Our holiday

Barcelona highlights

January 5, 2014 by Heather | 3 Comments

I’m finally starting to do something with video and photos from our trip. I had hoped to be able to post short videos along the way but time, technology and good internet connections were against me. I have an almost complete video about London on my iPad that was largely put together while we were away but in the end it defeated me. I think I’ll start again on that one, and like this video featuring our time in Barcelona, I will include still photos from the other three cameras recording our travels.

Anyway, this is the highlights from Barcelona – enjoy!

November 27, 2013
by Heather
1 Comment

I can see clearly now the rain has gone

Greetings from Africa!
After a damp few days it was lovely to wake up to still, sunny conditions on Sunday. The girls were up early enough to see the sunrise from the rooftop patio of our pensione, we were surprised to see how close to the water we were.
We left Olhao and Portugal by bus, heading to Jerez, Spain with an afternoon in Seville on the way.
Normally I consider horse and carriage rides to be expensive tourist traps but in the context of a brief visit this was a great way to see some of the sights of Seville and great fun too. After that we visited the Alcazar, home of the Spanish royal family, a most impressive palace with lots of Moorish architecture and geometric tile patterns, and extensive, highly manicured gardens.

20131126-181228.jpgCoffee, cake and people watching rounded out our afternoon then it was back on the bus to Jerez.
We arrived at about 8pm and then went out for a lovely dinner at a restaurant, followed by a late night city orientation walking tour.

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This was capped off with a spontaneous game of bitter orange soccer which was hilarious fun until Giselle stood on the orange. It looks sad, doesn’t it!

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Jerez is the home of sherry so a tour of the Gonzales Byass Sherry Bodegas was a must after a lazy morning exploring the market and shops. Our tour guide was Maribel, a sassy Spanish lady, who left us in no doubt that sherry is not liqueur, is WINE!
We then set off by bus, bus, ferry and private bus to Chefchaouen, Morocco. We covered some changing terrain most notable for the huge number of wind turbines and the view of Gibraltar as we arrived at Algeciras to change to the bus to the ferry terminal in Tarifa. Africa is amazingly close to Europe at this point, clearly visible across the water.
The ferry took us to Tangier where we were met by our driver for the winding journey through the Rif Mountains to Chefchaouen. It was a pity it was getting dark by the time we arrived in Tangier, I imagine the drive would be spectacular in daylight.
Arriving at our hotel was like arriving in fairyland, behind the blue doors was a candlelit path through the garden into a warm and inviting lounge and dining area. A veritable feast had been prepared for us, we were all very excited at the array of salads and vegetables which were most welcome after our recent diet (tasty as it is even the best Jamon, cheese, bread and potatoes gets tedious after a while). While I’m on food in Spain did you know they have several varieties of Special K including two with chocolate?

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Our room is beautifully decorated and has a fantastic view of the early morning sun on the mountain opposite.

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This morning we were taken on a walking tour, first up the mountain to a mosque which we’d seen the night before, appearing to be floating above us in the dark night sky; then into the town through narrow laneways, up and down steps to a cooperative where local textiles are sold and finally to a lovely restaurant for lunch – more good food! A dominant colour here is light blue, a remnant of the Jews who came here after they were kicked out by the Spanish in the 15th century. Many buildings, paths and steps are painted in varying shades. Another feature is the enormous number of mangy, scruffy cats, not so nice! This is our hotel:

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Tomorrow we will hike further into the mountains to a village for lunch and then return to Chefchaouen by 4wd before a bus ride to Fes.

November 24, 2013
by Heather
1 Comment

Heading to the coast

Another Saturday, another country, another laundromat!

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The only laundromat in a city of 42,000 is a busy place on a damp Saturday afternoon and the politics of whose turn it is for the dryer can get quite heated. However three hours later we have clean clothes, almost enough to see us through the rest of the trip.
Since I last wrote we have travelled by train from Coimbra to Lisbon and then by bus from Lisbon to Olhāo which is in the Algarve area of Portugal.
Lisbon is a lovely city, easy to navigate being overlooked by a castle on the hill and a grid of streets leading to the river which is so wide it seems more like a harbour. The city is very old but most buildings (and the neat grid of streets) date from the late 1700’s after most of the city was destroyed by an earthquake and subsequent tsunami.

