Sunday, 26 June 2011

On the way to Paris

We left the heat and the bustle of Madrid behind as we made our way towards our last stop in Spain.  The weather is brilliant and we are heading for 34 degrees.
We stopped at a very picturesque town of Burgos. So did about 10 other tour buses. Being a Saturday there was lots going on and m any of the locals out and about. There was some kind of celebration happening and there was lots of music and dancing. A river and a reserve runs through the town and plane trees line the banks making it a very pretty and restful looking village.  I had some difficulty ordering something to drink in a little café but eventually can make myself understood enough to place an order. Sometimes it’s just easier to find a picture on a menu and just point!


We were to visit a museum as soon as we arrived in Bilbao. The thought of that after arriving at 3pm following a long drive was not one many of us could entertain. As Ambrogio was going to the hotel to do a bag drop and then come back and pick us up we were given the option of staying on the bus and going straight to the hotel if we wished. On seeing the famous Guggenheim museum and the outstanding building it is housed in we all piled off. That was not before another piece of illegal parking by the driver. The Tour Director was horrified when he rode the bus up on the footpath just to the side of the museum. Ambrogio knows all the tricks of the trade and he has been a godsend on many occasions making our lives a lot easier. When he stops the bus he usually gives us the war cry of ‘attack, attack, attack” of course with a lovely Italian accent.

The most amazing mosaic floral “cat” was outside and many of us went off to photograph that. Covered in flowers this monstrosity was a work of art. On closer inspection it is all planted in soil and literally the flowers are growing there…how in the blazingly hot conditions is another miracle. Apparently the flowers are replanted twice a year and you can understand what a huge undertaking that is with scaffolding being erected for weeks when that happens.

The architecture is a special feature in itself with many sculptures outside. The buildings are hugely spacious, light and airy. The art in them is hard to understand. Most on the tour really admired the architecture and the large outdoor sculptures but not many of us quite “got” the art inside…very very abstract.

Dinner was included tonight and with large round tables this created a significant noise factor. I think the establishment were grateful that we moved to the bar tables outside. One waiter who spoke very good English was thrilled to be amongst Aussies and Kiwi’s and he entered into the spirit of the evening however his boss didn’t think so. The boss grumped at him on several occasions. The rooms are large and spacious but there is not a lot of point spreading out as we are off again in the morning heading for Bordeaux and back to France. I am looking forward to Paris and also the Moulin Rouge show which apparently is booked out every night. Some have friends who have seen it and said it is definitely a highlight of the trip. There is much talk about the end of the trip that is now fast approaching.

On the way to Bordeaux the Tour Director told me that the handle on my bag had broken that morning while they were loading. I was a little surprised as I had spent some time choosing a new bag making sure it was going to be sturdy enough to cope with all the on the bus off the bus activity. I spent the next little while a bit concerned about how bad it might be and wondering what the strategy might be.

Along the way we had a brief visit to Biarritz an ancient fishing village turned trendy seaside resort. It was a beautiful place and we were able to walk along the beach, with proper golden sand and looked longingly at the water. If I had my togs I would have been in! Instead they were safely tucked up in my suitcase under the bus nowhere near the water at all! There were plenty in the sea though as the temperature was 34 degrees and rising.
We were able to stage another group photo as some were missing from the professional photo opportunity we did in Rome. Incidentally that one turned out surprisingly good and the Vatican is in the background. Seems an age ago that we were in Rome.

As we drove into Bordeaux we passed a square with fountains of cold mist coming out and many many locals enjoying the water. It had reached 39 degrees and predicted to stay that way until after Paris. Some had had enough and went onto the hotel. About half of us decided to explore Bordeaux for a couple of hours before the bus came back to pick us up. We walked across a huge empty square in the sweltering heat and found the centre of town. Being a Sunday many of the shops were closed but those that were open had air conditioning so we were moving from shop to shop just to keep cool. They did have some lovely clothes and shoes....very French.

