We’ll Always Have Paris…

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Well readers, this post is 11 months overdue, but with the busy year I’ve had, it’s the first chance I’ve had to sit, reflect and reminisce about our week in Paris.

Paris, the city of love, is a magical city. Whilst I’m more partial towards Barcelona, I cannot help but fall in love with the city and embrace its beauty. Even the snow-drenched boots, overpriced cafes and cold weather could not take away from the wonderful time we had there. We also got to catch up with one of our best friends, who now lives in London, and see the sites as an unstoppable trio.

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We spent the week doing all the touristy things that one must do in Paris: Moulin Rouge, the Eiffel Tower, The Louvre, Notre Dame, etc. We even got to visit an exhibition of one of my favourite artists, Salvador Dalí. But one thing that isn’t mentioned as often in the tour guides that I must insist all visitors do, is have a chocolate eclair. I fell in love with these babies 10 years ago on my first visit and cannot visit Paris without getting one each time. It is unlike any eclair you will ever taste (and if anyone should have authority on these things, it is Princess TimTam/Chocolate Fatty right here!)

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And while some details of the trip fade over time, it is things like the chocolate eclairs, the feeling of awe when looking up at the Eiffel Tower all lit up and the wonderful time spent with my love and friends that will never leave. Even in the midst of returning to normality and undertaking a hectic year of studies and work, I enjoy taking time out to remember everything we did, saw and tasted during our whirlwind trip. And now, whilst sitting on a bus to start my next adventure, I think to myself, “No matter what happens, we’ll always have Paris” (and Bordeaux, Carcassonne, Barcelona, Madrid, Cádiz, Córdoba, Seville, Granada, Ibiza and Valencia)….

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Drenched in Bordeaux

Disclaimer: It has been a while since my last post due to returning to normality. however, I’m back on track and ready to conclude this journey. Thanks for your patience!

Our ‘luck’ with The French rail system hadn’t changed and with more delays, we were finally on our way to Bordeaux. However, with one bout of bad luck, good luck followed and upon the train being delayed at a station (again) for 30 more minutes, we were advised to get off and change to a direct train to Bordeaux. This is where our luck turned and we managed to score first class seats for the rest of the journey. We were also happily relieved to see our hotel (Ibis Styles) literally across the road from the train station. No awkward hitchhiking for us this time around!

Unfortunately, our ‘luck’ with the weather in France had not changed, and the two days we had planned were literally washed away. We did however brave the rain (which we had been reassured by many a Bordeauxian that it was very uncommon and unlike Bordeaux to be that wet!) to see some of the sights.

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We even ventured out for a winery tour (which was completely conducted INDOORS and away from the wet). We learnt some of the tricks of the trade thanks to a lovely local and tasted some of their drops, which warmed us up before our cold and wet walk back to our warm hotel.

It was a very short trip and next time we will visit in a warmer (and hopefully more dry) season to make the most of the wine country. But for now, next stop: the city of love, Paris!

Angels in Carcassonne

Our adventure into France had started out rockier than we had hoped, but thanks to some very sweet people, we managed to get there in the end.

I’m not sure if it was a bit of bad luck, the weather (snow), or if this is how trains in France run normally, but our trip from Barcelona to Carcassonne provided some challenges. Our train from Barcelona to Narbonne was reasonably fine, despite a 40 minute delay halfway there. However, when we had arrived in Narbonne we found out (with some confusion along the way) that all of the trains to Carcassonne had been cancelled due to the weather. This was not ideal. Thankfully we weren’t the only ones headed there and with the help of a gentleman, who spoke perfect English and French, and the frazzled-but-diligent train staff trying to find a solution, we were able to get there in the end.