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We explored the castle (which is actually a replica dating from the 1940’s) and checked out the city from a couple of vantage points including the rooftop bar of the hotel at the top of the old Teatro (theatre) Eden. We went on an extended walking tour, conducted by a Polish guide, which included a ride on one of their dinky little trams. If you’ve seen the movie Malcolm you might remember that at the end of the movie they ran away to Lisbon with their ill-gotten gains because Malcolm was such a tram-fanatic.
We learned the joys of Ginjinha, a sweet cherry brandy with sour whole cherries, which can be purchased by the glass from a tiny shop-front for €1,1 and drunk on the footpath. Good for the health apparently, even at 10 in the morning. And we now know that what are called Portugese tarts in Melbourne are mere shadows of the glory that are pastēis de Belēm here.

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We had an Amazing Race moment at the Padraô dos Deseudoimentos and saw where Vasco de Gama departed on his explorations.

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Lisbon has modern articulated trams as well. Interestingly they only go in one direction so we got to sit right at the back in a booth-style seat. The streets are narrow and there are many close calls with trucks and cars.
We arrived in Olhāo last night and were warmly welcomed by the Australian owners of our Pensione. Jeff and Leonie have been here for three years and appear to have an idyllic lifestyle, previously they were in Malaysia for many years. We then went out for dinner at an amazing seafood restaurant; our guide had recommended the cuttlefish eggs (!) for a starter but unfortunately they are out of season.
This morning we visited the local market. The fish section was incredible, a huge variety of fish and shellfish (this area is renowned for its shellfish), most costing €5 (A$7.50) per kilo or less; and then went on a boat to an island. The weather isn’t favouring us, allegedly it never rains in Olhāo but we beg to differ, all the same we had a good time, even if it was cold and damp. The girls got to see the Atlantic Ocean and Giselle acquired another hat for piggy who has a well-travelled companion called Moose Idiot (a close companion of the twins in our group).

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November 20, 2013
by Heather
2 Comments

Borderline

Bom dia!
Since I last wrote there has barely been a quiet moment. We met up with our group and leader on Saturday. The girls had been worried that it would be all old people but we have been very pleasantly surprised. We are 10 plus our guide so two less than expected. There is one mature couple, Bill (originally from Arizona) and Judy from the Sunshine Coast, and the remaining four are single women aged in their late 20’s to early 30’s. Lindy is originally from Mexico and speaks excellent Spanish; Chloe from Sydney, and twins Julia and Caroline both teachers from Geelong. Caroline works with our old friend Ross who did a reading at our wedding! Our guide is Tadas, originally from Lithuania. He has worked extensively with Intrepid, this is the 6th time he is done this particular tour but apparently it is his last as he has now completed his Masters degree and wants to get a real job!
We have bonded really well as a group, Chiara and Giselle are fitting in nicely. I think we are off to an excellent start and will enjoy this group much more than the family we travelled in Vietnam with.
On Sunday we travelled by train to Salamanca, through mountains and rocky fields; when the clouds lifted snow could be seen on the mountains and on the ground nearby. It was raining most of the way and it continued on and off in Salamanca but didn’t dampen our spirits too much. After an orientation walking tour we visited an Art Nouveau museum (where I bought a very pretty new umbrella), checked out the Roman bridge and climbed to the bell tower of the old cathedral (not sure how old exactly but the “new” cathedral was constructed in the 1600’s). That night Tadas took us to a Tapas bar where you got one small plate of food (a slice of tortilla with topping or some grilled ribs with bread or toasted bread with toppings etc) with each drink you ordered. Wine was 2.2 Euro per glass so the four of us ate and drank well for less than AU$40.
Yesterday we left Salamanca and travelled to Coimbra, Portugal by private bus. It was a lovely trip, the countryside, especially once we crossed the border, is very pretty – mountains, valleys, rivers, lakes, lots of stone walls and tumbledown stone buildings. We suspect there isn’t much flat land in Portugal! We stopped for lunch very close to the border at a restaurant/cafeteria/supermarket. The supermarket had everything you could possibly need for a border-crossing – chocolate, toys, legs of ham, liqueur in bull-shaped bottles, slingshots, knives, guns and ammunition. We settled for a block of Milka triple-deck chocolate.
Less than 10km from Coimbra we hit a traffic jam as we were shunted off the freeway and into local streets. There must have been an accident on the freeway, we didn’t find out any details, but those last few kilometres took nearly an hour.

20131119-172525.jpg The view from our hotel room.

20131119-172753.jpg The university tower at night.
Coimbra, like Salamanca, is a university town. The university is perched on the top of the hill and the town below is a maze of cobblestone alleys, steep paths and stairways. So far food in Portugal seems much cheaper than Spain which is something of a relief.
This morning we chose to go to Conimbriga, a half hour bus ride away where there are extensive pre-Roman and Roman ruins including some amazing mosaics. Quite incredible to think we were walking where people had lived nearly 2000 years ago.

