Wednesday, 11 June 2008

Travelling to France from Spain

Saturday June 7th 2008

Through Spain to France

And so the six week block of breaks in Spain has come to an end. A major learning experience throughout, but the feedback we received was generally very favourable and offers a lot of promise for the future.

The courtyard at the hacienda - another sunny day

A pause while packing the land rover for the journey

The hacienda from the path up the mountain
But our tentative planning for 2009 has suggested that the two venues per country idea is not a necessary part of what we are about and so may well be dropped. And if that is the case, then we will definitely be basing the future Spanish breaks at the "Moorish Farmhouse" rather than here at the hacienda
The main question for the journey was whether I would have time to get to the Chateau de Rodie and then back to Toulouse for my flight. It was about 1400 km from the hacienda to the chateau and that increasingly seemed to be too challenging in the time I had available. But for the first day of the journey, I did keep an open mind on this question. This early part of the journey took me to Cordoba, then Madrid and at that point a decision had to be made.
Nigel had mentioned that they had travelled to France across the Pyrenees through a long tunnel that came out near Lourdes. He had said this was a really great drive and I had begun to think more about this as I headed towards Madrid. And then as I looked at my map and plotted a possible route I noticed that the route close to Lourdes would also mean travelling close to la Mongie and the Col de Tourmalet, key features of recent Tour de France races. So maybe if I did abandon the plan to reach the chateau, I could go and visit these places instead. At Madrid, therefore, I turned right and headed towards Zaragoza, reaching there at around 9:30 in the evening after a day's drive of over 1,000km. Never has an Express Holiday Inn being more welcoming!
I slept for close to 10 hours straight through and was on the road again by 8:30 the next morning, heading towards Huesca and the Pyrennees. Around 10:00, I had a quick chat to Linda, stopping with the foothills of the Pyrennees in the distance (cloud hugging the tops, but definitely some snow still there)
Stopped for a call home - mountains topped with cloud and snow in the distance

North of Huesca towards Sabinanigo, I stopped briefly by a river where there was the most incredible noise coming from a collection of toads living in the rivers margins.

"Toad river" - looked an ideal trout water but I didn't spot any fish. It might run dry of course each year.

At Toad river I turned right again and headed towards Boltana on an incredibly scenic road that stayed close to the Rio Guarex and features some amazing waterfalls, and fields of wild flowers.

The Pyrennes getting steadily closer

Cyclists in front of a beautiful (and incredibly isolated) house on the way to Boltana

One highlight of this backroads route was the occasional totally unspoilt village that I came across, the best being perhaps Campodarbe.


The descent towards Boltana - another hairpined road.

Boltana in the distance.

Poppies in a field close to Boltana

First sign to France - maybe 40km from the border

One of my better photos - poppies and mountains on the way to the border

As I approached the border, it was more and more clear that there were huge banks of clouds stuck on the mountains. As I passed through the tunnel to France, the weather was noticeably different on the French side. Low cloud, much cooler.
At Arreau, I turned off the main road and started the ascent that would ultimate get to La Mongie and the Col du Tourmalet. First pass was the Col D'Aspin, also a famous cycling pass. There were loads of cyclists making the 12km ascent from Arreau, with helpful signs every km telling them the average gradient of the next section - not information I would have wanted to know in the circumstances. The top of the Col D'Aspin was really cold - most people huddled in coats. Well done to the two cyclists who got to the top just as I was there.

Down the other side and a stop in a little village for some food at a spot obviously used by cyclists for the start of their ascents from this side. A "plat du jour" meals of steak, chips and salad followed by ice cream. Not bad for 8 euros.

As I approached La Mongie, the weather got much worse and visibility really dropped. There were banks of snow on the sides of the road as I came up the Tourmalet, indeed I barely realised I was there when I got to the top the cloud was so thick. So a bit disappointing that this wasn't better.
And from there it was a drop down towards Lannemezan and the motorway to Toulouse. Still 150km to go to Toulouse at this point and I was very glad that I had decided to not try and make it to the Chateau. Instead the car is now parked up at Toulouse airport for a couple of weeks. I was in bags of time for my flight - perhaps 3 hours early - only to find that it was delayed 2 hours. I arrived at Gatwick just after 1:00am just missing the coach to Oxford and had to wait for the 3:00am departure instead. So I arrived in Oxford just after 5:00am and ready for a really good rest. Emma was home for a couple of days before her exams start and so I did see her for the first time in nearly two months, which was really nice.

