A Travellerspoint blog

La Zenia, Valencia, Granada, Barcelona

I wasn't looking forward to another long bus ride from Cádiz to Torrevieja (9 ½ hours) but it wasn’t so bad. The scenery along the way reminded me a bit of west Texas, hot, dry, scrubby, some small mountains here and there. I was sweating making my connection in Murcia, but I had 5 whole minutes to spare! My happiness was short lived when I saw Torrevieja, it’s flat out ugly, think Daytona Beach meets Newark. Well maybe not quite that bad, but coming from picturesque old town Cadiz, it’s a letdown.

I was kind of disappointed in my accommodation too. Although it was in a suburb called La Zenia and not as ugly as Torrevieja itself, the neighborhood looked like it had been hit by the downturn in the economy, unfinished buildings, vacant lots that are supposed to parks… This was the second part of my home exchange. I had the owner of this house as my guest while I was in Greece and I banked time for a future date. I was supposed to have had use of her car, use of the community pool and wifi, then one by one those amenities disappeared. Not only that, but when I arrived after 10 hours of travel I had to do laundry since there were dirty sheets and wet towels in the middle of the floor, no maps or guides to help me find my way around and I couldn’t figure out the AC, so it was blazing hot in the house. Not a good first impression. I guess you get what you pay for.

Since this was the first thing that has gone wrong in my first 3 months of travel, I couldn't complain. On the bright side, a 15 minute walk down the street were a couple of places with semi reliable wifi so I stopped by there almost every day to make travel plans, pay bills and try to catch up on this blog. This place has just as many Irish, British and Germans as Spanish people. Lots of them have 2<sup>nd</sup> homes here, but I don’t quite get why, it’s just not that nice of a town, very cementy, no charm, no greenery, no character at all. After spending time in England, where it’s so cold, I am amazed at the tolerance these people have for the relentless heat here. The sun blazed every single day -I’m sure it hit 100 degrees a couple of times, sure made lugging groceries home a pain.

I did get to check out the Spanish health care system, so that was an interesting day. I had this mole that was starting to look a little weird, so I thought I’d go see a dermatologist. Much easier said than done. My Visa card comes with travel assistance and they’re supposed to help you find an English speaking doctor in any foreign country. Unfortunately, the customer service part of Visa doesn’t know they offer this service, so after talking to about 5 different people and getting disconnected with Skype (got wifi in a bar with 2 TVs blaring and everyone smoking) I finally got a referral to a doctor 50kms away (2 taxis and bus ride each way) &#8211;not so convenient. Then I remembered that there was a sign for a doctor next to my local British pub, so I peddled my bike up there, only to be told by the Swedish dental receptionist on the next floor, that yes, it was a Doctor’s office but there was no doctor and no one knew when he’d be back (summer/beach/Spain). She gave me directions (and I use that term loosely) to a dermatologist named Ana. So I peddled 4kms in the blazing sun (if I didn’t have skin cancer before, I do now) in the general direction of getting nowhere. I saw a Farmacia and stopped to go talk to the pharmacist (they are more doctors here than pharmacists in the US) and he said I should go to the hospital. I parked my bike, got in a cab and 12 euros later I’m at the private hospital (I couldn’t go to the public one because I don’t have insurance). They were about to send me away with an appointment for another day, but then they changed their mind and in 10 minutes I was being seen by the doc. She said she thought it was just a nonspecific inflammation, gave me a prescription for some cream, a bill for 115&#8364;, and an appointment (no charge) in 2 weeks. Quickest hospital visit on record and my 12 months worth of travel insurance, for which I paid $900, will reimburse me.

I finally have some time to read, so that’s nice. I read The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. It’s about some soldiers in the Viet Nam war, I really liked it. I also read Sharp Objects recently by Gillian Flynn, liked that too.

I accidentally downloaded something weird into my computer that was messing up my search engines so I popped in to a computer repair shop on the off chance that someone could fix it and I lucked out. An adorable German geek knew exactly what to do even though this was the first Windows tablet he’d ever seen (no one has tablets here yet and blackberries are way more common than iphones). I was so excited to have my computer working again that I hopped on my bike to leave and forgot it was still chained up. Everything got all tangled up and a nice man from England helped me and I ended up having coffee with him and his wife. I was the first American they’d met since they moved here 9 years ago. They’ve been to the US a couple times and I am always pleasantly surprised when people comment on what nice experiences they’ve had. There is one negative stereotype of the US that persists and that’s that we are all overweight. It was even the subject of an illustration in one of the textbooks in school. And in one English class, the students were naming types of foods that different countries were known for (Italy &#8211;pasta, Japan &#8211;sushi), for the US they all said "fast food". Mortifying. Fun fact though- in France a McDonald’s drive thru is called a McDrive, in Spain it’s McAuto and at Burger King it’s AutoKing.

<u>Valencia </u>

Took a day trip to Valencia, the city center is very pretty-Spanish architects sure do know how to make a beautiful balcony. Went to the Cathedral- which home to what has been defended as the true Holy Grail. It dates from the 1<sup>st</sup> century was given to the Cathedral in the 1400’s by King Alfons el Maganim. It is housed in really cool medieval chapel. It seemed to me though, if this was the real grail, Dan Brown would have mentioned it in the Da Vinci code, no? The church also has bell tower, el Miguelete, 247 steps to the top and of course I had to climb every one of them. I think I have some type of bell tower obsessive compulsive disorder and am determined to leave no tower unclimbed during this trip.

