Saturday, May 31, 2008

Celebrating Jeanie´s Birthday

After allowing Jean a sleep in, we delivered breakfast in bed along with the traditional singing of Happy Birthday, presents and cards, one of which we were told said Happy Birthday in Spanish!

We spent the morning walking the Latin Quarter, visiting Madrid´s weekend market and several churches and a beautiful garden. We had to sneak into San Francisco (church not city) between weddings.

The closest we came to birthday cake was some yummy Spanish pastries along with our morning coffee that we had in the early afternoon.

Later we had a private luncheon in our suite sampling the fine foods of the Madrid region. The cheese, ham, vine ripened and strawberries were amongst the best we have sampled.

We spent the afternoon at the art museum and returned in time to dress for the ballet. In Spain, you do a show and dinner not dinner and a show! Dinner is never taken before 10 pm.

The performance by the Ballet Espanol featured flamenco dancing and classical Spanish numbers. We all enjoyed it.

We are about to return to our room... sorry suite! to continue the celebration before we go out to dinner. Unfortunately when we return we have to pack as we depart for Salamanca tomorrow.

The Art of Madrid

Amongst the wonderful places we have visited in Madrid are three of the great galleries of Europe. On our second day, we visited the Prado. This is a huge museum of art that rivals those of Paris, London, Florence and Moscow. We saw works by El Greco and an excellent display of Goya´s work including a painting that we missed in Pamplona.

The next day, on our way back from Anjuirez, we stopped at Reina Sofia modern art museum. Saw lots of Picasso and Dali and a very extensive collection, a lot of which was not to our taste.

Today we spent the afternoon at the Thyssen Museum that included an excellent display of Impressionist works as well as a very diverse collection with some interesting American works and a stunning Constable.

Touring Toledo

We caught the superfast train to Toledo - 78 km in 28 minutes. We had a fabulous day.

We visited the churches, synogogues, museums etc but as interesting as any, were the amazing streets and alleys of old Toledo.

We started at the cathedral built in 1226. Large and magnificent with great stained glass! The treasury was stacked with precious things, vestments etc.

We went to visit several churches, 2 synogogues from the era before the Jews were expelled from old Toledo and saw the El Greco painting, The Burial of Count of Orgaz.

We climbed the steps to the top of the steeple in the Jesuit church and had a wonderful view over Toledo..... Toledo Desde El Cielo... From the Heaven. We were able to see the entire old town and to the new town beyond.

We retraced our steps and were back in Madrid in time for a rest before our 10 pm dinner.

Spanish Palaces

Since arriving in Madrid, we have seen some wonderful Royal Palaces. On our first day, we visited the Palacio Real. The rooms were sumptuous with the things the royals have. Included a very interesting Farmacia and an extensive display of armour. The armour of horses and dogs was amazing.

The next day, we went to the spring palace - Real Palacio de Aranjuiz, 48 km south of Madrid. This is called the Versaille of Spain. It was extensive and impressive but lacked some of the gilt of Versaille.

Our third palace was El Escorial at San Lorenzo. We arrived after a 70 minute train trip, a 10 minute bus trip and a 10 minute walk as the carillon sounded the 10 o clock opening. it is the largest of all the palaces and incorporates the royal basilica and pantheon.

Built by Phillip 11 in 1563, it houses an extensive art collection, wonderful royal rooms with beautiful decorations and original furnishings and a huge basilica originally only used by the royal family. The pantheon remains the burial place of Spanish kings and queens.

We also saw a wonderful library with books from the 15th century and one from the 6th century. Also amazing globes, one showing half of Australia.

The Spanish Royals certainly knew how to live a right royal life.

Monday, May 26, 2008

I Think We Are Turning Spanish (not Japanese)

We succumbed to the Spanish way yesterday and had an afternoon siesta.

We spent the morning wandering the town and enjoying the Pamplona art museum. It was great but its main painting, a Goya, was on loan to Madrid.

Last night we hit the night spots and enjoyed a great dinner out with Bianca.

Leaving in one minute for Madrid.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Meeting Bianca in Pamplona

Another train trip now finds us in Pamplona staying at a more upmarket hotel in the centre of town (good weekend rate).

Bianca met us at our hotel and showed us the local sights. We followed the path taken by the bulls from the mayor's house to the Plaza del Toros - the bull ring. Fortunately we did not enter the bull ring as we were over a month ahead of the actual event and the first into the bull ring is greeted with jeers. We were so far ahead of the bulls, there was no-one there to jeer us. At least we had a safe bull run. The last person to be killed there was Australian!

We walked up to the cathedral and on to La Navarreria, the oldest part of the city walls. We saw the French gate, the only gate of the original six still standing. We also walked through beautiful parklands around the city walls, some areas with animals and birds. The peacocks put on a display for us and we were most impressed with the one that was pure white.