But once we arrived (close to 11pm at this stage), we were a little dismayed find that there were no taxis at the station. Not ones to wait around in the cold, we decided to walk to the hotel (holding onto hope that we would find a taxi along the way). 15 minutes and partial frostbite later, we were struggling to find the right streets and just about everything was closed. Then two angels in the form of a lovely older couple walked our way. When Guy (with some rusty French) asked for directions, they eagerly and kindly offered us a lift! And thank goodness they did, as it would have taken more than 40 minutes to get there the way we were going (especially without a proper map). And just like that, we were saved and had hope! They were so kind and sweet, inviting Guy to practice his French and partake in some general chit chat. When they dropped us off at the door we couldn’t be more relieved. It’s people like that who will always be remembered with a smile.

Now, back to Carcassonne itself. It is a beautiful city, despite the cold (and trust me, it was fricken freezing!). In fact, it’s hard to believe how big a difference the climate was between the two countries. And due to some unforeseen circumstances, our original hotel was closed for the night so we were upgraded to the Hotel Montmorrisey. And what an upgrade! Perfectly situated right outside the old city we had this spectacular view from our window:

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The hotel owners also seem to share our love for pets, with three domesticated dogs having run of the joint.

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The day in the old city was lovely and the history of Carcassone is interesting in its own right. We were able to explore the old castle and wander through the cobblestone streets until we could no longer feel our extremities. We escaped the minus temperatures for a delicious ‘Plats du Jour’ (the French version of ‘Menu del Día’) and with a warm tummy, we headed towards our next stop: Bordeaux

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Living it up like Royalty

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My lifelong dream of being a princess came somewhat true during our stay in Cardona. Over an hour’s drive (or maybe a little more when taking the wrong turns) outside Barcelona exists the Castillo de Cardona, now run by the prestigious Parador hotel chain in Spain. I cannot emphasise enough how lovely our stay was there. I’m not sure what it is like during the summer, but it felt like we had the whole castle to ourselves and only saw two other couples during breakfast prior to checking out.

We were able to explore the castle at will and were treated like royalty by the staff during our stay. This castle has a long history, initially constructed in 886. The food was amazing, and despite being more expensive than what we had been spending previously (but seriously, what can you expect; it is in a castle after all!), it was still very reasonable and the best food we had eaten during the trip.

Staying here was truly something special and for those who are after a relaxing break from sightseeing and the hustle and bustle of cities, this is the place for you. I hadn’t felt that relaxed in a while and it was the perfect finish to our time in Spain, before our adventure into French territory began.

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Getting closer to God at Montserrat

Literally. With its highest peak at 1,236m (4,055ft), Montserrat has some amazing views and with the initial cloud cover, it did look and feel like we were a lot closer to heaven.

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Having missed a trip to Montserrat last time we visited Barcelona, it was one of our priorities for this trip. And we are glad we did it as it is a truly beautiful and different place. There are different legends belonging to Montserrat, one being that the Holy Grail was found there. One other special legend is that St Peter hid a statue of the Virgin Mary in the mountain after Jesus’s death and only after many centuries, in 880, some shepherds were drawn to a grotto by a bright light and recovered it. The Virgin statue has since been re-sculptured and can be found in the monastery (built in 1025). Visitors can receive a blessing by touching the bronze globe in her hand, and not being able to resist a blessing, we too lined up to visit the statue.

Tips
– Dress warm, as it is a lot colder atop the mountains
– Don’t throw out the tourist card at the end of the day, as there are about 5 free metro trips on there
– If you like exploring/walking, get there early, as there are some great tracks up/down the mountain that we missed due to lack of time
– The trip to Montserrat by train takes close to an hour (and the train from Plaza España leaves hourly), so plan your time well
– There are cafes there, otherwise you can do as we did, and pick up some bocadillos from Vienna (on Ramblas) for the road

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Barcelona, Round 2

This was the second time we had visited this city and upon stepping onto Las Ramblas, I remembered why we came back.

Even in Winter, Barcelona has a vibe to it that no other city in Spain has. It’s cosmopolitan, without being pretentious, beachy without being isolated, and offers the tourist plenty to see and do, without feeling over the top. Of course, in winter, there are less tourists, so it does feel less touristy and Las Ramblas doesn’t have the same amount of ‘buzz’ that it would have in summer (for one there were hardly any street performers, to my disappointment). But don’t be fooled into thinking that winter in Barcelona is boring.

