Monday, 31 July 2017

Madrid Getaway

Madrid loves flags!
Statues aplenty in Madrid.
The beautiful National Library.
My weekend in France was just what the doctor ordered. I got away from the Sant Joan fireworks, with all it's festivities and noise, and retreating into the Southern Pyrenees for 3 days of rest, relaxation, and a little bit of hiking and city sightseeing. After this trip, I finished up my job here, and was now completely free - unemployed and free as a bird. Just the way I like it. I decided to make a trip to Madrid for a few days, for a few reasons. A lot of people in the city would have left already, flocking to the coast for the sea and cooler temperatures, so now was a good time. I'd been to Madrid a few times previously, but as I like the city, I thought that one good turn deserved another. I also had a bit of business to do there with the Embassy, so put all 3 together and you've got yourself a trip! As I don't have a car, nor could I afford the AVE high speed train, I had to pleb it on a 7 hours bus overnight. After travelling through South America, pretty much from top to bottom (but in the reverse order) on a buses, the longest journey being 38 hours, this would be no worries. My bus left at 1am, so I had a bit of time to kill beforehand, so I tried to find a bar to have a quiet beer and a bit of dinner before my trip. The area around Barcelona Nord bus terminal is not very pleasant, dirty, noisy bars, full of people waiting for buses or for family getting off the bus, taxi ranks and tourists - your typical bus terminal 'bari.' I did get a beer and some food, but not peace, as fireworks were being let off, crackers that sounded like a bomb going off, people on the streets... Barcelona is never quiet. This made me miss my little routine that I had in Concepcion, the city where I lived in Chile, before bording a bus somewhere - I'd go to the terminal a few hours before my bus (never booked ahead, just turned up and bought an overnight bus), go upstairs and have a $1.50 hotdog (Chilean Completo) and a few beers. a relaxing way to start a bus journey - the beer also helps you sleep.

The Historical Central Post Office - also known as the 'Palacio de Comunicaciones.'

Bike Mad! The public cycling system, nowadays so common throughout Europe.
Colourful Colonial buildings in Plaza Mayor.
The cathedral of Santa Maria.
Waking up in Madrid, not quite fresh but ready to go, was exciting. It'd been years since my last time here and I was ready to see the city. As the capital city of Spain, seat of government, and residence of the Spanish monarch, Madrid is also the political, economic and cultural centre of the country - it is also the 3rd largest city (as far as population goes) in the EU, after London and Berlin. The funny thing about population statistics that I don't understand is the Metro and Municipality (sometimes also called Urban) areas - they are always 2 very different figures and it's hard to say how many people live in a city. Going with the larger figure, Madrid has 6.5 million residents compared to Barcelona's 4.7 million. Although there have been people living here since Prehistoric times, the Romans were here, so too were the Vandals and Visigoths, but the city itself actually started off as a fortress built on the border of Al-Andalus (now Andalusia) and Castilla y Leon by the Mors to protect Toledo from the Christians. The Moors and the Spanish fought, land going back and forth, but finally Toledo surrendered to Alfonso VI in 1085 and Madrid was taken by the Christians, pushing the Muslims and Jews to the outskirts of the city. Over the next few centuries, Madrid grew rapidly, by 1202 becoming a city, and in 1561 the King, Phillip II of Spain, moved his court here and thus making it the capital of Spain. The Spanish Constitution of 1931 was the first legislated on the state capital, setting it explicitly in Madrid. During The Civil War, the capital was heavily affected was the first city to be bombed by aeroplanes in 1936. Since then, the city has recovered and grown and become a city worthy of the Capital title that it holds - bold stone and marble buildings stand tall, flags wave, statues and monuments are everywhere.

Philip III in Plaza Mayor - the central square of the city.

"All Roads Start From Madrid."

