Mediterranean Europe - Spain and France


We had talked about starting the next part of our trip in Lisbon, but felt it only fitting to fly Ryan Air out of Ireland and couldn't get a suitable Dublin-Lisbon flight on the day we wanted to fly. We had avoided driving into Madrid on our previous European trip, so we happily revised our plans and flew there instead. The first hotel we tried was full, but they directed us to a small hotel near the Plaza Mayor, central to many of the places we wanted to see.

One of the unavoidable hassles of our sort of unplanned travel is that as soon as you arrive somewhere you have to work out how to get to the next place, so as part of exploring the city we found the fabulous railway station to sort out our tickets south. It really is a beautiful railway station, with light, air, and lush gardens full of tortoise ponds. If you have to hang around and wait for a train this is better than most places to do it.

Madrid is OK - lots of lovely old buildings; the sort of place you need to remember to keep looking up, so that you appreciate the angels and the towers and other embellishments that decorate the tops of the ornate buildings. We aren't all that excited by large cities, and, in truth, four nights here was one night too many - a lesson we never seemed to learn. For all that, we were happy to have a chance to visit some of the museums and parks. Gastronomically, it wasn't great - there was a good food and vegetable market the other side of the Plaza, so fresh stuff for lunch was easy, but for the evening meal it was difficult to find anything different from pasta or pizza. If you stay in tourist districts you get tourist food. However, the Cherry Pop girl (little shop that sold frozen yogurt) lived on in our private folklore as a fond memory when we were hot and sticky and in need of something cold.

We had a fast train trip to Cordoba on the AVE. You adapt readily to the speed and the countryside doesn't seem to be flashing past any faster than it would if you were going by car, but it only took two and half hours, and was very comfortable. We found a hostel in La Judaria (the Jewish quarter) that was very pleasing - rooms arranged around an internal blue-tiled courtyard, complete with fountain, and a really helpful man running the place.

Cordoba is a wonderful introduction to Andalucia. It is a small city, easy to walk around, with the superb Mesquita (mosque cathedral) and the Alcazar as well as countless other churches and museums to visit. La Judaria's twisty little cobbled streets are worth wandering through even if you aren't staying there. I don't have a "favourite" place when we travel, but if I did then Cordoba would be high on the short list.

Seville is another enchanting town. We stayed in the Barrio de Santa Cruz (no surprises there - we like twisty little passages, all alike - and visited all the usual tourist attractions; the cathedral and the Alcazar and its gardens stand out, but just wandering around the city was pleasant.

Then it was on to Grenada, the last of our trio of Andalucian towns, where the Alhambra dominates the scene. Not for nothing is this one of the world's most famous attractions. We stayed in a rather strange pension, a secondary place taking overflow from the main building, that felt more like an apartment than a hostel. We reached it by ducking down the thinnest of alleyways to the back of the buildings, but it was modern and well fitted out, with a view up the hill to the Alhambra. Our last day in Grenada was spent out at the Science Park. Sounds like a strange thing to do, but once we walked in there was so much to see, and it was so well displayed, that we couldn't tear ourselves away.

Slowly the memory of the Cherry Pop girl was fading, replaced by a growing admiration for the icecream displays, becoming more and more elaborate as we travelled across the countryside. Icecreams of every flavour, shaped into chickens, watermelons, and other exotic shapes, enticed from displaycase after displaycase when we walked through the cities, and we were succumbing. Mind you, we were walking every day, often out for more than eight hours of vigorous sightseeing, so a little icecream didn't hurt at all.

We decided to skip over Valencia and take the train directly to Barcelona. Went to buy the ticket for a couchette only to be told it was first-class or sit up. With a sense of unreallity I agreed to first-class; we had agreed to try as many different modes of transport as we could find, after all. It cost more than flying, but we couldn't fault the champagne dinner, and we slept comfortably as we raced northward.

Barcelona! We'd been there before, but Kaye had been ill, and Spain had been wracked by civil unrest, and we hadn't taken much in. This time we had several days to wander through the city, gawk at the Gaudi buildings, and get a much better idea of what this bustling city has to offer. Loved the markets! Strolled La Rambla each evening. All good fun. We also loved some of the quirky shops; if we weren't on the move Kaye may have bought some of the folk-art pieces, but a backpack makes sure you temper what you buy - silk is fine, ceramics are impossible.

Like Madrid, this is a city where you should remember to look up all the time, to enjoy the architecture, and especially the pieces of art that decorate rooftops and facades.

France

Perpignon passed without a memory lodging in our collective brains, It is so strange - I look at the photographs and swear I've never been there in my life. Almost every other place we stayed stamped something indelible onto our consciousness, but even the photos of Perpignon look bland and I wonder why we took them.

Marseille, on the other hand, shone. Not just the harbour, although it sparkled in the bright sunlight, but also the museums, Chateau d'If and the Basilica all rated some time. Lots of places to eat down by the harbour, but we were very unimpressed by the totally automated food outlet we walked past on one of the walks we took.

Then we were off on another train, past glitzy towns, waterways with flamingos, through Monaco, to Italy.


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