As we arrived late into Barcelona, we decided to have something light to eat and took inspiration from walking down the famous Ramblas. Thankfully, our hotel (Hotel Lloret) was in the perfect place to start, overlooking Las Ramblas itself.

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And boy, did we stumble on a gem: Vienna. Like 100 Montaditos, this place made delicious bocadillos at a great price. It is certainly worth a visit as the staff are friendly and the food is great. We even went back the following day to take some Bocadillos for the road!

As we had exhasted all of Gaudí’s amazing architecture last time were in Barcelona, we decided to ‘go local’ and pace ourselves around the city. Of course, I couldn’t help but resist visiting La Sagrada de la Família again (the outside at least) as it would have to be one of my favourite sights in the world. Having begun construction in 1882, it is still being built and completion isn’t expected until 2028! (which gives me plenty of time to save up to return). Gaudí. What can I say. He thinks and designs “like a boss” and one can only admire everything he’s done with awe. The attention to detail and concepts he has come up with are incredible and it is easy to see how this cathedral in particular has taken so long to build. The two main sides depict Christ’s life; with one side focusing on his birth and the nativity scene, and the other on his crucifixion and resurrection.

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Of course, I cannot resist the calling of Desigual, and seeing as though there were two stores right across from the hotel, I had to indulge. I happily gazed at and tried on the clothes for a while before remembering my account balance and moved on. That night we were treated to a delicious dinner included with our stay at the hotel (#ilovefreebies) before having an early night (for Spaniards at least, midnight) to rest up for the big day ahead: Montserrat (see following blog: ‘Getting closer to God at Montserrat’).

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The rest of our time in Barcelona was filled with more casual sightseeing, more eating, more Desigual (I visited a total of 5 different stores in Barcelona alone!) and a visit to the Ice bar. More of a spectacle than anything else, it is a bar that is set between -5 to -10 degrees. We went in, we drank, we froze, we got the hell out of there! I can see the appeal it would have in warmer weather and with a group, but the drink prices couldn’t be justified for the two of us (and in winter, when we were already cold). Prior to the Ice Bar visit, we had a huge meal in one of the restaurants in Barceloneta, which was conveniently airing the match between Barcelona and Malaga on a few big screens. All the men in the restaurant (including the waiters) were transfixed.

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Once again Barcelona, you’ve put up a great game and I’m already looking forward to round 3.

Madrid’s Top 3 (or 4)

The capital of Spain was a stark contrast to the Spain we had previously experienced. Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Andalucía anymore…

Madrid – the capital of Spain and Barcelona’s nemesis. It’s like Sydney vs Melbourne. Personally, I’m a Barcelona girl all the way, but Madrid did have some things going for it:

1. Museo Reina Sofía (or to be more specific, Guernica). This museum houses works from many of Spain’s finest artists, but really, lets face it: We all go there to see Picasso’s famous piece, Guernica. To see this in person, in all of its splendour is really something. Unfortunately photos were not allowed, but I’m sure you are all familiar with it. It was Picasso’s reaction to the bombing of the town by the same name under Franco’s rule. The accompanying photo story, displaying the art in all of its stages was also great to see. The other highlights of the visit? Getting introduced to other artists such as Juan Gris and Julio González.

2. Palacio de Cristal y Los Jardines del Retiro. On a warm summer’s day, this park would be breathtaking. It is huge, with immaculate gardens and pathways lined with trees. Even in the harshness of winter, we still found it lovely. And the Crystal Palace is the icing on this garden’s cake. Hidden within the park, away from the hustle and bustle of Madrid itself, is a palace constructed of glass and iron. Used as an extension gallery for the Reina Sofía museum, it provides a fairytale-like structure amongst the lake it sits next to and the trees around it. I fell in love with it and would love to have a fun, creative photoshoot here one day (perhaps when it’s not so cold!)

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Bellver’s “El Ángel Caído” (The Fallen Angel), depicting Lucifer being thrown from Heaven.  

