A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: Amyexploring

New skills, new friends, great timing in Basque

Surfing in the cote Atlantique

sunny 24 °C

A couple of days before going to Toulouse an email landed in my inbox at just the right time – a family in Helette in Pays Basque (very South West of France, even closer to the Atlantic coast than Oloron-Saint-Marie) were looking for help with their gites and guests asap. Great, this was the right area of France to start my travels up along the West coast.

I would be staying with Tony & Jane, an English couple in their 50’s who had inherited a ‘maison fort’ (a really really big house that would have been purpose built semi-fortified to protect somebody important) and moved permanently to France 15 yrs ago raising their kids there. The house was originally built in the 13th century (or before) with Tony recently renovating and transforming many rooms and bathrooms into effectively separate apartments with a large dance/yoga space to rent out as BnB accommodation and also to larger groups for yoga programs and as a concert venue etc.

  • For those interested, here is their website with some good pics inside the house

http://www.santamariaheleta.fr/

I received a warm welcome as soon as I walked in the front door but after seeing the look of stress on Jane’s face as she was busily preparing dinner for 10 I dropped my bags immediately and jumped in to help her cook. For the following 5 days we were making 3 course lunches and dinners for a group attending a wellness weekend of yoga and massages. This group happened to include the local French founders of Quicksilver & Roxy - they brought the franchise over from France in the 80's. It was a LOT of fun, we all ate together, the meals became more casual each day and Jane was really happy to have new ideas and a second opinion on her very vague meal plan. I was stoked to have access to a fully stocked kitchen again ! (Seriously, I had no idea how important having a somewhere to prepare food was to me until I didn't have one. I especially miss spiced-up and spic-y food like Indian and Thai. So I do now carry ground piment d’espelette with me ).
Cooking shakshouka

Cooking shakshouka

I For a couple of days I did some work around the garden, digging trenches and shoveling compost, straw and soil to plant a new tomato bed, and checking out the health of the beehive with Tony...
Bees at Helette

Bees at Helette


Finished garden Helette

Finished garden Helette

No matter how friendly and caring hosts are, it makes a world of difference to the atmosphere to have more people around generally, ‘work-time’ can be much more enjoyable and of course buddies to hang with in free time. Besides, as warm as they are, Jane and Tony were a little intense for me on my own. I was very happy that after week 1 I was joined by another 2 helpers arrived – Irish Carl & South African Sean.
Carl – sweet but totally lost in his place and purpose in the world, even more so than me. At 24 he had already done a fair amount of travel but he was a daydreamer and really danced to the beat of his own drum as the saying goes. Perhaps could benefit from a stay in a Sadhana Forest type community !

And Sean, what a lovely guy. Deep, thoughtful yet open. A genuinely good person who can appreciate the little things in life. We had a few very interesting talks about relationships, karma and positive thinking/ law of attraction and more unusual topics like drug-induced meditation (and not the typical drugs you may be thinking of). He can think outside the box, the kind of person I’d love to have on speed-dial to ask a second opinion on anything. Oh and he’s just a bit good looking!
The crew at Helette

The crew at Helette

It is incredible how many people I am meeting from all walks of life.. I love talking to all of these interesting people and finding out their 'story', their beliefs and opinions and what shaped these. Some have travelled extensively (they are usually the more 'easy-going' ones), some have been through very tragic or traumatic events. Most are very particular about the way they run minor details of theor life, often to the point where they're hard to live with.
Many do have similar beliefs and ideas to me but a few have very different beliefs and values. I have met perhaps one person so far who is on a similar wavelength to me.

So apart from studying the psychology of people, my 3 weeks in Helette were the busiest and most profitable thus far. When I wasn’t cooking or digging a new tomato patch I got lifts into coastal towns like Saint Jean de Luz (the Eagle Bay of France’ SW) and re-visited Biarritz and Bayonne.

