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About Me

Found 38 results

  1. 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.
  2. 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
  3. Clare

    Day 2: Segovia

    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
  4. 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
  5. Tim

    Day 13: Granada

    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
  6. Clare

    Day 9: Madrid

    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
  7. 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.
  8. 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!
  9. 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!
  10. 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!)
  11. 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
  12. 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
  13. 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
  14. 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
  15. We left Tarragona behind this morning and took a regional train in the direction of Barcelona. Our ultimate destination was Mataró, a town on the coast of Catalonia, about 30km north of Barcelona. We had to change at the busy Barcelona Sants station from a normal regional train onto a smaller suburban service. The view from both trains was beautiful as we made our way along the coast, in some places with the train seeming to travel right along the beach It was mid-afternoon when we arrived in Mataró and so our first priority was to find somewhere to have lunch. We wandered around the town centre for a while before finding a small restaurant with a menu of the day for 11 euros. The only catch was that it was written entirely in Catalan. Tim managed to recognise key words such as 'salad' and 'fish' to rule out certain menu items, and with the aid of Google Translate we managed to narrow it down to a first course of spaghetti bolognaise and a second course of chicken breast in honey. The latter sounds rather unusual, but it was actually a beautiful combination of flavours. For pudding we had a chocolate mousse and it was all accompanied by a jug of white wine, which once again didn't appear on the bill and once again Tim was assured that it was included in the price of the meal when he queried it! At 3pm we were able to check into our hotel, which we knew was located near the train station on the sea front. It wasn't until we got the key to our room though that we realised what a wonderful view of the sea we had. This was the view from our balcony. Once we had settled in, we set out again to explore Mataró. First stop was the beach. There was so much beautiful sand, and only a handful of other people to share it with. We then moved on to the town centre, which is compact but has some pretty churches. This one is the main basilica. Our plan for the evening was to meet up with an Esperanto friend who we hadn't seen for a number of years, except for Tim's visit to the Catalan Esperanto congress last autumn. As we were sitting outside with a drink, our friend explained that today was a special day in Catalonia; the festival of Sant Joan. Although on the face of it it sounds like this ought to be some sort of religious festival, in reality it seems more to do with fire and the fact that the night of the 23 June is the shortest night in the year. In the centre of Mataró, the celebrations started when some representatives of the town arrived in the centre bearing a torch which we understand had been lit on a special mountain somewhere else in Catalonia. It looked like they had carried it a long way. There was then some Catalan music, including the Catalan national anthem, accompanied by a lot of waving of Catalan flags. There were also some blue flags with a red cross, which our friend explained to us were the town flag of Mataró. Four enormous dolls were paraded into the town centre... ...where they proceeded perform special dances with one another. The dolls represented a royal family who had won a decisive victory against Arab invaders at some point in Catalan history. There was an infectious mood of celebration in the streets and as we walked to a bar in a different part of town, Tim acquired his very own Catalan flag from a man who was giving them away We thought that might be the end of the festivities, but our friend had other ideas and arranged for us to gatecrash a special Sant Joan party which was being held in his brother's flat. We felt a little bit awkward about this given that we don't speak Catalan and so couldn't really communicate with most of the other guests, but no one seemed to mind in the slightest and we were made to feel extremely welcome as we sat down to an unexpected feast. As well as normal food like pizza, there were all kinds of local specialities, including more different types of sausage than we would ever have had the opportunity to try elsewhere. It was 10 o clock at night by this point so felt a bit late to be eating (for us - not by Catalan standards) but we did our best to make the most of it. Just when we thought everyone must be stuffed, pudding arrived in the form of two special Sant Joan cakes, which are apparently only served once a year on this evening. They tasted a bit like Italian pannatone and were decorated with colourful candied fruit. The cake was washed down with a drink I didn't catch the name of, but which turned out to be ice-cream mixed with champagne. I was a bit suspicous of this originally but it turned out to be delicious It was about 11.30 by the time we left and our friend walked us back part of the way until we knew where we were in the town centre. The celebrations were still in full swing here, with tables set out down some of the streets for street parties. As it got towards midnight, a huge fireworks display started taking place near the beach. The closer we got towards the beach the more chaos there seemed to be in the streets, with people setting off their own private fireworks in all directions. Finally we caught sight of an enormous bonfire. I think the dolls from earlier in the evening were going to be burned on this, but people had also been piling up old chairs and other furniture in the streams to fuel the flames. It was very exciting to see and we were really grateful to our friend for inviting us to the party and trying to explain what the celebratoin was about; we wouldn't have had a clue what was happening otherwise! The fireworks and partying in Mataró seemed to continue well into the early hours of the morning but we were exhausted by this stage so headed back to the hotel to recover.... and watch the Brexit results come in on the BBC World Service