On arriving at the hotel we were advised the air conditioning has broken and it is stifling hot. There was nothing to do but go to the bar and sample the French champagne and the rosé. I can report it is like nothing I have had at home.

I have opened the windows but the air is hotter outside. My bag was not here when I arrived so I got more and more concerned and had visualised all my belongings tumbling out of it somewhere. After a half an hour or so one of the other tour members delivered it to my room as it was in theirs by mistake. Fortunately it is just the handle that has broken and it has not damaged the actual case. No it’s not because I have too much in it!
Ambrogio tells me that the whole tour is a total of 8550 km……that’s a long way and we are nearly done. At least I can go to sleep on the bus at a drop of a hat now. That is more than I can say for the difficulty I will have with the sleep tonight…it is stifling and I have had two cold showers already.

Friday, 24 June 2011

Hola from Madrid - España

It was an especially long haul through to Madrid today. The landscape is almost barren and reminds me much of the Desert Road with its winding roads up hill and down.......almost featureless. We did pass a huge wind farm with countless numbers of wind turbines....I am talking in the hundreds.

The landscape looked harsh, hot and dry. Occasionally you would see an outcrop of buildings perched high on hilltops with nothing surrounding them and you would wonder why.

Huge big models of  black bulls ( scaffolding behind them for support) were frequent along this road. They were not advertising anything so I am not sure of their significance.

We also passed the Prime Meridian on this road. The Prime Meridian is the meridian (line of longitude) at which the longitude is defined to be 0°.

Inner Madrid has a population just over 3 million while the whole of Madrid is closer to 6.5 million. Its sprawling and we travel for some time along streets lined by countless numbers of very small looking apartment buildings. Madrid being the capital is smack in the middle of Spain and I can imagine that the heat in the summer would be almost unbearable.
We arrive in Madrid to a very hot and sticky heat. It is a public holiday today so we are blessed with not having to fight our way through a very big and busy city. Our hotel rooms are spacious and we are not far from one of the main squares, Plaza de España about a 10 min walk away.
We are told that there is close on 45 % employment in Madrid with 21 % in all of Spain. There is some evidence of this on the street with people sleeping it rough and many many beggars. There have been some huge demonstrations here and one just last week with over 35,000 attending. We thankfully didn't run into any today.

It is quite normal to find most shop assistants speak some English and understand a bit when you speak. Some shops are open on the public holiday and we are surprised that there are so many shoe shops.......with beautiful shoes. Unfortunately the Spanish foot must typically be small and very narrow!

We see down the street at 8pm that the temperature was 40 degrees and as I reached for my camera it dropped to 39 so I had to be content with that. Many of the group are sitting out on the pavement at a cafe/bar just by our hotel so I join them for a night cap. At 10.30 pm it’s just getting dark but it still is so very hot.

Next morning we are off on an orientation tour of the city with a local guide and a visit to the Prado museum that house a few masterpieces probably the most famous being Goya. However the best known work on display at the museum is Las Meninas by Velázquez. El Prado is one of the most visited sites in the world, and it is considered to be among the greatest museums of art. It is said to contain the world’s finest collections of European art, from the 12th century to the early 19th century. There was just so much to see and the tour guide only scratched the surface in the two hours we were there.

The most popular sight at the Plaza de España is the monument to Miguel de Cervantes, writer of the world famous story of Don Quixote de la Mancha and his trusty squire, Sancho Panza. Visitors flock to the monument to get their picture taken in front of the bronze statues of Don Quixote on his horse and Sancho Panza on his mule.

Madrid does have some beautiful parks within the central city but it is a busy city with a huge population. It does have a lovely feel to it however and feels a lot safer than Barcelona; however we are being continually warned to take great care of our belongings.

