Merida – June 2018

Took about 2 1/2 hours to get to Merida from Sevilla. Mérida is the capital of western Spain’s Extremadura region, which was founded by the Romans in the 1st century B.C. Remains of the ancient city include the still-used Teatro Romano, which has a double tier of columns rising onstage. The ancient Puente Romano, a 792m bridge spanning the Río Guadiana, adjoins the Alcazaba, a 9th-century Islamic fortress built over Roman walls. It is in the Province of Badajoz.

The closer we got to Merida we started to notice many vineyards, along with wheat fields.

There are flags throughout the town advertising the classical theatre festival that will take place in July. I can imagine how spectacular it would be so see a play amongst these ruins. The outdoor theatre sits up to 6,000 people

The population as of 2017 was 60,119 so a small city. The “Archaelogical Ensemble of Merida” in on the the Unesco World Heritage list as of 1993.

This is the first time we are out of the Andalusia region, main reason being that it was a stop on the way to Evora in Portugal.

We wondered why so many well preserved Roman ruins in a place that we thought was really in the middle of no where, but on further reading I find out that this city was strategically located at the junction of major Roman roads from Leon to Sevilla and Toledo to Lisbon. The guide book notes that the city has never regained the importance it had during Roman times, other than the Roman monuments, and that the city is rather plain.

We arrive to find our hotel, easily this time I might add, and Robin was ushered to the parking garage by a staff member. Seems quite common that parking garages belonging to hotels and apartments, aren’t necessarily located in the same place, let alone same block. We get settled, nice small hotel with lovely outer deck. It is quite cool here compared to Sevilla; about 19C and overcast when we arrived.

We are interested in the museum, but it is closed on Mondays, so will try to take it in tomorrow. All the major Roman ruins are within walking distance of one another.

We walk to the “Teatro Y Anfiteatro Romano” and very impressed with its size and condition. As we went to pay, the lady asked if we were “seniors”. She gave us a 50% discount and the ticket is good for the other Roman sites, with exception of the Museum. We were quite surprised, in France they only give discounts to seniors if you are part of the Euro community……bonus marks for Spain!

There are workers, assumably archeologists or their assistants, who are working on some of the site. Using small brushes to undercover some of the ruins and one lady is using a brush with some type of liquid to clean off some moss/algae. Seems very painstaking. We spend quite some time here and hardly anyone else around. They say these are the best preserved Roman ruins in Spain. While we are in the Teatro we run into two separate couples, one from Mexico and the other from Brazil. Think we are the only foreign tourists! Robin and the Brazilian strike up a conversation about the World Cup.

Some of the pictures below have explanations that were on placards on the site.

Must admit that not many foreign tourists here, mainly Spaniards visiting the area. I believe that this is off the tourist track and one must make the effort to come here. This is also evident in the fact of the food that is served and when restaurants operate. Went out for dinner on our first night at 8 pm, which we think is late and the restaurants here do not open till 8:30. My poor digestive system!

While waiting till 8:30 pm to find somewhere to eat, we walk down to the Plaza de Esapana; which is Merida’s main square. It is filled with many bars/restaurants and tables outside (even though a little cool outside) are packed with locals enjoying drinks and tapas. The city hall is at one end of the plaza and the midst of the square is the “Arco de Trajano” part of a Roman city gate. Great for people watching.

We also view the “Temple of Diana” which is literally on the same street as our hotel, basically surrounded by shops and houses. It is said to be the oldest of Merida’s Roman ruins. The Temple of Diana (Templo de Diana) was a sacred site constructed by the Romans in the early first century AD, after the conquest of the area by the Emperor Augustus. It is incredibly well preserved.

Our hotel does not provide breakfast so we have to go out. This morning we found a small trendy restaurant for breakfast; but all they serve is tostadas. Basically a large bun, similar to a small baguette with different toppings. We looked at other places, but no one serves eggs or what we would classify as a North American breakfast. A “normal” breakfast has been available every where else we have been, but as mentioned, Merida is off the beaten track. All part of the adventure.

Tuesday, the 5th of June we head off to view some of the sights of the city. Our first stop is to view the Roman bridge. There is a walking path below, which we took later, and further along the path, a pedestrian bridge which goes over to a few islands in the centre of the RIo Guadiana, which have been turned into park areas. We see cyclists, runners and walkers enjoying this area.

Next stop is the Alcazba Arabe (fortress). This was built by the Romans and strengthened by the Visogoths and Moors. Have seen reference to VIsogoths a lot in the areas we have visited, so from my reading up on them, I will provide a little bit more information. I love history, so can’t help myself.

The Visigoths were one of the most important of the Germanic peoples. They separated from the Ostrogoths in the 4th century and proceeded to raid Roman territories repeatedly, and established great kingdoms in Gaul and Spain. O.K., now we all now about the Visigoths!

Once again some “archeological types” are working around the area, one even had survey equipment, not sure what he was doing. I found that the most interesting building was the cistern. A small building, well preserved, with steps and ramp going down to a cavern still containing water today. The historians feel that beast of burden went down these ramps to haul back the water for the people.

Also an original Roman passage way/road still exists……Brenda…..an “iter” , a word often used in crosswords.

We head off down the path by the river and walk about 20 minutes to the next archeological site. The “Casa Mitreo y Columbarios” is a late-1st- or 2nd-century Roman house with a well-preserved fresco and several intricate mosaics. What is interesting about this site is the metal roof that the city has installed over the complete area for preservation of this historic site. Beautiful mosaics and original paintings still evident, although some parts are missing. Archeologist working here as well.

Next to the Casa Mitreo is Merida’s bull ring which was built in 1914 and is still used today.

We go to the main square, Plaza d’Espana for lunch. Next to us sits a local man and his dog. Before you know it, the dog has sat next to me, so I start to pet him and rub his ears. I stop, then he puts his head on my lap. I said to the dog in Spanish as we left “quieres venir a Canada”….do you want to come to Canada. His owner got quite a chuckle out of this. I continue to say “es frio”….is cold and the owner replied in Spanish “that might be better than our heat”. I love this interactions with locals.

I have to laugh….Robin posted the picture below on his Facebook page and it got the most likes of any other picture of Merida. I think deep down inside, people are all animal lovers!

Meant to comment on something peculiar that we noticed on our way from Grazalema. We were nearing Merida and stopped in a small town for coffee/tea, a kind of truck stop and there were napkins and garbage such used sugar packets, plastic stir sticks all over he floor. A cleaning woman was in process of sweeping everything up. Well, then we notice the same thing in the outdoor cafes int he main square in Merida, people simply throw their garbage on the ground. We have not noticed this anywhere else in Spain, weird! In fact, in Sevilla, there is always a small garbage bin near the table.

In the late afternoon, we head off to the “Museo Nacional de Arte Romano” which was built in 1981. The scale of this museum is quite something. The main exhibition hall is 50 feet high (cathedral like) and there is a main level in addition to two upper passageways. We were so impressed by the displays, the mosaics, some as high(big) as 30 feet, frescoes, jewelry, statues, pottery, household utensils and a variety of Roman remains. The pictures we have of the large mosaics will show some blank spaces; but for the most part, so well preserved. This museum is world class, glad we did not miss it……and yeah, the seniors, yes even Canadian seniors got in for free. Who says my grey hair doesn’t pay off!

Merida was certainly a surprise to us. The roman ruins were amazing and the museum was definitely first class.

On our last morning, we find a small cafe that serves smoothies and tostadas. Great to get some fruit, even if in the form of a smoothie. Very cloudy day and cool as we head off to Evora, Portugal for the next three days.

Sevilla – June 2018

Left Grazalema on Thursday May 31st for Sevilla. Woke up to bright blue skies in Grazalema and forecast is for 20 degrees today. Although it was cool during our three days here, it didn’t stop us from doing anything and we really enjoyed it here. Thanks to Steve F. for his recommendation.

As we were leaving Grazalema on the winding mountain roads, came across lots of cyclists. Amazing at their skill in riding these roads.

Took us about 2 1/2 hours to get to Sevilla, with a stop along the way. We have rented an apartment in Sevilla for four nights, which is about a 15-20 minute walk to the Cathedral and Alcazar. We are near the Alameda de Hercules monument.

Sevilla has a population of 704,000(2018) and stands at 12 meters (39 feet). Sevilla has the largest GDP (Gross Domestic Product) of any city in Andalusia, and is said to account for one whole quarter of Andalusia’s total GDP, and is the most populated city in Southern Spain. Agriculture is the dominant industry in the smaller villages surrounding Sevilla. Seville has the most important inland port of Andalusia, being thus an import/export hub for the whole region. The city depends on service and industry sectors: in particular trade, financial services, technology and tourism. The latter is one of the pillars of the local economy, since the city and its rich cultural heritage are appealing more and more visitors. The city has technological and aerospace research centres. The economy was hit with the downturn in 2008, but has steadily gotten better in the last few years.

The average temperature in Sevilla is 26C and the summers average over 35C. Yikes, not sure I would like the summers here. There is a Calatrava bridge here the Puente del Alamillo, which we saw from a distance on our drive into the city. We love his bridges, always very different in design. Our Peace Bridge in Calgary is one of his designs and we have seen others throughout our travels (Dublin, Buenos Aries). An update here, we drove across the Calatrava bridge as we left the city on Monday, June 4th.

We had set our GPS for the parking garage of the apartment; as you had to enter the garage from a side street. Well….talk about frustration! For 15 minutes we drive around the narrow streets trying to find the parking garage. We get near, then we see signs that indicate no entry, you know the kind I mean….a red circle with a white line through it….do not enter. We go around again and try from another direction; no luck. Robin comes up with the idea to find a parking space or parking garage and leave the car there till we figure out what to do. We contact the management company that handles this apartment and a young lady was waiting for us at the apartment. After speaking to her, we left the car in the parking garage that we had found outside the old town, and took a taxi with our luggage to the apartment. The young lady shows us around the apartment and shows us where we get into the garage. She could not understand why we had a problem. I pointed out that the sign on the street entering the alley indicated “no entry”. She pointed out a sign below that indicated “except authorized cars”. OK, guess we should have figured that out….did I mention that this sign was almost totally obliterated with graffiti and stickers! Oh well, all part of the experience. We take a taxi back to the parking garage, get our rental car and find the parking garage of our apartment. So easy…not!

Walk around our neighbourhood and get our bearings. Our guide book says that this neighbourhood was once a “no go neighbourhood, only reserved for “painted ladies and their pimps” and a wide range of “shady characters”! Today it has been transformed and has been taken over by the young and is crammed with trendy bars along the Alameda. It is also the main gay area of the city. At the end of the Alameda are two Roman columns and are said to be 2,000 years old. One column bears a statue of Hercules and the other Caesar.

We have a wonderful dinner out at a tapas bar that was highly rated on TripAdvisor. I know we said that we were somewhat tired of tapas, but this place was incredible. Edition Limitada Espacio Gastronomico; how about that for a name. I had made a reservation and they had a little sign made up welcoming us….all right, welcoming Robin! It was a twist on tapas; one could say “fusion tapas”. We had lamb stew served in a soft bread, a dish of potatoes, truffle oil and grana padano cheese, a block of boar meat with fig sauce and snap peas and grilled vegetables in a romanescu sauce. So good, think we are going to go back here.

When we stopped in a small roadside cafe on our way to Sevilla, the owner had the television on and was watching what appeared to be a political show live from the Spanish parliament. Later in the day in Sevilla when walking around noticed televisions on in several places watching the same thing. Well, now we know what was going on. The Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, lost a no confidence as his conservative People’s Party is mired in a financial scandal that last week saw 29 people linked to the party, including elected officials, receive heavy sentences while the party itself was fined for operating hidden accounts. His successor is said to be Pedro Sanchez, the leader of the center-left Socialists, the same man who helped bring down the government.

I always like to take pride on how organized I am when it comes to trip planning. Yes, I make mistakes. I totally forgot to book tickets for the Alcazar and the Real Palace. I realized this the morning we left Grazalema and when we arrived in Sevilla, I went on line to book tickets. They were totally sold out for the days that we are here! What to do. Robin goes on line and through Tripadvisor/Viator he finds a company that does guided tours. Booked tickets for Friday afternoon…..Whew!

On Friday morning, June 1st, we had arranged for an ebike tour of Sevilla. Opted for this for a change vs the free walking tours we have been doing in the other cities we have visited to date. Our guide Gabriel was incredible. There could have been up to six people on the tour, but we were the only two, so in essence our own private tour. We were gone for 2 1/2 hours. Cycling through the streets and bike paths of Sevilla felt very comfortable. Many stops along the way as Gabriel spoke about the history of Sevilla and the various monuments, historic buildings and gardens that we visited. Once again a great way to get to know your way around the city. Amazing the number of tourists here in Sevilla this weekend.