  16. The breakfast in our Tarragona hotel had cost nearly €6, so we were interested to see when we got up this morning whether it would be more substantial than the croissant we had been treated to in Valencia. The good news is that it turned out to be a proper hotel buffet breakfast with cheese, ham and pastries, so much more filling! I'd slept in slightly later than intended so it was nearly 10am before we left the hotel to start exploring the old town of Tarragona. Our first stop was the old city walls. These were first built during Roman times, when Tarragona was a fortified city known as Tarraco. They were then expanded during medieval times and in the eighteenth century during the war of Spanish Succession. There's a nice path which goes around the remaining parts of the walls and is dotted with Roman remains and rather scary-looking cannon. There were also some statutes, including this frightening one of Romulus and Remus. In some places we just about had a view out to sea... ...and in other places there were beautiful flowers. It cost us €7.40 each for a ticket that would allow us to walk around the walls, as well as visiting three additional Roman attractions in Tarragona. Once we had finished walking on the walls, we made our way into the centre of the old town where we found Tarragona's cathedral. It was not quite as big a building as Valencia, but still very beautiful. Not far from the cathedral was the Pretorium, a large Roman tower which in more recent times has been used as a prison. This was the second attraction which our Tarragona ticket allowed us to visit, so we decided to give it a go. There were quite a few steps to climb... ...but once we got to the top we were rewarded with some amazing views. We could see back towards the old town and the cathedral... ...and also down towards the Roman amphitheatre. That was our third destination. We climbed back down the tower and walked through some rather dark vaults... ...before getting back out into the fresh air. We didn't have far to walk to reach the amphitheatre. It wasn't quite as grand as the one we visited in Pula last year, but it couldn't have had a more beautiful setting, right next to the sea. The sun was baking by this point so we decided to find some shade for lunch. I had a lasagne and Tim had a beef stew for around €7 each, which seemed like great value. Then we went back to the hotel for a while to cool down and enjoy the air-conditioning! Later in the afternoon we ventured outside once again to visit destination number four, the Roman forum. We had caught a glimpse of this from outside yesterday. It was unusual seeing the remains in the middle of a street, with blocks of normal housing on either side. Overall we've had a fascinating day in Tarragona and it was definitely worth buying the ticket to see all the different attractions. Although there are other tourists here, nowhere has been particularly busy; there were only two other people walking around the forum this afternoon, for example. It definitely is possible to visit Spain and avoid the hordes
  17. We woke up to another beautifully sunny day in Valencia and another sticky croissant and coffee in the hotel. We hadn't had an evening meal last night because we had been so full after our three-course lunch, with the result that we felt this morning that a solitary croissant just wasn't going to cut it. We checked out of the hotel and had a quick stop off at McDonalds on the way to the station for a second breakfast! The station we were heading for wasn't the pretty Estació del Nord which we had seen the other day, but a more modern station called Joaquín Sorolla which is about 700m behind the Estació del Nord. This where the high speed trains to Madrid and Barcelona depart from. It was nowhere near as pretty as the other station, looking more like a shed than anything else, but it was quite unusual inside with everyone having to pass their luggage through an airport-style security scanner before being allowed onto the platform to catch the train. We had pre-booked our tickets online a few weeks ago to get a better price, which was also good as it meant we had a reserved seat. The train turned out to be quite posh inside, with plenty of legroom and a screen telling us what speed we were travelling at, and we had a pleasant journey towards Tarragona, at times with mountains on one side of the train and the coast on the other. It was about 1.30 when we arrived in Tarragona, which turned out to be built on a hill. The main way from the station to the town centre appeared to be via some relentlessly steep staircases, which we didn't really fancy with our luggage, so we crossed the road from the station to consult a map and find an alternative route. Can you spot what the first thing we saw was when we looked at the map?! Yes, that's right - there is a street named Doctor Zamenhof in Tarragona!! We needed to have lunch before the restaurants stopped serving and we soon found a pleasant little place which was advertising its menu of the day for €9. We had a first course of penne carbonara, a second course of hamburger and chips and tiramisu for dessert. Don't think we'll be needing any dinner tonight either! We also enjoyed a bottle of the local wine, but when we came to pay at the end we found that our bill was only €20. It seemed like the waiter had missed off the wine, charging us for two menus of the day at €9 each plus €2 for a beer Tim had had. When Tim tried to explain that we needed to pay for the wine, he shook his head and said that a drink was included in the price of the meal! After what may be this holiday's best-value lunch, we set off uphill again to find our hotel. This is another aparthotel, situated on Rambla Nova, which is the main street