We rented an apartment in a little stone house with a bright red door. Our hosts were an adorable retired British couple who were thrilled that we were their first American guests ever. The town, called Rabos, is on a squat hillside overlooking olive groves and vineyards. We had a terrace with potted cacti in cobalt-glazed pots and grape vines starting up the trellis. The ceilings were wood beamed, the walls were stone, and there was a big fireplace in the kitchen.
We spent the first few days blissfully doing absolutely nothing of importance; we slept in late, wandered the town (it took all of 15 minutes to see it all!), read books, pieced a jigsaw puzzle, listened to a Spanish classical music station, and grilled our dinners on the terrace.
All day long there was an almost deafening chorus of sparrows who were at home in the nooks and crannies in the old stone houses of the village. We could also hear the constant hum of bees that were nosing in an out of the crevices in the exterior walls of the house. From the terrace we could look out north to the looming dark green Pyrenees Mountains, the tallest peaks still capped with a bit of snow. There was a stone church in the center of town that tolled every hour from its bell tower. The village has a population of only seventy people, and most of them seemed to be retired. Cute old ladies in wool skirt suits walked through town with their canes and the men congregated in the afternoons on the concrete loading dock of the agricultural cooperative.
The clay tile roofs were speckled with lichen the color of marigolds. There was one tiny little store around the corner that was open only from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. each day. I loved that Jack, our grey-haired landlord, described the daily necessities as being “Bread, milk, and wine.” Spain is my kind of country!
One day we drove into southern France, following our hosts’ recommendation for the best farmer’s market near Ceret. It was a gorgeous sunny day and we found a pretty center of town with preserved fortress walls and pastel-painted homes. We wandered with the crowds past bunches of fragrant lilacs, baskets of ripe strawberries, handmade soaps, artisanal olive oil, and local wines.
We loaded up with farmer’s market goodies: specialty marinated olives, soft herb-encrusted goat cheese and a wedge of salty hard cheese, heirloom tomatoes in the bumpy shape of pumpkins, and an apple beignet sprinkled with crystals of sugar. Mohit tasted enough free cured meat samples to salt his insides for days to come. We took a break at a café table facing the street and ordered a café au lait (for me) and a cold beer (for Mohit). A live band at the edge of the crowd played New Orleans blues, complete with a washboard and spoons.
We ate lunch in a square surrounded by stone buildings with balconies and shaded by tall trees, kids playing around the fountain gurgling in the center. Garlands of red flowers were strung from tree to tree over our heads. We wondered at what age the average European starts a family, because all the toddlers running around had parents who looked well into their forties. Perhaps they’d done like we were doing- off gallivanting around the world and generally living it up in their thirties! Lunch was a salade nicoise dominated by briny sardines (nowhere near as good as the Nicoise Salad at my friend Ky’s place in Boston: www.kingstonstation.com!) and my favorite European treat ever- house wine in a clay carafe.
For the afternoon, we ended up in the beautiful seaside town of Collioure, France. The waterfront old town is sheltered by a hilltop castle, and the beach is lined with endless umbrellas and café tables crowded with couples and families sipping Perrier and bierre. Women sunbathed topless on the beach and sailboats glided over the turquoise waters into harbor.
The rest of our days were spent wandering the coastline of northeastern Spain; driving windy steep cliffside roads near Portbou, hiking along the rugged rocky coastline of the Cap de Creus National Park, a beach day at Llanca, winetasting in Garriguella, the zany Salvador Dali museum in Figueres, shopping and cathedrals in Girona.