Wednesday, 29 December 2010

New take on twin cities

One of the books I've read while travelling over the past couple of months is The city and the city, by China Miéville. I hadn't read any of his books before, partly because I couldn't decide which one to start on and kept receiving different recommendations from my friends. So when this one was joint winner of the Hugo Award this year, I felt it was a sign.

It's a fascinating book, where the reader is thrust into a strange environment of superimposed cities (somewhere at the edge of Europe) with zero explanation. Gradually, through the careful placement of information tidbits and then more detailed exposition, you build up a picture of how the cities coexist, the differences in their cultures, and the various rules of the two societies. These then become fundamental to the main plot, which at heart is essentially a police procedural crime (murder) novel, albeit in a very different world from our own.

I have perhaps revealed too much here, for Miéville clearly wants readers to know nothing of the setup prior to reading, but I think you can get this much from various Amazon reviews... And, anyway, the premise is so original and intriguing that this in itself is the perfect hook.

It's not a fast-paced novel, with events instead playing out at a pace that reflects the strict bureaucracy of Miéville's world and the police-world in general. The main character is an experienced senior detective from one of the cities, and we follow his efforts to solve a murder tangled with international conspiracies, while having some of his core beliefs shaken. He's a likable, highly competant character, and forms interesting relationships with the various other colleagues, suspects and witnesses he deals with throughout the novel.

The writing is sparse, and the unique urban setting and the characters sketched with broad strokes, so that the novel almost feels allegorical in tone. I admit that I generally prefer novels with more flesh on the bones (and more attention paid to character), but I was nevertheless engrossed by this book and its ideas. I would recommend it to anyone who likes something a little weird and doesn't mind working a little harder than normal! I'm definitely up for another Miéville novel; just need to decide which one!

Saturday, 25 December 2010

Fluffy White Christmas

Amid the great European freeze, we have had our White Christmas in Bonn, Germany. In accordance with German tradition we celebrated on Christmas Eve -- decorating the tree with all the family, attending a candle-lit carol service, building two impressive snowmen, eating and drinking and being generally merry.

Then we celebrated again on Christmas Day (today) with presents and our usual turkey roast dinner (more eating, drinking, being merry) -- and it felt entirely appropriate having a roast, since it was so chilly outside (circa -6 deg C). In fact, we found the back porch an entirely appropriate place to chill food that didn't fit into the fridge...

The snow today was beautiful, light and fluffy powder. Much of it fell yesterday and overnight, covering grass and other surfaces that had begun to show through as earlier snowfall started to thaw. But after a couple of milder days, yesterday was bitter and windy and it snowed for most of the day, and then today was fine and even sunny for a spell in the afternoon. We went down to the Rhine for a short walk and I was sorely tempted to throw myself into the pristine powder to make snow angels.

The massive house-party (across two houses) and two-day celebration has been fantastic. With all the snow-disruptions to trains and planes, we've been incredibly lucky that everyone made it to Bonn in time (from various parts of Germany and Europe), with only a couple of hairy moments. After over a year in the planning, it's all turned out brilliantly.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Christmas markets

Of all things at Christmas time, Germany is renowned for its Christmas markets. On our train journey from London, we met people travelling to the Cologne Christmas markets -- some of the most acclaimed in the country -- specifically to do their Christmas shopping. The markets can apparently be found in just about every town, and attract crowds (no matter how freezing the temperature) to sample the edible delicacies and handcrafts and, perhaps most importantly, Gluhwein (mulled wine).

The Bonn Christmas market, located mainly in the town square, is a lovely market with all the prerequisite foodstuffs and handcrafts like ornaments and Christmas decorations carved from timber, engraved glass objects, paper star lanterns (complete with light globes inside) for hanging in windows at Christmas, porcelain ornaments, candle holders etc. It flows into adjoining pedestrian walkways and neighbouring squares, luring the visitor onwards through the quaint city centre. It was in the Bonn market that we sampled the delicious dampfnudel, a traditional German steamed dumpling, smothered in vanilla custard sauce and stewed plums.

We visited two of the Cologne markets today. The first nestles in the shadow of the Dom, Cologne's massive and impressive cathedral (see picture - not mine), and is perhaps slightly more diverse and higher quality than the Bonn market. Here, the kids rode the merry-go-round and the adults sampled gluhwein in ceramic mugs that we could keep. The weather was milder today at 1 degree C, and we all enjoyed perusing the many excellent stalls. (Alas, no dampfnudel to be found!)

We stumbled upon the second Cologne Christmas market, down a bit and around the corner, as we headed back to the station, the light fading and the lights twinkling in the dusk. We didn't have nearly enough time at this market, which looked at a glance to be the best of all of them! It seemed to have a multitude of stalls with interesting wares and different foods, and the night atmosphere with all the lights (including hundreds of lit Christmas trees) was truly spectacular.

So the German Christmas markets have lived up to expectation (unlike the Bruges effort, which was poor by comparison). The lights and snow and gluhwein and market stalls all combine to create a wonderful Christmas atmosphere that is unlike anything we have in Australia.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

der Weihnachtsbaum (Christmas tree)

It is exactly one week until Christmas, which this year will be spent with my entire family in Bonn, Germany. The plan is to embrace some of the German traditions while we're here. We are of course hoping for a 'white Christmas', which is not unthinkable -- there is still much snow on the ground, and it snowed quite heavily for a while yesterday. Fingers crossed the world is still white in a week!

In true German fashion we set off today to choose our Christmas tree (der Weihnachtsbaum). The plantation we visited was filled with snow-laden Christmas trees of all shapes and sizes -- from massive 4-5m monsters, down to tiny baby trees about 10cm high. The idea is to trek through the snow to find the exact tree that meets height, breadth, symmetry and aesthetic requirements, then have it cut down, netted and slung over the car. It then hangs around outside until next Friday, Christmas Eve, when it is brought inside and decorated.

It took us about 20 mins to investigate the various tree-options and make our selection, all the while our toes and fingers becoming numb. A snowball fight ensued once the choice was made and we awaited the man with the saw. By the time the tree was felled and roped onto the roof of the car, an hour had passed and we were all freezing and ready for a hot drink and lunch. O Tannenbaum, the pains to we which we go to choose thee!

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Bitterly cold in Brugge

En route between London and Bonn, we have stopped in Brussels for a couple of nights, mainly to facilitate a day-visit to the quaint and highly acclaimed town of Bruges/Brugge. We caught a fast train there this morning, once again bitterly cold with sunny patches, and were delighted by this medieval town threaded by partially iced-over canals (see picture above!), home to glorious white swans, multiple chocolatiers and lace shops, and reportedly the host of a Christmas market worth travelling to from London for a long weekend.

Brugge is a town to explore on foot, and many have asserted that a day rambling the gorgeous cobbled streets is all that is needed to have 'done Brugge'. This I can well imagine, for every little street is a temptation . . . and even as the temperature hovered at around zero degrees, I felt the lure of this town.

However, I have to admit I'm a little over the freezing temperatures we've been experiencing for the past three weeks. No matter how many layers I pile on, I can't seem to shake the bitter slash of cold on cheeks, the icy penetration of cold into fingers and toes, the shudder of frost through my jeans. This sadly hampers the best-laid plans of the intrepid traveller. For when it's literally FREEZING, the lure of cafes and museums starts to put gorgeous cobbled lanes, canals and Christmas markets into the shade.

The highlight of our visit today, therefore, was an authentic Belgian hot chocolate accompanied by home-made Belgian waffle with hot chocolate sauce at The Old Chocolate House. This is a cosy first floor tea room above a chocolate shop, where the hot chocolate comes as solid choc buttons in a chocolate cup with a bowl of hot milk (into which you stir the buttons). Gorgeous.

