I'm sharing my travel experiences, candid opinions and what's on my mind. If you think it's inappropriate for a travel writer to stir up discussion on his blog with political observations and insights gained from traveling abroad, you may not want to read any further. — Rick

The Sistine Chapel of the Prehistoric World

In France’s Dordogne region, guides call the Lascaux Caves the Sistine Chapel of the prehistoric world. I thought, “Promotional hyperbole.” But yesterday I climbed into Lascaux II. It’s a painstakingly created, perfect copy of the actual cave, which the public is no longer allowed to visit. After a few minutes, you forget it’s a copy. And I was swept away by its grandeur.

The vast cave looked amazingly like my (very healthy) colonoscopy photograph. Main difference: It was covered with paintings made 17,000 years ago, long before Stonehenge and the pyramids, back when mammoths and saber-toothed cats still roamed the earth. These are not just crude doodles. The painting was a huge and sophisticated project executed by artists supported by an impressive culture — the Magdalenians.

Our guide said, “This was a sacred room. You don’t sleep in a church. They didn’t sleep in their cave. It’s not a random thing, but a careful composition of two herds of bison coming together. They met here, and in symmetry, you see the three main animals: horses, deer and bison. It’s the art of a hunter society, but not of hunters — you don’t see figures of people or the animals they hunted (such as reindeer). The artists must be good, because you cannot change the fresco once you lay it. There are no mistakes evident. There are many, many caves in Southern France and in Northern Spain. And each cave is different…speaking a different language. The symbolism is a different vocabulary. Seventeen thousand years seems very old in our perspective. But remember, humans roamed the earth for 3 million years. Biologically, the Magdalenians were exactly like us. In anthropological time, it was like yesterday.”

It’s strange to find yourself “getting into” Magdalenians. In the museum, filled with original Magdalenian artifacts, I began to feel a connection with these people. Skeletons draped in fine jewelry. Teeth of stag and tiny shells delicately drilled to be strung into necklaces. Barbed spears and fish hooks that would work well today. Finely carved weapons used to sling spears.

Looking at the oil lamps, I could imagine the wonder of wandering under flickering flames that lit the Sistine Chapel of the prehistoric world.

Well Fed-Ex Geese

With elbows resting on a rustic windowsill on a farm in France’s Dordogne, I lost track of time watching Denis grab an endless line of geese one at a time in a kind of peaceful, mesmerizing trance, filling them with corn. Like his father and his father and his father, Denis spends five hours a day, every day, all year long sitting in a barn on a rolling stool with a machine that looks like a giant vacuum cleaner filled with corn, surrounded by geese.

He rhythmically grabs a goose by the neck, pulls him under his leg and stretches him up, sliding the tube down to the belly and fills it with corn. He pulls the trigger to squirt the corn, slowly slides the tube up the neck and out, holds the beak shut for a few seconds, lets that goose go and grabs the next.

When I told friends we planned to film geese being force-fed — the traditional way they fatten the livers to make foie gras, the prized delicacy in France’s Dordogne region — many expressed disgust and even thought I was wrong to show it on TV. There are actually people who want to boycott French foie gras for what they consider inhumane treatment of the geese. That’s why I was on Denis’ goose farm…to learn more about le gavage (as the force-feeding process is called).

Elevage du Bouyssou, a big, homey goose farm a short drive from Sarlat, is run by a Denis and Nathalie Mazet. The geese are filled with corn three times a day for the last month of their lives. They have expandable livers and no gag reflex, so the corn stays there, gradually settling as it’s digested, making room for the next visit from Denis and his corn gun.

Watching Denis work, I wondered what a life like that would be…actually knowing an endless cycle of all those geese. Did geese populate his dreams? How did it affect his relations with his wife?

While Denis squirts corn, Nathalie meets tourists — mostly French families — who show up each evening at six to see how their beloved foie gras is made. The groups stroll the idyllic farm as Nathalie explains how they raise a thousand geese a year. She stresses that the key to top-quality foie gras is happy geese raised on quality food in an unstressed environment. They need quality corn and the same feeder.

I join the group as we un-force-feed the baby geese. We stroll into the grassy back lot where the older geese run free — backlit by the low, early-evening sun, they look like a Muesli commercial (perfectly fulfilling my goose dream for the TV show).

Two geese are humping. I can’t help but notice the boy yanking feathers off the back of the girl’s head as he (I suppose) enjoys his orgasm. Nathalie said she can tell which girls are getting any action by the bald spots on the backs of their heads. There’s plenty of action, as about half the birds in the yard sported the souvenir — that fowl equivalent of wife-beating — that comes with a roll in the hay.