There is a beautiful Art Nouveau market here, and while I was walking around, the heat and the fact that I hadn’t eaten started to get to me. I was about 14 seconds from fainting dead away. I remember wondering if I would get robbed while was I passed out, but I bought a glass of pineapple juice, downed it and was immediately revived, so I didn’t get to test the honesty of the Valencians, thank goodness.

I have realized that day trips are not for me. The journey to and from was 2 hours each way and by the time I oriented myself to the city, and saw a couple of sights, it was time to go. I’d much rather spend 3 or 4 days in a place rather than rushing through.

<u>Granada </u>

Spent 4 lovely days in Granada, it’s a really nice city, very walkable if you don’t mind the blazing 95 degree sun. Lots of little side streets to wander, easy to get lost in, but fun to explore. There are never any clouds, just relentless blue sky and heat- I guess it’s true about the rain in Spain. Regardless, I had a great time. Visited the chapel that houses the tombs of Queen Isabella of Castila and King Ferdinand - in fact, Granada is where the Queen gave the OK to finance Christopher Columbus’ expedition to the new world. Gracias! I had forgotten that Catherine of Aragon (Henry the VIII’s first wife) was the daughter of Isabella and Ferdinand, they married her off to forge an alliance with England. I love it when the pieces of history fall into place for me!

Granada was the last stronghold for the Moorish occupation, so there is a huge amount of Islamic influence and history here. I visited the old Madrasa, which was turned into the Town Hall after the Catholic regime conquered the last Moors in Spain in the late 1400’s. Luckily, the prayer room of the Palacio de la Madraza was preserved and it was so beautiful I almost cried at the exquisitely detailed decoration all in white and cream. I learned that the only reason the room survived was because a fire in the building had caused a wall to collapse in front of it, so no one knew it was there for many years (most everything else was &#8220;remodeled" in the Renaissance or baroque style to remove the Islamic decoration). The Plaza Bib Rambla near my hotel was first the site of the medina’s slaughterhouse, and later the location of lots of executions during the Spanish inquisition-nasty business there.

The Alhambra was absolutely magnificent. It’s a huge fortress on the hill overlooking the city (built 889) and was used as the Sultan’s palace by from the 1200’s until their surrender at the reconquest in 1492. It fell into decay by the late 1800s, but the Nasrid Palace has since been restored and was it ever gorgeous!! As I walked around I could imagine the place bustling with the sultans, their wives, advisors, servants and harem girls- everything colorful, spicy, jingly with jewelry, fountains gushing and gardens blooming. It must have been an intoxicating place to be. One of my favorites for sure.

One of the other best things about Granada is the free food! Thank goodness, because with bus/taxi/entrance fees/buying water to rehydrate&#8230;euros are flying out of my wallet muy rapido! Whenever you go to a bar/tavern here and buy a beer or a glass of tinto, you get a free tapa. Had some yummy gazpacho for lunch and a tuna bocadillo (little sandwich) for dinner plus a drink for 4 euros total, yay!!

Saw a fabulous gypsy Zambrano flamenco show in a cave in the Arabic section of the city. The dresses were beautiful, the dancers (and the guitar players) gorgeous, and the dancing was unbelievable-their feet were moving really fast, while their body was perfectly still except for the castanets clicking away at the speed of light, just amazing. It’s one of those things that while I’ve have seen it in a movie, could not really appreciate until seeing it live.

<u>Barcelona</u>

I had planned to just be in Barcelona long enough to catch my plane to Casablanca, but since La Zenia wasn’t that great and it would have been ridiculous to be so close to La Sagrada Familia and not see it, I spent 3 days there and really liked it, especially the Gaudi stuff. I visited Casa Battlo, a private residence and apartment complex and it was awesome. It was like being inside a mollusk- like submarine in the Caribbean. Gaudi was a master at utilizing natural light and ventilation and left no detail overlooked. In fact, the servant’s quarters, laundry room and roof were some of the most beautiful, albeit more starkly designed areas. He even molded the door handles to make them fit the hand, designed the letters designating each apartment and also designed the furniture.

La Sagrada Familia was breathtaking -my jaw literally dropped when I went in the basilica, and it's not like I hadn't seen pictures of it, but in person it's just so much more. Each main pillar is made of a different material, and they branch off at the top like trees, so I kind of felt like I was in super upscale Dr. Suess church. And again, the natural lighting was amazing. Outside the two facades were completely different from each other, the passion fa&ccedil;ade was very modern and the nativity fa&ccedil;ade more gothic. If course I had to go up into the bell tower, they make you take an elevator up, but I got to walk the 400 steps down. The museum and workrooms that showed how they continued with the construction even though the plans were destroyed in the Spanish civil war were really cool too, I can’t wait to come back in 15 years when it’s done.

After a full day of Gaudi architecture I was beat, and decided to relax in the park he designed-Park Guell. I missed the turn after I got off the metro and ended up walking a half mile in the wrong direction. Then when I found the right street, it was uphill another half mile and then when I got to the entrance, it was uphill again. Long story short, my vision of laying in the grass at a park, reading and chilling, turned into an uphill/downhill 5 mile trek in the sun- the park is HUGE! Sure, I guess I could have sat on a bench somewhere along the way, but then I would have missed seeing Gaudi’s house and all the cool landscape design. I can sit on a bench some other year.

