Towards Home

After we watched the start of the Tour we headed north, the start of our home run.

First stop was Lyon where we stayed a night at Chateau Lonsgard, a B&B we stayed in 2007 and again in 2012 with 9 other MGs on our drive from Cape Town to Cairo (and then across Europe).  Owned by Olivier and Alex (actually the Count and Countess du Mesnil du Buisson) it is an old 1600s chateau that they have been renovating. They welcome guests into their lounge room with a glass of their very own Beaujolais wine. If you are lucky Alex will provide an outstanding dinner as well. A walk around the grounds highlights the centuries old trees and manicured garden.

Unfortunately, these two days driving coincided with a heatwave in France as well as across much else of Europe and England.  The temperatures were over 40 degrees C and we somewhat suffered, drinking gallons of water. Ros got to pouring water down her front and letting the wind through the car attempt to cool down, a rather hopeless attempt!  And the milage turned over a new 00000 – When I get home I’ll need to work out how far we have travelled on these trips!

Both evenings we arrived extremely hot and weary: not so Goldie who purred along with the thermoset never getting above 180 degrees F.  Thank heavens for the larger radiator and bigger fan!  It was also harvest time, with many combines in the fields of wheat.

Next, on to Reims, primarily to visit Charles Heidsieck champagne house. With a morning to spare we found a car museum! So, a museum seemed a good idea, perhaps it would be air-conditioned; it wasn’t!h 14

We are in France, so it was unsurprising that this small, but excellent museum should focus its attention on French manufacturers. What did astound and fascinate us was the huge variety of French manufacturers I had simply never heard of and which have obviously disappeared or been absorbed by other manufacturers. So Citroen, Renault, Peugeot, yes. And, of course there are often race car manufacturers who do not manufacture for the on road market. But Mochet, Centaure, Thevenin, Fournier-Marcadier, La Licorne, Cime, Michet Irat, Rosengart, Chenard et Walcker, Suere, Amilcar, Genestin and Salmson to name a few? And if you go into Google and look at the list of former manufacturers it is seemingly endless (23 listed under the letter R alone) with some companies only in existence for a year or less. The dates beside the manufacturers are the dates they were in operation, according to Wikipedia. So, I could get a bit carried away here but will keep this particular bit of personal research for another time. We might lament the loss of manufacturers in the British industry however the French industry has experienced the same.

This was a rather delightful museum as quite a bit of trouble had been taken with the limited layout and space available. Often, particularly with either the very old or unique car, trouble had been taken to put dummies dressed in period costume next to or inside the cars so that the whole period of the car’s manufacture and use became more obvious and alive.

I have picked a few of my favourites for the blog, including a few technical details for those who are interested.

There was also a section of the museum devoted to child-sized replicas, some for very little littlies, some which could have been ‘driven’ by someone aged up to 10 or 12. Again there was a range of vehicle types on display.

But even a French motor museum is not complete with out a couple of MGs, albeit hidden in a corner, but there next to the Renaults, Peugeots and Citroens!  One thing we noticed was that almost a third of the French cars were right hand drive: is that because pre war and early 1950s it was not important, or were these cars originally sold in the UK and later returned to France?

Then we quickly visited the Reims Cathedral, interesting for two reasons: first, no entrance fee and second, no chapels around the sides and other than some very beautiful stained glass windows, not overly ornate or decorated – hardly any gold insight.

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Charles Heidsieck is a limited production champagne house in the centre of Reims, with 2,000 year old underground cellars. We were able to arrange a tour through a golf friend in Sydney who is the local agent.  Otherwise a tour is not available to the public.

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As well as the champagne itself, Charles Heidsieck has access to Roman built cellars under the city.

These chalk cellars were excavated by the Romans to provide material to build the city walls and and extend across the city with 5 champagne houses sharing eight kilometres of chambers and connecting tunnels.

 

There are 40 ‘rooms’ and they remain at a constant temperature of around 10 degrees C throughout the year.  Although it was 39 degrees C in the garden, we were issued with beautifully warm and soft wraps for our visit to the cellars!

Charles Heidsieck itself sells one million bottles of champagne a year and holds four million bottles in its cellars at any one time. This is a tiny champagne house when you consider that 300 plus million bottles of champagne are sold each year. Please remember that only champagne from the Champagne region can be labelled ‘Champagne’. Moet and Chandon sells 30 million bottles each year.

During our tour of the cellars we learnt about the unique shape of the Charles Heidsieck bottles. These bottle are almost pyramidal in shape, but with a very gentle and elegant curve as the bottle height increases. Down in the cellars the inspiration for the bottle shape becomes visually and dramatically apparent.

We tasted four of the champagnes including a very aromatic, yet dry rose. These champagnes are very elegant with the tiniest beads which drift lazily, mesmerically but surely to the surface as you enjoy the taste sensation and the lingering palate.

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This was a really delightful afternoon and having cooled off in the magnificent cellars we were able to stay cool in the delightful tasting room which looked out over the beautiful gardens with the caps of the cellars dotted among the trees.

After enjoying the tasting, we set off for Calais for an over night stop before catching Eurotunnel in the morning and driving to London, where we are fortunate to be lent a fantastic flat just off Fleet Street.  As it was the weekend we were able to park outside the door  and did not need to ask the nearby hotel if we could park on their forecourt (bit down market actually!).

On Monday we delivered Goldie to the shippers for the journey home.

A few days in London: watching the Wallabies play Argentina;

seeing The Merry Wives of Windsor at the Globe;

dinner with Clive, Jenny and Kate and a few sights. Some photos of things you expect in London to finish.

And so ends this year’s adventure in Goldie.

We do have plans for next year – so we will be continuing this blog for a bit longer, but not till 2020.

John & Ros

 

Tour de France

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Having watched the Tour on TV for as many years as I can remember (evening highlights, not overnight!) I connected the dots and realised that we would be leaving Spain and going to France at a time when the Tour was on.

How lucky were we, it was in the south of France and based around the town of Nimes at the time we would be passing through this area.

Ros then got to work on finding where we could stay. Using the Tour web site we were able to determine that the tour rode through the village of Castillon-Du-Gard (and we mean right through the middle of the village) and Ros snagged accommodation for us right on the route.

The route is closed about 5 hours before the cyclists go through, however there is so much happening in that organising the event must be an Olympic task.  Clearly there are teams and their needs: mechanics, busses, cars driving along the event.

Also there is an amazing infrastructure team: putting barriers up along the route, including closing roads, putting up direction signs, making sure the surface is clear, providing parking for the team busses etc.

Then there are the police on every corner plus truck loads of army on stand-by.

And then the sponsors: about 2 hours before the cyclists come through a caravan of sponsors drive the route. Probably about 30 sponsors each with around 5 to 10 vehicles in their particular sponsor convoy handing out gifts along the route, with the vehicles ‘dressed up’ and decorated for the event.  Many of these vehicles had people standing in the backs of the decorated trucks as they threw the sponsor gifts into the hands of the waiting crowds. All these people were securely fastened to the trucks with safety harnesses.

Also along the route there are police on motorbikes escorting the sponsors’ parade, media and cameramen on motorbikes flashing between all the parade cars and other motorbikes. At the end of the sponsors’ caravan come two flat top trucks in case there is a break down – can’t have a vehicle blocking the route!

Every team is driven between race sectors in huge tourist buses and there needs to be provision made every day for these team buses to assemble all together in one place. There were, in 2019, 22 teams each with 8 riders in the Tour. So, the parking of the team buses is in itself a major event with a parking lot needed for getting together, toilets for a few hundred people and safety requirements.

Then there are the TV teams. At one stage I counted over 200 cars in a car park not actually on the route as support for the media.  We have all seen, at least on television, the motorbikes with cameramen riding pillion, some standing up, with others facing backwards!

