Zesty Mumma's Words

A life lived without passion is a life half lived

I Love Paris – part 2 – Ooh Lah Lah. – How Could Anyone Complain!

img_1605“Free wine and cheese for happy hour between 5.00 – 7.00pm, every night, really?” I gushed during check in at my exquisite new hotel, followed with ” I love Paris”, and so began the happiest five days of my trip. Honestly there is very little bad you can truly say about Paris, that’s why I have purposely separated last weeks blog from this one and yes I’m going to say it again Paris is amazing!

In contrast, what I’m now about to say may seem a little harsh and at this moment just want to point out I do truly love the Spanish. They are kind, generous and passionate but for the most part if something in Spain is beautiful it is either built by the Romans or Moors or by accident and don’t get me started about their food presentation. However, the French do nothing by accident, it’s all about the beauty and ascetic’s, whether it be architecture, dress or humble food presentation.

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My week in Paris was dominated by clear blue skies, so very perfect for walking, and walking I did. The main tourist paths around the city are for the most part flat and easy to get around by foot, however, if needed the metro is a useful choice with minimal difficulty and should you need help there is always someone to ask. Most French living in Paris have at least a little English and freely admit it is the international language, unlike the Spanish. I know there is a lot written about the attitude of the French but I simply didn’t find it to be true. Ok so they don’t gush all over you and sometimes appear to be growling and love to argue but they treat each other in exactly the same way!

By far my favourite mode of transport was the many bush bikes available for a small fee at docking stations around the city. Having blistered my feet walking hundreds of kilometres while wearing inappropriate shoes, the bikes were a welcomed relief. More importantly I knew I never wanted to be Lucy Jordan, who realised to late “she’d never ride through Paris with the wind blown in her hair” (it’s a Marianne Faithful, song check it out). Really, if I ever had a out of body experience on my trip it was that moment, riding to Galleries Lafayette on one of the hottest days of the year was worth the third degree sunburn I got!

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The only downside about Paris at this time (due to no fault of their own) is the confronting moment you are happily strolling along, turn left into the Rue Du Temple and come face to face with two French soldiers walking toward you with machine guns. Honestly though, even soldiers with guns walking around your neighbourhood becomes ordinary when you see it enough but I can’t imagine what it is like for Parisian’s living with the situation all the time. In spite of this there wasn’t a single point I felt unsafe in my entire week (except of course the climb up the ancient staircase come slippery slide belonging to the Appi Hotel).

Don’t go to the Louvre on a Tuesday it’s closed! A sad fact I discovered too late so ended up at the Musee D’Orsay instead, which as it turned out was the better choice. From the outside the Louvre is extremely impressive and containing such a huge percentage of this worlds history, would be no less inside I’m sure. However, from what I gleaned from others who managed to actually get inside the experience while still amazing was greatly marred by the vast numbers of other tourists they were sharing it with. The beauty of D’Orsay is the fact that there is only a fraction of the crowds compared to the Louvre yet still contains many examples of the worlds most famous works of art. Degas “la Petite Danseuse” , the beautiful bronze of a fourteen year old ballerina is exquisite while Van Gogh’s “Starry Night Over The Rhine” is breathtaking and just some of the amazing pieces on display.

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In fact the forecourt of the Louvre was actually the only place during my stay that I came close to being robbed. The involuntary response all tourist develop when viewing places of beauty, much like a nervous tick, is to drag out whatever photographic device they may have and begin snapping away. This practice can make you a clear target for those of the human race that only see dollars signs ( or in this case Euro’s) painted on your back.

Dragging the iPad out of my for the thousandth time I had barely entered my passcode when a good looking Frenchman with sparkling, broad smile appeared, offering to take a photo of me in front of the Louvre. Instantly alarm bells went off in my brain, I may not have been in Paris long but it was definitely long enough to know that the French never smile at you like that so he obviously wanted something. Thankfully I’d also seen “French kiss” enough times to know that Meg Ryan’s character had her bag stolen from the same type of slimy lothario when she let her guard down. So frowning at him I declined his offer but he tried one more time before taking his beaming smile of insincerity off to target the next hapless victim.

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Yes Paris is full of amazing buildings and museum and of course the Eiffel Tower but the other thing that it has in abundance is parks and those parks are overflowing with masses of brightly coloured flowers and succulent green grass. Having just spent eleven weeks in a baking Spanish oven where the grass (if there was grass at all) resembled dried golden wheat, I just wanted to squish it between my toes and roll around in it. You’ll be happy to know I settled for squishy toes!

Paris is of course a Mecca for travellers from all over the world and rightly so, however for one group of visitors it apparently does not live up to their imagination thus causing such severe disappointment that they suffer a breakdown. The Japanese are the main sufferers of a debilitating illness called Paris Syndrome ( no that isn’t the all consuming fear that Paris Hilton would once again be the constant source of news for the worlds media). This relatively new mental disorder is characterised by a number of psychiatric symptoms such as acute delusional states, hallucinations and feelings of persecution.

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The Japanese often picture Paris as a land of their dreams; the land of beauty, culture and sophistication. However,  thev soon find the dizzy heights of their imagination does not fit with reality. French women aren’t as stick thin as models, they don’t wear high end designer cloths around the street and Paris isn’t as sterilely clean as they imagined . To add insult to injury, the fluctuating rhythm and harsh tones of the French language create the impression that the French are rude, as a result the Japanese government is forced to repatriated a number of their citizens home every year. There is even a hotline set up for suffers so they can get help quickly!

All I can say is no city on earth is perfect but Paris comes as close as you can get!