We farewelled Bianca in the Ciudadela, now beautiful parklands and arrived back at our hotel soaking wet, having been caught in a heavy hailstorm.

We are looking forward to a dinner with Bianca on Sunday night.

Backdoor to Spain

Departing Biarritz for San Sebastian, we caught the train to Hendaye and then walked around to the local line to San Sebastian. Somewhere along the way we crossed over the border... an international train trip for 1.45 euros!

We visited 2 local churches, the 16 century gothic San Vicente and the 18 century baroque Santa Maria but both were closed for renovation. It was a very interesting walk through the old city. We checked out the famous beaches, especially La Concha.

We had a wonderful visit to the Buen Pastor Cathedral. it was late afternoon and the sun shining through the stained glass windows reflected incredible coloured patterns onto the stone walls. It was very symbolic as the colours shimmered on the religious icons.

Outside the cathedral, the kids were out of school and all public space was now the local playground. A side door of the cathedral became a makeshift goal as a local soccer kids' soccer team´practised their goal kicking.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Industrial Action - Train to Spain

We move on to San Sebastian today. We can't depart until later in the morning as yesterday's industrial stoppage does not end until mid morning.

The locals shrug their shoulders, say 'It is France' or 'C'est la vie'.

Basque Biarritz

We are in Basque country staying in the seaside town of Biarritz just near the Spanish border.

We travelled from La Rochelle by train via Bordeaux and arrived late in the afternoon. We found a great little hotel just above the main beach and settled in.

Yes, Robert did swim in the Atlantic even though it was cold..... about 16 or 17 degrees. He also tried some Basque dishes, a spicy veal and ham pasta and a delicious almond cake.

We spent yesterday checking out the scenic spots, walking around the headland and out to 2 islands linked to the mainland by small bridges. We also checked out the beautiful St Eugenie's church. Napoleon and Eugenie were regulars at Biarritz - so were Bing Crosby and Cary Grant.

Moving on to Spain on Friday.

Stopover in Bordeaux

We read that Bordeaux is 'drab and boring' so we did not plan a stopover. We did however have time between trains so put our gear into a locker and caught the tram into town. It is anything but drab and boring.

Beautiful architecture of the Place de la Bourse, yhe wonderful Girondin monument with its green marble horses and fountain, the impressive Grande Theatre and Notre Dame with its vaulted ceilings and stained glass. We also admired the modern Miroir d'Eau.

Bordeau is indeed an interesting city and worth a full city. Even if it wasn't, they have lots and lots of wine!

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Towers of La Rochelle

Just how many towers can you climb in a day?

We travelled down by train from Nante to this delightful seaside town. One of its special features is its old fortifications of towers along the harbour front. We managed to climb all three towers and enjoyed the views of the coastline, the town and the displays which they contained.

We also managed to have both lunch and dinner sitting by the harbourside enjoying the food and wine. This was a great way to relax after the rush of the last few days.

Nantes... Cqthedral, Chateau, Elephants and Voyages Extraordinaires

Nantes is a great city built on the Loire River close to the mouth. It is a great mix of modern architecture and medieval city.

The cathredral of St Peter and St Paul had stunning Gothic lines and the tomb of Francois III and his 2 wives (not at the same time).

The chateau belonged to the Duc de Bretagne. His daughter became Queen of France in the 15th century. We climbed the battlements with its great views of the city and walked around the grassy area that had once been the moat.

The elephant was mechanical. A larger than life size mechanical walking elephant is located at the Ile de Machines that also has many other incredible mechanical devices.

The Voyages Extraordinaires were not ours but those of Jules Verne. We visited his museum and marvelled at his submarines and aeroplanes... all predating their invention. What an imagination... only rivalled by Leonardo.

Mont St Michel

Courtesy of our host we received a lift to the causeway out to Mont St Michel.

It sits across the sands from the coast and is a most impressive site. We had no trouble filling in a full day!

We walked to the Abbey at the top of the mont and joined an English language tour for one and a half hours. There are so many passage ways and rooms that this is the most efficient way to see them all. The rooms on the northern side were magnificent. The cloisters with lots of columns and breathtaking water views along with gardens and walkways were especially stunning. The Refectory was equally magnificent. The monks were only permitted to eat in daylight hours so it had lots of windows. They were built at an angle so as you looked to the cross at the end of the room, you had no external views.

The steps provided a workout..... up and down and around corners. We saw guest halls, chapels and all the rooms that made up this settlement of Benedictine monks.

Later we visited the 4 museums in the village that follows the pathway up to the Abbey. They range from modern multi media presentations, wax work figures with dramatic tales..... even more dramatic in French to traditional history museums.

We left late in the afternoon, just before the tide rushed in. The remaining drivers were about to scramble to move cars before the water covered the carparks.

A most interesting day.