The city was founded by the Romans, still some remnants or Roman structures, and then the Moors arrived in 1085. A great mosque was built; but you know the story, it was destroyed in 1248 when the Christians arrived and a cathedral was built where the mosque once stood. Our guide tells us that mythology claims that Hercules founded the city of Sevilla. The plague did arrive in Sevilla in 1649 and we are told that 1/2 the population was lost. After the discovery of America in 1492 Sevilla became the main port for trade with the New World. When you look at a map it is hard to think of Sevilla as a port; it is classified as an inland port. In ancient times, boats could navigate down the Guadalquivir river to the ocean. In the 18th century the river became more silted and the majority of trade moved to the port of Cadiz.

Gabriel tells us that the when Sevilla hosted the Latin American Exposition of 1929 much construction took place in the city in the years prior to the exposition. The Plaza de Espana was the centrepiece. We ride by the Hotel Alfonso Xll and this hotel was built to provide upscale accommodations for the fair. He tells us that he believes that the minimal cost of the hotel is 1,000 Euro per night in the high season, it is a 4 star hotel….we are definitely not staying there. Just out of curiosity, I looked it up and we could get a room tonight for 230 Euro……probably in the basement!

The city also sponsored a world expo in 1992 and once again new construction took place, including a high speed train from Madrid.

We stop in front of the cathedral and Gabriel tells us that this is the biggest cathedral in Europe, with the exception of the Vatican of course, he says he is sure the Pope at the time had some say in the matter. There is a legend that says that the church authorities at the time said “Let’s construct a church so large that future generations will think we were mad”. The cathedral took 100 years to be built in the gothic style and was finished in 1502. We will come back on our own to visit the cathedral in the next few days. Then cycle to the other side to view the El Giraldillo, the minaret that is left from Moorish times. The Christians did install a bell tower……of course. Once again we see the ancient red writing on names on the cathedral outer walls; I mentioned this in my Granada blog.

Then on to the city hall, the Ayuntamiento built in the Neo-Classical style built in 1867 and sits at the Plaza Nueva. What is interesting about the city hall is that half the building is incredibly decorated and the other half is quite plain, apparently they ran out of money and the authorities over the years have not wanted to complete the work. Gabriel says that the majority of the population don’t even notice the fact of the different facades.

Ride to the Archivo General de Indias. This building at one time housed all of the historical trading archives of ancient times. Apparently they are now housed in a new building which has high security. These archives make up part of the Unesco World Heritage Sight of Sevilla along with the Catedral and the Alcazar. The guide book says there are more than 80 million pages of documents dating back to 1492 and up to the end of the 19th century; a statement of Spain’s power and influence during the Golden Age. The building is not much to look at, but certainly has historical meaning.

Stop to take in the Alcazar, which is very impressive. Gabriel tells us that the King and Queen of Spain stay here whenever they are in Sevilla and one can tell when they are there as the municipal flag is lowered and the royal flag goes up. They stay on the second story, which we are told is not included in a tour of the Alcazar. We will be visiting later today, thanks to Robin! All these sights are very close to one another so very easy to walk or cycle around to visit.

On to the Antigua Fabrica de Tabacos, an old tobacco factory, which was built in 1758. It was the setting for Bizet’s Carmen, and was where she toiled. Seville became the centre of the tobacco trade in the 17th century. Gabriel tells us that originally the factory employed men, but they found that women were gentler with handling the tobacco and they could pay them a lesser salary. Sounds like this has been going on for centuries, think the world has finally changed! The factory closed in 1950 an is now part of the University of Sevilla. We walked through the building which was huge.

We continue our ride and end up at Plaza de Espana. I always thought that this was just another plaza, but oh my gosh, so much more. A huge area with a large fountain and mini canals. Beautiful tile work throughout. We stop to take some pictures then Gabriel takes us through the gardens, the Parque Maria Luisa. He tells us that years ago the gardens were neglected by the city, but eventually they realized that they must invest in. Must say that the gardens were mainly free of tourists and just a small number of locals. Two beautiful buildings in the gardens built for the 1929 expo, one is now the Museo Arqueologico and the other the Museo de Artes y Costumbres Populares. Gabriel is also very interested in the history of Sevilla and Spain and plays percussion instruments on nights and weekends in addition to his guiding activities. He tells us that during the hot summer, his favourite place to come is the costume museum. He loves to see the exhibits which are constantly changing, then he says he goes down to the basement where there is a cafeteria and is very cool in the summer. So he takes a good book and spends a few hours there cooling off and having a coffee at a very reasonable price!.

Then continue cycling through the gardens and he takes us to his “special bench”. He tells us that he comes here with his girlfriend on warm evenings and they bring a bottle of wine and enjoy their time together. He tells us we should come as is a magical place around 10:00 pm. Are you kidding, I tell him; that is about the time we are getting ready to go to bed. Must admit that this eating at 8 and 9 o’clock at night is difficult, but a way of life here, so one has to adjust to the local ways.

Then cycle along the river bike path to the Torre del Oro, a 13th century watchtower. It supposedly had a roof covered in gold. Gabriel tells us that it is has this name as it is said that all the gold coming from the Americas came through this port.

We then cross the Isabella bridge and view Sevilla from the other side of the river. Along the river he points out a fig tree and tells us that it reminds him of his childhood. He used to pick figs in the countryside along the roads. He says he loves figs, but just can’t bring himself to buy them in a grocery store.

He points out the bull ring, which we will visit in the next couple of days. Robin asks if they still bullfight and if so, do they still use picadors (lancers). Gabriel says that bullfighting is still very much a sport in Spain. The only place that it has been banned is in Catalonia (a province that wants to separate from Spain) as they see bullfighting as a symbol of Spain and they don’t want anything to do with Spain!

Across the river there stands one sole high rise building and is very different looking, circular in shape with a sloped roof. Gabriel tells us that this is the most hated building in Sevilla, for a couple of reasons. Firstly it is taller than the cathedral bell tower, which is thought to be a sacrilege. Christians feel that the most important building, the cathedral, should be the tallest as it is closest to God. Secondly, the building was built and is occupied by a Catalonian bank. This is the province that wants to separate from Spain, so why did the local municipality allow them to build this monstrosity!

We ask about the Gypsy women walking around in local cities with rosemary. They try to stop people, we always ignore them and wave them off. Gabriel says it is there way of earning a living. They will tell you that rosemary will bring you good luck and then they go on to read your palm and tell your fortune. He says that he has been approached on many occasions and he tells the Gypsy women that he has never heard of rosemary bringing any good luck to anyone. He thinks that they also get the rosemary from the public gardens, so funny, but ingenious on their part.

Across the river, the city also built a stadium in 1999 and seats 60,000. The stadium was one of those included in the Sevilla’s bid for the 2004 and 2008 Olympic bids. After the failure of the last bid, the stadium remained unused by either of Seville’s major football teams as both Real Betis and Sevilla each use their own stadia. It is now mainly used as a concert venue.

It is now the end of our cycle tour and Gabriel has been so great and good to get some exercise other than walking! Finally he gives up a detailed map of the city, shows us where we have been and points out more sights that we should visit. He talks about getting lost in a few neighbourhoods, which we plan on doing. We usually do this, and always fun to explore new places. Gabriel says that the residents of Sevilla have a tendency to stay in their own barrios, even as much as spending time in their own squares. This is where they come out in the evenings for their drinks and tapas and to visit in the early evening. We have definitely noticed this, Sevilla has little plazas everywhere you turn. I suppose just like us, going for coffee in Kensington area in Calgary.

We head back to the bike shop and stop for lunch prior to heading back to the apartment and a rest prior to visiting the Alcazar later today. Not sure I mentioned, but all the Jacaranda trees are in bloom, beautiful.

We noticed, as we have been walking through the streets of Sevilla, that they do of course have graffiti, as do all cities, but not with an artistic flair as we have seen in other places. The one thing they do which is different is paint the metal shutters on the store fronts with various scenes. Also, lovely ceramic inserts in the buildings; either Christian in nature or depicting a scene. I love seeing the small differences in the various cities we visit….graffiti, unique doors, flowers in windows, ceramic signs, etc. Each city with its own artistic flair!

At 5 pm we join our group of 10 to visit the Real Alcazar with our guide Vincente. Our visit lasts about two hours and once again very informative. I must add that our bike guide, Gabriel and Vincente both talk about the “Mudajar”. The word denotes a partly Gothic, partly Islamic style of architecture and art prevalent in Spain in the 12th to 15th centuries. both the Cathedral and the Real Alcazar are of this style. This late afternoon tour was great as the palace and gardens weren’t really busy.

This Alcazar was built primarily in the 1300’s and was made a Unesco World Heritage site in 1987, yes, another one added to the list. It was originally founded as a fort and has been expanded or reconstructed several times over the centuries. One of the areas that we visited was said to be the rooms of King Alfonso Xl mistress, Leonor de Guzman, who was reputedly the most beautiful woman in Spain. Our guide told us that the baths were specifically built for her as well. One aspect that we thought was really interesting is that a lot of the pillars holding up the various rooms do not match. Some are made of red marble, white marble and some from other types of stone. Our guide tells us that the builders of the time went off to an abandoned town nearby and collected columns from old Roman ruins. Talk about recycling! I somehow think that one might not notice this unless it was pointed out to you.

There all different rooms in the castle some used for entertaining and some used for trade. We also visited the throne room. One hall had very large Belgium tapestries which represented the kingdom of Spain.

The Moorish type ceramic work is interspersed with Christian symbols is again a sign of he Mudajar type of architecture, a blend of the two cultures. One must never forget to look up and see the beautifully wooden sculptured ceilings. Many fountains throughout which are guide tells us is equivalent to air conditioning. One major difference that I found between the Real Alcazar and the Alhambra is the amount of colour used here in the Real Alcazar. Blues and reds used in the plaster work, whereas a lot of the plaster work in Granada was in its natural state. Beautiful intricate ceramic work here depicting pictures of flora, fauna, emblems and characters.

The outer gardens here are absolutely magnificent with pruned hedges, fountains with fish, mazes and of course beautiful shaded treed areas, rose gardens, various benches and courtyards and statues throughout. I loved the bath area which was in a lower part of the palace. Loved to see the reflection in the water. Vincente points out an area in the garden where Game of Thrones (season 5, I think he said) was filmed here in the Alcazar. One of the American men on the tour was so excited about this, he said he was going to watch it again, just to see these gardens in the show. Thought this was so funny as he was so excited about this.

After the tour was completed, we stayed and toured the gardens for a little while longer, so nice and cool in the shade. The weather here in Sevilla has been about 25 each day, and we are enjoying it.

On our way back to our apartment we come across an Italian restaurant tucked away in an alley and opt for this change from tapas and meat. A jam packed day, but great to see so many new places and get to know the city and its history.

Saturday, June 2nd and we head off to the Catedral. The line up to get in only takes about a half hour, so not to bad at all. The total area of the Cathedral is at 11,520 square meters (124,000 square feet). The building is 135 meters (443 feet) long and 100 meters (328 feet) wide, and a ceiling height of 42 meters (138 feet). Seville Cathedral is the third-largest church in the world (after St.Peter’s in Rome and St.Paul’s in London) as well as the largest Gothic church in the world. It was designated a Unesco World Heritage site in 1987. Construction began in 1433 and ended in 1506.

The oldest door of the church is called the Puerta del Perdon (Door of Forgiveness) and dates from the early 16th century and is Moorish in design.

As you enter the courtyard to get to the ticket office, there is a replica of the statue and wind vane called the El Giraldillo, which sits on top of the Giralda, the original mosque minaret, now the bell tower. As one first enters you see the Church treasures, then you enter the church itself. It is indeed immense, vaulted ceilings, various chapels along the perimeter, outer chambers with paintings and church treasures, stained glass windows, and beautiful woodwork. Several alters, including one completely made of silver. The main altarpiece which is intricately carved, is said to be the largest in Christendom. As I was taking a picture, I noticed that lights kept coming on and off to highlight particular sections of the altar piece. I just read some statistics on the cathedral. Its interior is divided into: 5 naves, 43 chapels and altars, 81 stain glass windows, 28 attached pillars, 32 free standing pillars, 26 murals, 68 vaults. They say over 1.3 million people visit every year and that the cathedral has enjoyed two papal visits.

We also see Christopher Columbus’s sepulchre. He died in northern Spain and his remains were moved four separate times. Originally his remains were laid to rest in a monastery in Sevilla, then they were moved to the Dominican Republic, then to Cuba and back to Spain. There has been some question if the remains buried here in the cathedral were indeed Christopher Columbus or possibly his brother. They now say that recent DNA testing prove that these are indeed the remains of Christopher Columbus. THe sepulchre is quite grand. It shows four statues holding up the casket. These represent the four Spanish kingdoms of Castile, Leon, Aragon and Navarra which existed during Columbuses time. A beautiful work of art.

The outer courtyard the Patio de los Naranjos (the Patio of the Orange Trees) is quite lovely and is the exit of the church tour. We were about to leave and I realized that we had not seen the Giralda. We were told that we really should go up it, and that the climb was easy as it is a ramp and not steps. At the top, we noticed we went up 34 ramps. I read the reason for the ramps is that they were used by horsemen that went up to the top of the tower to see if any enemies were approaching. Good views from the top. It is said that the Giralda the best know symbol of Sevilla.