Tips

  •  When in Paris walk walk walk – breath it in, immerse yourself in it, experience it!
  • Parisian supermarkets sell great salads, sandwiches and readymade meals at good prices
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I love Paris but try to avoid Faulty Towers

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Barcelona’s Sants Train Station is grey and strewn with the jetsom of human travellers at 4.30am, most standing, some leaning drowsily on the external wall. All of us willing the clock to tick round to the magical 5.30 hour when the entrance doors slide open and we can resume our waiting inside. Not that it is uncomfortable standing in the concourse, let’s face it, it’s summer and its Spain. I’d had at least a 4 hour sleep but it was plainly obvious that many of the others had been there all night. Having slept uncomfortably for a few hours inside, they were then forced to exist the building at 1.00am when the terminal closed and wait like “lepers thrown out of the city” till it reopened.

Thankfully the Train to Paris is sleek and modern, and miraculously has enough luggage space for everyone’s bags, which is not always the case on some Spanish internal services. We quickly cross the border into France and the difference in the countryside is dramatic. Green and glorious, France shimmers in the morning sun, while river after river runs deep and wide to the sea.

The warm air of a late summer afternoon embraces me as I finally emerge from the Paris underground onto the Boulevard de Strasbourg, which in comparison to the madness of the overwhelming throng of Las Ramblas in Barcelona appears almost deserted. I hadn’t originally planned to visit Paris when I first considered my trip, it just wasn’t high on my list of priorities. However, as I left the metro it was love at first sight, Gigi”, “Springtime in Paris” and my favourite, “French Kiss” had never prepared me for how truly amazing this city really is. The elegance that is its lifeblood pumps through the streets infusing even the most humble of man made structures with beauty.

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The Appi Hotel, a quaint friendly hotel according to the listing on a well known booking site, appears as a doorway between two shops and on entering I almost run over a tiler who is working just inside. His presence is not unwelcome as access to the hotel is via reception on the first floor and my gigantic bag was not making it up the ancient spiral staircase without his help. The threadbare carpet could not fully disguise how easily the stairwell could be converted into a slippery slide, with each tread so worn they angled sharply to the ground.

In reception I unfortunately paid the full price for my six night stay without even looking at the room, which turned out to be a floor above. The room itself was not disgusting, just nothing like the photos on the before mentioned website. A spongy feeling the size of a 40cm circle under the faux wood vinyl flooring, directly in front of the wash basin in the narrowest part of the room, was a bit worrying. Being hot and tired from my trip all I could do was fall onto by bed and hope that I could rest. However, after an hour of meaty heat as well as banging and crashing, funnelled up via the internal cavity from the workman below, I did the only thing I could and left for the afternoon.

My return that evening with goats cheese, red wine, avocado and tomato felt much more promising but just like a slippery slide it was all down hill from there. The shared toilet was situated on a half floor between mine and the one below.  To get in meant tippy toeing to the narrowest part of the stair treads as the door opened outwards and without a landing you had to climb around it and up into the room. Inside the decor, very reminiscent of an outhouse found on farms, was complete with graffiti carved into the aubergine paint spelling the word “taken” (referencing the well known Kidnapping movies). Lets just say my breathing was becoming slightly exaggerated at this stage.

My hope for the bathroom above to act as a defibrillator was dashed after a similar climb inside (this time from below). With the door shut the gap between the doorway and shower cubicle was approximately 30cm (or two tile widths), the lack of towel rail or hook to hang cloths and towels on meant the floor had to be used. The shower, like the rest of the place had seen better days and likewise didn’t have a hook on which the shower nozzle could rest, rusty pipes and fittings also goes without saying. However, my favourite feature in an already overflowing tableau of dreadfulness was undoubtedly the cracked corner of the Perspex cubicle roof; into which generations of travellers had chucked the used soap packets and remnants of the fluoro coloured complementary soap. This and the accumulated dust producing interesting shapes by the dappled light shining down upon it from above, like some domestic post modernist artwork.

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The rest of this precautionary tale has highs and lows, the later being that I left after the first night with the owner refusing to refund my payment because apparently “there was nothing wrong with his hotel” and I am still in the process of trying to recover it. All I can say is thank goodness for credit cards because had I paid cash or eftpos I probably wouldn’t have a hope of recovering anything ( never thought I would say that).

The high, well while I was drinking a not so nice French red and feeling totally sorry for myself for being stuck in an extremely bad Fawlty Towers episode with Manuel. Who on this occasion was replaced with a French speaking Indian night clerk who suddenly couldn’t understand English the moment I told him I wanted my money back, I checked out another booking site. What I discovered was due to certain terrible events in Paris tourist numbers were down considerably and they were heavily discounting even the best hotels. The one I finally booked in an exquisite inner suburb called The Marais was reduced by 70%, which meant I was able to get five nights in luxury for the same price as squalor. Even faced with this amazing revelation I still hesitated cause I knew I would have a fight on my hands to get my money back from the evil wannabe Basil Fawlty. What finally pushed me into action was the fact I checked out the weather for the rest of the week. I knew that I would probably die in that tiny room with no ventilation in the coming heatwave ( which did turn out to be a doozy) and the only thing that would let let them know I was in there would be the smell wafting through the corridors.

Tips

  • Never pay for you hotel room until you have seen it.
  •  Quaint and friendly doesn’t equate to clean and comfortable
  • Always have a bottle of wine ready in case or unexpected trauma

Verdant Mountain Peaks and Gravel Pits -What Contrast!

