Getting There (And Around)
La Cerdanya is a roughly two-hour drive from Barcelona. Take E-9 to the Túnel de Cadí (Cadi Tunnel). Once you're through the tunnel, follow signs to N-260. Routes N-260 (Spain) and N-116 (France) bisect the valley. Pick up a Michelin map for main roads, and a regional map, such as Editorial Alpina's Mapa Excursionista y Turístico (editorialalpina.com), for smaller mountain roads and scenic country byways. Border patrols in the adjoining towns Puigcerdá (Spain) and Bourg-Madame (France) rarely stop cars, but it's a good idea to have passports ready.
For best rates, rent a car prior to departure via Auto Europe (888/223-5555, autoeurope.com). In September, midsize car rentals average $400 per week for a manual transmission with basic insurance, and $850 per week for an automatic.
Hush-Hush Europe: La Cerdanya
A puff of smoke fills the pizzeria, some American exchange students yell, "Stop, drop, and roll," and time hiccups into slow motion. My friend McCrizz and I don't stop or drop--instead, we run straight for the restaurant's door with our napkins still tucked into our shirt collars. The chef, Fabián Martín, soon appears outside Pizzería-Taller with a sideways grin, offers apologies, and then, in a theatrical gesture, lifts two balls of pizza dough above his head. Under a streetlight in the small Pyrenean town of Llívia, in front of a dazed crowd, he spins, arm rolls, and kicks the balls into 12-inch rounds. Whoops erupt, and we all file back inside for the main event. Martín is not only one of the world's top pizza-dough acrobats--an official designation--he also makes some of the world's wildest riffs on pizza: sushi pizza, pizza soup, even bite-size pockets of dough filled with a Coca-Cola reduction. As McCrizz and I nibble slices topped with wildflowers, Martín stops by to tell us that he's close to finalizing a formula for something totally new: see-through pizza. A fertile 420-square-mile valley-plateau, La Cerdanya lies like a green carpet overlapping the Spanish and French sides of the Pyrenees. I first learned of the region from an article that mentioned a woman from Toulouse who had chucked it all to open Cal Pai, a modest inn for hikers and skiers in Eyne, a village surrounded by snowcapped peaks. She picked blueberries, plums, rose hips, and edible meadow blossoms; cooked and jarred them; and came to be known locally as the "poetess of preserves." Sometimes we all have to indulge a caprice, and at the time I felt perfectly justified in flying to Barcelona and driving two hours to taste manna: Françoise Massot's wild-raspberry jam. When the opportunity arose to explore La Cerdanya again, I jumped. I'd be alone for the majority of the trip, but I managed to persuade my friend Mike (also known as McCrizz), who has lived in Barcelona for 18 years now, to join me for the first day and a half. After dinner at the pizzeria, we walk to our hotel through the back streets of Llívia, an enclave that stuck with Spain in the creation of a 1659 peace treaty, when 33 surrounding towns were ceded to France. Fashioned from a 16th-century stable at a farmhouse estate, the 21-room Hotel Bernat de So, with its contemporary decor, designer lighting, and chic lobby lounge, seems an appropriately cutting-edge place to digest our sushi pizza. La Cerdanya (the Catalan spelling is used most widely; the French spell it La Cerdagne) is still something of a secret from American tourists, but the valley's history stretches as far back as the 6th century B.C. The list of invaders reads like a Who's Who of European domination: Carthaginians, Moors, Franks, and kings of Aragon. In the early part of the 20th century, the ski resort Le Grand Hôtel opened in Font-Romeu, helping to establish the area as a popular winter destination among sportif Europeans. Today, visitors come year-round to breathe the intoxicating air, soak in the hot springs, and hike some 250 miles of trails. Beyond outdoorsy pursuits and natural beauty, sunny Cerdanya has a mélange of cultures--a place where you could easily crisscross the border between Spain and France six times a day, and pricey tapas are rare as rain. After a breakfast of Spanish melon and local mató cheese with honey, McCrizz and I set out for our own dose of fresh air. The receptionist at Bernat de So suggests we go to the village of Dorres and climb to Nuestra Señora de Bell-Lloc, a mountaintop chapel. When we get to Ur, a neighboring town, and ask an elderly gentleman