A couple of times we drove into Spain to do a bit of food and supply shopping – as you do – since everything is a bit cheaper there and we were just 30 mins from the border plus a one-off visit to San Sebastian to collect her daughter Melissa. Only time for a quick tapas lunch but it was worth it.

Socially it was a great scene too, a village fete in Espelette and a music festival at another village in the same weekend, plus a date with L, a guy who attends the weekly yoga classes at the house. Well it didn’t start out as a date (or so thought) but quite rapidly morphed into one, thanks to the subtle and not so subtle powers of seduction the French are famed for... Here’s a light run-down of how they do it – just speaking French (of course), smiling and laughing a lot, even at his own jokes, talking about his past and admitting he’s very sensitive (while exposing killer arm muscles and a six-pack through a tight t-shirt), insisting on walking the beach promenade even in dodgy weather and generally being friendly toward other people around us. I dare say he’s also had a lot of practice staring into girl’s eyes too. Damn. Shame he just wasn’t my type. Amongst other things he was a smoker who also had a weed addiction - Not uncommon in this area actually, Tony was also a fan of weed smoking when the opportunity arose and didn’t have an issue with his 18 year-old daughter par-taking either!

Something else exciting happened in my final week in Helette. Jane received a phone call from a UK Channel 4 producer, looking for people to interview for a program about British ex-pats living in Pays Basque. The wanted to interview them and other English people in the area and mentioned a dinner that we could all go to in Cap Breton the following week if we wanted to (at our own cost). So following the phone call this email arrives, mentioning that the name and location of the restaurant cannot be advised at this point due to the “World famous chef” that will be there…
Ok so of course I’m the most excited person in the house now, and we all start speculating… Is this chef going to be cooking or a guest? Is it related to the afore-mentioned travel program or completely separate? It HAD to be a UK chef – Blumenthal? Ramsey? Raymond Blanc?

Hahaha I hope I have you all in suspense now ! It actually didn’t take much research as the beans were spilled in a UK paper article a few days later.

Fast forward to the following week.
I had already made plans to leave Helette and continue North along the coast. I had pre-booked a 1 week surf school / camp much further up the coast in Carcans to start on the Saturday 21st June so I left Helette that day. The dinner was on the Tuesday 24th at a resto called ‘Le Deck’ in Cap Breton, closer to Bayonne.
I didn’t want to miss it. This would be a one-off opportunity.

So what does any self-respecting foodie do?
Hire a car from the town next to Carcans. Drive almost 2.5 hours back down to Cap Breton to join Jane, Tony, Melissa, Shaun and Carl at the resto. Enjoy a pretty damn good 3-course meal with... Gordon Ramsey! Well no we didn't actually dine with him, he was roaming the room every now and then (no swearing or yelling heard by us by the way) for filming of his final series helping to improve restaurants that aren’t performing well. Then leave at midnight to drive 2.5 hours back to camp, through pretty dark and scary pine forest.
Yes I did it.
It was one of those things, if I let it go I would have always wondered...

Main dish. fish, lentil & bean side

Main dish. fish, lentil & bean side


Le Deck 'cafe gourmand ' dessert

Le Deck 'cafe gourmand ' dessert

(sorry only food pics... I didn't dare take photos around me in inside the resto, and the only one i got outside has cars blocking most of the view)

