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MALTA

What a disaster Barcelona airport is. The building itself is quite modern looking but the planning is a mess. Our flight left from terminal 1 but the train goes to terminal 2. So you have to get a shuttle bus. This involves a 300 metre walk to the bus stop. There is no queueing system so it was a rumble to get onto the bus. Terminal1 is miles away so it was over 10 minutes along freeways, past the railway line to the terminal. How logical would it be to have the train stop there as well? We then queued at Vueling’s counter to check in luggage for another 30 minutes even though we had boarding passes. Then it was another 15 at security, because they had so few staff on the guy that checked the X rays also had to check the bags if there was a problem.  They made some lady go through 3 times and I went through twice and then the bastard took my precious penguin shaped bottle opener I bought in Biarritz.  Not sure how you can hijack a plane with a bottle opener. Then it was a great long walk to the gate, leaving us with about 10  minutes to have a coffee. So if anyone is going there and flying from terminal 1, allow at least another hour! Anyway the flight was fine, with views over North Africa and then all the islands of Malta. Such a tiny place, that would easily fit within Sydney a few times.  Caught the x2 bus from the airport to Sliema which took ages as the bus weaved it’s way all over the island. Luckily the helpful driver gave us directions to the road we wanted. Our apartment was really cute and large in a quiet street. It has an amazing security system which makes you worry what it is defending  you from, and the door to the street needs a good shoulder charge to open. It also has a bizarre Internet TV set up that allows you to watch,  well, not much; we ended up watching youtube videos most of the time and the fan only works with the lights on!

Wandered along the waterfront of Sliema, had an almost Bondi 1980s feel to it. All along the promenade blokes tried to sell us island cruises, which seems to be all most people do on their holidays here. Of course the other thing we did was get some pastizzis, which were much tastier than the frozen ones from Woolworths and are all vegetarian too. Did some shopping in a very expensive supermarket that mostly stocked English stuff. For dinner I cooked ravioli.

Caught the ferry across to Valletta after pastizzis and coffee for breakfast. Looked at the old theatre, one of the oldest in Europe, and then the Grand Masters palace, which was mostly closed. The head of the Knights of St John lived here. The Co cathedral was a highlight of the day. Every part of the interior was richly decorated with carvings and gold, and the floor is covered with inlaid coloured marble tombstones. The tombstones feature images of skulls,  knights in armour and angels and are very striking. Each chapel around the church belonged to a langue, the various houses of the order of St John based on their nationality. Each one tried to outdo the other, and each grand master tried to impress with impressive gifts to the cathedral. A really fascinating place to visit and maybe my favourite church so far. Headed down to St Elmos fort next, which you can’t go into, then hopped on the local bus and did a circuit of the old city. Valletta, and in fact Malta, is all built of the same golden limestone, and everything just glows, especially as the sun began to set. In fact sometimes it’s hard to tell what is a village and what is a mountain, they so blend in. Walked along the “3 cities” side of Valletta, stopping to look at the harbour views and the WW2 memorial, and the gardens, then down past the massive city walls. Some of these walls must be at least 10 metres thick! Caught a ferry back, and went to a bar that had 2 for 1 cocktails. To our surprise, or perhaps delight, it meant 2 cocktails each! After that and a plate of humus, we didn’t want  much else, so we just had crepes and went home. The following day we had a busy morning in our room organizing stuff, before catching a bus up to Bugibba, a popular resort area which was dead boring and I can’t imagine why people would have their holidays there. For dinner we went over to St Julian bay which was quite pleasant.

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Next morning it was off to Mdina,  the old capital of Malta. The old city was very interesting, full of old knights palaces and old churches and great views over the island. It had a really nice atmosphere and we also had a nice lunch with views out to sea. We also enjoyed the Roman House  museum. This was a Roman domus,  the house of a very important noble, and some mosaics and painted walls have survived, along with 2 full sized statues of Claudius and his daughter. All was well presented and we also learnt how the British destroyed half the house by putting a road through the middle of it, all the stupider as it was already well known to archaeologists at the time.  Caught the long bus back to see where it went, then had dinner at home.

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Our last day we went on a tour of the prehistoric temples. Malta has the oldest structures in the world and we visited 2 of them, as well as a cave where they have found millions of fossil bones of animals long gone from the region. The first was Tarxien, a smaller temple consisting of six rooms and dating around 3600 bc.  Next we went to an amazing long cave , Ghar Dalam, where they have found millions of animal bones and fossils. Animals include elephants, hippos, deer, lions and foxes. An interesting feature of the Cave is the way you can see the layers of pebbles, bones and evidence of human culture built up over time. The final site was on the coast, the spectacular Hagar Qim and Mnajra temples, over 5000 years old. These are much bigger than Tarxien and feature carvings, massive monoliths, and are believed to align with various astronomical events. They looked all the more impressive situated on a hill above the coast, surrounded by the rocky, dessicated coastal heathland. You just wonder how on earth they moved these stones and why, and what on earth they were doing there in the first place (though they do say Malta was once all forest). The museum too was also very well done, emphasising how little is know  about this civilization and how archaeologists conjecture about what it was all about. Caught the bus back to Sliema and had Indian for dinner.

Next  morning we said goodbye to our Sliema apartment and moved on to Marsalforn on the island of Gozo. This involved a four hour trip to cover about 25km by bus, ferry and then 2 more buses. The ferry trip was nice, even  though it was the shortest part of the trip, passing Comino island on the way to Gozo. I also observed that you never see seagulls on the Islands, maybe they have all been shot along with every other bird silly enough to fly past Malta. The Gozo bus inspector kept us amused on the way, checking everyone’s tickets even though he stood next to the driver watching everyone buy them in the first place. Anyway, checked in at the Lantern guest house into  our own little  studio apartment, which we were glad for as their other rooms are on a busy road. Had a bit of a wander along the waterfront and later had dinner at Pebbles restaurant. The following day was a beach day, caught the bus to Ramla beach, one of the only beaches on Malta with real sand, and rented an umbrella and beach beds. The water was very nice and although it was cloudy at first, it turned into a beautiful sunny afternoon lazing about and playing with all the rocks that dotted the sand. Caught the bus back and after some internet time had a soggy pizza at another of the generic restaurants on the waterfront. Next day it was again bus number 322, this time to the Ggantija temple. This is claimed to be the oldest man made structure in the world at 5600 years old. It was also part of the Grand Tour, but despite its fame as a temple built by “giants” it was vandalised and pillaged until little was left standing. Restoration work has returned it to its impressive size and it also has an interesting museum with some incredible carvings found here and at the nearby Xaghra site which can no longer be visited. Well worth a visit on your next grand tour. We then caught a bus to the capital of Gozo, Victoria,  a pretty little town with an imposing citadel above, some grand buildings and narrow winding streets with colourful balconies. It also has the most pastizzi shops so far. The citadel was a bit disappointing with lots of restoration building work going on but the old town was nice. Back on the usual crowded  bus to Marsalforn.Had dinner again at Pebbles.