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This weeks blog is the first part of my truly solo journey, dragging my greatly overpacked bags with me. I usually don’t make such a huge mistake with my estimation of what will be needed for a trip, but what can I say, we all screw up at sometime.

I’m heading north to Granada via Malaga by bus, which in Spain is a great cheap way to get around. The buses are modern and clean, with many many services to choose from. They also offer exceptional sightseeing experiences along the way.

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As the gentle hills of the coast give way to the towering peaks of the Sierra Nevada they form a dramatic gateway to the old Arabic fortress city of Granada. The modern day city however, is a melting pot of locals, tourists, artists and a strange phenomenon “German Hippies”. Two nouns I haven’t found synonymous to a large extent in the past, yet here in Granada they exist in great numbers complete with multiple piercings and dreadlocks.

The city is packed on this long weekend but in this case it only adds to the atmosphere. Colour and music fill the streets. Above the city the mountains are ever present and in spite of the heat it isn’t hard to imagine a winter backdrop of snow capped peaks. Sitting atop a smaller hill, watching regally over the chaos below, is the Alhambra ( the old Moorish palace) and its exquisite beauty can not be over estimated. Abundant clear fresh water gushes or tinkles or drips from the sides of the hill resulting in verdant, shady gardens and natural forest. Moorish poets described the Alhambra as “a pearl set against emeralds”.

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When the might of the combined Catalan and Castile Empires of Spain finally rested Granada from the Arabic Moores it caused great sadness. The last Emirate of Granada was so distraught at the loss of his beautiful home he sobbed as the caravan of family and possession’s made its way out of the palace gates. His mother, a woman that could give Cruella Deville a run for her money, was heard to to tell her heart broken son not to “weep like a baby for something he couldn’t hold onto like a man”. Ouch, that’s one tough mother!

Viewing the palace in the late afternoon from a neighbouring hill; the golden haze from the setting sun dripping like melted gold over her ancient turrets while flamenco buskers serenade the on lookers, it was easy to understand how this city could inspire such passion.

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The bus to Alicante, my next destination, didn’t inspire anything but a sore backside but the scenery was still worth the discomfort. Spain is essentially one gigantic rock. I know I have told you all about the romantic olive groves, the hectares and hectares of berries and of course the very very cheap wine Spain produces ( made with them grapes they grow) but to see the terrain as we head to Valencia state is to look upon a gravel pit. Popping up amongst the rocks here and there are the beginnings of the citrus groves this part of Spain is so famous  for.

However, there is a down side to all this agriculture in a country that essentially is desertlike in many areas. In 2011 a massive earthquake struck at a very shallow depth causing devastating deaths, major damage to infrastructure and left 10,000 homeless. A year on from the tragedy and an investigation ruled that the cause was the extraction of ground water, which had been going on for years.

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The scary thing is that the agriculture is still going on and it still doesn’t rain much in Spain.

Tips

  • When booking buses – if you are booking connecting buses that are run by different companies always make sure you have a couple of hours between the connection. In Spain buses run to there own timetable and you need to account for any delays that usually occur.
  • The Alhambra – Makesure you book your ticket to the Nazarid Palaces and Generallife at least a month before you leave, if you are visiting at peak time.
  • It is only about €15 for the ticket to all Alhambra attractions so don’t book on a sight that says it is €35 or €40 as these sites are for guided tours.

The Wonders of An Undiscovered Oasis

My first taste of the Med is wind swept and turbulent but is a nice change from a Huelva summer. No extreme heat, no showering three to four times a night just to sleep. I think the fact I survived a Huelva Summer needs an award now I come to think of it. A large balcony in the apartment we have rented is that reward and a perfect place to let the constant

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Mediterranean breeze help me recover and feel cool for the first time in two and a half months. Our apartment is located in San Pedro de Alcantara, that’s on the western side of Marbella as many English would know. The reason I say that is because in the years since I left Great Britain as a child I have never since been surrounded by so many English, the Marbella/Malaga coast is little Britain and there is an advantage in that; menus, signs etc all with English translations.

As it is the Costa Del Sol you would be right in thinking that most people come for the beach but even here there are surprises waiting to be found. Just twenty kilometres down the road from San Pedro and five kilometres off the motorway lies a small rural community called Manilva, a pretty enough little area, though quite dusty now at the end of a long dry summer. Hidden at the end of a dirt track is a little known historic site that is still used today.

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The Hedionda Banos (Banos meaning baths) is a Roman bathhouse set at the bottom of a small hill. The first recorded mention of the mineral spring that feeds it is in 63 BC when the baths were constructed. The original condition of the pool is remarkable and I’d like to see if some present day structures could last as long. The water itself is crystal clear and cool but not cold as is the creek it runs into. There is a slight sulphur odour but it isn’t as bad as some of the hot springs I have been in and is not uncomfortable.

The healing properties of the water were quite well recognised, apparently Ju Ceasar bathed there to heal a herpes infection (yuk) and ordinary Romans went to cure themselves of scabies ( double yuk). I’m sure 2000 years is enough to flush the water! I can’t confirm the healing power of this beautiful place but I do know there are very few tourist spots in the world that compare for history, ambience and it is free ( for now anyway). I must say that I felt pretty darn good when I finally got out and sat in the sun. On the day we were there a local was even playing a handmade flute, so if I closed my eyes I could actually imagine I was back in Roman times, obviously I wasn’t a plebeian but rather a patrician (not explaining you have to look that up).

