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About Me

  1. Today is the final day of our holiday, with our plane back to Luton departing from Malaga around 7pm this evening. The other night we had the fun tasks of filling in our passenger locator forms and checking that our lateral flow tests had been successfully despatched. But before the journey home, we just had time for one more adventure We were due to hand in the hire car at Malaga airport at 16.30 this afternoon. The place we were staying in Cordoba was only a couple of hours drive away from Malaga, which meant we had time for a substantial stop-off somewhere on route. After checking out of the apartment some time around 10am this morning, we therefore started driving in the direction of El Torcal de Antequera. El Torcal de Antequera is a natural park, just south of the city of Antequera, and only about a 50-minute drive away from Malaga airport. There's a visitor centre with free car parking, although the carpark wasn't anywhere near as big as I expected and we only just managed to find a space when we arrived some time after 11.30. First impressions were that the landscape here is really impressive. It reminded me a bit of when we had visited Brimham Rocks earlier this year. The rock formations here were much, much bigger than at Brimham Rocks though. After parking the car, we walked towards a signposted viewing area. From here the views were amazing - both of the rocks... ...and of the countryside below us. I'd already decided that this was a great place to visit There are three different walks which you can do in the park. The walks are colour-coded and marked with arrows. We'd decided to do the yellow route, which was described as being 3km and requiring 2 hours. We soon learned that you really need to pay attention to the arrows, as we accidentally went a few steps off track and lost the path! There's huge potential to get lost here because the scenery is so unusual and lots of the rocks look the same. The only way to walk here without following a marked trail is to go on a guided trip. Thankfully after that one incident, we didn't have any more difficulties finding the yellow arrows The scenery we walked through was absolutely stunning. Apparently this is one of the most impressive karst landscapes in Europe - I can see why! In places the path was quite easy to follow. In other places it was rockier and I was glad that I was flying home in my walking boots (mainly because I couldn't fit them in my suitcase - I'd brought them with me for the Caminito del Rey). Tim didn't have his, but seemed to manage okay in trainers The only problem with the route was that there weren't any indications of how far around you were, so we weren't sure how many kilometres we still had left to walk. I could have kept walking all day through scenery like this, but was conscious of the fact that we had a plane to catch We kept following the yellow markers, and before 2 hours were up we caught sight of the visitor centre where we'd started on the horizon. We enjoyed the final views as we walked towards it. I particularly loved these striped rocks. You could see the different layers in them so clearly! When we got back to the visitor centre we realised it had a restaurant, so we were able to sit outside on a sunny terrace and enjoy a final view of the countryside. We had pudding too, of course Then all that was left to do was to drive the little hire car back towards Malaga It's been an absolutely wonderful holiday and this was a great way to end it
  2. We had an exciting excursion planned today for our final full day in Spain; a visit to the Alhambra in Granada. We first visited the Alhambra in 2014 and it was the highlight of our trip to Spain. We had a bit of a trek to get there that time though, taking a bus for several hours from Cordoba and walking miles through the city of Granada before we reached our destination. This time, with a hire car, the journey was going to be considerably easier, although it was still a trip of around 200km from where we're staying. After a reasonably earlier start, we arrived at the Alhambra around 11am and parked in what seemed like quite an empty carpark. I had no illusions that the Alhambra was going to be quiet today, though. This is the second most popular visitor attraction in the whole of Spain, out-visited only by the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, and while tickets don't sell out quite as quickly as for the Caminito del Rey, you still have to book them several weeks in advance. At least, I had booked these tickets a couple of weeks in advance and only just about managed to get them for the date I wanted. Considering a Wednesday in November is not exactly high season, I'm guessing that they must sell out quite quickly at peak times. You can buy the tickets online and print them at home to bring with you, but what seems like a bit of a hassle is that you need to enter an ID number for each visitor you buy a ticket for, and then everyone has to show that ID when they arrive. I wasn't sure how rigorously this was going to be checked in practice, but it turned out the answer was "very rigorously"! We had to show our passports to enter the general Alhambra area and then again to enter each of the individual attractions which we visited within it. There were more checks of our documentation at the Alhambra than at Malaga airport or the Gibraltar border Never mind, it was worth it to visit such a beautiful place There are three main areas to visit within the Alhambra complex: the Alcazaba, the Generalife gardens and the Nasrid palaces. Entry to the Nasrid palaces is via a timed slot which you have to book in advance. Entry to the Alcazaba and the Generalife is allowed at any time on the day for which you've purchased a ticket (but you can only visit each area once). We were booked in for the Nasrid palace at 3pm, so decided to start with a walk around the Generalife. The Palacio de Generalife was the summer palace of the Nasrid dynasty, who ruled Granada from around 1230 to 1492. It consists of a series of formal gardens, as well as a palace with courtyards. I didn't know how impressive the gardens would be in November, but there were still a surprising amount of flowers and greenery. There were also some amazing views across towards the Alcazaba and the Nasrid palaces. We explored the gardens for a while... ...then moved on to the courtyards of the palace. It looks quite peaceful in the pictures but we actually got stuck behind a large Turkish tour group at this point which was a bit annoying We managed to overtake them as we moved on to the palace. The patterns were really beautiful... ...and the views weren't bad either I absolutely loved the little fountains and water features in the gardens. The whole complex is really beautiful. We reached the top of the Generalife and enjoyed the views once again. It's always nice when you come back to somewhere you really enjoyed visiting first time around and find it's just as amazing as you remember Leaving the Generalife, we strolled through a smaller area of gardens on our way towards the Alcazaba. These gardens were really pretty too, and a lot quieter than the main Generalife. There were flowers... ...palm trees... ...and hedges pruned in the shape of crenellations As we left the gardens, we passed this church... ...plus a couple of hotels which looked like they might be promising spots to get lunch. Then we reached the outskirts of the Alcazaba. This is the fortress and the oldest part of the Alhambra. We passed through this very ornate gate... ...and then we were within the high walls of the castle. The Alcazaba has one very high tower - the Torre de la Vela - at its far end. The rest of the castle is made up of these huge ramparts. We came to a big terrace, from where we had views back down towards Granada. It's clear from here that it's a very large city. We weren't planning to go down into it today, but I did recognise the large cathedral which we saw when we visited in 2014. There were some great views of the Alcazaba itself from here too. My absolute favourite view was in this direction, though. You might have to zoom in a bit, but if you do you should just be able to make out a few tiny spots of snow on the mountains in the distance. There's allegedly a ski resort in the mountains behind Granada, but I'm guessing it doesn't have the most reliable snowfall! We climbed to the top of the high watchtower, which was a bit of an interesting experience as it was quite a narrow staircase with people climbing in both directions. The views weren't noticeable better from up here than they had been from lower down. Visit to the Alcazaba completed, we climbed back down in search of lunch. We got a table on the terrace of one of the hotel restaurants with a really lovely view We both had burgers (mine was without all the leaves!)... ...followed by desserts (not 100% sure what these were called, but they were very nice!). Not the cheapest meal of the holiday, but it successfully enabled us to kill the time until we were allowed to enter the Nasrid palaces at 15.00 We had to queue up, have our passports scanned again, then finally we were inside These were the main royal palaces, inhabited by the rulers of Granada. The tour leads you through a succession of rooms, each with more elaborate patterns and decorations than the last. This is definitely the highlight of a visit to the Alhambra, but because of its popularity and the timed entry system, there are always hordes of people in any given room. That's why most of our pictures are taken above the level of other people's heads There were some cool details if you looked down too, though. I loved the tiles on this floor... ...and was particularly impressed to find what looked like ducks on some of them There were some amazing patterns on the walls too. The windows were pretty incredible too. And the archways! Sometimes it was impossible not to get other people in the photos. The main irritation was guided tours, which caused large groups of people to stand in a given room and make it difficult for other people to get around them. It was mandatory to wear masks though and everyone seemed to be complying with that, which was good. Periodically we emerged from the inner rooms into courtyards. There were some beautiful details here too. Back inside, there were some more incredible ceilings like this one... ...and this one. Last time we came here we were using digital cameras and we ended up taking so many photos that Tim filled the memory card on his and started having to delete things. I think the battery on the camera might then ultimately have died It's hard not to constantly take photos when you're somewhere as spectacular as this. We passed through some archways into a courtyard once again. You can see it was quite busy! This is the Courtyard of the Lions, with this fountain as its centrepiece. From here we moved into what seemed to be one of the most elaborate rooms in the palaces. Another absolutely stunning ceiling! We were getting towards the end of the tour now. We walked through this archway... ...and out into the final gardens. Then it was back out into the open sunshine One final view to admire before we needed to head back to the car It's been a lot of travelling to get to the Alhambra and back today, but 100% worth it The tickets were only €14 (which feels good value compared to €11 for the Mezquita in Cordoba) and the parking was an additional €10. It feels like a small price to have paid to visit somewhere so unique.
  3. Having arrived in Cordoba yesterday evening, we were keen to get out and explore the city this morning. Fortunately we didn't have far to go; the apartment we're staying in is just on the opposite side of the river from the old town. We first visited Cordoba during our 2014 trip to Spain and one of my main memories is the enormous bridge over the river Guadalquivir. The bridge was originally built by the Romans in the 1st century BC, before being rebuilt during the 8th century when Cordoba was under Islamic rule. As we walked across it this morning we had a good view of Cordoba's most famous sight: the Mezquita. The Mezquita has been a Catholic cathedral since 1236, when Cordoba was captured by Christian forces. However, the original building was a mosque, built in the 8th century when Cordoba was the capital of the Islamic region of Al-Andalus. Some parts of the building look like a normal Christian cathedral. This bell tower, for example, was built in the 17th century to replace a minaret. In other places, the Islamic influence is still very visible. The building is beautiful from the outside, but even more so from the inside. Last time we were here I went inside, but Tim decided that the €8 entry fee was too steep and stayed outdoors This time we were both planning to go inside, although since 2014 the entrance fee has increased to €11. We queued up outside to buy tickets from a ticket machine. The queue was quite slow moving, as some people seemed to be having difficulties with the machine, although we found it quite straightforward when we used it. You had to buy a ticket for a specific half-hour slot. We'd just missed 11am, so bought tickets for 11.30 and had a short stroll around the streets of the old town while we waited for our turn. Soon it was our turn to go inside. I was really excited to see the red and white striped archways which I remembered from last time Some parts of the interior look like a traditional cathedral. Admittedly, a rather elaborate one. But it's these columns and archways which make the building really unique. This area would have been the main prayer hall back when the building was a mosque. In total there are around 850 of these columns within the building. The overall effect is really spectacular. On one side of the cathedral more of the original Islamic decorations are visible. The patterns are really intricate. In some places the ceiling is patterned too. I really loved these carved patterns on the walls as well Once we'd finished admiring the cathedral, we stepped back out into the sunshine to admire the rest of Cordoba's sights. We discovered the remains of a Roman forum, which I have no recollection of seeing last time we were here We walked through pretty little squares... ...complete with orange trees. One of the other things I remembered from last time we were in Cordoba were the beautiful parks. We were here in July before, so definitely appreciated the shade when walking beneath these trees. Today we were more appreciating the sunshine We stopped for a while in a cafe in the park for coffee Then we continued back into the centre of Cordoba, admiring the walls of the Alcazar. We stopped in a tiny little restaurant for a lunch of steak and potatoes. I was relieved Tim had asked the waiter for my steak to be well-done; his looked rather rare! We finished the meal with a chocolate/custardy kind of pudding, plus coffee. After the food we had another stroll, admiring the Alcazar from the other side. Then it was back across the Roman bridge, towards our apartment. I'm glad that Cordoba has turned out to be just as beautiful as I remember it being
  4. We had another big day of travelling ahead of us today, as we left El Puerto de Santa Maria behind and travelled towards our final destination of Cordoba. We weren't allowed to check into our apartment in Cordoba until 5pm, which left us with quite a bit of time to fill as the drive itself was due to take less than three hours. When looking at the map, I realised that our route would take us right around the outskirts of Seville. We'd visited Seville during our 2014 trip to Spain and it wasn't a place which was high on our list of destinations we wanted to revisit. We'd been there in July, which probably isn't the best time to visit this part of Spain, and the temperatures were unbearably hot. My main memory is arriving in mid-afternoon, having struggled to pull a broken suitcase down a series of streets with very narrow pavements, and having to sit in the apartment eating Pringles because the restaurants didn't start serving dinner until 9pm. My other abiding memory is that Seville smelled terrible, with the centre of town being dominated by horse-drawn carriages. So I wasn't exactly desperate to go back That said, Seville was the obvious place to break our journey today and so we decided to give it a second chance. I had a premonition that driving/parking in Seville could be a bit nightmarish, so I researched whether there was anything like a "park and ride" system. It turns out that Seville has a metro and I read that a couple of the metro stations on the outskirts of town have free carparks. We drove towards one of these metro stations, a place called San Juan Bajo, and were pleasantly surprised to find that there was indeed a large free carpark with plenty of spaces It was also one of the most scenic places we've ever parked; there was a beautiful view up towards this church on a hill above us. Metro tickets cost a couple of Euros each and we were soon on our way towards the city centre. We hadn't done a huge amount of Seville research in advance of this trip, but had decided to get off the metro at a station called Puerta Jerez which seemed reasonably central. We emerged into an impressive square, complete with flowers and Christmas decorations. In the distance we could see a large tower and, of course, one of the ubiquitous horse and carriages. The good news is that because the weather was so much cooler than in July - and there was quite a strong breeze today at times - the smell of horses never became overwhelming Our vague plan was to walk towards a square we remembered from our previous visit to Seville - Plaza de España - so we set off in that direction. The square was well signposted and we found it without too many difficulties... ...although when we arrived, the entire square turned out to be in a state of chaos. Initially I thought they were having a car boot sale, but later it seemed more like it was a rally of classic cars It didn't matter; Plaza de España was still beautiful One of the things I do remember really loving about Seville first time around were the amazing tiles in this square. The lampposts are particularly ornate. When we first came here we'd never been to Portugal, but now that we have it does feel very reminiscent of some of the tiles