The Mazets sell everything but the head and feet. The down feathers only net about 30 cents a goose. The serious money is in the livers. A normal liver weighs a quarter-pound. When done with the force-feeding process, the liver weighs about two pounds. (With a thousand geese, they produce a ton of foie gras annually. Nathalie said, “Barely enough to support one family.”)

These geese actually have a special shape — like they’re waddling around with a full diaper under their feathers. Just the sight of this shape — which is a sales icon in shops throughout the Dordogne — is enough to make visiting English travelers (who come here in droves for the foie gras) salivate.

Why the Dordogne? It’s on the geese migratory path. Ages ago, locals here caught geese on their migration, livers enlarged for the long journey (like traveling with a topped-off gas tank). As French are inclined to do, they ate the innards, found them extra-tasty and decided to produce their own. Those first French foie gras farmers didn’t know it, but the technique of keeping geese and enlarging the livers for human consumption goes back to ancient Egyptian times.

Nathalie, like other French enthusiasts of le gavage, says that while their animals are calm, in no pain and are designed to take in food this manner, American farm animals are typically kept in little boxes and fed chemicals and hormones to get fat. Most battery chickens in the US live less than two months and are plumped with hormones. Her geese are free-range and live six months.

Dordogne geese live lives at least as comfy as other farm animals (that people so upset with the foie gras process have no problem eating) and are slaughtered as humanely as any non-human can expect in this food-chain existence.

Some people raise geese as a hobby. On a different farm I met Cyril, a retired Parisian realtor. His dream: To live his golden years in the Dordogne region with a little barn full of geese to force-feed. He claims to “speak goose” and will feed his geese any time…just drop by, so I added him to our guidebook.

After a few days in the Dordogne, where farmers in the markets are evangelical about their foie gras and constantly passing out little goose-liver sandwiches — and where every meal seems to start with a foie-gras course — I always leave with strong need for foie gras detox.

Andorra: I Go There So You Won’t Have To

I like standing high on a ridge looking into a rugged mountain-ringed basin, where nature cradles an ancient tribe. Located in the former Yugoslavia, it’s looking down on the royal city of Cetinje, the historic capital of Montenegro — Europe’s newest country (independent for about one year)…a land where you expect to see short men with long beards. It’s so humble that when the Turks came in to rape, pillage and plunder, they decided it just wasn’t worth the trouble, rolled up their carpets and went home. (I’ll be there later in this blog.)

A few days ago, my TV crew and I drove and drove to finally stand high in the Pyrenees Mountains, which separate France and Spain. Before us lay the principality of Andorra.

Europe’s midget countries have an undeniable curiosity factor. In Europe’s tiny derby, the Vatican is the big little winner. Then comes Monaco…San Marino…Liechtenstein…Malta (which, while an island in the Mediterranean, is considered part of Europe) and finally — measuring in at about 13 miles by 13 miles, with 80,000 people — Andorra. (We’re now four-fifths finished with a TV show featuring these little guys. Only Liechtenstein — also later in this blog — remains.) All of these countries would fit easily into Europe’s next smallest country…the relatively vast Luxembourg.

Andorra has a long history. In their national anthem, Andorrans sing of Charlemagne rescuing their land from the Moors in 803. In the 13th century, Spanish and French nobles married. They agreed that the principality would be neither Spanish nor French. This unique feudal arrangement survives today. And, while they have co-princes from other countries (the president of France and a Spanish bishop), locals stress that Andorra is 100 percent independent.

Until little more than a generation ago, Andorra was an impoverished and isolated backwater. Puny 12th-century churches and their stony bell towers stand as strong as the Pyrenees around them.

Recently, Andorrans have become wealthy — thanks to the same mountains that kept them so isolated and poor for so long. Hiking and skiing are big business, stoking a building boom. Huge Vail-like ski-condos, built of perfectly crafted rustic stone, both contrast and match the historic stone buildings they now dwarf and outnumber.

And Andorra employs those special economic weapons so popular among Europe’s little states: easygoing banking, duty-free shopping and low, low taxes. The principality has morphed from a rough-and-tumble smugglers’ haven to a high-tech, high-altitude shoppers’ haven — famous for its bargain-basement prices. More than 10 million visitors — mostly Spaniards and French, enduring famous traffic jams — pour in yearly to buy luxury goods, electronics and other goodies while avoiding their high taxes back home.

The country’s capital and dominant city is Andorra la Vella. On my first visit here back in the 1970s, I remember it felt like a big Spanish-speaking Radio Shack. Today, it retains the charm of a giant shopping mall. I didn’t tell the tourist board, who kindly helped us film, but if people ask, “Why Andorra?” I have to answer, “I go there so you won’t have to.”

