England – Trip to Dover Castle

I decided to take a quick jaunt over the pond to visit friends and enjoy the fabulous English culture. While this did involve a lot of time enjoy time on the patio at the pubs around Bristol (yes, the patio, in May, in England!), once I headed to London for my last few days I also managed to make it to Dover Castle to soak up some history. Not only is this one of the oldest castles in Europe, it was also important for the war effort in WWII. Lucky for us they had a WWII reenactment weekend on when we were there. Everyone really got into character with the clothes and hairstyles, plus acting the part of soldiers during that time. Lots of great information and entertainment from WWII, including the music, demonstrations and battle reenactments, in addition to the regular beauty and history provided on a regular day at Dover. Here are a few pictures from our day.

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Iceland and the Northern Lights

I loved Iceland so much the first time when my friend and I found another amazing deal from Icelandair to go back and see the Northern Lights we jumped at it. Just a quick four day trip which included our flights, hotel and an evening tour of the Northern Lights after a stop at Fontana spa. The downside of going to Iceland when the Northern Lights are visible is you have to go in winter. Fortunately the Gulf Stream moves past Iceland and keeps the temperatures fairly mild, even in winter.

The plan was to spend the first day in Reykjavik visiting museums, in particular the settlement museum, the church and wandering downtown, and then we organized tours around Iceland for the next couple days. Our first day in Reykjavik was lovely, although a bit treacherous with the ice everywhere. We learned that Iceland uses its vast stores of thermal heat to warm the roads and sidewalks by running hot water pipes underneath the downtown area. As a result, they rarely shovel snow and instead rely on the hot water pipes to melt the snow. Normally it works very well, but the day we arrived a cold night froze the melting snow making it quite icy on the majority of the sidewalks. In spite of this, Reykjavik was as beautiful as I remember it and the people just as friendly, although it much snowier this time which in some ways made it even more lovely.  Seeing the city draped in snow with Christmas lights everywhere made it almost magical. Daylight only lasts from 10:30am to about 3:30pm which takes some getting used to! Very strange to be heading for breakfast at 9am and its still pitch black out. But it did add to that magical quality.

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On our second day, we started with a tour with Sterna Travel of Rekjanes (the smoky peninsula), the region around Reykjavik, where we drove through the volcanic lava fields and visited the thermal mud pots. The whole tour was a photographer’s dream; every place we stopped was gorgeous. I toured the lava fields last time but with all of the snow everything looked completely different.

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We stopped at Lake Kleifarvatn, one of the deepest lakes in Iceland with black sand beaches.  One of the most beautiful places I have ever been.

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The tour continued on to the Seltun hot springs/mud pots to watch the bubbling springs and walk through the area. We stopped for lunch in the pretty town of Grindavik then continued on to the largest hot mud spring in Iceland, it has a crater that is 20 meters round.

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We also stopped for a view of the coast, black volcanic rocks pushing out of the sea as water crashed on the volcanic rock and sand. Our final planned stop was to stand on a bridge that spanned the divide of the American and European continents.

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That night was our Northern Lights tour. After a stop at the Fontana spa we started the drive to find the Northern Lights. Lucky for us they were out in full force that night. We only had to drive about 15 minutes when we saw them and we spent the rest of the night taking pictures with our tripods and watching the lights dance in the sky. Below are my favourites of the many many pictures I took.

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It was amazing! Good thing I was bundled up as I was out there about 2 hours taking photos. It wasn’t too cold considering it was Iceland at the end of November, but I still needed my warm layers and even then after 2 hours my hands were cold and my camera was starting to freeze, that was the sign it was time to leave. What an amazing night.

At the time we didn’t know how lucky we were but that night a huge storm blew in with 25 cm or more of snow that started in the morning and lasted all day. Needless to say all tours were cancelled including ours to the Golden Circle. Instead we spent another day wandering Reykjavik in the storm, it was really beautiful with the snow falling and it wasn’t too cold, just under zero. We went to the fabulous National Museum of Iceland. What a great place to spend a stormy day. The exhibits were interesting and the museum is huge, to fully look at everything it would take at least an entire day. Icelandic history from the first settlers until modern day life is covered in full detail with a mix of written information, artifacts and audio exhibits where you can listen to stories about what life was like at various phases of Icelandic history.