we've seen there The square itself is enormous and was built in 1929 to host an Ibero-American exposition. Around the edge of the square are these very ornate benches, which seem to be dedicated to each of the major regions in Spain. We found the one for Salamanca, which was one of our favourites places during our 2014 Spain trip There's also some water in the middle of the square, which is crossed via these beautiful bridges. All in all it's a very impressive square Star Wars fans may also recognise it from the film Attack of the Clones, where it was featured in scenes of the planet Naboo. It was much easier to enjoy the scenery without the baking heat from last time we were here. It's by no means cold here in November, though; it was warm enough today for ice-cream, so we enjoyed one as we strolled around the gardens outside the square. Seville seems to be a surprisingly green city. We made our way back into the city centre via a series of parks... ...and leafy avenues. We knew we had hit the centre when we got our first glimpse of Seville's cathedral. The cathedral in Seville is absolutely enormous; one of the largest churches in the world. It's impossible to give a proper impression of its size in photos... ...because you can only ever fit a small part of it on the screen. We were impressed anyway, but we were also hungry by this point so we set off on a search for food. That ended up taking a bit longer than I expected! There were lots of restaurants in Seville, but many of them only had a few outdoor tables and were already full; it looked like Sunday was a popular day for Spanish people to go out for lunch. We eventually found a nice Italian restaurant that managed to squeeze us in. We enjoyed some lasagne/tagliatelle, followed by delicious Nutella pancakes After lunch we had a bit more time to explore Seville. Honestly, walking around some of these streets I wouldn't have known that I'd ever been to Seville before I loved these enormous trees, cut into box shapes. And also this building with the striped domed roof. We walked through various squares, on our way back to the Puerta Jerez metro station. We passed the cathedral again, but still couldn't fit it all in one photo. We were impressed by this massive door, which had some incredible detail. Leaving the cathedral behind, we got back on the metro and picked up our car. From there we had a drive or another 90 minutes or so until we reached the apartment we are renting in Cordoba. It's nothing too spectacular on the inside, with a kitchen, living room... ...plus bedroom... ...but the great thing about it is that it comes with a space in a parking garage Cordoba is another place where I think it would be really difficult to park if you didn't have an allocated space. It got dark shortly after we arrived here so we haven't seen much of Cordoba yet, but we really enjoyed it when we were here in 2014 so looking forward to seeing more of it tomorrow. And Seville has definitely redeemed itself in my eyes after today's visit; I would go back again, just maybe not in summer
  5. Our trip to Gibraltar yesterday was fun but a bit tiring, so we had a less adventurous day planned today - visiting the nearby town of Cadiz. When planning the holiday I had initially hoped to stay in Cadiz, but it turned out to be a difficult place to find any kind of accommodation with parking. The place we are staying in in El Puerto de Santa Maria is around 30km away from the centre of Cadiz, so we had a short drive towards the town this morning. Cadiz is really unusual in that the city is located on a narrow strip of a peninsula sticking out into the sea, so we approached it via an enormous bridge. The first thing we noticed as we drove around looking for parking was that there was a huge cruise ship docked in the port. Oh dear! Once we'd parked up and started to explore the town we did run into a few groups of tourists on excursions from the ship, but luckily not too many First impressions of Cadiz were that it's a really lovely place. There was a bright blue sky, lots of palm trees and some beautiful buildings. We'd parked not far away from Cadiz cathedral, which is really enormous. It's one of those cathedrals where you can't fit the entire building in one photo The cathedral was set in a big square, which was already decorated for Christmas. You might just be able to make out on the photos that the trunks of the palm trees are covered in fairy lights. We hadn't come to Cadiz armed with a map, so we just decided to wander around the streets and see where we ended up. There were lots of pretty buildings, some with enclosed balconies which were a bit reminiscent of Malta. We soon found ourselves in Plaza de San Antonio, one of the town's main squares. One of the buildings here made me think of Portugal; part of the facade was covered in beautiful blue tiles. I also loved this tree with purple flowers on the other side of the square. The geographical situation of Cadiz means that the town is almost completely surrounded by the sea and before long we got our first glimpse of it. We decided to walk along by the coast and admire the views. As we walked, we came across various fortifications. We also found some beautiful gardens The photos from today are going to look odd, because it was a strange combination of being cold enough to need a jumper but sunny enough to wear sunglasses As we were walking through the gardens we saw this tree with an enormous trunk Leaving the gardens, we walked alongside the coast once again. We were able to enter one of the coastal fortifications for free and explore. There were some great views out to sea from the walls. Facemasks were compulsory, even though we were predominantly outside. After the castle we came to one of Cadiz's beaches. It seemed like a nice proper sandy beach, though it was a bit cold for anyone to be sunbathing on it today. A bit further on around the coast we saw another castle in the distance. We were able to walk towards it via a long pier. This is the castle of San Sebastian. It wasn't open today, but it looked impressive from the outside. We made our way back along the pier, towards the centre of Cadiz. It was after 1pm now, so we figured Spanish breakfast time would definitely be over and we should be able to start looking for some lunch We continued to follow the walkway alongside the sea. As we got closer to the historical centre again we got an amazing view of the cathedral. I thought it was pretty when we were in the cathedral square, but I hadn't realised that it also had this enormous dome Did I mention that it was really windy in Cadiz? When we'd finished admiring the cathedral we found a little restaurant for lunch. We both had the menu of the day, which involved chicken soup (although to be honest, mine seemed to have more ham and egg(!) in it than actual chicken) plus spaghetti bolognese. It was really good value, at €11.50 each After lunch we had a final look at the cathedral... ...and walked through the cathedral square, in search of one attraction in Cadiz which we hadn't yet managed to find. I'd read in the guidebook that Cadiz had a Roman theatre, so I was keen to see what it was like. When we eventually tracked it down, it seemed like it was rather on the small side. Probably not worth travelling to Cadiz for, but we've had a lovely day here regardless
  6. It had almost been dark when we arrived at our accommodation in El Puerto de Santa Maria last night, so we hadn't got much of a sense of what the neighbourhood we're staying in is like. When I looked out of the windows this morning, I saw that it was another bright sunny day and we seemed to staying right on the edge of a forest. The trees looked really cool, so once we'd had breakfast I wanted to go and explore. It turned out to be a forest that was more fun to look at than to be in; the ground was very sandy underfoot, making it difficult to walk, and it was quite dark under the canopy of trees. Walking through the forest was worthwhile though, because it meant we also found our way to the nearby beach We had a little walk on the sand before getting in the car and setting off towards our main destination of the day: Gibraltar. Going to Gibraltar meant retracing our steps slightly, driving back in the direction of Malaga. It would probably have made more sense to do Gibraltar as a day trip when travelling between Malaga and Cadiz, but I'd ruled that out because I really wanted to do yesterday's inland route and see the white villages Luckily our route was motorway and so we only had around an hour and a half of driving before we reached the Spanish town of La Línea de la Concepción, which sits on the border between Spain and Gibraltar. The plan was to park the car in La Línea and walk across the border to Gibraltar; partly because driving in Gibraltar is supposed to be horrendous, with long queues at the border at peak times of the day, and partly I'm guessing we weren't supposed to take our hire car out of Spain anyway. Thankfully there are plenty of car parks in La Línea so we found one with spaces, pinned it on Google maps so that we could retrieve the car again later and set off towards the border. I'd done some research on the border in advance and established that you didn't need to provide a Covid test if you were entering Gibraltar by land (although you do if you are flying in to the airport). All we needed were our passports, which we duly showed and got stamped out of Spain. Now we just had to hope they'd let us back in again at the end of the day The first thing we saw when we left passport control was a bright red telephone box. In the other direction, we got our first view of the famous Rock of Gibraltar. From this lion... ...to this postbox... ...it was very clear that we weren't in Spain anymore! I was eager to start exploring Gibraltar properly, but we were only able to walk a few hundred metres along the main road - Winston Churchill Avenue - before we got caught in a queue and had to stand waiting for 10 - 15 minutes. Because Gibraltar is so small, the airport runway actually intersects the main road So both traffic and pedestrians were held back behind level-crossing style barriers as we waited for Wizzair and EasyJet flights to take off. Eventually the barriers were lifted and we were able to walk across the runway and towards the centre of town. We found the main shopping street without too much difficulty. It was looking strangely festive, with Christmas decorations already up. As we walked along it we spotted plenty of shops from back home; Marks & Spencers, Matalan, Holland & Barrett to name but a few. We were feeling peckish by this point so we decided to have an early lunch. Tim spotted an Italian restaurant in the main square which looked like a better bet than the multiple fish and chip shops, so we decided to give it a go. It turned out to be lovely; we both had delicious spaghetti with meatballs When planning the trip to Gibraltar, I'd spent a bit of time debating with myself whether I should pay for the expensive cable car to the top of the rock or save money by climbing up it. The tickets were quite pricey; £30 each for return tickets on the cable car (£17) and entry to the nature reserve on the upper rock (£13). Eventually I decided to fork out for the tickets - having got here and seen how high the rock is, that definitely felt like the right decision We walked to the cable car base station and were able to get on it almost straightaway, arriving at the top of the rock in a matter of minutes. The views were instantly amazing. More or less the first thing we saw when we stepped out of the cable car was a sign warning us about the apes. We had a small backpack with us, containing our passports and some other essentials. A man at the cable car station recommended that people wear backpacks on their front rather than their backs to deter any attempted theft of bags by the apes, so we did that any time we caught sight of any (well, Tim did, I wasn't keen on the idea of an ape being anywhere near me ) From up here we could really see how built up Gibraltar is. The views away from Gibraltar were beautiful though. Most of the upper part of the Rock of Gibraltar is a nature reserve and there's lots to see here. We hadn't been walking for long when we caught sight of our first apes. This one seemed to be attacking a van! Meanwhile these ones were just admiring the view Gibraltar has Europe's only population of wild monkeys. These are Barbary macaques, thought to have originated from Morocco. Legend has it that as long as there are monkeys on the Rock, Gibraltar will remain British. I was slightly intimidated by them at first, but they did seem to mind their own business and allow us to walk past them without any problems. Passing the monkeys, we began to walk uphill and explore the nature reserve. We could see down to a beach on the far side of Gibraltar. We reached a viewing platform called the Skywalk, from where the views were fantastic. From there we continued to climb higher, via a series of stone steps. Gibraltar has a long military history and there are all sorts of different fortifications here. Once we reached the highpoint of our climb we could see back towards the town of Gibraltar and the Spanish coast beyond. That made me question what we were looking at in the opposite direction. We consulted the map and it turned out that we were looking at... Africa I had read somewhere that it was possible to see Morocco from Gibraltar on a clear day, but I hadn't expected it to look so near. I was very excited to be able to see another continent From here our path led downhill, towards St Michael's Cave. This is a part of a series of limestone caves within the Rock. I knew that there were impressive caves here. What I hadn't realised was that the interior of this one is periodically lit up in different colours, in a sort of light show. I was slightly confused when the cave randomly started turning purple, but it was actually very pretty Back outside the cave, we had some more walking to do... ...and some more monkeys to avoid. The next attraction which I really wanted to see was the Windsor Suspension Bridge. The bridge passes over a 50m-deep gorge within the nature reserve. It swayed slightly in the wind, but after the Caminito del Rey it was nothing We continued on through the reserve, realising that we were walking so far downhill that we wouldn't actually need the cable car to get back to the town. Soon we could see the suspension bridge in the distance behind us. Just around the corner from here was a place known as "Apes' Den" where we had an opportunity to see even more of the Barbary macaques. There were lots of them perched here on the walls of a terrace overlooking the town. Again, they seemed pretty placid and inclined to mind their own business. I think they only bother tourists when they think they have food in their bags! There were plenty of signs up warning people not to touch or feed the animals; both are an offence punishable by fines. This was my favourite shot of the day... ...until I got this one Once we'd finished admiring both the monkeys and the views, we continued on our way back down to Gibraltar. As we left the nature reserve, I was slightly concerned by this sign suggesting there were snakes We made it back into the town without incident and stopped in the main square for a drink to cool off, before walking back across the runway towards passport control. Google showed us that we'd done quite a bit of walking! The return journey was just as straightforward; our passports were stamped back into Spain without any problems and we didn't even have to show any proof of vaccination. Then it was back in the car for the drive home to El Puerto de Santa Maria. It's been another very exciting day and the views in Gibraltar definitely exceeded my expectations
