Saturday, February 26, 2011

Month-End Miettes: A Voyage Begins

February, another month with not much happening. Well, that's not strictly true: I've been preparing for a month-long visit to the U.S., as usual, for South by Southwest. It's the 25th anniversary this year, and I'm on a panel entitled "I'm Not Old, Your Music Does Suck," which ought to be, um, interesting.

I didn't blog at all when I made this trip last year, then summed everything up when I returned, although I was trying to keep the topic of this blog solidly on my life in France. But there are too many interesting things going on at SXSW, too many issues that affect what I do for a living, not to write about it. So I'll try to check in once in a while to update all of this. I'll also be going to New York, Montreal, Philadelphia, and Cecilia, Louisiana on this trip if all goes well, and the couple of days I'll be in Cajun country might well inspire me to unleash the old camera.

"If all goes well" is the operative phrase there. Yesterday, someone spoofed my debit card and emptied out my bank account. This is all the more annoying because a couple of weeks ago, the bank shut me down briefly for "suspicious activity" and I led a not-too-bright young man through my upcoming itinerary, with dates, so that the bank wouldn't do that again. They should have known I was still in France instead of on upper Broadway in New York yesterday, but...they didn't. So right now, I'm waiting for America to wake up so I can figure out what to do next and how I can lay hands on some dough that's been sent to the account so we can shut it down. Everything ought to be okay in about ten days, but living through that's going to be the challenge. Wish me luck.

Update: This post was composed while I was impatiently awaiting 8am, New York time, when the help center opens. After posting, I Google mapped 4058 Broadway, where the ATM was. There's a Bank of America there. Also a check-cashing service and a drugstore, which are much more likely venues for the fake card to have been used. It's at Broadway and 117th St., not somewhere I plan to visit soon.

I drew two excellent helpers once I got on, one in Customer Service and the other in Detection (!), and they shut the card down temporarily. Now when my money arrives -- Monday, most likely -- we'll open it up, grab the money here, and shut it down again. So with luck, I'll be able to get out of here as planned. Now if I just had someone who wanted to take me out to dinner tomorrow night, all would be swell: I got robbed before I could get grocery money.

* * *

I haven't been to the market all week, but last time I went, one of the organic stands was selling something I pick up on the rare occasions I see it: "Japanese Mixture," a collection of salad greens that's fantastically spicy and bitter, a perfect wintertime salad. Past arugula and, I think, spinach, I can't identify any of these greens.

I know there's a doctoral student in botany who sometimes reads the blog, but I'm not looking for the Latin here. It's mostly dark green with some red. The yellow cast is the lightbulb's fault; I'm still learning how to use the camera to avoid stuff like that.

Anyway, by the time I get back, with luck there'll be some more choices in the market. It's already warming up. Life down here's about to get nice again. Well, I hope it does, at least.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Some Notes on Jewish Montpellier

Every time I've walked up the hill via the main street, the rue de la Loge, I've passed it: a hat store. An odd little place it is, too: a relic of another time on the street with the art-directed windows of high fashion and mass-market attempts at high fashion. It's brown, and the wooden letters spelling out CHAPEAUX seem to be falling off. In the window, arranged neatly, there are hats. They're not on mannequin heads, nor is there anything trendy about how they're displayed. They're offered, as it were, as information.

I have a flat wool cap from Ireland that I like, but it needs replacing. Last spring, when it was warm enough to work with the windows open, it got some odd attention: a huge wasp flew in the window, then went over to the cap and hung out for a while. Then it left. About 30 minutes later, it came back and hung out on the cap. Then it left again. The irritated me: I didn't want this humongous insect in my house, and it was really distracting me. Plus, who knew what it was doing to the cap? So I went into the kitchen, got a plastic bag, sealed the cap in the bag, and hung the bag from the hat-rack. The wasp returned, flew all over the house, spent about 45 minutes trying to figure out what was wrong and finally departed. It's nice to know that wasps aren't too bright. I decided that maybe the cap was too funky and I should stop in this odd shop and buy a new one when the weather got cold.