I wish there was a whole evening of excitement to relay to you, but it was actually reasonably low-key. The camera didn’t visit our table so you won’t see me on tv giving an educated critique (oops, I mean 'opinion' hahaha - and can you believe it! I came so close but perhaps its not my calling after all) but it really didn’t matter. I’m not particularly a fan of GR and I didn’t really want to be on TV amongst the Pommy diners – if you’ve seen their tv shows you’ll know what I mean.
It really was fun regardless. There was a buzz in the air, conversation was great, the 6 of us had a fantastic night out and the food was excellent.
[This TV series is a spin-off of ‘Ramseys Kitchen Nightmares” and will be called “Ramsey’s Costa del Sol” – instead of visiting properly shit restaurants, this time he goes to restaurants that already are doing lots of things right – good location, good food etc – but just aren’t reaching their potential.]
For what it’s worth, here IS my opinion. The food and service were great, no issues there. So was the price, more than reasonable for the quality of the ingredients, presentation and portion size. The choice of dishes was also excellent (although they had run out of 2 of the specials). The blindingly obvious thing that needs to be overhauled is the décor and the presentation of the staff. From the outside it looks like a cocktail bar and possible disco aimed at 18 year olds from Essex in England. All that can be seen from the street is large signage in fluoro pink over the top of that linoleum wooden-slat look above the outdoor bar to the side. Suitable perhaps for a themed English sea-side chip-butty hotspot or American 50’s roller-skate hamburger diner. To match this, the waitresses were also dressed like they were Essex girls going clubbing. A few wore fluoro yellow or pink tops, black skirts barely covering their arses and fashion high-heeled trainers. We weren’t on the beach, we were on a marina and wait staff wouldn’t get away with this anywhere else. Now I realise that in Summer this town is crawling with UK tourists but they also have to appeal to locals (just a reminder, we are still in France) and the food and décor just don’t match at all. Judging from the outside you would never dream that the dishes coming out of the kitchen and the internal décor could be as fantastic as it is and I certainly would walk on in search of another place to eat.

So there you go. I can’t wait until this airs to see if that’s what Gordon gives them grief over!!!
Local article on the visit. Sorry, it is in French.
http://www.sudouest.fr/2014/06/27/landes-gordon-ramsay-en-tournage-a-capbreton-pour-cauchemar-en-cuisine-1598715-3452.php

Meanwhile, the rest of the week at Carcans surf camp was good fun and a nice break in worrying about choosing hosts to stay with and if I’m going to like the work and lifestyle at the next place. The instructors were all young and very good, with gorgeous bodies! I AM able to stand up on a surf board, just. And I made a couple of good friends, including new instructor Emily from Ireland and got to do yoga twice every day as well since we were a small group of 10. I’m keen to keep practising surfing when I get the opportunity again even if it’s not until I return to Oz. Especially as I have discovered a wetsuit really does keep one warm and cosy in the water.
surf camp main tent

surf camp main tent


Carcans silhouette

Carcans silhouette


Carcans surf camp

Carcans surf camp


evening surfing

evening surfing


drinking games at surf camp

drinking games at surf camp

Posted by Amyexploring 15:00 Archived in France Tagged surf helette pays_basque le_deck ramsey Comments (0)

Boating from Beziers with Buddies

and Returning West to Pays Basque

sunny 24 °C

The insecurity of plan-less travelling, having to find nice people to stay with at short notice and regularly re-adapting to new environments is a constant niggle in the mind. It only disappears temporarily a few days after arriving at a new host and getting the gist of how their life functions. Putting my really heavy backpack out of the way in a corner and knowing I have a few weeks to feel again some routine and guidance and have 'my own' bed. No matter how friendly and easygoing other people are - and how easygoing and flexible I am - it always takes some time to feel at home in another's house, and life, and quite rare to entirely feel this way.

Only 2 and a bit months after departing Perth but constantly being conscious of this I was super excited to know I was only days away from seeing my child-&-teenager-hood neighbour Lil, someone I've known since before times my mind can remember and I don't catch up with nearly enough in Perth. Holidaying with hubby Pete and 2 friends from Perth now living in Paris, they were cruising the canal-du-midi and it worked out I could meet them around Beziers soon after leaving Toby's in The Bearn.

I arrived a couple of days early in Beziers (not a particularly exciting place) then wandered on down to the canal to sit and wait somewhere, not knowing how long it would take for them to arrive at the town or where they might pull in. Spotting the lock-keepers cabin I went to perch myself on the wall near the lock, sure that this was the only way they could pass in.