  7. It was another bright sunny day when we woke up in El Chorro this morning. After breakfast in the hotel we went out for a final stroll around the village to enjoy the views. We stopped for a quick coffee at a nearby cafe before walking back to our hotel (the big tall building in the photo below) and checking out. There were some beautiful views as we drove along the road out of El Chorro. In particular, we could see the bridge and part of the pathway of the Caminito del Rey which we had been walking on yesterday Looking at the pathway from here made it seem quite scary, although this bit hadn't felt scary at all when we were on it yesterday! Our first destination for today was the village of Setenil de las Bodegas, around 35 miles from El Chorro. We arrived and found a parking space by the side of the road on our second attempt. The first attempt involved us parking on what looked like a normal street, then having a man approach us and tell us we owed him €2! It seemed like some sort of racket so we didn't want to pay it, but we also didn't want to not pay it and leave the car there in case something happened to it. Luckily the second space we found didn't come with any strings attached First impressions of Setenil were that it looked really pretty. Setenil is one of Andalusia's so-called "pueblos blancos" (white towns) so we were expecting to see lots of little whitewashed houses. What makes Setenil unique among the white towns, however, is the fact that there are several streets here where the houses are literally built into the rock. The town is located along a narrow river gorge and in places the rock even overhangs the street Looking down from up on high where we'd parked, the village almost didn't look real! It must be very strange living in a house like this. Setenil is quite a well-known village and so even on a weekday in November, the main street was pretty busy. I can imagine it's even busier in the summer, with lots of people making day trips to visit it. This street isn't pedestrianised either, so it was a bit chaotic at times with cars and vans coming in different directions. Once we branched off onto some side streets, everything got a lot quieter though. Even away from the attraction of the main street, the village was really attractive with its bright white houses. We found that there were other, quieter residential streets with houses built into the rock too. There weren't many other tourists who made it as far as this one The town is built on a hill so we had to walk up some pretty steep slopes before we came to the main square. It was really pretty here though - well worth the climb We found yet more houses built into the side of the rock. Before we knew it we had reached the outskirts of the town, so we needed to turn around and head back towards the centre. Soon we were nearly back at the main street, which seemed a little quieter than it had when we first arrived. After one last look at the view, we got back in the car to head towards our second stop of the day - Olvera. Olvera was only 10 miles down the road from Setenil, so not the longest of drives. We managed to find a parking space on the outskirts of town and were soon walking towards the centre. Like all the towns in this part of the world Olvera is built on a hill so we had a bit of climbing to do. The views were amazing though We were walking towards the main church, which is set at the top of the town near the castle. There's a large terrace in front of the church with great views down to the lower town. We also had a good view of the castle, which dates from the 13th century. It was certainly in a good strategic position on this big rock! The countryside around Olvera looked really beautiful too. There's more greenery in this part of Spain than I expected. We still had a lot of miles to cover today, so soon it was time to climb back down towards the car. Our next stop, around 20 miles away, was the small village of Zahara de la Sierra. Zahara is in a really lovely location, overlooking a small reservoir. This town has fortifications too - we saw a small castle overlooking the reservoir... ...and a larger tower right on top of the hill. Zahara was the easiest village to park in, but we found a space right at the bottom of the hill the town is built on, so we had a bit of a walk upwards towards the centre. Before long we came to this little white tower. From here we could see up towards the castle... ...and down towards the rest of the town. Zahara's main square was just around the corner from here. There was a terrace in front of the square, from where we could look down on the reservoir. As you can probably tell from the photo, the sun was a bit bright today The square itself was lovely too. All the restaurants and cafes seemed to be centred around here, so it seemed like a good place to get lunch. Nowhere seemed to have menus out which always makes life more difficult, but we found a restaurant where we could get the menu by scanning a QR code on the table. The food took quite a long time to come, but when it did it was delicious Tim had chicken with roquefort and I had garlic chicken, which was absolutely beautiful. We may not have eaten the free olives we were given though It was a really lovely place to sit and eat and the weather is just about still warm enough to sit outside (though we did see multiple Spanish people wearing coats!) From Zahara, our route led us through the Sierra de Grazalema Natural Park. Some of the scenery here was really spectacular and we stopped at multiple viewpoints to enjoy it. Again, I've found that this part of Spain doesn't look as barren as I had expected. There are a lot of olive trees everywhere, which I guess explains why we keep getting free olives with our drinks From this particular viewpoint we could see down to the reservoir by Zahara, as well as the winding mountain road that we'd just travelled on. The route continued to wind through the mountains... ...until eventually we ended up in the village of Grazalema itself. We didn't get out of the car to properly explore this village, although we did manage to find somewhere to stock up on petrol nearby. The road continued to be really scenic as we drove from Grazalema towards Arcos de la Frontera. In some places it was really green... ...while in others it was quite rocky. We didn't have time to properly explore Arcos de la Frontera, because we wanted to try and get to our accommodation before dark. It looks like a fascinating town though, perched on the top of an enormous ridge. Another place where you wouldn't be able to live if you had vertigo I think! From Arcos de la Frontera we had another 35 miles or so to our ultimate destination for the evening, El Puerto de Santa Maria. I had initially been hoping to stay in the nearby town of Cadiz, but it seemed absolutely impossible to find decent accommodation there which included parking. El Puerto de Santa Maria is more of a beach resort, but close enough to Cadiz that we'll be able to visit for a day trip without too much difficulty The place we're staying in seems pretty spacious, with a large living/dining area... ...kitchen... ...and choice between two different bedrooms. There's definitely plenty of space, which is good because we're staying here for three nights
  8. It was a bright sunny morning when we woke up in El Chorro this morning. I'd set the alarm for 07.30 so that we could be at breakfast in the hotel when it opened. The hotel had a rather wide range of breakfast hours, serving from 8am all the way up until midday. The breakfast selection was one of those which would probably have been great in the old days as a buffet, when you could look at things before deciding whether you wanted to try them, but was less good these days when you have to order everything from a waiter. I ordered scrambled eggs and ended up with a portion that looked like it contained at least four eggs, so at least it was going to keep me full for a while! I'd chosen to stay in this particular hotel in El Chorro because we had booked to do what promised to be a very spectacular walk today: El Caminito del Rey. This is a linear walk which ends in El Chorro, so the first step was that we needed to catch a bus to the walk's start point. I'd struggled to find exact timetables for this bus online, but was hoping there was going to be one at 09.30. We could literally see the bus stop from our bedroom window in the hotel, so we didn't have far to go! The bus duly turned up as expected and we had a short drive of around 20 minutes to the start point of the walk in Ardales. The bus tickets were only €1.55 each, which was good value. It was only possible to pay with cash though, so a good job I'd brought Euros. The bus deposited us at the side of the road, from where we had a walk of 1.5km to the official starting point. Luckily the entire 1.5km wasn't through this rather dark tunnel! As soon as we emerged from the tunnel we had some great views of the rocky landscape around El Chorro. We weren't yet sure though whether we were actually going to be able to get the views we really wanted to see. For reasons that will become clear once you see the photos, the Caminito del Rey walk is closed when the weather becomes wet or windy. I'd had a text message yesterday saying that there was a risk of closure due to wind today, so until we got to the ticket office I wasn't sure whether we were going to have to retrace our steps back to the road. But it turned out we were in luck! While we had heard some gusts of wind during the night, it wasn't enough to close the path and when we arrived at the official starting point we had our tickets scanned and were handed our helmets. Yep, that's right, this is a walk where you have to wear a helmet (I think there's a small chance of falling rocks!) We had been slightly worried as to whether Tim was going to be able to fit the helmet onto his head, but luckily it just about worked I'd booked the tickets online a couple of weeks in advance and we had a slot for 10.45. A limited number of people are allowed onto the route at any one time so that it doesn't become too crowded. It's a really popular attraction and the tickets sell out unbelievably quickly. I'd been online the day the November dates were released and just about managed to buy tickets for the date I wanted. Now that we'd arrived, the views didn't disappoint The Caminito del Rey is a famous walkway, built along the sides of a narrow gorge outside El Chorro. It was constructed at the start of the twentieth century as a route for workers building a hydroelectric plant at El Chorro to transport materials. It gets its name from the fact that in 1921, King Alfonso XIII walked along the route as part of the inauguration of the nearby dam. The original pathway fell into disrepair in later decades and was notorious for being an extremely dangerous route. Around ten years ago the local regional government decided to put some money into restoring it and turning the route into a tourist attraction. Today's pathway is extremely safe, with new wooden boards and a sturdy fence all the way around the edge. Although it looks scary in some of the photos, it was really easy to walk on and I was relieved to find that I didn't have vertigo After an initial series of wooden walkways high above the gorge, the path began to descend. The views back up towards where we'd been were spectacular After this the path continued at a lower level for a while. We walked through a forest with great views down towards the river. The path was quite wide here which was good; a lot of the tickets for the route are sold as guided tours, so it enabled us to overtake a few large tour groups The path never felt overly crowded though. And the views of the countryside were amazing. I've been really pleasantly surprised by how beautiful this part of Spain is. Definitely not what I would have expected to find a short drive away from Malaga As we walked through the trees we caught sight of the next set of wooden walkways on the side of the gorge. The gorge is really spectacular here. We attempted a selfie but only managed to get our heads and no view It's forbidden to bring selfie sticks, umbrellas and large backpacks on the walk to prevent people causing a blockage on the path. The train line to Malaga runs along the opposite side of the gorge. As we walked we saw a train appear on one side of the rocks... ...before travelling through the mountain and emerging on the other side. We also realised that we could see the original historical pathway a few metres below the modern pathway that we were walking on. It must have been a very scary route to take to work! Today's pathway with it's big fence definitely felt a lot safer And I was very grateful for the fence with drops like this! Eventually we turned a corner and saw what I'd read was the scariest part of the walk - the bridge across the gorge. The bridge sways a bit in the breeze, which is why the route is closed if the weather becomes too windy. We attempted another selfie, with somewhat limited success There were a few more corners to walk around before it was our turn to cross the bridge. The drops were incredible here! And the views of the old pathway were slightly terrifying Then we were crossing the bridge. It did sway a little bit, but it was sturdier than I'd expected Once we'd walked a bit further on and could look back on it we really got a sense of how amazing it was. From here we started to climb downwards via a series of steps. We could just make out a rainbow in the water spurting out from under the bridge Soon we could look back towards the tiny pathway clinging on to the side of the gorge. We now just had an easy pathway of around 1.5km back towards El Chorro. It was hard not to keep turning around and looking back to where we'd been, though. We even managed a slightly more successful selfie at one point This is definitely one of the most exciting and adventurous walks we've ever done The beauty of staying in El Chorro was that we could actually now see our hotel in the distance behind us. We went back for a late lunch of steak and chips in the hotel restaurant, followed by a rest and an afternoon stroll around El Chorro. It's been a really great day and I'm so pleased the weather cooperated with our plans today
  9. The weather wasn't forecast to be great today, but when we woke up in Malaga this morning it still felt pretty warm. We were checking out of our apartment today and heading off on the next stage of our trip, but before we did so we planned to visit the Cafeteria Esperanto, in the hope that it would be open and we'd be able to get some breakfast. Luckily it was and we were able to able to enjoy coffee and churros while sitting outside - all for the bargain price of €3.50 Once we'd finished breakfast we headed back to the apartment, where we packed up our things and set off in our mint-green hire car towards the small town of Ronda. Ronda is located inland, about 65 miles from Malaga, and from the pictures I'd seen online it looked like a really beautiful place. The first part of our journey was quite speedy, leaving Malaga by what seemed like a motorway, but as we got closer towards Ronda we began travelling on winding roads through the Sierra de las Nieves natural park. The further we travelled the worse the weather became and when we eventually arrived in Ronda around midday it was decidedly damp! We parked the car and began walking towards the centre of town, through some pretty gardens. These led us to a viewpoint from where we got our first glimpse of the town. Ronda is situated at the top of the El Tajo gorge. The gorge actually divides the town in half and is spanned by a couple of bridges, which we were hoping to see later in the day. It looks like quite a precarious location for a town! Even though today was a bit misty, we had some great views of the surrounding countryside. I particularly liked this window in the rock. Walking further towards the town, we came to Ronda's bull ring. Next to here was another viewpoint with a bandstand. From here we could see a bit more of the town It turned out that we weren't far away from the centre now and we soon got our first glimpse of Puente Nuevo. Construction of this bridge across the gorge started in 1759 and took 34 years to complete. The town's main road now runs across the bridge. We crossed it to see the view in the opposite direction. I would not want to live in a house with a drop like this outside my window!! From a viewing platform on this side of the road we could see Puente Viejo, the old bridge. This one was built in 1616 and today is only accessible for pedestrians. We were hungry by this point so found a small restaurant with a very affordable "menu of the day". For €12.50 each, we had a starter of spaghetti bolognese (which was large enough to be a main meal in its own right!), a main course (Tim had a Spanish stew, I went with chicken schnitzel) and a pudding of chocolate mousse, with a free drink and bread thrown in too. It seemed like very good value After lunch we had another walk around Ronda, crossing over the new bridge again... ...and admiring some of the town's churches. We were trying to find our way down to the old bridge, but the first path we tried was closed off. We eventually found an alternative route, climbing down some of the steep little streets in the old town. It had stopped raining by this point but the rain had made the pavements quite wet and slippery so the walk was a bit of a challenge at times! Eventually we made it down to the old bridge The gorge is narrower here, so it's not as wide as the newer bridge. We had some great views from here back up towards the town and could even see the river Guadalevín down at the bottom of the gorge. We also found a really pretty walkway to take us back up to the main town; a series of steps interspersed with viewing platforms, which was much easier to climb back up than the narrow streets would have been. Apparently the gorge is 120 metres deep here. It was certainly enough to give me vertigo if I looked down at it for too long. I can't imagine what it's like living in these houses! Soon we were back up to the level of the main town. We strolled back to the car the way we had come, enjoying the views back towards Ronda. The weather had cleared up a bit now so we had some clearer views of the surrounding countryside too. It seems like a really pretty part of Spain. I had no idea the countryside around Malaga was so mountainous until I started researching this trip. We are staying in a hotel in a town called El Chorro tonight, which was about an hour's drive away from Ronda. The views continued to be beautiful as we made our way through the mountains. There's a limit to how fast our tiny little car will go uphill, though We made it to El Chorro without any difficulty and checked in to the hotel. The room is a little bit unusual - we've got a nice living area... ...and an equally nice bedroom... ...but the two are linked by this very steep and narrow spiral staircase! Not one to attempt after a couple of glasses of wine, I think We've got some great views of the mountains from our windows though