The beach is nice, but I was puzzled by some of the urban planning. The hospital is right on the ocean (nice views for patients), there’s a really long arcade on the beach that is spectacularly ugly (solid steel panel doors, cement columns) and a beautiful water feature in a shopping area that 1) you’re not allowed to walk over and 2) has a nice waterfall that ends in the parking garage. I doubt Gaudi would approve.

This is a pretty expensive town, the entrance fees are between 10 and 25&#8364; and a large beer is 6&#8364; and definitely no free tapas :(. Luckily my accommodation is reasonable. I stayed at an AirBnB place which ended up being kind of like a hostel, but it was clean and in a great location at the top of La Ramba. I hung out with the other guests (from Serbia, Canada and Austria) a bit and went to the Magic Fountain. The metros were easy to use and very clean. Also, I have to mention that the bathrooms in Spain have been just stellar-even in the train and bus stations, I cannot tell you how much I appreciated that! I have a funny feeling I won’t be saying that on the next leg of this journey- Morocco!

Valencia Cathedral

Valencia Cathedral


The Holy Grail

The Holy Grail


The most ornate bulidings are bank offices

The most ornate bulidings are bank offices


Alhambra

Alhambra


Palazio de la Madraza, Grenada

Palazio de la Madraza, Grenada


Nasrid Palace, Alhambra

Nasrid Palace, Alhambra


Me at the summer palace

Me at the summer palace


Alhambra wall detail

Alhambra wall detail


Granada cathedral alterpiece

Granada cathedral alterpiece


Flamenco dancer

Flamenco dancer


Alhambra at night

Alhambra at night


Mercado in Barcelona

Mercado in Barcelona


Shellfish at the Mercado

Shellfish at the Mercado


Gaudi lampost in Placa Real Barcelona

Gaudi lampost in Placa Real Barcelona


Casa Battlo

Casa Battlo


Gaudi chimneys

Gaudi chimneys


Staircase in the servant&#38;#39;s quarters

Staircase in the servant&#38;#39;s quarters


La Sadgrada Familia

La Sadgrada Familia


La Sagrada Basilica

La Sagrada Basilica


Ceiling detail

Ceiling detail


Going down the bell tower stairs

Going down the bell tower stairs


The Passion Facade

The Passion Facade


Barcelona beach

Barcelona beach


Port Vell Barcelona

Port Vell Barcelona


At Park Guell

At Park Guell


The Magic Fountain

The Magic Fountain


Scallops for lunch at the beach

Scallops for lunch at the beach

Posted by travelinglisa 17:00 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

Cadiz, Spain

My journey to C&aacute;diz was the most trying of all the legs of the trip thus far. In an effort to save a couple of hundred dollars I spent 15 hours (3pm to 5am) on a bus from Tours to Barcelona. I thought since it was such a long trip, it would be a nice comfortable bus with TV, maybe wifi, pillows&#8230; I couldn't have been more wrong. I swear the seats didn’t have an ounce of padding, the bus stopped every couple of hours to pick up people, so the second I was able to close my eyes for a nap, the lights came on and more luggage started banging around. When I got to Barcelona it was pitch dark which was kind of scary. I made my way to the train station then caught the train to the airport. Once at the airport I had a 6 hour wait for my flight which I spent on chairs even more uncomfortable than the bus. RyanAir is known as the strictest budget airline in terms of baggage weight and size. I didn’t make the cut the first time and had to toss out some stuff, and rearrange things between my backpack and suitcase before I could get on the plane. When I landed in Jerez, I looked around for the bus that was supposed to get me to C&aacute;diz. I had researched it before hand and it looked easy, but it seems that in Spain, nothing opens or runs on Sunday. So there I was, 30 hours with no sleep, no bus, in a practically deserted airport and finding hardly anyone that spoke English. I did speak to taxi driver, who told me where it would cost almost $80 to take a cab to Cadiz; but how bad it would suck to spend 15 hours on a bus to save money and then blow all the savings on a cab ride. So I had him tell me where the train station was, and walked over there to scope it out. When I was reading the train schedule, I realized I had forgotten the names of the days of the week in Spanish, so I had no idea if any more trains ran after 6 pm on Sunday. ARRGGHHH ! There were only two other people at the train station and in a burst of good luck, one of them spoke English and I found out that the train that was supposed to have left for Cadiz 20 minutes ago had had not yet arrived. As I was walking toward the ticket machine to pay for the fare, I heard the train arriving. So I grabbed my suitcase and backpack and ran like a madwoman down the stairs, down the along the underpass, tripped and fell, got up, ran up the stairs to the other side of the platform , limping, sweating, all out of breath, waving my arms and screaming WAIT!!!!! WAAAAAAIIIIIITTTTT!!!! as the doors shut just seconds before I could get there. I screamed louder and waved more frantically and then experienced the happiest of all happiness’s as I saw the door open for me!!! I literally collapsed in the doorway of the train. I was all "Gracias, senor! Muchas gracias!!"; the passengers were cracking up & the train man was scolding me, but I could not have cared less. When I arrived in C&aacute;diz, I told the conductor I hadn’t had time to buy a ticket and asked him how much I owed and he said &#8220;No problema&#8221; and let me go without even paying! Yippee!

