Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel
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There’s a book in my future. More precisely, there’s a book in my past that I need to get back to writing if I ever expect to finish it. The problem is, it’s hard to write a book when I’m traveling around the world, switching countries every few weeks. Rumbling around in the back of my head was the idea that I might just stop for a while, if I found a place that I liked well enough. I’d often thought that Spain might be that place, so I was pleased last fall when I learned that a travel blogging conference would be scheduled in Girona, the capital of the Catalonian region in the far northeast part of the country.

Unfortunately, three back-to-back press trips booked immediately after the conference left me little time to explore Catalonia before I was scheduled to leave for Paris. But the idea of Spain as a temporary base just wouldn’t go away, so at the end of my French experience I returned to Girona for a longer stay. This time, because I wanted to connect with the locals as much as possible, I arranged to rent a room from a young couple who had an apartment near the city center. In theory it was a good idea but sometimes things just go awry. Rather than being born and bred Spaniards, my hosts both turned out to be struggling immigrants, one from South America and the other from Palestine, who had only just moved in together. To save money they kept the heat turned off, even when temperatures began to dip, relying instead on one small electric space heater that was alternated between bedrooms. It was a relief when they informed me that family was unexpectedly arriving and I would have to find someplace else to stay.

Stunning 12th century Romanesque stone bridge in Besalú Spain

Stunning 12th century Romanesque stone bridge in Besalú, one of the most charming villages in Catalonia, Spain

A few days later I moved to the Equity Point Hostel, just a couple of blocks away. I should have suspected that something wasn’t quite right when I was required to sign a form stating that I understood refunds were not possible for any reason, but the front lobby looked fine so I didn’t question it. Five minutes later I walked into the hostel hallway and was assaulted by the rank odor of sewage welling up from the floor grates. Read More

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Slim-hipped Oscar de los Reyes emerged from the shadows and took his mark within the circle of light on the small wooden stage. Clad entirely in black, he stood ramrod straight, arms held rigidly at his sides. His black eyes glittered, reflecting sparks from the single spotlight as he stared straight ahead, oblivious to the expectant audience. The world renowned Flamenco dancer’s body was a mere ten feet away but his essence was galaxies away, drawing power and inspiration from some higher power.

A cantaora abruptly pierced the stillness with an anguished wail that wandered up and down the scales, drawing the audience into the power of her song. De los Reyes responded with lightning-fast footwork, his nail-studded boots a blur as he tapped out complex steps. I watched with rapt attention as his arms reached outward in a plea, up in jubilation, inward for a self-protective embrace. His long black curls spewed droplets of sweat with every twirl until, saturated, they plastered permanently to his forehead. For the next 30 minutes his passions, his heartbreaks, his joys were laid bare. It was the most electrifying, sensual performance I had ever witnessed.

Real Alcazar, the palace where Spanish monarchs stay when visiting Seville Spain

Real Alcazar, the palace where Spanish monarchs stay when visiting Seville

I left the performance on a natural high, my feet barely touching the pavement. This was the kind of energy I had expected to encounter in this popular Spanish city, but over the past few days I’d found it difficult to connect with Seville. Read More

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Marseille wasn’t on my original itinerary. After touring chateau of the Loire Valley and exploring Bordeaux I planned to visit Toulouse and St. Girons in the French Pyrenees, but there was a problem. Bad weather had been following me around France. I’d had one lovely sunny day in Mont Saint Michel and another one in Tours, but the rest of the time it either was gray and chilly or it rained. The foul weather had been bearable in October, but by November the temps had dropped and rain that had been an inconvenience turned bone-chilling.

The beauty of traveling nomadically is that I have no fixed schedule and can change my plans on a whim. I whipped out the laptop and Googled a map of France, looking for warmer destinations. Far south, in the heart of the French Riviera, Marseille stood out like a beacon. Wikipedia told me that the average high temperature in November was 59.2 degrees, and the more I read about Marseille, the more intrigued I became. I hopped over to the website for SNCF, the French National Railway Company, and discovered that high-speed TGV trains ran directly between Bordeaux and Marseille. Now I only had to find a place to stay. A final web search turned up Vertigo Vieux-Port Hostel, centrally located in the old port area, within walking distance of restaurants, the central market, marina, and the famous Notre Dame de la Gare church. The reviews looked fantastic and the price was right at $31 per night for a four-bed female dorm with ensuite bathroom. The planets had aligned; I was Marseille bound. A couple of quick telephone calls later I had train ticket and a reservation for the next two nights.