  10. When we were walking back from the centre of town to our apartment last night, we needed to consult Google Maps a couple of times to find our way. Guess what Tim saw as he zoomed in on the streets in our local area?! Yes, that's right - Calle Esperanto We were tired and more hoping to find a supermarket than an Esperanto monument last night, but when we woke up this morning - refreshed after nearly 12 hours sleep - we knew what our first stop was going to be. Esperanto Street, which was only a short walk away from where we're staying, actually surpassed our expectations, coming complete with a Cafeteria Esperanto! Today's a public holiday in Spain so it was closed, otherwise we would have popped in for a coffee. It was fun to see though, as well as a handful of other Esperanto signs on the street Once we'd finished exploring Calle Esperanto, we set off to find the parts of Malaga we'd actually intended to see There were some beautiful big trees as we walked into the city centre and the sky was a lovely shade of blue for a day when the weather forecast had predicted rain. Before too long we came to the part of town where we'd eaten yesterday evening. This street had some rather impressive decorations. Unfortunately it was a bit too sunny to make for a good photo, though! We caught a glimpse of the tower of Malaga's cathedral around the corner, so walked towards it. We soon found ourselves in Plaza de la Constitución, one of the main squares in Malaga. The cathedral was just around the corner from here. It's so enormous that we didn't manage to fit it all in a photo. Walking further south, we came towards Malaga's main park. There were some really impressive palm trees here and we had a lovely walk in the shade. At times it really felt quite tropical! We were walking towards Malaga's bull ring. We found it, but it turned out to be another one of those things which was so enormous it was difficult to fit it all in one photo. As we turned to walk back towards the town centre, we found ourselves strolling through some more beautiful gardens. There is a surprising amount of greenery and flowers in Malaga considering how relentlessly hot the weather is here. It was pretty cool to walk through the park and see oranges growing on the trees We were walking towards the Alcazaba, a Moorish fortress initially built in the early 11th century. The entrance, where we had to queue for tickets, is just next door to Malaga's Roman theatre. I had initially been a bit disappointed because the Roman theatre isn't open on Mondays, but it seems like it probably wouldn't have been the most impressive Roman remains we've ever seen. Although there was quite a long queue for tickets, it moved quickly. Once we got to the front we were able to purchase them from a machine; €5.50 each for a combined ticket that would give us entry both to the Alcazaba and another castle which we planned to visit later in the day. As we began walking around the Alcazaba, we had some great views back towards Malaga cathedral. We could also see down towards the park with the palm trees where we'd been walking, with the bull ring in the distance too. It was fun walking around the ramparts, but unbelievably hot. I'd been expecting temperatures in the early twenties, but we saw a thermometer saying 27 degrees today The view that surprised me most was the view out to sea. I knew that Malaga had a port, but I hadn't expected there to be a huge cruise ship in it. I guess cruising is back! The other thing which will probably stand out from the photos is how built up Malaga is. It's really quite a large city, with a population of around 578,000. There were some pretty gardens within the Alcazaba. We could also see up towards Gibralfaro castle, which we planned to visit later in the day. Once we'd finished admiring the views we had a drink to cool off and then walked back down towards the city. There was actually a better view of the walls of the Alcazaba (and of the Roman theatre) once we were outside it. It was midday by this point and we were absolutely starving, so we sat down at a restaurant in a nearby square to get lunch. It seems like our bodies haven't yet adapted to Spanish time, because when we sat down the waitress asked whether we wanted breakfast She gave us a menu for lunch, but it was closer to half 12 before we were able to order it. Once we'd finished eating it was time to explore castle Gibralfaro, which is another Moorish fortification on a hill above Malaga. The climb uphill towards it was a bit steep, but there were some more impressive views back down towards the town. After 20 minutes or so of climbing, we knew we were nearly there when we caught sight of a large Spanish flag. Once we made it to the top we were able to stroll around the castle ramparts. The region around Malaga is really quite mountainous and we're looking forward to exploring more inland from tomorrow For today though we were pretty tired after climbing uphill in the heat, so we decided to head back to the apartment for a siesta before going out for another stroll later in the evening
  11. It's a long time since I've been on a plane. 666 days since I flew back to Gatwick from Narvik in the north of Norway, to be exact! Since then I've had a lot of trips to Scotland and even more trips to my new favourite county of Northumberland. But after Tim's successful trip to Poland last month and with Covid restrictions gradually decreasing, it became increasingly tempting to book a holiday abroad. I knew that I could have time off work in early November, and while that wouldn't normally be my preferred time of year to go away, it was at least helpful in allowing us to narrow down a shortlist of places which were permitting entry to British tourists and wouldn't be cold and rainy in November. After a lot of deliberation I ended up booking return flights to Malaga; not a place that has ever been on my bucket list, but after the best part of two years spent in the UK, the thought of going anywhere was incredibly exciting. Of course, a combination of Brexit and Covid means that travel has become a bit more complicated since last time I flew. In preparation for going to Malaga I stocked up on different types of face masks and spent a considerable amount of time reading up on the latest Spanish restrictions. Spain is currently permitting entry to vaccinated travellers from the UK without the need to take a Covid test, so long as you can prove your vaccination status and fill in a piece of paperwork called the "Spain Travel Health" form in advance. The form, which has to be filled out 48 hours before you arrive in Spain, is in principle quite straightforward, but the website isn't going to win any prizes for being user-friendly. It took me a while to get through mine yesterday, but once I did I was emailed a QR code which I just needed to print and bring with me to show on arrival. I got a really good deal on the flights out, paying £22 each for a ticket from Luton to Malaga. The only catches were that it cost an extra £25 to bring a suitcase and the flight itself was at 07.00. With airport parking booked for 04.30, this translated to an alarm set for 02.30 in the morning. An additional frisson of excitement was introduced into the proceedings by the fact that the clocks were switching from daylight savings time back to GMT at 02.00 this morning. I set my alarm for what I thought was going to be the right time and hoped for the best. The good news is that the clocks did change when I expected, my phone automatically updated itself and we got up at the correct time The journey to Luton was easy, with very little other traffic on the roads, and the airport parking experience was fairly straightforward too. The airport itself didn't seem overly busy. We only queued for around 10 minutes at the EasyJet baggage drop to deposit our bags and significantly less than that at security, where we almost walked straight through. No one in Luton was interested in seeing our vaccination status etc; it was just the usual showing of boarding passes and passports. We boarded the flight ahead of schedule and I was pleasantly surprised to find that it wasn't completely full. The seat next to us was empty, as was the entire row in front, so it didn't feel particularly crowded. That was good, because we ended up sitting on the plane for around half an hour before we were ultimately able to take off; the pilot said something about air traffic control restrictions over France. It was very cloudy in the UK and it seemed pretty cloudy over Europe too, so there wasn't much of a view for the majority of the flight. It was only when we started to descend towards Malaga that we got our first glimpse of Spain. We landed in Malaga around 40 minutes behind schedule and then spent another 30 minutes or so sitting in the plane on an obscure part of the runway, waiting for another plane to vacate our parking spot. Never mind, we weren't going to be able to check into our accommodation until 3pm, so it didn't really matter Eventually we were able to disembark the plane and progress through the various checks at the airport. First of all we had the passport check, where I got my first post-Brexit passport stamp, and then we had the health check. It was all over in a flash; the staff scanned our QR codes from the Spain Travel Health forms, vaguely glanced at our vaccination certificates and that was it; we were officially in Spain We collected our luggage and exited the airport, trying to find a shuttle bus which would take us to the place we'd hired a car from. Tim tracked down the shuttle and soon we were at the hire place, waiting in turn to get our car. First impressions of Spain were that it was seriously hot - way hotter than I had expected it to be in November. We were both wearing jumpers and trousers which hadn't felt particularly warm when we'd left Nuneaton at 3am this morning, but which now felt absolutely sweltering. The pilot had said temperatures would get up to 26 degrees celsius today and it definitely felt like it. Wearing a face mask made it feel even hotter. I hadn't found it to bad on the plane and had quite happily managed to fall asleep wearing it, but keeping it on in the heat was more of a struggle. We were hiring a car from a company called Malaga Car, which wasn't the cheapest car hire company I found online but which for around EUR 400 was prepared to hire us a car without holding a massive excess on our credit cards. There were other companies hiring cars for closer to EUR 200 but with excesses up to EUR 1200, which made me rather nervous! I had deliberately hired the smallest car possible, thinking that would be easiest for parking and navigating on small Spanish streets, but even I was slightly surprised by the tiny mint-green Fiat 500 which we were eventually presented with We just about managed to squeeze ourselves and our luggage into it and then we were off! It was only a drive of around 15 minutes or so into the centre of Malaga and we managed it without too many difficulties. Despite all the delays, it still wasn't quite 2pm and so we were a bit early for checking into the apartment. We got temporarily excited when we got a Whatsapp message from the owner asking for confirmation of the time we were arriving, thinking perhaps we might be able to check in a bit earlier, but it turned out that he couldn't accommodate us until 3. We drove around in circles for a while before finding somewhere where we could park the car for a bit and go and get a drink. The parking situation in Malaga seems really difficult so I was glad that I'd booked an apartment with parking. And I was even more glad, when we eventually got there at 3, that I'd hired the smallest possible car. It turned out that to access the parking space we had to drive our car in a special car lift and travel down several floors underneath the apartment building It would definitely have been a struggle with a larger car! Once the parking was sorted, checking into the apartment was easy. I'd realised after booking this one that the small print stated a cash deposit of EUR 150 was required on arrival, but we didn't get asked for that in the end which was a bonus The apartment itself is nice and comfy with a living and dining area... ... and small kitchen downstairs... ...then a separate bedroom and bathroom upstairs. The bed looked very tempting given our extreme lack of sleep, but we hadn't eaten anything since a couple of shortbread biscuits on the plane so after a brief bit of unpacking we decided to walk towards central Malaga and try to find a restaurant. The outskirts of Malaga are not particularly scenic, with lots of tall apartment blocks. Once we got closer to the centre it became more attractive and we got a glimpse of the edge of the old town. In what might be a true stereotype of Brits arriving in Malaga, we eventually ended up eating chicken tikka masala In our defence, it was around 4pm by this stage so we had missed Spanish lunchtime and were still hours away from anything like a respectable Spanish dinner time, so we were just glad to find anywhere still serving food. And it was actually really nice It felt so unusual to be somewhere warm enough to sit outside and eat dinner! Tonight is definitely going to be an early night, but we're looking forward to exploring more of Malaga tomorrow
  12. Some people like surprises. And what could be a nicer surprise than finding out you've got an extra day on holiday? Alas, we didn't enjoy finding out about ours. Arriving at the airport, we knew that our flight was slightly delayed. No harm there. A little later, we noticed something of a commotion in front of our gate, three hours before the revised take-off time. We ignored it but a little later Clare overheard a man explaining to his wife, who was sitting next to Clare, that there was a problem and that the plane might not land. I made a point of going up to the gate to hear for myself. That's when we got confirmation. The plane was not only en route but was also on time ... and always had been. It had been circling above the airport looking for an opportunity to land. Madrid, in the centre of the desert that is Spain, was experiencing inclement weather. We'd already seen the downpour ourselves arriving at the airport. It happened that the weather was so bad that it wasn't possible to land a plane safely. The staff informed us that the plane had been diverted to Barcelona to refuel and that Head Office would later make a decision on whether it would come back afterwards. The best-case scenario was that it would arrive at 01:00 if it were allowed to return. This was no good to us personally, since we wouldn't be able to retrieve our car until 05:00 at the earliest, making it very unlikely that we'd be back at time for work, especially for Clare's early-morning work commitments, which required her to be suited and booted. The staff were trying their very best to be helpful, especially given that they didn't know anything beyond the information which they were passing back to us. They informed us that we would be given food vouchers for a restaurant, although they didn't know which ones at that moment. In spite of the total innocence of the staff in this matter, some passengers seemingly couldn't resist taking out their frustrations on them with infantile outbursts about wanting a flight rather than a food coupon. The news later came in that the flight wouldn't be returning soon from Barcelona. The latest update was that it would leave at 08:00, and that the airport would arrange overnight accommodation and food. At least, I thought that's what was being said; people seemingly couldn't stop grumbling such that those of us trying to get accurate information could clearly hear it, and the staff members were soon inundated by a queue of people all asking the same questions and getting the same answers. We waited until the end and then spoke to a staff member, who was taken aback at somebody being polite and even said 'Thank you for your kindness!' Things became a little unclear once we'd retraced our steps back to Terminal 4, 20+ minutes away, and, as instructed, had joined the chaotic customer services queue. Nothing was budging there for half an our until finally a woman told people that there was a bus outside to pick us up, and off we headed. Well, not quite all of us. There were people for whom Madrid was a connecting airport who were complaining that they couldn't retrieve their hold luggage. If they'd been listening up top, they'd have heard a gentleman informing everybody that hold luggage couldn't be returned so late at night because of security reasons. We waited at the bus stop without much happening. Business Class passengers were allowed to get on board the bus but for seemingly little benefit; they were sitting down in the dark with nothing happening whilst we were standing. Meanwhile, the sky was flashing, followed by extensive roaring and rumbling. I think we probably all felt better being on the ground than in the air! Eventually, a second bus pulled up and we were allowed to board, after which we were transferred to a hotel. We received coupons for the restaurant whilst we queued and then checked in. The lady doing so stated that there was no news on when the next flight would be but if it were early, then we'd all get wake-up calls. Otherwise, we could pop down casually after breakfast and check to see whether any information had been printed and posted. We could see some posters for a rescheduled flight to Berlin, so the process seemed easy enough. At this point, it was 00:30, with the restaurant closing at 01:00, so we didn't spend long in our room. Our first impressions were very good: There was plenty of food and we weren't slow in finishing it, so soon were back in the room ready to sleep. I woke up at around 6 and headed downstairs to see whether there was any news. The lady who had checked us in hadn't heard of anything. My phone had, though: Oh, crikey. That's a lot longer than we were expecting. Getting to work really wasn't going to be possible today. And there was the problem of our cats; they hadn't had fresh food since Monday morning, when their feeder had discharged the final of its four offerings. They were now going to go without for not only Monday evening but all of Tuesday too. I thought of a solution but it was too early to act upon it. Their regular catsitter, who visits daily when we're on longer breaks, has a key, and so I texted her as soon as I thought it possible to get away with it, which was 07:00 UK time. She's a star, who did an emergency visit and made sure they were well loaded for our return. The breakfast spread was a very generous one, although neither of us was particularly hungry having eaten dinner only a few hours before. The morning then became one of idleness, with us having nothing to do but wait for our bus, which was due at 12:00. I bought an obscenely overpriced book at the airport yesterday evening anf managed to resist the temptation to read it because I didn't want to have to spend another 20€. We got to the airport with no fuss but then hit a roadblock: our flight wasn't mentioned anywhere on the boards. A quick check with a staff member was fruitless, and she recommended we go to customer services. More queuing followed, accompanied by the frustration which always results when there's no movement and you can't understand how everybody being served could possibly need so much time. We finally got through and got some fairly uncomplicated instructions: retread yesterday's steps and at some point your flight will be on the board. This we did and thus it was, although rather unhelpfully it was yesterday's flight details and an indication that it was cancelled. We knew that we were entitled to a food voucher and so set off to find someone who could give us one. The answer to that request was initially no but magically turned to yes within minutes and, eventually, we were able to get the required paperwork. We headed off and ate a fairly standard meal. And now we're sitting near our gate. It's two and a half hours until our flight is due to leave. Let's hope we don't get another bonus day in Madrid.