Not even 2 seconds after stepping onto the wall and looking down - Et Voila !!!
270_DSCF1649.jpg Oy! Aussie ! Qu'est-ce que tu fais la !!?? (What are you doing!?) hahaha

Lil, Pete, Tom and Lucy were 1 day into a 5 day trip to finish in Narbonne. And had a spare bed. And I had no plans and no where else to be. So I was incredibly lucky to join them for the remainder of the journey, turning a brief lunchtime catch-up into a fabulous 4 night cruise through Langued'oc wine region. Had a ball, we drank a couple of different wines each day (I now quite like French Reds, thanks boys!), took turns steering the boat, relaxed on the top deck and caught up on many many months of each other's lives. Bliss !

DSCF1690.jpg
270_DSCF1675.jpg

WP_20140521_014.jpg Winery tastings - they sell wine by the litre from big tanks at a petite €1.50 per litre!

Grateful to be spending so much time with familiar faces, the Friday we arrived in Narbonne and they continued on to Barcelona by train.
Au revoir for now
WP_20140523_004.jpg

I hung out in Narbonne for a couple of days to sort out the next move. Tapas and a few rosé wines at the indoor market the next day led to chatting with some locals (getting in much missed language practice) and a then personal tour of the outer Narbonne surroundings and pretty villages. I probably would be more selective in future about taking up offers though. There's never a problem, but It does usually lead to politely having to decline further offers of dinner and then doubt of what direction their friendliness may take... I figure all of this experience meeting and dealing with strangers of all ages and backgrounds is adding up and I am learning to judge people and situations more accurately and quickly. I will always chat though as sometimes it leads to unmissable great things happening. Like Café owners offering potential au-pair work (and gelato makers giving free gelato making lessons - but that was another trip)

So knowing only I wanted to get back to the West coast I searched for a new Helpx host. Frustrated after a couple of days with nothing jumping out at me I moved on to Toulouse for a couple of nights in a hostel, landing in a room with the most ocker of Aussies, Joe, and some friendly young French guys. Playing the French host for Joe we dined out for a special meal... he admitted he was curious about tasting frogs legs. Its actually quite rare to find restaurants serving this but fate was on Joe's side and we passed a resto with it on the chalkboard.... And you don't have to ask me twice! a taste of 2 was enough for him (the juicy steak was apparently more appetising) so I enjoyed the plate for my dinner :)

WP_20140527_003.jpg

I spent the next day with Fabien one of the Frenchies before he took his flight back to Paris. Really nice guy who worked for a big IT company and let me talk terrible French. And now I have another contact in Paris. A hah! The unfriendly French stereotypes are being broken all over the place !

Posted by Amyexploring 09:23 Archived in France Tagged boat croisiere lil toulouse narbonne beziers Comments (0)

April in Auvergne & Saunas in the South West

Exchange & Learning to Live with Strangers

overcast 14 °C

Finally getting stuck into traveling and snippets of 'life' in France. After mum flew out of Paris back to Oz in April I headed straight to Auvergne in the middle of the country to my first HelpX property. It's like WWOOFing (willing workers on organic farms) but broader opportunities - it doesn't have to be an organic farm. So the exchange worked like this - one offers their labour for 4-5 hours per day (usually only 5-6 days per week) in exchange for accommodation, food and usually opportunities to become involved with the hosts lives. Ie they include you in their socialising, show you what the area has to offer and basically help to make your time with them a positive and enriching experience.

For me it’s an ideal form of travel…. Being surrounded by ‘locals’, talking, learning/ sharing, doing productive activities each day and then spare time to explore the surroundings. Bonuses are staying with people who are of the same mind too and due to the whole nature of the idea, almost all of the hosts are into either growing and eating organic produce, running countryside guesthouses (gites) and cultural exchange, yoga and wellbeing, serious eco-building/being self sufficient or a combination of the above.