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On our final day we took a transfer to the airport that stopped at the Blue Lagoon so we spent a relaxing few hours having facials and relaxing in the hot springs. Fabulous end to an amazing trip back to Iceland.

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Gibraltar – The end of Europe

This year has flown by so far. I’ve been so busy I have sadly neglected my blog and I need to make up for lost time. Fortunately I haven’t been too busy to travel! My year of travel actually started off immediately, after a fabulous night out in London to ring in 2015, my friend and I headed to the airport and flew to Gibraltar, a British overseas territory. We decided to stay in Spain in La Linea de la Concepcion, which is a short walk from the airport over the border with Spain, as accommodation is much more affordable and available there than in Gibraltar. I’ve also never walked over a border like that before, just a quick flash of the passport at the border patrol and we walked in. Very informal. Once in Gibraltar we had to walk across the runway. Yes, you read that correctly, a road and sidewalk go right across the airport runway. When a plane comes in the road/sidewalk are blocked off until the plane lands and then it is open to cars/pedestrians once again.

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Unfortunately since it was New Year’s Day many of the places in Gibraltar were closed. But that didn’t stop us from walking from one end to the other.  From the border we walked along the street that borders the famous rock and onto the main street. It was close to lunchtime and we found a Moroccan restaurant named Tagin which was open. It was a small place, just a few tables, with one older man cooking and serving. The food was delicious and at the end of the meal we found out it was actually famous (at least famous for Gibraltar) when he showed us a newspaper article about their famous pinchitos.

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As we continued our walk we saw both Spanish and English influences. We were told that the language is typically Spanish and many people actually live in Spain, but it is still a British territory and therefore has English signs, uses the pound (although there is a Gibraltar pound) and evidence of the typical sights from England like those red post boxes and telephone boxes.

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One of the highlights in Gibraltar is of course to go up the Rock. We weren’t sure how to manage this with everything closed when we stumbled upon a taxi about to take a group on a private tour. Luckily we were able to join the tour. The driver wound us up the Rock to the viewpoint called the pillars of Hercules. In Greek mythology it is claimed that Hercules marked this spot as the furthest place on Earth. The monument shows a map of the ancient world on one side and the modern world on the other. We could even see Africa, my first glimpse of it, just barely though as it was a cloudy day unfortunately.

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The tour continued on to the top where we had beautiful views and finally saw the famous monkeys which live on the Rock of Gibraltar, the Macaques, the only wild monkeys in Europe. They are descendants of the North African monkeys and about 300 live on the Rock. Both the adults and the babies have little fear of people, they wandered on the cars, hit the car windows and we could walk quite close to them without them running away. We were warned though that they are still wild animals and will bite if provoked. After spending some time with the monkeys the tour went to the fortress, which was unfortunately also closed so we only stopped at the entrance. There we saw more monkeys and views over the city.  As Gibraltar is a British territory the flags flown at the fortress are the British flag, the flag of Gibraltar and the European Union flag.

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It was too bad everything was closed but we had fun anyways.  The only other food places open that evening in Gibraltar seemed to be Irish pubs so we decided to go for tapas back in Spain.  We walked back over the runway and across the border. That ended our adventure in Gibraltar but started the adventure in Spain. More to follow!

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Hello 2015 – New Years Eve in London

Happy New Year everyone! Bit delayed I know but January slipped by entirely too quickly. 2015 started in a great way, with a trip to England and then a whirlwind tour with a friend to Gibraltar, Spain and Portugal which started with a 7am flight to Gibraltar from London on January 1st. Needless to say, we didn’t bother going to bed New Years Eve, what would have been the point?  So we powered through, slept on the flight and started 2015 with a day in Gibraltar. A subsequent post will follow with all the details of our Iberian peninsula tour, this post will be about New Years and the fun I had saying good bye to the horrible 2014 (although it was a good travel year!) and hello to 2015.

I have never been a fan of New Years. Everyone has such high expectations that it will be a great night and more often than not it falls flat, or is absolutely awful. So over the past few years I have made a point of traveling for New Years, at least that way it is guaranteed to be good because I’m traveling and there is nothing better than that!

This year, for the first time in years, I went to an actual New Years event and it was fantastic. The party was at the Southbank Centre in London, England and the party theme was vintage so we dressed up in 20s inspired outfits and headed out. Almost everyone else dressed up as well in outfits from various decades of the twentieth century.  I saw some tacky 80s, a really good Austin Powers, and lots of flappers.  The Southbank Centre itself is beautiful and a great place for an event. It is along the Thames near the London Eye and has a beautiful view over the Thames.