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The really amazing thing about this unique spot is that it is virtually unknown, I’m not saying that when you go the you have the place to yourself. However, when you consider the crowds of holiday makers visiting Spanish beaches in August the fact that for the majority of time we only had to share the pool with a maximum of ten people and that wasn’t the whole time. There were more people wandering around but not swimming. Even a search of the Internet reveals very little information and if you have forgot the name it is even harder to find.

With a stream constantly filling the baths another stream must run out, this water meets a small creek about fifty metres away. The limestone rocks it is exposed to before it gets the creek has an interesting effect on the water. The once crystal clear blue water suddenly becomes a milky blue. This is not unpleasant but just interesting. A walk further down the creek reveals another relic of the past. A small Roman bridge over the creek, as picture perfect as could be.

 

This is a special place in the world and I hope it remains so. As we were leaving a backhoe arrived and begins clearing reeds turning the water in the small waterway running out of the baths muddy brown. I am reliably informed that large roughly sawn block of stone were neatly placed on the sides to avoid erosion so I am sure the water has now returned to its original clarity.

Other than the baths I honestly couldn’t say that I would consciously plan to return to the Costa Del Sol. A playground for the English in particular it may be and I haven’t disliked my stay but it just didn’t stand out for me, with the exception of the Hedionda Banos! However, always a swimmer the fact I could swim in the Mediterranean Sea without a single fear of sharks, not that it stops me at home but you are always conscious that they are there, was a nice thing.

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I nearly forgot, we found the best homemade Tapas at a small bar attached to an Italian restaurant callrd Pavarotti ‘s on the water front at San Luis De Sabinillas. Tapas can be hit and miss it’s designed to be nibbles with drinks. Accordingly it can be as simple as a piece of cheese or a bowl of olives with you drink but it can also be taste test of main meals. AT Pavaottis it was the later and at €1 a plate it was a bargain, epspecially when a glass of red is only €2.

The only other advantage of staying in this area is the proximity to Gibraltar and therefore Africa. It is so close, twenty five kilometres to be exact which means you can have a day trip to Morocco. The return ferry only costs €67 but as most of Spain, United Kingdom and the rest of Europe are on holidays you need to book in advance, which I didn’t do and that’s all I am going to say about that!

Tips

  •  Don’t go on holidays to the Costa Del Sol in July or Augus
  • If you do, make sure you book a return ferry to Morocco at the same time you book accommodation.

 

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It’s Twistn’ Time, Twisting By The Pool That Is!

Finally my time in Huelva Province has come to an end and I am on the road again, not that I am sad to be moving on but having spent over two months in this relatively peaceful backwater, it is not with out some melancholy and sense of fondness. The two hundred and forty seven kilometre journey to San Pedro De Alcantara takes me from the far western edge of Andalusia to the most Eastern side, the playground for most of Northern Europe, especially Britain. In Australia we have the Gold Coast, the US has Miami but Spain has the Costa Del Sol.

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The road from Sevilla onwards takes a steadily climbing path to the Serrania De Ronda mountain range. Dotted here and there amongst the fields are the remains of castles and fortresses, it never ceases to amaze me how quickly we humans become jaded to the point of being dismissive of something truly magical when there is abundance. I can be just as guilty of this flaw.

Having never planned to come to Spain (that’s a whole other story) I hadn’t done a lot of research about the country. So the fact we were now heading into a mountain range that extends to the coast and  whose higher peaks quite obviously experience at least a smattering of snow in winter, was a total surprise. The mountains themselves are sharp and jagged with a sparse covering of vegetation while the valleys and lower slopes are dotted with the now familiar “Pueblos Blancos” or  white villages.

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Our first stop on the trip was a small village of Sentenil De La Bodegas. Built on a valley floor, it is famous for the house that are built under overhanging cliffs. Having experienced an Andalucian summer I totally understand the genius of this building method, just not so sure about winter but then I suppose there is always a cozy fire to sit by.

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We arrived at Sentenil via a narrow country road that wound its way through quaint fincas filled with olive groves and black pigs that feast on acorns, whose meat Spanish farmers cure to produce the famous Spanish Hamon. So quiet and idyllic the journey I was unprepared for what awaited us. Being a little insulated in Huelva from the influx of tourist to Spain at this time of the year it was a steep learning curve when we arrived in Sentenil. Parking in every village in Spain is difficult on a normal day, the narrow streets were never meant for the 21st century. The fact that it is summer, only about fifty kilometres from one of the biggest tourist destinations in Europe and a Sunday made it impossible, so we parked at the entrance to the village and walked down the hill. I really shouldn’t have had the second drink with lunch cause the trip back up wasn’t pretty!

Under the overhanging rocks the temperature drops dramatically, a great protection in the August sun. The actual name of the village comes from a Castillian word meaning “seven times” and refers to the fact that it took  the Catholic Spanish seven sieges to defeat the Moors and capture the village, the cliffs being so effective as a defence.

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The dramatic mountains of this range are matched by one village in particular, Ronda, the home of modern bull fighting in Spain. Precariously perched on top of a narrow ravine, the houses appear to be teetering on the edge. This is also a Mecca for tourists and any thought that you may be able to experience the glorious vistas should be dispelled, “it just ain’t gonna happen my friend”.

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The “New Bridge” at Ronda spans the El Tajo canyon and is the draw card for most of the tourists. It is very impressive from which ever angle you look and definitely worth the trip. However, I am reliably informed that the rest of the year is nearly devoid of sightseers and with many better photo ops.  Ronda too has a Moorish background and suffered greatly during the Spanish Inquisition. Interestly, to escape the persecution many Arabs escaped to the Huelva area and began new lives there.