My first HelpX was near a tiny village called Vernusse in Auvergne, the middle of France. I spent just one week here which was enough. The family were nice, but they were from the Netherlands (in France 7 years) so spoke English to me and Dutch to each other around me (yes, just a little rude) so my practice of French was next to none. I stayed next to the house in a tiny cabin the first few nights then a really nice wood cabin ('gite') the other 4 nights, complete with kitchen and beds for 4 people. The work was easy, gardening mostly - lots of weeding and I've practically built up tolerance to stinging nettle - and some food prep for guests they were expecting the next week. Plus helping prepare vegetarian lunch and dinner which we ate together. The 4-5 hours work kind of got stretched over the day so I had very little actual free time, not that it made much difference because the only thing to do was go for walks. Overall it was a nice way to spend 1 week - Marika the mother made green smoothies for breakfast each morning, I took part in her weekly yoga class and we discussed the merits of recent publicity about Superfoods and raw desserts.

View in Vernusse

View in Vernusse

At the end of April I took the train straight from Auvergne (slow journey but stunning, through gorges in an area of dormant volcanos) , all the way to the South West to the small town/big village of Oloron-Sainte-Marie in The Bearn department, answering the call of Toby - with promises of saunas, yoga, learning about permaculture and lots of social activities !

I have to say I did enjoy my 3 weeks in Oloron. Toby (originally UK, 48) was really easy to get on with and vey easy going with the work. To start with anyway. He'd bought an acre of land that was neglected and in the process of being transformed into a permaculture (beyond organic) vege & fruit garden, with some vines, a greenhouse dome for future tropical fruit trees and many more projects in mind. Plus we were at the foothills of the Pyrenees with the most incredible view from his flat in Oloron.
DSCF1603.jpg (similar to this, this was taken down the road)

The first week we did very little work mainly due to cold and drizzling rain (and I went south for the warm !) so some days we did 2-3 hours work, some none and instead went on hikes in the mountains at the foot of the Pyrenees with his friends, reading or doing little errands around town. We had many dinners with Vanessa, Toby's GF and also with a family close by, Harriet (UK) and Jean-Jaques and their daughter Mathilde who is only a couple of years younger than me so I had some 'outside' socialising - often quite a challenge when HelpXing/Wwoofing if you're the only helper there at the time.

WP_20140509_001.jpg WP_20140509_004.jpg
WP_20140514_002.jpg Lunch break at the property

1st May the town put on a fete to celebrate May Day (Worker's Day) and it was the most typical rural French festival I've seen - tipsy men in beret's singing, wine tasting, cheese selling, a mini sheep dog demo with the sheep of course in the middle of the square, snail snacking and a completed with the thinnest crepe made with goat milk. That was a happy day !!

DSCF1483.jpg Best crepe so far</p><p>Another 'Helper' Agatha from Phillipines joined us for 1 week and we decided to go to the coast one day to explore Bayonne and Biarritz (famous for surfing... and being the French home of Quicksilver, Roxy and Ripcurl). We hitchhiked there and back (don't tell my mum!! - its fairly safe to do for short trips in the South) but it took a couple of hours each way since the people who picked us up were only doing short legs of the journey - 4 cars there and 6 back!<br />[img=http://photos.travellerspoint.com/661788/DSCF1592.jpg

Best crepe so far

Another 'Helper' Agatha from Phillipines joined us for 1 week and we decided to go to the coast one day to explore Bayonne and Biarritz (famous for surfing... and being the French home of Quicksilver, Roxy and Ripcurl). We hitchhiked there and back (don't tell my mum!! - its fairly safe to do for short trips in the South) but it took a couple of hours each way since the people who picked us up were only doing short legs of the journey - 4 cars there and 6 back!
[img=http://photos.travellerspoint.com/661788/DSCF1592.jpg