And for 4 hours before there is a vehicle ever 3 or 5 minutes driving the route: police, organisers, merchandise vans, army, more organisers.  And then before the riders come the truck with a big brush to sweep the road comes through plus then a safety team that checks and rechecks each intersection. And then all the police vehicles full of riot police, police motor bikes and we haven’t even got to the event yet.

Finally a safety car, then an organisers vehicle, then a police car, then cameras and media and then eventually the riders, interspersed with the team support vehicles.

The leaders come through first then there is a wait until the peloton comes through and 30 seconds later, it’s all over!

I set out a few hours before the riders were due to come through the village, took a chair and sat at the top of the hill leading to the village on a corner where we could then watch the riders scream away.  Boy they go fast! As the route we chose was a loop which started and finished in Nimes, I was then able to drive to another section of the route and had another chance to see the riders come by again.

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Clearly one of the attractions of Nimes is its closeness to Pont du Gard, an imposing Roman Aquaduct three levels high and built across the Gardon River. The aq

uaduct originally brought water to Nimes. As a result the route went over the aquaduct for its scenic attraction (canoeist on the water beneath and the hills around).

So good is the aquaduct that the next day we decided to visit it, however discovered that the tour that day started at the aquaduct, so we experienced a second day of tourmania!

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A great event and an amazing experience to be able to stand on the roadside watching. It has always amazed me (Ros) that the spectators just appear to end up on the road in front of the riders, and this is exactly what happens. The spectators do jump out of the way as the riders approach and the riders do not appear to be fazed by this. Perhaps they do not even notice as the concentration and focus on their faces and in their body language as they flash past is incredibly obvious.

 

 

Parador Vic

From Barcelona we decided to have a few days break at Parador Sau about 12 kms outside of the township of Vic in central Catalonia. In Spain (and Portugal) there are a lot of disused monasteries and convents which the government has taken over.  One option they have used is to turn these buildings into up market accommodation, whether it be on the main square such as in Santiago de Compostela or in rural areas.  We chose Vic as it was in the right direction and had a swimming pool!

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Arriving late in the afternoon after a glorious drive up the hill from Vic, a swim was in order, very relaxing sitting in the garden and cooling off. Dinner included.  The Parador overlooks the dammed Sau River with people water skiing around the protruding bell tower of the sunken San Roma church!

The next day we drove into Vic township as it was market day, a very local style market in the Placa Major with no tourist stalls at all. As well as cruising the stalls we could not help noticing that the level of Catalonian flags, yellow ribbons and placards denouncing the imprisonment of political prisons that was on literally every building.  It appears that Vic is very much the centre of Catalonian independence.  History lesson: Catalonia has a disproportionately high GDP per person and area.  It has its own language.  In 2017 it held a referendum on whether to secede from Spain.  The Spanish Government declared the referendum to be illegal and the an act of treason.  Organisers were imprisoned and are still held without trial.

Around the city of Vic there were numerous Catalonian flags (four red strips on a gold background: representing four fingers of blood taken from Wilfred the Hairy’s chest as he died and drawn on his golden shield) yellow ribbons as marks of solidarity and posters with straight forward statements: ‘release political prisoners’.

On the way back up the hill we stopped at the Benedictine Monastery of Sant Pere de Casserres. It’s amazing where monks choose to build their monasteries!  On a cliff overlooking the river (now flooded) a long way from anywhere.

Back to the Parador to watch the Wallabies play South Africa (yes the staff found it for me), however Ros’ back has got worse.  What to do? Front desk recommendation was to visit the University of Vic Hospital, so another drive down the hill.  We arrived around 7pm and after the usual hour wait for triage and then two hour wait for attention Ros was splendidly looked after by doctors and nurses, all speaking English, with pain killers and cortisone.  We finally left at 2am!  Late but worthwhile.

Sunday was slow as you can imagine: Ros being very careful and resting, John enjoying a few swims and watch the last day of the Open golf on TV: we were in 35 deg weather and doesn’t Northern Ireland look just the place to be!!!.

Except for John’s drive down to Vic again to find a pharmacy to fill in the scripts given to us last night to keep Ros going for the next three weeks. I was able to notice the beaut murals on the wall of the town hall, representing the four seasons.

How different the square looks without all the market stalls.

Monday saw us taking a slow drive from Spain into France across the Pyrenees (where we retracing the route used by the allies in WWII?) enjoying the scenery and views along the way.

We went via the towns of Olot, then skipped the 5 lm long tunnel de Collabos and instead took the windy road over the top of the mountain (great MG roads) past yet another monastery Sant Salvador de Biaya, through Sant Paul de Segunies where we saw an amazing sight, another MGB!

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Finally then through Mollo (a ski resort in winter) and across the Coll d’Ares at 1610 metres, with its abandoned border posts. A further windy drive down into France until we hit the motorway Perpinya for 2 hours quick drive to Castillon-du-Gard for the next night.

Goodby Spain, across the border, Hello France!

PS we have been trying to keep up with the Tour, and in Barcelona I was finally able to find a live broadcast: in Spain, watching an event in France on German TV!

 

Barcelona – Day 3

So, you come to Barcelona for, amongst other things, the architecture and in particular the Catalan modernist movement which encompasses the architecture of Antoni Gaudi. Who has not heard of Sagrada Familia, which now has a completion date of 2026, the 100thanniversary of Gaudi’s death.

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Much of what I am about to write will be known to many if not all, however as this blog is our official memory of our trips in Goldie it is one way we have of remembering these details, or having a reference to go back to.

Barcelona is at the heart of Catalan modernism, a cultural movement which appeared at the end of the 19th century, around the time of the Industrial Revolution and is tied specifically to Catalonia and Barcelona at this time.

At the turn of the 20th century Barcelona was undergoing rapid transformation as people moved from the countryside to the city in hope of finding work in the newly opened factories. As a living conditions deteriorated, the local authorities were urged to take action and decided to give the city an extension – eixample in Catalan – giving rise to the large, grid-patterned neighbourhood of the same name. Which is where we were to begin our Gaudi tour.

Inspired by the wave of change taking place across Europe, a cultural movement emerged which had at its heart a desire to make Catalan society a modern society. Rejecting bourgeois ideals, traditionalism and the old guard, the movement gathered momentum in artistic circles, among poets, writers and artists, but also with those who wished to take a more hands-on approach to this new vision for society. As the expansion of the city rolled ahead, the Eixample became the testing ground for this new architectural current.

The bourgeoisie commissioned many of the new modernist designs as luxurious town houses in areas such as the Passeig de Gràcia. In fact, part of the Eixample has today been nicknamed the Quadrat d’Or, or ‘golden block,’ because of the concentration of fabulous modernist mansions in the area. These townhouses were built to reflect the wealth of the families who commissioned them and often made reference to where the family money came from.

If each architect developed their own particular style, some common traits of Catalan modernism include a preference for asymmetrical shapes and those which replicate the natural world; curved lines are preferred to straight lines. Nature, too, is a source of inspiration in terms of the themes which can be found in the details of facades, murals and features such as windows and balconies: leafs, trees, flowers and animals are most common. Altogether, Modernisme is highly ornate, with much focus on aesthetic details.

Although this was ostensibly a Gaudi walking tour we were undertaking, the Catalan modernist movement and other architects of the period were also mentioned. The first aspect of modernism which came to our attention were the lamp posts along Passeig de Gràcia. Note the flowing natural lines and the flower motifs, the use of small irregular tiles which cover the base and allow for the rounded edges of the seat, all typical of this movement. These lamp posts also have small doors in their bases which could be opened and hot coals placed inside to warm the seat on cold days. Sellers of hot coals were situated along the street to ensure the availability of hot coals for people who wished to purchase them.

Then we viewed Casa Lleó Morera by architect Lluís Domènech i Montaner. Montaner was commissioned by the family to completely renovate their home in the new modernist style. The façade not only showcases nature and flowers but also the wealth of the family. The  statues on the façade of the building were holding the modern accessories inside the house such as a telephone, light bulb and a gramophone.