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This afternoon we walked back up to the university to visit the Biblioteca Joanina – the library – a very ornate and well-preserved collection that I saw on a website of the 16 most spectacular libraries in the world – see more here http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/10382588/The-most-spectacular-libraries-in-the-world.html?frame=2705752. The library hosts a colony of bats who are welcomed as they eat the insects that might otherwise damage the books but sadly we didn’t see any of them!
Tonight we are going to a Fado performance – songs of lament performed by students. Tadas didn’t seem too enthusiastic about this but we’ll see.
And tomorrow we are off to Lisbon.
Boa noite!

November 17, 2013
by Heather
6 Comments

I want to ride my bicycle

Ah, the glamour of Saturday morning in the laundromat! Cafe con leche, chocolate caliente con churros and a croissant got us through the wash cycle, now for some blogging while drying!

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As previously mentioned we travelled to Madrid on a very fast train from Barcelona. It was very slick, smooth and comfortable; taking us from the centre of one city to the centre of another 600 km away in less time than it would take to fly from Melbourne to Sydney (taking into account getting to and from the airports). Why Australia can’t get its act together and develop some fast train services is beyond me.
It was our first arrival in daylight which did wonders for getting oriented geographically and gave us plenty of time to catch a bus into the centre of town to Plaza Mayor and have a wander around from there. Where we are staying is out of the tourist district so we had an interesting time finding somewhere for dinner and deciding what to eat, but we managed.
The next morning (yesterday) we set out on a bicycle tour led by Geza, a Hungarian who has been living in Madrid for 10 years and previously lived in Rome and London. He speaks at least 6 languages (Hungarian, Spanish, English, Italian, French and German) and probably more as being from Hungary he would likely have some Russian, Polish or other Eastern European language as well. He was a terrific guide, very well-informed about historical as well as current events. He was able to explain to us why there is so much rubbish in the streets (the first thing we noticed when we arrived, not pretty) – the mayor recently sacked 1500 workers and gave those remaining a 40% pay cut, hence a strike.
The ride took us all round the central district, past palaces and churches, through tiny alleyways, over cobblestones and into the Buen Retiro Park. It was about 15 km in all and more challenging terrain than either of our previous bike tours but fortunately the bikes provided are more similar to what we are used to and not the laid-back cruisers of Barcelona and London.
Speaking of Barcelona I haven’t covered our experiences there much yet so I’ll do some back-tracking now.
The two highlights for me were the bike tour and the cooking class both of which we did on our first full day. The bike tour was really relaxed, the weather was perfect: sunny and around 20 degrees (I didn’t mention that Madrid is very cold, and yesterday, although sunny, was windy and less then 10 degrees, making us very grateful for the gloves we were provided with). Barcelona, like London, is a cycling city and is well provided with bike lanes on the busy roads. It was a little more tricky in the Gothic quarter with narrow cobblestone alleys and lots of tourists. Again we were lucky to have a well-informed and entertaining guide, this time it was Margo from Boston. It was a largish group of 16 including Americans, Brits, Indians and two other Australians. We stopped for lunch on the Barceloneta beach which was a lovely addition to a great outing. Having done bike tours in three different cities I would have to say they are one of the best things you can do to get a really good overview of a place, geographically, culturally and historically and they are simply great fun. You don’t have to be an ultra-fit cyclist and in fact if you were you might get frustrated at the relaxed pace.
That evening we headed down La Rambla to the Barcelona cooking school where Javier, a most charming chef, took us through preparing and cooking a range of Spanish dishes including tortilla, paella, pumpkin and pear cream (soup) and Catalan cream for dessert. It was all great fun and good to eat. We had some unexpected entertainment happening in the street below from the weekly (every Tuesday and sometimes on Friday apparently) demonstration of pensioners protesting about their lost investments (which the government encouraged them to make) including lots of chanting and the odd explosion.

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So that brings me more or less up to date. Since the washing finished this morning we have visited el Museo del Traje – the museum of costume; the Reina Sofia gallery of modern art (lots of Picasso, Miro and Dali) and the Matadero Madrid, a former slaughterhouse turned contemporary arts space which is right across the road from our hotel. I’ll have to finish here though as in 10 minutes time we are meeting up with our tour group for the first time.
Adios!

November 14, 2013
by Heather
1 Comment

Happy birthday to me!

