Granada walking tour and more …

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Day two of our exploration of Granada, began with a half-day walking tour after breakfast. Our experience with Michael had us setting off with high expectation for what was to be a private tour (just the four of us), so imagine our surprise when our guide had us waiting at the bus stop near the hotel for the small public bus. In hindsight it was good to experience the way the locals travel but it was quite hair-raising in places as the bus hurtled down steep hills, taking tight turns and winding its way through the narrowest of one-way streets – so narrow that we could have touched the walls of the houses on either side had the windows been open.

Our guide was not as good as Michael yesterday and I think we could have seen more of the high parts of the Albayzin – but we saw as much as we could, beginning with the area around the Cathedral, despite having told her that we had been there yesterday. However, we did see some other sights which were new to us including the old market which is now houses offices and also the modern market. We went to check out the Spice Market by the Cathedral but it was on due to renovations around the church, so we ventured on to Plaza de Bib-Rambla which had wandered through yesterday ….

Next stop was the Moroccan Quarter which was colourful and interesting, however it did seem that we were visiting shops which may be in partnership with the guide. One of the Moroccan vendors had the most beautiful lights on display – rather tempting when it was obvious he shipped internationally…

A square opposite our guide’s apartment provided respite from the midday sun as we took coffee under the welcome shade of the umbrellas.

I was keen to see the next stop on our tour -the Albayzin area with the beautiful carmens, so it was back on the bus which was packed full, and quite uncomfortable in the heat of the afternoon. The bus wound its way up the hill to the Mirador San Nicolas, the famous viewpoint overlooking the Alhambra and the city, where we banged into our mate Michael again and he seemed please to see us. The Mirador provides a panoramic vista but my camera wasn’t playing the game in the bright light, so my photos are a bit disappointing. I think we were short-changed on the time we spent in the Albayzin- there are so many pretty areas would could have wandered around but that was not to be, and soon we were back in the Plaza where we took coffee.

Since there were plenty of cafes in the Plaza to take lunch, we chose one, ate our meal and headed back to the hotel by taxi to avoid the heat of the sun. Later we met on the enticing hotel terrace where Frances and I enjoyed a very pretty floral gin!

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Dinner for us was in a great little place we found near the hotel – opposite the Alhambra. We were enticed by the menu which offered “the cuisine of the inhabitants of the Alhambra,” It was Middle Eastern fare and it was delicious – an appropriate way to end our stay in this lovely city with the Moorish influence.

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Granada magic….

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Yesterday will remain special as we took an amazing private tour around the spectacular Alhambra, and also the imposing and memorable Granada Cathedral. While I am not Catholic I find the sumptuous symbolism and icons found in Catholic churches quite fascinating and engaging – hence my visit to the enormous and overwhelming Cathedral de Granada. Construction of this monster began in the 16th century and continued for nearly 200 years. Its size is truly monstrous, and the capilla (chapels )which line the walls are incredibly opulent. The circular chancel housing the high altar is incredible as is the altar itself, and the two organs within in are simply stunning.

After the Cathedral, we explored a little further within the area, had a coffee in a quiet little alley  where we discovered a very dedicated barista, before looking at some of the more modern shopping area and returning to the hotel before our next tour.

And what a tour it was. Our tour guide Hana Anne met us at the hotel and walked with us up to the Alhambra where she showed us through the part of the complex for which tickets were not required, telling us some of the history as we walked. Shortly after she handed us over to one of the best tour guides we have had – the very flamboyant Michael. Tall, extremely good looking, with huge dangling earrings, wearing purple pants and top, and sporting magenta painted toenails, he was so learned – a university lecturer who speaks nine languages. He was amazing -informative but with a very dry sense of humour. He kept us entertained through the half day we spent with him the Alhambra and the beautiful GeneralLife gardens.

Michael imparted far too much information for me to try and summarise here so I resort again to letting my humble photos tell the story of what we saw, and some will not be captioned. Most of the photos of the interior are taken in the Palacios Nazaries.

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Incredibly intricate roof

My favourite photo of all:

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My favourite from the garden:

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Valencia to Granada …

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The drive from Valencia to Granada, was long (500kms) but not arduous. It provided a fascinating view of Spain’s every changing topography. I felt really satisfied as we left Valencia because its history was like a book standing open in front of us, and we got to read some of the pages in that book.