But I went in there before that, as it turned out. A woman I'd known in Austin came through with her family during the summer, and told me she had a couple of things she wanted to do. The first was to take a picture: she was utterly convinced that French supermarkets sold vibrators. I'd never seen such a thing, but I had to prove it to her, and she was disappointed. The other thing was to buy a beret for her husband. This isn't exactly beret country, but I figured if anyone would have them, the odd little hat shop on the rue de la Loge would be the place. The guy was nice enough, and she finally found something she liked, and I hung out in the store, absorbing its ambiance. I never did go back for a warm hat, but I swear, if the shop lasts the year, I will this year.

* * *

Last Sunday was nice and warm, and I remembered a suggestion Gerry had had for a place for one of my epic walks, the Domaine de Merle. I looked at the map, and it seemed to be a large house set in a green park not far from the St.-Lazaire Cemetery. Not a very long walk at all, I realized, so I set off on Sunday afternoon to find it.

I'd been up the road, the Avenue de Saint Lazaire, several times before, but always with a destination beyond it in mind after the first time I walked it and came back to puzzle out the Resistance Monument and its relation to Helen of Savoy, Queen of Italy and Montenegro, who hid out here during World War II.

She died in her lavish apartments in the hotel which is now the Holiday Inn, just around the corner from me, and is buried in St.-Lazaire.

It's a huge cemetery, large enough that it has two satellite graveyards, and as I passed the first one I saw a large black monument shaped like half of a ship's wheel. Curious, I walked in and found myself at an extension of the Jewish cemetery. Now, I'd seen the first part of this last year when I was walking up to Castelneau, and had been puzzled by it. Its location outside the cemetery walls was provocative.

But the extension was only geographically isolated from the Christian plots, and, I realized, there was no anti-Jewish agenda here, only that the Jews wanted to be buried together. Maybe this wasn't the case when the other half of the graveyard had been started, but I couldn't figure out how to get into it, so there was no way to tell. Interestingly, most of the names in the new section showed Northern African origins: Shelbroum, Barchemoul, Sulem, Benboussan. So I walked over to the old part, the part I could see from the large road which could take me to the road leading to Castelneau, shot the above picture, and strained to see if I could make out a name. The only one I could see for sure was the one with the white plaque on it, which was all in Hebrew except for a small bit at the bottom which had the name Guinzberg. Now, that was familiar: Serge Gainsbourg had started out a Ginsburg.

I made a note to investigate further, backtracked to the road leading to the Domaine de Merle, took the wrong fork, walked for another hour at least up a hill filled with nice bourgeois houses until it dead ended at a fancy tennis club and a sign pointing to the zoo. I was lost.

* * *

Now, the way I always heard the story, a thousand years ago, this was a spice-trading port. The ships, largely run by North African Muslims who were the masters of Mediterranean shipping and had connections at the end of the Spice Route in Turkey, docked at what's now called Port Marianne, which today is a tram stop with some gleaming new apartment buildings one passes on the way to Ikea and the Odysseum. The trade was financed by Spanish and Moroccan Jews, and French Christians operated the routes north to important destinations like Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Paris where they sold the spices at a nice profit. The ships would dock, the spices would be unloaded, and from time to time, there'd be samples someone had handed off in hopes of stimulating a new trade in that item. The mysterious substance would have alleged for it various cures: it lessened the pain of menstrual cramps; it killed toothache; put some on a wound and it would heal quicker. Who knew if any of it worked? And why miss a lucrative new piece of inventory if it did?

So at one point, a deal was worked out: the Muslims had a system, the ancestor of today's scientific method, and the system was teachable. Thus, it would be possible to do experiments with these substances to verify the claims. All that was needed was a building in which to do this and the money to pay the scientists they'd bring over from Spain. The Jews had the money, and the Christians would donate one of their hospitals, which were as much hotels for pilgrims, since the town was on the route to Santiago de Compostella, as they were healing establishments. One of the earliest is landmarked on the side of the Monoprix on the Comédie.

Some of the items did, in fact, work as advertised, and soon, people were coming to the institution to learn about this. And, thus, somewhere along the way Montpellier University was founded as a medical school, with financial input from the French nobility, the Spanish Muslims, and the Jews, who were also working on publishing theological treatises.