We then make our way to the Plaza de Toros de la Real Maestranza, the bull ring. This is the oldest bull ring in Spain, building began in 1758 and this is where bull fighting began along the same time as the bull ring in Ronda. One is guided through the museum, some great pictures and memorabilia. I really loved the old posters and the drawings. The guide speaks in Spanish and English and she told us when to listen to our audio guides for a further description. The bullfighting season goes from October to April and some later and yes, they still kill the bulls here in Spain. We view the horse corrals then a chapel where the bull fighters say their prayers before there debut into the ring. We then visited the ring itself.

On our way back to our apartment we come across an artisans market, always great to come across these shops where locals show and sell their wares. I am now the proud owner of a new necklace!

Another wonderful dinner out at a small bar in one of the many squares in our barrio. The Bodega Palo Alto was a great choice. Very unassuming from the outside, but great food, which really is all that counts. Robin had Preso con jamon (ham with prosciutto and potatoes) and I had Bacaloa in Salsa Verde con Jamon y Lagostinos (cod in a greeen sauce with ham and shrimp). Love finding these out of the way places with good food. A lot of locals here having their tapas and drinks. A lovely older couple outside enjoying their evening together, lovely to see. We can’t help but continue to relish in the European way of life!

Sunday, June 3rd and after doing some laundry (glad for the apartment washer), we head off to the Metropol Parasol. Not too far from where we are staying Prior to going up to the Parasol, we stop and have a coffee/tea and finally indulge in some churros. Well, sorry to say, not as good as the churros that we have had in Mexico. People here have their churros with hot chocolate the majority of the time, and dunk them in their drink.

Read a little about the Parasol and as anything different, there was controversy. It was designed by the German architect Jurgen Mayer and completed in April 2011. It has dimensions of 150 by 70 metres (490 by 230 ft) and an approximate height of 26 metres (85 ft) and claims to be the largest wooden structure in the world. Its appearance, location, delays and cost overruns in construction resulted in much public controversy. It was supposed to cost 50 million Euro and was originally to be completed in 2007 and it is said that the cost ballooned to 100 million Euro.

The building is popularly known as Las Setas de la Encarnación (Incarnation’s mushrooms) it has six parasols in the form of mushrooms. There are four levels to this structure. The underground level houses the Antiquarium, where Roman and Moorish remains discovered on site are displayed in a museum. Level 1 (street level) is the Central Market (closed today as is Sunday). The roof of Level 1 is the surface of the open-air public plaza, shaded by the wooden parasols above and designed for public events. Levels 2 and 3 are the two stages of the panoramic terraces (including a restaurant), offering one of the best views of the city centre. It was great to see Sevilla from a higher perspective. Took several shots of various sectors of the city from this viewpoint.

As we are on our way to the an art gallery we want to see, we come across a religious procession, very moving. It is similar to what has been explained to us as to a brotherhood carrying the statue of Mary. The procession had many men, assume the brotherhood and some of them were close to the platform carrying the statue, giving those underneath instructions as to when to turn a corner or to stop. Men carrying the platform cannot be seen as they are under it and there is a covering all around the platform. We however, did see their feet! So nice to come across this. Sometimes the best memories are unexpected ones!

We then continue further into the inner city to find the Hospital de los Venerables Sacerdotes. This building is a 17th century mansion which was once used as a hospice for aging priests. It is now an art gallery and also encompasses a church. We saw masterpieces by Diego Velaquez and Esteban Murillo. Wonderful typical Sevillano patios in a couple of areas. The church was quite remarkable with its painted walls.

Stop for lunch around the corner in the barrio of Santa Cruz. Must say that it drives Robin and I crazy when we hear english speaking people make no effort whatsoever to try to speak even a little Spanish….why can’t they even try to say “por favor” or “gracias”. This after all this is a Spanish speaking country….make an effort.

We follow the suggestions of our guide Gabriel and we get lost in the Santa Cruz barrio and wind our way in the various alleyways looking into the small shops. Also come across the Murillo Gardens and view the interesting statue of Isabella and a ship belonging to Columbus, we presume. These gardens are behind the Alcazar gardens and Robin and I wondered if these Murillo gardens were for the peons!

We find our way back to our barrio, La Macarena, and go to the Mercado de la Feria. I had read on their official website that they were open today, but alas, that information was wrong and they were closed. Oh well. We decide to stop in the Almada de Hercules area and enjoy a drink in the late afternoon. This area is a large open square full of bars, water features and areas for kids to play. So great on a Sunday afternoon, the square if full of families and groups of friends enjoying each others company. As we head back to our apartment, there is an area set up in the square where local kids are trying different acrobatic apparatus….trampolines, jumping mats, hula hoops, juggling, unicycles and many other items. Nice to see them having so much fun; but at times I thought the breaking of an arm or leg wasn’t too far off!

Lots of walking these past few days in Sevilla which had been great.

We are off tomorrow morning, Monday, June 4th to Merida, Spain for 2 nights. It is a couple of hours by car and our first sojourn out of the province of Andalusia. This is a stopover for our visit to Evora, Portugal.

Grazalema – May 2018

Our drive from Cadiz to Grazalema took about three hours as we stopped in the small town of Arcos de Frontera along the way.

Oh my gosh, once again very happy that we have a small car. Robin did an excellent job getting us to the top of the town of Arcos de Fontera, through the very narrow roads. As we approached the top of the village, a local lady tells us to continue as there is parking at the top. Well, when we arrive, we get the last parking stop and I have to help Robin maneuver into the spot. He almost has to hit the wall so that other cars can get by. A wonderful mirador with great views of the valley below. We then visit the church of Santa Maria de la Asuncion. Another beautiful church. Back in the car, some maneuvering to get out of the parking lot and then get down the windy narrow streets to get out of this charming town. Beautiful countryside.

As we left Arcos, the cloud ceiling dropped and it begins to rain. The road to Grazalema is one that steadily climbs up the mountain and is very windy with no shoulder. My brother Denis would not have done well due to the sheer drop offs and our daughter in law Lisa would not have like the hairpin turns. We finally arrive in Grazalema and our GPS would not pick up the address of the guest house, or the parking area. Fortunately the owner, Andres, must know this and he had sent a link to Google maps, which really helped. The only problem is that when we arrived at the road to take us down to the parking lot, it was closed due to repairs. We park the car and proceed to walk down the street. We ask a local woman where our hotel, The Mejorana, is located. She walks down the street to show us. We arrive, only about a 2 minute walk from where we have parked the car and the hotel is all locked up. We press a buzzer and it rings four times, then stops. We then see a phone number and call. The owner, Andres answers and asks where we are, I say…the front door. He is actually in the hotel, so comes to let us in. So friendly, he takes us around the hotel, shows us our room. Nothing spectacular, but seems comfortable, albeit a bit cold. He also takes the time to explain what to see around this small town, where to go and eat and sights to see in the surrounding area. This area is known for its hiking and there are numerous trails surrounding the town. Andres tells us that the weather is about 10 degrees cooler than normal at this time of year. Right now it is only 16 and have layered on the clothes.

The guide book says the population of Grazalema is 1,650 and the elevation is 825 metres (2,700 feet). It is a very old town and the local tourist bureau tell us that this town has been continually habited for at least 2,000 years. Not a significant town, but was a stopover for merchants and they provided produce and staples to surrounding areas. It is also an area that produces cheese and honey and is also know for its merino wool blankets.

He has a binder for every room, which describes in detail, all of the hiking routes, along with ratings for each hike. The binder also has suggested driving routes to nearby noteworthy towns. One town that he mentions could be overlooked is Ronda. Funny enough most guides books say this is a must see. A friend who had been there some thirty years ago said we must not miss it. Our friend Steve, who had been in the area this past November told us not to stay here and that he found it very touristy. He is the one who recommended Grazalema and this guest house. A beautiful pool and gardens but way too cool to take advantage of these amenities.

We get settled in and head off to discover this small town. Stop at a local bar for lunch, great food. The owner of the inn gives us the name of several bars and a couple of restaurants that are worth going to. Spend the afternoon walking around the town, but a lot of the shops are closed for the siesta period. These small towns still adhere to this schedule where they are usually closed from about 2 to 5 pm and then re-open for a couple of hours in the evening.

Must mention what a small world it is sometimes. When we went to one of the local bars for our lunch, there were two men speaking english behind us. They were cyclists so I struck up a conversation and asked where they were from ……Calgary! They were in Spain for three weeks doing a self guided bike tour. Pretty sure these guys were hard core, one of them has done several Gran Fondo’s in Alberta and has even lead one of them. This area is so hilly, windy and even mountainous, one would have to be very hard core; of perhaps have an electric bike!

We had read in our guide book of a bike trail called the Via Verde de la Sierra. The trail starts in a small near here and the trail crosses the countryside using an abandoned railway system. Sounds like the Kettle Valley railway in Kelowna/Penticton area. After a couple of phone calls, Robin finally reaches someone who does rent bikes for the Via Verde, but tells us the trail is closed due to the rains that the area has had of late. Oh well!

We go eat at the landlords favourite restaurant, S’Abor. We passed in the afternoon and it was filled with cyclists from a bike tour. Some people were coming out saying it was full and that they were disappointed they couldn’t get in. Robin and I made a reservation for dinner and what a great choice. I may have said this before, but was the best meal we have had on our trip so far and so reasonably priced. The presentation was beautiful, but most importantly the food was excellent. Even given a complimentary glass of very good sherry after our dinner. They have a beautiful patio, but simply too cold for anyone to take advantage of this.

On Tuesday May 29th, we head off in the car to visit the small villages around this area called the “ Pueblos Blanco” (White Villages). Grazalema is one of these as is Arcos de la Frontera which we visited yesterday. Our landlord tells us which towns are worthwhile visiting, in his opinion. Our first stop is Zahara de la Sierra. It overlooks the Embalse de Zahara ( a reservoir). We stop here and take in the views as well as stop for coffee/tea.

One thing that I have meant to mention on several occasions is how loud the Spanish women (in particular) and kids speak. It seems like they are screaming and mad at everyone. The Spanish men don’t seem to speak as loud, they probably can’t get a word in edgewise in any event!

Then on to Olvera and we try to get into the town of Setenil, but the street that leads to the top of the village is being worked on, so we simply drive on. Beautiful vistas everywhere and the countryside is diverse. Wheat fields, olive groves, goat and sheep farmers, mountains and valleys. Our last stop of the day is Ronda, and yes….this place is very touristy. We stop here for lunch, take in the views and then go visit the bull ring.

After visiting some of the other “white mountain villages” today, I do believe that Grazalema’ s inhabitants have taken great care of their homes and have made extra efforts with the beautiful plants and flowers in front of their homes. The majority of the windows on the houses are encased in iron bars which allowed windows to be left open without bandits being able to enter in ancient times. These are still there today and lots of plants and flowers hanging off of them.

One thing that is very unique in these mountain towns is the doorways. In Cordoba we saw courtyards and patios. Here they have an outer door, a vestibule which is usually decorated with tiles, then an inner door and some of these entrances are lovely indeed. Also, a lot of the outer doors have studs on the doors. This is said to be an Arabic decorative style. They say that these studs originated in India and the Arab world. Originally they were large and vicious looking to deter robbers and big animals!

Very cool again today, most of the time about 16 degrees and when the sun came out, would reach about 19. Back to the guest house and we make a cup and tea and sit in the living/common room. We visit for some time with an English couple who have just arrived. Great dinner out again; at such a reasonable price. Find it amazing that such good restaurants in such a small town.

Wednesday, May 30th and I go downstairs early to get a cup of tea. I run into Andreas and I ask him how long he has run this guest house. He tells me that he was born and raised in Grazalema and years ago he moved to Madrid for four years and met his wife there. He missed the mountains and the small town so much, his wife agreed to move to Grazamela. He told me that she was reluctant at first, but now loves it here and they have children. He tells me that it is a great place to raise children. He said that when they moved back 18 years ago, he took out a BIG mortgage and bought this home. It took him a year to renovate it, put bathrooms in each room and upgrade the electric system.

On Wednesday May 30th, we head out for a hike up the hillside from the town. This was one of the hikes recommended by our host Andreas. We head out, dressed in layers, as is cool again this morning, only 16, very cloudy and a few showers. The detailed hike information that Andreas provides for each guest is in a binder and each detailed map and hiking directions are laminated so that you can take it with you. Great for us since we don’t really know the area and the trails in the area aren’t really well marked.

As we are walking up one of the streets, we run into a couple from New Zealand staying at the same guest house. We strike up a conversation and share travelling stories. It is so funny that most people we run into who are driving, have stories to tell about their driving experiences. This couple said that in one small town, they were trying to find a place to park. An elderly gentleman came along and he actually insisted he get behind the wheel and he drove them to the parking lot. He asked for 5 Euro. They said that during their stay in this village, they saw this gentleman several times helping other tourists and always getting 5 Euro!

