisling 1

South Spain & Balearics-2008
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05/01/2008 | Martha
Wow - what an awesome photograph...we didn't get this perspective at all because we were too close. We're with you in spirit, every wave along the way. Via con dios. Martha y Wally
05/01/2008 | Alan
Looks like you are off to another great Summer. Have from all of us in Abu Dhabi
PS I'll keep Skype on more regularly...

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