how to get to the chapel, he points up and says, "Está cerca de Dios." There, atop a seemingly vertical peak, is a speck of a building that is indeed close to God. Not up for the climb, we hop in my rental car and scoot 15 minutes away to Eyne in search of the gentle path that leads from the entrance of Cal Pai, Françoise's inn, into the wooded hills. In no time, McCrizz and I are running through a butterfly-filled alpine meadow, each enjoying our own Sound of Music moment. We wend our way under soaring falcons into the sun-dappled beech and black-pine forest. A gurgling stream leads us over mossy ridges to a small waterfall. We marvel that we're actually stopping to smell the wildflowers--thistles, Madonna lilies, and scented poppies. We treat ourselves to a post-hike lunch of pea bisque and truffle-dusted beef carpaccio at Can Ventura, a restaurant in Llívia with centuries-old stone walls decorated with antique snowshoes. Afterward, I drop McCrizz off at the train station and immediately take a wrong turn. Flustered, I double back to the traffic circle and go around it about a dozen times before shooting out onto the main road that runs along the spine of the valley. I'm on my way to La Seu d'Urgell in search of Hotel El Castell de Ciutat. The hotel's low-slung roof and stone façade disappear in the shadow of the 17th-century fort that dominates the promontory above town. Once inside, however, there's no mistaking the family-run property for anything but what it is--a modern, luxurious retreat (with rates to match). After checking in and settling into my room--under a mansard roof, with views of the Sierra de Cadí--I linger at the pool area. One Turkish bath, two Oranginas, and a copy of Hola! later, the unnerving drive is a distant memory. Before dinner I chitchat with a handsome waiter working the hotel's spectacular terrace. I'm not sure if it's the glass of Banyuls--a local fortified wine--or the waiter's coal-black eyes, but I listen intently as he proclaims his deep love of siestas and how, at dusk, the high rounded peaks in the distance remind him of the Loch Ness monster. I too like to nap, and there is indeed a Nessie-ness to the scene. We agree on so much! I decide to forego my reservation in the hotel's elegant restaurant, and dine alfresco on a green salad, a plate of goat cheeses, and a bottle of red wine. The next morning, I explore La Seu d'Urgell's 12th-century Catedral de Santa Maria, then nose around the French town of Saillagouse, stopping to inspect a vendor's garlicky pork butifarra, a kind of sausage. Hunger quickly sets in. I skip the first restaurant I see, a place with the dubious name of Le Crapahuteur, opting instead for a lunch surrounded by taxidermy at La Vieille Maison Cerdane. Despite being stared at by a snaggle-toothed red fox, I enjoy every bite, especially the potato-and-cod brandade. A languorous afternoon unfolds as I meander along the back roads that intertwine around Saillagouse. I get lost, again, but the urge to freak out is quelled by the warm lavender-scented breeze. I drive into the hamlet of Ste. Léocadie to ask directions, and have the happy accident of discovering the Musée de Cerdagne and meeting its hospitable director, Dominique Pilato. She treats me to a private tour of innovative historical exhibits scattered throughout the old barns and outbuildings of the 17th-century farm Cal Mateu (also the home of Europe's highest-altitude wine-producing estate). Curious about La Cerdanya's hot springs, I slip over for a soak in the Bains de Llo. Ninety-five-degree mineral waters bubble in the gorges of the Sègre river, and entrepreneurs have set up a simple bathhouse and pools. Post-soak, I jump in my car and make my way to L'Atalaya Hôtel-Restaurant in upper Llo. I enter through a rose-filled stone garden and am greeted by the hotel's effusive owner, a patrician woman in vintage magenta espadrilles. Madame Toussaint gives me the grand tour, proudly showing me the piano and a leafy terrace. Over dinner, I start up a conversation with a young couple from Bath, England, and before I can say the words duck à l'orange, they invite me to dine with them. Life is less good the next day, when I have plans to take Le Train Jaune, the "yellow train," over the mountain and into the Roussillon region's Vallée de la Têt. Apparently it's not just TGV workers who go on strike, but the ones who operate cute tourist trains, too. I'll have to drive, navigating the sheer drops and