I grabbed a cab and set out for #6 San Miguel, my apartment for the next 5 weeks while in school to get my TEFL certificate (Teaching English as a Foreign language). I really had no idea what to expect. All of my planning had been done on the internet, sight unseen, so I was pleasantly surprised when he dropped me off on a lovely street in the middle of the old town. The apartment was on the 4<sup>th</sup> floor (52 steps!) of a traditional Cadiz building, all the apartments surround an interior courtyard and there was a roof terrace with an ocean view. I had a roommate named Sunita, a fellow student at the school. She cooked us some fantastic Indian food, but for the most part we ate frozen pizza and Doritos as we were so busy with classes.

School was<u> wicked </u>hard. I am sure you’re thinking, well you already speak English, how hard could it be? Well, I had to learn a whole new education related vocabulary and teach my classes according to a rigidly prescribed method. Many of my classmates all had previous teaching experience and were far more ahead of the game than I was. There were 8 of us in the class and they were all really really nice. The grammar sections seriously gave me fits. I barely knew what a noun was and I had to teach people about third conditional tenses, modal auxiliary verbs and collocations. I should have paid way more attention in the 6<sup>th</sup> grade. When I wasn’t teaching class, planning a lesson or writing a paper, I was class myself learning about monothongues, eliaisons and L1 influences. It was extremely stressful, and although I learned a lot, I was happy when it was over.

During school I didn’t have much chance to explore C&aacute;diz, other than the walk from my apartment to school and back. We did go to the open air market on the weekend. Very cool! Lots of interesting things, but I couldn’t tell you what most of them were because my Spanish is so limited and hardly anyone spoke English. We did buy some great shrimp and swordfish. But the best thing about the market was that you could stop at the cervezaria and shop with a beer in your hand. Someone should float this idea by Publix, it’s a winner, I tell ya.

One night on our way back from a rare dinner out with some classmates, we ran into a parade honoring the Virgin Mary. It was incredible and authentically Spanish: priests with incense, a couple of marching bands, men carrying silver staffs, ladies in lace mantillas and a huge platform with the icon of Mary lit by hundreds of candles. It seemed like the whole city was in the procession, it was quite the spectacle.

The Spanish people are really friendly, and they love to just walk around the town eating ice cream with their immaculately dressed kids until after 11pm. I couldn’t help but contrast this with France, especially the Loire, where I hardly saw any children at all. Also in Cadiz, they do a complete cleaning of almost every single street every single morning, whereas in Paris, I think they last cleaned the streets in 1985. There is no grass here, and very few trees or plants-everything is paved over by marble looking squares or stone. Nevertheless, the town is quite lovely and has great architecture, and especially pretty balconies. Oh, and women really do use those little handheld Spanish fans, it was sooo hot. Especially so when the Levante wind blew- it's this relentless hot breeze that's suppsed to make you crazy. The thing that did drive me nuts was all the fine dust that got everywhere.

Stores are only open from 10 or 11 til 2, some may reopen from 4-6, and on Sunday everything is closed. I needed to make a photocopy one Saturday afternoon and was out of luck. It can be a bit frustrating trying to get things done. Everyone says, oh it’s too hot to work, and they just close up and go to the beach. Not exactly pro consumerism! There were these shops here and there that are like dollar stores. Almost all are owned by Chinese people, so they are called Chinese stores (struck me as a bit racist the first time I heard it). Everything is twice as expensive as it should be, and not of good quality, but whatever you need, they are sure to have it.

Finally, when our exams were done, all of us went out to a nice long Spanish lunch of tapas (olives, tuna with potatoes, croquettas, choco (lighty breaded calamari rings) , manchego cheese and tinto de verrano (summer wine: red wine with carbonated lemonade and fruit -muy Bueno! ) it was so nice to hang out with everyone without the stress of school hanging over our heads. It was quite an international group-Australia, Sweden, Spain and England and US and interesting to hear us teaching English to our students in all our different accents. What an awesome bunch of people, it was so nice to work with all of them.

Since I was in school so much and didn’t get got the beach or seen much of the town, I decided to stay in C&aacute;diz for another week after school was done. The first night after I left our apartment I stayed in a hotel for one night with&#8230;wait for it&#8230;air conditioning!! AND&#8230;&#8230;.wifi!!! &#8230;. AND a shower! with actual water pressure!!! Oh yeah, it was heaven. I surfed the net for a bit, then slept for 10 unsweaty hours straight. Unfortunately, the next day I moved to a hostel (cheaper) with none of the above and a shared bath. Will someone please buy me lottery ticket so I can travel in the style to which I would like to become accustomed? I’m not even talking Four Seasons, just a Hampton Inn would be heaven.

On my first day of freedom (post school), I had bread, olives, cheese and tinto for breakfast (in my defense, it was after noon) then rented a bike and rode the beach road for a few miles and swam and read and napped , then literally dying of thirst, rode to a beach bar for water and an icy cerveza. The beaches are really nice, with good white sand, bathing suit tops are optional and the water is a bit chilly but refreshing.

