Friday, 24 June 2011

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!

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