Like most mountain towns the air in Ronda is clear and I can imagine crisp in winter, though not quite so in August. There are many amazing restaurants that sit on the edge of the gorge but unlike other tourist destinations are very reasonably priced.

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Taking the main road once again we continue rising up into the Siera as it winds around the mountain sides before the decent down to the coast.  I was struck by just how close the mountains are to the sea, with a clear view of the Rock of Gibralter and Jebel Musa, a mountain in Morroco. The closeness to sea reminds me very much of the kiakoura on New Zealand’s South Island but that is where the similarity ends.

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The Rock of Gibralter with Jebel Musa, Morocco to the left.

The Costa Del Sol is Australias Gold Coast, Miami in the United State or any of the other amazing beach destinations around the world that have been loved, in many ways, almost to death. Not that it is unpleasant, just filled with resorts, housing estates and shops for kilometre upon kilometre but the Mediterranean is blue and it has no sharks so I am looking forward to that.

So in the words of the inimitable Mark Knoffler  in “Twisting by the Pool”

We’re going on a holiday now
Gonna take a villa, a small chalet
On the Costa del Magnifico.       (That’s code for Costa del sol)
Where the cost of living is so low
Yeah, we’re gonna be so neat
Dance to the Eurobeat
Yeah, we’re gonna be so cool
Twisting by the pool

See ya next week.

 

 

 

 

 

Step out of Your Comfort Zone and feel Alive

Learning to drive  a car for most people comes during teenage years and offers your first taste of freedom from parental constraints. I however didn’t get my licence till I was thirty two! Living in a coastal village it was easy to get myself around town on my bicycle; work, shops, beach, everywhere. Friends still remind me of the massive amount of grocery bags that could often be seen dangling from the handle bars.

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Even when my children were born I still had no motivation to get my licence. “Why do I need it, I can walk with the pram, it’s good excersise,” I told myself. Not until we moved to a rural property did it quickly became apparent that me getting my licence was indeed a necessity.  Now many years later and thousand of kilometres of driving under my belt it is unthinkable for me to imagine living in a world without my licence.

Then I came to Spain two months ago and couldn’t possibly imagined driving around the countryside. As I’m sure most are aware, like the Americas, European countries (except the United Kingdom) all drive on the right hand side of the road and therefore so does Spain. For those of us that learnt to drive in the 30% of countries that do so on the left, the thought of even attempting to make the switch is inconceivable.  I even get confused when  I am asked to give directions, I inevitably choose right when I mean left and visa versa. The thought of me hurtling down a Spanish motorway at 120 km an hour was never on the cards, but then the weather got hot!

When I say hot I mean baking oven, burnt to a crisp, hard to breath and not only did my friends husband have to work but my friend had answered a question wrong when renewing her Australian licence online. The Australian government, ever scarred of fraudsters and illegal immigrants, doesn’t give you any chances and refused to allow my friend to complete her renewal online. This left us unable to go for a swim without Victor. In an act of extreme desperation Selena asks me about five weeks ago if I wanted to drive. I thought she was joking at first but she was deadly serious. I was quite impressed with her courage I must say but the fact the beach is actual only ten minutes, four right hand turns and one left hand away might have had something to do with it.  My confidence however, was not so easily strengthened.

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Which brings me back to the reasons I didn’t drive till I was thirty two, basically I was scarred. I know I said all that other stuff about not being necessary etc, but the honest ” face yourself in the mirror” truth be told was; I was scarred. When I first turned out of our street on the road that took us Mazagon I felt like I did in those days when I was learning to drive. Nothing is natural, you have to be reminding yourself constantly of what you should be doing. I even developed my own mantra, ” keep Selena in the gutter” which translates ” the passenger is alway on the right”.  It felt like the car was driving you not the other way around.

After a relatively short time I ventured further a field, Zara, Sfera and many other Spanish clothing brands decided it was time for sales and we weren’t missing out on that. Then a couple of weeks ago we drove to Sevilla (about an hour away) to visit yet another group of Roman ruins. This time I had to travel on the motorway, which I would like to point out has a speed limit of one hundred and twenty kilometres an hour, ten kilometres faster than  Australia. Since that day driving on the right has suddenly become second nature and I am pretty chuffed with myself.

I even drove a friends car in Portugal, which has a very old, narrow and poorly maintained road system, when the friend I was with wasn’t feeling well. The fact she quickly recovered after I took the wheel could’ve had something to do with the fact I have a heavy lead foot and she suddenly realised that I had only been driving on the right for a matter of weeks.

When I chose to take this Solo holiday  I did so for a variety of reason, one in particular was the opportunity to put myself into uncomfortable situations and find answers. Truly driving on the right hand side of the road was one of those situations for me and surprise surprise, I found I could not only do it but do it comfortably. The thing about human nature is that it is easy just living our life in our usual routine and we have a measure of happiness. However, if we choose to push ourself, step outside the everyday, suddenly you feel alive. Each little achievement makes the blood flow and gives you confidence.image

That was my pep talk for the week, now for Portugal. To say Portugal is special is an understatement. I have been across the border a few times during my stay in Palos and noticed that inspite of the similarities with Spain it is also quite different. This trip took me a little further along the south coast to the exquisite Praia de Marinha. This section of the coast and hinterland is called the Algave. It features not only amazing beaches but the remains of lairs of Portuguese smugglers and pirates from a world long disappeared. These bandits notoriously laid in wait for Spanish galleons returning from American, laden with gold and other cargo

Southern Portugal has many resorts  for Northern Europeans but if you venture beyond this artificial world you find the rustic lifestyles of the people is still very authentic and simplistic. My only regret is I didn’t find any surf to photograph for my son and friends but that is further round on the west coast.  I really only scratched the surface of that beautiful country and what I saw I loved, this is definitely a return destination!