Statue of the Bear and the Strawberry Tree.
Love locks in Plaza Mayor.
I don't generally like flags everywhere in a city, a few are ok and expected on certain buildings, but Madrid would be in the running for the city with the most flags, Paris being a city that would have a very good chance of winning too. How many flags does a city need? On my walk to the hostel in the centre, I walked past one of the biggest flags I've ever seen - possibly only rivalled by that in Santiago de Chile - in the Plaza de Colon. The square was renamed in 1893 to commemorate the explorer Christopher Colombus, or Cristóbal Colón in Spanish. Walking around the city I noticed that it is far dryer than Barcelona, and upon returning I noticed this even more and realised how humid it can get here. I found a cheap hostel, which was just a converted apartment building, but it was small and very central, so it suited me just fine. I dumped my things and headed out before it got too hot. The Puerta del Sol (Sun Gate) is the centre of Madrid, and actually the centre of Spain. There is a plaque here, stating that this where all the roads in Spain start from - and although it's cool, as Madrid is the capital and also the dead centre of the country, who do they think they are with this "all roads start here" business? A little too like the saying "All Roads Lead To Rome." Anyway, I lined up for the photo of my feet there on the plate, like a good tourist, took a few of other people for them, then moved on. Another thing in this Plaza is the statue of a bear trying to climb a tree. Well, I'm not sure if it's climbing it, trying to get a squirrel that's hiding up there, or peeing on the trunk, but this is the symbol of Madrid and I shouldn't say too many bad things about it. The naming of Madrid is not exactly known, it was called 'Matrice' by the Romans, later changed to 'Mayrit' after the Islamic invasion, and now 'Madrid,' which is still pronounced 'Matrit' by the locals (called Madrileños). Another speculation is the old name for the city, dating back to the 9th Century AD was "Magerit," which translates to 'bear.'
Plaza Mayor and the statue of Philip III of Spain, with The Casa de la Panadería (Bakery House) in the background.

The Puerta de Alcalá.

Dressing up in Plaza Mayor.
Plaza Mayor and it's painted buildings
Madrid is full of huge buildings, statues and things that a capital city should have. One of these structures is the Puerta de Alcalá, a Neoclassical, 5-arched triumphal gateway which sits on the round-a-bout in Independence Square. It is regarded as the first modern post-Roman triumphal arch built in Europe - started in 1774 and designed to make a huge gate for the city walls, it was finished in 1778, making it even older than the Arc de Triomphe in Paris and the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. Plaza Mayor is in the heart of the city, surrounded by beautiful, colourful buildings, the square is the place for people to come and eat and drink, and to people watch of course. Although not as many as tourist as Barcelona, this city still has it's fair share, and many of them are drawn to this point for the restaurants and bars, but also the lovely buildings that make up the Plaza - three-story residential buildings with over 200 balconies facing the Plaza. There are nine ways to get into this rectangular 'square,' and the Casa de la Panadería (Bakery House), which serves as a kind of City Hall and Tourist Office, stands out, a large emblem of stone stands on the fascade and is topped by a gold crown. Although there isn't much shade, and it was very hot, I sat and watched the people come and go, mainly stopping for selfies, and even some police horses walking around the square. In the centre of these buildings, right in the middle of the plaza, stands the statue of Philip III riding his horse.

The courtyard in the Royal Palace.

The Royal Palace.

One of the many places to get beer and tapas.
Looking down Gran Via.
The Royal Palace of Madrid is also worth seeing while you're here - although I've never been inside as the queues are nearly as long as the palace is big. Although it's the official residence of the Royal Family in Madrid, they choose to live in the nearby Palace of Zarzuela on the outskirts of the city. The palace is located on the site of a 9th-century Alcázar (Spanish for a "Muslim-era fortress"), near the town of Magerit, constructed as an outpost by Muhammad I of Córdoba, but has been extensively updated and renovated, a lot of work being done in the 16th and 17th Centuries. On Christmas Eve in 1734, a fire tore through the building and burnt it to the ground - sadly many paintings were lost during the blaze, but thankfully some were saved by people throwing them out the windows. The fire lasted 4 days and basically only went out when there was nothing left of the palace. Work on the new building, the one we can see today, started in 1738 but has been enlarged and renovated since. The Palace has 135,000 square metres of floor space and an incredbile 3, 418 room, making it the largest palace in Europe, and houses many great works of art from artists such as Caravaggio, Fracisco de Goya and Velázquez. As beautiful as the building is, it's very white and quite bright in the harsh Spanish sun - you definitely need sunglasses to look at the thing, and a chair (maybe an umbrella for the sun) to sit on if you decide to line up for the tour. It looks a little like Buckingham Palace in London, but slightly fancier and with more statues, and two long arms reaching down either side. I guess this things can all start to look alike after a while.