Next day had an at home day and went for a swim at a crappy bay north of town. I couldn’t stay in the water long because the fish kept biting me where I had dry skin like in the Asian fish spas. On the beach it wasn’t much better with flies, pebbles and dry sea grass to contend with. When we got back we heard that one of our pet bunnies had died, which was very upsetting. Shanti was quite a character and it is heartbreaking knowing that I won’t see her again, and that the kids are so upset and we aren’t there. Went to drown our sorrows. But watching Tottenham have a nil all draw certainly didn’t cheer me up. Nor the awful attempt at cocktails. Luckily the bar redeemed themselves with an excellent pasta.

Back to Sliema today, timed our transport well and it only took 3 hours this time. Checked into the Sliema Hotel which looked ok on the outside, and on the booking site, but turned out to be an absolute dump. We discovered later in the evening that a cleaner had tipped a bucket of water everywhere and the weird smell was from this and not my socks as we first thought. Anyway took a few buses to the old town of Vittosiosa where the Knights first lived in Malta. Very interesting and quiet place, surprisingly empty of tourists. Saw the old hostels where the Knights lived and many fortifications including one fort that has been used in many movies including Gladiator. Had drinks on our balcony overlooking the harbour on our return, then had another nice pasta for dinner. Next morning we had a pathetic breakfast over the road but had a another spinach and olive pie at the airport. Our flight was very good and left on time and it was goodbye to the Maltese islands.

CATALONIA

Time to move on, but I must say Zaragoza was well worth a visit and more tourists should go there. Caught the train and we were in Barcelona in no time. Changed at Sants station for Sitges on the R2 line. It was free because of our ticket from Zaragoza. Our hotel in Sitges, about 30 km south of they city, was very relaxed and gay and we had sea views with a balcony,  which we didn’t expect. Spent the next three days eating lovely buffet brekkies at our hotel, lying on the reasonable beach, or wandering into town for cocktails. Ate Indian first night, got poisoned with meat in what was supposed to be mushroom ravioli the second night and great veggie burgers the third night. Enjoyed walking through the main square, which we renamed “stare square”. Chubby bald middle aged gay guys sat opposite each other in various cafes, watching and being seen. Main street was packed every evening, especially Saturday when crowds come down from Barca for the day. The historic town was small but interesting too, with its sea front church all lit up each evening. A cute and relaxing town for a break from sightseeing.

A final breakfast and a last of Hotel Los Globos’ s delicious creme caramels before getting the fast train to Barcelona. Found our apartment relatively easily, in a laneway near Glories plaza, a large square topped by a giant tampon shaped building. Our apartment was very good but with very low windows, so you had to bend down to look out. The surrounding area seemed dead. Luckily the guy that checked us in told us of the nearby Poblenau area of bars and restaurants because we would never have found it. Anyway, found a nice Lebanese restaurant for lunch, then walked along the beachfront which was very busy but not very attractive as beaches go. Caught the tram back to our apartment. Later had very nice beer and tapas at the Cantino bar, where they had 3 attempts at bringing me the dish I ordered, but it was worth it in the end.

Next day we started at Catalunya plaza and headed down the famous pedestrian street, the Ramblas. It was so crowded, easily the most tourists we have seen anywhere on our travels so far. Turned off to escape the crowds near the market, discovered a barbers so I zipped in for a cheap and quick haircut by a Chinese guy that did almost the whole haircut one handed. It was also a little Indian area so found Indian sweets and snacks too. The market had lots of nice food but was also very crowded. The cathedral was next and we really enjoyed this unusual church. The cloister is inhabited by white geese, that symbolise the age and virginity of the patron saint of Barcelona, St Eulalia,  a 13 year old girl who was tortured by the Romans in many unpleasant ways. The cloister garden was also very tropical. Inside were an assortment of colourful chapels and you can also go up on the roof for some interesting views over the city. Stopped off at the Bar Thuron for beer cocktails, which gave us the energy to keep going via some overrated Gaudi buildings to the waterfront. Columbus watched over us from atop his memorial as we went on to the Barceloneta district, a boring few blocks of apartments with lots of tourist restaurants. Had a nice pizza from a place in a side street and ate it at the beach, watching the remarkably energetic residents jogging, rollerblading, skateboarding and scootering along the beach front. It made me wish they would all just stop for a minute.

Took the metro the next  morning up to Montjuic via the funicular (included in your metro ticket). Then onto the cable car which was fun and had great views in all directions. Merrill was very brave as she usually avoids these. At the very top is a 17th century fort, which we circuited looking out at the city and coast from all angles. A sad part of the walls is a field where Franco had thousands of Republicans executed. Back down the hill on the cable car, then we wandered across to the 1992 Olympic stadium, which was more impressive than I was expecting. The outer facade was from the 1936 stadium built to host an alternate games to Berlin, but it never happened as the Civil War broke out the day before. On the way down from there we saw lots of Lithuanians on their way to the basketball world cup game in the indoor stadium. The most Lithuanian’s I have ever seen. Next was the impressive pavilions from the 1929 exposition, with its impressive fountains that go all the way down to the Plaza Espana.  Had afternoon tea in the old Barcelona bullring, now a shopping mall, as all bullrings should become. Mind you, still barely a vegetarian option in the food court! Still can’t believe Spain persists with this barbaric, medieval murder as entertainment.

Took the metro to see Gaudi’ s Sacred family Cathedral and yes I have to say it, I think it was the most overrated attraction I have seen. It’s an ugly eyesore and the Barcelona city councils over the years could have saved heaps of money if they had just knocked the monstrosity down and built some schools instead. It’s just a giant gimmick that Gaudi just made up as he went along and pales in comparison with just about everything we saw in Spain. In fact we saw more architecturally interesting train stations. So there.

Of far more interest was the statue of Casanova, Catalan’s hero. Ihht was only two days before Catalonia commemorated 300 years of Spanish rule, a massive day in their history and hopefully a chance for Independence at last. We toasted the brave men of 1714 at a nice bar, where Merrill finally had her favourite liqueur, 43, which she had been hoping to have all through Spain. Then looked at the Barcelona version of the Arc de Triumph before finishing the night with reasonable Indian in Poblenau. Interesting as Barcelona has been, it was probably the least enjoyable of the Spanish cities we visited, something I wasn’t expecting, and 2 days was probably enough. Not sure why exactly, but it just didn’t feel right, maybe it was just the massive crowds of tourists?

 

EXTREMADURA

This isn’t a brand of tyre but the name of the region between Portugal and Madrid. Our first stop here was Caceres, which we reached after an hour bus trip from Seville. The buses have been really nice but one of the great mysteries of Spain has been accessing them. The bus stations are well operated and efficient but always situated on the outskirts of town. This in itself isn’t a problem, except that just about everywhere we have caught buses, there is no direct public transport to the bus station from city centres or the train station. Seville, for example, has a great local bus network but not a single bus that goes directly to the bus station from the city centre! Perhaps it is a deal with the taxi companies. It has happened just about everywhere and in Portugal too. Anyway once in Caceres there was no such bus again so we caught a taxi to our hotel,  the Iberia Plaza America which was  very nice. We have done very well so far and have found booking.com to be surprisingly good, especially as our tablet seems to hate Agoda’s website.  We wandered through a pretty park to the old town, a Unesco site, which is a very intact medieval town of very large stone villas, towers and churches. An unusual feature is it’s arches. The town was dead as anything but when we went out later it came to life with hundreds of people flocking into the Plaza Mayor. Part of the reason was a festival of urban culture, with rappers, roller blades,  a graffiti wall and break dancers. The streets around the square were full of interesting shops packed with people, unbelievable after it was like a ghost town a few hours earlier. After a few beers and a falafel we headed back to our hotel after watching all the antics in the square, on the way passing numerous joggers heading towards a big late night fun run.