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For the event, each floor or area had a different music or decade theme, downstairs was big band and ballroom dancing, another floor had a sixties party, in another room a DJ played guilty pleasure songs of the 80s and yet another had dance music and a DJ.

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There were photo booths with props, an arcade with pinball machines and arcade games from the 80s, bars with various specialty drinks and the food theme was American food which included hot dogs and mac and cheese.  One of the girls we were with was a member of the Southbank Centre so we had a reserved table for the night on the top floor in the members’ only section. At midnight everyone went outside on the terrace to watch the fireworks over the Thames, they were amazing, best fireworks I have ever seen. They have fireworks every year over the Thames at the London Eye, although now they charge 10 pounds to watch them along the river as they close the area to traffic and have a band, but they were so fantastic they are worth it. From the terrace at the Southbank Centre we were so close ash from the fireworks fell on us.

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After the fireworks we could hear Queen playing at the top of Big Ben so we listened to a song or two then went back inside for some more dancing until it shut down and it was time to head for the airport to start 2015 with a trip to the continent. What a great New Years Eve, and a fabulous start to 2015 which will hopefully be an amazing year full of much travel.

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Christmas in Europe

Christmas is such a wonderful time of the year.  I love the lights and decorations, and of course all of the delicious food. I also enjoy the craft fairs that pop up around the city. While Calgary has its charm around Christmas, I absolutely love Europe at Christmas. They really do Christmas well over there. Typically the decorations and Christmas markets start popping up around mid-November and last until early January. When I lived in Copenhagen, one of the best days was when Carlsberg released its Christmas beer. The Carlsberg trucks would drive around the city handing out free cans of that year’s batch. I also love the mulled wine served throughout Europe, each area has its own special brew.

I have spent New Years Eve in England twice before, once in Bristol, once in London, and will be doing so again this year. There are events all over the city of course and the fireworks over the Thames at midnight are amazing.

Below are some pictures I’ve taken in Europe over the years during the holiday season. First is pictures from London.

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This picture is in Bath.

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I spent a day in Windsor in early January.

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These pictures are from Copenhagen on Stroget. At the end of the street they have a skating rink set up in the winter and a Christmas market. Sadly my pictures of the rink didn’t show up very well.

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Starting in November, Tivoli in Copenhagen is completely decorated for Christmas and it has Christmas markets set up throughout. There are also areas to have desserts and glog, the mulled wine with cinnamon and raisins traditionally served in the winter in Scandinavia.

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I was also in Amsterdam in late November. Such a lovely city.

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Ireland – There is a Reason it is Called the Emerald Isle

Ireland is one of my favourite places in the world so I decided to repost a post I made on HH World Travel, with some minor changes, which is a blog I wrote with a friend of mine. Such a beautiful country, can’t wait to go back!

Writing my post on the Inca Trail and thinking back on all that rain made me think of other rainy vacations I’ve had.  I’m generally a fair weather traveller, I try and go places when the weather is likely to be decent, although the weather doesn’t always cooperate of course. There are some exceptions, I’ve been to England for New Years a couple of times, Iceland in April, the Faroe Islands in early June, the Inca Trail in Peru in January, and of course out to the mountains in the winter as they are beautiful any time of year. I knew for each of those trips that it was unlikely to be warm and sunny. Generally for me too much rain has the potential to ruin a holiday, but in Ireland somehow it didn’t matter. Of the 14 days of the trip I only had one day when it didn’t rain. Yet it is one of the best trips I’ve ever taken and I would go back to Ireland in a heartbeat. Rain suits Ireland, gloomy clouds swirling around castles, black clouds on the horizon while the wind whips your hair as you stand on the cliffs, fog covering the gap of Dunloe and then lifting as you turn a corner in your horse pulled cart. There is just something about it. And after all, there is a reason the place is so green.

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Bad weather is practically a source of pride, it is expected. You can always tell the tourists, we’re the ones with the umbrellas pulled out with the first few drops of rain while the Irish people barely notice. Its one of those places you can grab a car and drive, which does help keep you get out of the rain, of course only until you turn the next corner and have to jump out to see a gorgeous view of the sea or countryside, wander a small town or explore castle ruins.

