Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel
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I frequently travel solo to developing countries in the remotest corners of the world without the least bit of fear, but when it came time to visit France I was totally rattled. I don’t speak a word of French, but the inability to speak the local language had never bothered me before, yet every time I thought about my upcoming flight to Paris, my stomach lurched. For advice, I turned to my friend Heather Cowper, who writes the travel blog Heather on her Travels, since she is based in England and has traveled extensively in France.

“I’m really worried, Heather. I don’t read or speak the language and I’ve heard the French can be so rude.”

“The French, especially Parisians, are a very reserved people. Just remember to start every conversation with ‘Bonjour Madame‘ or ‘Bonjour Monsieur.’ If you do that, you’ll be fine,” she insisted.

A few days later I arrived at Charles de Gaulle Airport and boarded the Roissybus for the city center, relieved to find that signs were in English and French. Less than an hour later the bus pulled up next to the Palais Garnier opera house. I hefted my backpack and small rolling bag down the steps and looked around for the Opera Metro station but it was not immediately visible; I had no idea which way to walk.

Bonjour Monsieur,” I said to a man standing nearby. “Do you speak English?

Non,” he replied, shaking his head.

I was approaching a second person when man walked up beside me and, in perfect English, asked if he could help.

Yes,” I said, relieved. “I’m looking for the Opera Metro station.” To my surprise, the gentleman grabbed my suitcase and led me to the entrance of the Metro, then pressed a ticket into my hand. I reached for my wallet but he stopped me. “No it’s my pleasure. Welcome to Paris.” With a smile he turned and disappeared into the subway tunnel.

This scenario was repeated time and again over the next two weeks. That same evening I realized my hotel was within easy walking distance of the Eiffel Tower, so I headed out for my first look at Paris by night. Laser lights beaming from the tower provided a ready road map and twenty minutes later I stood on the grassy esplanade, gaping at the iconic Paris landmark. Goosebumps broke out on my arms as I tipped my bead back, taking in the entire length of the illuminated tower, as high as an 81-story building. I made my way past entwined couples to its base, where I rode the elevator to the top and soaked in the spectacular views of the City of Light.

France Paris Eiffel Tower Night

I spent my first night in Paris at the Eiffel Tower, more magnificent than any photo can convey

Finally, exhaustion set in and I started back to the hotel, but I soon realized I’d been so in awe of my surroundings that I’d paid little attention to my route. By the time I’d walked four blocks I was hopelessly lost; nothing looked familiar and I had no map. Again I begged for help. The owner of a small gift shop whipped out his mobile, entered the name of my hotel, and his GPS displayed the route. He didn’t even try to sell me anything.  Read More

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Jagged chunks of crumbling slate threatened to turn my ankles as I made my way to a pillar marking the easternmost tip of Spain. Just a few miles away lay the artsy village of Cadaqués, but the vista that spread before me felt like the end of the world. Rocky fingers of land dipped into a cobalt Mediterranean rippled by blustery winds. Gusts climbed the high ridge upon which I stood and whipped my hair, stinging, into my eyes. Renegade clumps of coarse grass had managed to pierce the scree but offered precious little relief from the relentless gray of Cap de Creus Natural Park.

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Natural coves formed by rocky peninsulas on the easternmost tip of Spain, in Cap de Creus Natural Park

I scanned the desolate landscape, thinking that this must be why the region was named Costa Brava. In Spanish, the word costa means coast. The word brava has several meanings, but in this case it is most often translated as wild or rugged. It is an apt description for this 400-million year old mountain chain comprised of mineral-rich metamorphic rocks that have been deformed, enfolded and sheared by geologic forces and plate tectonics, making for a spectacular landscape of exposed gneiss, schist, and slate. Read More

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Mercè Barceló never expected to own a hotel. At university she studied philology, which qualified her to teach English and German. For years she tutored private language students until, in 2006, her world changed forever.

My big changes came when I decided to divorce,” she explained. “I have a very open personality, as my mother. We always have people in our home…and we always talk and are very spontaneous. So I thought this (hospitality) business could fit in my world.

Are you from this town?” I asked.

I grew up here. This was my house.

I looked around, trying to imagine Niu de Sol Hotel Rural as a private home. The rear sitting room, with its old brick fireplace, had been her parents’ original house. Mercè swept her hand around the dining room where we sat chatting. “This was the new house I built with my ex-husband. When I decided to divorce, it was also a (way of) not keeping memories of my past life.

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The siting room is a favorite spot to curl up with a book

Initially, Mercè converted only the front of the building but soon after completing construction her father suffered an embolism and could no longer climb stairs. She helped her parents relocate to a ground-level apartment, then converted the rear portion of the building, increasing the size of the hotel to its present 14-room configuration. Her plan was risky. With only three restaurants and a bar that offers live jazz music each Friday night, the town where Niu de Sol is located, Palau-Saverdera, is anything but a tourist mecca. Yet this sleepy village, located in the exquisitely beautiful foothills of the Costa Brava region in Catalonia, Spain, offers something more precious than excitement.

People who come to me want to be near the coast but a little bit interior. They are searching for a charming hotel in quiet village.Read More

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Everyone told me I wouldn’t need a map. Rental cars these days, they insisted, are equipped with GPS systems that would carry me right to the doorstep of my destination; I just needed to request a car with English language GPS. Argus Rental Car was more than happy to oblige. On the appointed day, I met the Argus representative in his office at the train station in Girona, Spain.