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3. Madrid’s Ayuntamiento. This ‘Town Hall’ puts others to shame. This pure white, gothic structure is a must see. It’s surprising how big it actually is.

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4. Desigual. Ok, so it’s not really something that should be on a tourist’s list of things to see, but it should be on every fashionista’s list of things to see. Despite this brand being based in Barcelona, the store in Madrid was the biggest I had come across (and trust me, I did a lot of store research… You know, for the blog and all) with 5 levels of clothing (and some shoes, bags, etc). I am a little obsessed with this brand and its crazy use of bright colours and interesting designs. I may or may not have spent the majority of my travel savings here (but in my defence, I am simply helping the Spanish economy, one Desigual item at a time) 😉

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There are plenty of other things to see and do (such as the other two great art museums Prado and Thyssen) however we ran out of time. Of course, being the capital and all, Madrid is really just one big city (with some beautiful monuments scattered throughout). Whilst I don’t follow soccer, I believe Barcelona is winning on both accounts.

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A nice break in Cádiz

Cádiz turned out to be a nice break from the constant sightseeing and a pleasant way to wrap up our travels through Andalucía.

First thing to note, is that Samsung Galaxy SIII’s alarms don’t work if the phone is turned off. Something we learnt the hard way when needing to wake up early to catch our train to Cádiz. Luckily, the staff at RENFE are very accommodating and changed our tickets to the later train (as we slept in).

When we got to Cádiz, the first thing we noticed (and enjoyed) was the warmth. It was our warmest point of our trip so far (being the southern point of Spain and Andalucía). The other thing we noticed was how crazily busy it was for a Monday. The reason: ‘Rebajas’, Spain’s answer to Boxing Day Sales. If there was a crisis in Spain, you wouldn’t know it judging by the people with their hoards of shopping bags and lines out the store. Some people even had camping chairs, having camped out before the stores opened. We managed to avoid the crowds initially checking into our beautiful apartment, Casa Palacio Cádiz. Cádiz is a very small coastal town, with not as many touristy things to see or do. It was a nice break from what we had been doing so far. In this town, we could take our time and relax. We headed out to our newly favourite eating joint, 100 Montaditos and enjoyed the sun before facing the crowds at the shops.

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Thankfully, by the time we got to the shops most of the madness had died down and we were able to shop with relative ease. With purchases in tow, we decided to do as the Spanish did and have a siesta before checking out the nightlife. Long story short, there was none, so we strolled along the promenade before heading back to our apartment.

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The next day we set out to see what attracted me to Cádiz in the first place, the Cathedral. It was very different to the other ones we’ve seen so far. It reminds me of a palace from Naboo (Star Wars fans will get me on this). It had beautiful views of the city and allowed us to take in some of the sun’s rays before our next, colder stop: Madrid.

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Savouring Seville

Seville turned out to be another gem within Andalucía, with too much to see with too little time.

As we were sitting in our taxi at the lights, we noticed so many people heading in the same direction. I asked the taxi driver (in my best Spanish I could conjure) if there was something on, to which he replied that there was the celebration of Los Reyes, the Spanish tradition where the three kings came to Bethlehem to bestow gifts unto the baby Jesus. No Santa Claus here people! The gifts that we traditionally exchange on the 25th December are held off until the 6th January in Spain, and the night before (being the 5th) is a big celebration. So we happened to arrive as the parade and celebrations were about to be underway. Our poor taxi driver kept encountering road blocks at every turn, and after 10 minutes of driving around frustrated, he crossed his heart and prayed for forgiveness as he drove down the Main Street where the pedestrians were gathering! His prayers worked though, as he got us to our hotel (La Casa de la Luna) without hitting anyone or getting a fine!