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I flew to Belfast, Northern Ireland and rented a car.  I started out of Belfast and drove the loop North along the coast past the Giant’s Causeway to Derry/Londonderry, then South into the Republic of Ireland through Galway to Kerry to stay in Killarney, East along the South coast to Kinsale and Cobh and then North through Kilkenny to Dublin.  I hit the main tourist spots along the way, such as the Carrick-a-Rede bridge, the Giant’s Causeway, cliffs of Moher, Ring of Kerry, Blarney Castle and the sights of Dublin.

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The rain didn’t stop me even though it rained every day except one. Only one place was it a real detriment, I could not see a thing at the cliffs of Moher.

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Luckily there was a visitors centre where there were some nice pictures so I knew what I had missed. Its a good excuse to go back.

In spite of the weather it is one of my favourite trips. Every part of the country is beautiful, there is so much to do and see and the people are truly amazing. Everywhere you go the people are friendly and helpful. My best tip for Ireland is talk to people because, aside from the lovely accent, some of my best tips on what to see around Ireland came from chatting with locals. One of the easiest places to meet locals rather than tourists is in the pub. There are few things to do in the evening which are more fabulous than sitting in a pub in Ireland, drinking Guinness, and listening to a band while chatting with the people around you. One of my favourite stops was based on a tip from a local in Killarney who said we had to stop in Cobh (which I had never heard of). Cobh was the last stop of the Titanic before it set sail. It is a beautiful town on the coast, with a gorgeous cathedral, quaint main street along the water and a fantastic museum about the Titanic and Irish history, particularly the mass Irish emigration around the world.

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Plus I stayed in two castles, hard to beat! A true princess fantasy come to life, one an 18th century style, very elegant, and the other 15th century style, it was even heated by a roaring fire, felt like I was in Henry VIII’s era.

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Ireland is full of fantastic things to see. Its tough to choose favourites, but if I had to choose my top highlights, in no particular order, are:

  1. Gourmet dinners in Kinsale in County Cork. It is known as the gourmet capital of Ireland and has some great restaurants in a beautiful town which was an old fishing port.
  2. The horse-drawn cart ride through the Gap of Dunloe in County Kerry.  The horse’s name was Jovi, he had a partner named Bon who wasn’t working that day (the driver was a fan).
  3. Staying in as many castles and manor houses as I could afford. They are gorgeous, charming and usually have a delicious restaurant.  I found amazing deals in September and only had to book about a day in advance.
  4. Wandering Kilkenny castle and after that a night at the pub listening to an Irish band playing traditional Irish songs, with a few modern ones thrown in.
  5. The Northern Coastal highway where there are awe-inspiring sights every kilometre including the surreal Giant’s Causeway.
  6. Wandering the streets of towns like Cobh and Killarney. I didn’t spend enough time in either place, especially the Cobh museum, and cannot wait to go back.

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And remember to stop and have a Guinness. Somehow it just tastes that much better in Ireland when sitting in an Irish pub listening to live Irish music. Or at the Guinness factory in Dublin, you can even pour your own pint.

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I recommend Ireland as an amazing destination, even though you should expect it to rain some, if not all, of the time. A raincoat and an umbrella are a must. But, as everyone in Ireland told me to remember, you don’t come to Ireland for the weather.

 

Spain Extravaganza – Last Stop, Sitges

I am sadly back at home in cold and snowy Calgary. That is right, you read correctly, it is September 9th and already there is snow and lots of it. How I wish I was still in Spain! Looking through my pictures is a mixture of happy and sad, happy I was there and warm, sad I am no longer there and instead stuck in a snowy cold mess. So now I am going to spend a few moments reliving our last stop, Sitges. It is about 30 minutes South of Barcelona along the coast. To get to Sitges from Barcelona, take the R2 train from Passeig de Gracia. We found out that it was a bit trickier from Valencia. If you go on the RENFE (Spanish train) website it will not give you a route from Valencia to Sitges. To get there you must go to Vilanova i la Geltru and then purchase a separate ticket to transfer to the R2 towards Barcelona, it is then only one stop to Sitges. The route between Valencia and Barcelona can be busy so book early if you can. Once in Sitges it is easy and cheap to get to Barcelona and there is even a direct bus to the airport which we used at the end of the trip.