in Tarragona. By complete coincidence, it turned out to be exactly the same hotel that Tim had stayed in when he visited Tarragona last autumn! We checked into our room, enjoyed the air-conditioning for a bit, then headed out for a stroll around Tarragona. There were various monuments, of varying degrees of unusualness(!), in the central part of Rambla Nova. We decided to try and track down the Zamenhof street for a photo opportunity, but were slightly hindered by not having a town plan of Tarragona. As we were wandering around in what we hoped was the correct general direction of the street, we came across our first Roman remains. They weren't the most impressive remains we've ever seen - in fact it was a bit difficult to work out what they were - but a helpful info board explained that there used to be a Roman theatre on the site. Just around the corner, we finally found Zamenhof street It wasn't quite as long as the Zamenhof Street in Valencia, and weirdly they had spelled Zamenhof with a double f on some of the signs. Mission accomplished, we began walking back towards Rambla Nova. On the way we came across the old Roman forum. These ruins seemed a bit more impressive We walked to the opposite end of Rambla Nova. There's an amazing viewpoint here out over the sea. It was still unbelievably sunny, even though it was around 7pm! Tarragona seems like an interesting place. Tomorrow we're looking forward to exploring more of the old town and Roman ruins
  18. We woke up to a beautiful sunny day here in Valencia, though waking up felt a little bit painful even after nine hours' sleep. We had paid €4 for breakfast in our hotel in advance, but when we checked in yesterday the receptionist had tried to convince us we wanted to pay an additional €5 to upgrade it to a more superior sort of breakfast. €9 seemed like a lot to pay so we declined, but I wasn't sure what was going to await us when we went downstairs this morning! It turned out to be okay though; just a cup of coffee, glass of orange juice and a rather sticky croissant. Admittedly that wasn't terribly filling, so we decided to aim for an early lunch as soon as it got to midday. The extra €5 would have entitled you to an omelette as well, which didn't really seem worth it! We set out shortly after breakfast to start exploring more of Valencia. First of all we retraced our steps back to the cathedral, which we had passed yesterday when looking for our hotel. This time we walked all the way around it, searching for the best angle for a photo. From a distance it's possible to see quite how big it is... ... whereas up close you can only really capture a few of the buildings at a time. Round the back of the cathedral there is a useful model which shows all the different buildings and towers in the complex. It was only just after 9am at this stage, but the sun was already incredibly hot... ...though the blue sky made a beautiful backdrop for photos. We spent some time strolling around the old town. Valencia isn't really a city I've heard or read much about before, so I was surprised at how much beautiful architecture there seemed to be at every turn. I was also surprised at how many orange trees we seemed to pass on every other street. If you look carefully at this picture, you should just be able to make out some oranges on the trees. Another thing which seems to be quite common in Valencia is beautiful blue-tiled roofs on churches. This one popped up on the horizon as we were walking down one of the side streets, though when we got closer we couldn't actually find the church. After we had wandered for a while we found ourselves at the edge of the old town, which was marked by the impressive Torres de Serranos. Our map indicated that we were not far away from the botanical gardens, and as our city guide to Valencia had suggested that entry to these was free, we decided to explore. The gardens actually turned out to be surprisingly difficult to find, being hidden away behind a wall, and when we finally got there we discovered that the guidebook was out of date and it wasn't free entrance after all. But in studying the map for this particular area of the town in detail, something else caught Tim's attention: Calle del Doctor Zamenhof! It was only a couple of streets away from where we were standing, so we just had to go and explore. It turned out to be quite a long street and we walked along it for several minutes, passing numerous signs along the way. So much for avoiding Esperanto on this holiday! When we left Zamenhof Street, we found ourselves near to the Turia park. The Turia is a large river which used to run through the centre of Valencia, until there was a huge flood in 1957. After that the town authorities diverted the course of the river so that it now flows around the city instead. The old river bed has been converted into a long park which runs through the centre of Valencia for 9km. It was a pleasant place to stroll, with palm trees of all shapes and sizes. We walked through the park for a while, and then when it got close to midday we turned back into the centre of town to investigate places to eat. Finding something to eat can be a tricky business in Spain, particularly if you don't want to eat paella or any other variation on theme of fish, but eventually we did find somewhere that had a promising menu of the day: spaghetti bolognaise for a starter, roast chicken for the main course and ice-cream for dessert After lunch we went back to the hotel for a while to have a rest and escape the worst of the sun. It was late afternoon when we ventured out again, with the intention of walking through the rest of the Turia park towards the coast. One of the strange things about walking through the park is that because it is an old river bed, it is criss-crossed by numerous bridges. Some of them looked rather old... ...while others were covered in beautiful flowers. The most surprising thing about this one was that whoever had built the bridge had cut holes in it for the palm trees to grow up from the ground! As we neared the end of the park, we encountered a space-age collection of buildings which seemed rather a contrast to the architecture in the city centre. This is 'Ciudad de las Artes y Ciencias', a huge cultural complex which was constructed in the late 90's. The buildings include a cinema, science museum and acquarium. This large blue building was my favourite; apparently it is called L'Àgora and houses concerts and sporting events. By this point we were at the end of the river park, which meant we were nearly at the sea. Valencia has a large port, from which ferries depart to the Balaeric islands. Valencia was selected as the destination for the America's Cup, a large yachting regatta in 2007, and so the entire harbour area has been spruced up. I was quite excited to find these cactus plants near the sea front The palm trees were impressive too. We stopped for a drink to cool down and then had a little stroll along the (very sandy!) beach before heading back to the hotel for the evening. We're off to Tarragona in the morning but have had a great time in Valencia, and I'd definitely like to come back another time