They were travelling for 5 weeks and said they got quite a chuckle when they contacted their daughter to see how she was doing at home. She has just finished her second year of “Uni” (this is what they call University in Australia and N.Z.). They asked if there was anything of importance in the mail, “Mail” she says. She is supposed to be looking after things when they are gone! She was also astounded as to all the leaves that had fallen on the deck, she had never seen this before. Not sure that she realizes what Mom and Dad do around the house!

We walk to the top of the village and find the trail head quite easily. This hike takes us about two hours and is quite nice, up in a forest above the village. Andreas told us that their spring is about a month late, but notwithstanding, we saw lots of wildflowers. Many similar to what we would see in the Rocky Mountains, but some very different. At the head of the trail an information board shows the type of flora and fauna in the area. Of note, they indicated that the area was known for its orchids, especially a specific orchid (nicknamed the bee orchid) as it has the same colours as a bee. Because of its colouring, it attracts bees and the flower has a sticky substance so the bee automatically pollinates the orchid.

I go a little crazy taking pictures of all the flowers, but some were so unique. Really enjoyed our hike, especially with the views of Grazalema below us. Also came across an abandoned church, very interesting.

Stop for lunch at a small bar and although it is cool, we opt to sit outside. Stop at a store that sells local goods and pick up some locally produced wine. We have also tasted some of the local cheese, which is very good, as is the wine.

OK….my wine consumption has gone up….heck I haven’t even been drinking at home….you only live once, and I am on holidays. White wine seems to be ok with my medication but do miss my red wine!

Late afternoon and I go downstairs to the common room of our guest house to get a couple of glasses of wine. Sitting in the living room is an older couple who arrived yesterday and I had heard them speaking French at breakfast this morning. I asked them if they were from France and they said they were from Belgium. They were from the southern part of Belgium where French is spoken. I told the gentleman that my French was a little rusty and at times I forgot words. I was so taken aback when he told me that if he spoke English the way I spoke French, he would give English lessons. Wow, that was flattering! Great to be able to use my French, we spoke for about 15 minutes, then I said I had to go as my husband was waiting for his glass so he could have his wine. A delightful couple.

Various picture of Grazalema, a lovely quiet “white town”.

Pictures from our hike above the town of Grazalema.

It really has been nice to spend time in a small village and a small guesthouse where you can get to know your fellow travellers.

Off to Sevilla tomorrow, May 31st, for four nights.

Cadiz – May 2018

Friday morning, May 25th and we are headed to Cadiz, situated along the south west coast of Spain. Cadiz is thought by some to be the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in Europe, founded in 1100 BC by the Phoenicians who called it Gadir (means walled city) and traded Baltic amber and British tin, as well as Spanish silver. The city subsequently became a naval base for the Romans before fading into obscurity until 1262 when it was taken from the Muslims by Christians. It is surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean and is united to the rest of the Peninsula by a narrow isthmus.

The real boom period was with the discovery of America as Columbus sailed from this port on this second and fourth voyages. Much later the city experienced a golden age during the 18th century when it enjoyed 75% of the Spanish trade with America. It then grew into one of the wealthiest and most cosmopolitan cities in Spain which is reflected in the city’s fine buildings from this era.

As of 2017, the population of Cadiz stood at 118,000 and is at 11 meters above sea level (36 feet). It is said that Cadiz has one of the highest unemployment rates in Spain and young people continue to move to larger centres to find work. The main economy is tourism.

Our drive from Cordoba took about 3 hours. Rolling hills then valleys seeing wheat (?) crops, potato fields, some sunflower fields and lots of fruit trees. Not as many olive trees as in previous areas. Saw our first vines. Must say they eat a lot of potatoes here, so now all the potato fields make sense. As we approached Cadiz, we spot the bridge that we will be going over, Puente de la Constitucion de 1812. I read that the bridge cost a half billion Euro’s and took eight years to build (twice the budget and five years late). It links Cadiz to the port of Puerto Real and is said to be one of the tallest in the world.

The old town of Cadiz is made up of four barrios. The Bario del Populo (cathedral area and original medieval settlement), Barrio de Santa Maria (the old Roman and flamenco quarter), Barrio de la Vina (a former vineyard that is now the fishing quarter) and Barrio del Mentidero (rumour street!). We arrived at our hotel in the old quarter around 1:30pm and the hotel shows us the parking garage, just across the alley. Relatively easy to get into, and as I said previously, would certainly not like a big car here in Spain.

Once again, we spend our first afternoon getting familiar with the surrounding neighbourhood. The hotel staff here are very friendly and they take the time to go over a map of the old town, local points of interest and recommendation for tapas and dinner. It takes about 20 minutes to walk from one side of the old town to the other. The map we are given shows various walks one can take (colour coded) and the streets themselves, that are part of the walk, have a coloured line corresponding to the map. There is an small artisan fair taking place in the square Plaza de San Juan de Dios, in front of the city hall (Ayutamiento) so we take this on before walking towards the sea wall. We wind our way through the narrow streets and find ourselves in front of the cathedral. More walking and finally back to the hotel for a siesta.

These siestas are becoming habit forming……quite lovely actually. We decide to go out to the roof top terrace of our hotel to enjoy a glass of wine before venturing out for dinner. The terrace is private for guests only and one has to bring your own wine. A lovely quiet spot and we join an Australian couple who are travelling through southern Spain by train. Great hearing stories and sharing information with other travellers.

Off to dinner at a seafood restaurant, the Alamar, recommended by the hotel. I must say you can’t go wrong on the recommendations of the hotels or landlords, better than trip advisor in a lot of cases as they tell you about the local restaurants and not just the tourist places. Outside the restaurant is a viewing case of the fresh fish they are offering today. All the fish is fresh and is bought each morning from the fish market. As in the rest of Andalucia, we are served a tapa on the house, Boquerones fritos, fried sardines with salt. You eat these whole, including the head! We then share an appetizer Pulpo a la Gallega con aceite do Oliva sasl y pimento picante (Galicean octopus with olive oil, salt and spicy paprika), I opt for the Atun (red tuna which is a local specialty and in season) and Robin has Corvina (sea bass).

Saturday, May 26th and we are once again doing a walking tour of the city of Cadiz. Our guide today is Pablo and is very informative and has a good sense of humour. We meet at the City Hall and he explains the history of Cadiz and I will add to my previous comments. He points out the three flags flying on City hall. The flag of Spain, the flag of Andalucia and finally the flag for the city of Cadiz. Both the flags of Andalucia and Cadiz portray Hercules standing between two columns. Our guide tells us that according to Greek mythology, Hercules created Cadiz after splitting the the two continents of Europe and Africa and the two pillars represents the continents.

We continue and stop to look at some ancient walls, Roman ruins, along the way that are built with oyster stone from the ocean. Pablo tells us that this stone is characteristic of Cadiz, but today, not obtained from the ocean, it is manufactured. Many buildings are built using this stone. They also found remnants of Garum sauce, a condiment made of fermented fish guts which was used in ancient Greece.

Pablo points out a restaurant/bar through an arch and tells us that this bar dates back to ancient times. It is called Cafe Teatro Pay Pay. It was said to have been a brothel where sailors would frequent after long voyages at sea.

We are now by the sea wall and we can see “new Cadiz”, the locals call is Puento Terra. Pablo tells us that the weather has been cooler than normal and this winter they had extremely strong winds and high tides and some of the streets in the new town were under water. Two thirds of Cadiz residents live in the new town. Not sure if you will recall, but I mentioned that Cadiz is a city as well as a province. Pablo says that if you ask someone in Andalucia where they live, they will say Cadiz (the Province) then the name of their town. So if you happen to live in the city of Cadiz, one would say…..Cadiz, Cadiz. He tells us that the people of the old town take it one step further they say they are from. Cadiz, Cadiz, Cadiz! They also call the residents of the new city, Bedouins or Nomads as they are not part of the old city. Pablo says that the people of Cadiz have a “different” sense of humour.

The seawalls around the old town are said to be reminiscent of Havana, but since we haven’t been there, can’t comment. But what I have seen in pictures I think this is correct. A lot of the houses surrounding the sea wall are brightly coloured. There are two stories surrounding the colourful houses. One is that they are painted brightly so that the sailors coming home would be drawn to the houses and not the brothel Pay Pay! The other is that the wives changed the colour of the houses as they didn’t want their husbands back!

Onto the Roman theatre which was only recently discovered and has been preserved. Still more work to be done, but for the time being the government has run out of money for this project. This theatre dates back to 43 BC and is said to be the second biggest in Spain.

We are now on the back side of the Cathedral along the sea wall and we are looking at the Parroquia de Santa Cruz, which used to be the Cathedral, till the new one was built. One can see the top of the building has domes that are definitely Moorish so this tells us that this building was previously a mosque. The inside is quite lovely, the altar area has beautiful woodwork and Pablo tells us to look closely at the statue of Christ in one of the side chapel’s. This statue represents Christ with brown skin and the statue has a wig. This isn’t the first time we have seen it and many believe this may be more representative of what Jesus Christ truly looked like.

Must mention that I asked Pablo about a Jewish community and he said that none existed in Cadiz.

In Plaza San Martin we come across the “Admiral’s house” which was one of the first palatial homes in Cadiz. Unfortunately it has fallen into ruins, but Pablo believes that it has been purchased and will be converted to a hotel. On one of the corners we see the remains of an ancient cannon on the corner of a wall. These cannons are imbedded in corners all over the old city and they are there to preserve the buildings so that cars, carts and motorcycles do not hit the corners of the buildings. Apparently the cannons were left here by the French army around the time of the Battle of Trafalgar.

Pablo talks a little about the weather. He tells us that they have had a late spring and very strong winds this past winter. He says they can be bitterly cold as it is also very damp. The winds are called “Levante” and comes from the straits of Gibraltar and are also present in the summer. Sounds like everywhere around the world, weather patterns are changing.

Today in this area there are numerous salt farms and is one of the products that is exported. In ancient times, salt was used as a currency and it is believed this is where the term “salary” comes from.

When we visited the Cadiz museum with the theatre ruins, Pablo showed us an inscription on the bottom of one of the ancient stones. It is propped up and a mirror is placed below so one can see the inscription at the bottom. The inscription refers to the fact that the “rich patrons” of the theatre that sat on these seats, were indeed robbers/embezzlers.

Pablo thought this was quite relevant considering the fact that several Spanish bankers were just found guilty of embezzlement. The case caused an outrage in Spain, where it was uncovered at the height of a severe economic crisis that left many people struggling financially – made all the worse because Bankia later had to be nationalized.

We then walk to a small alley, which is now locked off. The El Callejón del Duende is a curved street, like almost all the streets of Cádiz, which were made to fight the wind. Duende means “quality of passion and inspiration or spirit” and the term is often used when one refers to flamenco.

One of the stories of this street, is that pirates would come here to make illegal transactions. Another legend tells us that during the Napoleonic invasion a French captain fell madly in love with a beautiful woman from Cádiz. The couple would sneak into the alley to make love, but they were discovered. The captain was killed and she died of grief … and they say that … the night of the dead, every November 1, the lovers are seen hugging in the alley. Today there is a small gnome in the alley with a small pail. People throw coins into the pail for their wishes to come true. I think someone has come up with this. I say….”start a legend….make money!”.

We then stop by the Catedral de Cadiz. Just viewed the outside, but we will come back later to view the inside. The outside of the cathedral is made of two different stones. Marble at the bottom and limestone at the top. It took 122 years to be built as they kept running out of money. Both baroque and neo-classical styles due to the time frames involved. Our guide tells us that you can climb the bell tower; but he warns us to be very careful as the bells chime every 15 minutes and can be ear shattering if you happen to be at the top when they ring. Took the picture of the interior when we visited the next day.

A few blocks from the cathedral is Plaza de Flores. At one end of the square is the beautiful main Correos (post office). Pablo points out one of the buildings in the square which has a few windows bricked in. We have seen this in other European cities. The towns used to apply a tax which was based on the number of windows. People would brick up the windows to save on taxes. Pablo tells us that the historical society here in Cadiz will not let owners of these properties open up these areas as they are classified as a historical feature, so some of these homes are quite dark. Pictured below is the Correos (post office).

Pablo points out the Flores Taberna and says it is a must for tapas. Filled with locals as is not very fancy.

Most of the apartment blocks in the old town are 4 to 5 stories high. The highest floor have lower ceilings than the remainder of the floors. We are told that in ancient times, the highest floors were reserved for the servants, these were also the hottest rooms in the summer and the coolest in the winter!

Around the block from this square is the Mercado Central. This place is so busy with both locals and tourists. It is mainly a fish market with hundreds of stalls of fish mongers and all types of fish, some very different than we have ever seen. A few vegetable vendors along the perimeter of the building. On the outer area of the market are all eating stalls and people will order food and drinks from various vendors and all stand all high tables around the perimeter, quite unique. We are told to try the local cheese made out of goat’s milk, will certainly have to give this a try at a tapas bar.

Pablo points out some towers that are built on top the top of some of the apartment buildings and houses. He tells us that there is a total of 127 towers remaining in the town. These towers were built by merchants so that they could see when the sailing ships were coming into port and get ready for trade.