Sitges is known for a few things, one is its gorgeous setting and beautiful beaches. Sitges is also known for is its nightlife (especially the clubs and bars along the so-called “street of sin”) and as a popular gay resort area. The town is right on the sea and is a great mix of old Spain and resort heaven. There are historic sights to see, such as the cathedral Esglesia de Sant Bartomeu I Santa Tecla and the gothic residence Cau Ferrat, there is a wonderful walk along the Passeig Maritim which goes from the old town of Sitges to the port along the water and of course there are the beaches. It is a compact area and walkable to most sights and many of the beaches. The town itself is fun to wander as there are many shops and interesting historic sights scattered throughout the town. The main streets through town are lined with restaurants, cafes, shops of all kinds (tourist and non-tourist), fresh fruit and vegetable stores and gelato places. There are as many gelato shops in Sitges as there are in most Italian towns. Most nights we ate along the lovely promenade where you can hear the waves and people watch from the patios set up outside each restaurant and then sometimes head into the main part of Sitges to enjoy the nightlife.

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Aside from the main beach in Sitges beside the seaside promenade, there are actually 17 beaches, all with soft golden sand. The water is warm and you can walk out quite a long ways before it gets deep. Here the waves are much higher than the other places we went in Spain, the beach near our hotel even had surf lessons, although the waves are still very manageable and easy to swim in.  Most have chairs and umbrellas to rent or you can just stretch out in the sand. One word of warning, some of these beaches are nudist beaches. There are still people in swimsuits on the nudist beaches but there are also a lot of naked people. If you aren’t comfortable with that then make sure to check at the hotel to find out which beaches aren’t nudist so you don’t get an unexpected surprise. Another warning for those that don’t know, regardless of what beach you go on, all beaches in Spain have women going topless, not something you see very often in North America but quite common in Europe in general.

We stayed at the Melia Sitges in the port area. The hotel was big and very nice, large comfortable rooms, many with balconies. It was nice and quiet for sleeping or relaxing as the port area is away from the busy central area of Sitges yet is only a short 15 minute walk along Passeig Maritim (which is well lit at night) to get to all of the action. The port area has restaurants and shops too and was just 5 minutes from the hotel. We had a beautiful view of the port from our large balcony. The pool area in the hotel was great, lots of chairs on a big space on the lawn and a large pool plus it was right beside the restaurant and bar. The beach closest to our hotel was smaller and in a lovely cove lined on one side by green hills. It had lots of chairs to rent and a snack place for drinks and food.

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From Sitges we did a day trip to Vilanova I La Geltru and Tarragona. Vilanova is another town along the coast about 10 minutes on the R2 train South of Sitges and therefore has gorgeous beaches as well. We only had about 2 hours there before our train to Tarragona so we wandered the town instead of going to the beach. La Rambla is lined with trees and older buildings, it is a great place to stop for a coffee and watch the world go by. From the train the visitor information centre is a long walk away, it is along the waterfront just past the end of La Rambla, but it is worth the walk.  They have a good map plus a great free pamphlet with 4 walking tours of Vilanova to do on your own. Each one is unique, one for the maritime area, one for La Rambla, one for Geltru (which was formerly a separate town) and one wandering through the rest of the historical area of Vilanova, and they can all be done in sequence or separately depending on your interest. We went all the way along the La Rambla walk and then into Geltru to see Castell de la Geltru.

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We then continued on the train to Tarragona, a UNESCO world heritage site. Definitely worth the trip. It is known for its Roman ruins and of course more beautiful beaches. The Roman Amphitheatre built in the 2nd century A.D. can be seen from almost anywhere along the coast. Walking from the train station you walk uphill on the road and as the road turns the corner you have an amazing view of the amphitheatre and the sea.  It is 3 euros to go into the amphitheatre and you can sit in the seats and walk onto the main arena floor. As you walk through the centre of the city there are ruins all over the place. We also walked over to the old fortress which can be seen further along the coast from the amphitheatre on the other side of the beach on the cliff. To walk to the fort from the amphitheatre is about a 20-25 minute walk. La Rambla leads from a viewpoint on top of the hill on the other side of the amphitheatre (closer to the train station) to a large fountain near more ruins, it is about a 15 minute walk from one end to the other. There is also a long seaside promenade which goes from the beach below the fort back past the amphitheatre and to the other side of the train station.

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We spent the rest of our time enjoying Sitges, wandering through the town, lounging on the beach, walking the seaside promenade and drinking wine on our balcony. It was a nice relaxing end to the trip.