  19. We had a 07.10 flight from Stansted to Valencia this morning as the start to our two weeks away in Spain and France. It sounded okay until I started counting backwards on Saturday afternoon and realised that if the airport parking was booked for 04.30, we'd need to leave home at 02.30. Oh dear! The only good thing about leaving home so early is that there was hardly any other traffic on the roads and we got to Stansted in record time. And the good thing about flying on a Sunday was that the airport itself wasn't quite so crazily busy as it sometimes is on Saturdays. The Ryanair check-in went smoothly, and we were sitting in Wetherspoons having breakfast by 5am! I had a much-needed Wetherspoons coffee, which kept me awake long enough to board the plane (but not much beyond that!). My aim was to stay awake until we had at least taken off, but somehow the coffee didn't seem to be quite strong enough and I nodded off during the Spanish version of the safety demonstration. Next thing I knew it was 8am and we were flying over what looked like a very sunny France. I haven't had the winning combination of a window seat and a clear sky for quite some time and I remember thinking to myself that I really ought to stay awake and look at the view... but next thing I remember was over an hour later when the captain announced that we were starting our descent to Valencia! The view as we came in to land was really beautiful as we flew over some rather dusty-looking mountains and then along the Spanish coast. The sea was a brilliant shade of blue and for a while it looked like we were in danger of landing in it, but Valencia appeared just at the right moment and we were down. Valencia airport itself seemed rather peculiar. Everyone got off the plane and then stood in a queue, as one of the Ryanair air hostesses held us back and periodically allowed small groups of people to cross the road to the terminal building. When it was eventually our turn, we realised that the passport control desks were situated almost immediately after you walked through the door to the building, so that the queue of people was actually outside and the air hostess was trying to make sure it didn't get so long it spilled out onto the road part of the runway. Luckily it seemed like a wonderfully sunny day in Valencia, and so queueing outside didn't seem like a great hardship. I don't think it would work so well at Stansted! We couldn't check into our accommodation until 4pm so stopped for a drink at the airport before heading into the main town. The airport isn't situated very far from the centre of Valencia itself and is connected to the main town via an underground metro. The journey probably took about twenty minutes, and then we emerged into the sunlight just outside this impressive building. Believe it or not, this elaborate building is the main railway station in Valenica. Inside the building is just as unusual as outside. This is the ticket hall. The station is located right next to Valencia's bullring, which looks a bit like a Roman amphitheatre, though is obviously a lot more modern. We were fairly hungry by this stage so decided to investigate somewhere to eat. Ignoring the ubiquitous signs for paella, we eventually found a small Italian restaurant where we were able to order pizza. I was very excited upon reading the drinks menu to find something called "tinto de verano" which was translated on the English menu as being "wine with lemon fanta". I definitely needed to try this to see how it compared to Croatian miš-maš It turned out to be very similar, albeit not stripy as the wine was already mixed through the Fanta It wasn't quite as sweet as miš-maš, probably because it was lemon fanta rather than orange, and it wasn't quite as alcoholic as miš-maš either; I think there was only a small amount of wine in it. It was very refreshing though. The restaurant was very relaxed and didn't object to me sipping my drink very slowly as we tried to kill some time until we could check in. Eventually we decided to try our luck checking in a bit earlier than we were supposed to, and set off through Valencia in the direction of the hotel. I was surpised by how grand many of the buildings in the town centre seemed to be. We soon found ourselves in what we think must be the city's main square, Plaza del Ayuntamiento. There were some enormous palm trees... ... and a beautiful fountain as well. We could see from the map that our hotel was near the cathedral, so we walked in that general direction. The cathedral looks stunning, but difficult to capture in a photo close up. We will have to try again tomorrow. We arrived at the hotel at some point after three and the receptionists didn't blink an eyelid when we asked to check in. Seems like we could have got away with arriving even earlier after all! We're staying in an aparthotel, so we have a nice suite with a kitchenette. It seems incredibly roomy after the tiny boat cabin we stayed in when we visited Stockholm We were fairly tired again by this point so had a nap before heading out for an evening stroll around Valencia. It looks like a really interesting city and I'm looking forward to seeing more of it tomorrow