C&aacute;diz is the oldest city in Europe, and was first occupied by the Phoenicians and then, of course, the Romans- those guys have been everywhere. Apparently, the city still has a lot of unearthed artifacts, and the offerings from an entire Roman temple sank into the ocean, so only archeologists are allowed to dive here. Legend has it that Hercules came here after he completed his 10<sup>th</sup> trials and that the Pillars of Hercules. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pillars_of_Hercules, were here (Gades is the Roman name for the Cadiz). Christopher Columbus sailed from here, Sir Francis Drake attacked this harbor causing a year’s delay in the launch of the Spanish Armada. Pretty important place.

I went sightseeing with my friend, Bianca to visit the Camera Obscura which was in one of the cities watchtowers, and it was so fun. It was like looking at a mega pixelated photo of the whole town taken from above, except it was live. All of a sudden you’d see someone on the roof doing laundry or tiny people walking by the market. They have one in San Francisco, Bristol, England and some other places.

I also visited the Museum of C&aacute;diz was quite good, lots of beautiful and well preserved Roman jewelry and statues and some great Phoenician stuff including 2 huge marble sarcophagi from the 5<sup>th</sup> century BC.

I spent a couple of days with another friend, Teresa, in a nearby town, Jerez de la Frontera, which is part of the Sherry Triangle. Seems that the grapes that makes sherry can only be grown in this certain area of Spain. We took a tour of the Tio Pepe bodega and drank some free samples afterwards, but I have to say, I didn’t care much for it- it has a very alchoholly smell that ruins the taste for me. Ate some more great food-gazpacho- so very yummy, and coquina’s &#8211;tiny clams with legs (kind of) in garlic butter, visited their beautiful cathedral and met up with some friends of hers at the beach.

Had a farewell spaghetti dinner on the roof of the hostel with Stephanie, my last remaining classmate in town, and her boyfriend Oscar, who gave me good basic lesson on Spanish politics- people vote for a party, not a candidate. That was the night I discovered another new Spanish food- these round sweet, anise flavored flaky crackery/cookie things, so good!

Oh, and last, but by no means least, I ended up getting a B in my TEFL course-woo hoo!!!!!

Next stop Torrevieja!

Balconies along Calle Ancho

Balconies along Calle Ancho


At the market, the swordfish vendor

At the market, the swordfish vendor


Dinner with Chris, Steph, Sunita

Dinner with Chris, Steph, Sunita


My apt building

My apt building


The parade of Mary

The parade of Mary


My first gazpacho, total yum!

My first gazpacho, total yum!


Plaza Mina

Plaza Mina


Class of July &#38;#39;13

Class of July &#38;#39;13


View from our roof top terrace

View from our roof top terrace


At Tio Pepe bodega

At Tio Pepe bodega


Cadiz cathedral

Cadiz cathedral


Jerez de Frontiera castle

Jerez de Frontiera castle


Me and my teaching group

Me and my teaching group


Phonecian Sarcophogi

Phonecian Sarcophogi


Cadiz beach

Cadiz beach

Posted by travelinglisa 17:00 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

Loire Valley

After seeing Deb off on the shuttle to Charles de Gaulle, I headed to the station to catch my train to Amboise in the Loire Valley. While I have always felt very confident on the metro, the trains in France are much more difficult, the signs are minimal and they don't show the names of upcoming stops. It was a mad rush to board with everyone having tons of luggage that didn’t fit anywhere and no train staff in sight. I was 95% sure I was on the right train and was waiting for the conductor to make an announcement but the next thing I knew, were on the move. No one around me spoke any English, so I got out my map and thought I’d check the names of the stops to confirm that I was going in the right direction, but none of the stops were on the map, so I just hoped for the best. This was one of those times when I was thankful that I had money in my pocket and a credit card, because I knew wherever I ended up I could get a hotel, a nice dinner and continue the journey the next day. But of course I was on the right train after, so no worries. I had to change trains in Tours and learned something new: if your train is late, the platform that took you ten minutes and 2 flights of stairs to find can change without warning if another train arrives first, and then you have to start the trek to the new platform. Makes sense, I just wasn’t expecting it.

Anyway, I finally arrived in Amboise for a six night stay. I had been looking forward to meeting my hosts, Allen and Joelle (he is English, she is French), as their previous guest’s reviews on AirBnB were stellar. I even got picked up at the train station (in a car instead of a bike today this time!), which is so so nice. Their home is just lovely and spotlessly clean. My room is perfect and there is a plug next to the mirror for my blow dryer, something that has been sadly lacking in my previous accommodation. We had some tea and as we chatted, I found out Allen teaches English to French speaking students, so I had a lot of questions for him. I set out to see the town, but it started pouring so I turned back. They invited me for dinner and it was one of the best meals I have had. Pasta and salmon in cream sauce, salad, goat cheese, wine and for dessert a delicious piece of dark chocolate. As if that wasn’t enough, after the rain stopped, we went out to the garden to gather fresh raspberries and strawberries which were served with Chantilly (like whipped cream but lighter and tastier). The next morning, Joelle had a beautiful breakfast tray for me with toast, yummy homemade strawberry jam made by her friend, tea and juice. Everything was always so beautifully served &#8211; no paper plates or plastic cups here! I cannot say enough about their hospitality.

