Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Europe, the last days

Our trip in Europe was being conducted under the Schengen Convention, the convention that allows us to spend 90 days in Europe out of 180 without the need for visas, and we were in our last week and a bit. With our time in Europe coming near an end we had enough time left for one more place. A teacher friend from Perth made the offer to visit her in Carpinelli in the Tuscany region of Italy so we thought we would finish up there. It took two days to get there so we did an overnight stay in Genova. This area of Tuscany was so remote that not a single person in the hotel we stayed in spoke any English, this was definitely off the normal tourist track. So Gabbi, my friend, booked into the same hotel to translate for us, even though she had family in the area, and also got us mates rates.

This was definitely the wind-down portion of our trip, not much to do but soak your feet in the pool while overlooking the mountains surrounded by bush. Virtually everything was done for you in this tiny family run hotel (Hotel Prosperi). Breakfast was included and lunch and dinner were available by just asking for them. The chef (Nonna) would come out and tell you what was on offer for each meal and then cook it to your requirements. First day there we walked down to a local park to watch a play re-enacting a period of ancient history, something that apparently happens quite regularly.

The view from the tower

We also took the train one day to Lucca, a nearby medieval city fortified by a surrounding wall that is still standing today. We climbed up the Guinigi Tower, which has a hanging garden on the roof (from the ground it looks like the building has hair), for fantastic panoramic views of the city and its old buildings and the surrounding mountains.

One piece of drama that occurred was that we were smack bang in the heat wave that was gripping southern Europe at the time and wildfires were being reported in the news all over the place. Well, we had one of our own one afternoon that was beginning to concern me (I was in the pool at the time) right before a helicopter came flying over the fire area. For more than two hours this solitary helicopter went back and forth filling up his bucket with water and dumping it on the fire. On his own he put the whole fire out and I was pretty impressed at the difference a little helicopter and a tiny bucket could make on what looked like a fairly big fire.

With three days to go we started the long trip out of Europe, it was at least two days by train and ended up being more difficult than we expected...

Saturday, August 25, 2012

I will take my city fortified, please

The view from our apartment

Well our luck is still holding out, we decided to go and see the fortified city at Carcassone and were very lucky to get accommodation at such a late stage. But then we received an email telling us that our accommodation had been damaged and that we were being moved somewhere else for the same price if we wanted. We accepted as we had nowhere else to go and hopped on the train to our mystery new abode. Well it was unbelievable, a fully decked out 3 bedroom apartment, with bath, fully setup kitchen, washing machine, dishwasher, lounge, patio and garden that overlooked the river, the park and the fortified city. Must have been worth at least twice what we paid, woo hoo.

A model of the city from the top
Church on the left, castle in the middle

We had only one full day here as our only reason to come here was to visit the fortified city, so after a good nights sleep we set off along the Aude river and across the bridge to see it (oh I forgot to tell you the apartment was walking distance to it). The city itself was testament to either the dangers of medieval times or the paranoia of the city's rulers, or both.

Along the ramparts
The castle
It started with a moat followed by a large stone wall. Then came an area of no man's land followed by another stone wall. Inside this area was the city itself and it is still in use today with hotels, shops, reastaurants etc. Then tucked away in a corner is another large stone wall, followed by another moat, with a huge bridge across to the castle. As you wander around the ramparts and other areas of the castle you see many other signs of paranoia. For instance the initial castle gate (before the moat) had its tower open at the back so that if the first defence was overrun then the attackers would have nowhere to hide and could be taken out by the archers. Another example was that the entrance into the castle had two large gates, each one having to be lowered from a different floor of the tower so that collusion among traitorous guards could be minimised.

The history of the city goes back nearly 2000 years and in its present configuration it was impregnable, driving away many an army. The only time it was taken was when the ruler Trencavel was tricked into it during the crusades when he was imprisoned while negotiating his city's surrender. There is even a torture museum displaying the tools of the trade of the crusading Catholics.

Cath├ędrale Saint-Michel de Carcassonne

Spending a day here made us feel like we were in a production of King Arthur and we even ate dinner within its walls, wandering lazily along the river back to our apartment as the sun went down. We needed a good night's sleep as the next day was a full day of travelling that was not even going to get us all the way to our destination. Yep it was going to take us two days to get to the Tuscan region of Italy (stopover Genova).