  20. It was guesswork as we pulled into a train station in Valencia. I could see that it wasn't the one I had read about but it didn't feature on my map. So the question was whether to get off at the outskirts, or risk staying on board and potentially not encounter another stop until Alicante. I had a flight to catch and a little bit of mystery wouldn't do me any harm, so I got off there and then and then walked in what I hoped would be the right direction. It didn't take me long to confirm that I'd taken the correct route; this is the train station: And something promising appeared next to it: That's the bullfight arena. Continuing my walk took me to a square in which it wasn't possible to escape the sight of beautiful buildings: I had a map and so made use of it, although in truth I was chancing upon things to see: I gave up on the map, really. If I caught a glimpse of something in the distance, I walked towards it: This approach took me totally by accident to the cathedral: Well, it was impossible to miss! There was a perfect replica of it too: Such a lovely building: Around the back was a square with colourful buildings: And an unusual artistic layout of rushes: And not long after I chanced upon a gate: I saw some lovely views from across the river: I walked back into the city on the lookout for lunch: And afterwards I walked alongside the river in search of unusual objects. It wasn't long before I found them: At this stage I'd had a full day of walking and was very hot, but there was another thing I wanted to see: Port America's Cup. For some reason it never dawns on my to use the public transport, particularly when there are six tramlines in the city, so I walked and walked and walked. And eventually I found it: And a beach too, to round off the day! And that was the end of a lovely few days. I'd love to try Catalonia for a proper holiday, particularly if I could combine it with a stay in the French side of the Pyrennees.
  21. The sun was shining when I awoke, although it had been so wet the previous evening that the pavements were still glistening. I jumped out of bed, packed (= trying to force all the books I'd greedily bought into my hand luggage), and dashed downstairs for the breakfast I'd ordered yesterday on the spur of the moment, my first of the holiday. My train to Valencia was set to leave at 10:55, so if I wanted to see Tarragona, I'd have to do so quickly. I limited my journey to the old town and knew I was on the right track when I found a wall running alongside the edge of a garden: The streets were decidedly old: One of my favourite moments on holidays is when something big suddenly looms into view at the end of a street. Tarragona doesn't disappoint for that: It's all very clean and intricate: It looks even better when viewed from the other side: It's easy to forget until you get a reminder that Tarragona is uphill: And so I escaped through that breach before quickly passing the conventional means of coming and going: And next was a stroll alongside the road, downhill to the train station. I encountered a small park looking out to sea: Before long I received reminders that I was indeed in the old Roman part of the town: A little bit further along brought me to a lovely park: And then it appeared - mission accomplished! It's nothing compared to the magnificence of the amphitheatre in Pula, but this one did have the selling point of being by the sea. One train fare of 40.10€ (why the ten cents?!) later, and I was on my way to Valencia.
  22. This should be a short blog entry. It rained. A lot. My plan to get better photos of the basilica in Mataró didn't pan out. The sky was extremely gloomy and there was rain. I did pop into a bookshop, though, and found tonnes of Asterix books in Catalan ... but the multiple attempts at trying to get everything into my backpack earlier caused me to know that I wouldn't be able to fit any more books anywhere. I did think about throwing away some of my clothes, though! The wind and rain meant that there was no point getting a photo of the beach, so sped past the gloomy scene and into the train station, where I purchased a ticket to Sitges. Unfortunately, there was no information on which train I needed to get on, so I had to ask the lady at the ticket desk. I suspect that somewhere in there she told me I needed to get a connection at some point, but I wasn't anticipating that because the journey was just down the coast. Anyway, I ended up back in Barcelona, so clearly I needed to get off at some point! I'd made a decision already to change my plans and skip Castelldefels, since my guidebook didn't make it sound too worthy of a stop and there was a lot to fit in. Unexpectedly back in Barcelona, I skipped it again. It wasn't worth trying to fit in Sitges and Vilanova i la Geltrú, since both were beach locations and the sky was emptying, plus my notes weren't clear on how to get from Vilanova to Tarragona ("According to Google, there are buses from ..."). A machine indicated that there was a train in a couple of hours' time, so I exited the station and decided I'd have some fun browsing for books in the Fnac bookstore, even though there was no room in my bag. I'm sure things are sent to taunt me! There were Asterix stands on display and loads and loads of the books! Gah! I managed to find a nice, pristine copy of Eye of the Needle in Spanish though, so bought it anyway. They didn't have it in Catalan. Somehow I squeezed it into my bag. Well, this is my only photo of Barcelona today. I needed to escape the rain and get food, and I didn't have much time because I realised my train was leaving from another station: And before too long I was on the train to Tarragona, hoping for some better weather. I had an amphitheatre to see! This was Tarragona: I spent some time in my hotel and could hear the torrential downpour getting heavier. I needed to get some food and by 18:30 the rain hadn't abated and so I had to brave this to track down somewhere to eat: I was utterly soaked to the skin, so haven't seen Tarragona at all. The forecast shows a 20% chance of rain tomorrow, so fingers crossed I'll get to see the amphitheatre before heading off to Valencia. I think I'm going to skip Castellón, which I had sketched in. The guidebook doesn't really sell it, and I need to make sure I give Tarragona and Valencia a chance.