Thank you everyone for your good wishes for my birthday yesterday.
We had a lovely day starting with a chat to Janet who is literally on the other side of the world to us, 12 hours ahead in NZ, on Skype, then a visit to the Bocqueria market to buy bread, jamon, quesa, figs, olives stuffed with white anchovies and roasted red pepper (just your kind of food Janet!), chorizo and fruit for a picnic lunch. We travelled on the bus turistic to Park Guell where we ate our picnic then on to Montjuic where the 1992 Olympic stadium and pools are located. We took a cable car ride to Barcaloneta, the beach area.
After a late siesta we headed out for dinner at 8pm to a restaurant we’d found through tripadvisor. We were the first to arrive, in fact no one else was there till after 9pm which is still considered early for dinner in Spain! Restaurant Etapes describes itself as gourmand and indeed it was, I ate beetroot and vodka cured salmon from Norway and the fish of the day which was described as red scorpion. Other dishes we tried were venison ravioli, foie gras with millefielle and orange jam, suckling pig belly, and cannelloni with truffled cream sauce. The ice cream with Giselle’s chocolate fondant dessert tasted exactly like Ferraro rocher chocolates. The pictures show the salmon and the foie gras.

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I have been spoilt with some beautiful rose gold earrings:

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I haven’t yet found anything to spend my birthday present money on but there is more of Spain, Portugal and Morocco still to come.
Right now we’re on a train travelling at 299 km/h towards Madrid. The distance is similar to Melbourne to Mildura but we’ll get there in under three hours! I’ll write more about our Barcelona adventures in a separate post but for now, thanks again to everyone for making my birthday special!

November 12, 2013
by Heather
5 Comments

The rain in Spain

So here we are in the air, en route to Barcelona. The last couple of days have been quite eventful and we leave London wishing we could stay longer but excited about what is ahead.
The weather was stunning yesterday (Sunday) but it was drizzling again this morning as we were leaving so it’s probably good that we’re heading for a drier, warmer climate as I managed to lose all four of our umbrellas yesterday (including the one we accidentally brought home from Castlemaine, sorry Mum!)
But back to where I last left off, contemplating a visit to St Paul’s and a climb of 528 steps to the top of the tower. Well, thanks to Boris and his Lord Mayor’s parade that plan had to be abandoned, as was the trip on the no. 4 bus to Portobello Road. A quick scan of our London Pass guide and we decided to head to Warwick Avenue tube station for a canal boat ride to Camden Lock and markets. A couple of underground changes later I checked more closely and realised that the canal boats finished for winter on the first Sunday in November so a quick rethink and several more changes found us in Camden.
Chiara enjoyed visiting a more reasonably priced retro clothes store than the ones we’d been to near Spitalfield market. The Camden lock markets were good but busy and I bought some lovely earrings and a brooch. We then headed to Portobello Road which turned into an over-crowded shuffle of people, not much fun in the rain. After lunch we went to the Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising which was the highlight of the day.
We then caught a bus to Oxford Street to visit Selfridges which Giselle was particularly keen to do having enjoyed the TV show Mr Selfridge. Selfridges was like Myer and David Jones rolled into one and on steroids. Incredibly busy so all we did was a quick lap of some of the ground floor. Back out to Oxford Street and a walk to Regent Street was quite scary because of the crowds – I was sure we were going to lose one of the kids! There was another Lord Mayor’s event on in Regent Street (thanks Boris) so we had to abandon that plan too.
Sunday morning and the temperature was just 2C but the sun was shining and it was absolutely still – gorgeous, the best looking day all week.

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We headed by bus, train and bus to Hampton Court Palace where we had a lovely time and even met Henry himself.

20131111-203616.jpgOn our return we took a river cruise down the Thames to Greenwich which was fun even though it was quite dark by the time we got there. We returned via the Docklands Light Rail which I think was under construction when we were last in London. On arrival at Bank station I realised we didn’t have the bag with our umbrellas and some souvenirs and other items. We figured we could get to Westminster Pier before the boat returned there, which we did, only to discover that the crew had taken the bag off and left it in the Greenwich ticket office.
Which was now closed.
And wouldn’t reopen till 10 today.
We needed to catch a train at 10 this morning to get to Gatwick comfortably so there it remains. However, I have plan A and plan B for getting it back…we shall see!
In the meantime lets hope that the rain in Spain does indeed stay mainly on the plain (and that the places we are visiting aren’t).