My first day, I saw the sites of Amboise. I first went to Le Clos Luce, which didn’t get a very high rating in the guidebooks, but has been one of my favorite places so far. Built in the middle of the 15th century it is most famous for being the place where Leonardo da Vinci spent his last years and where he also died. In 1516 King Frances, thinking Leonardo was the smartest man in the world, invited him to live at Le Clos Luce just so he could him talk every day. He even built a secret passage from this place to the Amboise chateau where the king lived to make it easier for him and Leo to hang.

The house was beautiful, but the gardens were outstanding. Full size replicas of Da Vinci’s inventions scattered around to climb on or play with (a tank, machine gun, swing bridge &#8230;). The herb, vegetable and flower gardens were amazing. There were ponds and waterfalls as well. In the trees were giant sepia drawings of Vetruvian Man, Mona Lisa, etc. I wandered around there for hours. They also had a couture fashion exhibit with exquisitely crafted gowns- I felt like I was on a Project Runway set.

The Chateau Amboise looms over the town, the castle walls are quite imposing but the actual chateaux and grounds inside are kind of delicate in comparison. This was one of the first chateaux to build the exterior rampway to the top floors wide enough for knights on horses to ride up (actual French knights! History is so cool!) The chapel here was also beautiful and in fact, da Vinci is buried here. The captive Emir Abd Al-Qadir, who resisted the French colonisation of Algeria, and his entourage of family and retainers were transferred to Ch&acirc;teau d'Amboise after their capture 1848. They were treated like members of a royal family (which they were) and were so well liked that there is an Islamic inspired garden there named after them.

I could not stay out of the patisseries here, but at least I was getting good exercise on ma petite bicylette. It was light blue with a little white basket in front. I felt tres Francaise riding around the countryside.

My longest ride was to visit Chateau Chenonceau. When I checked with the tourist office about the bike route, they assured me it was 8km on a flat grade. The morning I set out, Joelle told me that was not the case and that there were some steep sections. She showed me route to avoid some of the hills in town and I set off. It was a beautiful sunny day and the still quiet steep in some places. I am not ashamed to say that I walked the bike up some long grades, but the scenery was beautiful, fields, farmhouses, flowers with a couple of kms in a forest -and the downhills were sure fun! I had my Ipod and was in the bike riding zone fully prepared for another 30 minutes of peddling, when I realized that I had arrived. I sat down at a picnic table in the sun next to a vineyard ate my banana and listened to the long version of "Shine on You Crazy Diamond" and felt so lucky to be here.

The chateau was built in the 1500's and when King Henry II was in residence in 1547, he gave the place to his mistress, Diana de Poitiers, who constructed the gardens. The king's wife, Catherine de Medici was not thrilled with Diana and when the king died she evicted her and moved in herself, planting her own gardens and redecorated, engraving "H&C" on the ceilings. During the French revolution, the chateau was spared from destruction because the bridge was essential for transportation and commerce and because the chapel was coverted into a hospital. It would have been a real shame had this been burned by the revelotionaries as so many other, equally as beautiful I'm sure, were. Mais, Viva La Revolution!

Once I got on that bike it was hard to get off, so many beautiful places to explore; most days, I'd buy some fresh apricots and cherries at the maket and just head off down the well marked bike trails to see where I'd end up. Got lost a couple of times, but no big deal.

Took a small bus tour to see the last 2 chateaux on my list. It was much easier than train/bus/bus/train and I got to sleep in a bit, but it was bit of a disappointment. I could have easily spent one whole day at each of them, but only got a couple hours. Chambord was enormous and spectacularly beautiful. The Da Vinci designed double spiral staicase was there - you could pass by somebody on one side of the spiral yet end up on a completly different floor. Chateau Cheverny is famous for their hunting dogs, and you can watch them being fed every day at 5:30. Don't ask me why this vegetarian would want to see a bunch of hounds rip up meat in a feeding frenzy, but of course I did-and it was quite the scene. The trainer was very brave standing there in the middle of this savagery making sure the dogs didn't eat each other. I am pretending they are just very hungry pets and that they aren't really used to hunt furry bunnies and sweet foxes. The Hurault family has lived there since the 1600's and still live in part of the house. They have Limoges make them their own set of china with their dog on it. And people are starving in India.

Next stop Espana!

Le Rive Loire

Le Rive Loire


Mona!

Mona!


Le Close Luce

Le Close Luce


Amboise street

Amboise street


Chateau Amboise

Chateau Amboise


da Vinci&#38;#39;s grave

da Vinci&#38;#39;s grave


Ma bicyclette

Ma bicyclette


Random poppy field

Random poppy field


Chenonceau

Chenonceau


Chambord

Chambord


da Vinci&#38;#39;s double spiral staircase

da Vinci&#38;#39;s double spiral staircase


A real moat!

A real moat!


Chiverney

Chiverney


The hounds awaiting the dinner bell

The hounds awaiting the dinner bell


Dinner!

Dinner!


Chiverny grounds

Chiverny grounds


Chambord

Chambord


Dining room at Chiverny, note the china

Dining room at Chiverny, note the china

Posted by travelinglisa 17:00 Archived in France Comments (0)

Normandy

After 3 short days in Paris, we picked up our rental car, braved the Paris traffic and headed for Normandy. I manned, or tried to man, the GPS and Deb drove. She is my hero. I can barely drive in the US, let alone France, but she did an awesome job. Our first toll plaza was a bit of a nightmare, but we eventually figured it out and were back on our way.