Over the years, the harbor silted in and became unusable, the Spaniards threw first the Muslims, then the Jews, out of Spain, and yet a Jewish community, small, but prestigious, hung on in Montpellier. There's an ancient mikvah, a ritual bath, underneath one of the old buildings here, and you can sign up at the Tourist Bureau to take the tour of it twice a week. The building itself has signs about Montpellier's history of science and medicine and the part the Jews played in building it up. Eventually, of course, the Jews got expelled here, and then returned, and after a while the story gets very complicated. They never totally left, of course, not in a place devoted to learning.

* * *

You can read more about this in the Jewish Encyclopedia, and the Jewish Virtual Library, if you'd like, but the story that was utterly unknown to me when I did a Google search on "jews+montpellier" was the one that cropped up on a blog from 2007. It told the story of Alfred, the hatmaker, and proprietor of that place selling CHAPEAUX on the rue de la Loge. I commend it to your attention. And if the weather's nice tomorrow, I may well attempt the Domaine de Merle yet again.

Friday, February 4, 2011

First February Miettes

All, for some reason, food-related.

First, the bagel saga continues. A French guy named Patrick, who's spent a lot of time in California has come to town and opened Bagel House, which is, besides a bagel joint, kind of an all-American theme restaurant. What exactly the bulldog has to do with it, I'm not sure.

There's a menu of bagel sandwiches, genuine New York cheesecake, pecan pie, hot dogs, Budweiser (in very elegant metal bottles, but it's still Budweiser) and Miller Genuine Draft. The bagels on offer the day I went were plain, sesame, sesame-poppy seed, and olive, which Patrick says is a concession to French tastes. They toasted up nicely and -- surprise! -- the texture was perfect! At €2 per bagel, though, this could be an expensive habit to acquire, although he swears he's going to lower the price to €1.50. Thursdays and Fridays are American sports nights on the big-screen television, and they're open until 10pm those nights for sports fans.

The place is kind of hidden away in a tiny street not far from the Opéra, but I've been in twice and there's been customers each time. I'm about to become another one, since the Inno supermarket's now carrying genuine Philadelphia cream cheese, and, of course, smoked salmon's no problem in France. Uh-oh.

Bagel House, 6 rue Loys, 34000 Montpellier. Tel: 04 67 67 07 02. 

* * * 

In other news of exotic cuisines, for some time I'd been hearing about an Asian supermarket called, oddly enough, Paris Store, on the edge of town, and last week I caught a ride out there with a couple of Australian Asiaphiles.

It's huge. There's a reason it's out there in warehouseland: it takes up a hell of a lot of space. And there's almost everything you'd want out there to make Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, Korean, or Cambodian food, plus some Indian basics, the usual enigmatic Antillean French stuff (I must find a restaurant that does this kind of food, because I have no idea what it is) and a smattering of Japanese and Filipino ingredients. There's a virtual wall of dim-sum, frozen, which could enable someone to open the biggest dim-sum restaurant in the south of France (and, MSG notwithstanding, I wish they would), and, outstandingly, a full complement of all the odd fresh herbs and vegetables you need to cook Southeast Asian foods. As with the place I used to go in Berlin, Vinh Loi, I don't recognize about 3/4 of these things, but they're all clearly labelled and at some point I'm going to get a Vietnamese cookbook and work some of it out.

The Paris Store is part of a chain of stores, most of which are in Paris. (We joked that there's probably a Beijing Store in China selling French food). It serves a dual purpose, supplying individual consumers as well as restaurants: there are big packs of take-out boxes, wholesale lots of chopsticks, and even some decor. It's got an outstanding selection of woks, cooking tools, and dishes, although I'd get my Chinese cleaver elsewhere, from the selection I saw there.

My one criticism -- and to tell the truth, I'm not sure I found everything, the place is so large -- is that there are still some ingredients, specifically some of the cooking pastes and sauces for Chinese food, which I still haven't found around here, things like yellow bean paste and black-bean chili paste. There's a chili paste that's essential for making the dipping sauce for Vietnamese summer rolls I haven't found, and I'm out of it, although I did buy a product that was unfamiliar to me that might turn out to be the same thing. At any rate, I'm mostly restocked now, so it's time to fire up the wok.