The next two weeks we did a lot more work, planting, shovelling muck (sheep shit), knocking posts into the ground and pulling others up etc. Physical and tiring but I felt great and slept well. I ate well too, we made a proper lamb curry and dahl (god I miss indian food !!!!!) home-made sheep yoghurt, bacon and red wine. His philosophy on eating was 'natural, high-fat, low sugar, few carbs' so I went along with that and was surprised to find it worked for me. We had real bacon from black pigs on a nearby farm, with flavour unlike I've ever tasted before, full sheeps milk cheeses (AOC Ossau Iraty, also from down the road) and I perfected my slicing of jambon paper thin like they do all over Spain :)

DSCF1416.jpg My paper-thin jambon cutting skills!

My paper-thin jambon cutting skills!


Local Ossau Iraty sheep cheese

Local Ossau Iraty sheep cheese

The BEST thing about that stint in Oloron was the regular saunas in his self-made transportable sauna. It was built on a trailer and parked at Harriet's house. Oh my god did I enjoy relaxing in 75 degree (C) heat!!! And afterwards hosing off in freezing cold mountain water with only a hedge for privacy. It was very liberating and somewhat like being a kid again running in the sprinklers outside.
Apparently a small sauna is very easy and inexpensive to build - note for the future!

I am fascinated by how open some people are. I mean really open. I suppose most people or families taking in travellers have to be but some really let you deep into their current life affairs, tell you all about their past, argue with their kids and spouses in front of us without a second thought. I think it's wonderful, to see there are still a lot of people who really trust strangers and also don't give a damn if other's will judge them.

So I left Toby's on the 18th May, very much looking forward to getting to Beziers - just across to the South East coast - to meet up with Lil & Pete and their friends. By coincidence they were holidaying and in France just briefly at that time experiencing the joys of the Croisière - a french canal boat - cruising 5 days through Beziers to Narbonne.

On y va !!!

Posted by Amyexploring 07:52 Archived in France Tagged helpx wwoofing auvergne brenazet oloron-sainte-marie Comments (0)

Top of Spain and Portugal

Madrid-Salamanca-Porto (Portugal)- Santiago – Bilbao

sunny 19 °C

Sangria sign

Sangria sign

i'm skipping over a few cities (Madrid, Salamanca) for no particular reason. Madrid is big but not as manic as one would expect and very easy to get around. We did visit the Palace which was... huge. Still used for important occasions too.

Madrid Palace

Madrid Palace

A fabulous but less well known attraction is the Temple of Debod - an ancient Egyptian Tomb that they literally boxed up (stone by stone) and shipped to Madrid and reassembled !!!


The street of our hostel had fabulous shops and mostly small, local brands but alas, my bag had no space or spare weight for anything :(

The drive from Salamanca into Portugal we went through the most beautiful landscape so far… one thing that has struck me on our many hours on buses is the diversity in landscape throughout Spain (and Portugal). Whereas the south is predominantly olive groves and various cropping fields, the north is noticeably more lush, with vineyards and a lot of forest and super green grazing pastures. Throughout we have seen flat fields then a backdrop of snow-capped mountains, dry rocky cliff faces and then more deep green valleys with heavily running rivers. At times it looked like a part of Germany or Switzerland, even the housing styles resembled Swiss chalets.

The scenery between Salamanca and Porto then again between Santiago and Bilbao was incredible. Porto deserves a special mention for it’s gorgeous location- built into hillsides on both sides of a river with featured bridge designs, as is common, and with that gorgeous people – just a little bit warmer toward tourists than in many parts of Spain.

Porto riverside

Porto riverside


beach Porto

beach Porto


dynamic sculpture

dynamic sculpture


Lunch in porto

Lunch in porto


custard tarts

custard tarts


These are ALL Tomatos

These are ALL Tomatos


DSCF1131.jpg

Going north out of Portugal to our next stop Santiago de Compostela, we were in Galicia, the and then into Basque country in Bilbao. This whole Northern part definitely has the best food in Spain, with seafood plentiful and so so fresh.
With a bit of hesitation I suggested we forego San Sebastian for Bilbao instead and I’m glad we did. Of all the places we’ve been this gets my vote as overall favourite and the most liveable. As San Sebastian’s main attraction is amazing food and a decent beach of which my mum would appreciate neither, whereas Bilbao features the architectural wonder that is the Guggenheim museum/gallery still good food and near the coast plus a few more things to see and do.