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Unfortunately it had to end eventually. I’m normally one of those people who never want to come home, I would love to travel forever. After watching the snow for the past 2 days I wish more than usual that I hadn’t come home and that I was still in hot, sunny, gorgeous Spain. How I miss it!

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Spain Extravaganza – On To Valencia and Area

As sad as it was to leave Majorca, at least it isn’t time to go home yet. Our next stop was Valencia, a gorgeous Spanish city on the East coast approximately three and a half hours South of Barcelona. Big wide boulevards, a well maintained old town with an 18th century Spanish feel and many sights in close proximity to each other make it the perfect city to tour on foot. Definitely a different feel than the other Spanish cities I have been to, it reminds me a lot of the larger South American cities which have a similar architecture and layout. When wandering the old town you continually come upon large plazas, such as the Plaza de la Virgen which borders the Valencia Cathedral pictured below, and these plazas usually contain the important buildings of Valencia. Staying anywhere in the old town provides easy access to restaurants, the train station and the main sights, plus the buses to the beaches. We stayed at the Vincci Lys close to the arena and train station Valencia Nord. The hotel was central and great value for the price. We even had a small wrought iron balcony to stand outside and enjoy the sun and watch activity on the street below.  The main street running through the old town connects the Cathedral to the bull fighting arena (pictured below) which still has bull fights to this day. All along the streets of the old town are cafés and restaurants with outdoor patios on the street great for people watching. If you eat outside on the patio there is often a surcharge, but it is worth it as you get to enjoy the warm weather and people watch.

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Valencia also has amazing beaches. We went to playa del Cabanyal and playa de la Malvarrosa where the boardwalk goes on for ages and the sand is soft and golden. Multiple buses go to the beaches from the old town throughout the day so they are easy to access. We rented chairs and umbrellas, there were many available along the length of the beach, but if it is ever full just wait until siesta time (starting around 2:00-2:30) and the beach clears out. One minute all I could see was people sunbathing, swimming or playing on the beach, the next time I looked up almost everyone was gone. The sand is nice and soft so it is a good (and free) option too.

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As I have been to Valencia before (back in July 2007) we decided to take day trips to nearby towns to explore new areas. Our first trip was to Denia, about an hour and 45 minutes by bus from Valencia. The town was much bigger than I thought it was. We arrived about 10am and most things were still closed. We managed to find a cafe on the main street running the length of the old town for a coffee and a tostada and tomatoes and then we walked up to the castle area. It is only 2 euros to enter the castle which is worth it. There is a tourist train that will take you up or you can walk. We walked and became sweaty messes as it was over 30 degrees. Great views of the town and harbour was our reward making the long hot walk worth it in the end. Too cool off we headed for the beach and spent the rest of the day on lounge chairs at yet another beautiful Spanish beach with soft golden sand and warm aquamarine Mediterranean water.

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Next was Xativa which I did on my own. It is approximately a 45 minute train ride from Valencia Nord station. Compared to the other towns it is set up very well for tourists. Not that it is necessary to cater to tourists, there is something to be said for a more authentic experience in a non-touristy town, but Xativa is able to maintain its authentic feel while still being tourist friendly. There are signs to the tourist office as soon as you leave the train station, unobtrusive, well-placed signs throughout the old town telling visitors about the historical sights, going from sign to sign is a walking tour as most signs point to the next sight to see, and all historical buildings are well marked. The town is most famous as the birthplace of Pope Alexander VI, one of the Borgia popes (his birthplace is the house pictured below). Another of the Borgia popes also lived there and there is information about both of them in Spanish at the museum inside the cathedral (the museum costs 1 euro). The castle area is best reached by the tourist train (which you can catch near the tourist office and tickets are purchased on the train) or car as it is up a steep hill. From the castle there are spectacular views of Xativa and the surrounding countryside plus the castle itself is in good shape. It is large so if you want to spend time there do not take the tourist train back as it only gives you an hour at the castle, which I found a bit rushed but not terrible. One option is to take the train up and walk down, as the train only costs 4 euros it’s not too expensive for only a one way trip.

