Day 24 – Spain to Portugal

We woke early this morning, had breakfast and walked outside to see that the beautiful sunshine of yesterday was hidden behind rain clouds. We cancelled our plans for a stroll to Columbus’ castle as the rain began, quickly loaded up the car, went to the toilet and began the journey to our final destination, Sintra.

You might have wondered for a second why I felt it necessary to tell you that we went to the toilet, right? Well, about half an hour away from Benalmadena, having out driven the rain and for no particular reason I suddenly realised that I no longer had my camera with me. We searched the car before turning around and driving back in to the rain to hopefully find it again. By the time we got back, now just on an hour after we left, the roads were flooded under about 20 cm of water, water was gushing like fountains out of cracks in the road, storm drains spurted like cartoon fountains with their lids hovering above the road, and rain pounded the earth with the force of hailstones. Martin and I ran back up to the reception desk, and from the desk to the flat where I recovered my camera (gratefully) and then back to return the key. By the time we got back to the car we were both soaked to the point that we could wring out our clothes and probably fill a litre bottle! It is interesting how things sometimes only become valid in retrospect. This is the same rain we had two days ago, but as yesterday was so beautiful it didn’t seem to matter, but now we feel exceedingly blessed with the weather yesterday!

Fortunately, even though we stayed wet for some time, we did out drive the rain again, and enjoyed a beautifully scenic drive through some really remote parts of Spain for the next few hours. We drove past some stunning villages, as quintessentially Spain as you could imagine, before the invasion by the tourists and a landscape dotted with ancient castles and ruins.

We eventually arrived in Badajos where we left the car and took a coach across the border to Lisbon in Portugal. From there we took a (very very cheap!) train to Sintra but by the time it arrived it was dark. We checked in to our hotel, which we’ve all agreed was the most beautiful of the trip. It is an old villa in the hills of Sintra with 20-odd rooms, large landscaped gardens, a swimming pool and lovely breakfast room. The rooms themselves were spacious, gorgeously decorated and extremely luxurious, and room service is a definite added bonus!

Day 23 – Ronda

With yesterday being as much of a non day as it was, partly due to our exhaustion and partly due to the weather (I forget, did I mention the weather yesterday? The mist was so thick we weren’t aware of the gardens across the road from our apartment till this morning!) we were very happy to find that today’s weather forcast was wrong and not only did it not rain all day but it was in fact rather hot!

After breakfast we drove away from tourist riddled Benalmadena (near Malaga) and the coast line and made our way inland to the town of Ronda. We took the scenic route there and scenic it was. Inland Spain certainly ‘feels’ a lot more Spanish! Beautiful, dry landscapes, mountains, rundown villas, ruins, rock formations, stunning modern villas, olive groves and terraced fields kept us entertained on the +- 100 km drive.

Ronda is divided in to two parts, Old and New and the two are separated by a huge bridge called Puente Nuevo over an equally huge gorge. We walked across the bridge and along the edge of the cliff stunned at such a fantasic view in the middle of ‘town’. We then went in to the Bullfighting ring which was the first to have fighters fight without being on horseback (i.e modern bullfighting) Unfortunately for us, although not for the bulls, fights only happen once a year now, in early September, which we missed. We walked around the grounds, seats and museum within the ring, and the stables etc outside.

A few days ago, I somehow hurt my foot and sprained my big toe, so when Edu, Simryn and Martin decided to climb down the gorge to take pictures of the bridge from the bottom, I went to Ronda’s wine museum instead. It was a really exciting experience, actually, with the little bits they translated in to English and the even smaller bits of Spanish I could piece together.

At the end of my walk through the twelve informative rooms, I went in to the courtyard for my tasters. The lady gave me five 100 ml wines: A local red wine produced in their cellars, very dry but good, a local sherry that tasted a little too much like Aquadent ( otherwise known as Portuguese Fire Water, a totally different story!) for my liking, and three delicious desert wines, one sweeter than the other. I chatted to a German couple about South African wines at the time and was really pleased I had stopped in there.

We took the highway back towards Benalmadena, a quick dip in the ocean and a kilogram of calamari for dinner.

As much as we loved Ronda, and I’m sure we’ll go back, I have to admit that the Costa Del Sol itself is too packed with holiday flats and tourists for me, and I think we’re all agreed, this is one of those places you go once to see what the fuss was about then leave as fast as you can to somewhere beautiful and intruiging, like Ronda.