We head to the Barrio de la Vina. This area is where the local Carnival takes place which happens just before Easter every year. Similar to what we were told in Malaga. Local “brotherhoods” carry around the sacred statues and after their processions are over, the party starts. He says people get dressed up for the occasion and if you know where to go, you can party till five o’clock in the morning. The party goes on for one week. He did tell us that some go on to party for a second week and they refer to them as “Carnivalists”, suppose that is something like a “party animal”!

Centuries ago there was a massive earthquake in Portugal and the effects were felt even here in Cadiz. They actually experienced a Tsunami and the water level reached 2.50 meters (8 feet) and there is a marker on one of the buildings. I did a little reading on this. The tsunami took place in 1755 and the article went on to predict that another large earthquake and tsunami will definitely happen in Spain/Portugal……hopefully that will not happen any time soon!

Pablo stops in front of a taberna which is not yet open. He gives us a list of his favourites eating places and bars. He tells us that if we are unsure about an establishment, to enter and go near the kitchen. If it smells like old fish or old oil to go somewhere else.

We end our tour at Caleta Beach. A beautiful beach with two fortresses, Castillo de San Sebastian and Castillo Carolina. We will try to come back to this area. We are told that you used to be able to walk out to San Sebastian for some great views of the city, but due to winter storms, part of the walkway out to the fortress was washed away. The city is presently repairing it.

The Havana scenes of the James Bond movie “Die Another Day” were filmed in Cádiz. He said the most famous scene was that of Halle Berry (Jinx) walking out of the water. All the men on the tour say they remember this well! Several other locations in Cadiz were also used for this film due to the sea wall and fortresses being similar to Havana.

Another great walking tour and must say, this one was more intimate. Their was only eight of us, so got to know people in the group.

We check out a taberna that Pablo had told us about; but it is jam packed with locals and tourists. No tables available and one couldn’t even get near the bar, decided to pass.

Robin and go in search of some place to eat lunch and head back to the Barrio de Vina. Pablo had told us that this barrio was the place to eat as prices were more reasonable and more locals ate here. We are offered fresh fish once again. The waiter comes out with a tray of various fresh fish and each has a different price depending on what you choose. At a seafood restaurant on our first night here, we were also given a choice of how many grams of fish we wanted. They will also cook it any way you want. They serve a lot of fried foods here, but we usually choose it grilled; much more to our preference.

You will see this picture of Robin below drinking tea……it is not always wine! Check out his new sunglasses, I think he looks pretty cool! He bought them in Granada.

I have come across a very refreshing non-alcoholic drink here in the south of Spain and it is called Aquarius. A bottled drink which is in essence watered down lemonade which I really like, not too sweet and not carbonated. It also comes in an orange flavour.

Stop by the Mercado again as we had seen some art by a local artist on the walls of the market. Love them all!

The main point of discussion this evening, as we are having a glass of wine on the hotel terrace, is where are we going to find a place to watch the Champions League Final. I google pubs, so we head out to find one. As we are leaving the hotel, we spot the tv in the lobby and Robin asks the hotel clerk if he would be able to watch the match when we got back. The lady said absolutely. Although she personally did not like football, she would call her kids and find out what channel it would be on, and she said she would see us later.

We find a local taberna, Los Flores, only about 5 minutes from the hotel. We had been told by both the hotel and our guide that this taberna was good. It is a local bar which serves basic food. We weren’t that hungry, so we shared a couple of tapas. Probably the best seafood salad we have had. The small tv was on in the bar, and local men there watching the match, it had just started. We head back to the hotel and Robin settles in to watch the rest of the match and soon a Spanish couple come along to watch as well. I work on my blog in the lobby while he is watching the game. A happy guy!

Sunday the 27th and we take things slow. Anyone who spends time in Europe will tell you that all towns and cities basically close down on Sundays. It is a day that locals spend with families. Long lunches, lots of walking, spending time in parks and along the beaches. Both Robin and I always admire the “family” aspect of European life. Many generations live together and help one another. They respect the elderly. Each night before dinner, they are out in force having an aperitif before their meal with the children playing alongside. Perhaps a good lesson to us to slow down and enjoy the small things in life!

We head to the Cathedral to view the interior. Not very spectacular, but time for some meditation and prayers. We then continue along the sea wall and make our way to Playa de la Caleta. Many families enjoying the sunshine, ocean and beach. We then continue onto the Parque Genoves, the Botanical Gardens. Beautiful trees and plants and some water features. A recently built structure appears to be half completed and has fallen into disrepair, possibly another scenario where the government has run out of funds. There is a bandstand and we wander over as we hear music. Appears to be a “Cadiz had talent” performance going on. Young children, teenagers and older adults playing the piano, drums, guitar, etc.

Continue our walk along the sea wall and back to our hotel. Lots of walking today, enjoying the quiet aspects of the city. Out for dinner tonight to a small unassuming bar/restaurant which was rated quite good on Trip Advisor. We both had fresh Dorado and the waiter went beyond expectations and even filleted our fish for us. These are the type of places that you would normally walk by, but glad we came.

Next destination – Grazalema

Cordoba – May 2018

We drive to Cordoba from Granada along secondary roads and takes us about 3 hours with a stop for coffee/tea in a small uninspiring town. Well, it can’t always be great. The views along the way were olive trees…..olive trees in the valleys, olive trees on the hills, olive trees in every small town along the way. Of course, many olive oil manufacturers along the way. So nice to have the time to drive along the secondary roads and take ones time. Some lovely looking towns along the way.

I had contacted the owners of the apartment when we first booked to arrange for parking. The parking is located in a private parking lot in the old town about a 3 minute walk away from the apartment. When I tried to put the directions into our GPS our Google Maps, it would not pick it up. The reason being that a lot of the area is pedestrian only and vehicular traffic limited to locals only. In addition to this, the parking garage is located in an alleyway. When I read the reviews of the apartment, those that had taken advantage of the parking indicated that you must have a small car and that parking was quite the experience. Well, we now know what they are taking about.

Our landlord sent clarification of how to reach the parking garage, but in the end, he sent the house cleaner to meet us near a square. That was a good thing. She walks in front of the car to direct us down several alleyways and finally to the garage. Once inside the garage, she tells Robin to proceed forward, then backup, then crank his wheels so that he can park behind a pillar……yes, you read that right….behind a pillar. After about 5 minutes of going backwards and forwards and turning his wheels every which way…..and by the way, a car right next to us between us and the pillar…Robin finally gets the car into the spot. Should be fun getting out…not! Did I say that the cleaning lady, Luisi, does not speak any english at all, so really quite interesting with our limited Spanish. Oh well, we managed.

Luisi shows us around the apartment all the while speaking very quickly in Spanish. Amazing what one can understand with pointing, sign language and the odd word of Spanish. Our apartment here is in the old town and very close to the Guadalquivir river and a 15 minute walk to the Mezquita – Catedral de Cordoba, the crowning glory of Cordoba.

Cordoba has a population of 326,000 and has an elevation of 110 meters (360 feet), so much lower than Granada. I like knowing the history of places we visit; so here goes. The Roman colony of Cordoba was founded in 152 BC, became capital of Baetica province, covering most of today’s Andalucia. In 711 Córdoba fell to the Muslim invaders and soon became the Islamic capital on the Iberian Peninsula. Córdoba’s heyday came under Abd ar-Rahman III, who in 929 named himself caliph of Al-Andalus’ and freedom from the caliphs in Baghdad. Córdoba was then the biggest city in Western Europe and it had dazzling mosques, libraries, observatories, aqueducts, a university and highly skilled artisans in leather, metal, textiles and glazed tiles. Abd ar-Rahman III’s multicultural court was frequented by Jewish, Arab and Christian scholars. Córdoba was captured in 1236 by Fernando III.

First afternoon here (Monday, May 21st) we get our bearings and stop at the Plaza de la Corredera for a light lunch. This plaza is reminiscent of the Plaza Major in Madrid, but on a much smaller scale.

Have a nap in the afternoon…. well had to after our encounter with the rooster in Granada! In the evening we head out toward the river where a great deal of restaurants are located. Our landlords have provided us with many recommendations and we try one. Robin has “Secreto Iberico a la brasa y humus de calabaza” (Gilled Iberian pork and pumpkin hummus) and I have “Puerros confitados rellenos de tape y gambas con slasa de marisco” (Candied lees stuffed with monkfish, prawns and cream of seafood). Both very delicious. I had ordered fish at this restaurant, but they were all out. They buy their fish early in the morning from the local market so once it is gone, that’s it. Most of the restaurants that cater to tourist, have english translations on the menu, but I love the Spanish names of the dishes.

We then walk along the river and make our way to the Roman bridge to take some evening pictures. A walk along the Mezquita and back to our apartment. Along the way, we see numerous ladies dressed in Flamenco style dresses and we assume that they are heading to the local fair. We saw a ferris wheel and other fair rides as we were driving into Cordoba. My guide books say that the “Feria de Mayo” takes place the last week in May and is held near the river. Music, horses, carriages and traditional dress are the mainstay and one of the big festivals of the year for the locals. I guess one could compare this to the Calgary Stampede when we locals dress in western gear.

The pictures above are of the beautiful Senoritas dressed in their traditional Flamenco dress. We asked several if we could take pictures of them and they were more than happy to oblige, were very flattered that we asked.

Another festival that is held in Cordoba is in early May and is called the “Fiesta de los Patios de Cordoba”. Cultural festivities abound during this time as well as locals open up their private patios for viewing. Must say from the courtyards/patios we have seen, there certainly are some lovely ones. I try to take pictures, but mainly in restaurants vs private patios; do not want to disturb peoples’ privacy.

The guide book talks about the food of the area. They say that the staples of the Andalusian area are jamon (cured ham) and olives. The ham is either serrano (about 90% of cured ham in Spain, made from white-coated pigs) or iberico (more expensive and comes from black pigs). Also known for their cheeses, mainly Grazalema (a goat cheese) and Cadiz (similar to manchego). Funny enough, the names of the cheese are both cities/towns we are visiting. Earlier I wrote about the olive trees we saw on our drive from Granada. Spain if the world’s largest olive-oil producer and my research tells me that there are over 100 million olive trees in Andalucia. In some shop windows you can see sandwiches piled up. I thought they would be stale, but we had some and they are very fresh and sell very quickly.

This area is also know for its vegetables, but must say you don’t see a lot served in restaurants. The local fresh food market is in Corredera Square and has fresh meat, fish and vegetables. The market is open every day and closes at 3 pm. Cordoba is also know for its gazpacho andaluz and rabo de torro (ox tails). I am not really a fan of gazpacho so will pass on that one.

On Tuesday May 23rd we meet up in Plaza de las Tendillas for our walking tour. Our guide today is Carmen and our tour last 2 1/2 hours. We find that this is certainly a good way to get to know our way around the city. This square is where the city celebrates events, such as football matches; but Carmen says not a lot of these! A clock in the square chimes to the tune of flamenco music. Our guide asks the crowd what we know about Cordoba…..everyone is silent. She says “people, we will be spending 2 1/2 hours together so it would be nice to have a conversation”! She tells us that Cordoban women are known to be strong willed with strong character, well I guess she just proved that with her previous comment.

We walk to some Roman ruins by the City Hall. There is a large hole in the middle of the roman ruins and she tells us that in ancient times this hole was filled with sand. It apparently held reduce the shock waves from earthquakes. I guess one has to believe what a guide tells us; I am not going to fact check this!

Next stop is Corredera Square, where Robin and I had lunch yesterday. It is just a couple of minutes from our apartment. This square was built to house the richest and most important people of Cordoba. Today the buildings are still used as housing and many small restaurants abound and they have tables in the square. Our guide says that these bars/restaurants are frequented by locals; so a good place to have typical food at low prices. Yesterday we shared fried squid was was very good and yes, inexpensive. Little did we know! She tells us to try oxtail and eggplants with honey as these are two local delicacies. One of the buildings in the square is totally different than the others. Legend has it that a powerful widow was fighting with the local authorities to build something different. The judge ruled in her favour, but made her put fixed shutters on the windows so that she could not see what was going on in the square. So there! A lot of the windows here are covered with raffia blinds and these would act as a type of air conditioning many years ago. Our guide tells us that temperatures reach 45 to 50 degrees centigrade in Cordoba in the summer months. Our guide book does mention that the best times to visit Cordoba are May and June or in the fall. A lot of raffia products sold in the square (baskets, purses, toys, etc). Another building in the square was used during the Inquisition.

We then walk through the narrow winding alleys to Plaza del Potro. Their is a fountain here which has a statue of a small horse on top; not sure why but there is a small plaque which refers to “the Man of La Mancha”. At the other end of the Plaza is a large monument with an archangel on the top. Carmen asks the group “which archangel is this?”. The group answers…Michael or Gabriel. She laughs as we clearly do not know our archangels. It is Raphael and he is the protector of Cordoba. Further along in our walk we see numerous statues of Raphael throughout the old town.

We head towards the Medina and the Jewish quarter which are a maze of alleyways and dead ends. Once again we are told that is to help lose one enemies, catch robbers and provide shade.