We also visited Casa Amatller by architect Josep Puig i Cadafalch This family earned their money from growing coco in South America. This is referenced by the Condor on the front of the building and the leaves of the cocoa tree. Its façade is unique and full of symbolism. A combination between colours, materials and techniques. The stepped roof is particularly beautiful, while the tiles in the foyer are highly decorative with a magnificent staircase with a stained glass roof over the staircase void. The wall lights were specifically designed to complement the buildingThe original kitchen still exists as part of the chocolate shop which operates on the ground floor of the building.

Then we visited two of Gaudi’s buildings from this period.

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Casa Milà is popularly known as La Pedrera, “The stone quarry”, a reference to its unconventional rough-hewn appearance. It was the last private residence designed by architect Antoni Gaudí and was built between 1906 and 1912. At the time it was controversial because of its undulating stone façade and twisting wrought iron balconies.

Several structural innovations include a self-supporting stone façade, and a free-plan floor, underground garage and the spectacular terrace on the roof.

To ensure natural light pervaded the building Gaudi combined the usual small light wells of Spanish buildings and created two large ones.

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As with  many of Gaudi’s buildings, he designed the furniture and the fittings to complement the house.

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And then we visited Casa Batlló which he remodelled from a previously existing house. Its undulating, iridescent blue and green façade is fabulous. Covered in mosaic tiles and stained glass windows, the building is topped by a ridge of scales and a single turret with a cross, said to represent the sword of Saint George (patron saint of Catalonia), being plunged into the back of the dragon.

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Inside the impressive stairwell is lined with blue tiles which gradually change from very pale blue at ground level, to encourage more light into the building, to bark blue towards the top when the natural light is significantly brighter.

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two other features caught my eye in particular. One was the beautiful windows fronting the street and separating the living rooms with their free form styling and beautiful sea coloured stained glass. The second was the fantastically mushroom shaped fireplace with seating for winter warmth.

Then, of course, there is another fantastic and futuristic roof terrace decorated with four whimsical chimney stack and the facade of the house with its dragon eye like terraces.

The finale of the tour was, of course, Sagrada Familia, the huge church Gaudi designed and devoted the last years of his life to until a tragic accident whereby he was run over by a tram and subsequently caused his death and brought his involvement with the building to an end. Like no other church, but with all the hallmarks of the modernist movement, it is impossible to do this building justice so I might let the pictures tell the story. One comment, however. After the over lavish, gold strewn gothic cathedrals we have seen elsewhere in Spain, this church with its soaring forest-like pillars of differing but subtle colours, it beautiful stained glass windows and natural light and its sheer aura of simplicity, though this really is an illusion as it is beautifully detailed, is so refreshingly ethereal and it evokes a sense of serenity.

We specifically looked at the two totally finished facades of the church, one finished during Gaudi’s lifetime and one more recent and modern. Whereas the figures on the Nativity facade are relatively life-like, those on the Passion facade are much more emblematic.

Nativity facade and the tree of doves as its apex

Passion facade

We did ascend one of the towers open to the public and this was a relegation as this took you into the fantastical world of the roof decoration with its beautiful mosaic work and representations of the natural world, the huge statue of Christ looking down over the city of Barcelona, and the final soaring towers which are still under construction.

the beautiful doors leading into Sagrada Familia on the Nativity facade were designed and made by a Japanese sculpture who has taken the concept of the natural world and created the most beautiful doors.

The following day we visited Park Guell. This was designed as a residential estate and Guell, who respected and admired the work of Gaudi commissioned him to design not only the layout of the park but also the buildings and structures within the park. The building of the residential estate was begun in 1900 but ceased in 1914 when it became obvious that this was a project well ahead of its time. With no transport to this area of an expanding Barcelona there was insufficient take up of the 60 plots available for sale to make the project viable and development of the project ceased. On the death of Guell, his sons offered the Park to the Barcelona city council who accepted it and opened it to the public.

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Gaudi designed a residential area with both an undercover market/entertainment area as well as a huge flat parade ground like area around which snakes sinuous and beautifully tiled seating. This area affords fantastic views back over Barcelona.

As well, interesting paths and walkways connect all areas of the complex.

Gaudi’s very distinctive style can be seen in the guard house at the entrance to the park and in the fabulous stairway and fountain which you encounter as you enter. Gaudi lived in one of the houses here for some time, before he moved to the building site of the Sagrada Familia so he could devote himself entirely to that project.

I suspect to become properly familiar with this architectural movement and the fabulous buildings built in Barcelona during this period you would need a couple more weeks here! We really only just skimmed the surface.

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BARCELONA

Dropping down from the Priorat Ros found a great hide away for the night at Hotel Monument Mas Passamaner in La Seleva del Camp with all the necessary: swimming pool and up market restaurant.  No need to leave the premises.

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Next day we drove towards Barcelona, however stopping on the way to visit Sitges: a small sea side town that we stayed in in 1974 and really enjoyed.  Time passes and Sitges has moved on somewhat: no longer just a small medieval town but now also a huge tourist resort on the Mediterranean with plenty of hotels up the hills and beaches with all the European accruements: beach chairs, umbrellas, beer on demand and hawkers galore.

 

We skipped all that and sat in a beach side restaurant and enjoyed the view and a few beers!

On to Barcelona: Ros found an apartment (metro stop Poblenou) opposite one of the beaches, so after 35+ deg in the car, it was off to the beach for a cool down, followed by a few internal cool downs in the shape of beer from the restaurants right on the beach.  Not too much excitement tonight, we went to the supermercado and stocked up on cheese, Iberian ham and bread for an al fresco dinner on the terrace with some wine for the Priorat!

We had visited Barcelona in 1974, but neither of us can remember much (students don’t usually pay for sights, more for beers)!  I visited in 1994 on my Olympic tour, more on this later.  So we are really here for the first tourist time!

Next day we headed out for a walking tour through the Gothic Quarter of Barcelona, past Roman ruins, cathedrals, a Jewish quarter

and particularly the square where the Sant Filip Neri Church was bombed by the Italians at Franco’s request during the Spanish civil war.  There are still the marks on the walls!

And the most amazing art work a stylised castellers of Catalonia form human pyramids, named castells (“castles”), plus then onto a mercado with the hugest selection of frozen food!

A relax in the afternoon before heading out for a food tour.  We recommend the Devour food tours: expensive, but very interesting.  This one on Barcelona (we used the same company in San Sebastian and Madrid) took us to only three restaurants but the variety of the food and wine was fantastic. Vermouth never tasted better, especially with croquets, followed by two sparklings (called Cava) a rose and a white and then two stills.  With some interesting food: how often have you had mushrooms with strawberries and cherry jam!

Then to the last restaurant: all looking like we enjoyed the five red wines with beef cheeks plus assorted tasters!

Next morning I headed out on my own to retrace my steps from my Olympic tour.  First I walked along the beaches: Mar Bella, Bogatell, Nova Icarna and into the Olympic boat harbour where the two high rise buildings were the Olympic Village in 1992.  Containing my walk past Plajta Somoriosdtro, Barcelona, Sant Sebastia and around to the harbour.

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I then realised that I had a long walk around the harbour, or as I was standing at the base of the tall pylon, I could catch the cable car onto Montjuic, the hill that overlooks Barcelona and, might I add, the sight of a few Olympic venues!  Crossing the harbour by cable car sure beat walking!

Chris Columbus and Sagrada Famila from on high

Once on Montjuic (meaning mountain of the Jews used by them as a cemetery, but with the expelling of Jews no graves are left – see photo of the city where the tombstones were used for building)!

Great views and then the Olympic diving pool – I can remember the pictures of divers with the skyline of Barcelona in the back ground.  Also I can remember that double jay had just started and they had competition for getting their ‘drum’ into the best pictures and there it was at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics!  Anyway a coffee overlooking the city and then to the Olympic Stadium, which was originally built for the 1936 Olympics, but due to the Spanish Civil War (yes we have heard a lot about this) it was not used, so in 1992 it was recycled, albeit by lowering the floor by 10 metres to add spectator seats!

