Archive for November, 2015

Most people outside North Carolina do not realize what a huge area encompasses what we call Down East; flat, flat, flat, and stretching on for miles.  There are a bunch of small towns, a lot of agriculture, and small cities like Rocky Mount, Wilson, Greenville, Goldsboro, and Kinston.   While the Charlotte and Raleigh/Durham areas have grown and prospered over the past twenty years, things Down East have pretty much stayed the same or declined.

I drove an hour and a half east on a Thursday morning, parked the car in the small town of Snow Hill, and pedaled off into the morning.   Snow Hill is a beautiful small town, not ravaged by four lane highways.  I got to Kinston about lunchtime.    It says a lot about North Carolina towns when one is pleasantly surprised to find any kind of life in a downtown area; it is a given that Kinston’s downtown would be essentially abandoned; but in its decay it looked livelier than the downtowns I have seen in Wilson, Rocky Mount, or Goldsboro.     There even were two nice clothing stores that seemed very much in business, a man’s and a woman’s, next door to each other.




They had a nice 1930’s looking courthouse.



Also downtown, Kinston has been on the national news for the past several years, owing to a high end restaurant The Chef and Farmer that has been featured on the PBS show A Chef’s life.    On this trip, I ate for much less at King’s Barbecue, the quintessential Down East meal of chopped barbecue sandwich (it is understood that this is pork, in vinegar sauce, with cole slaw on top), brunswick stew, hush puppies, and sweet tea.    It makes one imagine what it was like a hundred years ago here, where almost everything you ate would have been corn, cornbread, a few vegetables, and pork for seasoning.


Cycling back to the car, I thought about how flat and Southern the land looked, a tamer version of the Mississippi Delta.   V.S. Naipaul wrote of Down East in his book A Turn in the South:

It was a landscape of small ruins. Houses and farmhouses and tobacco barns had simply been abandoned.   The decay of each was individual, and they were all beautiful in the afternoon light.

I agree:










I had never even heard of this region before this trip, except for the notation on wine bottles.   I guess I assumed Rioja meant red wine.    I learned that Rioja on a wine bottle means the wine comes from the Rioja region.     And it is a glorious place.   It is essentially a valley between two mountain ranges, centered on the Ebro river; about two hundred miles north of Madrid and about eighty miles south of the north coastal city of Bilbao.  The area is covered with vineyards and picturesque small towns.   My friend Lyman and I rode around the area for almost a week, making up our route as we went along.   We both had folding bicycles that we had brought with us on the flight to Bilbao airport.  We left the bicycle suitcases at a Bilbao hotel for a week, and bicycles in hand, took the train sixty miles south to Mirando de Ebro, to begin our ride.    The valley scenery is indeed beautiful.











Walking five hundred mile Camino de Santiago has been the thing to do for over a thousand years, and this route cuts across La Rioja.   Those who walk are called peregrinos, or pilgrims.   Stores, hotels, and museums frequently offer discounts.



We stayed and walked around in several distinctive towns, such as Santo Domingo de la Calzada, La Guardia, and San Millan.


Santo Domingo de la Calzada













Staying in the religious destination mountain town of San Millan de la Cogolla, there were fewer restaurants than usual, and Lyman and I had a glass of wine in the one bar open in the town, before going back to eat at our hotel.



Logroῆo was the largest city we visited, other than Bilbao.   It has a population of 153,000.   I had never heard of it before this trip.   I would speculate that most Spaniards would describe this place as a third tier city in Spain, if that.   But typically European, Logroῆo has superior urban fabric and street life to almost every city in America.

Logroῆo not only has a very dense medieval core, outside of the core it has wide streets with fountains and parks.


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Logroῆo is famous for it tapas bars.    Two downtown streets in particular are famous for the tapas scene.   There are supposed to be over fifty tapas bars in a four block area.   Many specialize in particular types of tapas.  Wine is universally about a dollar a glass.   Prices are in Euro, worth about $ 1.15.    Lyman and I sometimes had difficulty in staying up late enough for “dinner” at the typical Spanish hour of eleven at night, but in Logroῆo we ate tapas to our hearts content.

This one place with a white decor had their white wine prices on a blackboard, and freshly fried chunks of codfish, with olives and bread and fried hot peppers thrown in as part of the deal.





Across the narrow street from our pension was this tapas place that specialized in ham.


