Spring Break 2012 brought a trip around the Oregon High Desert with faithful ol’ traveling buddies Mom and Sis. A couple of camping trips that really turned into road trips. There is a lot of terrain to cover but we kept the plans loose to accommodate spontaneity and weather. There was so much I hadn’t seen of the outback yet (all the land East of the Cascade range) and I wanted to show my mom the Painted Hills.
We rented a cheapo economy car for John Day Country (the Painted Hills are only one of three “units” of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument) knowing the access roads are pretty dry and well graded, though very dusty. We ended up finding this tourist magazine about Oregon’s Scenic Byways and doing the whole length of two of them and one half of another. The roads are all two-lane state highways that were practically deserted in late April. We started out on the Journey Through Time Byway, which traverses the length of John Day Country.
The highlight of this route is, of course, the Painted Hills, but another unit of the National Monument, which I had never checked out before, turned out to be almost as good: Sheep Rock’s Blue Basin. The trails winds along a dried up arroyo for about one mile until opening up into a naturally formed amphitheater of sheer cliffs painted blue and chalk white, pillared and dripping in weird formations. We just laid down in the dust for a couple hours and stared, it’s one of the most psychedelic places I’ve ever been while at the same time being very cozy and intimate.
There’s a couple of camp grounds in the Fossil Beds Monument area but the we checked them all out and the most scenic and tranquil was the Mule Shoe Recreation Area, just past the intersection of Hwy 207 and 19, with sites right on the banks of the John Day River.
Besides all the wonders of the three John Day Units, there’s also the fun of exploring the minuscule living ghost towns like Mitchell, Spray, and Fossil. Everyone is very friendly but gas stations are rare, often for local card-holders only, or closed on random days, so fill up whenever you have the chance.
We followed the Byway all the way east to Prairie City and beyond to the Strawberry Mountain Wilderness. Itching for cool alpine forest and grassy meadows after the arid outback, we drove up to the Strawberry Lake trailhead to find snow, and as we gained elevation on the steep trail, we ended up hiking in foot deep packed powder! Luckily we had brought hats and gloves, but coming out into the clearing of the half-frozen alpine lake we found the sun warm and wind still. Lying out on the big boulders we warmed up enough to take off our coats and breathe.
We had three nights for the Byway and were able to roam at a leisurely pace but ended up back at the campground past dark every night. It would’ve been nice to have one extra day to just hang at Mule Shoe and be with the river. Oh and since everything and its brother is named John Day Something out there we asked the owner of the Dayville Mercantile who the hell the guy was. Apparently he was just some dude who got shot up by the indians but didn’t die. I guess that was about the only local hero they could rustle up in those desolate pioneer days, in these desolate desert parts.
Due to my ongoing obsession with spending a summer in Buenos Aires, I’ve begun perusing the apartments for rent on the BA Craigslist. I’m hoping to go Summer 2014 as my U of AZ teacher’s stipend will be paid out through the summer months even though I’ll be free of work and classes (awesome!). I want to go and sit in a cafe and read everything by Pizarnik, Puig, and Arlt and go to lots of dubbed films and work on my Vos conjugations. I’ve been researching Buenos Aires neighborhoods and although there’s quite a few hipster hot spots, San Telmo seems to have the right aesthetic. It’s the oldest barrio in BA and it’s lined by all cobblestone streets. It was historically home to an upper middle class, who constructed many of their 3 story mansions there, but then fell into ruin after a cholera epidemic (so literary!) caused a mass emigration to the northern barrios. So it has that faded grandeur that gives so many old towns their sad and beautiful magic.
The first time I looked on CL I was blown away by the perfect rustic bohemian style of so many of the rooms! The architecture itself is a dream: parquet or hardwood floors, french style balconies, stained glass windows, exposed brick. Not to mention those interior patios with potted plants in every nook and cranny! Also, lots of heavy reclaimed wood furniture, victorian era velvet sofas, ethnic textiles, oriental rugs, built in bookcases, vintage record players, muted earth tones paired with bold pastels, basketry, and tons of chocolate brown and cognac leather!
I have to say, in all my travels through Spain, France and Italy searching for that heart-stopping medieval-European aesthetic magic, the place where I really finally found it was in Girona, Catalonia. I’m talking in a solely sensorial sense, and I should specify that this post speaks only of the old town, on the east side of the city. The Barri Vell. Though other places have won me over in a more holistic way (the geography, the culture, the history, the people), Girona is the stage I want all the world to be. It’s labyrinthine layout, the majesty of its Jewish quarter (said to be the best preserved in Europe), and an abundance of churches, monasteries, chapels and gardens that is breath-taking. It’s what I wanted Italy to be.
