Saturday, April 30, 2016

Hyères-Sailing, Salt flats, and Island Hikes

After two days of training, we handed Pete off to the coach and Camille and I set out to see what else Hyères had to offer.  The answer....a lot!  

We enjoyed a wonderful Sunday afternoon in a centre ville that was clean and devoid of any souvenirs, soap shops, lavender merchants.  Then, with help from a sweet lady and yet another public transportation system, we made it to the Route de Sel.  This system of salt flats was a major producer of salt in France from the 1100s until the 1970s when the more commercialized Camargue salt took over.  Today, the flats have been turned into a bird sanctuary full of flocks of flamingos!(I did not see that coming in France!) One side of the sandy road is the sanctuary, the other a sandy beach facing west on the peninsula with a beach bar and windsurfers.  We joined local families out for a stroll or a bike ride on this 5 mile stretch then took the 2 mile sidewalk back to the Port in time to hear about Pete's day on the water.

Camille had been intrigued by the barrier islands around Hyères, La Lavande, Port Cros, and Porquerolle.  With minimum internet connection and some scouting around the harbor, we figured out that Port Cros has been made a National Park, the ferry goes there once a day and returns in the afternoon, less than 100 people live on the island.  So on Monday, we sent Pete to the yacht club and hopped the ferry along with vacationers and their groceries headed to beach homes on La Lavande and shopkeepers headed to work on Port Cros.  The ferry was a much more local experience than I expected.  One guy got on with 5 baguettes and a dog.

Camille and I walked through town to the tourist office to get a trail map and actually beat the lady to work- she had been on the ferry with us.  She sold us a map and then pulled out a topographical model to show us that the four hour hike we were choosing was a cliff hike with a challenging uphill at the beginning. So we were prepared for the monte up the center of the island.  It paid off with more breathtaking views- we saw less than 10 other people, and two snakes, on the entire hike.

Just before returning to the village, we stopped at a small beach with water so clear and cold you could hardly believe it.  In the summer, there is a snorkeling "nature trail" underwater.

Back in the village waiting for the ferry, we watched the few villagers get ready for summer.  Sidewalks are being repaired, fresh paint, unpacking shipments from the ferry.  One little boy rode his bike from one end of the village to the other, back and forth along the hard packed clay for over an hour.  A group of hikers played boule next to the water.  And at 5:30, we all got on the ferry to head back to the mainland.  The little bike rider and his bike were with us and he cried to be leaving his family that stayed on the island.  The few hikers that were staying the night had to check in at the dock so that the captain had everyone accounted for and as we pulled out, Camille and I counted less than 20 people staying for the night.

I am sure both the Route de Sel and Port Cros become more congested in the summer months but we are thankful for our time here, sharing both the amazing international sailing and the simple local places.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Hyères- A Breath of Fresh Air

From start to finish- Hyères was so much more than I expected.  The only time I had ever heard of the village was in a book about Robert Louis Stevenson, Under the Wide and Starry Sky.  He and his wife, Fanny, spent a few years there due to his poor health.  After just one week, I think this magical peninsula- the furthest south of any part of France-  holds the ability to cure most of what ails us as humans.  From the moment we got off the train, the air was fresher, the people warm and friendly and the water an amazing blue and flat even though the strong winds from the east and north continued to blow up to 25 and 30 mph.  The air was dry but the smell reminded us all of home- we were finally at the beach.
 Our morning train ride and taxi out to the beach were uneventful.  Max, the German sailing coach, had to drive towing lasers and a coach boat through Germany, Switzerland, and most of France.  After a long travel day, it was great to see familiar faces and get ready for our two days of practice.

Camille and Pete had two days of on the water training and preparation before the regatta.  We have all decided that this should be status quo for any big competition.  It was nice to settle in, have boats rigged and be familiar with the water before all the other boats started arriving.  Because when they  There were sailors from France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Spain, Ireland, Great Britain, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Korea, India, Israel, Argentina, Bahrain, Monaco, and so many more countries.  The female who just won the Reina Sofia regatta in Palma Mallorca was competing- she will be competing in her third Olympics this summer in Rio!!

Needless to say, the course was full of strong sailors and Pete was thrilled to have the experience.

 The Europa Cup in Hyères was four days of racing against 240 Lasers in conditions ranging from 5 knots to 30 knots .  I think Pete McGriff would tell you that the experience is one he will remember for a lifetime and both he and Camille were immediately planning their training for next time.  

I was just thrilled to be a part of the event.  My children continue to amaze me.  There is no way I would have had the nerve to sail in a fleet that strong, in conditions that challenging, in a foreign country.  With each experience, I feel like we are broadening our horizons and the scope of what is possible and attainable for both of them.  

Camille exchanging burgees with the President of COYCH, the host club for the Europacup.

Camille rode on the coach boat to cheer Pete on for the last day.

Talk about ideal conditions, the yacht club was a short 5 minute walk from our apartment.  I could see the regatta from the balcony.

Pete and Coach Max Stein, former Europacup winner.  