I was really taken with Bilbao, one would never guess it had such an industrial past (and still houses a large port). The streets are wide and pedestrian-friendly even in the old part of town, letting in lots of light. We metro-ed out of the city centre along the river, almost to the coastal beaches and found busy, pretty suburbs. The choice and quality of pintxo (tapas) bars would knock your socks off and the mixed designs of all of the buildings from different decades are incredibly stylish. It has the most stunning backdrop of green hills yet it extends to the coast. (Ok, I know, it sounds like Perth except with better public transport and more beautiful buildings). The people make use of ALL of the city’s offerings too, a Sunday evening stroll saw hundreds of people ‘promenading’ along the wide… promenades ? that run both sides of the river, not to mention the overflowing cafés, icecream stands and (numerous) playgrounds in the centre and around the river. We found a local band playing a rock/pop concert to a huge crowd (and curiously not a policeman in sight). By the way the shops were all closed - people were out socialising and taking advantage of the good weather. I tell you what, there was no sign of anxious people of a depressed economy here!!

So in our 1.5 days in Bilbao the Guggenheim was first on the agenda. Easily the Best and most fascinating ‘museum’ (Really art gallery) I’ve ever seen. I could have stared at the building itself from the outside for hours, so revolutionary in its design (Frank Geary) that the metallic material ‘scales’ forming most of the cladding had to be invented specially out of titanium and other things to allow the strength, flexibility and finishing of the design to be realised.

Guggenheim outside

Guggenheim outside


Guggenheim dog

Guggenheim dog


Guggenheim building

Guggenheim building

(pic from the entrance side, you might just see me in this in front of the huge flower dog).

Then inside it just gets better, 2 more storeys of galleries, but all parts of the building felt very spacious and connected to the outside (intentional in the design). Most exhibitions were interactive, even the temporary Yoko Ono retrospective – she is one odd woman!

Guggenheim inside 2

Guggenheim inside 2


Guggenheim exhibit

Guggenheim exhibit

Posted by Amyexploring 17:47 Archived in Spain Tagged spain portugal bilbao guggenheim Comments (0)

Spain, from the bottom up

Algeciras, Seville & Granada

rain 12 °C
View Morocco - Europe-.... on Amyexploring's travel map.

Arrived in Algeciras around 9pm, very tired mostly from sitting and waiting so long for the ferry. Thankfully our hotel there Reina Cristina was amazing, felt and looked like a 5 star with great staff.

Not much to see in Algciras itself. The next day we wandered through the main part of town and the small but comprehensive market there with the huge variety of jamon, cheeses, fruit and vege normal and a necessity for all parts of Spain! The Tourist office was bare but the man inside very helpful, we had gone in just before to find out about buses to Gibraltar. We caught a local bus 30 mins to La Linea which neighbours Gib in Spanish territory. Gibraltar was a UK navel base and is still a UK Territory. It is a tiny piece of land on very South East tip of Spain. Most of it’s land is taken up by a huge rock with a nature reserve at the top . Loooots of tourists here, UK & Spanish making up the majority. Taking a picture of the rock from the Spanish side was a mistake – it had the border crossing in front and a Spanish border officer approached me very angrily, told me off in Spanish and made me delete the picture from my camera! (no ‘prohibited’ signs displayed until right on the border posts further up). As we continued toward the UK border gate a passer-by commented that it happens all the time but we could take all the pictures we wanted from the UK side because it’s a democracy there hhahaha.