I think that this place is accessible by Tram #2, direction St. Jean de Védas, getting off at Victoire 2 and walking to the big commercial center. There are some chain restaurants (and a non-chain next door to the Paris Store where we had coffee, which looks excellent for lunch), a big garden store, and way in the back, the behemoth.

Paris Store, La Peyriere Business Park, Avenue Robert Schumann, 34430 St. Jean de Védas. Open Mon-Fri 9am-1pm, 2:30pm-7:30pm, Saturday 9am-7:30pm. 

* * * 

Man, talk about your best-laid plans. I've been promising myself that I'd go out to a new, inexpensive restaurant as soon as I could justify the outlay. I had a couple of ideas for places to go. And then, one day after I'd been working hard all afternoon, I realized that I had no ideas whatever for cooking dinner that night, and that the smart thing to do would be to go out. And I had the money to do it, as long as I didn't go over €30, which is quite do-able around here. There was one problem.

It was Sunday.

Sunday and Monday, as I need tell no one in France, are dead days. I knew that Bistrot d'Alco was open, but I'd just written about them and getting a miette out of the deal was part of my goal. I knew one place over in Gourmet Gulch I hadn't even seen, but someone had recommended. I headed over there. No go; with the exception of the Chat Perché, which I've also written about recently, nothing was open. I hiked clear across town on a hunch. Nope, those places were closed, too. I knew what I had to do: go to Chez Doumé.

Chez Doumé is very popular with the locals because it's open when others aren't, and because it's a basic steak-and-potatoes kind of place. I was just hoping for something a little more creative, a little more varied. But...

The place was full, but not obnoxiously so, mostly families, and there was a sign announcing that lunches were now featuring a different dish each day of the week. Given that that week's lunches were mostly variations on lambs' brains (seriously: cervelle d'agneau) I was glad I don't usually eat big lunches. Dinner doesn't have a huge selection, so I ordered from the menu bistrot (€16) and got steak and potatoes. First, though, there was a poireau vinaigrette, a poached leek with vinaigrette and a home-made mayonnaise that was excellent. I could have had another choice from the menu, but one of them was andouillette, a kind of sausage that smells like a urinal which is inexplicably popular in France, and I forget what the other choices were. Nope, it was the pièce de boucher, or steak, with a sauce, of which I chose pepper. And here's another reason people come to Chez Doumé: the steak (less tough than a lot of French steaks, but that's not saying much, and the pepper sauce seemed not to be too full of pepper) comes with fries. Amazing fries. And lots of 'em. They're homemade, not frozen. Some of them still have a bit of skin on them. They're cooked in regular oil, not duck fat, but they're the best non-duck-fat fries in town. I had to stop eating them to avoid potato overdose.

A 1/4 liter pichet of an okay Côtes de Languedoc was another €4.50, and all in all it was a good meal. Not great, not even very good, but it got the job done. I was stuck, and this is the kind of place you go when you're stuck. In the summer, it's light on tourists, too. And it has lamb brains for lunch.

Chez Doumé, 5 rue des Tessiers, 34000 Montpellier. Tel: 04 67 60 48 70. Open daily for lunch and dinner except Saturday and Sunday lunch. 

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

A Weekend In Spain

One good reason not to stay at the Hotel Doña Lola in Castellón, a small city in Valencia with a fishing and shipping harbor connected to it, is that the bullring is just a block away. Built in the 1870s, its main entrance still has a small pipe which sends a mist of water into the crowds waiting in the harsh sunlight.

Across the street, in a very nice park, there's a statue of a beloved bullfight journalist, sitting eternally looking into the ring, cigar, pencil, and binoculars at the ready.

And if you don't already have the picture, across the street from the hotel is a sculpture saluting all the brave bulls who've died there. I have no idea what kind of frenzy bullfights cause in their audiences, but the hotel might not be the most peaceful place in town when the bulls are happening.

What on earth was I doing here? The answer is simple: Blue Navigator, an Irish fanzine dedicated to some of American folk music's more arcane fringes, had alerted me that the mighty Peter Stampfel was on tour with a guy named Jeffrey Lewis, and asked me if I'd like to do a story. Most of the tour was with a full band in Britain, but there was on isolated gig at the Tanned Tin festival in Castellón, and when I checked, it wasn't that far away. Or so it seemed.