First we drove to Monet’s gardens at Giverny. They were just gorgeous. His house was adorable and I took at least 20 pictures of the water lily ponds. While we were admiring the gardens, we ran into Linda again, the only other person we knew in the whole country- too funny.

Our next stop was Honfleur, a perfectly picturesque town centered around a harbor. It reminded me quite a bit of Hydra, in Greece. Our hotel was lovely and it was a treat to have a human being sized shower for a change. We wandered around for a bit, chatted with a nice American couple, then had dinner on the harbor. I had an appetizer of buillots which are whelks or sea snails, interesting, not bad, but I don’t know that I’d ever order them again. After dinner we hiked to the top of a hill for the spectacular view of the harbor, English Channel and the Le Pont de Normandie, an amazing cable bridge that connects Honfleur to Le Havre. Had a close call with death the next morning as we were pulling out of the hotel parking lot. A huge bus going 90mph missed us by about an inch. If we had pulled out a half second earlier, we’d have been morte.

We stopped in Caen to visit the Peace Memorial. I didn’t know anything about it or what to expect, and was blown away. It was fabulous. The museum used video, audio, photos and artifacts to explain WW2. The exhibition began by explaining the world political and economic situation which led up to the war, the German occupation, D Day and the post war world. I learned more about WW2 in the four hours we were there than I ever learned in school. It was particularly interesting because I had just visited the Churchill war rooms in London. I was really impressed by Charles de Gaulle as well and his stance against the Vichy French, who allied with the Germans. The details about D Day and the planning that not only went into the landing, but the subsequent missions as well was amazing. The allies created hundreds of tiny parachutes with little dummies attached and dropped them miles from the D Day beaches to trick the Germans into thinking they were invading somewhere else. They also dropped &#8220;glimmers&#8221;, which are about a square foot piece of, I guess, plastic, covered with flapping strips of aluminum foil that interfered with German radar. Very cool.

We then drove to Bayeux, another cute town, but not as quite as nice as Honfleur. There is a huge cathedral there built during the 1100’s which we visited. We also saw the Bayeux tapestry-a seventy foot long tapestry sewn by nuns. It depicts the Battle of Hastings where William the Conqueror defeated Harold the King of England bringing England under French rule.

Next we took a D Day tour beginning at Pont Du Hoc, between Utah and Omaha beaches, where the allied invasion started. Some of the German pillboxes are there and relatively intact and the ground still has giant craters from the bombs. It was also amazing to see the cliffs the US Rangers had to climb up from the beach. Crazy steep. I cannot even imagine what that must have been like or how any of them made it to the top. The guide told us that when they got to the 6 big artillery guns they found that 4 of them were fake and made of wood. The Germans had been in the process of moving the real guns inland but never got to finish the job thank goodness. Next we went to Omaha Beach, a big wide stretch of sand, so peaceful it was hard to imagine what had taken place there. We also visited the American cemetery at Colleville sur Mer. It was a lovely place and very moving, especially armed with all the info we had gotten from Caen and our DDay guide. I didn’t have any real expectations for this part of Normandy, but it was quite fascinating and a real highlight, truly unforgettable.

Our next destination was Mont Saint Michel, but on our way there we stopped at the German cemetery at La Combe. The crosses are dark, thick and heavy, definitely a different feel than the American cemetery. It was a grey, rainy day which made it slightly ominous, but very beautiful.

We then drove a couple hours to Mont St. Michel, which was stunning, but really crowded. We took a free tour of the abbey with a great guide who told us some really interesting facts that I, of course, have completely forgotten. The thing I do remember was that we climbed at least 9000 steps over the course of the day. I had always wanted to see MSM at lit up at night and I got my wish. It was quite lovely, but none of the photos turned out, so I’ll just keep it as a memory.

The next day we drove back to Paris at the crack of dawn to turn the rental car in. When we picked the car up at Orly airport, we had arrived by bus, so we hadn’t had to navigate the airport via car. It was a nightmare, there were no signs anywhere so it took us forever to find the car return area, then we had to journey to our hotel near Charles de Gaulle airport via bus, train, another bus&#8230; it was a long day and in retrospect I’d have planned it much differently. We had planned to go back into Paris that night to hang out, but we were just too exhausted. So instead we left our budget hotel and walked over to the Hyatt for a nice dinner and some wine. Anyway, there we ran into the same couple we’d met in Honfleur a few days earlier-small world!

It was hard to say goodbye to Deb :(

Next-the Loire valley

Monet&#38;#39;s house at Giverny

Monet&#38;#39;s house at Giverny


Water Lillies

Water Lillies


Giverney

Giverney


Honfleur harbor

Honfleur harbor


Most delicious cappucino EVER!

Most delicious cappucino EVER!