Next to the stadium is an Olympic Museum, but it was a bit odd as it has sports outside the Olympics and stopped at 1992!  It did however have a display of Olympic torches up to the present.  I then dropped down off the hill, catching the escalators, which when I visited in 1994 were the first time I had even seen escalators outside.  How times have changes as they are now everywhere.

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Dinner at the restaurant under the apartment, and we must have been here too long: pizza beer – not very Spanish!

So the best of Barcelona is too come, the Gaudi experience, but that’s tomorrow!

 

The Priorat

Two hours south and slightly inland from Barcelona is the wine region of the Priorat. I first saw mention of this area when researching this trip and trying to make decisions about where to go, what to see and what, regretfully, to miss. You simply cannot see everything, unless you were to live here for a few years at least!

However, because we both enjoy wine and are interested in learning about new and different wines from the countries we travel through, I thought this sounded really interesting. Whereas the Rioja region is very well known and we had  tasted wines from this region in a number of countries, the Priorat was a completely new name to us. The area was also apparently very different from most wine regions, so another reason to visit.

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After leaving Valencia we decided to travel up the coast rather than use the motorway. Not such a great idea as the built up area along the coast was pretty ordinary!

So, we turned inland, towards the rugged Priorat region, looking for somewhere to stop for a coffee.

We headed for the small town of Pinell de Bari as it was said to contain one of the wine ‘cathedrals’. To stimulate the wine economy of the region in the early 1900s, the regional council had commissioned the well  known local architect, Cesar Martinell, to design a series of beautiful buildings, to be built in various small towns of the region, which would act as wineries and bodegas for small producers.

The wine ‘cathedral’ we stopped at in Pinell de Bari was magnificent, built in the Modernista/Catalan Art Nouveau style from beautiful stone with a fabulous tile fresco depicting various activities relating to grape growing and wine making all along the outside wall.

Not only was this bodega serving coffee, it also had wine tastings, so of course we indulged. Then it was off to Clos Magador where we had booked a wine tour and tasting. The whole history of the Priorat region is fascinating. Prior to the 1970s, and of course even before that earlier in the century following the devastation of the vines by phylloxera, the region was struggling to survive with young people leaving the region and the wine produced here failing to find a drinking market. Most wine produced was sold to other wineries to ‘bulk up’ their wines.

The area is like no other wine growing region we have ever seen.  There are not paddocks of grapevines, but rather patches, some as small as an acre, stuck out across the hillside.  These are interspersed with natural bush, olive and walnut trees.  We were told that the olive trees are placed in the best position (mostly in gullies where there might be water and out of the wind) and then the walnut trees along the edges with grapes in the gaps. No fences and each small paddock owned by one of the 100 or so wineries in the area, often with paddocks far apart form each other.

And the vineyards extend up into the hills: we could see vines 100s of metres up the escarpment almost at the top of the 1,000metre high ridge.

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The vines down low grow in shale chips while the ones up high get some clay: there is virtually no soil as such. The shale chips heat up during summer and literally bake the vines. The roots go deep, 15 – 20 metres to escape the heat, there is very little rainfall and irrigation is practically a no no, unless you are establishing new vines or you are trying to salvage something of this year’s crop. Even then sometimes the watering is done by hand, with holes beside each vine being filled with water from a hand held hose.

All of this makes for small grapes and very low yields, and so the reds, made mainly from Carinyena and Grenache, are very big, and tannic when young. In Most cases the vines are not trellised, rather grow in a cone shape so that the leaves shade the grapes from the burning sun.

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In the 1970s a group of young hippies (and soon to be) wine makers got together, bought some land and started to exploit the distinct character of the region and its soils and to bottle wines which they took to the world’s wine shows, initially with great acclaim but at 10 times the cost of any other Spanish wine without much commercial success. It was only when Robert Parker tasted the wines and gave them a very high rating that the wine world started to take notice. The five young winemakers went on to establish their own vineyards and labels, and one of these, Rene Barbier Meyer, opened Clos Mogador (he could not use his own name as it had been sold in France).

The tour of Clos Mogador started with a group of eight people piling into an old Nissan van and being driven at breakneck speed through the vineyards by Joseph, our guide. These vineyard roads are dirt, narrow, rutted and cling to the edge of these very steep slopes. Joseph drives as if he is Indiana Jones fleeing the ‘baddies’ while turning around to tell the people in the back of the van what they were to look for. We were in the front seat and at times it felt like we were about to fly off the edge and plummet into the vines below.

Being out in the vineyards was fascinating as you could appreciate that there is simply no soil, just chips of shale of various sizes. And these patches of vines cling to slopes so steep mules and donkeys are used for tilling the ‘soil’ between the vines and for bringing in the grapes, all hand picked, at harvest.

After our thrilling ride it was back to the winery where we were treated to an amazing explanation of how this very traditional winery worked. Most fascinating was that the grapes were pressed in an olive oil press using the filter baskets which are used for filtering the oil. Clos Mogador sees this as a much gentler way of pressing wine and one less likely to bruise the fruit.

We also saw the cellar which has been hewn put of the same shale the vines grow in.Priorat_41

Finally it was upstairs to taste some of the biggest reds we have every tasted, including Manyetes, Clos Mogador, Nelin and Com Tu. Just a great and informative afternoon.

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That evening we had dinner in a small local restaurant in the village of Gratallops close to where we were staying. We sat outside overlooking the village square and had a delicious dinner surrounded by locals who were keen to suggest where to go the next day.

The clock in the tower on the square was a riot. It first struck 10.00pm when the clock face was showing 9.40pm. Then it struck 10.00pm again ten minutes later despite the fact that it still said 9.50pm! Sometime later we heard the quarter hour strike and the clock had nearly caught up – it said it was 10.10. Then it got ahead of itself!

The next day we headed off to Scala Dei, reputedly the longest wine producing bodega in the area with producing going back to before even the monks. The winery was founded in 1843 by the families who bought the Carthusian monastery, abandoned since 1835 following the dissolution of the monasteries, at an auction. The winery dominates the small village of 26 residents in which is resides.

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The lands were put back into grape production and the first wine was bottled in 1878, the first wines to be bottled in the Priorat. Scala Dei is different to a lot of the Priorat wineries in that many of its grapes are grown on the high slopes of the region where there are clay soils. They are particularly proud of the fact that one of their wines has been in continuous production since 1975.

Priorat_19Paul from the winery walked us up to one of the less than an acre paddocks and showed us the effect of the recent 40+ degree temperatures they had the week before: shrivelled grapes and burnt leaves.  Does not promise to be a high volume production this year. You can see below the shrivelled, useless grapes and dead leaves.

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A tour through the winery with Paul pointing out some amazing processes: throwing away grapes that don’t meet the standard and actually hand pressing the grapes.  He really meant hand pressing, ie scooping up a handful of must and squeezing it with your hands!

Again we were treated to tasting big reds, as well as a rose, produced by leaving the skins on the juice for 3 hours, exactly! This was another hugely interesting visit.

From here we headed off to look at two rather unique villages of the Priorat region, la Vilelle Baixa because it is built down a cliff face with houses perched one on top of the other,

and Siruana, a tiny village perched on the top of a cliff where once there was a fortress built to protect this area. The village was approached via a tiny winding road and afforded great vires once you got there!

We then headed off for our next night’s accommodation which took us out of the Priorat and down onto the coastal plains. The hotel was in a beautifully restored old building which had a lovely pool which was just the right temperature for a cooling, but not too bracing, dip.

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PS: if you are looking for a really useless present for someone who has everything then try this. A decanter dryer!! For sale at Scala Dei, should you need one.

 

Valencia

When you visit Valencia you go to see the Cathedral, the Basilica and the Palace, right?  So we went to the beach! I guess we were ready for a break!