Spain week six, day five

Wednesday June 4th 2008

Hacienda, Villamartin, Spain

It is really hot today and we basically have a day out in the sun. - such a shame it wasn't like this throughout the time here, it would have made such a difference. Lots of reading done - I have started re-reading a biography of Martin Heidegger that I first read a couple of years ago and am also re-reading Lucy Edge's "Yoga school dropout", one of the funniest books about yoga in India. I very nearly went in the pool at one point too.

Two yoga sessions today again and the classes are really beginning to loosen Julia's shoulder - it's so amazing the impact of concerted efforts is on something like this.

A beautiful sunset tonight across the plains from the main terrace

Spain week six, day four

Tuesday June 3rd 2008

Hacienda, Villamartin, Spain

Yoga first thing after a day off for the Seville trip. Zoe participates, but Nigel thinks better of it. He remains more of a Pilates man! Shortly after, my modem seems to stop working and that is why so much of this blog is being uploaded a week or so later now we are back in the UK!

Then off to Ronda for another day out. The weather has now been really good for a few days in a row and the photos are so much better than my previous visit with Fiona

The north entrance to Ronda's bullring - the oldest in Spain

The view towards the Grazalema National park from near to the New Bridge

Looking down on a cafe overlooking the river gorge
Nigel has a relative who they think used to work at one of the cafes that is adjacent to the New Bridge, and so we settled in the first one we came to and had some tapas to set us up for the walking round. But it turned out this probably wasn't the cafe he had worked at
Looking back at the cafe we ate at close to the edge of the gorge by the New Bridge

A famous Ronda walkway starts in front of the building above and travels round to the left.

As we made our way up the main street we passed a museum that Fiona and I had somehow missed on our epic trip round Ronda last week. This was a shame as its main current feature was about the Spanish Inquisition and that would have been really good to see I thought.
There were also several art gallaries that we also didn't find last time and we would have enjoyed. One had lots of oil painted copies of famous works which were very interesting.

Restaurants in a back street

Julia and Zoe outside one of the best looking houses in Ronda

By mid afternoon, we were due another stop for a drink and a snack. Julia and Zoe each ordered lemon juice and received a glass made up of just the squeezed juice from several lemons - a quite extraordinary drink. Nice cakes to go with drinks as well

Last picture of the New Bridge for this visit - still haven't made it to the floor of the gorge for the classic views.

Bullfighting postcards - odd how these events feature in the sports section of tv news each night.

Back for paella night at the hacienda - always one of my favourite dishes, both to cook and eat. It was warm enough to sit outside reading this evening before dinner. I have just finished Naomi Wolf's "Promiscuities", a book I had intended to just dip into but then found far more interesting that I had expected.

Spain week six, day three

Monday June 2nd 2008

Hacienda, Villamartin, Spain

A day out in Seville today - my first proper visit if you discount the trip a week or so ago when I took Jonathan to the station and collected Eve. Today we are returning Eve to the airport and then carrying on for a day's sight seeing.

It is about 12:30 when we arrive in the city centre and our first is finding somwhere to park. This was a good example of where having Nigel and Zoe with us really helped as they could make more sense of the parking meters. The confusing thing is that the siesta period from 2:00 till 5:00 is free, so if we could find a meter that we could stay at this 2:00, we would then have parking till 5:00 for free - which should be enough time for us. So we are sorted eventually and parked up near the Plaza de Espana and associated gardens.

On the way towards the centre I was disappointed to find that the battery on my camera had just about run out and so I only have one picture from today's trip. But oddly enough, this did mean that I looked at the city sights rather differently. Rather than focusing on taking pictures, I found myself looking much closer at things than I might have done normally. An interesting experience, though I would have preferred some pictures - Seville is just so beautiful. Maybe Linda and myself should return there at some point for a few days.

The park we passed on the way to the city centre - today's only picture of Seville

So we walked towards the cathedral and Alcazar (leaving a visit till later), before heading off through a shopping area and looping round towards the bullring. Then, as shops started closing for Siestas, Nigel asked someone local where a good place to eat might me and we ended up in a spot well off the beaten track. Nigel is quite a connoisseur of Spanish dining being a great fan of tapas and other food. So he was very happy to have found a new spot well away from the major tourist areas.