  23. Today I got to see Mataró because the sun was up. It's not the biggest place in the world and before I knew it, I was back at the train station and could see its wonderful red colouring, as well as the palm trees at its side: I knew that the congress venue was directly opposite, having popped by the night before, so in I went for the opening ceremony. There wasn't much to report, it simply being an opening statement from the president, though I was delighted that he used both Catalan and Esperanto; I do at ours too so as not to exclude new people, but I'm always aware that for some people this is anathema. I find it reassuring that the people here are sensible in that respect too. Once that was out the way, it was time to register. I bumped into our friend Ed, which was lovely - we haven't seen each other since April. I hadn't eaten yet (nor the night before) at it was about 11:00, so I snuck away to a cafe to get a pastry and coffee. My plans to speak Catalan are going about as well as I expected; I have passive knowledge only, so quickly resorted to my broken Spanish. At noon the programme started, with a presentation by our friend Istvan and his wife, Fabienne, on the hot topic of the moment, immigration. Fabienne several years ago did a study on the issue interviewing people (including Esperantists who had fled the Warsaw ghetto) on their experiences, and presented the subject and results. Istvan added the comedy. Following this our friend Jorge presented a workshop on poetry, following up on one the previous night, having tasked people with making their own haikus. We broke for lunch and Ed and I set off with one of his friends, Pere, to find somewhere to eat. The streets were narrow but colourful, and Catalan flags were a common sight: We knew we were on the right track when the buildings switched from being apartments to something a big grander: Such a perfect blue sky behind it too; hard to think that this is the last day of October: Lunch was cheap and cheerful. I'm not one for photographing my food, but changed my mind when it appeared the olive had an Esperanto star cut into it: I wanted to go to the second-hand bookshop but, alas, Pere pointed out what I'd forgotten; the shop was likely to be closed at this time of day. He was right too, so off to the congress venue we went. Istvan was presenting again, this time on migration in Esperanto literature. Unfortunately for him, his suitcase didn't arrive in Catalonia with him and his notes, photos and presentation were in it. You'd never have known had he not said, though - the man's delivery is flawless and casual. The next item on the agenda was the one I was most looking forward to; Victor Sole was making a presentation on why he didn't like the music of the Esperanto hymn. This was fabulously done, with wonderful delivery to illustrate his points and clear breakdowns of the issues. In the end he put his money where his mouth is and played an alternative version, which he invited the room to sing along to. He didn't manage to work the miracle of making people like me suddenly be able to sing, but this one clearly worked much better. And then he put it to jazz! He responded to a cry from the audience of "Now change the lyrics!" with an admission that he wasn't brave enough to attempt that! It was remarkable to me how well this went down; I'm not sure we'd get the same result in the UK. I wasn't interested in the next topic so headed off to the bookshop. I may have gone a little over the top, buying seven items. I also spotted two copies of Ken Follett's Eye of the Needle, which we have in four different languages, I think, at home but I'm going to hold off and see whether I can find a pristine version elsewhere first. The last presentation of the day was another workshop by Jorge. I had told him at the end of the last session that I didn't dare volunteer my poem because it was about farting and there was lots of grey hair in the room. He laughed at that; one of the poems he'd read out at the previous evening's session was on that very subject, so he asked me to come back later and do it. The people laughed in all the right places so I was relieved to have survived. Next was the evening programme, which was at a local bar. We were set to hear a concert from a Congolese young man, but he'd been ill and hadn't made it. Out of nowhere, our hosts put on a concert themselves and were really, really good, just the sort of music which Clare and I listen to. I didn't find out until the next day that they were the Esperanto group Kaj Tiel Plu. I had a brief catch-up with my long-time friend Jordi, but his newborn daughter had had a long day and needed to go home, so it wasn't as long as it might have been. Not to worry - another friend, Lluis, and his wife were there with their 16-month-old and they very kindly kept me company all night around the dinner table. I woke up much later on Sunday than I would've intended. The bedroom has no windows so my