Plaza de España with the statue of the famous writer Cervantes and his well-known characters.

The original 'Dynamic Duo,' Don Quixote de la Mancha and  Sancho Panza.

Apartment buildings in the city.
Not a bad place to live really.
I could talk all day about the grand old buildings here, but Madrid is truly know as a great city for eating and drinking in - yes, that's right, Tapas! On my second day in the hostel, two Aussie guys checked in, they landed in Madrid after a 30 hours trip from Australia, and although were a little jet-lagged, were excited when I told them about the 'beer and food' situation here in Spain. We hit the streets to find cheap booze, accompanied by cheaper (as in free) fried food. There was a little place call "El Bar de los Tres," the Bar of the Three, that I found the previous day by accident, liked it, so I came back. For €1.30 you get a glass of beer and a small plate of food - maybe fried potatoes or empanadas, you choose from their windowed selection on the bar. Most of the time it's not gourmet food, it is what it is - fried and free. Some places are better than others, for example I found a place that for the same price I got a beer and pickled whitebait with a few olives as a tapa - absolutely so awesome that I had to stay for another beer. One place you need to do this eating and drinking is in the Museu de Jamon - the Ham Museum. Although it's not actually a museum at all from what I could see, but you get cheap beer and a good selection of tapas for less than €1 each - in fact a beer was €0.70 and a tapa (small ham or cheese sandwiches) were €0.80. Doing things this way you can go home to bed, having had a decent amount of beer and free (or very cheap) snacks, enough to make you feel tipsy but with a full belly, for less than €10. Where else can you do this in Europe I ask you! I did this for most of the evening, coming back to the hostel feeling very satisfied, only to be 'sucked in' to more drinking and eating with the hostel owner late into the night. The next day I said goodbye the Australian brothers, wishing them luck in the San Fermin running of the bulls festival in which they were taking part - I saw on the news a few days later that about a dozen people were injured, and hoped it wasn't them.

Madrid is a beautiful city.

Buen Retiro Park.

Parc Retiro in the centre of the city.
The famous "Schweppes" building on Gran Via.
My last day in Madrid before heading back home was spent walking around and seeing a few things that I'd missed. One of these was Plaza de España, which is where the statue of Miguel de Cervantes is located. He sits in front of a reflection pond, backed by a huge column, which is topped by the figures of people reading books next to a globe. In front of the great author are his characters - Don Quixote de la Mancha and  Sancho Panza. Although I haven't read the book (yet) it is considered one of the greatest literary works in the World. I found it amusing how many people were getting their pictures taken in front of these bronze figures, whose legs and feet were noticeably shiner from everyone touching them. On my way back to the bus terminal I stopped off in Buen Retiro Park, a huge park with a man-made lake in the middle. Last time I walked through this park I was offered all sorts of drugs, but not this time - and somehow I was a little disappointed. I remember my time in South America travelling with my American friend from Seattle, how when we walked down the streets in certain cities in Colombia or Peru, I would get drugs offered to me and not her - she always said that she wouldn't have bought them, but it's nice to be offered. I told her that it was a compliment - she was clearly too sensible and wholesome looking to buy drugs off the street. I'm glad it appears to have been cleaned up a little, as no city needs a place for dirty drug dealers pushing their shit on tourists.

Rowing in Parc Retiro.

The Madrid Metro.