Next morning we walked to the bus station for a bus to Trujillo. Yesterday we tried to buy a ticket and the guy wouldn’t sell us tickets to Trujillo. Today he still wouldn’t until 15 minutes before departure, possibly because only Madrid buses go there. Anyway I loitered around his booth until he relented and sold us two. It was only about 40 minutes to Trujillo, a small town but with a lot of history. But my primary reason for going there was to see one of my favourite bands, Spanish folk metal group Mago de Oz. Virtually unknown in Australia (I feel like their only fan in the country) I have followed them for ages but have never expected to see them live. Luckily however this special concert in Trujillo’s castle was only announced a couple of weeks ago so I just had to get there, even  if it involved reshuffling our itinerary. Eventually found our hotel, the Julio, which was really cute and in an old casa. The family also run a local bar and hostel up the road. Had a wander around the old town, home of many famous Spanish noblemen including Pizarro, “conqueror” of the Incas, whose house and statue stands in the square. It is also the home of the head of Cortes’s army, so this little town basically destroyed early South American civilization! In the evening had tapas, including a tasty selection of local cheeses (Trujillo being the cheese capital of Spain) and beer before climbing the hill for the concert. When we first arrived there weren’t many people but they soon filled the castle courtyard. First band had reasonable songs but a terrible singer. The next band, Celtas Cortos were brilliant. Hadn’t heard of them before but their blend of punk, Celtic folk, ska and rock got everyone fired up. The lead singer was a real character and had the crowd laughing and sometimes applauding his political rants too. Well, that’s what it sounded like to us non Spanish speakers (in fact probably the only non Spanish people in the crowd). Facilities were interesting. The bar sold 1 litre beers for 5 euros, and the toilets were basically a tarpaulin around a courtyard that you peed against, while the girls squatted at the other end. (Merrill opted to hold on!) Finally Mago appeared after a very long wait, at about 1.15am!  And of course they were brilliant and sensational and did all my favourite songs. The crowd really went off and I felt left out not being able to sing in Spanish! But the music and setting made a great gig. Afterwards we walked home around 3.30am accompanied by local drunks. There was even a late night kebab shop on the way!

Next day we had a lazy morning. Had a late brekky and a bit of a walk before discovering the best supermarket so far in Spain in such a small town. Bought stuff  for a picnic dinner. Merrill went back to the room and I went to the Julio bar to watch Tottenham lose. At least the beer was superbly cold, in fact it had bits of ice in it. They certainly win the award for best draught beer of the trip so far. And of course it came with the obligatory olives, which taste different every time and to which I am becoming addicted. Later we went off to look at more of Trujillo’s historical sites.

Started at the cathedral, site of several weddings during our stay and more famous for its visitors than the hutch itself. Went up the hill to the old fortified town, which has the ancestral homes of the many feuding families that dominated the region in the 16th century. These were more like mini castles than houses. Visited San Martin church, where of course we had to climb the tower as we have done in every Spanish town so far. The view here was very impressive. From the tower you could see the lovely courtyard gardens of the houses in the fort, many of which are still residences. Then revisited the castle itself which was closed, and still full of the rubbish from the concert the night before. Had our picnic of cheese, salad, asparagus, avocado and a Caceres red wine up top and watched the sunset over the town and dusty valley below. A beautiful evening for a picnic at the castle.

Crazy things were happening at Trujillo bus station the next morning as we waited for our bus to Madrid. First, an arriving bus caught overhead wires but luckily they weren’t live, and then a lady got stuck in the luggage bay of a bus when the doors closed on her legs. Our bus wasn’t eventful as we passed through the usual browness that surrounds Madrid. In Madrid we caught the metro from the bus station to Atocha train station, and Merrill finally cracked the secret of the automatic ticket machine (taking credit cards) and got us onto the AVE to Zaragoza. Luckily, because the queue for buying tickets was 50 long! This was a quick trip but unfortunately also our most expensive for some reason. Nice scenery though, we actually saw greenery!  At Zaragoza flashy airport style station we got our Barcelona tickets and the (as usual) attractive tourist info woman was very helpful in getting us on the right bus to our hotel. This was the Paris Centro, an eccentric old building with chandeliers and antiques in a seedy street. Our room was great and we had a shaded roof terrace on our floor. Wandered into town after beer and patatas  for a bit of a look around, walked along the river and marvelled at how many towers there were in this town. Had dinner at Cibeles restaurant but I just had chocolate crepes as I was sick of the same old Spanish options and also wanted something that wasn’t smothered in salt or mayonnaise.

Mañana we had a good buffet breakfast then bought a Zaragoza tourist card which was a good deal, including entry fees, transport and even wine and tapas for 18 euros. Started at the basilica which was ordinary inside but had a tower with an elevator with great views,  though it’s large windows, windy weather and open space scared Merrill. From there we went to the excellent Roman forum museum, with the ruins of a forum and porticoed market exposed several levels below the present town. Then it was on to the remarkable Roman theatre, only discovered in 1972 and similar in construction to Side in Turkey. Both sites were part of Caesar Augusta once a rich roman town in Hispania around the time of Tiberius. Then had lunch at a fancy sandwich place before getting our free drinks and tapas at a department store Cafe. Caught a tram and bus to the Aragon castle which had some nice Muslim remnants and throne room but was otherwise pretty dull, and spoiled by stupid lighting, railings and way too many security guards as it shares the site with the Aragon regional government. Was getting hot by this stage so back to our room for a while. After a rest we went to the cathedral, an ugly building on the outside but inside it was richly decorated with sculptures, artworks, marble and treasures, as well as some very odd and dark chapels. Both the basilica and cathedral didn’t allow photos because of their super holy status. The Virgin of the Pillar at the basilica even made a blokes leg grow back, so hopefully she can do something about my knees, shoulder, skin problems and beer gut! Same restaurant again for dinner and a cocktail, then home.

ANDALUSIA

Started off our first day with empanadas and coffee in the plaza. The Alhambra is the must see thing here but we couldn’t get tickets until Sunday because the online website wouldn’t work, nor could we get through on the phone. So we had to book through a tour company for a lot more Euros just because ticketmaster can’t get their act together. So it’s the Alhambra tomorrow. So we had a bit of a wander around town, looking at the cathedral and the Royal Chapel, which holds the tombs of Isabella and Felipe, the first Catholic rulers after the Islamic period and the ones that destroyed hundreds of years of Jewish and Islamic tradition in Spain. So it was very tempting to spit on their graves. Had a nice lunch with unusually grumpy waiters before some roof terrace time admiring view. Tried one of the Moroccan style tea houses for dinner but despite it being all veg was pretty ordinary but cheap.