natural instinct to rise with the sun couldn't kick in. It wasn't the most glorious start; I've noticed over the last year that alcohol affects me much more easily than it used to (which I'm delighted about, because it suggests I drink less) and even though I don't think I drank that much during the previous night, I was sick three times. That put me off drinking all day. I was late getting to the congress venue for the last part of the event, a concert by Kaj Tiel Plu at 13:00. I made it just in time for the last song, which was followed by the formal closing of the event. There then followed the banquet, which lasted about three hours. I was really hungry, having not only not eaten breakfast again, but also jettisoned the contents of my stomach. This wasn't the kind of thing one could heap together (the starters including ham and cheese) but it filled a hole. And then people started saying goodbye to each other and everything was over. It had been fun, I must admit. These are all friendly people, and the Esperanto community in Catalonia is blessed with many talented people. Ed and I went away together and chatted for six hours. Unfortunately, since I had been so late in the morning, I had missed the guided tour and hadn't been out with my camera, so all I've got to show of Mataró are some photos of the basilica after the night had started falling: I think I'm going to change my plans for tomorrow. I'm checking out at 10:00 and was planning to visit Castelldefels, Sitges, Vilanova i la Geltrú, and then get to Tarragona. But there's no entry for Castelldefels in my guidebook and I still need to see parts of Mataró (and track down a new copy of Eye of the Needle!), so I think it might get dropped from my list. We'll see.
  24. I arrived at the gate about 80 minutes prior to departure. So the first challenge to a successful break (a relaxed approach to punctuality presenting a risk of not actually making it) was passed. This will only be a short entry because it was a day spent travelling. I was delighted to see at some point in the flight that the "Barcelona" airport called Reus is actually on the outskirts of Tarragona. I'm going to bear that in mind for future travel, since I imagine there's less chance of encountering so many people heading there who are not capable of not talking. I've not really enjoyed either of the flights I've taken so far to El Prat. The thought occurs to me that a chunk of people are drawn to the airport because they think it's personalised for them. It took me nearly an hour to get off the plane and through passport control. I happened to be the third in line to leave via the back door but ... the back door wasn't going to be in use. So I was off late and at the back of the three lines. Yes, three. Only three people were working passport control and I'm not convinced we were the only flight disembarking. There are shuttles from the airport to Plaça de Catalunya leaving every ten minutes, which is exactly where I needed to go, so i was in luck. I bought my ticket in the queue (5.90€) and was on my way. Finding the train station at Plaça de Catalunya wasn't quite so straightforward: it isn't signposted. There are two metro stations, so I thought I'd give them a go. It wasn't the first but - phew - the second also featured the Renfe signs. I also noticed a Fnac store just outside, so thought to myself I know what to do if there's a wait till the next train. (They leave hourly but I didn't know when exactly.) Yep - why think about getting a meal when you can buy books? As it happens, the train to Mataró was signed as leaving in 3 minutes, so I rushed to a machine, bought my ticket (4.10€), and dashed to a platform. The train journey was lovely. For the entire 40-minute duration it ran alongside the coast, so I got a view of the beach and sea to relax with. I arrived in Mataró as the sun was starting to go down but made it to my apartment without a problem. I decided it would be nice to head to the congress venue and see whether I could find anybody. En route I noticed a second-hand bookshop, so I know what tomorrow's priority is now! I knew that the venue was directly opposite the railway station, and that became clear when I glimpsed an Esperanto flag hanging from a window. So in I went, spotting Jorge Camacho. Jorge and I headed off together for a meal and were joined by a friend of his, a fellow Esperanto-speaker called Antonio Valén. I liked him a lot; he could speak about Asterix ("The first one isn't that good - Obelix is just there to give Asterix somebody to talk to"), was entertaining company ... and he paid the bill! After the meal we headed to a venue around the corner where a local choir sang some regional songs. The leader was an Esperanto-speaker and so spoke in that language as well as in Catalan and Spanish. It was very pleasant and, at only four songs, didn't stretch on too long. And then I returned to the apartment and will spend my first full day in Mataró tomorrow.