switchbacks on my own. I can't say I enjoy it. Ten minutes in, I stop at the 1679 garrison town of Mont-Louis for a palm-drying walk and a croque monsieur (it helps!) before completing the 30-mile descent to the medieval fortified town of Villefranche-de-Conflent. It takes no more than an hour to get your bearings in Villefranche, and I'm soon walking circles around the two main streets and alleys, which are lined with pink-marble homes dating from the 13th century. At first I'm put off by the whiff of tourism, but amid the souvenir shops are little stores offering free tastes of Grand Cru Banyuls or selling perfume, handmade soap, or artisanal ice cream. On a dirt road just outside the walls of Fort Liberia--built in the 17th century to protect Villefranche--is a chalet-style B&B, Casa Penalolen. The owners, Mireille and Esteban Pena-Faïn, hand me towels at check-in; they know where I'm headed. For a while I have the pool to myself, but I'm soon joined by three generations of Parisian women. They explain that they are spending the summer in the Pyrenees for the fresh air, and I can't help but think that I've tumbled into a Henry James novel. Later, Mireille insists I take a flashlight on my walk to dinner in town, and points me toward La Casa de la Nine, run by a Brit named Rick Hurley and his wife, Heather, a talented chef. In their sunflower-filled dining room, I have a wonderful meal that begins with a foie gras pastry served with gingerbread ice cream and ends with a pavlova adorned with gooseberries. The next day, while driving back over the mountains to Eyne, I ignore the number one rule of hiking and decide to go for a solo jaunt at the Gorges de la Carança. While I do encounter a few serious-looking hikers with backpacks (which explains all those rust-kissed VW buses and Peugeots at the entrance), mostly I'm by myself on the flat path that at one point is carved spectacularly into a sheer cliff. The jamstress's inn, Cal Pai, is just as I remember it. Under the stone-archway entrance is a chalkboard scribbled with still-friendly rates, and the canvas chairs scattered around the lawn are where I left them three years before. I'm greeted by the lingering scent of a wood fire, along with a hodgepodge of guitars, terra-cotta pots, hiking maps, and checkerboards. The nine guest rooms, most of which are accessed by rickety stairs, sport similar flea market decor. The attitude at Cal Pai is très laissez-faire--at least until dinner, which is at 8 P.M. sharp. Most diners are inn guests, but it's possible to call ahead for a table d'hôte dinner to taste the results of Françoise's foraging, which might include asparagus and chanterelles, along with sheep's milk cheese from a farm down the road. I take a seat at the 25-foot farmhouse table and introduce myself to pink-cheeked 40-somethings from Toulouse filing in from a hike. Françoise and her sous-chef can often be counted on for hearty local dishes like trinxat, which is made from bacon, cabbage, and potatoes, but tonight there's a more exotic menu of cumin-scented beet salad, white nettles and goat cheese in flaky phyllo dough, a crock of lemon-tinged crema catalana, and a platter of stinky French cheeses. Carafes of young red wine from Roussillon are emptied and refilled, and the conversation turns to politics. As the only American in the house, and possibly for miles around, I take one for the country as I get gently ribbed about French-fry boycotts. The next morning, after a steaming café au lait, a warm baguette, and a taste test of more than a dozen preserves, I begin the drive to Barcelona. I take a shortcut back through Saillagouse and wave as I pass the sausage guy and the kindly gentleman who pointed me toward God. When I spot my British friends as they're entering Le Crapahuteur, I make a mental note to e-mail them and ask what exactly is on the menu. Then again, maybe I'll come back--yet again--and find out for myself. Transportation Le Train Jaune Runs between Latour-de-Carol and Villefranche-de-Conflent, France, trainstouristiques-ter.com, $23 Lodging Cal Pai 1 Carrer del Ventador, Eyne, France, 011-33/4-68-04-06-96, gite-calpai.com, rooms from $52 with breakfast and dinner, $27 dinner only Bernat de So Cereja 5, Llívia, Spain, 011-34/972-146-206, hotelbernatdeso.com, from $137 Hotel El Castell de Ciutat Carretera N-260, La Seu d'Urgell, Spain, 011-34/973-350-000, hotelelcastelldeciutat.com, from $248 L'Atalaya Hôtel-Restaurant Llo, France, 