North side of Vieux Port, looking back toward Notre Dame de la Garde Basilica, which keeps a protective eye on Marseille France

North side of Vieux Port, looking back toward Notre Dame de la Garde Basilica, which keeps a protective eye on Marseille

I fell in love with Marseille immediately. My hostel was located a short stroll from the Vieux Port (Old Port), once an international hub where goods arrived from and were exported around the world. By the late 19th century, ocean-going ships had grown so large that the 20 foot depth of the harbor was no longer sufficient. A new commercial port with deeper docks, La Joliette, was constructed to the north and the Vieux Port gradually evolved into a city marina. Read More

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When I checked in to my holiday rental apartment in Bordeaux, France, one of the things I was looking forward to was being able to make my own meals. I didn’t require much: some fresh vegetables and pasta would suffice for dinner, while a hunk of fresh baked bread topped with cheese and drizzled in rich green olive oil was my idea of a perfect breakfast. The property manager, Charlotte, met me upon arrival and circled a couple of local grocers and a good bakery on a map for me.

“Will I be able to buy good quality cheese at any of these places? I asked.

“Yes, but if you really want to sample French cheeses you must visit Fromagerie Deruelle, a gourmet cheese shop just a few blocks from here.” Charlotte said.

Soft and artisan cheeses are displayed in one case at Fromagerie Deruelle gourmet cheese shop in Bordeaux, France

Soft and artisan cheeses are displayed in one case at Fromagerie Deruelle gourmet cheese shop in Bordeaux, France

I’d been introduced to French cheeses some weeks earlier by my friends, Jean-Luc and Sabine Perrotin. We were enjoying dinner at their home near Paris one evening when Jean-Luc told me about a friend who had been visiting the department of Haute-Savoie in the Rhône-Alpes region of eastern France, where an especially stinky variety of cheese known as Reblochon is produced. Upon returning from his travels, the friend stopped by Jean-Luc’s office with a gift of Reblochon. Not thinking, he dropped the package into his desk drawer. As the day progressed, the smell of the cheese penetrated it’s wrapping and began to seep into the room; by the end of the day his co-workers were wrinkling up their noses and commenting on the strange smell. Guesses as to its source ranged from clogged sewers to a dead rat in the vents. Read More

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Google recently announced that they are shutting down Google Reader on July 1, 2013. Reader is a popular rss (really simple syndication) service that allows users to see which of their favorite blogs have published new content since their last visit. Rather than visiting each blog separately, users subscribe to all their favorite blogs and visit one site to find new stories.

RIP Google Reader July 1, 2013

RIP Google Reader July 1, 2013

I know many of my readers come to me through Google Reader, so I did a little digging to find alternatives and found Bloglovin’. It offers a really clean, easy to browse interface and it’s free, just like Google Reader. Even better, it provides a painless way for you to import all the blogs you are currently following in Google Reader into Bloglovin’.

If you use Google Reader to follow Hole In The Donut Cultural Travel, it’s a good idea to choose another service as soon as possible, as Google is already taking steps toward the shut-down (you may notice that the link to Reader has already disappeared from the black menu bar at the top of Gmail). Click here to follow my blog with Bloglovin

It’s also worth mentioning that when you sign up for Bloglovin’ the default display will “frame” my site within Bloglovin’. Read More

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The arrow on my discomfort meter didn’t move up much in Paris. True, Parisienne women were exquisitely dressed and coiffed, but there were enough tourists around that I didn’t feel too out of place in my khakis and hiking boots. My spartan traveling wardrobe raised no eyebrows when paying my respects at the Normandy beaches, touring Mont Saint Michel abbey, or visiting chateaux in the Loire Valley, but when I stepped off the train in Bordeaux I became painfully aware that France had succeeded where all other countries had failed; I officially felt like a slob.

I rode the tramway four stops to Place de Bourgougne and walked half a block to The HomeAway holiday rental apartment that would be my home for the next week, courtesy of HomeAway.co.uk.  The property manager, Charlotte, peered down the stairwell as I wrangled my luggage to the third floor.

“Do you need help?” she offered.

I shook my head and plodded on, thinking that the day I can’t handle my own luggage is the day I need to stop traveling. I struggled up the last few steps, gratefully shed the heavy backpack that holds all my camera and computer equipment in the front hall, and followed Charlotte into the living room. The apartment was drop-dead gorgeous! Floor-to-ceiling windows looked out on beautifully restored 18th century buildings and the serene Garonne River.

My HomeAway apartment enjoyed lovely views of the Garonne River in Bordeaux Francei

My HomeAway apartment enjoyed lovely views of the Garonne River

In the unlikely event that I grew tired of the view, a flat panel TV mounted to the wall offered hundreds of channels. The kitchen was superbly equipped and the bedroom, with a double bed topped by a faux fur comforter, looked oh so tempting. I perused the tasteful contemporary French furnishings and then looked down at my boots and cargo pants; once again, I felt shamefully under-dressed. Read More