It has it’s own airport (you actually have to walk across the runway to get to the main part) and everything there is so British it’s become almost a novelty – red telephone and post boxes, pubs advertising fish & chips and pie & peas etc. Even British bobbies (policeman) with woodentops!! Prices are quoted in pounds stirling but everyone accepts Euros, using their own extortionate exchange rate of course !! It has a port too but apart from fishing I’m not sure what the main industry would be after tourism! Definitely worth a day-trip for the 360 degree views from the top of the rock (you can see over the strait to Morocco and back over Spain) and the change of scenery.

The next day it was off to Seville by bus. The buses are a really great way to travel in Spain, frequent, comfortable and a good network. Some even have free wifi onboard and the one we are on at the moment is a ‘premium’ service with meal trays, tv and refreshments.
Seville (pronounced Se-vee-ya) was lovely, reasonably big but still easy to get around on foot if you like walking. Has a lot of history and big cathedral and very good infrastructure as they hosted the world expo in 1992 (Same year as Barcelona Olympics).
We went into the cathedral and I climbed to the tower to the top to find gorgeous old bells on each of the 4 faces. The interesting thing about this cathedral is it was built over an Islamic mosque some of which remains and the tower has ramps virtually all the way to the top instead of stairs. This is because as the Muslims pray 5 times per day somebody had to climb the tower 5 times for the ‘call to prayer’ so they built ramps to ride horses up! Clever.

The south of Spain has Arabic/Muslim history so a lot of the architecture, mosaic tiling and painting and building styles remain. I noticed a lot of buildings that were similar to the riad style of Morocco. It creates a really wonderful atmosphere in these town and cities of Andalusia.
The highlight for me was some good tapa – spinach and chickpeas - and the Camera Oscura, a special contraption which was a precursor to the camera. The concept was originally designed by Aristotle and functions like a periscope. We went up to the top of a 47m high tower into a dark room. The operator (a guy who clearly loves his job, I think it was his hobby and his life) uses ropes to open a small hole in the roof, and manipulate mirrors to project onto a desk-high dish in front of us images of what is happening on the streets of the city in that moment. It was very very cool. He could focus on images kilometres away and make them as sharp as a tv screen so we could see people walking down the street and hanging out their washing hahaha. As he commented it’s the original ‘big brother’.

Again just 2 nights in Seville then bus to Granada! Now this is my favourite city in Spain so far this trip. I think I rate it over Barcelona even, the people are laid back and friendly, while there’s a lot of tourist there also nobody treats you like one because the locals mix in. It has the most stunning landscape, somewhat flat newer part of the city, an area called the Albaycin which is a mainly residential hill covered in laneways and providing a fabulous view of the Alhambra (old palace). Behind that further up the hill is Sacramento, where people used caves in the hillside as home and gypsys from all over Europe congregate as the Government and residents there don’t bother them.
Granada has another great tapas culture and many bars you go to you buy a drink and get a tapa free, whatever is going. We had great seafood here, and also ran into one of the guys from our Morocco tour!

The main attraction in Granada is the Alhambra, a summer residence of an Arab Sultan from the 900’s that was hidden in the 1500’s then re-discovered 1829 and completely renovated. I didn’t actually go inside… I chose to explore the city instead and take time out to relax without an itinerary. Travelling every second day is taxing so we’ll start doing 3 nights in towns I think! 3 nights I Granada and I could have spent another. Mum did a half day trip to Capaliera in the nearby Sierra Nevada mountain range for walking and there’s more activities like in the area plus skiing when there’s enough snow.
In fact we were told this morning they were expecting it to snow in the mountains today!

So I have the luxury of finally getting up to date, we are now on the bus heading to Madrid. It is pissing down with rain and I reckon will be about 12 degrees when we pull in at 1.30pm. But I’m enjoying anyway ?

Posted by Amyexploring 04:13 Archived in Spain Tagged seville granada algeciras Comments (0)

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