Friday, 10 December 2010

A taste of London

After more than five weeks of gadding about at a furious rate, it has been nice to slow down for a couple of weeks while staying with friends in London. What with Sunday roast lunches, afternoon teas in the country and (for the first few days at least) snow-mayhem that brought the country to a standstill, I've grown positively lethargic!

Nevertheless, I have managed to get into London a few times (we are staying in the outskirts) to do some museums (snow = freezing = indoors desirable). My first expedition was to the Victoria and Albert Museum. This is a museum dedicated to the decorative arts, and covers a vast and diverse array of trades and crafts and art. There was no possible way to see all of it in a single afternoon, but I gave the 3rd floor a pretty good stab. I found myself lingering over an eclectic mix of displays:
Ironwork - Of particular interest for me, as a former metallurgist, was the decorative ironwork display, which encompassed intricate wrought iron artifacts, cast iron objects, engraved pieces, and locks/padlocks with keys (and more).
Beatrix Potter - I was fascinated by the original illustrated letter containing the original story of Peter Rabbit.
Micro-mosaics - Tiny tiny pieces of glass used to decorate furniture, snuff boxes, etc in beautiful designs. Accompanied by an impressive snuff box collection (all from the amazing Gilbert Collection).
Tapestries - Only one gallery, alas. Three massive medieval tapestries showed various hunting scenes.
Portrait miniatures - Originally painted on vellum, later ivory, these exquisite portraits were beautiful (despite involving inhumane treatment of animals...).

On another day, we visited the Cabinet War Rooms and Churchill Museum -- an underground maze of bunkers that were used during WW2 by Churchill and his ministers (and multitudes of other men and women, both civilian and otherwise) as a subterranean HQ. The rooms show how the living and working quarters were furnished and the types of equipment they used, while an audio guide explains how it all went down on a daily basis. A highly technological museum devoted to Churchill's life is also to be found down there, complete with interactive light displays, plus all sorts of other memorabilia. I came out knowing a whole lot more about this remarkable man, who lived enough for ten men!

London has so many museums that it's difficult to choose which ones to visit. We ultimately decided to go to the relatively new Museum of London, which focuses on London as a city from the dawn of civilisation (hunter gathers in the Thames valley), the Roman founding of Londinium and its subsequent abandonment, the arrival of the Saxons . . . Normans . . . Black Death . . . the Fire of London . . . all the way to the current day. In fact, it even peeked into the future, with a remarkable exhibition of digitally-constructed images showing what London could become as the result of environmental pressures (St Paul's with rice paddies . . . Buckingham Palace surrounded by immigrant shanty town . . . Piccadilly Circus underwater . . . etc). It is a fabulous museum, with all sorts of fun interactive displays, lots of diversity -- once again far too much to take in all at once. I would have liked, however, a bit more cross-referencing with politics/government/monarchs etc (which weren't covered to large extent, except for Oliver Cromwell). Nevertheless, it was great to have it all laid out from woe to go; it really helps with perspective.

The rest of my time in the London CBD (when not lounging around sloth-like) has been spent shopping! I spent yesterday in Regent and Oxford Streets, and today at the new Westfield London shopping centre. I was definitely ready for some retail therapy!

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (movie - part 1)

I was finally able to see the new Harry Potter movie last night, despite having been in the UK for 2 weeks already. As with all the movies, I think I probably need to see it again in order to really know what I think of it. As far as I can recall from the book (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows), part 1 of the movie stays remarkably close . . . and I certainly enjoyed the movie; however, my initial impressions are that it moved a little too slowly in parts, sketched over characters I felt deserved more weight (a recurring complaint from me with the HP movies, but they had more scope with this one, being a two-parter, so no excuses), and the dramatic scenes all felt a little under-done, under-whelming, somehow. I can't help but feel that only those who have read the book will be able to follow the movie, and with all the extra time available this should not have happened.

On the upside, though, the film depicted events pretty much exactly as I imagined them for the most part, and I definitely want to see it again, particularly when part 2 of the movie comes out. I enjoyed the overall experience -- wouldn't have missed it for the world -- and am definitely hanging out for the next one.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Pilgrimage to Brighton

Having spent most of my childhood and formative years in Brighton, Melbourne - Australia, it seemed fitting I should visit its namesake in England. I had heard and read much of Brighton. It's where Lydia Bennett elopes from in Pride and Prejudice, and the Royal Pavilion is referred to many times in Georgette Heyer's regency romances. And of course there are the famous Brighton Pier and pebbled beaches. Visiting Brighton was therefore high on my priority list, and we went there from Portsmouth last week (before the snow arrived).

Instead of staying in the heart of Brighton, we found a quaint 1930s inn (The White Horse hotel) in the nearby village of Rottingdean. By this time I felt as though I were living in one of Ms Heyer's or Austen's novels. The inn was perched on the edge of the sea, and featured a bar and restaurant below – perfect. Our rooms were modern and comfortable, I hasten to add, as the hotel is run by a group that specialises in old english inns. I rather think I could tour England staying in them.

On a beautiful sunny morning, we took the UnderCliff walk from Rottingdean into Brighton. This took us rambling below about a mile of white chalk cliffs, through the Brighton Marina, and into the town. Once there, we wandered through some of the streets and famous Lanes, and sauntered down through the penny arcades to the amusement park at the end of Brighton Pier.

Then we went to the Royal Pavilion, built as a pleasure palace by the Prince of Wales (later George IV) in the late 18th C. The Pavilion is almost indescribable. Its exterior is somewhat interesting, while on the inside its entertaining rooms are incredibly elaborate – they have to be seen to be believed. I am left with impressions of much gold, hundreds of Asian or Chinoise-style dragons, sumptuous fabrics . . . (Unfortunately we weren't allowed to take photos.) The visit included an audio tour that provided all the history of the palace, which was sold by Queen Victoria to the people of Brighton in around 1845. As a royal residence, the Pavilion had a fairly short life, but it still oozes history and is quite stunning (in both senses of the word) to behold.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Travelwriting update

I have been travelling for over six weeks now, and have had some pleasing success on the fiction writing front. During the France and Spain segments of the trip, I managed to utilise just about every train or bus journey longer than a couple of hours to progress my novel rewrite. In the end, I managed to write several thousand words (which is rather more than I managed to write in the weeks/months leading up to going away). This happened to coincide with my writing group busily undertaking a WriMoFoFo (write more for four weeks), so I suppose you could say I took part in spirit.

I'm really happy with this outcome -- I hoped rather than expected to be able to write in such an environment, and although it required some discipline not to just sit back and read a book, it turned out to be relatively easy once the WIP was open in front of me. Everyone in my travel group became quite accustomed to seeing me with baby computer open on my lap, clacking away (or staring into space, thinking). Unfortunately, progress has been slower (or, more accurately, non-existent) since arriving in the UK, and I'm going to have to turn this around very soon!

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Historical ships in Portsmouth

A visit to Portsmouth (to see the Victory and the Mary Rose) was high on my father's priority list, so off we went on a family road trip, accompanied by my sister, who flew over from Germany to visit the pudding club. By the time we left, it took us most of the day to get there from Evesham (given a leisurely lunch stop), so we found a dodgy hotel (family room in a pseudo Tudor hotel – what a laugh) and planned our visit to the Historical Dockyards for Sunday morning.

By chance, we timed our visit for the weekend featuring a 'Victorian Christmas festival', meaning the site was swarming with costumed characters from such tomes as Oliver Twist, Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland etc, as well as many street performances, food stalls and a Christmas market. This was merely a bonus for us, for we had come to see the ships!