Once we had checked in, we ventured through the crowds to get a taste of Seville and came across this magnificent sight…

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This Cathedral (Catedral de Santa María de la Sede) is the largest gothic cathedral and 3rd-largest church in the world. It is certainly a stunning sight at any time of the day. We took some pictures and moved along with the traffic to the main square where we found market stalls. This was my kind of evening. However, not so much for Guy, as he hates markets. So we parted ways for the time being, making plans to catch up for dinner. I happily and easily shopped, practiced speaking Spanish to store vendors and people watched the hours away, unaware that there was a big parade at the other end of the street.

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Thankfully Guy followed the crowd (whilst avoiding the markets) and managed to capture the parade in all its colourful glory.

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The next day we set out to do a full day of sightseeing. As fate would have it though, our day turned out to be a little slower paced and relaxing than planned as many of the sights were closed due to the public holiday. It worked out nicely for us though, as it gave us a chance to walk around and explore things we wouldn’t have thought to visit otherwise, such as the Museo del Baile Flamenco and the Museo Taurino (a museum dedicated to bullfighting). The Museum of Flamenco turned out to be quite interesting, displaying the different types of flamenco and interactively showing the different movements involved. The Museum of bullfighting also proved to be interesting (however, more so for Guy). It was a great day of ‘his’ and ‘hers’ of museums. We finished off the day at the beautiful Placa de España. Our timing couldn’t be better, as we managed to catch sunset there before concluding the evening with a flamenco show back at the Museum of Flamenco.

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The last gem we stumbled on for the night was 100 Montaditos, a nice mini bocadillos (baguettes) chain that did great mini bocadillos and sides really cheap. It just so happened that the night we went there everything on the menu was only 1€ each! We managed to fill ourselves up for under 4€ whilst being entertained by the awful loudspeaker that yelled out each person’s order. “¡Manuel! Manuel, ¡Por favour!” (A saying we still laugh to as there seem to be plenty of Manuels here, who are evidently hard at hearing or forgetting their orders as in every outlet of 100 Montevidos, a ‘Manuel’ or ‘Antonio’ would be yelled out numerous times).

Whilst we weren’t able to see everything Seville had to offer, we certainly enjoyed what we did see and have many memories and experiences to savour.

Córdoba: An underestimated city

When it comes to cities to visit, Córdoba often gets left behind or forgotten about. Which worked out just fine for us, as we enjoyed taking plenty of photos without having to worry about ‘photobombs’, or time spent waiting in line. However, it is a shame both for the city and the tourist that skips it, as it is beautiful and deserves a mention.

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We only spent one night in Córdoba, but managed to fit in plenty of sights and experiences to enjoy this city and vow to return. Our hotel (Hostal Lineros 38) was great, and had an Arabic feel. They even organised mobile massages (which we enthusiastically took advantage of on our second day).

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Our first stop was lunch. The Menu del Día never fails, and with a satisfied tummy, we headed onwards to the great Mosque/Cathedral. It is one of the most amazing and beautiful sights from our journey so far. It started out as a small church, which was purchased by a Muslim prince back in 784 and reconstructed into a mosque. Centuries later, when the Christians conquered Córdoba, the Mosque (which had several extensions since its original acquisition) was converted back into a Cathedral. The beauty and intriguing thing about it is the two distinct styles in the one place. From the outside, it looks like a Cathedral, however on the inside, it looks like a Mosque (apart from the large Christian Renaissance nave in the centre).

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The other wonderful thing about Córdoba, was how beautiful the days were. Despite being in the middle of winter, we enjoyed reasonably long, sunny days and temperatures above 20 degrees.

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After walking and exploring, we felt that we needed some relaxing. And it just so happens that Córdoba, like many parts of Andalusia, has the perfect form of relaxation: Baños Árabes de Córdoba (Arabic bathhouse). We spent hours (partly due to a communication mix up) relaxing in the bathhouse and attempting the custom of switching between the warm, hot and freezing baths, before receiving a blissful massage. What a way to end the day! Then we headed out for a delicious light snack and dessert at the funky Sojo Fusion before heading to bed.

The next morning started perfectly with a massage. Then we headed out for lunch and more street-wandering, before making our way to our next stop: Seville. Thank you Córdoba for a special two days! I hope to visit you again one day!