Carmen relays the history of the Mezquita. The building was originally built in ancient times as a Mosque but has since been converted to a church, which is built inside the mosque. Quite unique in the world. Will comment more after our visit to the Mezquita tomorrow.

Carmen says that today there are three mosques in Cordoba….two for men and one for women.

The Jewish quarter is located within the walls of the Medina and it is said that this was quite unique and was allowed as the Jewish intellect provided guidance and funds to the Caliph. We come across Plaza Maimonides with a statue of Maimonides named after a medieval Jewish philosopher who became one of the most prolific and influential Torah scholars of the Middle Ages. Legend has it that if one rubs his left foot you will gain wisdom and if you rub his right foot you will return to Cordoba. There were so many groups of tourists here I had to weasel my way to simply take a picture; did not get a chance to rub either foot!

A little further on is a synagogue. A very simple and nondescript building. Carmen says that the Jews were allowed to build their synagogue in the Medina but it had to be simple in design so that it would not out shine the Mezquita.

One again we are told that centuries ago the Arabs, Jews and Christians all lived in harmony. The Arabs controlled the political, military and religious fronts, the Jews controlled the financial world and Christians had little or no power.

There is also a statue of Seneca nearby. He was born here then moved to Rome. He acted as an advisor to Nero.

Our tour ends at the Alcazar, which we will visit tomorrow. Carmen tells us that weddings are held in the Alcazar gardens and that there is a two year waiting list and she said she just put her name on the list. I asked her if she had a boyfriends. Her reply…”will not be a problem in 2 years time!”

Once again, enjoyed the walking tour and certainly gave us a good feel of this city.

We head off to find a place to have lunch, pass on a couple of places and settle on a small bar/restaurant called Taberna 10. Funny thing, once again we realize that this was a recommendation by our landlords. They mention traditional food with a great wine list. Think what caught our eye were the casks of sherry. I try the “Berenjenas abunueladas con miel de cana” (frittered aubergines with cane syrup), one of the local specialties and Robin has “Secreto de Iberico con patata gypsy y mahonesa de ajo” (bbq pork) the same dish he had the first night. Once again, delicious. We ask the young waitress about the sherry casks and she proceeds to give us 3 different tastes of the sherry. One was one year old, another thirty and then an Amontillado. Even I had a little sip of the three and must say that the thirty year old could knock your socks off, so smooth, so flavourful.

More walking through the alleys and we pass a Hamman. OK, I know I said I wouldn’t go to a Hamman, but we look at their menu of services and find that they offer massages along with baths. We book massages at Hammam Al Andalus for later in the day and go back to the apartment. Robin is not convinced that the bath sounds like something he wants, especially after my experience in Morocco. We head back later and we are escorted in by Antonio, and told to change into our bathing suits. We are led into the interior of the Hamman and Antonio explains that after our massages, we can come back to use the baths for as long as we want. The interior is indeed very lovely with its Moorish influence. He explains that there are three different pools. One is tepid, the next one is very hot and the last is very cold and one should spend five to seven minutes in each in the order presented, and finish in the steam room. Great massage, helped the legs after all the walking and really enjoyed the baths. You could also take advantage of tea that was available either plain or with sugar. All in all a very good experience and glad we went. One is not allowed to take pictures but I have taken one of the entrance and will try to get one off their web site. The following pictures are of the courtyard of the Hamman.

Out for dinner at La Cazuela de La Esparteria, a recommended local restaurant. Our landlord describes it as a charming restaurant, with traditional food and good prices. Sounds good to us. I decide to try the Rabo de toro (oxtail) and Robin has Chuletitas de cordero lechal (lamb chops). The menus had no english translations and I used my Google translator for a few of the words I did not understand; after all this is a local restaurant. Excellent once again. We had a bit of a chuckle. While we were waiting for our meal, three Italian couples sat next to us. Between their Italian and the waiter’s Spanish they discussed the menu. One of the men asked what “cordero” was and although the waiter tried to explain, the man could not understand. Finally the waiter made the “baa” of a sheep, very cute and everyone laughed. The one thing that we find is very good is that a lot of the restaurants offer “1/2 racion” or “racion”. So, we usually end up ordering the 1/2 orders which are sufficient.

On Wednesday, May 23rd we head off to visit the Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba or locally known as the Mezquita. The original building was built by Christians on this site in the mid 6th century. When the Muslims arrived, the area was divided and used by both the Christians and Muslims. The original mosque was built in 786. Unlike other Muslim mosques, the qibla wall does not point towards Mecca, but instead faces south. Apparently there are some exceptions, but not sure why in this case. One explanation is that is faces Damascus. Over the centuries the mosque was added onto, the prayer hall being expanded (year 833-848), a new minaret reaching a height of 40 meters and a large second enlargement in 962. The last extension was built in 991 adding eight new naves. With the conquest of Cordoba by the Christians the mosque was consecrated as a catholic church. In 1489 transformations were made to adapt the mosque into a church, installing a main chapel. A transept was completed in 1607 combining the caliphal naves into what was more accepted by the catholic church. When I first heard about the Mezquita, I was told that it was a church within a mosque. Hard to describe, but once you are inside you would understand. An actual church in side with an altar and pews and a church choir area. It is now a Unesco World Heritage site…..yes, another to add to our list. My guide books says that in 2004, Muslims petitioned the Vatican to be able to worship in the Mezquita again, but they were declined.

The first set of pictures below is the Mosque then below is the Catholic church which is inside the mosque. Seems hard to picture, you almost have to come and see it for yourself.

Our next stop is the Alcazar de los Reyes Cristianos just next to the Mezquita. At first I don’t think that this monument is very interesting, and once inside the fortress itself it isn’t, but the gardens are breathtaking. It was built in the 13th and 14th centuries on the remains of a Moorish fort/palace. Ferdinand and Isabel first met Columbus here. He petitioned them for funds for his expeditions but was turned down. There is a statue of the three of them in the gardens. If you recall from my Granada blog, Columbus was successful in getting his funds from Ferdinand and Isabel in Granada in 1492; which funding really came from the Jewish community in Granada. It is said that one of the towers of the Alcazar was used during the Inquisition period. Terraced gardens are full of fish ponds, fountains, orange trees and flowers, absolutely beautiful. Gardeners were in the process of planting additional flowers.

Continue walking through the Jewish quarter and yes, getting lost in the winding streets and alleyways, but that is half the fun of these places. Back to the apartment and we go scout out how to get out of our parkade and how to find the main road, as we want to go visit a mountain tomorrow. We think we have figured out, but only tomorrow will tell.

Later we head out to the Museo Julio Romero de Torres, a famous Cordoban painter. He is known for his paintings expressing his sense of Andalusian female beauty. Also inspired by flamenco and bullfighting and he did some “poster type” pictures for several exhibitions in the area. Quite enjoyed it, but unfortunately, could not take any pictures. Below are pics from the internet.

Out for a wonderful dinner tonight at Bodega Campos a restaurant suggested in our guide book and by our landlords. A more expensive restaurant but we are told a must during our stay. We are not disappointed, probably the best meal to date. Ok….here goes the descriptions of our meal…..you may want to skip over this with the exception of the foodies! We started off by sharing “Ensaladilla con Vendresca de Atun y Lagostinas” (Spanish potato salad with tuna and prawns). I know it sounds strange to have potato salad, but once again we tried this as it is a local specialty, very good. I had “Raviolis de Bacalao, Sepia and Gambas” (Cod ravioli with cuttlefish and prawns) and Robin chose the Cordoban specialty “Rabo de Toro Deshuescado con cremoso de patatas” (deboned oxtail stew with potato puree). Robin also indulged in a desert, which he doesn’t do often, “Brownie con sopa de chocolate blanco”……don’t think I need to translate that one…..I had a taste!

Thursday, May 24th and this is the real test. We want to drive to the mountain town of Zucheros about one hour away. Will we be able to get out of the parking garage and will we find our way through the winding alleys to be able to get out of the City? Then the big question is will we get back? Glad to report the answer was “YES”.

Zucheros only has a population of 700 and has an altitude of 625 meters (about 2,000 feet). The guide book describes the town as “sitting in a supremely picturesque location, and its tangle of white streets and a crag-top castle”. A wonderful drive through the countryside. The town is on the edge of the Parque Natura Sierras Subbeticas. Once we reach the town you are surrounded by craggy limestone hills on one side and olive groves in the valley below. We park the car on the edge of town and as we are walking up to the castle, a lady from the bakery tells us to watch out for the bikes. We had seen a few cyclist on our drive through the countryside and there was even a caution sign on one of the smaller roads regarding cyclist on the road. When we arrive at the town square, we see perhaps one hundred cyclists. When I ask one of them what is going on, he tells me that these cyclists are on a four day cycling tour through the area.

Drive back to Cordoba and get back to the parking lot. A little easier to park as no car next to us.

We have certainly enjoyed our time in Cordoba, lovely winding alleyways, a lot of history and great cuisine.

Next stop is Cadiz for three nights.

Granada and the Alhambra – May 2018

On Thursday morning, May 17th, we pick up our rental car and head off to Granada, a little under two hours away. We take the coastal road and make a coffee/tea stop in Nerja along the way. Must say, that the Costa del Sol is so built up. Town after town of high rise complexes along the beaches. A little much for the two of us. Would not want to spend a lot of time along this area, although we are sure that lots of people would enjoy it in the winter months!

Along the way, we wind our way on the edge of the Sierra Nevada’s and some of the peaks are still covered in snow…..a reminder of home perhaps!

We arrive in Granada about 1:30 p.m. and the parkade we were told to use is about a 10 minute walk to the apartment we have rented. We will be in Granada for four nights. Population is 233,000 as of 2017 and the city’s elevation is 738m (2,400 ft.).

Coming out of the parkade one is always trying to find your bearings. I use “Offmaps”, but that takes a little bit of walking to see in which direction you are walking. Robin asks an elderly gentleman in which direction is Plaza de la Trinidad, the square where our apartment is located. He points straight ahead, then right, then straight ahead again. We start walking and I am about to turn right and I look behind us to see this gentleman waving us straight on…..very cute.

We find our apartment and are met by Lucas, our contact for this stay. His company manages the rental of the apartment, which is very lovely and located on the 5th floor of an old mansion. The apartment looks onto the Plaza de la Trinidad and we look onto the Cathedral and can see the tip of one of the towers of the Alhambra. Lucas proceeds to explain where all the worthwhile sites to see are located, a list of his favourite tapas bars and restaurants and what neighbourhoods to explore. I had sent a text to Lucas prior to our arrival asking if he could arrange for tickets for a flamenco show. He indeed has purchased tickets for us and told us they were for an “authentic” flamenco show and not one of the many tourist shows. We will be attending tomorrow night and look forward to it. I had read that Granada was the place to experience flamenco. Following picture of the view of the cathedral from our apartment, day and night.

We head out in the afternoon to explore our new neighbourhood and to buy a few groceries. Granada is most famous for the Alhambra, but it is made up of very interesting neighbourhoods, which are not to be missed. The Albaicin (the Arab quarter), Sacramonte (the Gypsy sector) and Realego ( the Jewish area) each having its’ own character. A lot of walking on our first afternoon, finishing off along the the Carrera del Darro, a narrow quiet road along the river Darro. From here we can see the Alhambra and we stop for a drink in a small cafe along the river. We are told that the Carrero del Darro is a perfect setting for happy couples, scorned lovers and dreamers! On our first night here, we take advantage of a recommendation of a friend (thanks Steve F.) and eat at a wonderful restaurant, La Botilleria. Walk along the Calle Mesones, and Calle Reyes Catolicas streets made for shopping and drinking!

Again, so many tapas bars, every local seems to have their favourites. We have had such varied tapas and most very good. So far we have tried bacalao (cod fish), potatoes bravas (of course), ham croquettes (very tasty) and Spanish omelette. They always serve small free tapas at the bars when you order a drink. We have had hummus, green olives, pork cheeks, desert style tapas (cheesecake), Iberian and serano ham which are mostly served on bread.

ALHAMBRA, Granada

Up early….not due to jet lag…but a rooster crowing at 4 am this Friday morning, May 18th. What is a rooster doing in the middle of the old town?

We walk up to the Alhambra this morning, which takes up about 30 minutes. We have tickets to enter the Palacio Nazaries at 10 am, and you must enter at your allotted time. We have time to stop for a coffee/tea before entering the palace.

Lots of stray cats all around the grounds……even though this place is always full of people, the cats stay away. Robin would say “and this is a good thing!”.

First a little history regarding The Alhambra. It is the only surviving large medieval Islamic palace complex in the world. It’s a palace-city but also a fortress with 2 km of walls, 23 towers and a fort within a fort, the Alcazaba. Within the walls of the Alhambra there are seven separate palaces, mosques, garrisons, houses, offices, baths, a summer residence (the Generalife) and exquisite gardens. It is a Unesco World Heritage Site, so another to add to our list.

I like the description in the guide book…..”The Alhambra is Granada’s and Europe’s love letter to the Moorish culture, a place where fountains trickle, leaves rustle, and ancient spirits seem to mysteriously linger.”