While we chose not to go down to the harbourside on the advice of our hostess, we did drive down to view it on our way to Granada, and perhaps in hindsight it may have been worthwhile to have taken an stroll around there for a couple of hours – some of the modern architecture was simply stunning – in particular the building shaped like a conquistador’s helmet, which is reminiscent of the Sydney Opera House. This area had many outstanding modern buildings in contrast to what we had been seeing in the old town.

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The best shot I could get from the back seat of the car …

I decided it would be worthwhile, just to keep snapping away as we drove to try and capture the varied landscape in this vast country which changed constantly as we drove by, often on long and straight toll roads. One minute we were seeing verdant orange, apricot and lemon groves, the next minute it was gravelly hills, huge open plains extending right up to the foot of enormous mountains, or even a pine forest as we came closer to Granada.

Initially, after leaving Valencia we saw churches, tiny run-down houses and graffiti-covered huts, but we saw less of these as we moved along through huge plains, and desert-like expanses.  We passed around the outskirsts of Benidorm and Alicante where huge apartment blocks headed skyward- they looked very cosmopolitan and cramped from our perspective and certainly not attractive places to stay, although I imagine the beaches are beautiful.

What did appeal were some of the white villages we could see in the distances as we came into Andalucia. As we passed via Guadix, we even saw troglodyte cave houses- very unexpected and the closer we got to Granada, the landscape became less arid and unforgiving.

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As we entered Granada and drove the one-way system of winding streets, I could see this would be another place to love. Pulling up to the hotel was exciting- situated high on the side of a hill, it has an impressive facade and is located right beside the Alhambra.

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The interior of the hotel is no less impressive. It is elegant and very grand with a significant moorish influence in the decor. Our room is quite small and looks toward the Alhambra, which is hidden behind shrubbery – our terrace has to be seen to be believed – it is huge and services only our room. Our friends have a lovely junior suite on the other side of the hotel looking down to the town – no terrace but large and quite opulent.

The terrace on ground floor level provides a panoramic view over the city and as we were tired after a very long drive we decided to relax there with drinks, and ended up having a very simple dinner too.

At sunset the city looks beautiful – the light of dusk is very pretty and we are keen to see so much more of it.

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Sunset view on the town side of the hotel

Vibrant Valenica

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Another day dawns here in sunny Spain and we are now in Valencia. The last full day in Barcelona was marred by me mixing a couple of medications which made me quite ill, so I couldn’t do the the walk in Las Ramblas and the Gothic quarter which we had planned. By the end of the day I was feeling much better and was able to go out for a tapas meal that we had arranged with son of a friend.

After a quick breakfast in a nice cafe we discovered near the hotel, we were on the road to Valencia, via Tarragona. We only had time to pass through, but managed to see the Roman amphitheatre ruins by the sea. We had hoped to spend a bit longer there but a large market in the town put paid to any decent parking, so we headed off to Valencia.

It was quite a long drive from Barcelona to Valencia but we saw some interesting landscapes along the way. Many fields were dotted with tiny little huts like small fincas, which were often graffiti-laden. Common too were churches in the fields, and as we came nearer to Valencia, orange groves prolifterated.

Ah, Valencia – even from the outskirts I could feel I would like it and as we neared our B&B accommodation in the old town, I was sure I would love it. What a place! There are churches galore, beautiful buildings, an impressive city portal and a huge park, which has been built in the the path of a diverted river. It is quite an asset to the city I am sure.

Once settled in our B&B, we ventured out to explore the environment nearby, beginning in the  pedestrian Placa de la Mare de Deu, which houses the historic pink Basilica de la Mare de Deu, plus the Gothic Cathedral with its amazing facade, and a very large fountain.

Margarita, our hostess, has made a wonderfully quirky place for travellers to stay at Valencia Arthouse. Set away from the busy tourist area, yet still very close, it is a perfect base to explore the old city, which we have been doing since early this morning, beginning with a stroll of the empty streets before breakfast. Breakfast itself was a profusion of colourful condiments, cereals, crepes, cheeses, French toast, fruit salad, yoghurt and breads – something to suit everyone!

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We began our exploration of the city by heading off for the Mercat Central (market) to see how the Valencians do their Saturday morning shopping – it was packed, and the selection of fruits, vegetables, fish, meat etc was overwhelming. The building itself is truly awesome, both inside and out. Next stop was the Bullring but we couldn’t get in as they were setting up for a concert , so we went into the magnificent Estacio del Nord train station nearby, which boasts the most amazing tiled murals. It was worth a visit as is the Post Office, (Palacio de Correos y Telegrafos) another architectural treasure-the domed roof is remarkable. At this point the four of us split up so I could do a bit of shopping – Zara and Cos were just around the corner, but sadly I came away empty-handed.