The afternoon and evening is free so it was nice to be able to mix with the locals at the many cafes and tapa bars down the streets, all of which have tables and chairs and umbrellas outside. The shops all close from about 2pm and they don't open again till 5ish. We are told this is not "siesta time " , it is the main mealtime of the day and that in Spain you don't even think about going out for tapas until after 9pm.

We tried to see if it was possible to see a bullfight however they are only on Sundays. They have been banned in Barcelona and Madrid from the end of 2011 and soon will only be seen in the regional areas.

There are 3 people on tour who have had the doctor visit them at the hotel today. I am one of the few who have escaped this nasty bug and every day I wake up feeling good I am thankful it has not got me yet.  The end is fast approaching but I am looking forward to getting back to France and especially to see some of Paris. About half are finishing up in Paris and departing from there. Some go back to London for one night and then pick up another tour the next day around the UK, some are heading to Greece.  For me New York beckons.

Meantime one more night in Spain at a place called Bilbao not far from the border. It will be pleasant to get away from the business of these large and sprawling cities.

Au revoir France (for now) to Hola España

With one last drive along the Promenade we left Nice behind and headed for Spain. We will return to France in another 4 days and I like many of the others are looking forward to Spain. One of the Aussies has their only child, a daughter working on the yachts here and they have said a sad farewell to her this morning. She has said to be careful in Barcelona as she has been pick pocketed twice. It was a long and seemingly endless journey. The driving restrictions mean that our bus driver needs longer at the stops we are making so it spreads our journey over the whole day.
 Out of the 42 on the bus I think there are only 5 of us that have not caught the dreaded flu bug. Unfortunately it is pretty nasty and is sticking around for most people for about 10 days. The Tour Director went to the doctor yesterday and another one is off to the doctor as soon as we get to Spain. I am incredibly grateful for my immune system at the moment.

We make a lunchtime stop in a little place called Arles whose main claim to fame is a rather grand and well preserved Roman Amphitheatre which dates back to the last few years of 1st century AD. As far as size goes it was 20th down the list of these amazing Roman structures so is quite imposing. While I have seen a lot of "old stone" on this trip I still wonder just how they managed to build such solid structures in their day

 It was very hot here and so we found a restaurant that had cold mist being forced from small jets into the outside seating area. Not wanting to order anything that would take too long to make, then eat, all 4 of us ordered banana splits. Never ever had one of those for lunch before so I guess there is a first time for everything.

While we were sitting there the weirdest musical contraption came along making a rather horrendous noise and goodness knows what the purpose of it was. When they turned the corner to go down the hill they had men hanging off the back to stop it running away. Very odd.

We could see the Pyrenees (the natural ranges that separate France from Spain) and as we entered the border into Espana the countryside changed dramatically into a dryness that is such a challenge in this country.

Our driver took us on a small country short cut that he knows and soon it was obvious why. "Girls of the day" dressed in very little were perched on a solitary chair on the side of the road, often at a small clearing. It all made sense to me now as probably a good hour earlier I thought I saw a girl in a red bikini up a small side road sitting on a chair. I had thought it couldn't be as it was the middle of nowhere and dismissed it as me being too long on the bus! Well the bus was in an uproar, with some very funny innuendos flying around.  We counted them and got up to 18! Sorry no photos.

 We pressed on to Barcelona and had been told that our hotel was right in the middle of La Rambla or known sometimes as Les Ramblas. It has a large pedestrian only centre but a one way road runs down each side. Unfortunately our side was blocked off by the Policia as we later found out there had been a large petrol spill down the street. This posed a problem as we circled the streets while plan B was devised and the TD phoned the hotel. There was no Plan B. The difficulty is nothing is safe here and so while we could get off and walk, our bags would still be on the bus and there was no guarantee when the road would open. Eventually we were dropped off a little way from our hotel and walked through a crowed Ramblas clutching our hand luggage for dear life.