UNESCO World Heritage Sites That Don’t Impress Me Much

On an earlier entry I said “don’t trust UNESCO” for choosing what to visit. Someone pointed out that their list is not for tourists, but to recognize places that are cultural treasures that deserve special care. Yes…I was just tired of people promoting their places with me based on this list.

Someone else asked which UNESCO World Heritage sites I thought were overrated. I couldn’t remember. I went to their website, reviewed the list, and found these, which I feel are not worthy of special praise. They are all important cultural treasures and fine sights…just not particularly better in my estimate than other competing sights for a sightseer’s priorities.

Americans have the shortest vacations in the rich world, and my responsibility as a travel writer is not to just rave about everything, but to help overwhelmed travelers sort through the superlatives and smartly allocate their precious and limited vacation time. When someone from the tourist board in one of these places brags, “We are on the UNESCO list,” I sing, “That don’t impress me much”:

Historic center of Telc, Czech Republic (fine, well-preserved ring of buildings, but thin)

Jewish Quarter in Trebíc, Czech Republic (poorly presented compared to other historic Jewish quarters)

Grande île, Strasbourg, France (Colmar beats anything Strasbourg has to offer)

Tokaj Wine Region, Hungary (why?)

San Gimignano, Italy (like Obidos in Portugal, a fine and touristic shell — great towers, after that…expensive ice cream and no parking)

Vicenza, Italy (yes, nice city, but only if you’re into Palladio)

Botanic Garden in Padua (wonderful historic garden…but not likely to connect with travelers)

Villa d’Este, Tivoli, outside of Rome (fine old park, but run-down and doesn’t make the cut for a best week in Rome)

Etruscan Necropolis, Cerveteri, Italy (impressive Etruscan tombs but not worth a journey)

Alto Douro Wine Region in Portugal (no better than wine regions in Germany and France)

Old Town of Ývila, Spain (thunderous walls, but the town itself is not unique)

Old Town of Segovia, Spain (not unique…Salamanca is better, with more life)

Ramparts of Bellinzone in Switzerland (I love ramparts, but they’re a dime a dozen)

Giant’s Causeway in North Ireland (impressive geology, but I don’t believe in giants)

Derwent Valley Mills in England (why?)

Having stuck my neck out to say all this, I must add that it is fun to reassess opinions I once held and change them. First impressions can be too powerful. On many occasions I am saddled with a first impression from a generation ago…and with an opportunity to reconsider…I realize I missed a place’s charm at first glance. Still, overall…there are too many superlatives in the travel-writing business.

Barcelona and Spain’s Quebec

In Barcelona, a local told me, “Catalan is Spain’s Quebec.” Traveling here, you see how the people of Catalan have an affinity for other “stateless nations.” Locals don’t like to call their corner of Iberia a “region” of Spain…that’s what Franco called it.

They stress that they are a “nation without a state.” And they have a kinship for other people who didn’t get their independence when they drew the national boundaries. They live in solidarity with other stateless nations — finding Basque or Galician bars a little more appealing than the run-of-the-mill Spanish ones.

Even ATM machines are in solidarity, offering the correct choice of languages: Along with Angles, Frances, Castilla (Spanish), you’ll always find Gallic, Euskara, Catalan. Even though there’s likely not a person a year who would speak only Gallec (from Galicia, in northwest Spain) or Euskera (from Basque country), they give them the linguistic respect they would hope for in a foreign land.

Like many of Europe’s minor languages, Catalan is actually blossoming. It’s the language of the local schools, and these days, children here speak Catalan first…Spanish second.

A recent affluence has elevated the city. There’s barely a hint of danger in Barcelona’s once-frightening Gothic Quarter. I remember the city’s main boulevard, the Ramblas, when it was rich at the top and very rough at the port. Lurid prostitutes would line the street where it finally hit the harbor. Today, it’s rich at the top and rich at the port. And the only thing left of the prostitutes are holes ground by anxious high heels into the stone threshholds of brothel doorways that once faced the boulevard.

The toughest thing surviving on the Ramblas are the roving gangs of thugs who run the high-energy, extremely twitchy shell games. With spotters uphill and downhill and a full team of shills, nervous men scoot their dodgy peas. It’s amazing there are enough fools on the street to keep them in business.

My highlight with this Barcelona visit was less exciting — Pimiento de Padrón (or in Catalan, Pebrots de Padró)…lightly fried peppers salted and served piping hot. They’re a kind of Russian roulette for the taste buds as the eager eater knows that every once in a while, you’ll hit a super-spicy pepper.