Lunchtime had arrived by this time so we had a delicious Valencian paella in the Placa de la Reina. It was very tasty, and surprisingly was full of green and white beans.

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Delicious lunch paella

We managed to find a place set back from the crush of tourists which today seem to be groups of middle-aged women.  The parade of people we have seen since we have been here has been fascinating. It seems this part of town is the place for weddings and we have seen some beautifully dressed women pass by and even a bride or two.

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Rose petals and confetti scattered along the steet

Feeling full after the paella, we took off in a different direction to walk it off but it seemed to be a shopping area (Carolina Herrera was there no less!), and since it was 30 degrees we went back in our cool haven before we went off again to explore the old Arab Quarter.

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All that remains of the sturdy Arab wall structure – The Portal de Valldigna

After  finding the well-known Portal de Vallidigna,  we finally got to see inside the Basilica – each time we had passed it previously it was either hosting a wedding or the doors were closed. It is simply magnificent.

Our last dinner here was outdoors in a little side alley beside a church with some great gargoyles protruding from the roof above us.

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As we wandered back to the B&B in the dimming light I was thrilled to see that the doors to the Cathedral were open – the first time since I have been here -it is less opulent than the Basilica but magnificent nonetheless. The Basilica doors were still open too so I couldn’t resist a second look inside.

Valencia has treated us well. We had have great weather (it was nice of the thunderstorm to happen when we were asleep), a perfect place to stay, delicious food and for me total immersion in the architectural delights this city provides. I am assuming it is quite a devout city as there are churches galore (and bells ringing to go with it). The history is palpable and I have loved it here. Tomorrow we leave for Granada.

 

 

Parc Guell …

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Having completed our inspirational tour of the Sagrada interior, we returned to the hotel (Ayre Rossellon) which is just around the corner, armed with lovely fresh rolls from a nearby cafe.

Expectation was high as we took a taxi to Parc Guell which is some distance away. We had pre-booked tickets to visit Gaudi’s house/museum for which you are assigned an appointed entry time and it is strictly adhered to. This is also true of the Parc itself – 400 people are allowed to enter at 30 minute intervals and not a minute before.

The Parc is absolutley amazing – so I will let the photos tell the tale….

 

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Spectacular

Gaudi magic ….

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This morning marked the arrival of one of the most anticipated days of our trip – we had pre-booked tickets to view the interior of the Sagrada Familia, and to go to Parc Guell this afternoon.

9.30am marked the start of our morning at the Cathedral, where we duly received our audioguides providing with us with an informative commentary on Gaudi and his wondrous architectural design. The commentary began outside, giving a quite detailed explanation of the elements of the Nativity facade, but once inside it was hard to concentrate on what was being said, as we stood awe-struck by what we were seeing. Personally, I never expected feel so amazed by the Cathedral, but I defy anyone not to be. It is far too difficult to try to explain in words or pictures how magnificent it is -the light, the colours, the pillars, the canopy -it is so majestic – I can only show you what I saw…. first a little more of the exterior:

Now for the jaw-dropping interior as seen through the lens of my little point and click camera:

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It is truly forest-like

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Work in progress

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Majestic

And some more…

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Beautiful pink light

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Muted shades of greens and apricots reflecting though the Passion Facade side

There are so many superlatives I could throw about to try and describe this beautiful place of worship – but none would do it justice. It truly has to be seen to be believed.

Tomorrow I will take you to Parc Guell …

More Barcelona with Brightside …

After our wonderful viewing of the Gaudi houses we set off up the hill towards the Olympic Stadium. On our way we passed a bullring which has been converted to shopping mall – smart move!

The stairs at the top of the hill offer great views down to the city. The impressive building at the top of the stairs was constructed in 1929 for the World Fair, and now houses the National Art Museum of Catalunya (Museu Nacional).

The Olympic Stadium, used for the 1992 Olympics, was much smaller than we expected and very simple – not making for spectacular photos. The harbour side of the hill however, provided wonderful views of the cruise ship terminals, and the working cable car which brings people up the hill.