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Our final day trip was to Sagunto (the train station is Sagunt), about a 25 minute train ride from Valencia Nord, where everything is free. Well, not food and drink of course, but all of the tourist attractions and we didn’t even get charged for the beach chairs. It also has the most helpful tourist office we encountered, we received more information on more sights than we could possibly have seen in our one day there. One warning though, there are not many restaurants so either bring a picnic, eat in or near the main square where there are a couple of cafés, or ask at the tourist office where to go and what times they are open. Sagunto is known for its Roman ruins and huge castle. The Roman amphitheatre has been renovated and is still used for concerts, as can be seen below. We passed the amphitheatre and old Jewish area on our walk up to the castle. The castle can be seen from most areas of the old town. You will be asked to get a ticket but it is free. It is a massive complex, just when you think you’ve reached the end there is still more to see. Bring good walking shoes and plan to spend some time up there. It is a true ruin for the most part so be careful where you step. We spent a couple hours walking around. The castle area contains the old Roman forum and stores plus newer sections added over the years. There is one small museum of Roman gravestones but otherwise everything is outside, we just walked through the castle ruins into many hidden corners and along the walls on the Roman side. We then took the bus to the beach which of course had more soft sand and refreshing blue water.

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On our final night we went to a Flamenco show. It was a bit outside downtown, we purchased tickets at the Valencia tourist office, and it included dinner (we chose the paella option) and the show. The dancers were amazing and the food decent for the price (32 euros which included a three course meal, sangria and the show). A lovely end to a great stay in Valencia. Time to leave again but at least there is one leg left. On to Sitges for some relaxing time in the sun.

 

Spain Extravaganza – Next Stop, Majorca

Finally made it to the Balearic Islands in Spain. We landed at the Majorca (also spelt Mallorca) airport and took the bus in to Palma de Mallorca. Our hotel, the TRYP Bellver, was in the port area. The port area is a long strip of hotels, restaurants, cafés and clubs along the marina with the big yachts, which is a 20 minute walk to the old town (at least it is from our hotel, depends where you are on the strip) and a 10 minute bus ride to the beach. Majorca is beautiful! The blue waters of the Mediterranean, green vineyards and mountains make it a gorgeous place plus the clear blue skies and 30 degree temperature certainly helps.

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First day was a beach day at Playa Major. It is a 10 minute bus ride from the port. The beach is in an inlet surrounded by cliffs and hotels. There are many chairs available to rent with umbrellas or you can choose to lay in the sand. We chose beach chairs, it was 12 euros for 2 chairs and an umbrella for the day. The water is amazing, clear, calm and warm. Not the best place if you want to surf or boogie board, but a perfect place for a relaxing day at the beach.

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The next day we took the hop on/hop off tourist bus around Palma. Sadly the earphones with the commentary only worked about 30% of the time but the tour itself was good. We only got off at 2 stops, the old town and Bellver Castle. The old town starts at the palace and cathedral which look over the port and continues for many blocks From miles away you can see the cathedral as it is raised up on a hill. There is a walk along the wall near the cathedral by the maritime park that can be accessed by going up to the cathedral or from a few of the streets through the old town or maritime park. The cathedral itself is impressive with some interesting statues, carvings and of course religious artwork. Wandering through the winding streets of the old town can feel like a maze but is a great way to spend a few hours or for an evening out. Plus there are many cafés or ice cream/gelato shops to stop at for a drink or snack along the way where you can people watch and relax. A wide boulevard parallels the old town and is a nice walk, again with shops, cafés and restaurants plus fountains and trees. The area is beautiful with all of the old Spanish architecture.

Bellver Castle is on the edge of town up a hill. There are great views over Palma and the surrounding countryside from up on the ramparts. The castle was used by the Majorcan royalty until the late 1300s when they lost independence. The palace then became a jail off and on over the years before becoming a tourist attraction. Inside the castle there is an exhibition of the famous political prisoners held in the castle when it was used as a jail. The views are the best reason to stop at the castle, you can see for miles in every direction showing the various landscapes in the Palma area.

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The next two days we did tours of the island. On the first day trip we went to Formentor, Alcudia and Pollenca. In the old town of Alcudia near the old wall there is a huge market selling everything from leather goods to souvenirs to food. It surrounds the town and continues down the Main Street. The town itself is a medieval Spanish town but it is hard to really explore much as the market seems to take over every area making it very crowded. Definitely go down some smaller side streets to escape the crowds and see more of the town. Formentor is a beach area with a narrow stretch of beach along a clear stretch of sea. The water felt lovely after the hot crowds of Alcudia. We spent the afternoon eating the lunch we bought at the market and enjoying the sun and sea. Next was a boat trip to Pollenca, which is a popular place for British tourists, and then back on the bus to head back to Palma for another evening on a patio with tapas and sangria.