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Barcelona Revisited

Barcelona was the McGriff family's first European vacation.  It was the first vacation where we learned to integrate learning, travel and fun.  My kids started learning and using another language.  We were introduced to Antoni Gaudi, Picasso, Miró, and amazing European markets full of fresh fruits, vegetables, meats, sausages and lots of other sights and smells.  
Barcelona is definitely a city that imprints in your memory- full of colorful modernist art and even more colorful people- so when Wilson and Camille chose it as a "we are finished with Spanish II" destination we were thrilled.  And while a LOT has changed in the last 5 years, the city still holds much of the same charm that we remembered.  And to share it with good friends adds another layer of good memories.

Since our last trip here, Barcelona has grown.  One cab driver told us the population is over 8 million and it has been the most visited city in Europe for the last two years.  The traffic has taken its toll.  Las Ramblas is crowded and many wonderful sites that were previously open are now paid admission with controlled entries of a certain number of people per hour.  Those situations did not diminish the fun, just called for a little more planning...

 Camille and Wilson were excited to see that those CRPs from Spanish really do pay off- in fact, all their Spanish did.  Even though the region of Catalonia is determined to keep their native language, Catalan, alive- most signs and most people will speak to you in Castilian Spanish.  They both hit the ground talking to taxi drivers, waiters, hoteliers, and vendors.  I was amazed by their comprehension, big vocabulary and proper use of tenses!  Bueno trabajo Señora Holt y Señora Hicks.  Camille worked hard to start conversations with several cab drivers and we got great insights into their opinions on Catalan independence, the 1992 Olympics, tourism in their city, and one cab driver ended up becoming half tour guide sharing his 1992 Olympic stories and making sure we found the Olympic Stadium and saw the torch.  His comment...."en television mis amigos dicen muy grande, per yo estuve por mirar- esta muy pequeño!"

Both our families had great memories of La Boqueria from previous trips.  It is not easily forgotten and is the polar opposite of the Cours Saleya that has become our daily shopping spot in Nice.  The Boqueria is loud, crowded, and packed to the roof with loads of fresh everything.  For some people it might be a lot to stomach early in the morning but if you can get avoid spending lots of time next to the seafood, there is beautiful fruit, fresh hot tortillas, churros, juice, and coffee.  A good start to the day with hungry teenagers.  

and for 7 people, figuring out public transportation is a must, and a celebration...

      La Sagrada Familia-Fall 2010                                                La Sagrada Familia-Spring 2016

Over 130 years ago, the Catalan cathedral was begun by a devout Barcelonan bookseller, Josep Maria Bocabella, who acquired the land in the Example and planned to dedicate the temple to the Holy Family.  A diocesan architect was originally put in charge of the project but within 10 years had resigned over differences with the builder.  In 1883, Antoni Gaudi, at age 31, began working on the structure and it was to become his life's work.  His mathematical mind is reflected in the hyperboloids, parabolas, and in the basic module which is 7.5 by 7.5 meters and every other interior measurement is a multiple of that.  Gaudi was influenced by Moorish, Mujedar, and Oriental art and all of this blended to him becoming one of the leading artists of Catalan Modernism and Art Nouveau.

The same things that enamored me with this city continue to glow.  The absolute genius of Gaudi's architecture, his forward thinking designs and innovative ideas continue to amaze.  Trencadís was a form of mosaic tilework he created that allowed him to tile his curved space.  Before central air-conditioning he created an attic in Casa Batlló that moved air throughout the attic and down the central staircase.  The glazed tile walls of the staircase are a darker blue at the top and lighter at the bottom so that when light shines in, they all appear to be the same.  Everything he created, from the vented doors to ergonomic doorknobs are evidence that he was truly one of the greatest minds of his time.  And his range was broad.  Whether working on an apartment building for Barcelona's elite, a housing development outside of town, or a cathedral that will serve to glorify God for centuries, his ingenuity and playful style show through.  One of the quotes in our book says that his professor upon bestowing his architecture degree said of Gaudi, "I don't know whether we are giving this degree to a genius or a madman."  Maybe, I think, to be that far ahead of your time, you are a little of both.

I had never seen the schoolhouse outside La Sagrada Familia.  It was built for local children and those of the workmen on the project.  Its simple lines, no square angles, and bright spaces would have provided a perfect environment for learning.  
"When the building simply has what it needs with the resources available it has character, or dignity, which is the same thing."-Antoni Gaudi

And the food- not forgotten- and happily repeated.  The chocolate so thick you could eat it with a spoon and hot churros.  The tapas bars where you eat what you want and they charge by the toothpicks.  And my favorite, jambon iberico, Iberian ham that is so flavorful that two paper thin slices are enough for a whole bocadillo.

And while this trip had the undertones of familiarity and the next layer of exploration of favorite spots, we also found time for some new things too.  The Musee Maritim where Pete got to see the first Snipe ever built and the Flying Dutchman that took gold in the 1992 Olympics, and the Olympic stadium and museum which were so fun, educational and UNCROWDED.

So, al fin de la viaje, I am joyful that we had the chance to rediscover Barcelona.  The city that sent explorers to the New World and fostered artists that charted new territory.  Maybe each of us can take a little bit of that with us.