011-33/4-68-04-70-04, atalaya66.com, from $129 Casa Penalolen 3 Domaine de Ste. Eulalie, Villefranche-de-Conflent, France, 011-33/4-68-96-52-35, penalolen.fr, from $87, with breakfast Food Pizzería-Taller Calle Frederic Bernade 7, Llívia, 011-34/972-146-219, fabian-martin.com Can Ventura Plaça Major 1, Llívia, 011-34/972-896-178, canventura.com, entrées from $24 La Vieille Maison Cerdane Hôtel Planes, 6 Place de Cerdagne, Saillagouse, France, 011-33/4-68-04-72-08, planotel.fr, lunch from $30 La Casa de la Nine 31 Rue St. Jean, Villefranche-de-Conflent, 011-33/4-68-96-35-62, lacasadelanine.com, dinner from $36 Activities Catedral de Santa Maria Plaça dels Oms, La Seu d'Urgell, museudiocesaurgell.org, $4 Musée de Cerdagne Ferme Cal Mateu, Ste. Léocadie, France, 011-33/4-68-04-08-05, open mid-July to mid-Sept., $5 Bains de Llo Llo, 011-33/4-68-04-74-55, lesbainsdello.com, $10
Bus ride: $37 The quickest way to reach Máncora, about 700 miles north of Lima, is to hop on one of Lan Peru's twice daily flights from Lima to Piura ($225 round trip); from there, it's about a two-hour cab ride to Máncora ($70). If you have 18 hours to spare, take the Cruz del Sur bus (cruzdelsur.com.pe, $37). Tear your eyes from the dubbed American movies shown along the way and you may spot a dolphin or two frolicking in the Pacific Ocean. Beach hotel: $40 There are two types of lodging: on the beach--like Punta Ballenas Inn (right; 011-51/7325-8136)--and almost on the beach. In the case of Hospedaje Costa Norte, you're a minute's walk from the surf. The rooms surround a courtyard guarded by Pedro, a parrot with a penchant for giving besitos (little kisses) to female guests (011-51/7325-8198, from $10). Yoga hotel: $70 Samana Chakra is a new thatched-roof bungalow resort on the northern end of the beach, owned by an ex-marketing director from California and his wife, a Peruvian yoga instructor. The rate includes breakfast and a daily hatha yoga class (totally optional, of course). Early risers can even surf with the owners, who ride tandem on a longboard (011-51/1-9830-5896, samanachakra.com). Taxi fare: 95¢ Moto-taxis, three-wheeled motorbikes with a covered backseat for two, are Máncora's primary form of transportation. The bumpy ride across town costs about a dollar. For $14 round trip, a moto cabbie will take you into the Amotape Mountains to the thermal hot springs at Poza de Barro. Surf school: $16 Máncora's six-foot waves rival those of better-known surf spots in Peru, such as Chicama, but early mornings often bring waves that are ideal for beginners. Several shorefront surf schools offer 90-minute private lessons. Tasty lunch: $6 Fried yucca and ice-cold Brahma beer are the perfect companions to ceviche, the national dish of Peru, made with seafood, maize, crescents of sweet potato, and a citrus marinade. At Cevichería Las Peñitas, an entire meal, including ceviche and beer, costs less than $6. Fruit drink: 50¢ The best deal in town is a cremolada (a crushed-ice beverage made with passion fruit, strawberry, orange, or pineapple) at Papa Mo's Milk Bar. Passion fruit is said to have a mildly sedative effect--not unlike a few days spent in Máncora. Necklace: $7 On a three-block stretch of sidewalk near the southern end of town, dreadlocked nomads and local artisans sell everything from shark jaws to tins of natilla, Peru's version of dulce de leche. The most unusual wares are adorned with deep orange huayruro seeds, which come from the Amazon rain forest and are believed to ward off negative energy. A double-strand necklace costs $7.
Veracruz: Lodging and Tours
The state of Veracruz is a popular destination for Mexican tourists, but it's seldom visited by Americans. Susana Trilling leads culinary tours throughout Mexico; her 10-day Veracruz trip takes place March 15-25 and costs $2,500. 011-52/1-951-508-0469, seasonsofmyheart.com. From December through June, tours of the Gaya Vai-Mex factory are available by request, at a charge of $1 per person. 56 Av. Hidalgo, Gutiérrez Zamora, Veracruz, 011-52/766-845-0497, gayavaimex.com. El Tajín is outside the modern city of Papantla. The festival of Cumbre Tajín is held at the ruins and the adjacent theme park. cumbretajin.com. The simple Hotel Tajín, in Papantla, is a 10-minute drive from El Tajín (011-52/784-842-0121, from $44). Hotel Balneario Tecolutla is a bright-peach hotel on the beach in Tecolutla, which is a half hour from the Gaya Vai-Mex factory. 011-52/766-846-0011, hoteltecolutla.com.mx, from $70.