There's actually a direct train from Montpellier to Castellón, but it leaves at 7am. Its return, at quarter of two in the afternoon, is much easier. On the way down, then, I took a train to Salvador Dalí's home town of Figueres, took another train to Barcelona, and then another to Castellón. Trouble was, I had a tight connection in Barça, there was no train number on the big board to help me figure out where to go, and by the time I did figure it out, the train had left. I had 4 1/2 hours in Barcelona, so I stashed my luggage in a locker and, at the suggestion of the tourist ladies, took the subway to Sagrada Familia.

That's about as good a shot of it as an iPhone will allow. My real camera was back at the station. It wouldn't have mattered; when I took it out of its case in Castellón, the malfunction that it had had when I first got it, an inability to stay turned on, had returned. A brand-new dead camera, one day past its return date for (Still has its own warranty, though). So all these shots are from my phone. How 21st Century!

Gotta say, I wasn't overly impressed with Barcelona. I wandered around the neighborhood surrounding the church (which costs €12 to go into, so I passed), and eventually got a late lunch of some boring sausages with tomato sauce. All the restaurant/cafe type places were owned by people who looked Chinese, but, I was later told, were probably Filipino. Makes sense.

The only bright spot was that I stumbled on the Sagrada Familia market hall. Man alive! Or, rather, fish dead! I saw fish I'd never encountered, even in books, species of shellfish I was previously unaware of, and gleaming examples of fish and shellfish that I actually recognized. Razor clams, for instance. I was hoping to get some of those were I was going; it had been ages since I'd had any. Over on the vegetable side, a lot of the vegetables looked better than I see here in Montpellier. Some of this has to do with factory farming: there's no way all those luscious black tomatoes were coming in from fields at the end of January. There were also little peppers that looked like jalapeños called padrones. I'm told one dry-fries them and dips them in olive oil and that sometimes you get one with vootie. I was hoping for some of those, too.

But the delay had screwed my plans up. I'd heard that people ate late in Spain, so getting in at 10:30 might not be too bad, but unfortunately, I had to settle for the hotel's grease-pit of a restaurant. I even forget what I had, it was so unmemorable. But, as in the place in Barça, the beer was phenomenal. Spaniards, unlike the French, like beer that tastes like beer! The festival's sponsor, Estrella Damm, is just lovely, and I had enough to make that judgement.

I woke up early on my first full day in Castellón, and realized, from the map they gave me at the front desk, that the place just isn't big enough to get lost in. It doesn't sprawl as much as Montpellier does, and although it's the usual maze of streets you find anywhere the Romans didn't build in Europe, it's pretty hard to get lost. So I set out with my camera to shoot the central market, only to have it poop out when I tried to shoot the bull statue. Never occurred to me to use the phone until I was already out of the market, which, at 10 on a Saturday, was rocking and rolling, with two eating areas where the merchants and the locals were enjoying plates of appetizing-looking stuff. It was the same as at Sagrada Familia, only bigger. Same weird fish, same gorgeous vegetables. Lots of stands selling pork products, with five or six grades of ham. Ham is like a religion here: I later cruised the huge supermarket in the basement of the huge ugly department store near my  hotel and they had five-year-old Iberian hams wrapped in fake velvet selling for €450. And that was the supermarket; lord only knows what some of the superstar hams at the market went for at charcuterias that felt like chapels. I later noticed it as an appetizer/tapa on menus going for €23.50 and up per plate of a half-dozen very thin slices. No, I didn't try it.

After the market, I just wandered, and came into a lovely plaza with an ornate pavillion in it surrounded by chairs and tables, an outdoor bar/tapas joint. Just past it was a lovely red building which turned out to be the Teatro Principál, the venue for the festival. There was a door marked Prensa/Invitados, so I went in to see if my press pass was there. There was a sound-check going on and a uniformed guard who spoke no English. This was a problem: the Spanish spoken in this part of the world sounded nothing like any Spanish I'd ever heard before, which, of course, was mostly spoken by Mexicans. Not that I can even speak Tex-Mex. But it was early, around 11:30, and nobody was around. An American guy who was with Faust, one of the big-name acts at the festival, helped me out, but it was clearly too early for the press folks, who were coming in from Madrid, so I thanked the guard and wandered around the city some more. Finally, I wound up back at the hotel. A couple of hours of using the wi-fi in my room, though, and I was bored again.