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The chronicles of Nuria

Ours is the place on the right

We can only take so many cities before we need the great outdoors to relax in. So after Nice and Barcelona we started looking for the nearest mountains. We did not have to look far as up at the top of Spain are the Pyrenees. Finding somewhere to go in the Pyrenees was a bit harder, mainly because of train problems. We found a scenic trip on the Eurail map to the centre of the Pyrenees but when we used the Eurail website to map out the trip the train went well into France and then back down to turn a 2/3 hr trip into 10. Even going into a train station came up with the same result, the operator could not get the station we wanted (that showed a direct line from Barcelona) to go straight to it, again wanting to go up into France and back down to it. I left some queries on Lonely Planet for some alternative locations and started looking for hotels/hostels. Most were full or actively discouraging booking by saying the mountains were too far from them. In the end we settled on a place called Nuria, but they were all booked out, and then Queralbs just down from Nuria (also all booked out) and then Ribes de Freser (success, we found an apartment as cheap as a hostel).

This ended up being just what we were looking for, Ribes de Freser was a tiny town at about 900m above sea level with a cog train up to Queralbs (1100m) and all the way through to Nuria (1900m). Also lucky was that our Eurail passes gave us 50% discount on the cog train and our accommodation was half the price it would have been in either of the other two towns for an apartment that included a fully decked out kitchen, washing machine and living room. Luxury for us used to our 1 room hostels. The town was not very touristy and consequently hardly anybody spoke English and shops closed for a siesta from 1pm to 5pm and closed completely at 8pm while restaurants did not open for food until 8:30pm. We did find a health food shop that had gluten free products so I stocked up on bread and cereal.

The language issue was really weird because this area of Spain is known as Catalonya, so while 3/4 of South America spoke normal Spanish, and we had learned a smattering of the essentials, here in this part of Spain they spoke Catalan which was completely different. I think they want to secede like Western Australia. Well our good luck was holding up as we landed in this normally sleepy town during a fiesta week just as they were putting up colourful streamers across the buildings and hanging rugs outside their balconies.

The map

No free walking tours here but they did have a tourist shop with some maps, including one that had a list of special fountains in the town called 'Ruta de les Fonts' (route of the fountains) done a bit like a treasure hunt, so we set out to find them. It was harder than it looked, the map was not very detailed and they were often tucked into little back areas or high spots and one was even behind some bush on the main road. We did find about six of them. Starving to death we did have to stretch our appetites until about 9pm before we could get a meal. We stocked up from the supermarket and cooked in our kitchen for the rest of the week.

The next day we decided to do the recommended and lovely 3.5 hour long, 900 metres up Queralbs to Nuria walk, taking the cog train to Queralbs. The walk drifted its way lazily up mountains, along rivers, through bush and even beside the train line at times. This was a relaxing, even if sometimes strenuous, walk up to Nuria. It is quite amazing when you emerge from the bush to see the man made lake and manicured gardens of this resort/sanctuary nestled in the Pyrenees mountains.

We made it!
Amazing 360 degree views
The day following this trek we decided to cog train it up to Nuria and check out what mountains would be nice to hike up from there. Well we get to Nuria and after visiting the information desk Elizabeth unfortunately finds out that the tallest mountain in this area is the Puigmal. Nearly 3000m high that becomes our quest for the day, unfortunately the labelling of the track was a bit dodgy and we initially took the wrong path. This petered into nothing and we had to backtrack, one hour down the drain. We found the right path and started again, what followed was another 2.5 hours virtually all of it uphill, the last part nearly straight up on gravel. It was hard work but the view from the top was amazing, panoramic mountain views all the way around. On the way down, as it was getting late we came across dozens of Pyrenean chamois, a type of deer found in these mountains. By the time we got down it was a good 6 hours of mountain trekking, which combined with the day before had left us with jelly legs.
Pyrenian chamois (I think)
Why do all these
mountains have a
cross on top?

Brilliant atmosphere
The next day every step on our 2 floors up or down our apartment was excruciating, so we had an easy day soaking in the atmosphere of the village, which spent the day celebrating. This day ended up being a public holiday for them and there was dancing and music going all day. We went down at one stage and they had these massive 5m caricatures of a boy and girl dancing together winding through the streets. Unfortunately I forgot my camera so I cannot show you how cool they actually looked. At night they had an orchestra playing with some type of community dance going on. A very relaxing stay indeed.