Next day it was the Alhambra. Joined up with the tour group and started in the Generalife,  a later palace. The guide was interesting and also had an interest in the plants of the gardens too. From there it was to the Nasrid palaces, the most famous part. They were very pretty but surprisingly in poor condition, a result of hundreds of years of neglect by the family that owned it. Interesting and attractive as it was we had seen more impressive stuff in India. The guide had lots of interesting stories about the complex to bring it to life. I know people poopoo guided tours, we often do, but sometimes a knowledgeable guide can make a difference. After the tour we continued up to the Alcazar, the oldest part of the Alhambra, and the most castle like with huge walls and a tower that had superb views of Granada. I think I liked this bit the best. I do think it’s all a bit overrated, and really it’s the hilltop location that gives it a bit of magic. We certainly found the Alcazar in Seville much more interesting and just as beautiful. The walk down the hill from the Alhambra was lovely through real forest. Later we sat in St Nicholas square and watched the sunset on the Alhambra, then a delicious dinner at Marias restaurant. She was a lovable lady and a good cook too.

Next day it was off to Seville on the train. Managed to find the right bus, number 32, to our hotel, the Dom Paco near Ponce de Leon plaza. Hotel really nice and it had a pool, which was a good choice as it hovered near 40 degrees for our whole time in Seville. Had a nice lunch in the main street, finally had a spanish omelet after almost 5 weeks in Spain! Spent the rest of the afternoon by the pool, laughing at a group of young Americans that sounded like they had escaped form an American college movie. Next  morning we were up early for the Alcazar. This was a Moorish palace that was of course taken over by the Christian kings but thankfully they left a lot of the original. Some beautiful courtyards and tiled and decorated rooms  so much nicer and in much better condition than the Alhambra. And hardly any people there too. The upper part is the later Christian palace and this was very ornate too and all surrounded by high walls and beautiful gardens. Next door is the cathedral and this is bloody enormous, you could easily fit a footy field inside. Not greatly decorated but the highlight is Columbus’ s tomb, a weird thing with four men on top in odd poses. In the grounds is an orange tree garden (very popular in Seville of course) and the Giralda,  a massive tower that was a minaret before the Christians turned it into a bell tower. It is so big that you can ride a horse up it, as it has ramps instead of stairs.The views from the top are stunning. To recover from the climb and the damage to my knees of 34 ramps, we had beer and tapas. The bars have this great invention of water sprays that come out of the awning, perfect for cooling down. Back for a swim in our pool before going on a local tapas crawl in this nice little bar street up the road. Started with capirinhas (my favourite cocktail), tempura vegies and babaganoush at a trendy little place, then a beer in a 350 year old bar, and then more beer and tapas in a 70s style place. Nice eggplant with cheese and patatas bravas. Still around 30 degrees when we got back after midnight. We have really got into the swing of eating really late!

Today we are off to Cordoba, which has been both an Arab and Catholic capital and home of the Spanish Inquisition.  Caught the super fast train which covers over 100 km in about 40 minutes, the same time it takes me to get to work. Started at the Alcazar, originally Roman, then Arab, then the home of the Inquisition. Not much inside but great views from the tower and of course some nice gardens. Then it was the superb Mezquite, which was once one of the biggest mosques in the world and has hundreds of striped arches. The Christians loved the building so much they placed a basilica in the middle of it, but thankfully kept the courtyard and the golden mihrab.

After some time admiring the building we moved on to lunch in the Juderia, the Jewish quarter, which was at its peak of influence and creativity in Cordoba. It was the home to many great philosophers,  writers and artists back when Jews and Arabs got along like brothers.  Ater lunch we visited the Sephardi (spanish jews) museum which was very well done and highlighted the contribution of writers such as Maimonides as well as the role of women in Jewish and Muslim society. Wandered back to the main square and as it was 42 degrees had to have ice cream. Nice little town, with lots of fountains and even a Roman temple in the middle of the shopping district. Back in Seville we had an overpriced Italian dinner (just like in Sydney).

Next day was a designated bludge day, so went to the pool and caught up on travel business before venturing out in the late arvo heat to visit the Plaza De Espana, a huge decorated monument built for the 1929 exposition, and featuring tiled scenes from all the districts of Spain. From there we walked through the gardens to the river, along the river bank and then had dinner at a Mexican place opposite the Archives of the Indies, the repository of records of Spanish colonization, which was sort of appropriate. Have really loved Seville, it’s very down to earth and relaxed, and so I am now going to support their football team. Not that I’ve really had a Spanish team, but I just can’t follow Barcelona any more because they are boring and have signed Luis Suarez.

 

FROM THE ALGARVE TO THE ALHAMBRA

Sadly we had to bid farewell to Lisbon and our beloved Capri  Cafe and depart for Faro in the  southern region of the Algarve.  Highlight of the train trip was crossing the Tagus river on the amazingly high bridge. In Faro we checked in at the eccentric Residencial Dandy, accompanied by the domestic disputes of the owners. The hotel is a rabbit warren of narrow corridors and stairs and oddly decorated sitting rooms. We had a small room with access to a nice rooftop courtyard. Had a wander around town, watched the sunset over the marina and tried the Mexican restaurant at the end of  our street, which was very enjoyable, especially the jug of margarita. Next morning had breakfast in the local square before visiting the Chapel of Bones, a creepy chapel at the back of the convent church. Skulls and vertebrae certainly make an interesting decorative feature. The church was quite nice too. In the afternoon we caught a ferry to Farol island to go to the beach. The island is quite large and full of holiday villas, and sits at the end of an estuary full of small grassy islands.  We went to lighthouse beach, which was very pleasant, with refreshing cool, clear water. Had a lovely afternoon there before catching the crowded ferry back again. Dinner was also very good again, this time at the Namastay Indian restaurant.  Nice north Indian food. We were lucky to be in Faro for Folkfaro,  their annual folk music festival. The first night we saw the Algarve dance theatre,  which combined classical with folk traditions. The dancers were very talented but their pieces had odd Russian influences. Following them were some amazing stilt dancers from south west France. They did incredible things on stilts, running, dancing, jumping, high kicks and balancing maidens on their sticks. One dancer went for a horrible fall when his stilt caught a hole in the flooring. Spectacular stuff. The second night featured a fado duo called Fado Nu who were very good. The singer was very dramatic and tragic and had an impressive vocal range. They were followed by an Indonesian group that had numerous styles of music, from the complex rhythms of gamelan to weird screeches, creepy masks, graceful dances and finished with an interesting clapping and chanting session by the girls that was like an Islamic cheer squad.

Left Faro for Granada, which was basically a traveling day. Bus to Seville, then bus to Granada, each about 3 hours. Luckily when we got to Seville we found that the Granada bus went from the same bus station, contrary to what the guide book said. Once In Granada it took 3 different buses to reach the Mini Market where our apartment key was being held, but was all worth the hassle as our apartment (once we found it in the winding alleys) was great with spectacular views of the Alhambra.