The Victory
The Victory was Nelson's ship at the battle of Trafalgar, and history oozed from her timbers. We wandered up and down through her multiple decks, which included three decks of guns/cannons, Nelson's quarters, those of many others in her crew, and the workrooms of various craftsmen aboard the ship (carpenters, medics, blacksmiths, cooks etc).

The Mary Rose was Henry VIII's flagship, commonly believed to be one of the first dedicated English warships, which sunk just off the coast of Portsmouth in 1545. She was excavated in the 1970s and raised in 1982. Thousands of amazing artefacts from her are on display in the Mary Rose museum. I was particularly impressed by the longbows, which were found packed tightly in a box, and are in near impeccable condition. The raised hull of the ship is currently unavailable for viewing, since it's in restoration and a new museum is under construction around it.

The Warrior (with mud for mudlarking)
 We also looked over the Warrior, one of the first English steam warships. It has four massive boilers and two funnels, two decks of guns/cannons, plus loads of other quarters as well. Oddly enough, it also has a full rigging for sails, although the interior seems to support steam propulsion methods more.

We spent half a day at the Historical Dockyards on a freezing cold Sunday, bracing ourself against the cold (and a little snow). Next stop was Brighton.. .

Wednesday, 1 December 2010


Not sure whether it has made international news, but the UK is in the grip of most unseasonable weather! We are currently snowed in, more or less housebound (although the local high street is a 10 min walk away), and spending a lot of time gazing out the window to marvel at the snowscape of laden trees and half-buried cars.

It has been freakishly cold ever since we arrived in England a week or so ago, and we first woke to a blanket of snow in Evesham on Saturday. In Portsmouth on Sunday, we were most amused by a storm of fake snow at the 'Victorian Christmas Festival' at the Historical Dockyards . . . only to be thrilled by actual snow falling outside, as we watched from within a cosy cafe sipping hot chocolate.

Then we awoke on Tuesday to behold a snow-dusted pebble beach at Rottingdean, just outside Brighton, and our car was also covered by what we then considered to be a fair blanket of the white stuff. The day looked grey and the forecast predicted more snow, so we abandoned our plans to drive to Hastings for the morning, and instead made a beeline for our friends' house in Orpington, Greater London. It was only around 40 miles from Brighton so we thought we might make it for morning tea . . .

All went well until we exited the motorway for Orpington. With only about 3 miles to go, we slowed to a crawl, stuck in a bank of cars that edged forward at a rate slower than walking pace. Initially we founded the whole thing thrilling, enduring snow in the face to take photos. I had certainly never seen such massive, snow-flake-shaped snowflakes! They were perfect. But by the time it had taken 2 hours to arrive in the high street, where traffic was completely gridlocked owing to two stuck buses, the novelty had started to wear off and we all needed a bathroom.

We parked the car right there in the high street (putting a pound into the pay and display machine, although it my view this was unnecessary), and dashed across the road to McD's, where there were not only toilets but free WiFi. We googled the address of our destination, established it was only a 10 min walk, then arrived on foot on the doorstep of our rather surprised hosts, who had by this time concluded we were probably doomed to spend the night in the car somewhere in the middle of the motorway. (I should say at this point that persons nameless had not remembered to bring either phone number or map of said hosts' residence. . .)

By this time it was after 1pm, so we ate lunch before attempting to retrieve the car (and our luggage). Lucky for me, this task fell to others, who set about planning the route with the lowest gradient – by this time many of the roads were impassable, particularly those with significant slopes. The car did not arrive for another 3 hours. It is now parked in a bay at the bottom of the hill, gradually becoming buried by the snow. We had to carry our backpacks up the hill to the house, and were immensely thankful we weren't reliant on wheelie cases.

After snowing all day yesterday, it has continued to snow overnight and all day today. I confess that now I am snug and happy inside, it's all rather exciting again. We donned our gear and trekked down to the high street this morning to get some bits and pieces, and I loved stomping through more than a foot of fresh powder. So light and soft! Like spun sugar.

Tomorrow the forecast is for more of the same. Everywhere around London the traffic is chaos, and the public transport system is in a shambles. Many of the trains are not running. Not sure about buses. Our next challenge is to return the hire car, which was actually due today, and then get back here somehow . . .

For the short term I don't mind being housebound, because after nearly 6 weeks travelling I'm due for some relaxation time. I'm quite happy for now to read and write and watch DVDs (although I'm hoping my hosts' internet connection will be up again soon – I'm writing this offline). Eventually the snow will disappear, or at least stop falling, and I will resume my explorations.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Baths and motor cars

Some backtracking . . . Last week I revisited the gorgeous Georgian town of Bath after 17 years. Once again I was blown away. The Roman baths museum and archeological site have come a long way since I was there last. An audio guide provided heaps of information, and the technologies used to recreate Roman times (dramatised scenes projected onto screens/walls, digital graphical recreations of the baths and temple) were fabulous. We spent two hours exploring first the museum and temple complex, then the baths themselves. We also took a self-guided walking tour of Bath, exploring just about all the famous corners, and finished up with a traditional afternoon tea in the Pump Room. I love the layers of history in Bath: pre-Roman, Roman, medieval (when they transformed the Roman sacred spring into the King's Bath, used by the monks for healing), and then Georgian (when they strolled the Pump Room and sipped the waters, without any knowledge of the extensive baths complex below).

Another treat last week was a visit to the premises of the Morgan Motor Company. These sports cars are hand-made -- yes, made by hand -- by a small, family owned company in the Malvern Hills. There are two main models: 1) traditional sports cars, which have a timber-framed chassis that is plated with sheets of aluminium, 2) aero models, which have a double-bonded aluminium chassis with super-formed aluminium panels (essentially blow moulded). The traditional cars haven't changed much in appearance since the 1960s, and have been made the same way since forever (although formerly with steel). Each specalist craftsman works on a single car at a time, completing it to a point, before handing it onto the next guy to do his bit. There's not a production line or robot in sight, and the care, pride and passion throughout the 'factory' is wonderful to behold. I found the whole experience fascinating. Apparently the cars go really fast too...

Saturday, 27 November 2010

The Pudding Club

At the Three Ways House Hotel in Mickleton, somewhere in the English Cotswolds, is the rather unique Pudding Club -- dedicated to preserving the Great British Pudding. We booked about seven months in advance for the privilege of attending a 'meeting' of the Pudding Club, held once a week on Friday evenings. In fact, it was just about the first activity locked in on this super-holiday I'm enjoying.

Here's how it went down yesterday evening:
1. choice of 'light' main course, which wasn't all that light at all.
2. Procession of the puddings, during which we were introduced to our victims for the evening. There were seven in total, and the challenge to try every one was issued by our Pudding Club host. All seven puddings were arrayed for our eating pleasure in any order we desired (with lashings of custard).
3. Pudding #1 -- Lord Randall's pudding. A steamed pudding with apricot and marmalade. 8/10
4. Pudding #2 -- Coconut and jam pudding. A steamed coconut pudding with jam glaze. 7/10
5. Pudding #3 -- Sticky Toffee & Date pudding. 9/10 [My pudding of the night.]
6. Pudding #4 -- Passionfruit Charlotte. A cold passionfruit mousse with swiss jam roll as a palate cleanser. 6/10
7. Pudding #5 -- Squidgee chocolate and nut pudding. Kind of like a chocolate self-saucing pudding. 7/10
8. Pudding #6 -- Bread & Butter pudding. 8/10
9. Pudding #7 -- Spotted Dick. A suet pudding with raisons etc. Not popular on our table. 3/10

We were invited up table by table and could have any pudding we desired. The rules were: one pudding at a time, keep your bowl, and make you sure you finish one before getting the next round.