We were over an hour late arriving at the hotel and still had dinner to eat and get to the Flamenco evening. It was good to get off the bus as it was a long haul but with warnings about how extremely cautious you have to be with your belongings coupled with tiredness and the heat and bustle of central Barcelona it did not create a great first impression.

The Flamenco evening was quite a spectacle. We were jammed into a tiny space with about 100 others in a rather small room. Thank goodness for air conditioning and the lovely glass of Sangria that was part of the deal. I expected castanets but there were none in sight but there were some stunning displays of this cultural dancing and colourful flamenco outfits worn by the strong featured women dancers. Both the men (most of them were trying to be bulls or so it seemed) and the women were incredibly fit and once you saw the dancing it was not difficult to see why they were so slim.


We set off on a tour by a local guide the next morning at a respectable hour of 9am.Again we were warned about our personal belongings and told that the local thieves are very quick and clever at what they do. It does make you feel very unsafe and always, always on your guard suspicious of anyone that comes within cooee.
The tour featured the spectacular Sagrada Familia- Gaudi’s unfinished masterpiece. The cathedral was abandoned for decades but it finally saw restoration and expansion carried out when it came back into fashion in the 1990's. Its hermit like architect Antoni Gaudi was killed by a tram in 1926 and there is evidence of all his work sprinkled around Barcelona.

The four original spires by the master himself are generally acknowledged to be far superior to the additional ones designed by modern architects. Current construction is slow as it is funded publicly and the most optimistic forecaster does not see it reaching completion for another decade.  It is still a very interesting building in its unfinished state.

 We took a drive through the city looking at the various architecture of the different times and stopped off at the Gothic quarter. It is here we run into yet another demonstration ......and I am starting to think it’s the same people following me around!! There is another large protest in the centre of a large roundabout but they are camping here and our guide tells us they have been there for a month. Goodness knows how they get any sleep as it is 24/7 traffic. It is yet more evidence of the significant unrest that I have seen in various parts of Europe.

Barcelona is a rectangular shape 11km by 5km into which 4.1 million people are crammed. We had an excellent view  over  the  city from a lookout on Montjuic Hill  and down into the port area where 900 cruise ships visited last year bringing some 15 million tourists to Barcelona. No wonder the pick pocketers have a field day with so many pockets to choose from!

We continue on our tour to Parc Guell. You can imagine gremlins living in this unique fairy tale park located high up in the city. It is evidence of more of Gaudi’s work who was a creative genius way ahead of the times. Two Hansel and Gretel type houses are at the entrance, a mosaic serpent and a wonderful multi coloured ceramic bench curves around the esplanade. Scenic views from here over the city are spectacular.  Gaudi is said to have loved religion and nature and so many of his structures involve a crosses and you can see these on the tops of houses, buildings, churches...just everywhere. Mosaics made of ceramics are the trademark.

We drove past a bull ring no longer in use as it is now banned in Barcelona. Its facade has been renovated and the inside turned into a shopping centre as we all need more of those.

We continued on to the the Olympic Village and Stadium and stopped down by the port and Barcelona beach. There were 100's of yachts in the marina on one side and a wonderful stretch of beach on the other. It was very very hot so it was good to be able to return to the hotel for a cold shower before heading out to explore the streets.

La Rambla is a 2km long avenue. It is a stage set of human statues, jugglers, singers, caged small animals, eccentrics, misfits, colourful flower stalls, kiosks, cafes and the odd pick pocketer. It is all shaded by a leafy canopy of plane trees. I wandered down clutching my bag close to me at all times. I had thought about leaving it in the hotel but you get the feeling nothing is safe anywhere. It was disappointing both in pockets of Nice and here in Barcelona that many of the shoes and clothes are either made in India or China...that works as a deterrent but I am sure that is the case in many places unless you are into the high end goods.