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Maybe we were not that bad, we did walk around the ‘old town’

and see the two remaining gates, the Madrid Gate facing north and the Barcelona Gate facing east.

We also visited the Mercado, a really impressive iron and glass art nouveau building with a huge range of fish, meat, ham, poultry, breads, fruit, vegs, cakes, wine and coffee shops all under the one roof.

Probably most interesting was the River Turia which surrounds the city on three sides, except it is no longer there. Apparently it flooded a lot, so the city rerouted it away from the city centre and the old river bed is now a 9 km long park, about 300 metres wide.  It has a running track, bicycle track, numerous sporting fields, children’s play area, dog areas and plenty of trees for shady walks.  Extremely beautiful and fascinating as the old river bridges are still there spanning the park, some medieval, others 20thcentury.

Near to where the river mouth used to be (and hence the area is wider) is the best aquarium (the Oceanografic) we have ever seen. We started with the dolphin show: think Taronga but 10 times bigger, with up to 10 dolphins preforming at once.

From the surface the actual park does not look much, but that’s because all the aquariums are underground.

There are at least 8 different ‘tanks’, including sharks and rays, tropical, Mediterranean, polar, temperate, Red Sea and mangroves. All the tanks are walk through, ie they all have viewing from above, below and inside!  We arrived there at about 7 pm (the park stays open until midnight – we are in Spain after all) and only left when we were too weary to walk and could not visually absorb more fish! To get a real feel for the place, go to the web site: www.oceanografic.org.

Also plenty of birds to see.

One more thing about the Oceanografic, they are keen on protecting different species.  There is a turtle rehabilitation pool and the sign indicated that they had returned 70 turtles to the oceans.  There is also a jelly fish breeding program – you must admit that’s quite unique!

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Most of our day was spent on La Malva Rosa beach, sitting under a palm umbrella on sun lounges, occasionally having a dip to cool off and reading something totally unrelated to our travels.

We managed to walk 20 metres from our towels to the restaurant on the beach and enjoyed a great seafood paella with wine for lunch before returning to have a little siesta.

Madrid

A short drive from Toledo meant that we had an afternoon plus the next two whole days in Madrid, but a lot to see.  Madrid is known for its art galleries and we did want to see three of them, the Prado, the National Centro de Arts Reina Sofia and Thyssen-Bornemisza, so spreading them out over the three days sounded like a plan.

 

first a walk to Plaza Mayor, created by demolishing a series of slums in the early 1800s

All these galleries open for free in the last 2 hours each day, say from 6 or 7pm so that was an initial thought. However, we eventually decided ‘why wait’ and went at 4pm to National Centro de Arts Reina Sofia and were glad we did. Free they may be from 7pm, however the line can be up to an hour long and, as old codgers over 65 we got in for free or half price anyway!

We don’t have too many pictures of our hours of viewing, we couldn’t take many photos. Picasso’s Guernica is clearly the highlight of National Centro de Arts Reina Sofia, with all its emotive background and then history of its travels outside of Spain after the 1937 Paris exhibition until democracy was returned. Other notable artists were there as well and we managed a few snaps!

We crossed the road from our apartment. Oh, did I say Ros found an apartment in the no car quarter of Madrid, but with parking around the corner! Very handy to walk everywhere. The first night we had tapas for dinner at the local restaurant and met two guys in town for the recent Madrid Gay Pride Event. We had a great time talking to them about the world in general (The gay Pride event and this explained the numerous same sex couple we saw while we were there!)

Next morning we joined a city tour, again not too many pictures but a lot of history. I had heard snippets of Spanish history over the past 8 weeks, but the guide really did flesh it out for me especially the Habsburg and the Bourbon monarchs.

He also pointed out the plaques outside some of the shops indicating that the business had been continually operating at the site for over 100 years.  One restaurant has been operating since 1725!

We spent a long afternoon and evening in the afternoon in the Prado. No photos allowed and really no commentary as it is impossible to comment on this enormous collection. It was interesting to see the originals of the El Greco paintings which had featured in the video about his style and technique. Also, some of the Rubens which did not have a religious bent were fantastic. Suffice it to say Ros was pretty much over religious artwork by the end and headed off upstairs to look at the fabulous decorative arts collection. The workmanship here was simply breathtaking and Ros was regretful she had not come earlier to see this collection Each piece was unique.

Next day a visit to the Palacio Real, again no photos, however one of the most lavishly decorated palaces I have seen, each room was an artwork in its own right. It is claimed to be the best in Palace in Europe.

An afternoon in the Thyssen-Bornemisza with its very varied collection.

There was also a Balenciaga temporary exhibition on here and this was fascinating as it paired the gowns designed by Balenciaga with the artworks he was exposed to at he time and which influenced him. The originals of these artworks had been specially brought in for the exhibition so that you could clearly see the influence of these painters and their works on Balenciaga’s gowns.

That evening we did another fabulous food tour which took in some of the oldest tapas bars in Madrid as well as covering some of the history of the city.

The highlight of the night was Meson Del Champinon specialising in stuffed mushrooms cooked over a hot plate and then to be eaten with two toothpicks!

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Toledo

The town that connotes all that is Spanish – Toledo – the town on the hill surrounded on three sides by the Rio Tajo with its massive alcazar and cathedral showing on the skyline.

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Again Ros found a cute apartment in, wait for it, the Jewish Quarter!  Very decorated with lots of mirrors to bring in the light, just that it was in a no car area so we set out from the car park (first instructions were daunting – head uphill) but found it after a circle or two.

In the morning we joined a walking tour which took us past the highlights: the Zocodover, Alcazar, early morning street cleaning,

mosque, cathedral, monasteries, convents,

a work of art, looking like a stagnant puddle, synagogue, and finally back to the Jewish Quarter!

While the town was important to the Romans and Visigoths and until the 16thcentury for the Spanish nobility, after the capital was moved north to Madrid it declined. However as it was still an important town for the church, numerous orders moved into the cheap real estate and established numerous monasteries and convents. As more real estate became available each institution expanded and then as properties across the road were added, bridges were added to join the properties resulting in many covered alleyways.

At the end if the walk we spent some time in the El Grego Museum where only a few originals were hung, but copies of the most important plus a video describing the highlights of his technique were of interest.  The museum was set up by a private individual who purchased the property believing it to have been El Greco’s actual home: bad luck it was across the street and long since knocked down!

In the afternoon I set off on my own and visited the military museum inside the alcazar – not all that well set out with numerous seeming unrelated rooms and exhibitions rooms. However I did like the model soldiers and some of the historic displays.

I found a pub for a beer and a nibble with the TV showing a bull fight so that kept me interested for an hour.

Because it’s there and as I had not seen a cathedral for at least 2 days I ventured into the  cathedral. Lots of gold and statutes however probably worth the cost in the end just for the following two pieces of art work: the beauty and smile on the madonna’s face and the sun rays coming out of the plaster work especially.

And then there is the monstrance in gold and so detailed plus the alter 4 stories high

then the chapterhotse with a picture of every bishop from antiquity!

 

Driving in Spain

You quickly become aware when driving in Spain that this country is simply an enormous producer of olives and olive oil and its various bi-products. I think we may have mentioned this before, however it becomes glaringly obvious when driving between Seville, Granada and Toledo.

There are simply millions of olive trees across this huge region and they stretch from visual horizon to horizon and beyond. The hills in the distance are dotted with serried rows of olive trees marching in uniform lines across paddocks up distant hills and then silhouetted on the hilltops. The road winds around hillsides and more olives stretch out in front of you.

Agriculture is extremely important to Spain’s economy, being the third largest contributor to the country’s GDP. This comes behind tourism and manufacturing, particularly pharmaceuticals and automobiles.

Driving also revels the diversity of agriculture in the country as well as giving you glimpses of the lovely, generally white, villages and small towns, often topped by an old castle or fortification and often surrounded by olive groves.