The Alhambra, an Arabic name which means the red castle. The first palace was built on the site in the 11th century. In the 13th and 14th centuries the Nasrid emirs turned the area into a fortress/palace, adjoined by a village. After the Reconquista (Christian reconquest) the Alhambra mosque was replaced with a church and the Convento de San Francisco. During the Napoleonic occupation, the Alhambra was used as a barracks. The Alhambra has been restored and is definitely a must see. The Palacio Nazaries is certainly wonderfully decorated in Moorish art. Beautiful wood carvings, including the ceilings, ceramic work throughout and Islamic scriptures written on the walls. Water is a constant theme, with fountains running throughout the Palacio as well as outside in the wonderfully sculpted gardens.

When we first entered the grounds we came across a statue of the American writer Washington Irving. We find out that in the 19th century Granada became the perfect setting for romantic travellers due to the Irving’s book Tales of the Alhambra written in 1832. This book captivated writers, artists and musicians of his generation, telling them about that “fiercely magnificent” place that also fascinated Victor Hugo and and others. So Granada was reborn as a somewhat mythical place, a blend of history and legend, an essential destination for travellers from every continent.

The Alcazaba is the military part of the citadel. It is surrounded by towers and the Jardin del Adarve which was formerly a deep pit to discourage possible invaders. We go up the narrow staircase to the Torre de la Vela to enjoy the views of the city of Granada and the surrounding countryside.

Took us about 2 1/2 hours to visit (could spend longer) and we took advantage of the audio guides which were certainly worthwhile.

I could go on describing the various buildings and grounds, but will let the pictures speak from themselves. Beautiful views throughout the grounds of the city of Granada.

GRANADA

On Friday night we stop at La Bicicleta, a restaurant recommended in our guide book. Actually just come across it while walking through the streets.

Good tapas then off to the Flamenco Show. The show was one hour long and found that this was just the right amount of time. Wonderful guitar player, great singer and 2 Flamenco dancers. Although Lucas told us this was an “authentic” flamenco show, not sure what he meant by this; it was just tourists that were in attendance. Notwithstanding, an intimate venue which probably only accommodated 50 people and we enjoyed the performances.

Did I mention the rooster crowing….oh yeah…..awake at 4 am again this morning, but managed to get more sleep this time around.

Saturday and the city is humming with tourists. A lot of “guy” and “gal” stags/stagettes happening…..the locals have told us they do not like these, simply too rowdy. In a couple of instances we see the “bride to be” riding on a donkey with all her friends around her. Lots of drinking and noise involved.

Our first stop is a cafe just outside our apartment for a cappuccino/tea. The square we are located on (Plaza de la Trinidad) seems to be a quieter one than most, so thankful for that. Having said this, we were awoken yesterday morning by a rooster crowing very early. We are in the middle of the city, so not sure where it came from….maybe allowed to have chickens and roosters!

We head to Plaza Nueva to meet up with the free walking tour. This time we need to look for a red umbrella; in Malaga it was a blue umbrella. I made reservations on line prior to leaving Calgary, which is a good thing. The guides are talking about turning people aside who have not registered ahead of time.

Our guide is Pedro and is from Granada. He gives a brief history of Granada speaking about the many groups who occupied the area…the Phoenicians, Romans, the Arabs, the rule of the Nasrid dynasty and finally the Christians. He also speaks of the “Reconquista”, the name given to a long series of wars and battles between the Christian Kingdoms and the Muslim Moors for control of the Iberian Peninsula. It lasted from 718 to 1492 ending with the persecution of Muslims in 1500. At this time the Muslims are compelled to adopt the Christian religion or are banished.

At one time the Iberian Peninsula included Portugal. Pedro is quite sad that Portugal and Spain are separate countries today……he would like to see “Ronaldo” play for Spain! For those of you who don’t know, Ronaldo is a football (soccer) player who is Portuguese.

Pedro tells us that throughout our walk, he will speak about the Muslims while we are in the Christian quarter and speak about Christians while walking in the Arab quarter! We stop at “La Madraza de Granada” a university founded in the middle of the 14th century. It is said that the Muslim Kings were counselled by Ministers who were normally highly educated Jewish ministers. A library was available for everyone…ok….a little clarification here…..available to men only! He does go on to say that the role of women in the Muslim society was important, it is said that the wives of Kings had some influence. Granada society was very well advanced in the field of medicine as well. They avoided the Black Plague due to their good hygiene habits. Today the University is a cultural centre and host free events to all…..yes, even including women!

In 1492, the Catholics representing Queen Isabella entered into the Treaty of Granada with the Muslims. Islam became forbidden in Spain. The Muslims who were converted were referred to as Morisco’s.

We head towards the Cathedral and Pedro stops in front of a boarded storefront and is very excited that the first Starbucks is about to open in Granada. He also told us that there were two McDonald’s in Granada, but they were located in the outlying areas…..not sure I would be excited for either of these. We prefer the local coffee shops….much more character and charm!

At the Catedral de Granada we see once again a mishmash of styles…baroque, gothic and renaissance. Must say that looking at this from our apartment is quite lovely. He points out a “type of graffiti” on the cathedral walls. These are writings referred to as “nitoles” meaning name. The ink that was used is red in colour and is made up of plant material, iron powder and blood of a bull. People wrote their names on the cathedral when a family member finished their education or reached another memorable milestone. Also people would write their names on the cathedral in order to reach salvation. Of course they had to pay the church for the privilege of writing their names and to achieve their salvation. Don’t think it works that way!

A mosque stood on this location, was destroyed and the cathedral built in its place. The only remnant here of the mosque is an ancient well as water was needed for the Muslims to wash five times prior to their prayers. We have seen numerous ancient wells that have been preserved in Granada, both in the Arab and Jewish quarters.

We visit the “Corral del Carbon” the corn/grain exchange in the Nasrid era (14th century) and later used as a coal storage. A really uninspiring building with the exception of the entranceway. I took a picture but deleted it….really ugly….almost Soviet era looking!

We visit the fountain of Neptune in the Plaza Bib-Rambla. Neptune is held up by four giants. The statue of Neptune is classified as non-denominational and our guide interprets this to mean that all civilizations could live and co-exist together as did the Arabs, Christians and Jews in this City for eight hundred years, sharing their individual rich cultures. Very different than the north of Spain.

This square is also where the burning of books took place. When the Reconquista happened, all books on Islam where ordered burnt. Arabs were made to do this to show that they were “new” Christians.

We then wander through the “Mercado de Artesnia”. A market where tourists abound and one can buy all sorts of Arab inspired trinkets. A lot of ceramics sold here and they are typical of Granda and Andalucia and designs inspired from the Muslim period. Although nothing catches my eye, I prefer the winding alleyways of this area. At one in history this was a market made up of some 200 shops selling and trading their expensive silk all over Europe. It is said that the narrow alleyways prevented robbers from stealing the silk; could be caught very quickly.

Our guide explained the difference between the Muslim and Christian art. Although both taken from their holy scriptures (the Bible and the Koran), the Christian art displays pictures of holy icons (Jesus Christ, Mary, the saints, etc) while the Muslim art only shows writings, which in themselves are works of art.

As we are walking along our guide picks up a bottle cap on the ground and tells us that he is going to have the symbol on the cap (Arab looking design) tattooed on his ankle next week. We all laughed when he told us it was a logo of a local beer!

Next we pass the Plaza Isabella Catolica where we see the statue of Queen Isabella giving her permission and of course money to Columbus for his travels. It is said that the finances for his trip came from the Jewish sector, who gave funds to Isabella to give to Columbus. To think that Columbus had no GPS or Google maps and was seen to travel off the flat surface of the world, but only to change the course of world!

We head back to Plaza Nueva and we see the Palace of Justice which is built of sandstone. Can even see some seashells in the material.

Up the hill to the Arab quarter and we pass the Calle Beso (kiss). Our guide tells us the legend behind the name of this street. It is said that a mother and daughter who were very close lived here. One day the mother comes home to find her daughter dead. When they go to bury the daughter, the mother gives her one last kiss and lo and behold, the daughter wakes up, she was only comatose. It is said that this was somewhat common as they used to cook with copper and lead pots and created comatose states in some people. Pedro ask if any of us have heard the expression “saved by the bell”. Apparently this expression comes from the sort of experience described previously. The locals started inserting a string into a casket which was attached to a bell outside of the crypt. If the person was still alive and buried, they could always ring the bell so people would know they were still alive and then be saved. Pretty morbid!

The Albayzin (the Arab quarter) was historically a very poor area. It was inhabited by workers and the elderly. Is now becoming trendy and rents are increasing which is a real problem. First with artists coming in the 50’s and 60’s to inhabit this inexpensive neighbourhood then Pedro tells us that Property Managers convince people to move out so that they can rent out their properties to tourists. This seems to be a problem throughout tourist cities. I guess we are part of the problem as we like to rent apartments when we are in a city more than 3 days…yikes!

The Arab quarter is filled with shops offering all sorts of tourist trinkets, leather goods, numerous tea shops and restaurants in its winding alleyways.

We come across more of the water wells (all closed up, but kept visible) that were built by the Romans. Apparently their was no water in Granada and via aqueducts the Romans brought in water from villages many kilometres away and these wells functioned for over one thousand years. They used to keep turtles in the water for two reasons. The turtles would eat the algae and keep the wells clean and if the turtles were to die in the water, then one knew not to drink the water as it was bad.

We finish our tour at the top of the Albayzin neighbourhood at a great mirador (lookout) and view the Alhambra from across the valley; great views.

Robin and I stop at a small cafe for lunch then wind our way further up to the Sacromonte (Gypsy) neighbourhood.

This area is known for its’ flamenco and dug out caves that are homes, shops and restaurants built into the hillside. Then head back to the lower town along Carrera del Darro along the river of the same name. I stop in a shop as I spy a small scarf that would look lovely around my neck. The saleswoman tells us that this street was once known as the “Paseo de Los Tristes” (Street of Tears) as it lead to the cemetery.

Get back to our apartment around 3:30 pm to have a rest. Robin is lucky enough to find the FA Cup final on tv. We were going to head out for an early dinner; but decided to wait till the game was over. I kept hearing Robin shout “Shoot the ball” while I was writing my blog. His team lost…..

We head off for dinner to Bodega Castaneda recommended by our guide book and Steve. The guide book says not to expect any “new” stuff here. They say it is the tapas bar to trump all others. Lightning service, which was right on and they say that eating is a physical sport. Well, to get in to this place your timing needs to be just right or you need a reservation. When we first got here, all the tables were taken; so we decided to find elsewhere to eat, it was Saturday night after all and everywhere was very busy. As we walk past some ten minutes later, we are able to score a table. We ordered the Tabla Castaneda Caliente Combinadas. WOW……our platter was made up of croquettes, spanish omelette, grilled pork loin, broad beans with ham, fondue salmon with cheese, olives, tomatoes and blue cheese all accompanied with bread. Lots for the two of us at a price of 16 Euro. I don’t usually post pictures of food, but this was too good not to!

I was curious about Spain’s economy and other issues so I did a bit more reading. It is now the 4th largest economy in European Union. 80% of the population is urban, 54% of the land is for agricultural use. We certainly noticed this on our drive from Malaga to Granada, passing orange groves and other vegetables being grown in the valleys and hills. 68% of the population is Catholic. Lots of churches abound for them to attend, but one must wonder if the younger population even attends.

Our friend the rooster up crowing again this morning, but we seem to be able to ignore him!

Out for coffee/tea on Sunday morning and certainly still a lot of tourists around. The typical breakfast enjoyed by the Spaniards is made up of coffee, juice, a piece of toasted bread (more like a small baguette) either plain or with ham and/or jam. Have seen some munching on churros as well, they certainly love their sweets. Lots of restaurants and bars offering churro and chocolate…..would like to try this, but haven’t had an opportunity yet.

We head off to visit the interior of the local Cathedral. Although impressive from its exterior, certainly quite the opposite on the inside; quite plain. Head off toward the Basilica San Juan de Dios as the guidebook shows this as a must see. When we arrive we find out only open to tourists between 4-7 on Sundays, I guess this is due to Sunday mass service. We will come back later.

Walk back towards the Realejo, the Jewish quarter which we have yet to explore. On our way we stop at “La Veneziana, The Italiano” a gelato shop, which our guide had told us was the best shop. Well folks, Robin says the best chocolate gelato ever. I must agree, mine was very good, had caramel gelato.

Explore the Realejo area, although lots of restaurants abound, a lot of residential in the area. The Plaza Campo de Principe does have lots of tapas bars with views of the Alhambra Hotel next to the Alhambra. We do come across a couple of graffiti art works by El Nino de las Pintura (Granada’s Banksy), very interesting. Love good graffiti!

Head back to see the Basilica San Juan de Dios around 6 pm. The guide book says this is a must see and it certainly is. The church was built between 1737 and 1759. This is perhaps the most opulently decorated church we have ever been in. We were allowed to visit the sacristy, the main church and even the upstairs of the church. There is not a square inch that is not decorated with paintings tile work and the vestments, chalices and other art works that are on display are simply lavish..not sure there are enough synonyms for opulent in this case. Behind the altar are the remains of St John of God’s in a niche surrounded by gold, gold and yet more gold. Very glad we did not miss this.