Day 6 – Barcelona to Florence

This was a really rough day.

Starting at 04.30 we left promptly on time for the metro, caught the shuttle bus to the airport had a relatively simple check in, and landed in Rome 20 mins ahead of schedule. We caught the airport shuttle to Rome central train station, but on route te airconditioning broke and tere were no windows to open. The bus became hothouse like, and the journey hellish. Had it been any longer, we would have had more than being soaked through, dehydrated and the associated nausea, dizzyness and headaches to deal with!

From Rome we took a train to Florence, which was fortunately airconditioned and we slowly began t cool down, but it had really taken is toll!

Upon a 45 min delayed arrival in Florence we made a beeline for our hotel and showers, only to find that there are two similarly named hotels in Florence and we were at the wrong one!

Saddling up our backpacks and suitcases again, we finally found our hotel, and I’m pleased to say it was worth the wait! Huge double beds, cool rooms and private bathrooms are a real treat in this part of the world (in our price ranges anyway).

The evening turned out a whole lot better than the day had started. We found a beautiful gellateria with about 40 flavours of ice cream, and beautiful ice cream bonbons. Two half scoops each later we made our way in to the town centre and towards the setting sun over the Ponte Vecchio and all the day’s troubles were quickly forgotten.

Apparently there are only three bridges in the world that have shops/houses on both sides, and this is one of them. (The others being in Venice and Bath, UK)

Posing on and around the Ponte Vecchio for many photos built up quite an appetite, so we went in different directions in search of our ideal dinner. Martin and I had a delicious calzone and pasta in one of Florence’s lovely squares before returning to the hotel for much deserved rest.

Day 5 – Barcelona

It surprises me that Barcelona isn’t mentioned in literature, song and folklore in the same way that Rome, Florence or Paris are. It is a beautiful city full of the magic, culture and character one has come to expect from European major cities.

We visited the home of a client of the architect Gaudi (1852 – 1926), famous for the architectural style he employed in some buildings in the city. Palau Guell, or Guell’s Palace was the only of his projects that Gaudi actually finished and it has been left to other artists to complete his commissions.

Repeating the bus tour today, we hopped on and off at the places that inspired us to brave the heat. As we have different interests we split up for the day, Edu and Simryn heading in one direction, us in another. Our first stop was the Arc del Triomf, which was smaller than its Parisian counterpart but headed a lovely pedestrian park area. We then ignored the bus route and walked the 16 blocks towards the next stop on the back streets discovering stunning buildings and cheaper foods!

Arriving at one of the Gaudi houses, we saw our travel companions pass us on a bus and didn’t see them again till the end of the day. Gaudi had some strange and experimental ideas about design and his houses are hard to sum up in words, but I recommend that you look him up!

Our next stop was the Sagrada Familia, an astounding Gothic/Fantasy cathedral which Gaudi began, but never completed. Currently the spires in the image on the right of the cathedral picture are the only ones that exist and by the completion of construction in 2025 (image on left) they will be the shorter spires. This thing is going to be massive! The beauty of it though is in the detail. Carved into the stone are scenes from the life of Jesus. The journey to Bethlehem, the wise men, the angels, the murder of the infants, teaching in the temple, and of course, his crucifixion are all among them.

Gaudi was massively inspired by nature and this is visible, specifically in the daisy – like flowers that make up the ceiling inside the cathedral.

I’m coming back in 2025 to see the completed structure!

Our final stop was the Palace with fantastic views over the city. Here we met up with Edu and Simryn again as they continued on to the castle while we returned to the hostel for much needed showers!

As the English football team was playing Andora less than an hour from Barcelona, we returned to find the streets teaming with England supporters and a similar response in Police, we decided that we would lay low and stay off the main tourist areas.

We returned to a corner cafe for tapas and were surprised to find ourselves the only non-Spaniards there. But then, with no menus, no sangria and few English words between the staff, and ordering by pointing at the items on display, it’s little wonder. We pointed at calamari, meatballs, mozzarella salad, pasta salad, fritata style omlet, and a large plate of cured ham and received two plates of bread and additional bruschettas with it. The guys had 6 beers and Simryn and I had 3 bottled waters between us and all told, the bill came to €41.40! If the people down the street in Bar London or the Queen Vic knew what we were paying for the quality and hospitality we were receiving, the place would have been swamped.