SINTRA

Our last day in Lisbon, so we did a bus trip to Sintra,  a hill station where the Portuguese royals would spend the summer. Picked up our tour bus from the waterfront and our first stop was the City Palace in the old town itself. This palace was very Moorish in style, and in arts almost like a rajasthani palace. Each room was quite different and it has two funny towers at the end that look like bunny ears, that are the kitchen chimneys. The tower room was very impressive, with a painted ceiling and tiled walls. Next stop was the Pena palace a Romanticist style castle built in 1834 and very kitschy. It sits on top of a beautiful forested mountain with views all the way to the sea and overlooking the old Moorish castle. Unfortunately a lot of the castle was covered in scaffolding. The rooms inside were very small, having been originally the monks’ rooms from the previous monastery. Last stop was the Versailles style palace of Queen Marie, which was boringly regency in style. We hopped off the bus near Rossi station and used the escalators there to get up to the Bario Alto. I had 2 XL size caipirinhas that had so much alcohol in them I was totally incoherent, and have little recollection of our pizza dinner and getting home.

PORTUGAL

One thing we discovered in Spain is that there are only 3 trains a day between anywhere  Spain and Portugal. I don’t know if this is political or a lack of demand or just ineptitude, but it is hard to fathom. As a result to get from Salamanca to Lisbon you have to get a bus. so after trying the buffet breakfast at Hotel Condal (not a bad hotel actually) we went to the bus station to get the bus to Guarda, a transport hub in northern Portugal. When we got to the bus stop most people were already on, but we managed to get seats together.  Off we went on our first freeway, stopping for petrol at Ciudad Rodriguez then a long lunch break at a roadhouse. Crossed into Portugal at Villa Formosa, then up into the hills to Guarda, the highest town in Portugal. Unfortunately the bus station was lower than the old town so it was a slow climb with our packs up the hill, but thanks to the nice tourist office we found the Pensao Aliansa,  run by a gruff old guy. Nice little room though for only €30 (Incl bfast). Headed off into town, stopping for the obligatory custard tart at the first pastelaria we saw. Then it was up the hill to the tower, the highest point of the highest town. A rather bleak building, buffeted by freezing winds but with great views across the valleys and still holding up after almost 1000 years. Then looked at the cathedral, which looked more like a fortress, and then down through the old  town, full of narrow streets of squat houses made of granite blocks with tiny doors and windows. Depressingly many of them were collapsing or already piles of rubble, and the whole area, which was once the Jewish quarter, was in a very neglected state. Coming out of the old town, and not finding much in the way of decent restaurant food, we found a brand new shopping mall so bought stuff to eat in our room, including a very nice bottle of Douro red.

Next day went for a little walk before getting a taxi to the train station, which is miles away and cost almost as much as the fare to Lisbon. Train was pleasant if a bit long as we started 30 minutes late, but the mountain scenery, much of it covered in eucalyptus, made up for it. Pulled in to Apollonia station and caught the metro to Intendente station, and got a bit lost but luckily the lady I asked for directions lived in the same street as our apartment. Had to wait a bit for our keys, but once into our Rua Bombarda flat we loved it, so roomy and well equipped. Wandered up the street and found a combined Indian and kebab place run by a Bangladeshi,  and had some pretty good curries.

LISBOA

Next  morning it was breakfast at the Capri Cafe,  delicious custard tarts and coffee, before heading off to look at Lisbon.

Started our walk by heading across town to the Avenida Liberdade,  stumbled across some veggie restaurants and a nice area around the Italian embassy. Reached the top of the Avenue,  the fanciest in Lisbon, with a statue of the Marquis Pombal,  hero of the 1755 earthquake. Walked down the Avenue until we reached Rua San Antao,  the famous restaurant street, where we found an Indian buffet so of course had to stop. Actually it was a Nepali/Italian restaurant in fact. Had a good pig out, before moving on to the Rossi plaza, the main square in town, with its fountains and historic theatre and station. Through the main tourist streets and we were at Plaza Comercia, a huge square that was the entrance to Lisbon following the Pombal rebuilding program. We then queued up for the famous number 28 tram that takes you through several of Lisbon neighborhoods up some amazingly steep hills. The tram first went up the Alfama side, then back through Rossi and then up to Barrio Alto. It was a lot of fun, with great views and lots of close calls with buildings, cars and people. At the end we ended up on the 25 tram instead. Walked along the waterfront to Apollonia station and bought our tickets for our next trip to Faro. Got back quite late so we got takeaways from “Smoky Joes.”

Next morning it was Capri for coffee and cake before catching the #12 tram  to the Castle of St George that overlooks Lisbon. Quite expensive admission but fantastic views across the city and river, and a great castle to explore, and it actually looks like a real castle. The walk along the castle walls was pretty hair rising,  especially with a gale force wind blowing. After the castle we had fantastic gelati from a shop near the gate entrance and headed back down the hill, stopping for cocktails on the way. On the way home stopped off at the big Chinese supermarket and bought ingredients for dinner. Nice to cook some spicy Asian noodles again, you do get a bit sick of eating in restaurants all the time.

Saturday it was off to Belem, home of the custard tart. It’s also home to St Jeronimos monastery, built as a thank you for Vasco Da Gama’s safe return from India and with the proceeds of the sale of the spices he brought back. The building has many nautical motifs and an attractive cloister but once again very overpriced admission. Eventually managed to get into the church which had been closed for a wedding, but had to wait ages as another wedding was starting up.  The main reason to see the church was it has the tomb of Vasco Da Gama, who has popped up in many of the places we have visited over the years, such as Goa,  Kerala and Kenya. I guess he also changed Asia forever by opening it up to European influence and exploitation. Anyway, got to see him as well as the tomb of the great poet Camoes.  Then walked along the waterfront to the Discovery monument which was covered in scaffolding,  and then Belem Tower, which was packed with people and has a funny traffic light system to control the access between floors up and down a narrow spiral staircase. Some people couldn’t get the hang of it and it meant we were stranded on the top level for about half an hour.  The rest of Belem was pretty ordinary, we didn’t bother queuing up at the famous cake shop where the tarts were first made, but had coffee and tarts at another Cafe up the road that were probably just as nice. Caught the tram back to Figueura square and ended up at a great summer food fair in the middle of plaza Martin Muniz. Named after the legendary knight who used his body to wedge open the gates of St George castle and thus allow the army to defeat the Moors. He is honored at the Metro station as a safety waning about not getting stuck in the train doors. Anyway the food fair had a dj and sax player entertaining people drinking, eating and smoking joints from a variety of food stalls. We had Biriyani and fried rice and spring rolls and beer. It was very pleasant watching people but disappointing that  the music finished so early. Also celebrated my soccer teams Grand Final win. It’s just typical that our first family soccer grand final victory after 5 previous attempts happens at last when I am 30000 km away!

Sunday was a “rest day” so made some phone calls. In the afternoon I popped out to the National Museum which was OK with some great Indian stuff from Goa and Gujarat and  Chinese stuff as well as the Bosch painting we had as a poster when we were kids.  Walked back through dead streets to the station. For dinner it was home cooked mushroom and veggie omelets.