Tips

  •  Never leave your home country without an international licence – you just don’t  know when you will need it.
  • Step outside your comfort zone, you just might surprise yourself!
  • Try Portuguese flame grilled Tuna- it’s like no Tuna steak you have ever tried before!

 

The King and Queen of Merida Invite you to take Journey Back In Time!

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As I am sure most of you realise I am an Australian and this is an important fact in understanding of this weeks blog. In Australia we have very little architecture that is over 150 years old. In fact on the Sunshine Coast where I live the majority of the buildings are actually under 30 years. Yes you read correctly, under 30 years old. To say we are a young country in architectural terms is an understatement to say the least. So if any of you Europeans out there feel my prattling on about Roman ruins is a little “ho hum” then I hope the facts I have just shared explains my position. It is simply mind blowing to me that the amazing designs and workmanship of humans living a minimum of 2000 years ago still exist and functions in our modern world.

Which brings me to my tourist destination of the week – Merida, Badajoz Provence, Extremadura Region.

Merida is simply amazing!

A relatively small city of approximately 60,000 residents, it sits quietly in a lovely rural area that produces grain crops and wine. Lying in a south westerly direction approximately three hours from Madrid, it is easily accessible by both road and rail. What I had originally planned to do was stop in Merida on my way to Sevilla and I have now come to realise was actually the best idea, oh well you live and learn and I got there anyway!

Why is Merida amazing, simply put it is the sheer number of buildings and structures that not only exist but in some cases are still functioning, such was the skill of the Romans, much of which is an easy walk from one site to another. As with the other historic towns I have visited these sites are generally situated in or around the original heart of the city.

We begin our walk on the edge of the city centre and head to a path that follows the Rio Guadiana. My first taste of the Roman ruins that Merida has in abundance is the Acueducto de los Milagros or Miraculous Aquaduct. Tall and proud it stands in the middle of a public park, with an actual walking track running under one of the arches. This in itself miraculous, no guard rail to keep you a safe distance away no hordes of tourists. In fact the day we were there I only saw one other tourist taking in its beauty.

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The next stop the Roman Bridge, built in 25BC, over the Guadiana River is a marvel to this day, thanks mainly to incredible Roman workmanship but also to conservation efforts by the subsequent invaiders, the Visigoths and Moors to name a couple. This bridge still retains 60 of its original 62 arches and is today a foot bridge for residents and tourists but was still in use for vehicles up to 1993 and was in fact the main access route into town. At 700 mtrs in length it is the longest Roman Bridge in the world one of the most beautiful.

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The overlapping of conquering nations truly epitomises Spain’s cultural heritage, it’s sometimes hard to tell when one period of rule ends and the next begins. At the enterance to the bridge stands the Alcazabar (Arab fort) that the Moors seemly built in every major town they at one time controlled. In the shade around the northern wall we found tables and chairs set under pencil pines and other trees, with only two other customers it was peaceful and cool. The food was rustic and extremely tasty and perfect way to break our sightseeing for an hour. I chose a nice meal of chicken, salad and homemade chips for €6.00 but I could of had goat stew or partridge pie for approximately the same price.

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Resuming our wandering we passed the remaining ruins on the way to the prize. The Temple of Diana, Portico del Foro and other historic sites, all however, pale into relative insignificance in comparison to the King of Merida, the Roman Ampitheatre. The Ampitheatre in particular demands your imagination to picture not only the crowds cheering gladiators but the slaughter of man and beast. It is a powerful place and a prime example of what is good and bad about mankind.

An interesting but sad side point for me was the realisation that bull rings of Spain were actually throw backs to these Roman sports. For me the round shape was the give away and when I researched it I found this was in fact the case, present day bullfighting is a continuation of entertainment popular in Rome.

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The highlight for me however, was the grace and beauty of the Queen of Merida, the Roman Theatre, which stands regally next to the ampitheatre and serves in contrast as an reminder of what height of culture and art the Romans achieved. On the day of my visit a theatre performance was scheduled for that evening only 2041 years after the first performance in 25BC.

Merida is beautiful clean town that has obviously taken to heart the message of the poster below.

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It reads in English ” educate your owner”. I personally think it should also say ” I can’t do it on my own”

In closing I just want to say if you don’t ever go to another Roman historic site, go to Merida, everywhere else cannot compare.

Tips

  • Try making your trip in either spring or Autumn. The heat of summer is the only thing that will marr your visit. I used a parasol all day but I still felt like I could almost get heat stroke by the time I finished at the theatre.
  • On the same note make sure you carry a huge bottle of water. There is age eat fountain at the entrance but no other water for the rest of visit around both the Ampitheatre and Roman Theatre.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What do Christopher Columbus and Berries Have in Common, You’ll be Surprised!

The actual town I have based myself in for most of my stay in Spain is called Palos De La Frontera, which apparently is the berry capital of the world. If you take a look on google maps and change the setting to satellite what you notice is fields on fields of white. Before you start thinking that you are witnessing some sort of new hybrid berry crop let me tell that it is actually field on field of plastic covered green houses, mono culture at its zenith.