Upon arrival we were looked at slightly suspiciously, but we left amid cheerful and friendly goodbyes with gracias’s and buenos noches’s abounding.

With a 4.45 wake up call pending we returned to the hostel just after 11 and got ready for bed while those around us were preparing for the nights festivities and we bid a fond farewell to an awe inspiring Barcelona that deserves so much more of our time.

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Day 4 – Barcelona

After a night on a bunk bed on a train in a cabin that resembled something from 5th Element, we agreed that although not an ideal night’s sleep, we were more or less ready to face the day.

The moment the train doors opened we knew that we were no longer in England or France! The humidity and heat at 8.24 were enough to burn holes in tar, and the day would only get hotter.

Once we had checked in to our hostel and bought the overpriced and less beneficial in terms of discounts and offers open top bus tour tickets, (lesson for the future: don’t assume the hostel is partnered with the cheaper aternatives!) we went spent about half an hour on the bus. The sun was so blistering we decided to stay inside, but there it was so hot that the first sign of ice cream had us peeling off the bus in very hot persuit. As it turned out, this was quite good as the area was quite removed from the hub of the tourists and we discovered a café that had an airconditioned upstairs area. It was a most random area, failling, I’m sure, every food health code in the book, but it was good, it was cool and the sangria was refreshing.

After a stint back at the hostel to have a cooling shower and reapplication of sun block we went on the 2.5 hour bus tour around Barcelona.

This city has blown me away! The architecture is phenomenal, the houses each have their own style and character and they are beautiful. And that’s not even the touristy bits, just the every day stuff. We saw some pretty amazing sights, but we’ll revisit them on foot tomorrow, so more about that then!

This evening we stopped by various cafe’s for a serving of tapas each which we shared around the table. -squid, meatballs, bread and sangria, tomato mozzerella salad etc all went down exceedingly well!

Later we went to see a flamenco performance which was stunning! The power and passion they display is astounding and it is well worth the entry fee. That and another glass of sangria turned it in to a perfect evening!

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Day 3 – Paris to Barcelona

Today started rather slowly: a leisurely wake up as the building site next to our hostel came to life, a quick stint on the internet to add the London photos and some breakfast before we took the metro to Notre Dame.

This beautiful church on the bank of the Seine provides some amazing opportunities for photographs (to follow) and was once during one of the wars declared too beautiful to blow up. It’s gothic arches and gargoyles stand out sharply against a bright blue sky and summer remains visible in the roses that adorn the grounds.

We continued on to the Arc de Triomph where Edu and Simryn climbed to the top with views over the Champs Elysees and all twelve roads that lead in to the circle around the arch. Apparently this is the only circle in Europe where no insurance will cover you for driving! Martin and I sat by the side of the road for a while watching, and we now understand why! No traffic lights (robots), no lanes and 12 streams of traffic! Sheer madness!

In the afternoon, we took a stroll to Sacre Coer, a fantastic white church building on the higest point in Paris wth more spectacular views of the city. On the way up, we stopped by an artist market where probably over a hundred artists were congregated each selling and even painting on the spot their own style of portrait or landscape. It would not be hard to blow the entire holiday budget on wares from that market!

Sacre Coer itself was a different type of stunning. A functioning church, respect is commanded from those within. Nuns sit at prayer while tourists walk round and although it has all the trappings of a tourists attraction, the feeling of awe and majesty the architecture and wall decorations inspire, remains real. Photos and videos are not allowed – a rule which I strictly enforced.

We spent the rest of the afternoon walking around the less touristy parts of Paris, sipping coffees in cafes, eating crepes filled with chocolate sauce and walking past interesting sites such as Moulin Rouge where dinner and a show costs between E175 and E200+.

We ended today by boarding an overnight train with four chairs that convert in to bunk beds. The train is so much quieter than I would have thought possible, and the thin fold down matresses more comfy than last night’s bed!

Sitting on a train between Paris and Barcelona drinking a most delicious chocolaty South African Diemersfontein Pinotage we bought in London, we clink our plastic travel cups to another successful and unforgetable day.

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