The serves started off modest in size, and definitely shrunk as the evening progressed. Despite this, it was all I could do to eat the seven portions of pudding. Although I was initially confident in my ability to eat all seven, it was almost impossible to eat the last serve -- the fact it was Spotted Dick didn't help, because I didn't much like that one.

I left the Three Ways House Hotel wondering whether I would ever eat again. Now of course, I think back to some of those puddings and my mouth starts watering. Now I could fit a few more serves in!

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

A brief note on hotels

Over the past month I have stayed in a variety of budget hotels in France and Spain -- many of them delightful, others not so much (all selected by Intrepid). Upon entering each room, myself and my room mate would immediately investigate the following things:

- powerpoints. With so many electrical devices (computers, phones, camera battery chargers etc) it has been a juggling act to get everything charged or powered (using one european adapter each), and the ideal scenario was a powerpoint beside each bed.
- shower. We had a wide variety, including showers over baths, showers without curtains/screens (disaster!), showers without adequate hot water or pressure, always showers on flexible pipes.
- breakfast. In France most hotels had breakfast available, sometimes included. In Spain, not so much. Invariably we took places up on their breakfast offer, as it was really convenient.
- WiFi. Every hotel had free WiFi available -- awesome -- and most had it available in the rooms. This was an unexpected bonus for me and has made blogging easy!

Aside from that, hotel rooms were for the most part simple but comfortable. Some stood out from a comfort point of view (Bordeaux, Sarlat, Madrid), others had great atmosphere or views (Luchon, Segovia, Cordova). Probably the worst hotels were in Cahors and Barcelona.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Cafe con leche and Catalan crème

Before I leave Spain behind entirely, there are a few final observations I want to make.

First of all, a further and final note on coffee. In my travels through Spain (and France too) I've had many different coffees. In France, I learnt soon to ask for a 'cafe au lait', which essentially proved to be a smallish and strong cafe latte. In Spain, the term is 'cafe con leche' for essentially the same thing. What is different in Spain, however, is the process. Invariably one is presented with a shot of espresso in a cup, and the milk is provided separately in a jug, often poured by the waiter/bartender. I grew to rather like the ritual involved -- and the coffee was just about always great. I did start to hanker for a large skim flat white/latte after a while (there are no large skim milk coffees in Spain or France), and succumbed to Starbucks on my final day in Barcelona, but aside from that the coffee experience was extremely positive. It was also quite a deal cheaper than at home.

Secondly, the dessert we know as Creme Brulee, is everywhere in Spain known as Creme de Catalan, or Catalan creme. It was available on just about every menu, especially the various 'menus del dia' (menus of the day), and I found myself eating it quite frequently. As a result I think I may have developed rather a taste for it. I've always liked it, but it's never been something that I've ordered. This could change!

Finally, breakfasts. The vast majority of our breakfasts in Spain were 'Andalusian breakfasts', which consist of a coffee, a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice, and some form of toast with a pureed tomato spread, olive oil and Spanish-style ham. This does actually taste quite good, and is often very good value, but after two weeks I was rather over it and ready for a good English breakfast. Not until Barcelona could we find anywhere that served eggs for breakfast . . . the irony being that heaps of places served eggs with sausage and fries for lunch!

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Barcelona part 2: the old and the new

In my view, Barcelona isn't nearly as 'in your face' as Madrid, and this is the opposite of what I expected. With the exception of La Sagrada Familia and anything else 'Gaudi' (which are as flashy as they come), Barcelona's attractions are more subtle. There is the bustling, jam-packed and colourful fresh produce market; the gorgeous old hospital and respite centre that have been transformed into the city library; the long shopping thoroughfare of La Rambla, complete with street performers; the tiny twisty laneways that make up the old (medieval) quarter; and everywhere you turn, it seems, the remnants of the old Roman town of Bacino.

from hospital to library

Roman remains
I didn't know anything about Barcelona's Roman origins, and it was fascinating to learn about Bacino and tour the excavated site of the village, including sections of the old wall as well as a laundry, dyeing shop, fish 'garum' manufacturer and winemaking factory. The same museum traced the history of the city now known as Barcelona: from Romans to Visigoths, to Muslim rule and Al-Andalus, to Frankish domination, the establishment of Old Catalonia and the rise to prominence of the Catalan Dynasty in the 11th and 12th Centuries . . . (My Spanish history is still remarkably rusty – it's very complicated!)

After spending yesterday exploring the historic centre of Barcelona, today I checked out some of the more contemporary sights: a Sunday collectables market (what fun to peruse all the 2nd hand books in Spanish); Gaudi's Park Guell (a hilly and well-forested parkland filled with Gaudi-designed terraces, outdoor balconies and buildings, including his final residence); and the peak of Tibidabo (a big hill overlooking the city and ocean – ascended via train then tram then funicular train to achieve fabulous views).

Gaudi's Park Guell
 With respect to Barcelona's somewhat 'edgy' reputation, we haven't seen too much evidence of this. Sure, the locals stay out late on a Saturday night (festivities outside my window at 4am this morning), but none of us have felt unsafe at any stage and our pockets are all unpicked! It seems to me to be an eminently livable city, and I'm sad I didn't have more time to do a little shopping. (I was quite decided on buying some 'boots of Spanish leather' or some such, but no more time!)

Saturday, 20 November 2010

La Sagrada Familia, a 'church by Gaudi'

early artist's impression c.1930s
 Our last stop in Spain is Barcelona, and we have the best part of three days here. One of the things I love about travelling is truly discovering a place, learning things about it that I didn't know. Before coming to Barcelona I would have said it was best known for: 'church by Gaudi', nightlife, beach/sailing and Olympics . . . hmmm. I clearly didn't know too much (but at least I knew more about it than some of the other places we've visited!).

I'd seen pictures of the 'church by Gaudi' – otherwise known as Temple Expiatori Sagrada Familia – and remembered only that it was weird and colourful. That it most certainly is, but thanks to some fabulous exhibitions providing insights into Gaudi's thought processes and inspiration, plus an extensive history of the project, I now have a vastly greater appreciation. It is truly amazing and Gaudi was waaay ahead of his time. (He died in 1926, leaving others to carry on his vision.)

Most people will have seen pictures of this neo-gothic church-building that has been under construction since 1882 and is only just over half complete. They tell us that it will be up to 40% taller than its current height, which already leaps up into the air above Barcelona like a jewelled crown. It has crazy coloured ceramics adorning the pinnacles of its many spires, elaborate sculpted facades depicting stories from the new testament (notably the 'Passion Facade', representing the passion, death and resurrection of Christ; the 'Nativity Facade', illustrating many elements of the Christmas story; and the yet-to-be-built 'Glory Facade'), and the inside is a forest of columns and colourful windows and other ornaments.

Upon first entering the church, I was awed by the scale and the boldness of its design; but it wasn't until I had visited the exhibition in the cloister that explained the designs that I truly understood and appreciated it. At heart, Gaudi was inspired by nature in all its shapes, colours, and textures. This means that the interior forest of columns truly is a forest, complete with branches and canopy. The crazy coloured ceramics on top of the spires actually represent baskets of fruit . . . or sheaves of wheat/grain . . . Spirals and other shapes found in nature are everywhere. Gaudi also used very inventive geometrical shapes in his designs: planoids, ellipsoids, hyperboloids, twisted columns etc etc. Many of these feature ruled or twinned surfaces at their heart.

forest of columns

In a vast basement area, a museum exhibits multiple plaster models of various elements of the church, old photos harking back to the late 19th C showing the progress of the construction, and many more anecdotes and documents about the building of the church. It also explains how Gaudi used an inverted model of hanging weights to design the main structural elements in tension, before reversing the direction of all the forces to gain the compression forces – fascinating from an engineering point of view.