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Down the street at Calle Laurel, the tapas bars made the street seem as if it was a room.   We were told it was not too crowded, since at this point it was eleven thirty on a chilly Tuesday night.  That is Lyman on the far right.


Meals in other towns and cities we visited were also delicious.   Most restaurants had a complete meal priced at ten to twenty Euro, including two courses, bottle of wine, dessert, tax, and tip.     In this place is in the tiny town of Caῆas, we had a twelve Euro lunch, served by a young waitress who looked like the daughter of the older woman doing the cooking.

First course was either paella or lentil soup.


Second course was porch chops and fries.


Dessert was some kind of cake with fruit and whipped cream.


The first day in Bilbao we had had an inviting fourteen Euro lunch, sitting next to a rambunctious group of mostly women on a Sunday outing, in an old-school interior whose style certainly has a name.   No, I do not otherwise know these people.




On our return to Bilbao, we had a delightful lunch with Lydia Egea, her husband, and another friend.    She is my friend Esther’s cousin, and I had met her and Esther and friend Nieves thirty -four years ago when they were traveling in Italy.   Eating in the old part of Bilbao, we had such great time that we neglected to take any pictures.  After a long lunch, we rushed to the Bilbao airport for our evening flight to London, and then home.


The United States is becoming a tribal culture.    The Big Sort is rapidly underway, where were are all desperately moving to be around only those who think like we do.   My friends, the children of my friends, and even my own children are all moving around the United States and abroad, searching for that perfect place.    I have three very close friends whose daughters have moved, in decisions independent of each other, to Portland, Oregon.    My brother, my nephew, and my good friend’s daughter all live in Brooklyn.    Of course, some of those in Chapel Hill are moving to Durham.  Only the real freaks, the real intellectuals, the real artists, live in Durham.

But I do not know anyone who would move, or wish his child or his mother to move to Cary.   Cary is not inexpensive or downmarket.  Cary considers itself a very upper class place, but aggressively new and suburban.   I know no one who would consider living there, or even go there without a good reason.   We are all such snobs.  It is really not that unpleasant a place.  Sure, it is a disjointed collection of real estate developments.  Walking is difficult, biking even more so.   But if you ride around carefully on a bicycle,  hidden in the vast collection of strip malls is a plethora of interesting places, especially ethnic eateries.  Cary is much more multicultural than Chapel Hill,  and not just because of the thousands of immigrants from India and Asia who live there.   Even if you consider that there are relatively few African-Americans, just the white anglo population I observed there seems more wholly rounded that the trustifarian types you see in Chapel Hill and Carrboro.

I had read someplace about Fortnight Brewing in Cary NC.   Knowing nothing about it,  I had put it on my list of places to bicycle to, as its twenty six miles each way from my home in Chapel Hill seemed to make a good full day ride.   I set out by bicycle on a beautiful Saturday morning.    When I got to the Cary city limits, only then did I realize that about a third of my journey each way was just crossing Cary.   The housing developments with creative names just go on and on.  In central west Cary, one runs into repeated housing developments using the waspy brand name Preston.  If you check Google Maps, it becomes even more apparent:  Preston Village, Preston Plantation, Peninsula at Preston, Prestonwood Country Club, Preston Grande, Preston Falls North,  Preston Falls Villas, Preston Meadows, Preston Greens, Preston Pines, Preston Forest, Preston Glen, Preston Ponds,  Preston Arbors, Preston Lakestone, Courtyards of Preston, Preston Wynds, Preston Highlands,  and Legends at Preston.  I passed the gate to what must be the the original, glorious Preston.



About 1:00 PM,  I arrived exhausted and famished at Fortnight Brewing.   Only on arriving did I learn that it is just a brewery and a bar, with no real food.   Still, it did have an impressive porter, hand pumped in the English style by a young woman with a genuine English accent.   Draining the porter, I headed down the road towards a barbecue place called Brew n Que, in a strip mall on Maynard Road.     While I ate my barbecue sandwich, I watched two dads drinking beer while their three little girls ran around the parking lot.


Satiated, finally, I turned the bike around and headed back to Chapel Hill.  On the way back, on the far western side of the Cary diaspora,  just before getting on the American Tobacco Trail bike path,  I rode through something called Carolina Preserve at Amberly.   There are houses stretching as far as the eye can see, in an area that was cow pastures not five or ten years ago.   I was not familiar with Carolina Preserve, but also, what is Amberly?    Carolina Preserve has an impressive logo.