  13. The weather forecast had warned that there could be storms today and sure enough, when we opened our curtains in Segovia this morning, things looked rather grey and damp. We got slightly wet on our walk from the hotel to the bus station, where we were due to catch a 10.15 bus to the town of Ávila. Ávila is only about 40 miles southwest of Segovia but the two towns aren't connected by rail, so when we were doing our research it seemed that to get to one from the other by train it was necessary to go via Madrid. There are only a handful of buses between the two towns, so we'd booked tickets in advance on the only bus which was leaving Segovia for Ávila this morning. We arrived at the bus station ready to fight our way onto the bus, but it actually turned out to not be a very popular route and the bus was almost empty I guess that's why they don't run very frequently! It's not a very long journey, and within an hour we were stepping off the bus in Ávila. I'd hoped that when we got to Ávila it would be fairly obvious in which direction the historic town centre was, but there turned out not be many signs so we walked in the wrong direction initially and had to resort to Google Maps to get back on track. We knew we were finally in the right place when we got our first glimpse of the town walls. Ávila is a world heritage site, because it has a complete set of medieval town walls, built between the 11th and 14th centuries. It's also home to a lot of beautiful churches, including the basilica of San Vicente. The walls looked incredible and reminded me a little bit of Carcassonne. I knew it was possible to walk around about half of the walls, but initially we struggled to find the way in. Eventually we located the tourist information office, where we picked up a map. There were also some impressive models there, both of the walls... ...and the cathedral. We realised that the walls are illuminated at night as well, which must be spectacular to see. Maybe on a future holiday we'll have to come and stay overnight in Ávila! With the help of the map, we walked alongside the walls for a while and managed to find the ticket office. It only cost €5 each to get in. The entrance to the walls was close to the cathedral and once we'd climbed up into the open we had some amazing views of it The cathedral was built partly as a fortress and its apse forms one of the turrets in the walls. Our route led away from the cathedral and we could soon see down towards the basilica. Once you were up on the walls the path was pretty flat, but every so often there were little staircases you could climb up for better views. They were usually worth the effort! We could see for a long way out over the countryside... ...and towards a rather strangely shaped church in the distance. There were other people on the walls, but it was nowhere near as busy as walking around the walls of Dubrovnik! I guess it helps that Ávila is a long way from the sea We were able to walk for about an hour before the accessible part of the walls came to an end. In the distance we could see the walls continuing around the far side of the town. If you were able to walk the entire way round I think it would be several miles! I'd expected Ávila to be quite small, but the town within the walls is actually pretty large. Eventually we'd got as far as we could go and it was time to climb down. We walked along some pretty streets in the old town... ...before coming to a square where there were several restaurants. We chose one which had a menu of the day for €14. This include a starter, main course and pudding, as well as bread and a glass of wine. I had pasta bolognese as my starter, while Tim chose a caesar salad. For the main course, Tim had croquetas caseras, which seemed to consist of melted cheese with potato, while I had fingers de pollo, which were like chicken goujons. Pudding was chocolate mousse. The consistency was a bit like Angel Delight which has been made with too much milk to set, but it actually tasted really nice It was a lovely meal and seemed like really good value for the amount of food we had! Once we'd finished eating, it was time to head in the direction of the train station to begin our journey back to Madrid. When we were booking our train back from Ávila to Madrid, we'd had a choice of two different trains. One would have got us to the airport too early - over three hours before our flight was due to depart - and the other would have got us there with just under two hours. I deliberated over the options for a while, but in the end we decided to play it safe and book the earlier train, which left Ávila at 15.47. The trains between Ávila and Madrid aren't quite as fast as the high speed trains between Madrid and Segovia, and so it was a fairly leisurely train journey. We arrived into Madrid's Príncipe Pío station around 17.30. The plan was that from here we would catch the suburban C1 train directly to Terminal 4 of the airport. This was the same train which we had caught to Madrid Chamartín on Saturday, but a slightly longer journey, because the Príncipe Pío station which the Ávila trains arrive into is situated further south in Madrid. Príncipe Pío turned out to be a rather confusing station and we walked around for a while before finding the correct platform for the suburban trains. Things were confused further by the fact that both C1 and C10 trains seemed to depart from this platform, with only C1 trains going as far as the airport, but eventually a C1 train was advertised as being the next train on the departures board. The only problem was that its destination wasn't shown as being the airport, but a station called Delicias, which was only a couple of stops along the route. We figured that maybe this was a C1 train that was terminating early for some reason, but decided to get on it anyway and change at Delicias if need be. We sat on the train and within a few minutes we had arrived at Delicias. The train did indeed terminate there and we had to get off. We progressed from being slightly confused to extremely confused when we walked along the platform and found that the entire station seemed to be out of service, with no trains running towards the airport at all. Eventually, with the help of Tim speaking to a staff member in Spanish, we managed to establish that there were repair works on the line and therefore the C1 wasn't running between this station and Chamartín. In order to get to the airport, we therefore needed to catch a bus from Delicias to Madrid's Atocha railway station, another suburban train from Atocha to Chamartín, and then rejoin the C1 from Chamartín to the airport. Wow At this point I was extremely glad that we'd decided to hedge our bets and catch the earlier train back from Ávila. It was pouring with rain in Madrid by this point, but luckily the bus stop we needed wasn't too far away from the station and we managed to get on the correct bus almost straight away. The tickets we'd bought for the C1 journey worked on the bus, which was good, but once we got to Atocha and tried to get through the gates to catch the train to Chamartín, we found that they were no longer functioning. Tim spoke to yet another staff member in Spanish, who explained that they had expired. He wasn't able to do anything about it and said that we'd need to go to an official desk. We found the desk but there was an extremely long line of people, so in the interests of actually getting to the airport we decided it would be better just to buy another ticket! €6 and two more trains later, we eventually made it to Terminal 4... only to find that once we'd checked in and gone through security, we had to catch yet another train from Terminal 4 to Terminal 4S where our (delayed!!) flight was departing from. All in the all it hasn't been the easiest journey home, but that shouldn't take away from the fact that we've had a really nice relaxing weekend in Spain and visited some beautiful places
  14. We went out for a meal in Segovia last night and by the time we were walking back to the hotel, darkness had started to fall. The aqueduct looked beautiful against the night sky. So did lots of the little squares and streets in the old town As we walked back towards the hotel, we caught a glimpse of Segovia's cathedral in the distance. The cathedral is situated in the town's main square. It looked absolutely stunning illuminated like this. Once we got back to the hotel we could see the illuminated castle from our balcony too When we woke up this morning it was another beautiful sunny day. There was even a hot air balloon floating over the town We set off to explore Segovia properly in the daylight. We soon came to the cathedral, which looked just as beautiful as it had done at night. The cathedral was built between 1525 and 1577, replacing an earlier cathedral which had been destroyed in a siege. We noticed these strange gargoyles on the side of the cathedral which seemed to be sticking their tongues out! From the cathedral we continued walking through the narrow streets of the old town. It was a lot quieter in the early morning than it had been last night! One of the things we've noticed about Segovia is that lots of the buildings have beautiful patterned facades. From a distance they look like tiles... ...but when you get up close you can see that they're some sort of plasterwork. The cathedral isn't the only impressive church in Segovia. This is the church of San Esteban, which originally dates from the 12th century. By the time we got close to the aqueduct, the streets were getting busier. The aqueduct looked beautiful in the morning sunshine. It is thought to have been constructed in the first century AD and is one of the best-preserved Roman aqueducts in the world. Amazingly, it was used to bring water to the city until the mid-nineteenth century. We walked alongside it for a while and reached a point where it turns a corner. From here, we could get a glimpse of the cathedral through its arches. Once the aqueduct turns the corner it becomes lower, running alongside houses, down the middle of a street. We continued to stroll along it for a while, enjoying the shade, before eventually turning around and walking back to the centre of town. From the square outside the aqueduct we could see up towards the old town walls. We climbed up a staircase that looked like it was going to lead to promising views. Sure enough, we could soon see out over the town and towards the countryside beyond. We were right up by the highest part of the aqueduct now... ...and had a great view over the newer part of town. At the top of the walls we walked along some really narrow streets... ...past some more beautiful patterned houses... ...and came across this enormous tower. I'm not sure what it was, but the tower was covered in patterns too This part of town was colourful, with brightly painted houses. The road we were on eventually took us back towards the cathedral and main square. From there we walked back towards our hotel, which is in this pretty building. We were heading towards the castle, the Alcázar, which is on the far side of town from the aqueduct. From a little square outside the castle, we had some great views over the countryside. In the distance we could see a church... ...and a monastery. It's free to walk into the grounds of the Alcázar. To go inside the castle itself costs €8; €5.50 for the palace and €2.50 to be able to climb the tower. Throughout its history the castle has been used as a royal palace, a prison and a military academy. We bought our tickets and went inside the palace first, saving the tower for the end. There was lots of armour on display. There were also some beautiful stained glass windows. The most impressive thing about the interior though were the ceilings. This one in the throne room was my absolute favourite... ...but this one was also pretty spectacular... ...and this room, known as the Hall of the Kings, not only had an amazing ceiling but also statues of monarchs all the way around the walls. Once we'd finished exploring inside, it was time to climb the tower. We had a slight glitch as somehow we'd managed to lose our ticket, but luckily we still had the receipt and the nice man on the gate let us through. At the ticket office there had been several signs warning that there were 152 steps to climb to get to the top of the tower. We thought that didn't sound too bad... but they were up quite a steep, winding staircase, so we were both pretty tired by the time we got to the top! The top of the tower is a big viewing platform. There was a big Spanish flag on the top, blowing in the breeze... ...and we could look out across the roof of the palace, towards the smaller turrets of the castle. The most impressive views, though, were in the other direction, towards the town. We had a fantastic view of the cathedral, which really shows how enormous it is. It was definitely worth climbing all the stairs for The afternoon sun was quite hot by this point though, so after a quick drink in the castle cafe, we decided to go back to the hotel to enjoy the air-conditioning and shade for a bit before heading out again in the evening once it was cooler. Segovia is a really beautiful place and it's been a great choice for a relaxing bank holiday trip
  15. This weekend feels like a holiday which has crept up on us, because for quite a long time we didn't think we'd be going on it. We booked (reasonably!) cheap flights to Spain for the August bank holiday back in November 2018, flying to Madrid from Heathrow. The plan was to visit Segovia, a town recommended to us by a Spanish friend last time we were in Madrid in 2017. But as we got closer to summer 2019, the news was full of threats of strikes at Heathrow and the bank holiday weekend was one of the dates which was announced for strike action. It was only in mid-August that the airport announced that the strikes for this weekend were being delayed, to give unions more time to vote on a new pay offer, and so suddenly our Segovia trip was back on the cards By our standards it wasn't too early a start this morning. Our flight was at 09.15, so we left home just after 04.30 and drove down to Heathrow. Tim had booked a slightly unusual airport parking at a golf club in the general vicinity of the airport (it was cheap!) and we arrived there to find a car park and a couple of portacabins, one of which looked like it was the reception to check in and one of which looked like it belonged to the security guards. We were slightly confused to find the reception one was locked, but we were invited to sit in the other portacabin by one of the guards, who assured us that the staff would be back soon... A staff member did indeed eventually appear and the situation became clearer when, after we'd handed over the car keys etc, he led us out of the portacabin, locked the door and proceeded to drive us to the airport in his car It seems like it's a rather low-budget operation, without even a shuttle bus, and just one staff member to do both the admin and the driving! Luckily the drive down had taken less time than I'd expected, so we still arrived at the airport with plenty of time to spare. While eating breakfast in Wetherspoons, I realised that last time we'd been here we'd been about to fly to Russia! This weekend should hopefully be more relaxing The flight to Madrid took just over two hours. It was a sunny day but for a lot of the journey there were just views of the sea as we flew over the Bay of Biscay. We landed in Madrid at around 12.30 local time and we could feel a blast of heat as soon as we stepped off the plane. It was definitely warmer here than at home! We had landed in Terminal 4 which was convenient, because Terminal 4 is home to the airport's train station. For around €3 each, we were able to catch a train straight from the airport to Madrid Chamartín, one of the capital's main train stations. Madrid Chamartín was where our train to Segovia was due to leave from, but not for a couple of hours. After the experience we had when trying to get to Toledo in 2017, when we couldn't travel on the train we wanted because it was already sold out, we had booked our train tickets in advance for the 15.40 train. This gave us some time to kill in Madrid, but there doesn't seem to be a lot you can do in the area around Chamartín station. When we arrived here from Salamanca in 2014, we got so confused in the mass of roads and bridges outside the station that we eventually gave up on trying to find our apartment on foot and had to take a taxi instead! So our plan for today was to stay in the vicinity of the station and get something to eat. We ended up finding a nice cafe and had a very nutritious lunch of a pizza slice and a doughnut, accompanied by a much-needed cup of coffee Spanish stations are similar to Russian ones in that you have to pass your bags through airport-style security before you can get near a train. We were travelling on a high speed train to a station called Segovia-Guiomar, which is several kilometres outside the main town of Segovia itself. The display on the train indicated that the outside temperature was 35 degrees, but the train itself was beautifully air-conditioned and we had a pleasant journey, arriving in Segovia-Guiomar just before 16.15. A lot of the train journey had been through tunnels and as we stepped out of the station we got a glimpse of the mountains we must have travelled through. The internet had made catching a bus into the centre of Segovia sound quite confusing, but in reality it couldn't have been simpler. We walked straight out of the station and crossed the road to the bus stop, where a bus was already waiting to take us into the town. It cost about €2 each and took around 15 minutes to deposit us at the edge of the old town. This was the view we got when we stepped off the bus! One of the attractions of Segovia is that it's home to this amazing Roman aqueduct The hotel we're staying at is about 1km away from the aqueduct bus stop, so we had a short walk through the old town (which looks absolutely beautiful). The hotel room is small, but comfortable. The only thing that's a little bit odd is that the air-conditioning is controlled from reception, so you have to call them if you want it turned on or off! The real bonus is that we've got a little balcony with amazing views In one direction we can see the mountains... ...and in the other direction we can see the Alcázar of Segovia in the distance. It's been quite a long day of travelling, so we were glad to get to the hotel room for a bit of a rest before heading back out into Segovia in search of dinner