  25. We were tired after our long day-trip to Granada but still had to be up at a reasonable time on Friday morning to check out of our apartment and move on to the final destination of this holiday: Seville. We had chosen to go to Seville for no very good reason except that it has an airport from which we managed to book a Ryanair flight back to Stansted for a reasonable price, and so long before we had planned the rest of our itinerary it was established that we would finish up here. What we hadn't appreciated was quite how far south it was and - by extension - quite how hot it was going to be! We travelled to Seville by train, which felt like an achievement in itself after some of our experiences with Spanish public transport over the past two weeks. The apartment we had booked was only 2km away from the station and we had plenty of time before we needed to check in, so walking seemed like a good idea. It had been a warm day when we left Cordoba that morning, but the heat which hit us when we stepped out of Sevilla Santa-Justa was a whole new level. We heard later that Seville is sometimes referred to as 'the frying pan of Europe' and it seems to be a reputation which is well deserved. Despite the heat the first kilometre or so of our walk passed off without incident. Or, at least, as well as could be expected since the Curse of the Suitcase Wheel had struck again in Madrid. As we got nearer the older part of town, however, we were slightly distressed to find that the pavements disappeared. The roads were narrow, wide enough for a single car, with a small strip of pavement along one side which would suddenly peter out, switch to the opposite side of the road, then vanish all together. This would have made pulling any sort of suitcase a nightmare but it was particularly difficult given the broken state of mine. There was a surprising amount of traffic on such small roads and at one point when we had to squeeze ourselves up against the side of a building to let cars past we were stranded there for several minutes until one driver took pity on us and allowed us to drag our suitcases down the road to the next strip of pavement. Lesson learned - always take a taxi in Seville! When we eventually arrived at the apartment it wasn't quite as glamorous as the one we had just left in Cordoba (I suspect no apartment will ever seem impressive again after that one!) but it did have very good air-conditioning which was a blessing. We unpacked, cooled down, did a bit of shopping and then went out to get dinner.... only to find that all the restaurants were closed and not due to open until 9pm. We had read in the guidebook - and been warned by one of the Spanish Esperantists - that people in Seville have different body-clock settings to the rest of us and that we were likely to find the town deserted in the afternoons, but full of life in the early hours of the morning. I had thought perhaps this was an exaggeration, but no; it seems that in Seville dinner time is from 9pm to 11pm and in the afternoon everyone goes to bed. We retired to the apartment to eat emergency Pringles and try not to think about how hungry we were! We emerged again at 9 and found a really nice Indian restaurant (Tim wasn't keen to try any more Spanish cuisine after his Gazpacho!!!) and had a lovely, if somewhat late, meal. Our plan was to get up early on Saturday morning and explore Seville before it got too hot, but having eaten and then gone to bed so late the night before it didn't quite work out. When we did emerge into what was already a scorchingly hot day, our first impression was that Seville smelled. It really, really smelled. Of horse Out of all the places we've been on the holiday Seville is definitely the most touristy, and in addition to a lot of tacky souvenir shops and annoying waiters who stand in the street to try and entice you into their restaurants, a consequence of that is that there are seemingly hundreds of horse-drawn carriages taking visitors on sight-seeing tours around the city. At the best of times, horses smell. But with so many horses and temperatures so high, the whole city smells like an allotment which has just been covered in manure. Trying not to inhale too deeply, we made our way through the narrow side streets to see the cathedral. According to the guidebook, the cathedral in Seville is one of the largest churches in the world, with its size in cubic metres being greater than that of St Paul's in London or St Peter's in Rome. It did look rather enormous, and it was difficult to fit all of it into a photo. The cathedral was set in a pretty square... (I borrowed the hat off Tim because it was so sunny!!) At the far end of the square was a striking red gate, the entrance to the royal palace in Seville. We didn't think it would be able to compete with the palaces we had seen in Granada earlier in the week, so we didn't pay to go in. From the cathedral we strolled through more of the old town towards what we hoped would be the shade of the Parque de Maria Luisa. On the way we saw the stunning Palace of San Telmo, which is the seat of the president of the Andulusian local government. The park used to form the grounds of the palace but was donated to the city as a public park at the end of the nineteenth century and remodelled for the Ibero-American Exposition which took place in the park in 1929. At the centre of the park is the Plaza de España, a huge square housing the main buildings which were constructed for the exhibition. It sounds strange to say but some of the most beautiful parts of the square were the lampposts.... ...and the bridges. The rest of the park was also very attractive. There were tiled fountains... ...a big duck pond... ...and water features which were reminiscent of the Generalife. When we had finished exploring the gardens we crossed a bridge over the river Guadalquivir, intending to stroll along the river back into the town centre. Unfortunately we somehow managed to end up in a large housing estate, which wasn't terribly scenic. We made it back into town in the end and found one of Seville's other key sights, the Torre del Oro. This tower on the banks of the river used to function as a military watchtower and a prison. We had some lovely views across the river to the colourful houses on the other side. Seville probably hasn't been our favourite destination of the holiday, but we have still had a wonderful time in Spain and definitely hope to return at some point on one of our future holidays
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