Epilogue: The train we took to get to Ribes had as its last stop La Tour de Carol, the very stop we were trying to get to right at the beginning. But since this was in France there was some miscommunication going on (French railways don't seem to like to give out information to their neighbours - Switzerland, Spain & Italy all had problems booking us trains to anywhere else in France other than Paris) . Leaving Ribes we actually took this train through the Pyrenees and then transferred to another train to get to Carcassonne, our next stop. So we could have got there the short way all along, if we knew the train, luckily for us these other places did not even look half as good as the place we ended up :-)

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Nice is nice while Barcelona is Gaudi

View from our room
Initially the plan was to go to Portugal but we found out that the train trip would take 4 days, clearly above my endurance level regardless of how much I like trains. We then found the price of a plane was ridiculous. So we searched for a middle point that was interesting and Nice came up. Stilll too long by train but the plane was half the price and Elizabeth had always wanted to go to the French Riviera, so 'James, the French Riviera please' (imagine plane making sharp U-turn). We ended up in a busy hostel, high up and with brilliant views of the city.

Our first day had us exploring the old town with a free walking tour in the morning and then wandering by ourselves up to Castle Hill to see the fabulous park and gaze at the awesome views down to the beach and across the city. We then decided that Monaco was only a 1 hour bus ride so let's go visit another country this afternoon.

Monte Carlo Casino

We picked a random spot in Monaco to get off the bus after a fairly high climb through the city and started to wander down. We came across the Monte Carlo Casino and it looked every bit as flash as expected with a huge concave mirror in front of it reflecting the blue sky. I was too scared to go inside imagining my life savings disappearing in two spins of a roulette wheel. We continued down the hill admiring the amazing views and huge boats in the marina. We came across a sign that seemed to epitomise the lifestyles of the rich and famous, check out the second and second last entries.

Breil Sur Roya
We found it
From the beach at night
On the second day it was time to go and find one of those little authentic towns they always talk about, so after several discussions with the helpful hostel staff we decided to go to Breil Sur Roya, a short train trip away. We arrived at this very sleepy tiny town and wandered down some amazing narrow cobbled streets with tall buildings on either side and went hunting for some hiking trails we were told about. We did not find them but did see a small castle type building on a hill (we later found out was Chapelle Sant-Antoine) and after asking a couple of locals started climbing towards it. It was smaller than it looked but presented some beautiful views of the countryside and the town. Back in the town everybody was in siesta mode as most of the shops were closed and we could not find anywhere for some food, starving we had to wait for Nice to eat and then went down to the beach in the dark to dip our tired feet in the warm waters of the Mediterranean.

Next stop Barcelona, but this turned out to be a longer trip than expected. The train was supposed to break into two near the border of Spain and France with one half going into each respective country. But it would not come apart, in the end it went to France and we (and about a hundred others) were left lying on the platform waiting for our fate to be decided. In the end they called up some buses that took about 3 hours to arrive and drove us to Barcelona about 6 hours late. We crawled into bed at about 3:30am.

Casa Batllo
A fireplace
One of the ceilings
Barcelona was worth the wait, wow this city is beautiful and pumping with a hive of activity and a multitude of people. Elizabeth came here because of the renowned architect Antoni Gaudi (I on the other hand had never heard of him), who over a hundred years ago was doing some really weird and wonderful things to the buildings of Barcelona. On a free Gaudi walking tour we saw the outside of some of the most famous ones and then went back the next day to the one that looked the most weird to have a gander in depth. The building had a water theme and you really thought you had been transported into a Disneyland cartoon, I will post some pictures below so you can decide for yourelves but it was a feast for the senses. Unfortunately it took me about 3 hours to get Elizabeth out of this building. We also saw the La Sagrada Familia, a church by Gaudi that he never finished and they are still working on today. As like all geniuses/madmen he ended up being consumed by this building and it is so big and complicated that they are hoping to finish it in about 20 years which would be 150 years from when he started it.

Sagrada Familia
At night

From the bullring

We did do other things like visit The Magic Fountain of Montjuic, an amazing fountain light and sound show that is put on every night. Probably the best fountain show I have ever seen and goes for around 20 minutes. It is situated at the end of a long boulevard that has smaller fountains all the way along and the MNAC Museum as a backdrop. The crowds here reminded me of Paris and it is probably like this every day. Also really cool was a previous bullfighting ring that has been converted into a mall. Bullfighting is banned in Barcelona (but not in all of Spain) and this was a great way to use the space. For a euro you can take an external elevator to the top and see 360 degree views, the picture of the boulevard with the fountain at the end was taken from here.

Park Guell
Another top spot was Park Guell, originally an idea by Gaudi to be a residential area, it never took off, but it is huge and filled with grand Gaudi designs throughout and with high views of the city. In our 2 days here we went all day getting back late each night but still only scratched the surface. Barcelona would have to be one of my favourite cities so far.