Next morning continued our ritual of the Capri Cafe then caught the train to Cascais.  This is at the end of Lisbon beach strip. Had a wander about the town,  some more cakes and a veggie hot dog and then spent a relaxing afternoon on the small beach. It was pleasantly warm but the water was ridiculously cold and I couldn’t stay in for more than a few minutes at a time.

Then walked along the promenade to the next town of Estoril,  famous for the Casino that inspired Ian Fleming’s James Bond books. Not much of a beach  however. Caught the train back from there and had dinner again at Muniz.

Legends of Salamanca

Boo hoo, our last morning in Calle Tesoro 14 (which means treasure, by the way). Got everything packed and eventually Ruben arrived to collect the key. He lives an hour away but has 2 littlies so didn’t mind being in town early. Got the Metro to Chamartin station and had time for a quick coffee before boarding our train to Salamanca. It was a very pleasant trip, managed to grab one the 4 seat tables to myself again, which means more leg room and a bigger window. Scenery was great, pine forests, huge valleys, mountains, and some very nice luxury villas. Nearer to Salamanca the wheat fields reappeared. Nice in Salamanca we got totally lost leaving the station,  but after some better decisions we found our hotel, the Condal, on Plaza St Eulala.  Right next to the hotel is a 14th century tower! As soon as I could it was off to the excellent Museo Historica Automacion, the car museum.  Merrill went off to read her book instead, so missed some great cars, many of which I hadn’t heard of or ever seen in real life. The best were the unusual Spanish cars,  such as Hispano Suiza, Pegaso,  who made sports cars in the 60s,  the very first Spanish car from 1893 and the first SEAT from 1963. Also there were some great Renault and Citroens,  an unusual Fiat show car, rally cars, a Muntz,  and an early Auto Union (later Audi). A fun hour. Walked back through town, went to the  bus station to organize tickets and later had dinner in amongst the masses of people having a day trip. It was at the Erasmus restaurant which seems to be some sort of Dutch chain that employs starving backpackers from its hostel. Food was average but were annoyed they charged for bread, first time on our trip. And it was stale. So the bread rip off lives on!

Next  morning it was time to tackle the sites of Salamanca. Started with coffee in the market, then climbed the towers of the Jesuit university for spectacular views. Then  wound our way to the cathedrals, and onto the city walls and another convent. On the way we chanced upon the Legend of the Cave, a crypt where it is  believed Satan taught students magic. As a result in Spanish and Latin American folklore Salamanca is synonymous with the devil. Didn’t see anyone devilish around the crypt though. Had lunch at a kebab place on the Gran Via, then headed home for a siesta. In the evening we visited a church (purisma), a palace and found a convent surrounded by cheap cocktail bars.  Finally did the number 1 tourist thing and looked for the frog on the entrance to the old university. As we are both visually impaired we had to use the zoom of our camera as an aid, but Merrill easily spotted the tiny frog on skull carving, thus ensuring she will do well in her exams. Once you find It you wonder why it was so hard to spot. This frog gives rise to all sorts of frog related merchandise of course. This ticked off we could return to the cocktail bars, choosing the Gatsby bar (which even has its own swimming pool for patrons and the wet T shirt comp) and had a few drinks before pizza and salad up the road. By this time, 11pm the town was filling up with young folk all ready for the wet t shirt comp at Gatsby. Stopped off in pretty and  crowded Plaza Mayor on our way back, with a full moon above.

SEGOVIA

Had a lazy morning hanging around our unit. Late in the afternoon we went to Madrids famous Retiro Park. It is huge and quite pretty in parts, with flowers, lawns and even forested areas. It even has a statue honoring Lucifer,  one of the only ones In Europe. Then went to  the Prado, to take advantage of the free entry. Saw most of the famous paintings, such as Goya’s maja and the Maio series, and the fantastic Bosch room. The Velazquez and Reubens works were quite Impressive.  The gallery itself is a bit drab, it would be nice If they could come up with a better way to display the works than endless gray rooms. Walked up to the Plaza De Cibelles with one of the  most Impressive post offices ever, and the fountain where the Real Madrid fans go when they win. On the way back we had an Indian dinner at the Mughal restaurant In calle San Bernardino,  a street full of various Asian restaurants.  Nice food but a bit overpriced.

Next day we were out early to Chamartin station for our trip to Segovia. Once again whizzed along in the super fast AVE train to Segovia in 30 minutes. The station was In the middle of a cow paddock and we caught a bus into town. The buses are very infrequent given they link up with the fast train station so you really need to check the timetable. Started at the aqueduct which is very impressive, and a wonder it’s survived so long. Walked up to its lowest point and looked at a nice old convent nearby, before walking up into the old town.

The old synagogue is now a church of course, and features some nice arches and windows. We came across the Bar Juderia so stopped for lunch having delicious Indian style wraps in this Indian Jewish Tapas style bar. Then went to the cathedral that has interesting chapels around the  inside that were unusual and of all different styles. The cathedral itself was quite plain but had a good cloister and museum. Came to the impressive Alcazar,  sitting on a rocky  outcrop at the end of the walled town. This was the castle stolen by Disney for Disneyland,  and It looks great with its turrets  and towers. Inside there are throne rooms, suits of armour and weapons, and impressive views from every window and terrace. Worth a visit to Segovia for this alone. Wandered back through some quieter old streets and had a beer while waiting for the bus. Once back in Madrid we bought takeaways and ate in our room. A fun day.

Another lazy  morning. Walked up to a local Irish pub to try and watch the rabbitohs game but I it was closed, so had to rely on updates from Tara. They beat Manly which is always worth a celebration! Eventually we went down to the Grand Via, and wandered through the plazas, stopping at the famous bear and strawberry tree monument, the symbol of Madrid, but still not sure why. Looked at a few churches that were closed last time, but it was Friday mass time so didn’t stay long. Had afternoon drinks and tapas at the trendy San Miguel mercado,  which was  basically a fancy food court in an historic building, then cocktails at the cute L’Estudio bar with a friendly owner  good music and very strong drinks. Then had big dinner at Estragon vegetarian restaurant which was nice but wish the staff would cheer up a bit. Finally tried some Spanish wine too. Back through the partying throng in La Latina and home.