I made it back to the terminal with plenty of time for my bus, and so concluded my business in Madrid. To be honest it was not just a visit, but a kind of 'business trip' - I came here to apply for a Volunteer Visa for South Africa. My visa has just been approved and my passport returned, and so in less than a week I'll be working in South Africa. I'll be working with an NGO outside of Durban, in an area called The Valley of 1000 Hills, in a rural Zulu community, working with kids and young people, teaching English and helping out with sports and other activities. I was there back in 2015 for a wedding of a long-time friend, and for the past 6 months I have been working to get papers together and everything I need to make the move there. After a long time of working and waiting, it has all come together, and so my next leg of my journey begins. Although I have little money myself, there are people with far less, so this time it's not for me, not a trip, but working with people and helping, not with money but time and skills - this time for Africa!

Goodbye Spain (again) and hello South Africa (again).

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

French Pyrenees

Driving over the mountains and towards France.

A good omen at the start of holidays!
Cross the border and the change is so sudden.
So the end June is nearly here, the end of the school term. This means a few things here - firstly for teachers it means reports, exams, marks and a bit of a crazy finale to the teaching year. After all this is done, gangs of Teenagers are roaming the streets with not much to do other than sit around, play with their phones and let off fire crackers in the streets. This brings me to my next point - the festival of Sant Joan. Here in Catalonia, kids and adults alike look forward to the 23rd, and with the setting of the sun fireworks are booming and exploding everywhere, bonfires are burning and general chaos rules. I don't hate fireworks, they're entertaining and beautiful (although very expensive and possible a waste of money for just pretty colours and noise), but in the hands of kids and teenagers, and silly adults, they can become a deadly weapon. I've celebrated Sant Joan with friends before here, and in a controlled environment it's fun and the kids love it. In the wrong environment, where adults are drinking and don't seem to be aware of the risks, or don't care, this is a recipe for disaster. Spain has it's good and bad points, one of these being the lack of control with fireworks - a double edged blade in my opinion. In the UK, like Australia, fireworks are forbidden in the hands of the public, special shows and events are held with experts and always the fire fighters standing by - here in Spain there is very little control, kids are allowed to purchase and ignite crackers and rockets, parents even buy them these deadly toys. The middle ground for me is to leave the country for the weekend, to keep my eyes, hands and sanity intact, and so I crossed the border in France, where they don't even celebrate this day.

The mountain road to France.

Our first little hike to have lunch over the border.

French sausage!
Every French town has a War Memorial.
Living just outside of Barcelona, as I've mentioned before, is a very handy location. The border of France is only an hour and half away to the North. I remember watching some RomCom from the 90s (of which I can't quite remember the name of, or don't want to admit which one it is...) where some friends in London had piled into their little car and were inviting their other friend to 'come to Paris for the weekend,' and I just thought that would be the coolest thing to be able to do... well now I can just 'pop to France for the weekend,' pick up some wine, cheese and mustard, and be back in time for tea. I still find this incredible! I was going away with an ex-colleague, a hiker and nature lover just like me, so I knew it was going to be a relaxing yet active weekend. As we drove along the C-17 through the mountains, heading towards Puigcerdà and the Pyrenees to the North, we didn't have the radio on, we didn't talk that much (not just for the sake of talking), but looked out the windows, enjoying the view of the greenery and blue sky - I enjoy this kind of travelling where I can just sit and enjoy, no chatter or noise, with a smile on my face. This was also a good time to be getting away, as many people are still working, or just have the one day off, but come the start of July "Operacion Salida" kicks off - 'Operation Exit,' or as I call it, "Operations get-the-hell-out!" The cities in Spain are emptied on mass - cars, campers and vans all head out of the cities in search of a patch of sand and a view of the sea. Better to head for the opposite direction too, for higher ground - head for the hills.

The misty mountains at Col du Chioula.

I could watch clouds all day long - better than a television!