He walked me to to the parking garage and pointed to a brand new, sleek black sedan. “It’s huge,” I thought, then dismissed my concern a split second later as he placed my luggage in the rear seat and began demonstrating how to operate the air conditioning, wipers, blinkers, and various other systems.

“I’m afraid I’ve never used a GPS. Can you show me how it works?” I asked.

“Sure. What’s your destination?” I handed him the address of my hotel in Palau-Saverdera and he scrolled through the settings until he figured out how to add it. “You’re good to go. All you have to do is hit the start button when you leave the garage,” he explained.

“Would you mind entering the return journey for me as well?”

His brow furrowed as he punched buttons, moving between options and screen displays. “All the destination slots are full and I don’t know how to delete an entry to make room for yours,” he admitted.

“No worries,” I said, waving him off and climbing into the driver’s seat. “I’ll figure it out.”

The metallic voice of the GPS directed me to turn left out of the lot and continue straight for several kilometers until I came to the entry ramp for the northbound highway. I tooled along the highway for half an hour before receiving my next instruction: “In 150 meters, turn left.” Huh? My destination was to the northeast and turning left would take me west. “Maybe it’s a cloverleaf,” I thought. I slowed down, looking for the turnoff, but the only possibility was a one-lane dirt road. “That can’t be right,” I mused. “I’ll just keep going north.” The GPS readjusted. “Make a U-turn at the next possibility.” Round and round I went, unable to find the correct road. Frustrated, I took the exit for Figueres and pulled into a gas station, where the man behind the counter drew me a map on a scrap of paper.

Hand written instruction from Figueres to Palau-Saverdera

Hand written instruction from Figueres to Palau-Saverdera

Back in the car, I easily followed the attendant’s map but the GPS was not happy. In addition to repeatedly insisting I turn around, it suddenly developed a second voice that spoke half-a-beat later than the original audio. I considered turning it off but didn’t know how, so I soldiered on, trying to tune out the unintelligible gibberish. Finally, I found the turn-off for Palau-Saverdera and, a few blocks up the hill on the main street, my hotel. With my luggage unloaded, I parked in a nearby lot and aimed the clicker at the car; never before had the sound of a door lock engendered such satisfaction. I turned and walked away, intending to completely ignore the vehicle for a while. Read More

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A couple of days after I wrote about “Caga Tio” – the traditional character made out of a rough-hewn log that is believed to “shit” presents in homes all over Catalonia, Spain on Christmas morning, I met up with my friend and fellow travel blogger, Isabel Romano in Barcelona. She and her significant other, Xavier, had read my post and decided I’d learned only part of the story, so after a Sunday morning breakfast of hot chocolate and churros, we were off to Cathedral Square to visit the city’s annual Christmas Market.

Christmas Market in Cathedral Square in Barcelona, Spain.Christmas Market in Cathedral Square in Barcelona, Spain.

Christmas Market in Cathedral Square in Barcelona, Spain.Christmas Market in Cathedral Square in Barcelona, Spain.

Isabel and Xavi explained that rather than decorating a Christmas tree each year, Catalonians buy a nativity scene, called a Belen in Spanish and a Pessebre in Catalán. Often, these nativities consist of a complete pastoral scene with a traditional Catalán farmhouse or even an entire village. Each year, families scour the market for new pieces to add to their nativity. Up and down the aisles, booths were filled with everything from basic manger scenes to elaborate miniature buildings, trees, rivers, mountains, farm animals and figurines. I was perusing a selection of Joseph, Mary, the wise men, shepherds, and baby Jesus when Isabel pointed to a large sign atop one booth that said “Caganers.”

There is a Caganer hidden in every Belen,” she explained. “He wears the traditional Catalán hat called a barretina and is always displayed squatting with his pants around his ankles, defecating.” Read More

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He was a cute little guy wearing an oversize traditional Catalán red hat. From his place on the countertop of  St. Christopher’s Inns Hostel in Barcelona, his raised eyebrows and big black eyes stared at me with an expression of perpetual surprise. His front legs, just a couple of twigs stuck into a rough log, rested on a sheet of paper with the title: “The Tradition of the Caga Tio – Shitting Log.” I read on as I waited to check in.

In Catalonia, Spain, the Caga Tio (a large log) is believed to "shit" gifts on Christmas morning

In Catalonia, Spain, the Caga Tio (a large log) is believed to “shit” gifts on Christmas morning

In the beginning, Caga Tio  was just a log that, when burned in the fireplace, provided precious heat and light. Fire to the earth. Over time, it became a symbol of other gifts given to the household at Christmas, such as candy, nougat, and wafers. Each Christmas, in homes all over Catalonia, Spain, a Caga Tio is kept in the kitchen or dining room near the fire as the holidays approach, where family members “feed” it dry bread, carob, orange peels, tangerines and other fruits and make sure it has water to drink. Thanks to all this caring, on Christmas Eve, traditionally after midnight mass, or on Christmas morning, Caga Tio “shits” gifts.

I had the strongest urge to pick up the log and see if it had “shit” anything, as the idea of a log “shitting” Christmas presents is certainly one of the more bizarre cultural traditions I’ve ever run across. But being from a country where a fat man in a red suit lands on a rooftop in a sleigh pulled by eight reindeer, shimmies down a chimney, and leaves candy in stockings hung from the mantle of the fireplace, I decided I had no room to judge and, with some effort, restrained myself.