  16. Today wasn't originally on our itinerary, but Clare keeps in touch with her family whilst we're away and it transpires that her great-aunt and -uncle know this part of the world and named their favourite place. We looked it up in our Rough Guide and the relevant chapter started convincingly: "If you see only one town in Spain it should be Granada." High praise, and so we booked a coach and reserved tickets to the Alhambra, the site that Granada is most known for. My initial impressions weren't good. We had rather a trek from the bus station without the aid of a map and the distance meant that we saw a Granada that was no different from anywhere else; roads with lots of traffic, people going about their day, and nothing out of the ordinary. Fortunately I caught a glimpse about half an hour into our walk of a sign (well, piece of paper) inside a shop window stating "Hay mapas" and so, after waiting in a queue behind one of those people who don't actually want to buy anything but just get in the way with their unruly kids, we acquired the necessary material to confirm the way that we would have to go. Hindsight makes me particularly grateful because I'd have normally chosen to follow the current road to oblivion instead of leaving it there and then to peel off in the direction of the old town, the existence of which we corroborated upon arriving at a gate. A bit of navigational wizardry was needed from this point to find the main street (the trick being not to actually pass through the gate) upon which the cathedral was built. We found it without too much fuss. I was initially unimpressed, although it turns out that the bit on the main road is the rear (hence my thinking it looked rather plain), and by looping around we got to see the front of it. It was situated in a very pretty courtyard. We knew we probably wouldn't get an evening meal, so thought we'd get lunch. Clare played it safe, getting a pizza. I ordered the daily meal thinking that gazpacho couldn't be too far away from tomato soup. I was wrong; it was foul. Clare was wincing when she caught a smell of it - she wasn't the person that had to try stomaching it! Afterwards we roamed the streets and chanced upon some perfectly nice buildings and monuments ... ... and narrow streets. Walking along the very pretty side of the the cathedral ... ... we eventually saw the monument to Isabel. We saw plenty of other things too, of course! The monument to Isabel was the landmark that we were looking for and our clue to branch off northward, which took us to a beautiful building ... ... which was the centerpiece of an exquisite square. From there and with time to spare we went on a very pleasant riverside walk. (Well, streamside.) We passed a church ... ... and eventually came to a pretty square. Alhambra loomed over us. And having glimpsed Alhambra, so we headed off for it. It was a long walk uphill but we felt that it was more genuine to go on foot rather than on the local mini-trains or, heaven forbid, take a taxi, as we saw others do. We knew we were on the right track when we saw a gate at the end of the street ... ... an in passing throught it bid goodbye to the old town. We passed a bright orange building with a telling dome which we believed might be part of Alhambra but which, it transpired, was a cash-in hotel. With plenty more sweat we arrived at the summit and got the pleasure of knowing that we could walk right in rather than have to stand in line, since we'd already purchased out tickets. We immediately left the main path so as not to have to engage with the masses of tourists and immediately hit upon an avenue of trees. We were surrounded by enchanting greenery ... ... beautiful flowers ... ... and stellar views of the fortresses, town and mountains. There were plenty of beautiful sights: Once we'd spent time soaking in the beautiful greenery, we headed off to the Generalife, which were private gardens. We were in for more of the same! There were beautiful, colourful gardens: Views into the distance: And mixtures of both: I can't do it justice verbally, other than stating that I can now picture why the hanging gardens of Babylon were one of the wonders of the ancient world, so I shall instead invite you to click on an image to watch the slideshow. @todo We had a bit of time before we were allowed into the palace, so we thought we'd go on another stroll in the direction of the fortresses that we could see earlier from below. Unbelievably, we were treated yet again to beautiful floral displays en route: @todo We soon arrived at the Alcazara, the fortresses. The weather was searing but we climbed to the top. We were rewarded by views well into the distance, including of the cathedral and square that we'd earlier visited ... ... and where we'd just walked from. @todo Finally came the part that was to prove Clare's favourite bit of the day, and which would not only cause my camera to run out of memory (a problem I sort of solved by deleting photos that I didn't think were the best on there) but also killed its battery; 17:30 was imminent, that was the time on our tickets to see the palace, and so off we went. Ultimately, there's little I can say about it descriptively, other than that it appeared to come from another world. Pictures are as good as a thousand words and, fortunately, we have plenty of those. I'll post below what I think are the cream of the crop but you really must view the slideshow or you'll miss out. @todo We were running late for our coach by the time we had exited the palacio and negotiated the Alhambra to find the way out, so we took one of the taxis that was dropping off the people who weren't walking up to it as we had earlier. The driver took us by the back streets, which served to give us an idea that Granada isn't just a one-trick pony. That had been my earlier impression, since the cathedral and its surroundings were nothing special compared to places which we'd been lucky enough to see earlier, such as Salamanca and Córdoba. The Alhambra is astounding, a reason to come on its own. It appears, though, as though Granada has some other things in store for us. At the point that we left Clare was already making plans to come back in the future and go in at 08:00 to avoid tourists, so it seems that we'll be back at some point
  17. Sunday was our first full day in Madrid and an opportunity to explore. We didn't succeed in making quite an early a start as we had hoped, but still managed to successfully negotiate the metro across the city and arrive in the central Puerta del Sol before 11am. We had a few hours to explore before meeting up with some more local Esperantists, so we decided to focus on the main sights and investigate the cathedral and royal palace. From the Puerta del Sol we began walking down the main road and the first impressive building we came across was the Casa de la Villa, which used to be the town hall (and prison) of Madrid. In front of the Casa de la Villa was a beautiful display of flowers: We continued along the main road from the town hall until we reached the Almudena Cathedral, which is situated opposite the royal palace. Construction began on the cathedral began in 1879 but civil war and lack of funds meant that it wasn't finally completed until 1993. It's hard to convey in photos quite how huge the cathedral is. Around the side there is a statue of Pope John Paul II who consecrated the cathedral in 1993. Across from the cathedral is the Palacio Real de Madrid, the official residence of the Spanish royal family. The royal family don't live there, but it is used for official ceremonies. We managed to get a photo through the bars of the gates. From the palace we headed south to the basilica of San Francisco el Grande, which had an amazingly large dome (larger than that of St Paul's in London). A little further down the road we found the Puerto de Toledo, an impressive gate into the city. From there we wandered through some of the side streets towards the main train station, Atocha. This pink church we saw looked like it could have stepped straight out of Talinn or Vilnius and reminded us of our holiday in the Baltic countries last year. Without doubt the most surprising building which we saw was the Ministry of Agriculture; it was so grand that we can only conclude that Spain is a country which takes agriculture extremely seriously! Here are some of the things we saw whilst walking through the streets at this time: It was time for us to catch the metro again on our way to gatecrash a meeting of the Hispana Esperanto-Federacio (Spanish Esperanto Federation). We had noted down the address in advance and were fully-equipped with maps of Madrid, so we found our way to the correct street with no problems. We understood the Esperantists to be located in building number 13, which we quickly identified, but we became confused because there was one entrance (which looked like a heavily-locked gate) labelled 13 and another (which looked more like an entrance into a block of flats) labelled 13D. We decided that 13D looked more promising but it wasn't possible to get into the building without a key. As luck would have it, just as we were hesitating outside a lady emerged from the building - holding the door open for us - so we were able to slip inside. It was quite dark, but we found a light switch and took the lift to the third floor where we believed the Esperanto federation was based. When we arrived at door number 7 on that floor, however, there were no indications that it was anything to do with Esperanto at all, so we lost our nerve and decided to go back outside and try phoning the Esperantists. To our horror, it soon became clear that not only was a key required to enter the building but it was required to exit it as well! We were now stuck in a random building which appeared to have no relation to the Esperanto association and which we didn't have permission to be in. Whoops! Much to our relief, within a few minutes we were saved by another person wanting to leave the building and unlocking the door for us. Phew! A quick phone call revealed that the Esperanto association was located in the adjoining building (13 rather than 13D!) and one of the Esperantists soon came to let us in. We were excited to meet Tonjo and Alex in real life (as we had previously only been acquainted with them online) and to see the headquarters of the Spanish association. Tonjo kindly donated us two copies of a book about Don Quixote in Spanish and Esperanto (one for us, one for the Butler Library) and we also came away with a collection of leaflets and newsletters. As we sat outside having a drink together, the most therapeutic thing for us was to know that the Hispana Esperanto-Federacio faces many of the same challenges as the Esperanto-Asocio de Britio and that we are not alone in some of our frustrations. Our aim after lunch was to explore Parque del Buen Retiro, a large park in the centre of Madrid which used to belong to the royal family but is now a public park. We were hoping that the park would provide some respite from the fierce afternoon sun, but unless you were standing directly under a tree it was still pretty hot! Within the park there were some beautiful gardens, full of roses. The most exciting thing for me was that after just over a week in Spain, we found our first ducks!!! I wasn't prepared for quite how grand the park would be. This building is the Palacio de Cristal, built in 1887 to exhibit flora and fauna from the Philippines. This one was another exhibition hall, known as the Palacio de Velazquez. The most impressive part of the park, however, was this monument to King Alfonso XII. There were so many beautiful photos that we took in the park that we've not been able to choose only one or two to put below!) We managed to pack a lot of Madrid into one day but there's still a lot to see, so we're lucky that we've got the whole of tomorrow to explore as well
  18. Clare and I are weighing up whether Salamanca is the most beautiful location we've ever visited. It's not really possible to compare with something so different as the stunning lakes at Plitvice but it's very similar architecturally to the fairytale Albi and we think it might just have it beaten on the basis that there's more here. It's so pretty that we found even more to photograph on our evening stroll, hence this second blog entry for the same day. Our apartment is placed a two-minute walk away from the southern limit of the old town, and so we decided to venture outside and head towards the Río Tormes, crossing over one of the bridge that spans it. Looking back towards the old town showed the cathedral rising above the skyline. We soon came across another pretty church. Nothing particularly novel in that, except that this one was on the other side of the river. For variety's sake we elected to walk around the outside of the old town instead of going back in the way we came. Not surprisingly, the cathedral loomed over the city walls and the local residences. Unbeknownst to us we'd soon chance upon a convent. We returned home just in time to catch the sight of the sun setting on the cathedral. The sun sets rather quickly here and so before long night had fallen and I went on another stroll armed with my camera whilst Clare went to bed. Salamanca seems equally as beautiful when there's a black sky as when there's a blue one. Our old friend the cathedral is still stunning when viewed from the bridge over the Río Tormes. And it's beautiful up close too. The sight of domes rising above the streets is all the more impressive against the black backdrop. I was spoilt for choice with beautiful photos taken that evening: So, is Salamanca the most beautiful place we've ever been to? On balance, it probably is, but then again we've been fortunate enough to visit many places which challenge it for the crown. We'd certainly be very happy to come back and see it again one day.
  19. When we woke up this morning, our first task was to find somewhere to have breakfast in Santa Cruz. As we were walking around the town, we were able to admire the flowers displays which it had been a bit too dark to appreciate last night. We hadn't realised that there were poinsettias growing in the street! They were really beautiful, especially these light pink ones! After breakfast we checked out of the hotel and went to retrieve the car from the nearby car park. Soon we were on our way, discovering that it isn't a whole lot easier to drive out of Santa Cruz than it is to drive into it We went around in circles for a while, before eventually finding the road we were looking for towards the Anaga national park. The Anaga national park is a mountainous region in the far north of the island. The road towards it twisted and turned quite a lot, but it seemed quite tame in comparison to the road to Masca yesterday! We were driving towards a viewpoint called Cruz del Carmen, where there was supposed to be a visitor centre with a car park. When we arrived, however, we found that it was a very popular destination and the car park was already full It seemed a shame to drive all this way and miss the view, so Tim drove around for a while and eventually managed to find a roadside where we were able to safely park the car, then walk back up the road towards Cruz del Carmen. We had to walk quite steeply uphill for a while, but when we finally got to the viewpoint it was definitely worth it In the background we had a clear view of our main destination of the day; the Teide volcano. It was a really pretty location, although a little bit breezy After admiring the view for a while, we walked back down to the rental car. We were rather alarmed when, turning the corner towards it, it looked like we'd somehow managed to bash in the front lefthand corner of the vehicle Luckily, once we got a bit closer we were able to see that the car was absolutely fine and it was just the angle we'd been looking at it, combined with the slightly weird design of the front of the car, which made it look like it had been crashed We set off on the road towards Teide. It turned out to be a beautiful road, which took us gradually uphill towards the volcano, initially travelling through a very forested part of the island. Once we had climbed to above 1000m, we were able to stop the car at the first of many viewpoints and look out over where we'd come from. The cloud was quite low, so we could only just about make out the sea. We followed the road further up the mountain. Next time we stopped at a viewpoint we were a lot higher, and the view was a lot clearer I have to admit that I had vertigo at this viewpoint and didn't want to get out of the car Off we went again. It was a good job that we had the car, because there was a lot of uphill to do. Teide itself is enormous, with a summit at 3,718m making it the highest mountain in Spain. The road that we were following climbs to around 2,300m on the side of the volcano. The higher we went, the rockier the landscape became. Soon we were above the tree line... ...and it really did begin to look volcanic! Next time we parked up, Tim caught sight of some rather striking rock formations. Wow, you definitely don't see landscapes like these every day By the next time we stopped, the ground had turned red. It was really unusual! If we'd been here a bit longer, it looked like there were various trails you could follow from this point to explore the area on foot. We were on a schedule though, so we needed to keep travelling up. As we got higher, some of the rocks looked quite menacing.... ...and then we got to a viewpoint where the ground looked almost sandy! It wouldn't be hard to imagine this was the surface of the moon As we got closer to the highest point of the road, the weather began to take a turn for the worse. The summit of the volcano was shrouded in cloud and it rained quite heavily for a while. In good weather there is a cable car which leaves from here and goes almost all the way to the top of the volcano, so we may have to come back another time and try that For today, we just had time to visit a couple more viewpoints and admire our surreal surroundings. We parked the car to admire a particularly striking rock formation, and were slightly surprised when a guy walked over to us and said hello to us in English. It turned out that he had been on the same flight as us the previous day (and annoyed by the same other passengers!). He'd then followed almost the same itinerary on the island as us and said that he'd kept pulling up behind us at viewpoints us all day. Even more of a coincidence was the fact that he has also just come to Tenerife for the weekend and is flying back tonight. So at least we know that we are not the only people crazy enough to come all this way for a weekend And he was nice enough to take a picture of us together at the rocks From there, it was time to start travelling back downhill towards the southern coast and the airport. The countryside soon became a lot flatter, and it wasn't long before we were close by the sea again. All that remained was to hand the rental car back in and wait at the airport for our long flight home. Happily there has been good wi-fi at the airport, so I've been able to do this blog. Overall it's been a tiring weekend, but a very exciting one I can't pretend that Tenerife is somewhere I've always dreamed of visiting, but it has definitely surpassed my expectations and we've had a really good time Who knows, we may even be back some day!