From here we made our way back to the Alcazar only to find that it wasn't open on Mondays. Fiona would never have made this mistake! So instead we visited the cathedral (the largest of its type in the world) including the Girolda tower, from where there are some great views of the city. Unusually, there aren't steps up the tower, instead there is a sloping ramp the whole way up.

Finally, as we worked our way back to the car, we went round the Plaza de Espana and gardens - one of Seville's absolute highlights.

Back by early evening and then a trip out to Villamartin for dinner. The only place open is a tapas bar but this proves to be a real find and Nigel is completely in his element as he orders around a dozen portions of various things. And it proves to be an absolute bargain at less than 10 euros per person, including drinks. I can tell Nigel was very impressed!

Spain Week six, day two

Sunday June 1st 2008

Hacienda, Villamartin, Spain

Fiona's departure this morning - back to Seville to drop in her car, then onward to Cordoba for a few more day's sight seeing. She has been a lot of fun to have here this week and seems to have had a really good time. We have had loads of chats about all sorts of stuff - mainly art, which Fiona is passionately interested in. She is planning to try and develop a business that will involve her interest in art and I can only wish her well with this.

A day in at the hacienda today. Some sun but the breeze makes the best sunbathing spot to be the inner courtyard. Nigel and Zoe arrived for a few day's visit this afternoon. They used to live near where Julia is based in Cheshire and it turns out that they have quite a few friends in common. So they were able to have a good chat about everyone they knew there.

Eve's last night with us as well today. Tomorrow we are all going to have a day out in Seville dropping Eve back at the airport on the way. Weather forecast is finally good as well for the next few days.

Spain week six, day one

Saturday May 31st 2008

Hacienda, Villamartin, Spain

Early away this morning down to Malaga airport to pick up a new guest, Julia. The drive down took me passed Ronda and down to the coast at San Pedro. This is a quite spectacular drive and one that I really enjoyed. Some of my favourite music on the ipod, amazing views, etc. I even stopped for 15 minutes on one viewpoint and called Linda to say how nice the drive was and how it would have been really nice if she had been with me to share it. Our current time apart is the longest we have ever had at 3 weeks and I am certainly starting to really miss her.

The pick-up goes fine, though I do feel a bit of a twit holding a sign up for Julia - I've never done that before and might, in future, work out how to do a nicer WBB sign. We have a good drive back the same way I came down and realised, much to my surprise, that one of the things we could see in the far distance was actually Gibralter. I had thought it would have been much further away.

It is sunny enought for Fiona to be sunbathing when we got back. Bit of a breeze though.

We have an extra yoga class tonight as Fiona had missed one or two on our travels and so a first class for Julia. She has a very tight left shoulder, probably from carrying a laptop around at work, but this should perk up over the week.

A call to Linda tonight and news that my mum isn't very well. She has been short of breath lately and had a really bad experience while out with one of her friends. So she is going for a heart test in a few days time and has to take it very easy for now.

Spain week five, day seven

Friday May 30th 2008

Hacienda, Villamartin, Spain

A thunder storm first thing this morning for several hours and the possibility that we wouldn't be able to go out anywhere today. But we decided to take a chance on going to Jerez - if nothing else we could visit our nearest hypermarket and re-stock with some of the things we can't buy locally.

But as we passed Arcos, the weather started to improve and was fine by the time we got to Jerez. So another decent sight seeing day was in order. Fiona had her trusty guidebook to hand and a good plan for the day.

Sherry barrels and blue-flowered Jacaranda trees

The facade of a building that featured Julius Caesar on the left and Hercules on the right - I forget what it was

The main entrance to the Cathedral

A statue of the founder of the Tio Pepe sherry bodegas in front of the cathedral

View of the Tio Pepe bodegas with the cathedral behind

The only disappointment on today's itinerary was that the Alcazar was closed for some work of some sort and doesn't re-open until next week. But we enjoyed the cathedral, had a delicious plate of seafood in one of the squares and another good day out.
I did get a parking ticket though, and the instructions on how to pay were really complex even though they were translated into English. It would seem I could pay a charge at the ticket machine and enclose the ticket for this in a little envelope into a letter box below the machine. I have no idea if I did this correctly or not.