More walking brought me to the stage door again. I went in, and the guard was utterly surprised. With sign language and some talking, he let me know that this was lunchtime, and nobody could be expected to be anywhere except at lunch. It was true: the theater was utterly silent. I took the hint. Did the guard have a recommendation? He gestured: just walk around until you find something. So I did: directly across the street was this place:

I looked at the menu. A couple of the small plates would make an excellent lunch. I went in. A friendly, stout guy pointed me at a chair by the bar (just the other side of that window there, in fact) and handed me a menu. I ordered a beer. Just going on familiar-sounding words, I ordered. First up were pimientos del piquillas, which the menu said were peppers stuffed with seafood. The stuffing was a puree with potatoes and olive oil, and the peppers were in a saffron, olive oil, and garlic sauce:

Sorry, I inhaled one of them before I remembered to shoot this. Trust me, you would have, too. Next up was gambas ajillo, perfectly-cooked prawns in olive oil infused with garlic, red chili peppers, and garlic, garnished with garlic and red chili peppers. Yes, folks, this is a cuisine which agrees with me.

All of this was served with slices of lightly-toasted bread, and much sauce was soaked up thereby.

The rest of the afternoon was spent walking this off, noticing the apartment-building lobbies and garages where little old ladies set up modest quantities of oranges and tangerines for sale, hanging out in the hotel, and waiting to hear that the guys had arrived. Finally, about 6:30, I went back to the theater and met the publicist, Noemi, who had my pass. She took my number and said she'd SMS me when the guys got there. I wandered around a little, noticing that there were alleys filled with people drinking and eating plates of tapas being handed through a window on the street. Big plastic tubs lay around for the garbage, and each of these places had specialties: octopus tentacles, crabs, and a couple of things I couldn't identify. I wasn't hungry, and I was skeptical about my ability to make anyone understand, but it was fascinating. After a while, I went back to the hotel, and eventually they arrived, did a great show and we did an interview.

I'd given myself an extra day in Castellón because I wanted to see what was there independent of my work schedule, and because I also hate weekend train-travel. There were two things I really wanted to do: visit the local art museum, and head to the Grao, the port, for a paella. Neither turned out to be as easy as I would have liked.

First, my approach to the museum was complicated by a huge number of horses and ponies, some drawing carts, some just with a rider. A guy in a flat, broad-brimmed traditional hat and a caballero suit on a pure white horse rode with his wife or sister on a matching horse, her skirt draped out in front of her, and, more incredibly, draped behind her in such a way that it covered the entire rear of the horse right up to where its tail started. I was wondering what this would have looked like when she got off. There was an almost endless stream of these animals , and I have no idea where they were headed, but it was definitely entertaining.

There are two art museums, one contemporary, one everything else, and I'd passed the contemporary during my wanderings on Saturday. It was no problem to get there, and it appeared from the map that the Museu de Bellas Arts, the one I wanted, was nearby. It actually was a couple of blocks away, and I was concerned because, unlike the contemporary, it closes at 2 on Sunday. Again, a nice security guard pointed the way.

The main reason I wanted to go to this place is that I'd read it had some Zurbaráns, and I'd never seen any of his work up close. But before the floor where they were, there were two floors of ceramics. If there's a subject that interests me less than ceramics, I can't really think of what it is. Still, I was there, there was a lot of time before lunch started, so I took a turn. Good lord.

Okay, still wondering where Picasso was coming from? True, he wasn't a local, but these are 19th century Valencian plates, and the entire floor was just one of these beauties after another. There was an implication that these designs are still being made (captions in the museum -- and signs everywhere, for that matter -- are in two languages: Castillian Spanish and Catalan, hugely inconvenient for non-speakers, especially because they're nearly identical), and I don't have to have an authentic antique -- I'll settle for a few of these made last year. I'm going to try to figure out where to find them, bet on it.