Barceloneta Beach was our next stop, the artificial beach created for the 1992 Olympics. It was overcast and dull when we arrived and it didn’t look that inviting. We saw the iconic Hotel W with its sail-shaped structure which is quite a stunning architectural piece. It was quiet on the beach but on the promenade where we stood a kindergarten outing was going on – two bikes ridden by caregivers,  each with a large cart on the front containing 6 little kids, all with helmets on – looked like great fun!

El Born (the Born District) was our last stop the Niya  – it was a real treat wandering the streets with her commentating on what we were seeing and offering advice on great places to eat and drink. A highlight was seeing the amazing interior of the Church of Santa Maria Del Mar, built in the 14th century.

It was in this district, that Niya left us to our own devices, but with directions  for the best route back to our hotel. As we continued exploring we came across a pintxos/tapas bar  called Bilbao Berria with the most delectable looking food, and we couldn’t resist making it our lunch stop. It was our first experience with pintxos (pinchos), small bites spiked with a skewer (the empty skewer being placed in a receptacle, and then counted to tally the bill). They were delicious!!!

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Bilbao Berria

A walk was on the cards after lunch, so we decided to take the route Niya suggested back to the hotel – quite a few steps were done!

A rest was in order after than, than we ate locally at an Italian restaurant. We sat outside and drank in the ambience – it seems people in Barcelona like to come out and walk their dogs in the early evening and to meet for a drink. Strangely, several people walked past us with just one crutch – we wondered if there was an A & E nearby…

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We went to bed feeling enlightened and inspired by this great city and are looking forward to more see more inspirational Gaudi creations tomorrow.

 

 

 

 

 

Brilliant Barcelona … wow!

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We arrived in Barcelona mid afternoon yesterday, checked into our room, threw open the curtains and were greeted with an amazing sight. The Northern Facade of the Sagrada Familia lay directly in front of us. Truly awesome!

Once unpacked we headed to the rooftop terrace to take in an even better view of the Cathedral and the city. Drinks and tapas were involved. We sat relaxing and watching the perfectly choreographed routines of four cranes operating in unison, transferring yellow buckets of materials from one side of the facade to the other with the utmost precision.

This morning we were up early to breakfast and then take our three and a half hour private tour of the city with Brightside tours.  They arrived in a refurbished old Renault minibus with open sides. Niya was our guide and she was brilliant – so informative and passionate about what she was showing us. We were able to get on and off the van at many places so that she could guide us through what we were seeing. First stop – the exterior views of the Sagrada Familia (tomorrow we see the interior):

Next stop : Hospital de Sant Pau – a beautiful building, formerly a hospital (up until 2009) and now a World Heritage site.

Next Niya took us through some very swish shopping precincts and then on to view some more Gaudi architecture in the “Block of Discord”  (Illa de la Discord) on the Passeig de Gracia, in the Eixample district, which boasts outstanding modernist residences – Casa Batllo and Casa Amatller. On our way there, we saw the amazing Casa Mila, designed by Gaudi, with wrought iron railings designed by Josep Maria Jujol. The building reflects the ocean with its wave-shaped curves and balustrades reminiscent of seaweed.

 

Next instalment of today’s trip will follow – meanwhile something colourful from today:

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Day two in Marseille

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The day dawned bright but terribly windy. The Mistral was really doing its thing this morning, and in hindsight taking  warmer clothes would have been wise. I was glad I had a scarf with me, but it was not enough to protect from the biting wind.

We made the decision to take the hour long tourist train to Notre Dame de la Garde and to get there early as we had seen the long lines to get on the train when we were at the port yesterday. It was a wise decision as the queues were building while we were waiting in line with our pre-purchased tickets. The train wound its way bumpily up the hill where the Basilica is situated, and afforded great views of the city and more affluent suburbs as we inched slowly to the top.

I am not going to write much about it and will let the photos tell the story – just to say it was so windy up there that we could hardly stand, but battling the wind was worth it as the 360 views are spectacular! There were two armed soldiers patrolling the site- it felt weird but secure. We managed to get into the small lower chapel but there was service going on in the larger chapel. I very much regret not standing in the line in the howling gale waiting to get in after the service, as it is dramatically different from the chapel below which is comparatively austere. The photos of the interior I have seen show it to be utterly magnificent.

On the exterior, for me the Madonna and child on top of the Basilica stood out – spectacular in the sun, but the whole panorama was simply stunning.