You could be forgiven for thinking that the only thing Spain produces is olives and olive oil, however when you drive through the country the huge newly harvested fields of grain crops, swathes of sunflowers, vineyards, legumes and other vegetable crops, you come to realise there is far more to Spain’s agriculture than olives. Summer is of course a time for harvesting and people can be seen working in the fields.

The roads are good, with even the secondary roads being well paved and a pleasure to drive on. Motorways, some with tolls and some without, connect all major cities. We have been using both types of roads depending on where we are going and how soon we want to arrive! With Goldie humming along in her usual reliable fashion it was time to once again think thankfully of Stuart Ratcliff in Sydney who has prepared the car so well for us for these long trips, and Malcolm Beer in the UK who has kept her in such fine fettle for the last couple of years.

Driving from Cordoba to Toledo we were using the motorway but decided we needed to take a break and do a little backroad driving. Our first thought was to stop in the town of Valdepeñaswhich is the centre of the huge wine growing region  of La Mancha, the biggest single wine region in the world. We looked at the possibility of visiting a bodega in this town and tried two before admitting defeat. Despite the fact that both were supposedly open until 2.00pm, and we arrived at 1.30pm, Spanish siesta had obviously beaten us! The beautiful main street, lined with amphorae, pays tribute to the regions importance as a wine producer.

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The next thought was to go tilting at windmills. When I was growing up my Dad endlessly encouraged me to be a good and wide reader, as he was himself. During my early teens he introduced me to the Man of La Mancha, Don Quixote, his steed, Rocinante, and his sidekick Sancho Panza. I loved the story of this completely unworldly but crazy character. When in Spain in 1975 I bought Dad a carved wooden set of these two characters and, although Dad is no longer alive, I still have them today.

One of the most endearing parts of the novel is Don Quixote’s ‘tilting at windmills’ a saying which has entered the English language and has stuck. If you are searching the unattainable or fighting imaginary enemies then you are tilting at windmills. Don Quixote’s windmills still exist in the town of Consuegra, which was not that far out of our way. So having failed to find an open bodega we set off for Consuegra.

We had had no lunch and it was getting lateish, though not by Spanish timeframes, when John spotted a large building approaching. It became apparent that it was attached to a winery and boasted a restaurant, so we parked Goldie in the shady carpark. This was a great find as the waitress organised a wine tasting for us, provided us with cheese bread and Iberian ham as well as a commentary on the wines and we settled in to relax and enjoy ourselves.

Then it was on to Consuegra to tilt at Don Quixote’s windmills. The windmills can be seen from some distance away, however these are not the originals. We did, however find the originals. Such a pity I cannot take one of the pictures below home to Dad.

Then it was on to Toledo.

Cordoba

Cordoba set in the middle of Audalucia could be seen as a bit of a one attraction town because the attraction, the Mezquita a mosque with a cathedral inside, is so amazing!

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A bit difficult finding the hotel: Ros is great at booking little interesting accommodation in the Jewish Quarter of the ‘old town’ and this was no exception.  This time I was the navigator and we ended up with many locals telling us we cannot drive up this or that street.  Finally we just stopped and I went walking to try to find the La Llave de la Juderia Hotel: up a narrow street with tables and chairs, along a one way (other way of course) street and asked how we could get there. Oh, you need to do a complete loop of the town and come in from the back.  Lucky we left Granada with plenty of time to make the tour at 1:15.  Ros has decided that she will navigate into towns form now on!

We joined a tour of the Mezquita in the Patio de los Naranjos, a courtyard with orange trees, minaret (now a bell tower) and fountains (for Muslim washing) before entering the Mezquita, colloquially known as the mosque cathedral.

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Dating back to the 12thcentury, the mosque has subsequently being enlarged 3 times so today its 2,400 square metres (about 2.5 hectacres or 6.25 acres) with these amazing white and ochre columns, all remaining 850 of them.

And then right bang in the middle is a gothic cathedral with all the bells and whistles expected of such a cathedral!  The cathedral sort of ‘pops’ out of the roof of the mosque: the mosque is flat and then in the middle are these gothic flying arches holding up the cathedral dome about 4 times higher than the surrounding roof. Also, the Christians have filling in quite a few of the arches and added smaller chapels and alters both around the outside and even within the open spaces. It is thought that originally there were around 1300 columns, with only 850 there today.

As we have seen before, the mosque was not the first religious building on the site: the tiled floor of a Roman temple can be seen through a glass window in the floor. And then above that are the remains of a Visigoth Christian church.

The mosque itself was not built all at once. Interestingly, the columns in the mosque are not uniform as the building was constructed using relics from the previous buildings: some columns are marble, some alabaster, and for the most recent extension painted to look like marble!  Additionally the cathedral is not the first, a smaller cathedral was built inside the mosque with the ceiling decoration and a few tombs remaining to show where it was.

An amazing building well worth while making the journey to Cordoba, even if the rest of the town was a bit ‘plain’ after the other amazing Spanish (and Moroccan) towns we have visited on this trip.

At the suggestion of Alberto, the owner of the hotel we had dinner on the roof top of Pepe’s restaurant with a nice cooling breeze as the sum slowly set.

I have just reread the guide books and I have missed one of the attractions of Cordoba: getting lost in the Jewish Quarter: well I guess we did that, but not on foot!

A little postscript: we are acclimatising to Spanish weather and lifestyle.  As to weather, the morning are quite cool (22 deg) and during the day it gradually gets hotter and hotter until about 8pm in the evening when it starts to cool down. Yesterday it was 24 at 9am, 27 at 10am, 30 at 11 am, 33 at noon and kept on going!  On lifestyle, we have worked out to mentally set our clock back 2 hours: breakfast at 10am, lunch a 4pm, dinner at 9pm and bed around midnight (and even then there is still a lot open and the streets are full of Spaniards enjoying the tapas and bars)!

Another post script, Jewish Quarters: every town seems to have them and they always have narrow twisting lanes with the buildings close together.  Sometimes even their own wall within the city walls as protection or in Morocco they were inevitably just next door to the royal palace also for protection.  Now however there are no Jews living there.  They either got expelled (or killed or forcibly converted) during the inquisition (Spain) or left to Israel (Morocco).  All the towns still use the expression Jewish Quarter to nominate a part of the town and it is on every the tour itinerary, with the statement ‘get lost in the Jewish Quarter’! Sometimes there is a synagogue, although it now might be a museum and would have a history of uses: hospital, storeroom, barracks etc.

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Granada

If you travel through Spain then a trip to Granada is worthwhile if only to see the Alhambra, including the Alcabaza, the Generalife and the Palacios Nazaries.

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The Alcazaba

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Palace of Charles V

I had read everywhere that it was essential to book tickets for the Alhambra online and early as the tickets sold out quickly. So I did, booking a guided tour which began at 8.00am. An early start was an excellent idea as there were not so many people around and you avoided the worst heat of the day. Yes, summer is here and it is getting progressively hotter as we head towards August.

Booking the tickets was a bit of an exercise and I had eventually picked a tour which did not include the Nasrid palaces, a bit of a stupid mistake! However, I asked our guide about tickets to this later in the day, yes there were some still available late afternoon. As it is still light at 9.30pm this was not a problem, so out came the phone and I booked a 6.30pm entry to the palaces. What did we do before mobile phones?

The Alhambra was built during the reign of the Nasrid dynasty and the complex comprises the partially excavated ruins of the 13thcentury Alcazaba, the Generalife the private country estate of the Nasrid kings, the Nazarid Palaces and gardens, and the 16thcentury Palace of Charles V, all set in extensive parklands and woodlands.

The tour of the Alcazaba ruins was fascinating as just the sheer size of the complex which had been here was impressive.

The views back over the city from the tower were also well worth the climb.

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The Generalife and its gardens is exquisite. We were there early morning anf the gardeners were out in force. The size and scope of the gardens demand constant attention and as much of the gardens is planted out with annuals then upkeep is essential.