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Blueberries, blackberries, raspberries ( sounding a tad like Forrest Gumps friend Bubba at this moment I’m sure  – “pineapple shrimp, lemon shrimp, coconut shrimp, pepper shrimp, shrimp soup” etc) but the queen is definitely the strawberry. Just in case an uneducated person like myself failed to recognise this fact we have a giant strawberry planted in the middle of the roundabout not 250mtrs from my house. Coming from the land of big things (think big pineapple, big cow, big prawn, big banana and oh so many more biggn’s) you might think I’m not impressed, well you couldn’t be further from the truth. The fact that they chose to put a mammoth strawberry in the middle of the roundabout instead of the other most important connection to Palos De La Frontera, the one and only Christopher Columbus, shows the importance of the industry to the town.

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Palos, much to my surprise when I arrived is the place of Columbus first voyage to the Americas. In fact many of the sailors on the expedition were pressed into service from Palos and the two smaller caravels ( La Niña and Pinto) were owned by the Pinzon brothers from Moguer, the next village down the road. They set sail from the Palos dock near the Monastery of La Rabida on 3rd August 1492 and change the world forever.

The village, while playing a huge roll in the  exploration of the globe is often forgotten entirely in any discussion of Columbus’s journeys. On the plus side it remains a sleepy village to this day. The white washed houses with terracotta roofs externally are probably very similar to the homes occupied by the residents of that time. Its one moment of fame over Palos settled back into obscurity and the never ending sun of southern Spain. Far more cataclysmic to the history of the town, even more than Columbus and berries was the 1755 Lisbon earthquake. This devistating natural ddisasters destroyedmost of Lisbon and changed the geography of the coastline of southern Spain so much that Palos is now an inland town on a river rather than a sea port.

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Back to the present day and how is my Spanish going I hear you ask?  Gracias, for asking, it’s ok. I managed to buy shampoo and conditioner by my self the other day and have perfected the purchase of “cafe Americano”. That’s a long black a bit larger than a Spanish black coffee but still only about 150mls and not the humungous sizes drank in Australia and the US. Thankfully that’s how I drink my coffee so it is “perfecto” ( just slipping in a bit more Spanish to impress you) for me.

The Spanish food however is taking a little more time to get used to and trust me I’m not a person who is scared to try new things. There are a few secrets about Spanish cooking that surprised me completely and  I think I should tell you. The first is that other than garlic and salt they don’t use herbs and spices very much and they definitely hate chilli. Another secret is the lack of vegetables used, most dishes lean heavily on meat, however they do incorporate legumes and rice into many dishes. Generally if you ask for “ensalada” or salad it will consist of tomatoes lettuce and onion, sometimes tuna as well. Very different to the extravagant creations from home

The Spanish however have a love affair with potatoes which rivals that of the Irish, bet you didn’t know that. They have no hesitation with eating potatoes for breakfast, lunch and tea; and as a snack in between. There is no shame in chowing down on Tortilla (potato and egg pie) for breakfast, potato salad swimming in mayonnaise for lunch and chips with tapas in the evening.  I have seen the light and been released, my long suppressed yearning for potatoes has been fed and I feel fine. No fear of the dreaded carbohydrate in Spain, no  irrational all consuming phobia about bread either. One thing I have noticed, the Spanish for the most part don’t eat much western styled fast food, don’t get me wrong it’s here just not as much. Also the bars that people mostly eat at prepare there own food and don’t buy in frozen pre prepared. Surprise, surprise Spanish women don’t have big butts!

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My tourist destination of the week is Córdoba, a beautiful inland city  of about 350,000 and has the second largest urban area in the world deemed world heritage by UNESCO. Córdoba was at one time the capital of the Roman region of  Hispania Ulteria and later the capital of the Moorish state Al-Andalus. The many existing examples of architecture, including the remnants of its Jewish history make this a must see destination.

Tips

  •  enjoy your holiday  – eat freshly prepared food, not processed food and don’t worry about theories that have only been around for a relatively short time.

 

 

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Cadiz – City of the Ancients, Sunbaking Cats and Smooth Talking Old Spaniards!

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Cadiz, Cadiz, the city of the ancients, what can I say that hasn’t been said before. With a history dating back to the Phonecians it holds the title of the oldest occupied city in Spain and one of the 10 ancient cities of Europe. Sparkling like a gem in the summer sun for thousands of years, the Romans obviously knew a great holiday destination when they saw one and occupied the city from 200 BC, leaving their own unique mark. Cadiz is surrounded by water on all sides, except for a narrow spit of land, running for a few kilometres, that joins it to the mainland.

As you enter the city through the massive gates that form part of the fortification built centuries ago ( once again primarily to keep out the English) you can’t help being drawn back to a time when running battles between Sir Francis Drake’s ( or  El Draque  – the Dragon, as the Spanish so affectionately like to call him) English Navy and the Spanish Armada were a common occurance. From 1586, thanks to the first of El Draques attacks, a series of “bastions” were built. These forts, eventually saved Cadiz from English invasion and for travellers 500 years later gave some of the best photo opportunities in all of Spain.

However, like all Spanish cities the never ending rows of high rise apartment blocks lie between the main road and the beach front as you head to its heart. Some time ago I watched a documentary showing the amazing ruins of the early incarnations of these blocks of flats in Rome. They were called “Insulae” or islands and due to the staggering population growth the Romans built thousands of them, today surviving examples still stand up to five storeys. It seems that the Italians had a fascination with concrete even then.  Take the New York skyline as an example and how can we forget the “concrete boots” favoured by the Maffia. My point in all this is that the Romans occupied Spain for more than 700 years and the Spanish didn’t complain much, so it’s not surprising that a lot of habits rubbed off.