Saturday was sleeping and getting things organized morning. Finally headed out after 2 PM and a lengthy skype chat with Mark. Skype really is a wonder. Stopped at a local incarnation of the famous Smokey Joes at Hurlstone Park for an excellent falafel roll, called a durum here from the Turkish for roll. It was run by a Bangladeshi guy who told us that South Asians have to wait at least 10 years for citizenship in Spain, but Latin Americans only 3! Many of the kebab places are Bangladeshi run, just as the alimentacions (corner shops) and fruit shops are Chinese. Very nice falafel too. Went to Retiro metro and walked up the glamorous shopping street to the  Archeological Museum, which is basically the history museum. Fantastic museum, well laid out, bilingual, informative and covers Spain from prehistoric times to the 19th century. We spent 4 hours there and could have been longer but gave the Ancient World display a miss. Most interesting were the displays of the pre Roman Iberian and Celtic cultures. After the museum, our tired legs carried us to Plaza Colon with its abstract Columbus memorial, the National Library which closed just as we arrived, and then we walked through to Tribunal, stopping off to watch the bride arrive at a very posh wedding. She looked like she had been fasting for months, she was just bones and teeth. It was amusing to watch the priests waiting and chasing pigeons off the stairs (something St Francis wouldn’t approve off). Found Malabar in plaza dos de mayo (starting place of the May uprising against the french) to sit outside and enjoy a few pre dinner cocktails.  Followed by dinner at an Ethiopian restaurant, which tasted great but just like every other one I have been to, though their injera wasn’t as good as the Melbourne ones. The owner even knew that there aren’t any Ethiopian restaurants in Sydney. This one is in Calle Maria Malasana.

 

HOLY TOLEDO!

Today we are going to explore the palace area. Realized that things aren’t as far as they look on the map, so we decided to walk to the palace.  First stop was the plaza Esplanade,  a folly of Franco as he attempted to show Spain was a modern nation. A giant stalinist block towers over the pretty square, at the Centre of which was a statue honoring Cervantes, complete with Don Quixote on his horse. Next  was the Sabatini gardens next to the palace. Most of the gardens had been taken up by a stage for a summer festival, so we walked up to the palace which was big but ordinary from the outside. Took a few photos, admired the ever present man on a horse statues that dot Madrid, looked at the cathedral and then after a drink stop at the only Cafe in the area wandered through to the La Latina area where we chanced upon an actual vegetarian restaurant on the Plaza De la Paja that did the typical 3 course spanish restaurant menu, except I could actually eat everything on the menu! Food was excellent, we had zucchini and pumpkin pie and tofu with green peppercorn sauce and a fantastic custard cheese cake. It’s called El Estragon. We will return another night for sure. Next it was the Plaza Mayor, Centre of all tourist activity but still attractive, and onto the Plaza del Sol where we caught the Metro home. After a break it was up to the local square for Sicilian take aways for dinner. Had calzone,  Stromboli (a bit like pide) and a arancina.  All yummy but so filling after our big lunch.

IMG_1816 IMG_1839

 

Next day we went on a day trip to Toledo. Got out early but missed the early train because ticket machines wouldn’t accept our cards,  so had to line up at ticket office.  A very nice guy organized all our tickets, Toledo and also Segovia and Salamanca and our card worked too.  Train was super quick, only taking 30 minutes at about 250kmh.  From the station caught the number 5 bus up the hill, and then escalators to go higher up into town. Looked at the Santa Cruz museum which had lots of paintings of Jesus, many by local hero El Greco.  Also some roman and iron age stuff. All housed in a beautiful old villa.  Went past the Alcazar castle which is now an army museum. Through narrow winding lanes to the cathedral, which is richly decorated and very big, but almost hidden In the midst of other buildings and lane ways.  Had veggie burgers at the Cafe Del Fin before heading down the hill towards the city walls, where the Jewish quarter was. An ancient synagogue 14thC was there, with an excellent museum detailing in Spanish the history of the Jews of Spain. The building itself had nice carvings and windows. Further up the road was an older synagogue 13thC with Arab style arches. It was bloody hot so stopped for drinks and ice blocks. A big climb back up the hill brought us to a museum dedicated to the Visigoths,  the pre Muslim, rulers of Spain after the Romans. Highlight though was it’s tower that gave great views over Toledo. I always remember Toledo was famous for swords, and these were available in all the souvenir stores. The jewelry shops did have nice silver stuff though. It’s also famous for marzipan. Wandered back down past numerous other historic buildings including the convent where El Greco is buried and a mosque. Back to the station then home. Cooked dinner again, ravioli with Napolitana sauce, cost a whole €3! Toledo was beautiful, we’ll worth a visit, and only 30 minutes from Madrid.

 

 

THE REAL MADRID

A lazy start to the morning, did some washing in our exciting front loader washing machine then off to explore the local area. Wandered through the streets of the Malasana quarter, stopping off for lunch at The Greek Shop on calle de la palma where we had a nice spinach pie. Then visited the municipal museum but most of the displays of the history of Madrid seemed to be inaccessible.  Had a few 16th and 17th century maps that showed madrid has barely changed since then.  Walked down to the Grand Via, the main boulevard of Madrid with its majestic stores and theatres. Everything is on a grand scale here. The street leading down to it,  Fuencarrel was a tree lined shopping mall. Walked back to Malasana to see a famous church but as usual it was closed. That night we started at Bar Picnic for cocktails and beers, followed by a Mexican dinner at la Catrina.  Had another drink at an old style bar before heading home.

The next day we caught the metro to La Latina to go to the Rastro Sunday market. This was really fun, with all sorts of stalls, from the usual souvenirs to some unusual arts and clothing stalls. Very crowded but luckily it’s all shaded by some big trees. Looked at the Toledo gate which was unimpressive, but you could see Athletico Madrids stadium from there. Lavapies wasn’t as interesting as guide book implied. But found a nice bar for beer and raciones of guacamole and Patatas bravas (spicy). Then did a long hot walk to the Reina Sofia museum, which luckily was free on Sunday so got to see Picasso’s famous Guernica,  which is far more dramatic in real life, and much bigger than expected. Probably more interesting were his preliminary sketches, which were more detailed and moving than the final image. Works by Miro and Santos were also interesting, as was a series of Civil War photographs. The old hospital garden was nice too. Crossed the road to Atocha station to check on trains and look at its unique indoor rainforest,  complete with turtle pool, then back home. Actually cooked dinner for a change with very limited equipment. Cheese,tomato and potato omelet. Quiet night in room.

IMG_1792

 

 

SOME THINGS I FORGOT TO MENTION

 

Firstly I can’t believe I forgot to mention our day trip to Chartres, outside Paris. This cute and attractive medieval town is famous for its cathedral.  And rightly so, it’s fantastic.  The spires soar over 100 meters up, and it has the most spectacular stained glass windows ever. The colors are vivid and the designs range from sublime to Money Python.  It is hard to believe medieval people could even have built this.  Well worth a visit. Wandered through the medieval town with streams flowing through, past wooden beamed Tudor style houses. Had a delicious picnic in the bishops garden behind the church.

The other thing I forgot is the little gourmet paradise in the street behind our hotel in Biarritz in the well named Rue Bergerie. Surrounding the St Charles church,  every shop in this street had all sorts of sensational food, from cheeses, cakes, artisan bread,  to fish and salads. Further down the street was a synagogue, as Biartitz was once popular with rich Russians at the end of the 19th century (there’s also a massive Russian orthodox church near the beach).There were even a few Jewish guys there that tried to make me do Jewish stuff so I made a run for it.