Romancing the Bean
Today, most people consider chocolate to be the world's most lust-inducing food. But historically, it has been vanilla that excited the libido. The beans were first harvested in what is now the state of Veracruz, Mexico, and when Aztecs conquered the indigenous Totonaca, they taxed them in precious vanilla. After the Spanish invaded, they imported vanilla to Europe, eventually using it as a treatment for impotence. More recently, in the late 1990s, the Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago found that vanilla is one of the most arousing scents to mature men. For such a flirty flavor, vanilla sure plays hard to get. It begins as an orchid, vanilla planifolia--in Mexico, it's called la flor recondita (the hidden flower) because it's so elusive. There's a month-long period in March and early April during which the orchid flowers, but usually only one bud on each stem blooms per day. To produce a bean, a blossom must be fertilized within four hours of flowering, so cultivators hand pollinate the orchids instead of relying on bees. Today, the vanilla orchid is cultivated predominantly in Africa, Asia, and the South Pacific. But I wanted to see the coy flower in its natural habitat, so I went on a culinary tour of Veracruz led by chef Susana Trilling. The region is obsessed with vanilla, and on our journey through the area, so were we. In Tecolutla, we drank Xanath, a vanilla liqueur. In Papantla's town square, we bought souvenirs from artisans selling vanilla beans twisted into scorpions, roses, and even a crucified Jesus. The high point in our vanilla pursuit took place in Gutiérrez Zamora, home to the Gaya Vai-Mex factory since 1873. A number of vanilla plantations offer tours by appointment, but Gaya Vai-Mex is the oldest and the only one run by a woman, a slim 30ish dynamo named Norma Gaya. She employs over 500 farmers--all men. "The first day, I had to drink a lot with the vanilla producers, so they would accept me," Norma said. We toured the 173 acres of orange, cocuite, and pichoco trees that act as hosts for the orchid vines, following Antonio, the foreman, who cleared a path with a machete until he spotted an orchid. As we watched with hushed reverence, Antonio dipped a stick into the pollen at the stamen, then gently brought it up to the stigma. This was a whole new level of food porn--but it was beautiful. The flower would fall off by the next day, and in nine months a bean would be ready to harvest. Back at the Gaya Vai-Mex factory, we saw acres of vanilla beans curing in the sunshine. Sorters separated the biggest pods to sell as beans, the medium-size ones for artisans to craft, and the smallest ones to make vanilla extract. On a wall, a mural showing a Totonaca princess alludes to vanilla's legendary origins. After Princess Morning Star was abducted by her admirer, Young Deer, they were caught and beheaded, and from earth soaked with their blood sprang the first vanilla orchid. The next day, we attended the Cumbre Tajín, the spring equinox celebration held at the ruins of El Tajín, a complex of palaces, ball courts, and pyramids dedicated to the Totonaca gods of thunder. El Tajín was abandoned in the 12th century, but each March the ruins come to life for the festival with a series of sound and light shows. Outside the ruins, a vanilla queen, wearing a crown and necklace made of beans, circulated among visitors watching the voladores (flying dancers) perform an ancient Totonaca fertility ritual. One played a flute and danced atop a 75-foot-tall pole, while four others rappelled down it, spinning from ropes. It's an occasion to celebrate traditional Totonaca culture, but the equinox is also an opportunity to make a fresh start. Visitors wear all white--the better to receive the sun's healing vibrations--and the ruins complex bustles with curanderos, or healers, offering guests a kind of spiritual spring cleaning. On the morning of the equinox, I circled the ruins looking for the right curandero to cleanse me. Bypassing several old women beating their supplicants with herbs, I picked an old man in Totonaca garb--white bloomers and shirt, red kerchief, straw hat. He instructed me to spread out my arms to embrace the blessing, and seemed to skim my aura, moving his hands along my head and upper body without ever actually touching me. Finally, he raised his left hand in front of my forehead and his right toward the pyramid behind us. In a loud, deep voice, he intoned in Spanish, "Lord Tajín, give this woman a brilliant mind, like mine. Good health, like I enjoy. Multitudes of friends, like mine." I stood quietly, receiving his blessing, although the truth is, I didn't want to be like him, but like the plant that had brought me there. As he chanted, I prayed to become as sought-after, as mysterious, as beloved as vanilla.