  20. We had lots of fun last November when we went away to Rome for a spontaneous weekend and we said at the time that it would be a fun thing to do again if we could find cheap flights. As November approached again this year, Tim announced that he had booked some cheap weekend flights as a birthday present for me, but the destination was going to be a secret. Or rather, he told me that the flights were to Derry, and I spent a lot of time hoping that that was a joke As of this morning, all I knew was that we were flying with Ryanair and needed to be at East Midlands airport for around 05.30. That meant it was a fairly early start, but not as extreme an early start as we have had on some of our other holidays this year. We got to the airport for the appointed time and it was only when we were about to go through security that I was handed my boarding pass and able to see where we were going.... Tenerife!!! Tenerife???! That sounded like a long way to go for a weekend! Our flight was due to take off at 06.45 but as we left the terminal building to board the plane, I realised that it had unexpectedly begun to snow. It wasn't sticking to the ground, but as we stood in the queue to get onto the plane it was coming down thick and fast. Snow and UK airports are not a good mixture, and sure enough we ultimately ended up with a 45 minute delay to our flight as a result of having to wait for the aircraft to be de-iced. Once we finally took off, the flight to Tenerife took 4.5 hours and was an 'interesting' experience. Despite the fact that it was a 06.45 flight, the passengers in the row across from us had nevertheless already managed to get drunk before boarding the aircraft and proceeded to spend the flight getting progressively drunker, to the point where one of them was barely able to get down the aircraft steps at the other end. The most positive thing was that we managed to outwit the new Ryanair seating algorithm, which had placed me in 10E and Tim in 11B. When we sat down, however, Tim realised that he was sitting next to the husband of the woman I was sitting next to, so we managed to do an unofficial swap It was midday when we finally landed in Tenerife South. First impressions were that it was very warm and humid, but not particularly sunny; there were a lot of clouds in the sky, and it looked like it might have been raining earlier. Passport control was very quick and soon we were in the queue to pick up our rental car. Renting a car is definitely a holiday first for us and we weren't sure how it was going to go, but it all seemed very straightforward... at least until the point where Tim had to actually start driving on the wrong side of the road The plan for the weekend was to try and explore as much of the island as possible. Tenerife is the biggest of the Canary Islands but it's not a huge island, so Tim thought we would be able to see quite a lot. We had soon left the airport behind us and were driving on one of the island's main roads, towards the northwestern part of the island. I had expected Tenerife to look quite dry - which it did - but I was surprised by how mountainous it was even around the airport. We followed the main road for half an hour or so until we reached the village of Santiago del Teide. The village has a really pretty church... ...as well as orange and lemon trees blooming in the street. We had a little stroll around to stretch our legs and could see that the landscape behind the village was quite mountainous. We were on our way to a place called Masca, which is supposed to be the most beautiful village in Tenerife, and the road signs indicated that it was somewhere in that direction. Masca was only supposed to be 5km away so we thought we would be there in a few minutes. We were wrong! What happened next was rather a baptism of fire for the rental car, as we made our way up an incredibly steep mountain road, full of hairpin bends. I didn't take any photos on the way up as I was too busy holding on for dear life, but once we'd got over the top of the ridge and started to descend, Tim managed to pull over into a viewpoint where we could take some photos. This might be the steepest road I've ever been on! The scenery was really beautiful though Once we'd got a little bit further down towards Masca, we were able to stop at a second viewpoint. The landscape was a bit less extreme here.... ...and the road was a lot more manageable too. We were able to follow a track for a little way... ...and get some more views down towards the sea. Masca was down there somewhere but we ended up not actually stopping in it, as it's a tiny village and there wasn't anywhere obvious to park. Instead we followed the road onwards, down towards the sea. We soon reached the small town of Garachico. Garachico is situated on the northern coast of the island, so we'd already covered quite a bit of ground. The sea looked pretty fierce here today; not like the sort of place you'd want to go swimming! From there we were driving on faster roads again, travelling towards our ultimate destination for the evening of Santa Cruz de Tenerife. Santa Cruz is the capital of Tenerife and the biggest city in the Canary Islands. Tim had booked a hotel for us in the city centre and we thought it would be relatively straightforward to find, but we had reckoned without the city's complex one-way system. Over the course of an hour, we got progressively closer to the street we needed, only to have to drive past it and do another big loop around the centre when it inevitably turned out that to get to the hotel would have involved having to drive the wrong way down a one-way street! Eventually we made it though and were able to check in, before setting out to explore the town. The central square, Plaza de España, is quite unusual because it features a small artificial lake. There's a nice view from the square of the mountains behind the town. Darkness was starting to fall by this point and so we got our first experience of Tenerife's Christmas lights. I was very impressed by the concept of Christmas lights on palm trees There was also a huge nativity scene already up... ...and lots of other pretty displays. I really liked this street, where there were stars hanging from the trees. Although it was dark, it was still incredibly warm and when we stopped to have dinner shortly afterwards we were able to sit outside in short sleeves and feel just the right temperature. On the way back to the hotel we took a slightly different route and came across the most colourful Christmas lights of all It's been an exciting day, and I certainly wouldn't have thought when I woke up this morning that I'd be going to bed in Tenerife I'm looking forward to exploring more of the island tomorrow!
  21. Our plan for today had always been to visit Toledo, but perhaps because it was at the end of the holiday, I hadn't put quite as much time into planning the logistics of it as I had some of our earlier days. This manifested itself first of all this morning over breakfast, when we realised that we didn't actually know which of the Madrid stations the trains to Toledo leave from. Oops! Tim consulted the Renfe website and eventually we established that they leave from the station Puerta de Atocha, not to be confused with the nearby metro station of Atocha. It was eight stops to get to Puerta de Atocha on the metro, which didn't sound too bad, but we keep underestimating the sheer size of Madrid. It turned out that, including the walk from our apartment to the relevant metro station, it would take the best part of an hour to get there. The first train to Toledo we were therefore going to be on time to get was the 11.20. We figured that would be okay and set off. There was another slight blip in our plans when, having bought the metro tickets, I accidentally inserted mine in a turnstile machine which was out of order. The turnstile gave me the ticket back, but when I tried to put it through a properly functional turnstile, the machine beeped and wouldn't let me through because it thought the ticket had already been used once. I was temporarily stranded! Tim suggested that, seeing as I did technically have a valid ticket, I should climb over the turnstile barrier. There was no way I was going to be able to do that. In the end I managed to crawl under it The metro journey was long and we arrived at Puerta de Atocha with about 10 minutes to spare to buy a ticket. We thought this ought to be fine, but we were wrong! First of all, our lack of experience with Spanish train stations meant that we initially started trying to use the wrong sort of ticket machines. It turns out that there are two types of Renfe ticket machines; one for local trains and one for long distance trains. When we eventually found the correct machine to buy tickets for long distance trains, there was still technically enough time to buy a ticket and get to the train... but the ticket machine told us that the 11.20 train was full A train being full is not a concept we have in England, where there is no relationship between the number of tickets they sell and the number of seats on the train. But the Spanish trains seem to operate like the fast trains in Italy, where you can only board the train if you have a ticket with an allocated seat, and so trains really can become "full". We were rather disappointed, but we really did want to go to Toledo, so we decided to buy tickets for the 12.20 train instead. Luckily that still had some spaces left! This unexpected delay meant that we had just over an hour to kill in a Madrid station. That didn't seem the most appealing prospect, although the station building itself is quite impressive. We decided to go outside for a stroll. Upon exiting the station, the first thing we saw was the incredibly grand building of the Ministry of Agriculture. Consulting the map, we realised that the station wasn't far away from one of Madrid's large parks: Buen Retiro. We remembered it from our previous visit to Madrid and so decided to go for a stroll. It's a really beautiful park. I particularly enjoyed walking around the rose garden. We also found a pleasant lake... ...with an artificial waterfall. It's a big park, so we only succeeded in seeing part of it before we realised that we needed to head back to the station if we were going to successfully catch our 12.20 train. We thought we knew which way we needed to go, but we took a wrong turned and ended up having to retrace our steps, which cost us several minutes. We arrived back at the station with 10 minutes before our train departed. That sounded like it ought to be fine... We'd reckoned without the complexity of Spanish train stations, however! We knew our train was departing from platform 14 and we saw a sign pointing to platforms 13 - 15 almost straight away. But then it turned out that there are difference entrances/exits to platforms depending on whether you are departing or arriving, and we were walking in the direction of arrivals. Then we realised that it order to get to the departure platforms, we needed to go up several flights of escalators. We managed that and got to the entrance of the platforms with a few minutes to spare... only to belatedly remember that to get on a train, you have to pass through security! Luckily there wasn't too much of a queue and it was just a case of showing our tickets to a ticket inspector and then passing Tim's bag through a scanner. With two minutes left until our train departed, we had a mad dash along the concourse towards platform 14. I didn't think we were going to make it but thankfully we did, managing to jump onto the train about 30 seconds before the doors closed and continue walking down the carriages as the train pulled off until we found the one we were supposed to be sitting in. Phew! The journey from Madrid to Toledo is pretty short, taking around 35 minutes, so we arrived just before 1pm. When we stepped off the train in Toledo, the first thing we wanted to take photos of was the train station itself! It's a really amazing building, with stained glass windows that wouldn't look out of place in a church. It also has a really ornate roof. There were various tour guides standing outside the station, trying to sell tickets for various tourist buses around the town. One of them threatened that it would take 35 minutes to walk from the station to the old town. We decided to risk it, confident that after the steep streets in Portugal, we ought to be able to handle any hills Toledo had to throw at us As we walked along the road away from the station we got our first glimpse of the town. Wow. Toledo is situated on the Tagus river, which is the one that we'd seen entering the sea at Lisbon earlier in the week. The train station is on the opposite side of the river to the main town, so first of all we needed to cross the river via the Puente de Alcántara. This beautiful bridge was originally built by the Romans and now has two fortified gates, one at each end. As we crossed the bridge we had a wonderful view up towards the town and the Alcázar. Once we were on the far side of the river, we began our ascent up to the town. There was a staircase we could have taken but it looked really steep, so took a gentler route following the curve of a road. There were some great views as we climbed. In particular, I loved this church with the patterned roof tiles. Eventually we made it up to the town centre. We calculated it took as about 20 minutes, so not as long as the tour guides had been telling people down at the station. As it had taken us so long to get to Toledo it was pretty much lunch time, so our first priority was to find somewhere to eat. As we walked through the narrow little streets of the old town looking for restaurants, we got a tantalising glimpse of the cathedral. Some of the restaurants in Toledo looked quite expensive, but we found a cheap little pizzeria that was completely empty when we arrived at 13.30. In England that might mean that there was something wrong with the food there, but in Spain it just meant that we were too early for the lunchtime rush; it was full by the time we left an hour later! The pizza was delicious but Tim wasn't very happy when the one he ordered unexpectedly came covered in some sort tomato and gherkins salsa. After lunch we set out to explore more of Toledo and soon tracked down the cathedral. The cathedral is absolutely enormous, and very beautiful. Because of our late arrival, we didn't have as long as we'd hoped to spend in Toledo, so we didn't sight-see in a very structured manner, instead just wandering through the streets and admiring the different buildings. There was a lot of very interesting architecture. The most striking building in Toledo is the Alcázar, a large fortification which was originally a Roman palace and then restored by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in the sixteenth century. It was also the site of a famous siege during the Spanish Civil War, during which the building was badly damaged. Today it has been restored and houses a military museum. From a viewpoint on the edge of the town, we could see across the river towards the castle of San Servando. This was initially a monastery, which was converted into a fortress by the Knights Templar to protect the bridge into Toledo against a potential Muslim attack. Near to the castle, on the same side of the river, is the Toledo Infantry Academy, a centre where officers in the present day Spanish army receive training. Too soon it was time for us to climb back down towards the bridge. We went out through the Alcantara gate... ...and across the bridge once again. Luckily our journey back to Madrid all worked smoothly and we were ready on time to meet up with our friends in a suburb of Madrid at 19.30. We visited their home first of all and then went out for dinner at a local restaurant. We had some beautiful chorizo to start with, followed by steak and some amazing lemon pancakes. It was a lovely evening and a lovely end to our stay in Madrid. Tomorrow afternoon we will be flying back to Birmingham, with the Spanish airline Iberia. We've had a great holiday, discovering Portugal for the first time and revisiting Spain. I've loved everywhere we've been, but I think the absolute highlights were exploring the Buçaco forest and seeing the wonderful palace at Sintra. I think we will definitely be back to this part of the world one day (and hopefully next time plan our visit to Toledo a bit better!)