 

GOING TO MADRID

Our last day in Biarritz began with boring business stuff. Even thousands of kilometers away the banks can still make you miserable. Merrill had her credit card stolen in Sydney, and we are still trying to sort it out. They now wanted a stat dec and police report, things that are so easy to do in Europe!  Amazingly there was an Aussie public servant in our place in Paris that could sign a stat dec, but then you have to get it to them. Anyway, got some of it sorted. But not what you want to do on your holiday. The day got better when we went to the other major beach in Biarritz, the plage Basque. This is really spectacular, sitting at the bottom of high cliffs. In fact the beach disappears at high tide so you have to keep an eye on the surf. This beach was spotlessly clean and great waves, did lots of body surfing but really should have hired a body board.  Had a beautiful afternoon under perfect blue sunny skies. on the way back tried a torte basque cake, the local speciality, like a cherry crumble in pie form. Yummy!!! After a rest in our room it was off to dinner, pasta and burgers at Le Gloubys restaurant on rue Port Vieux. Nice food and good funky music.

Next morning we were up early to catch our train. Arrived at gare biarritz to find our train had been cancelled due to a train strike in Spain. Luckily the nice but totally french speaking ticket man got us on a later train but it meant we had to first wait an hour for a train to Hendaye. We then had to catch a light rail over the border to Irun and then hang around for almost 3 hours before we could get our train to Madrid.  The scenery was lovely in the foothills of the pyrenees but after the mountains finished at the town of Victoria Gasteiz we had to endure 7 hours of brown flat plains. Sometimes a field of sunflowers would add a bit color, or a field of olive trees, but otherwise it was, we’ll,  brown. We also passed many factory towns, including one that made all the huge windmill blades for the hundreds of gigantic, creepy windmills we passed along the way.

Arrived on time in Madrid. Discovered later our slow train had gone almost to Portugal in its almost circumnavigation of Madrid. Negotiated the metro easily from Chamartin station to Noviciado and eventually found our apartment. Our host Ruben met us and took us up too many stairs to our wonderful little apartment. Very modern and cleverly using the tiny space available. We were absolutely starving by this stage having eaten everything we took on the train, even the weird snacks from malaysian airlines. So we went to the first tapas bar we came across and had yummy patatas brava and delicious roast vegetables in a basil marinade. And Mahou beer of course.  Wandered through our Malasana district marveling at all the bars and even lots of veggie food, something I wasn’t expecting here. Collapsed into bed to the sounds of partying people, screaming and trucks reversing but our tiredness blocked it all out. Can’t wait to hit the bars on Saturday night!

 

With great relief, our Malaysian airlines flight landed at Charles De Galle  airport. And so began our grand European adventure. I have already written pages on this but because neither of us can make any sense of our new Samsung tablets word processing software, I’ll just give an overview of what we have done so far.

Our time in Paris was off to a great start just from the gorgeous place we stayed at. It’s called the Maison Bacana in the suburb of Vitry sur Seine, in the south west of paris. A cute bed and breakfast with two very informative and friendly hosts, Mand and Fred. Full of great advice and providers of enormous breakfasts. Some of our activities in Paris included the usual tourist things like the eiffel tower and sacre cour (note that I am doing away with capitals, also because of the tablet), but not in any detail because we have been twice before. We instead tried to do different stuff, but the best thing about the city is you can wander anywhere and it is always interesting.  We had a great day strolling through neighborhoods such as La Chapelle,  the tamil quarter and the start of the Barbes street market, which was colorful and amazingly cheap, followed by Montmartre,  then the high end stores of rue haussman with the spectacular Galeries lafayette store with its glass dome. Then back to the other extreme with the multicultural and at times both sleazy and hipster belleville quarter. On the arty side we went to the rodin garden and we’re impressed by the emotional quality of his work. We also spent over 3 hours at the fascinating arts et metiers museum, which displays the history of technology and I loved the old cars, photography section and finally understanding what foucaults pendulum  is all about. Great nerdy fun! We had fun hopping around the metro and ate everything from éclairs to tamil thalis and Tunisian cakes. Would have eaten more if it wasn’t for the huge breakfasts. Totally got it wrong though seeing the tour de france. I had the wrong dates and the wrong times so all we saw of the last day was the track and the women’s race, but it was still sort of exciting as the crowd and atmosphere was building. What a crap librarian!

Arrived in bordeaux on the super fast tgv train, had lots of room to spread out which made it comfy. Bordeaux is such a beautiful town. Stayed at the teneo aparthotel,  yes its an apartment and a hotel, near the station and used the free tram (well no one else seemed to bother about tickets) to go into town. Every street in the old town looked wonderful, with some classy buildings like the theater,  soaring towers on the numerous churches, squares with cool cafes and spooky Gothic towers. For dinner we had the blandest padthai ever, that needed half a bottle of sriracha to help it. The next night, the best pizza so far in Europe at Le Coin Bleu near the river and also tried the odd local cake, the caneles, which is a sort of toffee caramel bun. One afternoon we did a vineyard tour. This one went to the blaye and bourg appellation areas. The first one was very rustic and looked like that Simpsons episode, but the wines were nice. Interesting to hear about the strict controls they have on production and the very low production at each vineyard. The second one was more professional but blander wines.  The countryside was pretty and it looked easy to do if you had your own transport. Our last morning in bordeaux we wandered up to victory square and the markets, before catching a very crowded train to biarritz. As usual when we arrived there were lots of well designed and labelled transport options, and the bus information girl was probably the most beautiful french girl I’ve seen in france,  and she works in a caravan giving out bus information. Still don’t get why public transport is so primitive in Australia.  In fact everything in Australia seems so far behind Europe and Asia.  While I’m on a rant, where does this french stereotype of rudeness come from? Everyone has been super polite, courteous and helpful, and they never laugh at my atrocious accent. Well not in front of me. Checked into the escale oceania hotel, which was a real bargain and right near the main beach. Of course the beach was the first stop, crowded with French families really enjoying the sun and water. Waves were really rough but the water was warm, if a little dirty with lots of rubbish floating around.  Still a nice beach and very much like sydney beaches. In fact all of biarritz is like a french bondi but with more historical buildings. After our swim we explored the coastal walk, which includes the luxurious former palace of napoleon the third, now a hotel with $12 bottles of coke, a fishing village and boat Harbour built amongst the rocks, a virgin statue on the rocks and numerous amazing châteaux on the cliffs.  Had a delicious dinner of galettes breton,  buckwheat pancakes with all sorts of unusual fillings followed by a caramel crepe at less bleus du to restaurant.  Next day it was a bit gray and damp so we caught the bus to the medieval town of bayonne. It is also a major basque town so lots of red and green, rugby and sheep stuff. Started with coffee and chocolate by the old canal, then wandered through the cute old town and the interesting cathedral. Also saw it’s amazing city walls which added to its medieval feel. Back to biarritz and the sun  was out so had an afternoon on the beach.  Then we went to the local shops at St Charles and bought picnic food which we ate at the beach.  So impressed with the quality of the food we have bought, especially from the boulangeries and patisserie.  Even the supermarket salads are pretty good and the cheeses awesome. Our picnic consisted of camembert,  a leek quiche, coleslaw, a baguette and a bottle of Medoc. Watched yet another beautiful sunset with only sparrows for company. Hasn’t been hard getting vegetarian food, but not a lot of variety, but all yummy.

 


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