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Our next day trip was an island tour to Calobra and Soller.  First stop was at a leather factory near Inca which had nice shoes and bags but was just a tourist shopping stop. Next we went to Santuari de Lluc, a religious pilgrim area with a beautiful church and grounds plus sectioned off rooms for pilgrims and travellers to stay in. The black Madonna statue was said to be found in the area and is now a relic in the church, people line up to see it and pray. We then took a winding narrow road through the Tramuntana mountains toward Calobra cove where we stopped for lunch and a swim in the cove at the mouth of Torrented de Parells. As Majorca does not have rivers, a torrent is where all of the rain water collects and then rushes down to the sea. The area is lovely with a few restaurants and two coves to swim in, one in the port, the other at the mouth of the torrent which is a 10 minute walk from the port along the sea and through two caves. One warning, there are no facilities at the cove by the torrent so change or use bathrooms in the port before heading over. We ended up changing on the beach behind towels, very awkward! Also, the beach is rocky so bring swim shoes if you can, something I sadly forgot and my feet paid the price. We then took a nice boat ride, about 45 minutes, to the port of Soller, along the cliffs, where we took an old tram to Soller to catch the old wooden electrical train back to Palma through the Tramuntana mountain range. The train was built in the early 20th century. It is a lovely trip with beautiful scenery, plus taking the old train is a great experience in itself.

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Sad to leave this beautiful place but it is one I hope to make it back to. Still so much to see, and I definitely could use some more beach and sea time!

 

Spain Extravaganza – First Stop, Barcelona

Another Europe trip this year, very exciting! Back to the Mediterranean again but in the Western Mediterranean this time to the East coast of Spain. I met up with a friend in Toronto and we flew to Barcelona, our first stop. I was here once before in November 2007, it is such a beautiful city I was happy to return. Although it was nice when I came in November, I love the hot weather so I like the temperature in August much better, even if it has been a bit cloudy.

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Gaudi’s house in Park Guell.

We decided to stay at a hotel near La Sagrada Familia beside Hospital de la Sta. Creu i Sant Pau, an old hospital that looks more like a moorish palace than a hospital with its domes and mosaics. The area is convenient to get anywhere in the city as there are multiple metro and bus stops nearby. We walked to La Sagrada Familia which is the basilica designed by Gaudi that has been under construction for over 100 years and is still not finished. I recently read an article stating it would finally be completed in about 12 years. It is an awesome structure with soaring towers and a unique design. Everywhere you look there is another interesting, and often unexpected, aspect to the exterior, including bunches of grapes at the top of one of the spires created using a mosaic design or the tree which appears to be a Christmas tree over the main entrance. To see all of the intricacies of the design it would take a lot more than just one visit.

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Sadly the tickets were sold out for the day so we only saw the outside. We decided to head for the old centre and walked toward the Arc de Triomf. It is a beautiful walk from La Sagrada Familia along a wide boulevard with shops and cafés. We walked under the Arc and strolled along a wide path lined with trees between two green spaces. There were street performers and locals wandering around or sitting on the grass.

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We continued on towards the sea and walked along the water to La Rambla. We spent the rest of the day and evening wandering around La Rambla and Barri Gotic. There were street vendors and performers, shops, restaurants and cafés. It was a long walk from our hotel so we decided to stop for a sangria and watch the world go by.

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At the end of La Rambla we stopped for tapas, one of my favourite things to eat in Spain. I love picking a bunch of small dishes to try and it is a great way to sample the cuisine. We’re moved on to another tapas place back down La Rambla before heading back to the hotel on the metro. It was amazing how busy the area was even though it was a weekday.

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The next day we went to Park Guell which is a huge park with great views of the city and where you can escape the busy streets and relax. It was designed by Gaudi. The park is free except for Gaudi’s house (5 euros)  and the architectural area (8 euros) which contains the most famous and colourful of Gaudi’s designs in the park.

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View of Park Guell architecture area and Gaudi’s house.

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Spiral columns along a path in the architectural area.

We spent so much time in the park that all we had time for was lunch at a restaurant near La Sagrada Familia before heading to the airport. Next stop Majorca!