Just two weeks ago on 7 November 2010, La Sagrada Familia was dedicated as a church by Pope Benedict XVI and is now officially a holy place open for worship. (Prior to this it could apparently not be referred to as a church . . .) We saw footage of this inauguration, and the sight of the church filled with people, presided over by the Pope, was truly awe-inspiring and rather moving. I knew La Sagrada Familia was a must-see item in Barcelona, but I didn't expect to be quite as impressed! There are several other Gaudi designs around Barcelona, including some houses and a park, which we are now hoping to see.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Some contemporary Spanish culture - Valencia

We've had quite a different experience in Valencia -- less history and more contemporary culture. That is, aside from ducking into a most impressive basilica/cathedral, which supposedly is home to the holy grail, in this case a gold chalice encased in glass . . . It also has a dried up hand on display as a saint's relic . . . eew.

The two highlights for me were experiencing the Mercado Central -- a massive indoor fresh produce market, housed in an impressive old skylit market building and bursting with fresh meat, fish, fruit and veg, nuts, cheese etc. I bought nuts (almonds, cashews, hazelnuts) and dried fruit (raspberries, cranberries and apricots) and a little baked cheesecake, which I later ate on the bus. For lunch we ate paella (originating from Valencia) from a street stall near the market.

We spent the afternoon in the massive complex known as Ciudad de las artes y las ciencias (City of arts and sciences), which comprises an aquarium/oceanic centre (sharks, penguins, many types of fish from many different climates, dolphins, mating walruses), interactive science museum (complete with star trek exhibition), Imax theatre complex, plus some other stuff. The complex is architecturally very impressive, with all the buildings now landmarks of Valencia, and has been built in what used to be a river bed. (As the result of a 1957 flood, the river was drained and diverted, and the original river bed is now an extensive parkland and recreational reserve bisecting the city.)

moon rising over the city of art and sciences, Valencia

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

e-Tales of the Alhambra

After hearing so much about Washington Irving during our trip around the Alhambra, we were naturally curious about his landmark book, Tales of the Alhambra. My father commented that he supposed it would be available online for free somewhere. I concurred, and speculated that it might be available for the kindle...

Challenge accepted. I sat on a conveniently located stone wall next to the Alhambra complex, just outside the magnificent 'Gate of Justice'. Activated the 3G wireless on the kindle. Searched for and found 3 kindle copies of Irving's tales. Downloaded one for 99c on the spot.

The wonderous powers of modern technology.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Alhambra - the last stronghold

It's probably fair to say that the number one reason for visiting Granada is to see the Alhambra -- the vast complex of forts and palaces that once formed the stronghold of the Nasrid (Moorish) empire.

The oldest structure is believed to be the Alcazaba, which is the miltary fort. Historians believe the founder of the Nasrid dynasty (13th C) rebuilt an abandoned fort from the 9th century. Perched high on a rocky promentory overlooking the modern town of Granada, the Alacazaba consists of thick stone defensive walls and towers, including the famous watchtower with bell, and is highly utilitarian in architecture and aspect.

Behind the Alcazaba, further along the ridge of a broad hill, lie the Nasrid Palaces -- an interconnecting series of patios (courtyards) and rooms ornately decorated in intricately carved marble (very distinctive style). The courtyards all contain some form of water feature -- whether a still pool to reflect the beauty of the architecture, or trickling fountains. Water, a key spiritual component, is everywhere. It's pumped around via small channels to and from the pools and fountains, burbling away in promotion of harmony and serenity.

We weren't able to see the Lion Courtyard (only the most famous part of the entire complex) due to restoration works on the key feature -- the beautiful lion fountain. We were, however, able to see the 12 restored lions of the fountain, displayed in the crypt along with lots of info on the restoration works. When the fountain is reassembled it will be quite something to behold. It was fabulous to see the before and after photos, which illustrate the vast improvement in detail in each of the individually carved lions.

The Nasrid Palaces were built sequentially by various Nasrid sultans, mainly during the 14th C. The 'fall of Granada', the last Moorish stronghold in Spain, took place in 1492 when the Catholic monarchs (Ferdinand and Isabella again) defeated the last Nasrid Sultan, Muhammad XII/Boabdil. Thus followed alterations and renovations and expansions -- particularly by Charles V in the first half of the 16th C.

The Alhambra complex also includes several other palaces, public buildings (such as Hammam-style baths) and towers (along the wall), some of which we could enter, others not. I managed to get inside the 'Tower of the Princesess', not actually open to the public, by being in the right place at the right time. The door was ajar and I was peering inside (amused by the rock music within) when the tradie came out and, finger to lips (ssh), beckoned me inside . . . so lucky me saw a beautifully tiled interior, more carved marble ceilings, walls, columns and distinctive Nasrid-style horseshoe arches.

The gardens surrounding the palaces are also beautiful - again most noticeably for the use of water, gurgling through channels and fountains and pools. Perhaps we noticed this more because of the emphasis on saving water in Australia. During the Nasrid empire, water was used lavishly, perhaps itself a sign of power and wealth.

As mentioned elsewhere on this blog, I've wanted to visit the Alhambra for quite some time now, and many have asked me whether it lived up to expectation . . . the answer is yes. It is far larger than I realised, covering a massive area across two hills, and it took us 5 hours to explore in detail. (Others in our group were through within 3 hours, which is evidently the average visit time.) The Nasrid Palaces themselves are beautiful, the carved marble stunning, but otherwise not as ornate as expected. There is far less tile-work than the Alcazar in Seville, and a lot less colour.

The Alhambra as a whole, though -- spanning fort, palaces, gardens, other structures -- is amazing. I lashed out and rented the audio tour, which provided additional detail (perhaps too much at times!), with our audio 'tour guide' taking on the persona of US writer Washington Irving, who stayed in the Nasrid Palaces in 1829 and was responsible for putting the Alhambra on the map. There are a few monuments to him around the place as well. We had a beautiful sunny day -- although so cold that we kept scarves on all day and hats for most of it! I bought the great brick of an official guide book too.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Ronda proves a revelation

Situated 700m above sea level in the Serrania de Ronda Mountains is the town of Ronda -- one of the most breathtakingly picturesque towns I've ever seen. It's built on a rocky outcrop high above a neighbouring valley, with dramatic cliffs and a deep gorge running through the centre of the town, spanned (naturally) by a unique and much photographed bridge.

Its near impregnable position made it significant in Moorish times, and the town features multiple historic buildings from that time -- the most memorable being the ruins of the Arabic baths (Banos Arabes) and the Palacio de Mondragon (home of Moorish kings before the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella kicked them out in the 1490s). The latter is now a museum devoted to the history and pre-history of the region -- tracing the hunter-gatherer origins of settlements in the region, to the Iberians and then the Roman occupation. Ironically, the museum exhibits petered out when it got to Moorish times! The musem did, however, reveal the deep and complex history of the region, reminding me of Sarlat and the Dordogne region: evidently, there are prehistoric cave paintings in the region, plus the ruins of an ancient town about 12km from Ronda.

It turns out Ronda also played a significant role in the Spanish Inquisition, plus was at the hub of much bandit activity in the past few centuries. It has a pretty amazing history, and multiple museums to delight the energetic visitor.