On returning to the hotel we found that Marg (the Mum of the daughter in Nice) had become a victim of the thieves. She remembers putting her bag down in a shoe shop and moving 2 steps to look in a mirror. That's how fast and very clever they are. She lost about 300 E and a travel card which she cancelled but thankfully had her passport. A group of us went out to dinner at a restaurant recommended by Ambrogio our driver. I was keen to have paella again after having a taste for it in London. The sangria was lovely and the paella laden with salt and almost inedible. I will try again in Madrid hoping for better luck there with Spain's signature dish. It’s a bit like the coffee. I keep on trying it again and again only to have my expectations dashed time and again. The lovely Canadian lady on our tour made me chuckle the other day saying that while there are 800 different types of olives she hasn't found one she likes yet  but she keeps on trying (in her lovely Canadian accent). While I dislike olives I took her advice and managed two small black ones at two separate meals in Italy. Four in total and still not a fan!

We finished the evening by sitting on some chairs in Les Ramblas playing spot the pick pocketer. We can see they watch you like hawks.....worse still they follow you waiting for your guard to slip. Fingers crossed for Madrid and if the paella is not good there are always tapas!

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Buongiorno to Bonjour - Tuscany to nice Nice

It is a very scenic drive along the Italian and French Riviera from the little township of Montecatini to the wonderful seaside city of Nice. We passed through 172 (81km of it in tunnels) on route from Tuscany to the French border. The first glimpse of the bright blue Mediterranean will be etched in my memory for some time. Stunning!

We stopped on the way at a Perfume Factory where we are taken on a tour through from essential oils stage through to packing. Little did I know that it takes 3000kg of lavender flowers (as tiny as they are) to produce 1 litre of essential lavender oil. You start to understand what makes perfume so very expensive. Of course the object of the exercise is to buy and the spenders in our tour group were at it again. Truly amazing the volumes of stuff people buy. More mind blowing is where they put it all. Several have bought another suitcase on the way and Ambrogio, the driver is heard muttering on departure days "Mama Mia the bus is full".

As we got closer and closer to Nice the roads became so narrow and windy, I wondered how we were going to get around them. I know the buses are incredible in themselves technically but the driving ability is something else.  Amazing views were never ending.

We are staying at another luxury hotel, with 2 beds for me to choose from, windows that open up wide (great for hanging the washing up to dry) and a huge wall mounted TV's. I am a little weary of CNN and BBC as there is nothing else in English. The net book has been fantastic as I can keep an eye on the NZ Herald. Internet access and cost varies from place to place. Here it is on an access password that lasts for 30mins. You can have as many as you like but you have to use Wi Fi in the lobby. To access from your room is 6 Euro for an hour....expensive.

We were given a couple of hours to refresh on arrival and then it was off to Monaco and Monte Carlo. This excursion was an optional extra and was well worth it. We stopped for a couple of photo stops along the way high up on the cliff tops overlooking the bays and out into the Mediterranean. Luxury boats are in abundance and some of the houses were like nothing you have ever seen before. We took a short walk past the well-known aquarium and were told that Prince Rainier was a very good friend of Jacques Cousteau hence the aquarium. We went into the Cathedral and walked past the many tombs inside and were able to see those of Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier - fresh flowers on them both. From there we walked through to the Palace and had some amazing views of Monte Carlo, into the marinas, and could make out the Grand Prix circuit in the distance.

Following a very French dinner it was back onto the bus and off to the casino. The road we were travelling on had the markings of the start positions for the Grand Prix and our bus driver after not a lot of encouragement did a standing start with the bus from pole position! He is an Italian after all! Mark, the tour director who is great but a very proper English gentleman was wondering what came next. There was more....they no longer allow a drop off by tour buses close to the casino but that did not detour our driver who managed some pretty hair raising illegal manoeuvres and an illegal bus stop. He told us when I stop you have 15 seconds to get off....attack, attack attack. He is so very funny but by this time Mark is raising his eyebrows and I think preferred not to look where the bus was going next.