Cows enjoying the fresh mountain grass.
Crossing the border into France is an immediate change - as clear as if there was actually a line drawn across the road itself. Once over the border, having driven past the now defunct border-check station, everything is in your face French - but in a good way! Signs have changed language, houses have become cuter and their window shutters wooden and slightly worn (but with that French charm) workers are drinking Kronenbourg rather than Estrella, and everything just seems lighter and better. I truly love the feeling of being in a foreign country, which Spain no longer really feels like to me anymore. It's the Australian in me again, but it's incredible how you can still just cross a line in a car and the whole culture and atmosphere can change too. The only thing that happens in Australia when you cross the border are the number plates and maybe the police uniforms. Bourg-Madame is that border town, a place I've driven though a few times, always wanted to stop in but never have - it's small and probably not very interesting at all, but it has this appeal to it somehow. Before we checked into our accommodation, a little Gite (a French b&b basically) in a tiny French village, we decided to go for a quick hike and have a lunch with a view. We parked the car, well into the mountains now, and hiked up for about 40 mins to a place called Col du Chioula at 1400m. The weather wasn't sunny and warm, but that was an actual blessing as Spain had been having a heat wave for the last 2 weeks - August weather of 34c+ but in June. It didn't rain either and the clouds put on a spectacular show for us - they covered the valleys like a pale, fluffy sea, moving and swirling around in silence, while their higher cousins continually shifted and moved around above, threatening rain but never carrying through. At one point we were worried about a thunder storm, and being at the top of a mountain is not where you want to be then, but it never did trouble us. We had our 30 min break at the top, munched on French spiced salami, crusty bread with slices of fresh country cheese, and washed it all down with a lovely French malt beer. No better place to be!

The view from the Gite of the old Romanic church.

A cute little french house and it's garden.

The Saint-Lizier Church and square.
The cloister in Saint-Lizier.
I had a great night's sleep in the Gite, in the attic so it was nice and quiet, and it was also free of snorers, my absolutely travelling bane. I won't mention the name of the place where we stayed, the village or the BnB (which was great - lovely owner, good food and wonderful location), as although I highly doubt hordes of tourists will come charging in after reading my blog, some places are better left a mystery and discovered on your own. Today we were heading off to see a big market in the area, only held on Saturdays, and to do a bit of city sightseeing - tomorrow would be back to the mountains. These places I will mention as they are already 'on the map' and a tourist destination. The first place we stopped for the morning was a lovely little place called Saint-Lizier, a town of about 1,500 people, but a long history. The Romans were here in 72BC (weren't they everywhere?), and in fact Pompey himself paid a visit on his way back from fighting in Spain, and even today you can still see  parts of the 3rd Century ramparts in the now Bishop's Palace. It was very quite and slightly drizzly, so I ducked into the church to get out of the rain and was impressed by the cloister. Again, quiet and very few people, just the two of us and two Brits also admiring the church, which is the way I like it. I don't know much about the church, but the columns around the cloister were very intricately carved, each one unique, with strange animals and weird shapes and patterns. There was no information, I don't know how old it is or anything, but that's fine sometimes, I just like looking at these things, not always needing to know the How, When and Why. We wandered around for a bit, enjoying the small streets and boutique shops (or what look like boutique to me, but are in fact just French), before moving on to the big markets in nearby Saint-Girons.

Intricate and individual carvings in the Saint-Lizier church cloister.

The Bishop's Palace in Saint-Lizier.

The castle of Foix.
A man brushing his cat by the window.

I do love French markets - they do it like nobody else! There is food, but such a range of bread, sausages, salamis, cheese, meats and many other things that you could just eat right there and then. The vendors were extremely friendly, handing out free samples and talking about their products, in English for me or letting my friend practise her French, and weren't upset for bothered in the least if we didn't buy, but were just happy that we have them some time and enjoyed their products. Who says the French are rude? I have to disagree totally with this - they are friendly on the mountain and in the cities, putting up with my near non-existent French and helping in any way they can. I Think maybe people think this due to the accent when French people speak in English - it's a hard one to lose - or maybe it's the fact that not many people speak their language, relying on English, and so can't communicate properly and then think it's the local's fault. Either way, for whatever the reason, I think French people are lovely. After lunch, the drive back to our hostel took us through Foix, a small city that lies just south of Toulouse, and also is very close to Spain and Andorra. I've been here twice now, and both times the weather was cloudy and threatening rain, and although it's quite beautiful in this weather, I would love to see it with sun and blue skies. The main thing you notice about Foix is the castle, which you can climb up and to and visit, it has a great view of the city and surrounding country, but also you can see the 3 tall towers from nearly anywhere in the city - great for getting your bearings. Small cobbled streets, shuttered windows on houses and some very old buildings in the Old Town, some of which are still timbered structures that look at least 400 years old. The castle was originally the site of a Roman fortification, but later become a formidable fortress in the 10th Century and was able to withstand the Albigensian Crusade between 1212 and 1217, but the castle finally surrendered in 1290. The Cathars, a group of people living in the South of France and also Northern Italy, were not true Catholics according to Pope Innocent III and so in the 13th Century he declared a crusade to wipe them out. Today, ruins of impressive castles can be seen all over this area in France, around Carcassonne and Toulouse, the only reminder left of these persecuted people.