One of the most famous attractions of Ronda is its Puente Nuevo (new bridge), built over 42 years from 1751. This brige is evidently one of the most photographed structures in all of Spain, and one can see why. Not only is it architecturally unique, but its setting is quite stunning. It is one of just three bridges that span the Tajo Gorge -- on one side was the old Moorish town, highly fortified (I believe there was once a castle as well); as the city expanded after the Christan reconquest, the other side of the gorge was populated.

Travels in Andalucia

On this trip of 'Moorish Spain', we're spending the majority of our time in the province of Andalucia, which is Spain's largest. Our first stop was Cordova/Cordoba (from Madrid) for one night, then we spent two nights in each of Seville/Sevilla, Tarifa, Ronda, and now Granada. After Granada we head to Valencia and then Barcelona.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Winds of the Strait

The whole point of going to Tarifa was to stand at the southern edge of Spain and feel the winds of the Strait of Gibraltar in our hair. Just 14km across the strait loom the mountains of Morocco, clearly visible on the two lovely clear days we had (although perhaps more difficult to see in this photo); to the west spans the Atlantic Ocean; and to the east stretches the Mediterranean Sea.

Tarifa is a beach town, a surfers' (and para-sailers') town. It has a gorgeous old centre, comprising cobbled laneways and white-painted buildings reminiscent of the Greek Islands, embraced by a partial stone wall. There is a ruined castle and a lighthouse out on Isla de Tarifa, accessible in theory by a causeway, but not by the public.

Most of us didn't do much here. Sat in cafes, bars, ate, drank, talked, relaxed. It was lovely. (The more adventurous took a day trip to Morocco, which was by all accounts fantastic.)

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Seven buses

1st Bus: local transport in Seville to convey the group from our hotel to the main bus station. HAd to squeeze the group on with packs udring peak hour. We had an 'Adalusian breakfast' at the bus station - turkish style toast with smeared fresh tomato, olive oil and Spanish ham (similar to prociutto), plus a coffee.

2nd Bus: Coach ride (2.5h) from Seville to Tarifa, the southern-most tip of Spain marking the dividing point between the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean. It's a gorgeous beach town, where surfing and whale-watching seem to be popular. We arrived around lunchtime today, but didn't hang around too long...

3rd Bus: Transport from Tarifa to Algeciras, a Spanish port town near Gibraltar -- very modern-looking and quite big.

4th Bus: Local bus from Algeciras to La Linea, the Spanish town that abuts the UK territory of Gibraltar. It took around an hour in heavy traffic and stopping everywhere. From La Linea we walked across the border, flashing passports at disinterested immigration officials.

5th Bus: Gibraltar local bus, complete with pommy school kids, which took us to the foot of the cable car. We took the gondola to the top of the Rock, from which we were treated to spectacular views of the Atlantic, Mediterranean, Morocco, Spanish towns including Algecira and Costa del Sol. We also bonded with the apes living on the Rock (I kid you not). They are semi-tame, and will apparently rip food out of your hands, so you're not allowed to have food anywhere near them. We then descended and walked along the main street of Gibraltar and ate fish and chips. Very cool to have been there.

6th Bus: Back to Algecira from La Linea. Downed a glass of red wine for one euro, while waiting for the final bus.

7th Bus: From Algecira back to Tarifa. Arrived back just after 9:30pm.

Tomorrow is intended to be a relaxing day in the beach town.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Oranges, tapas and flamenco

There is a bit more to Seville than just the historical monuments described in my last post. Among other things, Seville is also a city of orange trees, tapas and flamenco.

In Seville -- as in other Spanish cities, but Seville is where I really noticed it -- ornamental orange trees line the streets, plazas and courtyards, their ripening fruit hanging like living Christmas decorations. Orange trees are everywhere. Apparently the ornamental fruits are not edible, but edible varieties must be grown elsewhere, for freshly squeezed orange juice is available everywhere as well. They have these amazing juicing contraptions, where you feed in whole oranges, peel on, and out rushes the delicious de-pipped juice.

Tapas bars are also prevalent in Seville. We ate in several, ordering dishes to share such as:
- sauteed spinach and chickpeas
- tomato and fetta salad
- fried chicken with 3-cheese sauce
- spicy potatoes
- fried goats' cheese with blackcurrent sauce
- pigs' cheeks
- mushroom/asparagus omelettes
- potato tortillas (aka Spanish omelette)
These are traditionally eaten by friends standing around bar tables with fork in one hand, drink in the other... Everyone eats from the shared plate. The drink here, incidentally, seems to be 'summer wine', which is red wine mixed wiht lemonade. Yum!

Seville/Andulucia is the home of flamenco, and we attended a performance, which was amazing. There were three performers: a flamenco guitarist (I could have listened to and watched him for hours), a singer (the gutteral/nasal flamenco style takes a bit of getting used to, but I loved the passion and ultimately the sound as well), and a single female dancer. The dancer was a visual focal point when she was on stage, and the sheer energy and passion she put into the dance was incredible. It's a strange style of music and dance, and I felt I wanted to understand it more. Evidently there are about six different styles of flamenco, and I have no idea which ones we saw... Nor do I have any idea what the songs were about. The hour went very quickly indeed.

Seville - so much more than a barber's town

Who would have thought there would be so much to see in Seville? My only prior knowledge of this remarkable city harks back to Rossini's opera (had to get that in there early), but in fact the infamous barber is nowhere to be found. (You'd have more luck finding signs of Don Q and his pal, Pancho.)

Plaza de Espana
 Instead, there are enough monuments and historical buildings to feast on, and this meant we had to prioritise. Our first afternoon saw us take a group walk around the central part of the town, taking in such sights as Plaza De Espana (a semi-circular plaza/buildings built for the Latin American expo in 1929) and many of the old churches, gardens, plazas etc. This gave us a full day to get inside some of the major attractions, which for me were: the Alcazar (14th C palace), the Cathedral (largest gothic building in the world and 3rd largest church in Europe), and the Bullfighting ring/museum.

 The Alcazar was the absolute highlight for me. It's a maze of tiled rooms, courtyards and gardens in the Moorish style, adapted and added to in the 14th C by the Catholic monarchs. There's a range of different tiling styles, depending on the period, and the two main wings of the palace are in the Mudejar (Moorish) and Baroque styles respectively. We spent three hours here and I could probably have stayed the entire day. LOVED it. Loved it so much I bought the pictorial visitor's guide. Enough said, really.

Cathedral with Giralda Tower
 After the Alacazar, the slightly more expensive cathedral was a bit of an anti-climax, although it was certainly huge/massive/enormous and the treasury areas were interesting and different from your run-of-the-mill cathedral. So too was the Giralda Tower, a 12th C Moorish tower next to the cathdral that is evidently the city's most famous monument. We climbed this -- for once by ramp, much easier than stairs -- and were rewarded with a fabulous view of the city.

The visit to the bull-fighting ring was a sobering experience. I certainly didn't want to see a bull fight (and we didn't), but I was interested to learn a little more about the practice. It was a very well presented tour, taking in the ring and a museum with art collection that helped explain the practice (I can't call it a sport). It's horrible. It should be banned. I cannot believe how excited they get about it, and will not describe what happens here, except to say that it's worse than I thought and I don't think the fact that the bull lives a happy pastured life for 5 years leading up to the fight really makes up for it. Enough said.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010


An overnight stop in Córdoba saw us spend a short afternoon in this city yesterday (after a 5 hour bus ride). The highlight was definitely the Mezquita - Cathedral, which is a massive Moorish mosque that was long ago converted into a Catholic cathedral. (In actual fact, it was a visigoth basilica first, before being destroyed and appropriated as a mosque, before being re-appropriated...)