  22. As we arrived in Madrid pretty late last night, we didn't have any time to see anything. Once we'd had breakfast this morning, we therefore wanted to head into the centre of town and see some of the parts of the city which we remembered particularly enjoying when we first came to Madrid in 2014. The apartment we're staying in is quite close to several metro stations, so we were able to jump on a metro to the central station of Puerta del Sol fairly quickly. It seems like a ride on the metro to anywhere except the airport is €1.50 which is extremely good value. There's a large square at Puerta del Sol, with various roads leading off from it like spokes. We decided to follow one of the main roads which would take us in the direction of the royal palace. As we walked along that road, the first impressive building that we came to was the Casa de la Villa, which used to be Madrid's town hall. It's an impressive building with towers which wouldn't look out of place in a Nordic country. From there it wasn't far to walk to the Almudena Cathedral, which is located next to the royal palace. It's an absolutely enormous cathedral. On one side there's a statue of Pope John Paul II who consecrated the cathedral in 1993. Around the corner from the cathedral is the Palacio Real de Madrid, the official residence of the Spanish royal family. The palace is huge too. You can pay to go inside, but we contented ourselves with a photo through the bars of the fence Once we'd spent some time admiring the palace and the cathedral, we wanted to seek out a church which we particularly remembered from last time we were here. We caught sight of it in the distance and tried to walk in the correct general direction. Our route led us through the Sabatini gardens, which are in front of the royal palace. They're lovely peaceful gardens, with some impressive hedges... ...and some great views back towards the royal palace. We were getting closer to the colourful church now. The irony of this church is that when you're close beside it, you can't actually see the beautiful dome. So we ended up accidentally walking past it, and found ourselves in a neighbouring park, which is home to the the Temple of Debod. This is an ancient Egyptian temple, which was donated to Spain by the Egyptian government in recognition of their assistance with preserving historical monuments during the building of the Aswan Dam. When we realised our mistake, we turned around and walked towards the views of the church again. Eventually we tracked it down The church is called Santa Teresa y San José and the roof is made from coloured mosaic tiles. It's really unique. From there we walked back towards the palace, through another of the pretty parks which is situated alongside it. We needed to walk across to the opposite side of Madrid, to where the Biblioteca Nacional de España (National Library of Spain) is located. Our friend Jorge works there and had offered to give us a private guided tour, which was too good an opportunity to miss. The exterior of the library is very grand. There's very tight security and in order to be allowed in, we first of all had to pass our belongings through an airport-style scanner, and then show our passports at a security desk to be given special visitor badges, including our photos. We weren't able to take photos inside the library, but it was really fascinating. There was a really grand staircase and a beautiful reading room. We were also able to see behind the scenes, from where the books are first received into the library, to where they are processed, catalogued and finally stored. It was amazing to see the rows and rows of shelving, and in particular the rows of antique books, with shelves full of books dating back as far as the seventeenth century. After the tour we went to have lunch with Jorge at a place called Café Gijón. That was quite an exciting experience too, as it was a posher place than we might have dared go into on our own. There was a fixed price lunchtime menu for €12.50, with various options to choose from. We both had a clear soup to start, then I had a steak and Tim tried some Galician ham, which was in a sort of paprika sauce. Drinks and pudding were also included in the price. I expected to get a glass of wine, and ended up with half a litre! Overall it reminded me a bit of a coffeehouse in Vienna; both in terms of the atmosphere and the slight unfriendliness of the waiters After lunch, we walked back into the centre of town, wanting to find some bookshops where Tim could stock up on Spanish novels. We walked past the Palacio de Cibeles, an incredibly ornate building which is the home of the city council. We continued along a street called Gran Via, where there were some really beautiful buildings. We must have been enjoying looking at them too much, because we ended up walking further than we intended, ending up at a gate called Puerto de Toledo. We didn't intend to see it, but it seems quite fitting, because tomorrow we're going on an excursion to Toledo To get back on track, we tried to walk through the Campo del Moro park. This is another beautiful park by the royal palace and it looked like it was criss-crossed by a useful network of paths. We tried to follow them in a direction which we thought would lead us out close to where we wanted to be, but unfortunately several of them were closed for maintenance, so we ended up going round in a big circle and having to retrace our steps. En route though we passed this lawn which was covered in what looked like some sort of parakeets! Eventually we made it back to the centre of town and were able to visit the bookshop, before going back to the apartment for a short break. In the evening we went out once again, this time to a Lebanese restaurant with a group of local Esperanto speakers. The food was excellent and we got to try some different desserts and tea which we would never normally have ordered We've had a great day in Madrid and tomorrow, as mentioned, we're going to travel slightly south to Toledo, a town which looks really beautiful in pictures. Although it may be on a hill
  23. Our flight to Madrid wasn't until 17.15 this afternoon, so we had some free time to spend in Lisbon this morning. We decided to use the time to visit an attraction we hadn't seen yet: Parque Eduardo VII. The park is not far from the centre of Lisbon, and the guidebook said that it had some great views out over the city. We took a metro from the Baixa Chiado station near our apartment to the aptly named station Parque. This turned out to be the most unusual metro station we'd visited in Lisbon, with all sorts of pictures and engravings on the walls. This one seemed to be something to do with exploration of South America. When we came out of the station it wasn't immediately obvious where the park was. The first indication we got was when we caught sigh of this pavillion. From there we climbed up some steps and we were in the park. We'd come for the views, but the first thing which caught our attention was this very odd fountain! Once we turned away from that though, we found the views we'd been expecting We could see all the way down the park towards Lisbon and the river estuary. As you would expect of a park in Lisbon, this one is on quite a steep slope. Fortunately, for once we were actually walking downhill, back towards the town. When you get to the end of the park, there is a huge statue of the Marquis of Pombal. The Marquis of Pombal was the Portuguese prime minister during the eighteenth century and is remembered today for his strong leadership after the 1755 earthquake that destroyed Lisbon. From his statue, we began to walk down Avenida da Liberdade, which is a long boulevard, lined with greenery and statues. We found the monument to the Portuguese fallen in WW1... ...and elaborate water features like this one. Soon we were back in the centre of town. There was just time for one last lunch in Portugal before it was time to start our journey towards the airport. There is a metro line which runs straight to the airport, so the journey was quite easy (although a bit crowded) and excellent value at only €1.65 each for a ticket. We arrived at the airport just after 3pm and everything seemed very straightforward with dropping our bags and security. Unfortunately, once we got through security we realised that our flight was delayed for about 20 minutes. It ended up being delayed by at least half an hour and there wasn't really any explanation, which was a bit frustrating. Boarding the plane seemed to take forever, but eventually we were on our way and we had some really clear views of the Portuguese and Spanish countryside as we flew towards Madrid. Both landscapes looked very mountainous, and some of the Spanish countryside in particular looked very arid. We landed in a sunny Madrid at around 8pm (having lost an hour due to the time difference between Portugal and Spain). It's tempting to complain about the delay, but on the other hand we did only pay €20 each for our flight with TAP, plus another €20 each for the luggage, so it's probably the cheapest flight we've taken in a long time. And we got a free biscuit One thing that was really nice about flying between two Schengen countries was that we didn't have to go through passport control on either side. So there were no long queues once we arrived in Madrid, just a bit of a wait for our luggage to come off the carousel. Madrid's airport is also linked to the city centre via a metro, although the tickets for this one are a bit more expensive (€4.50 each). As luck would have it, the apartment I had booked was not far from where the metro line from the airport terminates, so we were able to get straight onto one train, sit on it for 20 minutes and then arrive in the vicinity of where we were staying. It took a bit of time to find the apartment once we got off the metro... and then when we found the correct building, we had to ring the owners because there was no indication as to which of the multiple flats in the building it might be... but eventually we found it and it seems fine. Tomorrow we're looking forward to seeing some of Madrid, a city which we really loved when we first visited here in 2014, and catching up with some friends
  24. Yesterday was our last full day in Catalonia/Spain, with the aim of today being to cross the border into France en route to our next destination of Perpignan. Originally our plan had been to travel to Perpignan from Barcelona on a fast train, but unfortunately I had forgotten to buy the tickets soon after they came on sale and by the time I finally remembered, it would have been about €50 each to take the train. A bit of panicked Internet research later, we found that it was possible to get a bus to Perpignan from Girona for only €18, and the bonus was that we would get to spend a bit of time in Girona as well. The first stage of the journey involved travelling on the local suburban train from Mataró to a place called Maçanet, a journey of about an hour. This was fine, but when we arrived in Maçanet at around 10am we were rather confused because we couldn't find any information about the connecting trains to Girona. There was no timetable on the wall, no loudspeaker announcements and no information on the display boards on each platform. We had partly had this problem in Mataró earlier in the morning, because they didn't announce which platform the train was leaving from until a minute or so before the train departed, which is probably fine if you get the train every day and know which platform it normally goes from, but not terribly helpful if you're a tourist and need to carry suitcases up and down staircases depending on the platform choice. We coped in Mataró, but in Maçanet we were rather bemused. Luckily it wasn't just us and several other tourists were wandering up and down the platforms, trying to find any sign which might indicate which one the train for Girona was due to depart from. Eventually one man who seemed to know more than everyone else authoritatively said that it was going to be platform 3, so we all settled down to wait. Happily he was right, and so when the train was announced a minute before its arrival, we didn't have a frantic rush to get to the right place. Within 20 minutes we were in Girona The map of Girona in our Spanish guidebook wasn't very comprehensive so our main aim was to make our way into the town centre and find the tourist information office. Fortunately this turned out to be relatively easy, despite the fact that the station is about 20 minutes outside the main town, and we soon had a much better map, as well as some advice on the best things to see if we only had a couple of hours to spend in Girona. One of the most striking sights in Girona are the colourful houses which line the banks of the river. We had seen pictures of these when researching Girona online, so one of the bridges across the river was our first stop. The newer part of Girona is across the bridge, on the far side of the river. The man in the tourist information office had recommended that Plaça de la Independència would be a good place to get lunch. After a quick look at the square, we crossed another bridge back across the river... ...and into the old town. In the distance we could see the striking tower of the church of Sant Feliu. We walked towards it to get a better view. Nearby was Girona's cathedral, which had a rather daunting flight of stairs to climb to reach it. There was a nice view once you made it to the top though. Climbing a hill behind the cathedral, we found the entrance to the town walls. These were originally built in Roman times, being rebuilt and fortified during the sixteenth century. There were quite a few steps to negotiate, but we soon had a great view of the back of the cathedral... ...and of the surrounding countryside as well. At once place in the wall there was a spiral staircase which led up to a higher viewpoint. We were really enjoying the scenery, but the heat was baking! I think it would be nice to stay overnight in Girona and walk around the walls in the early morning/evening before it got too hot. We had time to walk round most of the fortifications before heading back down into the old town and across the bridge into the new town in search of lunch. Girona seems like quite a popular place with tourists, and so the menus of the day we were seeing advertised were more expensive that what we had been paying elsewhere in Spain this week. We eventually settled on a place where I was able to have pizza and Tim ordered a Catalan sausage. We were initially just going to have these, with some wine, but after we ordered Tim noticed that this restaurant also offered a menu of the day for €16.95 and these dishes were part of it. We didn't want a starter at this point, but he went to speak to the waitress to see if we could switch our order to be the menu, with the result that we wouldn't have to pay extra for the wine We enjoyed our main courses, followed them up with some chocolate icecream, and were expecting the bill might be around €40 in total, because we had also had a bottle of water and a beer. Imagine our surprise then when it arrived and was only €22! Tim spoke to the waitress and she explained that she had only charged us for one menu of the day at €16.95 (plus the beer and water) as we hadn't had starters, so had only had two dishes in total rather than four! So what was going to be our most expensive meal of the holiday actually turned out to be a bargain And it was a lovely location to eat in too. Our time in Girona was drawing to an end and we made our way back towards the station for our bus to Perpignan, which was due to depart at 14.50. It arrived promptly and we got a seat without any problems. It was an interesting journey, as we passed through increasingly mountainous countryside on our way to the French border. I didn't expect there to be any checks once we got to the border, but our bus did get pulled over by the French police who had a cursory look at everyone's passports. Within less than two hours we had arrived in Perpignan, and the aparthotel we are staying in very conveniently happened to be situated right opposite the bus station. We checked in and were rather confused, upon being asked whether we wanted Wi-Fi in our room, to be presented with a router and told to install it ourselves! Luckily Tim's was able to understand all the instructions in French We went for a preliminary stroll around Perpignan this evening and it seems like it has a pleasant town centre, with lots of palm trees. We will be exploring in more detail tomorrow
  25. Our plan for today was a day-trip to Barcelona. We have visited Barcelona before, for a long weekend in 2012, and so we knew that it isn't possible to see anything but a fraction of the city in just one day, but we thought it would be fun to revisit some of the sights that we enjoyed most last time we were there. It's an easy journey from Mataró on the suburban train and so our only challenge was finding some breakfast before we left. Breakfast in our hotel was too expensive (about €11) so we hadn't paid for it, thinking that it would be easy to get something to eat in one of the many cafes in the town. What we hadn't taken into consideration was that after the Sant Joan celebrations of the night before, Mataró was getting off to a relaxed start on Friday morning and as we walked along the main streets at 9am, almost all the cafes and restaurants were still closed! Eventually we did manage to find a little place that was open, and with some relief managed to get a coffee, croissant and cake to tide us over until lunchtime. It was around 11am when we arrived in a baking hot Barcelona. Our first stop was the beautiful Plaça d'Espanya. A wonderful series of fountains lead up from the main road to the beautiful building of the national museum of Catalan art, which is situated at the top of the hill. My favourite fountain is this one. When we were in Barcelona before, one evening we witnessed an amazing display where the fountains were illuminated in different colours and the water danced in time with the music. This one was one of the prettiest. The biggest fountain of all is like a huge waterfall which cascades down from the art gallery. You can see just how big it is in comparison to me! We reached the top of the hill and walked along a road for a while until we came to a viewpoint with a wonderful view back across Barcelona. There were also some attractive gardens. We climbed down the hill from here and were back in the centre of Barcelona. In the distance we could just see the top of the Colombus monument. We walked around the corner and found the sea... ...and then had a better view of the monument. It was time for lunch by this point and so we spent a while walking around, trying not to get trapped by high tourist prices. We eventually found a place with a menu of the day for €12, which was a bit more expensive than what we had paid elsewhere but still seemed reasonable. The service wasn't quite as good as elsewhere either, but the food was delicious which made up for it After lunch we had a few more sights we wanted to see before heading back to Mataró. We saw the cathedral... ...and the imposing church of Santa Maria del Mar. We had a stroll in the lovely Parc de la Ciutadella... ...before finding Barcelona's very own Arc de Triomf. This was built in 1888 as an access gate for the Barcelona World Fair which took place in that year. We'd had a lovely time in Barcelona but the heat was becoming really wearing, so we decided it was time to call it a day and head back to Mataró. Tomorrow we will be saying goodbye to Spain and Catalonia as we cross the border into France for the second part of of our holiday
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