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The richly blue sea from the top of the hill and the Chateau d’If

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Beautiful window in the smaller chapel

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Madonna and child

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The Mistral made it hard to stand up as it swirled around us

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Looking down to the Vieux port in the distance

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Another view to the city

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The image above the door of the Basilica hints at the grandeur inside

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Soldier patrolling from on high

We so enjoyed the first train trip that we also did the old town circuit after lunch in a Port restaurant. It was not as spectacular but still very worthwhile.

The other highlight of our day was fantastic dinner we had at Lacaille, a great restaurant recommended to us by Caroline. It was not too far away but again it was quite confronting walking through one of the streets to get there. We planned to go to a trendy wine bar also recommended by Caroline but we were too early and had to return later. In the meantime we had a drink in a pretty crusty looking square with some “interesting” people milling round. Needless to say, one drink was enough and we returned to wine bar as soon as it opened.

We dined around the corner at Lacaille shortly after,  and again the surroundings were none too salubrious but the restaurant itself was classy and upmarket. The menu was not huge but it was inviting and all our chosen dishes were beautifully presented and quite delicious. It was a perfect finish to a long day.

Our Marseille experience is probably best summed up for all of us by the words of our friend Roger:

“Marseille has been everything I expected and wanted it to be, steamy, cosmopolitan, dangerous, edgey, in your face and much more. It feels like anything can happen at anytime…”

Tomorrow we leave for Barcelona!

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Saying farewell to the our lovely hostess

 

 

Marvellous Marseille ….

Sadly, we said goodbye to the Cote D’Azur yesterday and left for Marseille via Le Lavandou where we stopped for coffee and a stroll through the pretty streets. Next up was Toulon -a drive through only. I am sure there are pretty parts to the city, but surely didn’t see them. On the outskirts we passed hundred of decaying and run down tenement blocks which are obviously still inhabited.

We are now ensconced in our quirky but delightful B &B, Casa Ortega in crazy Marseille. It is like going from the sublime to the ridiculous from a huge four bedroom villa to a small place like this, but nothing is better than being right in the thick of real life to see how a city works, and Casa Ortega allows us to do this. It is perfectly placed for seeing how different cultures, races and religions can co-exist peacefully and successfully, though personally I still feel uneasy in certain places.

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Casa Ortega is run by Caroline, a delightful and very attractive Parisian woman who moved to Marseille a few years ago. She fell in love with the building and has since turned it into a smart and colourful B & B. She provides a nourishing breakfast, and is a mine of information regarding the area.

The area around Casa Ortega has a lot graffiti like so much of the city, run down buildings, homeless people sleeping rough on doorsteps, and there is a huge ethic mix.  The smell of freshly cooked breads and pizzas wafts through the air each time we step out into Rue des Petites Maries, where the B & B is situated. On the walk to and from the Vieux Port, we noticed there are fewer women on the streets  up here, but clutches of men sit drinking strong coffee and smoking (still so common in France it would seem).  While it is probably not unusual to feel disquiet walking the streets in this milieu, Caroline assures that there is no need. Nevertheless, the feeling that anything could happen still lurks and returning to our cosy third floor room with a terrace is like returning to a cocoon. We feel safe.

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Saw this brave pussy cat from our terrace – he is up a few storeys!

The port itself is beautiful – boats of every kind are crammed into the marina, with cafes and restaurants lining each side of the docks and two old forts intended ,in past times, to guard it. The sun was shining and the water was deep blue and sparkling. We decided to take the walk over to Fort Saint-Jean and the MuCEM – both stunning in their grandeur. Views like those from the Fort have to be savoured, and we took our time, even though we were being buffeted the strong winds generated by the Mistral. At one stage I could barely stand still enough to hold onto my camera.

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Harbour with Notre Dame de la Garde in the background

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Marseille Vieux Port with Fort Saint Nicolas in the background

The MuCEM is yet another example of the lengths to which the French go to display  and celebrate their history – everything is well sign posted and there is plenty of documentation to help you understand the past that unfolds before your eyes. It will remain a memorable experience.

 

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We took dinner close by in a very ordinary looking restaurant with a simple menu which appealed. The food was very average but we had a wonderfully attentive waiter who was rather “Manuelesque” at the same time. We had a bit of fun with him and returned to our cosy room with terrace on the third floor.  As we prepared for bed, we could hear that there was a thunderous fireworks display going on at the port. All in a day’s work in Marseille apparently….

Tomorrow we get up to the Basilica of Notre Dame de la Garde.