A feature of all Moorish gardens is the recreation of nature and the use of water and in these gardens fountains and pools constantly gave the impression of a cool space even as the day warmed up.

In the Generalife this staircase had water flowing down channels on either side of the stairs. This had a twofold effect, to bring water from the reservoir on the hill, via gravity to the palace and its gardens and second to provide a shady and cool summer retreat from the heat.

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The Moorish Nasrid Palaces took us back to Morocco with the use of mosaic tiles and intricately carved ceilings and columns.

There were numerous courtyards in the palace, again water and greenery were a strong focus.

One large courtyard had a spectacular lion fountain in its centre. Each lion is different, all are carved from marble, as is the fountain itself.

We spent some time wandering through the lovely city of Granada itself, notable for its lovely old buildings with the Moorish legacy seen in the many fountains throughout the city. An interesting feature is the shaded streets, and these huge ssil like shades do significantly reduce the heat in the streets. This is also a very clean city, these troops of cleaners do a fantastic job at ensuring the streets are a pleasure to walk around.

We also spent time wandering the winding and narrow streets of the Albaicin, the oldest part of the city. Here streets are so narrow a large car or van would simply not fit. It is obvious to see where many may have tried and failed!

 

 

 

Costa del Sol

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Could this be heaven?

A lovely drive along the Mediterranean Coast of Spain. Numerous beaches and a golf course every 10 kms!

A bit like driving on the Gold Coast, except four times as long. From La Linea in Spain (just outside Gibraltar and named as in ‘the line of fire ‘ into Gibraltar) to Malaga there is just one long strip of high rise / resorts / villas.

At one time we headed off the Gold Coast Highway equivalent (and yes there was a motorway inland from that) and tackled the narrow lanes down to the sea side.

A stop for coffee by the sea

Then we headed inland to Cordoba and were amazed by the numerous olive trees in the countryside. Ros later looked up Spanish olive production: over 5 mil tones of olives and 1.15 million tones of oil, more that double the next biggest supplier, Italy and far ahead of Australia (about 200,000!). And, extraordinary as this must sound, Australia exports extra virgin olive oil to Spain!

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An easy drive along an empty motorway, quite new and hilly. With interesting crash warning signs.

Gibraltar

An early start from our hotel in Tangier as we needed to catch a ferry to Spain and drive to Gibraltar: 3 borders and one hour time loss!

To leave Morocco the car was x-rayed: the last time this was done was when we arrived in Turkmenistan so we knew the drill!  However an advertised 35 minute crossing does take a bit longer: at least an hour before and sitting on the boat ready to leave and Spanish immigration on the other side.  An interesting touch of Australia, we crossed to Morocco on a fast cat built in Tasmania and then back to Spain on a fast cat built in WA!

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Arriving in Gibraltar was a long wait, because …. the road in crosses to airstrip so cars and people have top wait whenever a plane lands or leaves.

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We checked into The Rock Hotel with great views over the bay back to Spain.

We then walked to the cable car to ride to the top, The Upper Rock Nature Reserve, but found a much better option: mini cab for 8 people to drive you up, stop at all the prime spots for about the same price and no walking at the top.  A very well organised arrangement as the roads are all one way and very narrow so the cabs just queue behind each other and there is an allocated time at each stop off, so while everyone keeps to the time, then the queue moves along in order.

First stop was a look out to Morocco, not quite so exotic as we’d been there 4 hours before! Then along to the St Michael’s Cave, believed at one time to be an underground passage to Africa, but the route is still not found.

The cave is lit in changing colours and can seat 600 for performances.  it was an emergence hospital during WWII.

Next stop the Apes’ Den, where a few families of very domesticated Barbary macaques were waiting for us.

Quite comfortably jumping on to the taxi to receive a peanut, or better still on your shoulders.

Apparently the apes were brought to Gibraltar by the British as an emergency food supply!  They are all tagged and vet checked on a regular basis with records kept of new births and deaths.

Back down to sea level and a walk along good old England complete with red phone boxes, warm beer, and pounds sterling. Even a statue of Nelson!

A walk along the many marinas to remind us that we are now on the Med.  Lazy approach to dinner, on the deck of the hotel watching thew sun set as we enjoyed duck with a great Spanish red.

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One last thing before we leave, the ubiquitous trip to DHL for the parcel home.  We were very luck to meet Greg the franchisee who assisted us on rates to Australia.

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Rabat and return to Tangier

Leaving Marrakech we had an uneventful drive up the coast to Rabat, the political capital of Morocco. Arriving in Rabat we met up with our local guide, Abdul, for a walking tour of the city, both old and new.

We began at the walls of the old town which were built  in two distinct periods, though you need to be a better historian than us to tell the difference. Walking through the gate was a little like reentering Chefchouan as many of the houses are painted blue, at least the bottom half. Again, the reason given is that blue deters mosquitos.

We wandered through the old town and out onto a viewing platform, once used by pirates to control the entrance to the city, which overlooks the main city beaches, one ocean facing and one more harbour facing. If you ever thought Bondi was crowded, then think again. These beaches were wall to wall umbrellas and the water teeming with people.

Then we returned to the old town to see the oldest mosque in the city, the trendiest bar which overlooks the harbour beaches, some beautiful city gardens.

Also on the itinerary we saw the old Rue de Consuls where the international representatives to the city once lived.

The government has recognised that maintaining the old city is important both culturally, socially and from an economic point of view as this s the main focal point of tourism in the city. As such, the souk area is being restored to ensure its longevity. This restoration is very obvious in many areas especially as the old lattice bamboo ceilings have been replaced with wooden lattice work sympathetic to the original design and the shop front doors have all been replaced in wood (no metal doors here!). Much of the souk and old Jewish quarter are now turned over to shops targeting tourists, however the vegetable markets, woodworking section and textile section are all still very much there for the locals.

Many of the old buildings residential are also being restored, including this wedge shaped building which was simply originally built to fit the wedge shaped block on which it sits.

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We then visited the mausoleum of Mohammad V which has been built adjacent to a huge mosque which has never been finished. The minaret, also never completed, closely resembles the one we saw in Seville, now the bell tower of the Seville cathedral. Adjacent to the mausoleum is a separate relatively modern mosque and an area reserved for the Royal family. Guards are present at both the entrance to and inside the mausoleum, which is extravagantly decorated, and the steps up the the building ae flanked by huge shiny brass urns. (I wonder who cleans them?)

The new part of the city, the Ville Nouveau, is quite modern. We passed a Greek Orthodox church and then found our way to the main thoroughfare. This is a very wide boulevard with a huge fountain at its centre and grassed walkway between the two roadways. There are some lovely old colonial era buildings along the street as well as the current parliament house.

We stayed in a beautiful hotel, Villa Mandarin, in the suburbs. It was actually a relief to just drive into the hotel grounds and park the car! This is a beautiful hotel with stunning gardens and lovely areas for sitting and relaxing. The hotel has a book with every plant in the garden photographed and listed with both botanical and common names beside the photograph. Absolutely fascinating to browse through. The resident peacocks, peahens and chicks visited at breakfast time. We met the manager, Greg, as he saw our car in the car park and came looking for us. Greg had lived in Brisbane for eleven years and was fascinated by our journeys. If you are heading to Rabat, this is the place to stay.

The next day we headed back to Tanger for a last night in Morocco. Much of. the route was lined with huge covered greenhouses in which bananas were growing. Often behind these tents we could see Sandhills!

Along the way we visited two seaside resorts. The first, Moulay Bousselham, was much more casual and down market then the second, though it did have a good looking beach.

The second town, Asilah, was much more upmarket with garish pink horse drawn carriages, camels on the beach, long beaches with lots of rentable umbrellas and restaurants and coffee shops galore.

We did stop for coffee but as the maitre d’ went to great pains parking the car close so that we could see it, we ended up having lunch! We thought we were ordering a small kebab, we ended up with a huge plate of fried fish, sardines, prawns, calamari and extras! Luckily two cats turned up to help us with the quantity of fish to be consumed.