Hand-made coffee and tea mugs in Saint-Girons - far too lovely to use really.

French villages are gorgeous, no matter the weather.

The walk to l’étang de Comte.
The natural baths.
Dinner at the Gite was great - as much fresh, crunchy salad as you could eat, fresh baked break and a generous portion of vegetarian lasagna. Washed down with a few French ales and it was perfect, the only thing to do now before going to bed was to take a quick hike up the hill to the natural thermal baths. It was dark and a little cold, but we found them and spent the next 30 mins lying there enjoying the warmth more than the smell, which was a little too much like rotten egg for me. The last day in France, before going back to the Real World, we set off to hike to l’étang de Comte, the Count's Pond. It would only be about 1:45 to the lake (it was small, but still more than a pond in my opinion!), but it would be all uphill there - but that means all downhill on the way back! I love this side of the Pyrenees, so green and lush, and real mountains covered in trees - it's much the same in Andorra, which is only a stone's throw away really. Thought the end of June, it felt like Spring here still, with flowers covering the grass, butterflies everywhere and plenty of water too, with small streams running across the path to meet up with the main river in the valley. We met some friendly local horses along the way, a special breed called The Mérens horse or Cheval de Mérens, still occasionally referred to by the older name of thevAriégeois pony. They are smaller than most horses, jet black and live in the mountains - riding school around the area have them and during the Summer months let them range and feed naturally in the mountains for a week or more at a time, and hike up and round them up when needed.

The view from the l’étang de Comte.

Spring (love) is in the air!
So green and beautiful.
Well hello there!
We ate lunch while the horses munched on theirs, but they come over for a visit and a pat (also a sniff and hoping for some bread) once they realised that we had some food. Their owner made an appearance, feeding them salt, checking their tails and legs, making sure they were all well, before hiking off. Even though they are 'half-wild' animals, they are still very much looked after. We reached the lake and I decided to jump in for a swim, although the crowd on the other side never set foot in. The water was freezing (the reason why nobody else was in!) but refreshing for the 10 seconds that I could stay in without turning into an ice-block. Out of the water the sun was warming and just enough to dry my smalls before getting dressed again and heading down. This weekend was just what the doctor ordered - no fireworks and nothing but peace and quiet, good company, great food and beer and and some hiking in the mountains too. The weather had also been good, cool and cloudy for the most part but a cool break from the Spanish sun, with the weather giving us picture perfect blue skies on the last day for the hike. Nothing lasts forever, and it was time to go home. If things lasted forever, or they were the same every day, then they wouldn't be special, and you wouldn't miss these things and wouldn't want to re-live or remember them. As much as I love seeing a place for the first time, a stunning church, a quaint village, a new foreign country, sometimes revisiting that place, where you've had experiences, memories and maybe even good friends, can be even better as it's excitement, appreciation and wonder mixed in with the feeling of actually walking down Memory Lane. Until next time France - I know you'll be there waiting for me, and I can't wait to come back.

The 'l’étang de Comte,' or Count's Pond. More of a lake if you ask me.

"You're in a good place," my feelings exactly when I'm in this country.

Birthday Weekend

The always impressive Pedraforca. Just beautiful! Hiking with a touch of snow. Winter was setting in by November, and although ...