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Closer to the Old City the architecture changes, the ever present cobble stone lanes, wrought iron and narrow alley’s return. What Cadiz has, that the other old places I have up visited up till now haven’t had, is the ocean and a brilliant blue Atlantic it is. The sea wall that protects the city from the ever present surging ocean almost surrounds its entire circumference. Gigantic concrete blocks big enough to with stand the lashing storms of an Atlantic winter not only protect the inhabitants but also offer a home for the scores of feral feline Cadizians.

These cats I must tell you are quite well cared for by their human neighbours with food left at feeding points and bedding for them placed deep inside the blocks. One this hot June day they are sprawled out on the baking concrete, a gentle breeze wafting over them, oblivious to the interest of passerby’s. On the cold winter days when icy gales from the southern Atlantic close in they burrow deep into the walls cavities, warm and dry.

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Walking further along the wall you come upon a Roman Ampitheatre not 40 mtrs from the water. It is not hard to imagine the ancients lounging like the cats enjoying a sort cultural programme.  What can I say but “everything old is new again” and the present cult of summer festivals was old 2000 years ago. I’m sure I could just make out a poster on the wall advertising the “Summer Sun and Sea festival 100BC” (that is if my primary school Latin was correct). All joking aside it would have been an awesome spot for a concert.

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The highlight of the day was the Castillo de Santa Catalina and a little inlet that runs underneath the causeway joining it to the mainland. Built in the early 1600’s it forms part of the fortifications I mentioned earlier. Pitted by sand laden winds from North Africa ( the Moroccan coastline is only about 100 kmtrs away) the Castillo sits perch on a narrow isthmus, it’s low hexagonal shape giving it an appearance of solid security.

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The inlet running under an arched section of the causeway is purposely designed to allow water to flow from one side to the other in order to relieve any pressure than could create cracks  and therefore damage the wall. What it  has created over time is a clear, deep swimming hole; that on this melting day is enjoyed by groups of teenage boys showing off their diving skills and flexing their muscles to the ever present groups of teenage girls and of course  I went swimming too.

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On the walk back to the car I was approached by a lovely elderly man, who appeared to be in his seventies. Quite well dress and clean, with a present smiling face and a slightly lyrical voice, I didn’t hesitate when he held out his hand to me and automatically extended mine back to him. He grasped my hand firmly and continued smiling and talking to me in Spanish. I was becoming quite confused, especially when he wouldn’t let go of my hand.

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Thankfully my friend,who was walking with his wife a little way in front turned around and came to see what was happening. The two men then engaged in a brief conversation and I heard the mention of money at one stage but couldn’t understand anything else. I had been just able to extract my hand by this time, so when my friend flick his hand in a sign of rejection and walked away I scurried after him.

When I asked him what the old guy wanted, “oh he was just asking for money” Victor said. I told him I was relieved cause I thought he was asking if he could buy me and thought they might have been sick of me by now and actually considered his offer!

Tips

  •  Makesure you bring a hat – with 300 days of sunshine it’s always need it!
  • have lunch at the small cafe at the causeway entrance of the Castillo
  • never extend your hand to old men – you might just have to cut it off to get away!

 

 

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El Rocio – The Real Deal – Not a Movie Set

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As I explained last week I am actually living in Spain for a few months, a lovely gift from a beautiful Australian couple, which gives me the chance to embed myself into Spanish culture. Of course living with English speakers you automatically use that language in your conversations while in each other’s company but there are an amazing number of opportunities to hear Spanish in everyday life and to attempt some sort of communication. It is totally surprising to me how quickly you begin to understand firstly a smattering of words, then the rhythm of a language and finally the initial rules of grammar. Not that I am saying it is easy to learn an other language but being immersed in it and with a little bit of effort, it is remarkable how fast you can learn.

Language skills are not the only thing you learn during the embedding process, it can be a taste for the foods of a certain country or social norms, styles of dress or any other aspect of the local culture, but what you truly  gain is an appreciation for that people. Generally the more you understand, the more you appreciate, the more you realise how similar we all are.

Having said there are a few peculiarities that make the Spanish quite different to Australians. They are quite loud and passionate, sometimes in the street you may hear what appears to be yelling but when it is translated for you, you find out they were only discussing what they are having for dinner. Which brings me to meal times, for the most part the Spanish still stop whatever they are doing come 2.00pm and have their main meal, then return to work around 5.00 pm. I explained to a Young woman the other day that in Australia we generally have 9.30 bedtime ( I know it varies but it does average for the majority of people about that time during the week). Her reaction was a horrified, “no, no, no” but all I can say is without a siesta there’s no way they could keep the times they do either!

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My trip of discovery for you this week starts with El Rocio ( roe – theo), or as the sign post as you drive in should read, “The Town that came alive from a 1970’s spaghetti western”, looks for every inch and purpose a staged movie set. You really expect to see a young Clint Eastwood swaggering down the main street gun in hand, while a Mexican bandido sits watching ominously from the porch, rifle hidden under a poncho, with a large sunbrero partially obscuring his menacing eyes and a huge, black slug of a moustache the rest of the face.

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Set on the edge of the Donana National Park,  El Rocio is surrounded on three sides by by wetlands, supporting many varieties of wading birds including Flamingoes. The park also is also home to a large population of wild horses, this has lead to a love of all things equine by the towns population. There doesn’t appear to be a single building in town that is under 100 years, thus every house has a hitching rail and many have their own stables. The Spanish horseman tradition seems to be alive and well in Andalusia and El Rocio especially.

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As we drove down the dusty, sand streets heading for the bitumen and 2016, Clint shot the outlaw hiding on the bell tower and I knew I had a unique experience. Not “Movieworld” but the real deal, one that very few have had the opportunity to enjoy.

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