We saw the outside of something similar (and smaller) in Toledo, but nothing could have prepared us for the magnificence of this building. It features vast open prayer floors with graceful arches, alongside a multitude of small side Christian chapels. It's the type of place where you just want to sit and soak it all up, but unfortunately we arrived with only 40 mins until closing time, and they made sure we left by that time.

We also spent a lovely evening in a local wine and tapas bar in Córdoba. We met up at 9pm -- which is the typical time in Spain to meet for tapas -- and herded six of us around a table in a semi-private alcove. We spent just a couple of hours with a bottle of wine and some beers, but it was a great way to spend the evening. We are getting used to Spanish dining: lunch after 2pm, coffee and cake at around 5:30pm, dinner after 8:30pm!

Monday, 8 November 2010

Toledo provides first taste of Moorish Spain

For the next two weeks, the trip I am on is called 'Moorish Spain'. This means we'll be focusing primarily on those parts of Spain populated by the 'Moors' (northern Africans) in the 7th to 13th C. We'll be exploring their old cities, their culture, their legacy (bring on the Alhambra!) and their relationships with the 'Christians', pressing in from the north, and those of the Jewish faith, who also inhabited Spain at that time.

(This part of Spain became of fascination for me as the result of reading the novel The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay. Although a fantasy novel, Kay has drawn heavily on this period of Spain and the legend of El Cid to explore how religion both divides and unites men.)

We visited Toledo, the first of these Moorish cities, yesterday. It was once a capital of the Spanish empire and is renowned as a place of the former co-existence of the Muslim, Christian and Jewish cultures.

Mosque converted into Catholic church
 These days Toledo has a small city centre perched on the top of a hill (not unlike Segovia), which is now a listed World Heritage site because of the myriad palaces, fortresses, churches, mosques and synagogues crammed into quite a small space. Many of the synagogues and mosques were appropriated by the Christian faith over the years, but they have been restored and are now preserved for posterity. It is now regarded as one of the most ancient and best preserved city centres in Spain.

We caught a bus from Madrid for a day trip, and spent a few hours wandering the cobbled streets... up... down... and lunched in the gorgeous tiled covered courtyard of a local cafe.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Madrid: City of art and al fresco dining

I didn't really know what to expect from Madrid. Turns out Spain's capital is a bustling, art-filled, cosmopolitan city that once again effectively juxtaposes the ancient, old and very new.

Over the past few days we have pounded the cobbled and concreted pavements to explore as much of the city as possible. Mostly we followed a self-guided walking tour, but othertimes followed our noses to experience the city. We stumbled upon at least a score of plazas, cradled in nooks made by the twisty narrow streets, usually home to rows of outdoor tables that belong to several cafes. There are seriously more cafes here than in Melbourne! And every one calls to me and I want to sit down and bask in the sunshine while sipping a coffee.

The Plaza Mayor (pronounced ma-your) is the largest and most famous of these. It's very central and was formerly used for such events as bull fights, knightly tournaments, festivals and the burning of heretics. Now it's the social hub of the city, filled with cafes and street performers and the like. It's surrounded on four sides by multi-story buildings, and is very picturesque.

On our first afternoon in Madrid, we decided to 'knock over' one of the main sights - the Palacio Real. This is an 18th C Royal Palace and the rooms open to the public are among the most ornate I have ever seen. The ceilings are all painted with beautiful frescoes, mostly of mythological scenes, and all the other decor is similarly lavish. The armoury also features a massive display of beautifully engraved suits of armour (both for men and horses) and weapons. Apparently the palace is still used for state events, although different rooms than those open to the public.

Another highlight of Madrid was the Ermita (Hermitage) de San Antonio de la Florida, which is an 18th C chapel featuring frescoes by Francisco de Goya. It is also known as Goya's Sistine Chapel, and it's easy to see why. The paintings of angels and cherubs and other mythological scenes are amazingly beautiful. Goya's tomb is also here in this little chapel, which is free to visit. We had to walk a long way and try quite hard to find this little gem -- it's not well publicised, and we can't help but think this is perhaps intentional.

Like many European cities, Madrid has its fair share of old churches, and we visited a few of them. We also checked out the Egyptian Templo de Debod, which has been relocated here stone by stone from the Aswan valley. (This site was absolutely packed with tourists, whereas Goya's Ermita had very few visitors. The contrast was striking, particularly when the Ermita was 10 times more impressive. But probably a good thing.)

Of course we also visited the Prado Museum -- one of the great art galleries of the world. I have to confess I probably didn't do it justice, for we turned up exhausted after a long day of walking and exploring, but we did spend 1.5 hours wandering through most of it, albeit at a breakneck pace. We made sure we saw the works by Goya (although in contrast with his holy frescoes in the Ermita, these were dark and contorted and in a completely different style), plus we also saw the impressive Reubens collection, which is the largest in the world. I also found some pieces by Bottecelli, Titian, Raphael, plus other famous Spanish painters.

The final place of note are the expansive El Retiro gardens, which feature many kms of car-free pathways and grassy areas where families can picnic etc. We went there this afternoon, and being a Sunday this seemed to be the place where it's at. It also features a magnificent art gallery buried in its depths, and a 'glass palace' which looks like an ornate conservatory and appears to be a venue for exhibitions. We walked through as the light was fading.

Most of the main sites of Madrid hark back to the 18th C, but there are the scant remains of an old Roman? viaduct, plus the ruined foundations of an old Moorish settlement. Madrid was evidently a minor town until the mid 16th C, when it was made the capital owing to its centralised geographical location and wealth of room for expansion.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Roman aqueduct

A highlight of Segovia is the incredibly well preserved ancient Roman aqueduct that runs through the town (and disappears into the old part of the town). It is apparently one of the best preserved Roman artefacts in Europe/the World, with the preserved section spanning around 800m. Our hotel is near to the aqueduct at its highest point – in fact we can see it from our balcony! – and to see it suspended and soaring in the air makes me grin.

We walked all the way to the 'beginning' of the aqueduct, where the land rises and one can see down the water channel. The engineering that went into this structure was amazing; not only did they have to get all those arches absolutely right, they had to maintain a very specific gradient over an undulating landscape to ensure the water was delivered appropriately. A definite highlight of Segovia!

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Stupendous Segovia

It has begun. Spain. I have wanted to come here for so many years and although I was a bit underwhelmed by San Sebastian, Segovia is stupendous.

A medieval walled city on the top of a hill, Segovia is a city of churches and monasteries, with one almighty giant cathedral perched on the crest of the hill. The cathedral dominates the skyline no matter which way you look at it, a giant bauble that is far too big to be taken seriously.

Somewhat surprisingly, I didn't enter any of these houses of worship (it cost 3 euro to enter the cathedral) because there was too much else to do! Even just walking through the cobbled streets, dodging cars (one wonders who would want to drive down some of these streets), gazing upon one old building after another, sipping sangria in the plaza major (main square), skipping along the medieval walls (largely intact), was enough to keep us busy for hours.

We also visited two palaces today. The first was in the nearby town of La Granja, and we first had to work out how to catch the bus there (and back again). The 'Royal Seat of La Granja de San Ildefonso' was used as a summer residence of the Spanish monarchs for a time in the 18th C and was apparently modelled on Versailles in Paris, although is not nearly so grand. It has acres and acres of gardens, criss-crossed with paths and 28 extravagant fountains. For our visit, the fountains, which feature ornate sculptures of Greek/Roman gods made from bronze-painted lead, were dry, and we had to imagine the cascades of water. The gardens too were showing signs of neglect – it put me in mind of what Sleeping Beauty's garden must've looked like 100 years later... Well, maybe not quite so overgrown.