Then it was back to Tanger to the Hotel Villa de France and the same small local restaurant we had dined in on our first night in Morocco.

Kasbah Bab Ourika

A holiday break at Kasbah Bab Ourika was our next move.

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Firstly farewell to Marrakesh

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Even more relaxing, we were driven there by the team which meant we could totally chill out.  we walked through the front door and did not walk out until it was time to leave two nights later.

The accomodation was great, an entrance room, bedroom and private garden with lounges.

Set high on a ridge jutting out from the High Atlas, Kasbah Bab Ourika had amazing views in 3 directions

With numerous spots to sit and relax.

Or sit around the pool

We left there probably too relaxed and needed to rev up to keep going.

Just to recap leaving Marrakesh…

Marrakech – Day 3

John went off to golf very early, I will let him give you a hole by hole account of that, while I had the luxury of a lie in and a late start. I was meeting up with Abdellah for a shopping tour of the souk. You can walk through on your own and never find the back alleys where goods are still being handmade on site and certainly you do not appreciate exactly what skills are being employed to produce the objects being sold in what are usually tiny shops.

Our first stop was back at the herb and spice shop we visited on the first day. I definitely wanted to buy some Ras el hanout to take home and, whereas saffron is ridiculously expensive in Sydney, here it is ridiculously cheap by comparison so that was also on my list. By the time we left the shop I had added a few other items to my list! It was all good fun, accompanied by some Royal tea, mostly mint with hot water and a little honey and maybe a hint of cinnamon. Very refreshing.

Walking across the square which leads to the souk we came across a whole range of plant stalls. We then entered the souk with its many alleyways selling everything you can imagine. Our first stop was at the first library/book shop in Marrakech. Owned by the same family since its inception in the early 1900s, sadly it has now become a café. It had remained a library/bookshop until the current generation took over after their father’s death and for them it was a better money making proposition as a café.

There are so many crafts on display in the souk it is certainly hard to see them all, yet alone come to grips with the skills of the craftsmen. We visited a family run jewellery business where you can select your beads or rare stones and your design and have a piece of jewellery specially crafted to your taste. The shop was a veritable Aladdin’s cave. Not being a great jewellery buyer it is hard to get me interested in the possibility of buying jewellery and as I was not sure about the antique bracelet I liked I decided to wait and see what else I might find on what could easily turn into a shopping spree. Many of the crafts in Morocco are so beautiful and exotic it is hard not to get carried away!

That was certainly the case in the antique store we visited next (no photos allowed) and although he was interested in explaining what things were and what they were used for I was still conscious that really he was more anxious for a sale than simply to display his lovely and interesting antiques.

We did visit a clothing business which was, again, a long standing, family run affair. I was a bit overwhelmed by the makeover store had recently undergone as this marble triple fronted store looked a bit too glamorous for the souk. Abdellah had said repeatedly that I was under no pressure to buy anything anywhere but being handed over to a person in the store who ostensibly shows you how things are made, and gives you some history of the business, and then wants to show you all the things you can possibly buy is definitely putting you into a pressurised position. I had fended off the young man successfully when we got a phone call to say John had finished golf and was joining us. This allowed me time to go back unobtrusively to look at a jacket I had seen and liked but did not want to be pressured into buying. I did eventually buy one, but only after careful trying on!

We visited the area of the souk where people bring their yarn to be dyed the colour of their choice, seeing both the natural dyes, which wont wash out, and the vats where the colours were set.

Along with thousands of scarfs, we were also shown cactus silk – absolutely amazingly soft and sensuous.

The next part of the souk to be visited was the section where beautiful wooden pieces are made. We saw one craftsman holding some tool with his toes while turning a tiny piece of wood.

Some of the pieces were stunningly beautiful and intricately inlaid, while some boxes were impossible to open unless you know their secrets. Some woodworkers make high end pieces, others make kitchens utensils, beautiful cutting boards and platters. The aromas from the different woods used, which in the kitchen places were very present as nothing was varnished, was wonderful.

We also saw cobblers at work, one making the soles and heels of shores before passing these over to another cobbler who was hand stitching the tops to the soles. Painstaking and hard work; how strong must this gentleman’s fingers and hands be!

In another section iron mongers were at work making, among other things metal, beautiful door knockers and amazing locks.

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We stopped in on the hammam fire feeder. His job is to sit here all day feeding the fire which heats the water for the hammam. He uses whatever there is available which people need to get rid of. When we visited he was feeding the fire with leather offcuts! When not feeding the fire he sits and plays for his visitors on a beautiful old Moroccan stringed instrument.

Our final stop was at a light shop, and John got completely carried away. Do you remember I could not buy either a small fountain or even smaller metal horse because of the space constraints in an MGB? Well, John fell in love with the beautiful filigreed Moroccan brass lights and thought he knew just where ‘we’ could hang one. When the shop owner named the price with shipping even John baulked. Then Abdellah got involved and showed the shop owner a picture of pour car. All of a sudden it was important that we could afford to buy a light to take back to Australia. Could we carry it ourselves? ‘Of course’, says John! So, having established what our budget was off the owner went on a hunt through the back reaches of the shop and low and behold – two options! So, where do we put a largish filigree brass light in an MG? This little quandary is yet to be solved.

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Now for the important post: Marrakech Royal Golf.  In planning our trip to Morocco we were fortunate to be introduced to Carol who runs the wholesale travel business ‘By Prior Arrangement’, fortunate because Carol had lived in Morocco for 20 years and has been running bespoke tours for as many years.  When she visited us to plan out trip I was about to head out to golf, so a round at Marrakech Royal Golf was added in. The previous king, Hassan II liked golf and as a consequence there are golf courses in each city, sometimes in the botanic gardens or on land provided by the king: indeed, in Meknes the course is inside the Royal Palace.

An early start and an enjoyable round, albeit on my own, a few pars and overall I was quite surprised at how well in played after more than 2 months without lifting a golf club. There are two courses and you can see how the ‘Old’ course is based around the old clubhouse (no longer used), while the ‘New’ course is set around the very specular new clubhouse.  As renovations were underway the course was made up of the first nine on the ‘New’ course set through an oil grove and the back nine on the ‘Old’ course which was set with palm and eucalyptus trees.

Thanks again to Soufiane and Kahlid for driving me there and back.  Which brings up the point that Carol has a great team on the ground in Morocco.  We have had outstanding guides in each city who have gone out of their way to show us around plus in Marrakech the care and attention of the transport team of Soufiane and Kahlid. They found underground parking for Goldie, dropped us off and picked us off each day (even if the trip was only 500 metres) and drove us to the desert camp and to the Kashbah (that’s tomorrows update).

We know that they all were somewhat surprised that we arrived in our own car, an old one at that and one that we have driven to so many places. We were the first clients not to be driven from city to city, so that may have added a special something.

Well done to our new Moroccan friends.

 

 

 

 

Marrakesh Day 2

Today started with an early morning horse carriage around the Ville Nouvelle.  it seems that each Moroccan city has a French new town outside the Medina built form 1913 when the French protectorate started.  These Ville Nouvelle have wide streets set out in a planned pattern (sometimes semi circular, sometimes square) and post independence became popular with the locals.  so much sop that the old cities fell into disrepair until the historical importance was realised (UNESCO heritage all off them) and it then has become groovy to live there.

The carriage dropped me at the Majorelle Gardens at 8:45, unseemly early but for the good reason that the first bus arrives at 9am and I had 15 peaceful minutes!

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The gardens were originally the work of Jaques Majorelle beginning in 1923 and improved through his life time.  When he died they fell into disrepair until Yves Saint-Laurent fell in love with them and restored them.

The street is named after him and there is a monument to both YSL and Pierre Berge

As well as numerous cactus (over 400 varieties) there is Jaques Majorelle studio in deep blue.

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