November 9, 2013
by Heather
2 Comments

Revolting children

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Actually they are being quite lovely but the clever among you will have noted that these blog entries are titled (this trip) with titles or lines from songs…and we saw Matilda last night.
Which was fabulous. The photo above shows the stage.
In other news we have explored The Tower of London and Tower Bridge; visited the Design Museum, the fashion and textile museum, the Tate Modern and a glass blowing gallery; covered several miles and many sights on a cycle tour; toured the Globe Theatre, and shopped at markets for food, clothing and accessories.
Conscious of time we had to leave The Tower of London without visiting the torture exhibition but the amputation and gynaecological instruments at The Old Operating Theatre and Herb Garret more than made up for it.
On Wednesday evening we visited my 3rd? cousin Peta and family for dinner. We’d met 3 year old Will as a baby but not his almost 2 year old sister Alex. They are both gorgeous, Will particularly exuberant, spending much of the evening trying to “knock your head off, old man” ie Don with a balloon!
It was interesting hearing how it is to live in London as a family – lots of challenges, but so many opportunities as well. Their “mansion” flat is not much bigger than the apartment we are staying in but since then we have discovered we have a second bathroom (behind a locked door which we assumed led to an adjacent flat, which was opened when our apartment was cleaned yesterday) so in fact it’s probably bigger.
Tomorrow we’ll be visiting St Paul’s properly (and climbing the five hundred and something steps) then catching the number 23 bus which we will hop on and off of to visit Selfridges (a must-see for Giselle since the TV series), Savile Row, The Museum of Brands and Packaging and Portobello Road.

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November 6, 2013
by Heather
1 Comment

London calling

So here we are!
Such a lot has happened in the last not sure how many hours…We figured out it was 33 hours door to door from home to our fabulous apartment here in London; negotiating airports, planes, immigration, the underground (including a change of lines up and down staircases with luggage), a walk along quaint cobbled laneways, through a carriageway, into a courtyard to the King’s Wardrobe apartments. We managed to hang on for a couple more hours, long enough for a meal of pizza and a quick visit Marks and Spencer Food for breakfast supplies. All in it had been 48 hours since I’d lain flat when I finally got into bed Monday night.20131106-085853.jpg

Strange people on the tube!

Which didn’t stop us waking fairly early Tuesday and heading out to explore. Our first destination was the London Pass office to collect our London and travel passes. We walked along the river, past Cleopatra’s Needle and up through Trafalgar Square to Leicester Square. We went to the National Portrait Gallery where the most impressive thing I saw was a simple sketch of Jane Austen by her sister – impressive because it is the only known portrait of her. We checked out the blue rooster and the bubble blowing man in Trafalgar Square, did a lap trying to locate the London Brass Rubbing Centre and then another lap to locate the correct stop for the number 15 bus.
Up the top of a double decker bus is a great way to observe the streets and sights and I’m very glad a couple of people have recommended we use busses. From last time I remember feeling like a mole, popping our heads up from various underground stations but never really getting a sense of how the places connect to each other. Our destination was London Bridge which was the meeting point for the Muggle tour we’d pre-booked.
Adam “Potter” was our guide and he did a fabulous job taking us around various filming locations from the movies, telling historical stories about where J.K. Rowling got her inspiration from, and trivia about the actors and the production process. It was great fun even for total Muggles like me (having read only one of the books and none of the movies completely). Of course the girls absolutely loved it, being serious Harry Potter fans, and even Don has watched all the movies. Along the way we were stopped by a police barricade because Prince William was about to leave the Ministry of Defence so we even managed a bit of royal spotting from less than 30 metres! Here’s proof: http://youtu.be/-qRx6Ij_ClI
Back to the apartment for some quiet time and Giselle, Chiara and I all fell asleep on the couch within minutes. Giselle was deeply gone, she’d not been her usual sparky self all day, so it seemed cruel to wake her for dinner but we did anyway. We’re very well placed with several restaurants and cafes less than 5 minutes walk away so it was a quick Thai meal and back home to bed.
It’s 8.45am Wednesday now, the girls have just woken up although Don and I have been up for a couple of hours. Once we’re all ready we’re heading out for a day of museums and markets and then to Maida Vale to catch up with family.

20131106-085923.jpg The view from our apartment.

November 3, 2013
by Heather
6 Comments

All our bags are packed, we’re ready to go…

Only seven and half hours till take off!

The blog is reactivated and ready for tales of travel to the UK, Spain, Portugal and Morocco. You’ll notice a smart new theme which is “responsive” meaning it will display well on a phone, tablet or computer screen. The photo at the top is from our NZ trip.

The kids have both come down with colds which is not the best way to be starting a holiday but I’m sure 26+ hours of enforced rest in a confined space will do them the world of good, even if the other passengers don’t think so.

Take-off is at 12.45am tomorrow, the first leg is eight hours to Kuala Lumpur, a four hour stopover then the big one, fourteen hours to London arriving just on sunset at 4.30pm Monday (which will be 3.30am Tuesday at home).

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