Upstairs, it was a typical provincial museum, some really nice medieval stuff, including a St. Michael by the Master of the Porticula vanquishing a demon who apparently had really bad breath, a cycle on the life of St. Bru, who shows up nowhere on Wikipedia or Google, but has numerous representations here (he was apparently the founder of a community of hermits who was a tourist attraction for Popes passing through), and ten, count 'em, ten Zurbaráns, the only famous ones of which were on loan somewhere. Grrr. I did, however, get my dose of magnificently-composed black tones a la Zurbarán from a Portrait of the Artist's Wife by one Josep Rubio, showing his black-clad wife standing by the fireplace. Very hard to imagine people were dressing in button-to-the-chin dresses in 1934, let alone painting such mid-19th-century-looking paintings, but maybe that's why Rubio, too, isn't in Wikipedia and doesn't show up on Google. Like I said, it's a provincial museum. That doesn't, however, mean it's devoid of its pleasures, even in the painting collection. (I looked for postcards and must report that the Museu de Bellas Arts is the first art museum I've ever been in that doesn't sell postcards. At all. What are they thinking?)

The map made it look like I could just head down the street the museum was in and wind up at the Grao, so that's what I did. And did. And did. The surroundings quickly got incredibly boring: huge boxes of buildings housing wholesale tile dealers, wholesale beverage sellers, frozen fish dealers and the odd karate studio or showgirl bar. At one point, there was a concrete monument by the side of the road, marking where the Greenwich Meridian passed. It was more 1:38 in the afternoon than it had ever been before. It turned out to be about six miles from the museum to the Grao, and I was exhausted when I got there. Luckily, a restaurant that came very highly recommended, La Tasca del Puerto, was right there, but a glance at the menu put the fear into me: expensive. Also, all the rice dishes were for a minimum of two people.

So I walked down to the yacht harbor, where there were about a dozen places all described as cafeteria freiduria, all of which also had rice menus. All, alas, wanted a minimum of two people. It's obvious from looking around the Grao that it's a tourist destination in the summer, so I wasn't too surprised when one of the waitresses at Restaurante El Galeón spoke English to me. She said I could get the day's special, paella Valenciana, for one, so I sat down at a table. I started out with sepia a la plancha, griddled cuttlefish served with olive oil flavored with garlic and parsley. There was also bread, again lightly toasted, with tomate and ajoacet. This was the local equivalent of chips and hot sauce: the tomate was even like Mexican red salsa, only with garlic substituted for green chiles, while the ajoacet was a very garlicky mayonnaise.

A great start. Unfortunately, and as I suspect happens at a lot of these places, the paella was a disappointment, made with canned vegetables and a few hunks of what could have been rabbit and/or chicken. Nice, saffron-y taste, and the rice was cooked al dente with skill, but I can easily envisage better.

That's just as it came: not a lot of goodies in there at all.

I was not going to walk back into town after all of that, though, so after a stroll along the waterfront, I got a bus. Some genius has pegged the busfare in Castellón at €.93. Bet the drivers were just overjoyed when that came down.

In the end, I realized that Castellón has just enough in it for a weekend: get in Friday night and get a meal, spend Saturday doing stuff (there's also a nature preserve the city owns out in the nearby Mediterranean that I didn't look into because it was, um, January), stroll the streets lined with orange trees, hit the museum, the market, the big square with the old tower, just relax, eat and drink well, and that's it. And off-season is both underpopulated and cheap: see my hotel rates. I want to explore this area some more, but my priority is still exploring this corner of France first, and learning more about it. Still, one huge benefit of being located here is the quick access to both Spain and Italy, and anyone with paying assignments in either place are welcome to contact me.

And another thing this trip taught me: it is not, no matter what they tell you, possible to overdose on garlic.

* * *

Hotel Doña Lola, C/. Lucena 3, 12006 Castellón. Tel: +34 964 21 40 11. Singles €43 offseason, includes free breakfast, wi-fi, large flat-screen television. 

Restaurante Eleazár, C/. Ximenez 14, 12002 Castellón. Tel: +34 964 23 48 61. Part of a restaurant group in the city, Mesón Navarro, which has four restaurants around the city with varied opening hours and slightly different menus.
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