We walked through some very well groomed gardens complete with fountains cascading down. Arriving on a corner across the road from the "old casino” (which you have to pay to gamble, although we could go into the foyer and look at the ornate furnishings) we stood to cross. It was there that we saw a parade of cars that were just dollars on wheels. I was utterly gobsmacked. Mercedes of many different models were a dime a dozen as were Bentleys, Ferraris, Porches and Rolls Royce. I saw more of those cars in 15mins than I have seen in my entire lifetime.

A cafe close on the street looking out to the main square had caviar for 240 Euro for 10g. I guess price does not matter when you are in that league. The diners didn't all look like they were enjoying themselves and some of those dripping in gold with designer clothing looked totally bored by it all.  The woman usually dressed in wonderful exquisite designer dresses wearing amazing shoes were generally young or wished they were and on the arm of a man who generally older in years and wearing white......maybe the men thought it made them look younger! We were able to go and try our luck in the new casino just adjacent to the sidewalk cafe. I lost 5.50 E but was able to play for 45 mins on that. Some had a few good wins and Marlsye won 150 E and has never played a slot machine in her life! As we left the square just as it was getting dark, the shimmering lights, the sparkling cars, the jet vapours in the sky and the luxury launches lit up on the water in the surreal surroundings made for a magical scene.

There was much indecision about whether to go on the included tour to the "perched village" (so named as it is perched on a hilltop) of Saint Paul de Vence. We were leaving at the respectful time of 9am and would be back by lunchtime. The thought of a swim in the Mediterranean was a strong pull but I decided that I was here to experience and see as much as I could and went off to see St Paul. I was glad I did as it was a beautiful, old French village and there was plenty to see and experience when wandering its narrow alleyways. After seeing the very old village laundry (11th century), the grave of Marc Chagall in a quaint cemetery high on the hill we wandered back through the very French shops admiring the art. The village has been frequented by the likes of Kerry Grant and Roger Moore and we sat and enjoyed a cold drink at the cafe in the square where the celebrities have visited. The petanque boules were close at hand but there was not enough time for a game.


Back in Nice I took the tram downtown (1 E -solo voyage) and wandered through the shopping area toward the beach and the Promenade des Anglais. In 1822 the orange crop at Nice was poor and the workers faced a lean time so the English residents put them to work building the Promenade which is a wide and very long boulevard fronting the bay.

Split by islands of palms and flowers it stretches for about 6km . Fronting the beach are rows of cafes, villas and hotels, some swish others decaying. The sand is non-existent and instead the beach is covered in stones which are larger than those at Brighton.

The water is incredibly blue and was amazingly warm. There is nothing like a swim in the Med at the French Riviera and now I can tick that one off. It is not so pleasant sitting on the stones afterwards but many do. The beach was covered with people and incidentally...yes topless in the norm and everyone no matter what shape and size wears a bikini! Guess I was happy being abnormal!

There are several private areas that are cornered off with umbrellas, sun loungers and bars attached. You could rent a lounger and umbrella for 20 E a day and there were mats laid out over the stones down to the water. Water sports as you can imagine is huge and there were no shortage of people lining up for parasailing, wakeboarding, biscuit rides being towed by a very new Nautique. (I know that will interest some).

Craving for a salad, we stopped off a one of the many cafes for a fresh Greek salad and a glass of Italian Prosecco for dinner....yes I know I am in France! After Spain we are back in France again so plenty of time for sampling the local gastronomical delights.

Leaving the beautiful Nice we travelled along the boulevard, busy with the morning runners, joggers and cyclists. We had tried to hire a cycle yesterday as the cycle lane runs along the entire stretch of the bay however you had to give your credit card over the phone and that not was worth the risk.
We turned inland to head west just past the airport with its line-up of at private jets. I lost count after 50. Apparently they step off their jets onto a helicopter and fly to Monte Carlo. Leaving the very beautiful Nice and the lifestyle of the rich and famous behind...soon it will be Hola from Spain.