Bayeux cathedral

Bayeux cathedral


Cliffs the Rangers climbed

Cliffs the Rangers climbed


German pillbox

German pillbox


Omaha Beach

Omaha Beach


Bomb craters

Bomb craters


American cemetery

American cemetery


Just one of too many

Just one of too many


German cemetery

German cemetery


Amphibious landing craft

Amphibious landing craft


Mont St Michel

Mont St Michel


MSM low tide

MSM low tide


Deb in the cloisters

Deb in the cloisters


MSM

MSM

Posted by travelinglisa 17:00 Archived in France Comments (0)

Paris

Met up with Deb in Paris! I flew Easy Jet, a budget airline with strict luggage weight requirements so I was sweating stuffing everything into my suitcase and backpack. Made it through check in only to be stopped at security where they made me take EVERYTHING out for scrutinization because the security guy told me that I didn't have to take my tablet out of my bag, and that was apparently not true. Also had quite the interrogation at passport control, which caught me by surprise as I usually breeze through.

It was so great to see Deb’s smiling face at the airport!!! We found the train station and began our trek through the bowels of the Paris railroad and metro system. Not the most picturesque journey to say the least. Don’t know if I’d forgotten how dirty the stations are or if they’ve gotten worse; graffiti everywhere and it smelled like pee. Nevertheless, we found our eco-hotel in the 11<sup>th</sup> arrondissement without too much trouble. Think 6x6 ikea box. The bed was a mat on the floor with a really comfy duvet, the shower was a tube near the entrance and the toilet was in the tiniest cubicle imaginable with a colored plastic door, not exactly the epitome of privacy. We dropped our bags and headed out the door for Depeche Mode hitting a brasserie for wine and cheese along the way.

Another ugly train ride later, we arrived at Stade de France. When the concert started we immediately left our nosebleed seats to hang in the doorway with the dancingest craziest Frenchmen I have ever seen. I thought I was at a Grateful Dead concert, except that no one was smoking any pot. Depeche Mode was AWESOME!!! The sound was fantastic, especially for an outdoor arena and they played a good mix of old and new songs.

While there was noticeably no security at the concert, there were at least 12 soldiers armed with automatic weapons at the train station, so that was weird. After another long sojourn on the RER and the metro, we arrived at our pod, slept for two hours and then set out to meet up with our Fat Tire bike tour of Versailles. Rest? Mais non!

Our tour guide, Bill, had three distinctive charactistics: 1) He was outstanding at herding a multinational group of distracted tourists 2) he had terrible English grammar and even worse French and 3) his arms were a phlebotomist's dream. We headed out to the most amazing open air market to get supplies for our French pique-nique. We bought incredibly delicious tomatoes, apricots, cherries, bread, cheese, olives and two bottles of wine. As soon as picnic supplies were in hand, we all immediately lost interest in the bike tour and wanted to know when we were going picnic to eat. We peddled our way through Versailles' beautiful gardens and lakes, saw the Petit Trianon and the Grand Trianon. Marie Antoinette liked to hang out in the Trianon to get away from the gawkers at the Chateau. She’d bring her ladies in waiting, they’d wear peasant’s clothing and dress the sheep up in bonnets and ribbons. Basically the same thing we all do now at girl’s night out, oui?

When we finally stopped for lunch and opened our baskets, Deb took one whiff of the cheese claimed it smelled of sewer and has not eaten cheese since :(. I thought it was delicious, luckily I must not have that great of a sense of smell. After lunch, seventeen drunken bikers arrived at the Chateau, we got our tickets but were too exhausted to wait in the humongous line, so we walked around gardens and the fountains until our feet were bloody stumps, then we got back on the train to our pod. I LOVE vacation!

The next day we woke up at 9am -it was pitch dark, freezing and pouring down rain. We got as far as the patisserie and candy store, then went back to the pod until the weather cleared a bit. Around noon we ventured out to Pere Lachaise cemetery-what a beautiful place, but very confusing. We wandered around until we found Edith Piaf’s grave as well as Oscar Wilde’s. Deb was waylaid by some cemetery "tour guide" that wanted to demonstrate on Deb’s fingers something about the number of graves. After he left, we started thinking it was some kind of distraction ruse and that we may have been pickpocketed. We searched our bags to see if he anything was missing, but all was accounted for, so I’m still not sure what that was all about.

We had lunch near the monument that stands on the former site of the Bastille. I had just finished reading A Tale of Two Cities, so it was really cool to walk the same streets as the revolutionaries. Then we walked along le Seine to Notre Dame and went to le Marais for dinner. It’s a way trendy district with lots of bars, restaurants and nifty home d&eacute;cor stores. We met up with Linda, a friend I met in London who just happened to be in Paris, and had a traditional French dinner complete with the house cat sitting on the banquette beside us. The cat later jumped up on the bar and was promptly served a nice tall glass of water by the bartender. Dinner was great, and desert was fabulous ( pistachio cr&egrave;me brulee!)

Fun fact about France-wine is cheaper than soda!

Next stop Normandy

Ready for Depeche Mode!

Ready for Depeche Mode!


Deb on her bike

Deb on her bike


Me and my bike

Me and my bike


Le marche

Le marche


Les lapins at the market

Les lapins at the market


BFFs at Versailles

BFFs at Versailles


Bill and his freakishly veiny arms

Bill and his freakishly veiny arms


Gates at Versailles

Gates at Versailles


Poseidon fountain at Versaille

Poseidon fountain at Versaille


Our pod in Paris

Our pod in Paris


At Pere Laichaise cemetery

At Pere Laichaise cemetery


Hotel de Ville

Hotel de Ville


Le Bastille monument

Le Bastille monument

Posted by travelinglisa 17:00 Archived in France Comments (0)

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