More specifically, it’s what I wanted Verona, Italy to be. Verona dissapointed me (here), but Girona’s stepped plazas, cantilevered twin cathedrals, and ivy-covered walls, are straight out of Romeo and Juliet. There’s no tacky modern art sculptures, high-end stores, or locks on their monuments. And Catalonians are quieter. Another factor of the visual impact that Girona has is the fact that it’s shockingly free of tourists, and we were there in August! Someone told me it’s because all the people who would know about it, the vacationing French and Germans, always go to the beaches. To the rest of the world it’s just a medium sized city in the middle of a strange place called Catalonia. But I have never walked around a European old town and found myself completely alone. To stumble upon something that touches you deeply and have that moment to yourself is priceless, almost revelatory. Nearly the entire stretch of its defensive wall has been preserved, though parts have been reconstructed. And we had it to ourselves. We walked the entire outer limits of the town, way up on top of the wall, which is like a miniature Great Wall of China and climbed the lookout towers to find silent panoramas awaiting us. Where were the people? It was like being in a museum before opening hours. Everything becomes realer without the hoardes of pleasure-seeking tourists that reduce the scenery to a parody of itself. Alone, you can take all the time you need to soak up the enchantment that only a minority of travelers go looking for. Besides the wall, there is a terrifying cathedral towering the skyline, which happens to have the widest Gothic nave in all of the world, a couple monasteries, the arabic baths, the Jewish quarter, and the river, with it’s long stretch of painted houses and thin stone ribbons of footbridges. The colors are more Italian too. Provence’s castle and cathedral towns, like Avignon, are so clean and grey, almost white, they come off as very dainty, you can’t imagine that any blood was shed or that Romans walked there. Girona’s old town is different, it’s bold, mighty, musty, and a little mis-matched. Sun-bleached ochres, rusty greens, and the sandy-black stone color of Barcelona abound.
The other thing about Girona is its steps. It is truly the city of steps. It reminded me of Venice, in that it would be nearly impossible to traverse by bicycle. It catches you off guard because, from above, Girona doesn’t appear to be very hilly, it’s certainly not nestled in the mountains, it’s on the bank of a wide, flat river. But once you enter the old town, you enter a maze where stairs go every which way, intersecting, veering off, and elongating shallowly to cover whole passages. It holds your attention endlessly. But be prepared for a workout and wear your most comfortable shoes. I’m sure my pictures won’t convey the playfulness or mysteriousness of the place, so you’ll have to spend a day there yourself, you’ll find you feel like a character in a 1200-year-old play that’s never changed it’s set.
We took two days to explore Cadaques as I had heard so many wonderful things about it and didn’t want to be rushed, though it is small enough to cover in one day. We planned to spend only the morning touring Dali’s house in a nearby cove called Portlligat, but wound up spending the entire day there. Cadaques is on a rocky, hilly, peninsula that juts out into the Mediterranean. Getting there by bus is easy and preferable, as most of the streets in Cadaques are undrivable and everyone has to park outside the center, like in Venice. We took the bus from Figueres, it cost 5€ each one way and took 45 minutes. The bus traverses the mountains on roads that drop away sheer to the valleys below, which are dotted or lined with olive trees.
You can walk to Portlligat, on a clearly marked trail, it takes about 20 minutes and goes up one very steep hill. Portlligat must have been a micro fishing village, with about 10 houses, a harbour full of dingheys and sailboats and thousands of olive trees. As history has it, Dali’s father exiled him from Cadaques after his antics started getting really polemic. So Dali just bought a little fisherman’s cabin in a cove around the bend. Over the years, he built up the house into the spacious villa you see today. If you are into interior design or architecture, I recommend planning to spend several hours there. The tour guides tend to rush the groups along, prodding you through the rooms with just enough time to snap a pic. But if you drop back from the group a bit they’ll leave you alone in the rooms for a short while.
Portlligat doesn’t have any life of its own now, aside from being the place where Dali’s house is. All the ancient little fishermans’ huts have been turned into canteens to service the daily influx of tourists. But there’s only a couple and the only food is uninspired bocadillos, so I suggest having lunch in Cadaques before you go.
I fell completely head over heels in love with Dali and Gala’s sense of space and decoration. And though the house is practically an ode to occultish whimsy, I was surprised that the house wasn’t tackier, more bizarre, more “surreal.” There are a couple of atrocious Daliesque relics, the stuffed bear in the foyer, the michelin man plastica around the pool, the gigantic Jesus sculpture made out of rubbish in the olive grove, but overall it’s floorplan, furniture, art-work, and textiles made me burn with a desire to move in. I thought nothing would ever top Luis Barragan’s house in Mexico City (here and here) but this might. The setting must have a lot to do with that, nestled on the rocky cove, with a practically private beach, the colors and stripes of the boats, the long bright sky, the endless tide of olive trees with their silver leaves. It’s so simple, and so Mediterranean. I just didn’t want to go, I didn’t want to be anywhere else in the world.