The second palace/castle was the Alcazar, the medieval fort in Segovia itself. It dates from the 12th C and was the royal residence of the monarchs of the Castile. Over time it has evolved, and the addition of slate-roofed tower spires makes it look a bit 'fairytale' – although in my view this doesn't quite fit with the rest of the castle, which is constructed of a golden stone and has many elements in the 'mudajar' style. Inside were displays of armour, art, arms, and spectacular carved ceilings and friezes. We also climbed to the top of the tower (156 steps), from which we gained a magnificent view of the town (and the cathedral).

I have spent the whole 1.5 days in Segovia with a smile on my face and a skip in my step. Bring on the rest of Spain!

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Basquing in San Sebastian

Our first taste of Spain was San Sebastian, a Basque beach town on the northern coast of Spain, which owes its popularity to the fact that the Spanish royal family built a Summer Palace there in the 19th century. It's a town of different facets: old town with multitudes of tapas bars (known as pinxos in this region); beautiful lush green hill on which stands a medieval fortress and the remnants of French and English militia (including an old English graveyard); broad semi-circular promenade, hugging a golden sandy beach and aquamarine waters; and located at the far reaches of the bay, a magnificent piece of art, known as the Wind Comb, which combines rusted iron sculpture, wind and water to create a unique experience.

It rained quite a bit on our day in San Sebastian, so we didn't really see the summer party town. But we did enjoy our walk (and the wind comb in particular) and I became quite proficient at saying 'thank you' in Basque – which is 'Eskerrik Asko'.

We are learning to eat differently in Spain – the main meal is typically at lunch time (~2pm), with tapas style dinner starting late (~8pm). Most of the shops and many attractions close between about 2 and 4 for siesta, which should make the next few weeks interesting. Our lunch in San Sebastian was 'the menu of the day' – a three course meal which included a bottle of wine between the five of us. We had a choice for each course – I had paella (because, well, I'm in Spain), stuffed capsicums, and rice pudding (yum).

The wine in Spain is so far very good and really cheap. A glass of very passable red (often temperanillo) in a bar is around 1.5 Euro!

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Sookie Stackhouse books

I've recently read the first two novels in the 'Sookie Stackhouse' series by Charlaine Harris (Dead until Dark and Living Dead in Dallas) and have found them a fun and entertaining read - perfect for travelling. For the uninitiated, these are books about telepathic bar waitress Sookie and her vampire boyfriend Bill, and explore Vampire (and supernatural being) politics and small town misadventure (ie murder), in a USA where vampires are 'out' and bloodsucking doesn't necessarily kill you. They are also the foundation for the TV series True Blood.

I haven't seen True Blood yet, so am reading the novels with an untainted view. They're light and funny and have an interesting take on integrating vampires into human society. The style is a little odd - perhaps even simplistic - but it kind of suits the voice of Sookie, who narrates.

Anyway, after hearing so much about the books and TV show, it's fun to read some of the books. There are quite a few more in the series, which I might read, since they're so easy to download on the kindle.

Sunday, 31 October 2010

Walk in the Pyranees

Our adventures today embraced less of the historical and more of the physical (and natural). We are in Luchon, a pretty French town in the Pyranees, and we took a walk up a nearby hill to nearby villages. On a clear day, the view would be spectacular -- it wasn't too shabby on a rainy, misty day either. The snow-capped peaks in the distance drifted behind some cloud, but the villages nestled in the broad valley below were still picturesque.

In any case, as they say, it's all about the journey, rather than the destination, and the walk today was beautiful. We trekked up and around the hill, often through autumnal beech and oak woodland in vivid oranges and yellows, for approx 3 hours, and I was pleased with the remnants of my Trailwalker fitness. I didn't struggle in the least, and thoroughly enjoyed the walk. (It still seems surreal to me to actually enjoy walking up up up.) Unfortunately our planned 'picnic' took place in the pouring rain, huddled beneath a scant shelter in one of the villages, and we didn't linger. The downward journey was along the road, so not as pretty, but we did see a couple of deer in the forrest and a black squirrel.

Saturday, 30 October 2010

Manger ou ne manger pas?

Confit de canard (fatty fried duck)
I dare say my French is incorrect, but 'to eat, or not to eat' has hardly been the question... I confess I am eating myself around France at present, and can see no signs of it abating. I remember the amazingness of French cuisine from last time, except now I have more money to indulge my every eating whim.

The pastries here are incredible, and I am travelling with women who enjoy them as much as I. There is the obligatory croissant for breakfast (along with baguettes, boiled eggs, meat, cheese and yoghurt, if we're lucky), plus tarts of all different kinds, pain au chocolat, macarons, chocolate eclaires, custard-filled pastries (I forget what they're called)... Tres delicieux. Sometimes we have two or three pastries a day – but it doesn't stop there!

For lunch we usually have either a filled baguette (like a salad roll), or maybe some quiche bought from a patisserie, or we sit down in a brasserie or cafe and have 'plat du jour' (plate of the day). This is usually very unhealthy as well, but we are trying to savour and experience the different dishes of the region. The other day we had 'confit de canard', which is a duck leg cooked in lashings of duck fat – with fries. I feel a bit ill when I think of it, and indeed it was too fatty for me. But it had to be tried. Yesterday, we had croque monsieur (fried cheese and ham sandwich) with fries. I think I must have put on a kg already.

The other regional delicacy we have tried is foie gras (pate made from the liver of fat geese or ducks). This is HUGELY popular in this part of France, but I was a little uncomfortable trying it, because of how they force-feed the birds to make them fat. So I decided to have it once only (and it tasted fantastic). It also means I am trying to steer clear of duck generally, but it can be hard around here, when they serve so much of it.

For dinner we have mostly been going out as a group to a restaurant selected by our leader, and many of these offer set menus for a very reasonable price (11-15 Euro). Last night (in Cahors) we ate in a local restaurant that didn't even show us a menu. The eccentric waiter/owner kept bringing food to our table – showing us the choice of dishes if there was one – and we ended up having five courses. There was potato soup, a vegetable tarine (or foie gras as an alternative), a delicious main course of duck fillets (or mushed poisson with mashed potato), a cheese plate, followed by a choice of desserts (I had some custard thing with meringue on top). On top of that there was black wine (a speciality of the region) and we rolled back to our hotel.

It goes without saying that we have been drinking our way around France as well. Mostly we just ask for 'vin rouge' (red wine), and mostly it is very drinkable. We've had bottles with dinner on occasion, and these have been extra nice. Our vin rouge consumption begins at about 5pm with a pre-dinner drink (or we have time to kill before meeting up with the group) and then continues with dinner. I should emphasise that we're not having much more than 3-4 small glasses over the course of an evening, so it's not a total booze-fest. Our group is very restrained and merely enjoys an odd vin rouge or two.

Cahors - fresh food market
This morning we visited a renowned fresh produce market in Cahors, and I picked up some nuts and fruit (plus other dainty delicacies for lunch on the train). We were also lured into the clutches of a cheese seller, who thrust samples at us for tasting (yum), so of course we bought some. It cost us 8.7 Euro for a modest wedge of cheese, but apparently it will last 3 months out of the fridge. We intend to commence our enjoyment of said cheese tomorrow, when we have a picnic during our walk in the Pyranees.

Tonight we went to a creperie for dinner – more cheese, and lots of it, but at least we didn't have any dessert. I really am going to have to stop eating like this, or my arteries will clog up. Hopefully tomorrow's hike will help burn up some of the calories!