Message from St Marcan

We are staying in the delightful village of St Marcan on the Brittany Normandy border. Our accommodation is a 200 year old house in a very quiet village. There are no shops but yesterday afternoon we walked to upper St Marcan and visited a unique telegraph station. It was built just after the French Revolution and was the forerunner of modern telecommunication. It could send a message to Paris in 20 minutes.

Unfortunately there is no Internet cafe but we did visit the creperie bar and had crepe bretagne washed down with muscadet. We recovered in time to dine at the local village pub. Tomorrow we dine at the only other eaterie, the pub in the upper village.

PS This was like a little bit of Britain run by a football fanatic from Manchester.

Monet at Giverny

We headed off by train to Giverny, 78 km NW of Paris to visit the house and gardens of Claude Monet. The trip was pleasant as we passed along the banks of the Seine. The local bus from Vernon was packed as it is a popular place to visit. It is also a favourite site for school excursions for primary students.

Monet's house enabled us to see the studio where he painted and furnished rooms and reproductions of many of his works. It also contained an extensive collection of Japanese woodblock prints. These had a significant influence on many of the Impressionists.

It is the gardens that people come to see _ especially the waterlily pond and the Japanese bridges. Visiting in spring meant that we saw the flowers in full bloom and the wisteria covering the bridge. We saw only a solitary waterlily flower however!

In the afternoon we returned to Paris and visited Musee de L'Orangerie. Our first galleries were Monet's waterlilies. There are about 10 paintings up to 13 metres x 2.5 metres. Now we understand why the studio at Giverny was so large.

The gallery specialises in Impressionist works and we saw an extensive collection by many of the great painters as well as some of the lesser known artists.

Stealing the Flowers

During our walk through Jardin de Tuileries' we all admired the beautiful spring flowers. Jean spoke to a gardener to congratulate him on his efforts. When Robert came along, he admired the beautiful iris so he produced a perfect stem that must have been broken off and gave it to him to present to the beautiful lady.

Being in a dilemma, he recounted the story and gave the flower to Gail. She agreed that must have been the gardener's intention.

A little later we sat on a seat to rest and as each Parisian walked by, they gave Gail a filthy look...... Obviously they take a dim view of the tourists stealing the flowers!

Shortly after, we placed the iris on one of the sculptures in the garden.... a modern bronze of a beautiful lady.

Paris on Strike _ Paris by Night

After arriving from Seoul late, we settled into our hotel well positioned in Montmartre. After a night to recuperate, we headed off to Musee de L' Orangerie to see Impressionist paintings, especially Monet's waterlilies. The museum was closed. We had missed out on our first visit to Paris _ time and on our second visit _ closed for renovation. Now industriqal action beat us! We did however enjoy a walk in the Tuilleries Gardens up to the Louvre.

We then headed over to Chatelet and walked to St Chapelle with its exquisite stained glass windows. Yes they were on strike as well! As we walked up to Notre Dame we checked at an Information booth and only 2 places were closed with industrial action and those were the 2 we had chosen! Notre Dame was wonderful however with its rose windows and fabulous stained glass.

We spent the afternoon at Montmartre, climbing the huge flights of stairs that began just near our hotel. We visited Sacre Coeur with its huge dome abd beautiful view of Paris, then the Place du Tertre _ the artists quarter _ and the little streets and shops of this delightful area.

After dinner' we headed down to the Seine to ride the Bateau Mouche along the river to see the buildings of Paris beautifully illuminated. We finally made it home after midnight.

Posting Delays

The blog entries that follow have been written as we travelled but today for the first time we have located an Internet place. It seems Internet cafes are declining in popularity but many places provide wireless Internet free of charge. The fact that we have stayed in villages without even a shop has not helped.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Holidays on the Cheap

We have had a restful and cheap stopover in Seoul. So far we have had 2 free meals on the plane, a free airport transfer to our free hotel and free dinner and breakfast.

This morning we had a free swim, then a free transfer to the airport and we are now sending a free Internet message. By the time we reach Paris, we will have had 2 more free meals but after that we think things might change.

The hotel was wonderful - Hyatt Regency Incheon - with excellent rooms and facilities. We feel rested, refreshed and ready for Europe. We can highly recommend this route to Europe via Korean Air. Great leg room on the plane and friendly service.

Next posting from Paris.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Europe Here We Come

It is nearly nine months since we returned from our last big journey and we are off again tomorrow - mostly to new places and returning to a few we loved previously.

We leave at "obscene o'clock" to quote one family member and will spend one night in Seoul before heading to one of our favourite places - Paris.

During the next three months we will explore the Atlantic coast of France, beginning at Mont
St-Michel and travel through Spain and Portugal. We then head across to Morocco and Tunisia before catching a ferry to Sicily and eventually catching a train to Rome for the return flight home, stopping off in Seoul for a couple of days.

Keep in touch with us and we will be thinking of you all as we travel.