Tired of tapas, so out for pizza tonight which was very good. The city seems much quieter tonight….all the rowdy tourists have gone home! A beautiful walkable city with varied neighbourhoods which we thoroughly enjoyed. The Alhambra, of course, its crowning glory.

Up at 4 am ……guess why….yes, the rooster!

Headed off to Cordoba this Monday morning and we will be there for four days.

Malaga – May 2018

On May 14th, 2018, we left Calgary to spend a month in Spain. We arrived in Malaga on the 15th and plan to spend a month travelling around Andalusia province and dip our toes into a bit of Portugal.

A LITTLE HISTORY

The Andalusia region is located in the south west area of Spain and is made up of seven provinces. Each one named for its capital city: Cadiz, Cordoba, Jaen, Huelva, Almeria, Malaga, Granada and Seville. Not sure that we will visit each province, but we will certainly see most of this region.

The most unique feature of this region is the remnants of its Moorish past. The Moors habited this area for over eight centuries starting in the year 710 and one still sees marks of their influence today.

One of their main legacies is the Moorish influence of the alcazabas (citadels), fortalezas (fortresses) and castillos(castles) that can still be seen today. Some of them are in ruins, but some have been beautifully preserved, such as the Alhambra which we will be visiting while in Granada.

Prior to the Moors occupation, the Romans had laid out irrigation systems which had fallen into disuse, after their departure at the end of the 4th century. These were recovered and extended by the Moors who brought water into their buildings through a complex network of wells and channels, fountains and pools. The water was not only for domestic purposes, it was used in public squares, patios and private gardens, and also for their hammans. Some hammans still exist in this region, but having had the experience in Morocco, not something I wish to repeat any time soon!

At the end of the 15th century, the Christians regained control of this area and the Moors were either killed or banished and returned to Morocco. The Moors left behind many mosques, and the Christians either destroyed them or converted them to Christian churches adding crosses to the tops of minarets, bells in the towers, altars replacing the “mihrab” (a niche in the mosque wall which indicates the direction of Mecca, which is the way a Muslim faces when praying). In some instances if the mosque could not be converted, they actually built churches inside the mosques. We will look forward to seeing this in Sevilla.

The political history of Spain, including Andalusia, is complex. At one time in history, even the French, under Napoleon’s rule, controlled this area. Then the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939 which was a coup d’état of nationalists led by General Francisco Franco, who was supported by Hitler and Mussolini. Franco’s eventual victory established him as Europe’s longest ruling dictator until his death in 1975. Democracy was restored under the symbolic monarchy of King Juan Carlos II. After Franco’s rule, Spain became involved with the European Union and their standard of living greatly improved.

During the financial crisis, Spain’s unemployment hit a high of 26%. Having said this, the current unemployment rate remains above 18 percent and is still very high for younger workers. After three decades of running a trade deficit the country attained a trade surplus in 2013. In 2017, Spain’s economy had returned to its pre-crisis size.

It is said that Expo ‘92 in Sevilla helped the fortunes of the Andalusia region. Communication improvements, new motorways, high speed trains and new airports all aided the region.

MALAGA

Thought we did quite well on our first afternoon here in Malaga, which we spent getting acquainted with our neighbourhood. Our hotel is located in the old town in a pedestrian area. We thought the area was very quiet in the afternoon as very few people/tourists in the streets. When we went out for dinner, as is the custom in Europe, the local families were out with their children and elderly. This is always so nice to see. Actually made it to 9 pm, however awake at 4:30 am due to jet lag!

On our first full day in Malaga, we head out about 9 in the morning and head towards the port. This area has been totally refurbished in the last few years and beautiful walkways along the port. Along side are ferry and cruise ship terminals along with a working port. There is also a Centre Pompidou along the port and is an offshoot of the Paris Pompidou centre. May take this in when we return to Malaga. Not many people out. Took in the local market as well. We are out for a couple of hours, get back to our hotel for a short rest before we head out for a “walking tour” with a local guide.

Along the Malaga port

Last year we opted to use “Global Greeters” where we arranged for one on one tours with locals. Unfortunately this organization has not found its’ way to Spain as of yet. The “free walking tours” that we have opted for on this trip, are like many throughout Europe. Many people take advantage of these and at the end of your tour, you pay what you feel the tour was worth. The companies who run these free tours also run paid tours and of course this is what they are promoting. A good way to learn about the city and usually the information is worthwhile.

Headed out on our walking tour our second day in Malaga. The guide Nahuel is a young Malagueno and is very knowledgeable about his city and its’ history. Our tour last 2 1/2 hours and was a great way to get a feel of the city. First of all he recaps the history of Spain and the Andalusia region. A diverse group of travellers on this tour from all over the globe.

Lots of traditions in this area with the most important being Semana Santa (the religious week working up to Easter). Each night during this period, cofradias (brotherhoods) bear holy images for several hours through the City. In Malaga alone, there are 44 brotherhoods, so many processions each night in different parts of the City. The holy image of Jesus Christ is carried on a gold altar and Mary is carried on a silver altar through the streets. It is an honour to be in a cofradias and men wait years to be part of one. The only way to become a brother is through family connections. In other words, one usually has to wait till your uncle, father or grandfather pass away. We entered a building where the altars were kept and we were amazed by the size. The altars are carried by up to 150 brothers with the most senior leading the procession. Throughout the year the brotherhoods raise money to enhance and refurbish their altars. Other participants in these processions wear nazareno (penitential robe). This garment consists of a tunic and a capirote (a hood with conical tip) used to conceal the face of the wearer. All brotherhoods have their own symbols and colours. I would think that this is really something to see. Our guide tells us that family members return to Malaga to experience this holy week, as do hundreds of other Spaniards and tourists.

Another tradition happening in late June/July is selling of “biznaga”. These are fragrant flowers that are sold in the streets and are the symbol of Malaga. Biznagas are handmade, using jasmine and the stalk of a nerdo, a kind of thistle and then they are stuck into a prickly pear for sale by Biznaguaro’s, men who wear traditional dress. We are told that biznagas are a natural mosquito repellent.

Many narrow winding streets and alleys in the old quarter of Malaga. We are told that the narrow streets were built to provide shade from the hot sun in the summer and relief from winds. It is said that one could lose his enemies in the winding streets.

Our next stop is the Catedral de Malaga which took over 200 years to be erected, starting in 1528 on the site of a former mosque. It is built in a renaissance, gothic and baroque style; quite interesting. Worked stopped in 1782, as it was decided the project was too expensive. So, to this day the Cathedral stands incomplete and the Malaguenos have no intention on finishing it, they like it the way it is. The official name of the Cathedral is Nuestra Señora de la Encarnación (Our Lady of Incarnation) but the locals call it “La Manquita” (the one armed lady) as one of the two bell towers was left incomplete. Our guide made us repeat the official name of the cathedral many times, his type of humour I suppose. We did not visit the interior of the cathedral on the tour, but when we return to Malaga it is definitely on our “must see”.

Malaga Cathedral

Next we arrive at the Teatro Echegaray, another beautiful architectural building. Our guide asks us what each nationality says when they wish an actor luck before a performance. The North Americans say “break a leg”, the Germans say “break your leg and neck” (refers to all the bowing they will have to do after a great performance) and our guide tells us that here in Malaga they say “Mucho Merda”. Well, I don’t think I need to translate, but hopefully the reader understands the meaning. Nahuel goes on to tell us that in olden times, theatre goers would take their horse and buggies to the theatre. If the play was a long and wonderful performance, they would stay till the end. The horses having waited for such a long time, of course have to “poop” and they would “poop” a lot if the performance was successful! He also told us that Antonio Banderas got his acting start at this theatre. He commented that most thought that Banderas wasn’t the worlds’ best actor, but he returns often to Malaga and is well loved here.

We stop at the famous “El Pimpi Winery”. We get a chance to go in and see pictures on the walls of all the famous people that have passed through the doors. El Pimpi is situated inside an old 18th century Málaga mansion house and is one of the longest-standing bodega bars in Málaga. We might have to return here as well.

Next stop is the base of the Alcazaba, where one finds ruins of a Roman amphitheatre. This palace dates back to the 11th century Moorish period. We will visit this on our return.

The end of our tour is is one of the cities square near the building where Picasso was born. He spent the first 10 years of his life in Malaga. There is a Picasso museum here and it is on our list of things to see.

A little cool in the evenings, but lovely mild temperatures during the day.

Robin and I have always thought it is very important to attempt to speak the language of the country one is visiting. Many years ago we both took spanish classes, Robin having taken a few more than me. I have a tendency to pronounce spanish words in French vs. Spanish. Having said this, I can be understood. We stopped into a small coffee/tea shop to get some tea to bring back to our hotel and the young lady serving us was impressed with Robin’s spanish. She asked where we were from and asked if we liked Spain. Think she misunderstood Robin to say that we did not like Spain and after seeing the horrified look on her face, he quickly reiterated that we indeed did like Spain. A laugh all around!

Many tapas bars everywhere and one is overwhelmed by the choice. After our tour we decide to stop at one, and low and behold, our guide is there with his family….had to think it would be a good one, and it is. When you stop at a bar for a drink you are always served free tapas (peanuts, green olives or chips).

I am indulging in the odd glass of wine. Most of you know that I have not been partaking in alcohol since I started my new medication. I don’t seem to be able to tolerate red wine, but white and sparkling seems fine. So….what the heck!

Although our stay in Malaga was short, we are coming back for three nights near the end of trip and that time hope to visit the sites a little more.

Paris – June 2017

We left Tours on Friday, June 23rd and took the TGV to Paris Montparnasse which took a little over 1 hour. Said goodbye to Lisa and Rich at the train station and we went our separate ways. It was great to have spent six days with them as we simply do not see them enough. 

We took a cab to our apartment which is in “Le Marais”. Historically we have always stayed in the “Quartier Latin” but the last time we were here we spent some time in The Marais and in the tiny sector of St. Paul (within Le Marais) and really enjoyed it.

“Le Marais” – It wasn’t until the 17th century that the Marais (meaning marsh) became one of Paris’s sought after neighbourhoods. This was thanks to Henri lV who commissioned the building of Place des Vosges in 1605. The success of the square made the Marais a fashionable area for the aristocracy and led to the construction of many hotels in the area. The popularity began to wane toward the end of the 17th century when the court was moved to Versailles. After the Revolution , the once elegant hotels deteriorated into working class tenements. In 1969, the Marais was the first district of Paris to be declared a historic district and this led to the restoration of its hotels, which are today museums, archives and libraries. 

Today, the Marais which covers the 3rd and 4th arrondissement is sought after again with trendy boutiques, galleries and eclectic stores. One area where stores are open on Sundays. It is also the centre for Paris’s Jewish community and the gay and lesbian community..

We have a comfortable apartment in an building that was a former convent (Couvent des Mimines). It was 27C degrees when we arrived on Friday; was a bit of a relief after the 37 degree temperature we were experiencing in Tours for the last week. Although the apartment is not air conditioned, it has two fans and with the slight breeze and windows opened, is comfortable.

Always know we are back in Paris when you hear the “klaxons” of the police and ambulances….a very distinctive sound!

Once we get settled in, we find the local grocery store and get provisions for our last four days here in Paris. We then head off to discover Le Marais. Out for a couple of hours just walking through the streets and getting to know our way around the neighbourhood. Hot evening, so many people sitting in the cafes’ enjoying an aperitif, and parents and kids in the many “mini” parks in the area. I love the shop windows and signs and can’t help but take pictures of them. I also enjoy peeking in courtyards and through entrances to see what lays behind the doors! I also love the fact that there are all these neighbourhoods gardens and playgrounds, a real must when most people live in apartments. Walked by this incredible “shirt shop” and I took a couple of pictures of the shirts in the windows, but when I saw the shirts inside, I couldn’t resist; I went inside and asked permission to take a picture of the shirts….Incroyable!

Find a Muji store and Robin bought himself some toothbrushes, he really likes them. As I once wrote in a previous blog…..my husband buys his toothbrushes in New York City, Rome and now Paris! Muji is a Japanese retail company which sells a wide variety of household and consumer goods. 

Saturday morning finds us heading off to the local market that I had read about and especially wanted to go to, “Le Marche des Enfants Rouges”. The market is the oldest covered market in Paris and was established in 1628. The name translates as “Market of the Red Children” and refers to the children clothed in red (the colour of charity) who were cared for in a nearby orphanage. Not too busy as we were quite early. A nice size market with fruit, vegetable, meat and flower vendors and a few eating places. Stopped for a coffee/tea along a side street and always love just taking the time to look at life happening around us. Locals with their baskets going to the market, at the cafe for their morning espresso and croissant, people running errands on a Saturday morning and merchants plying their trades.The Marais is quite a trendy area and one sees many different personal styles, very interesting. We also saw many parents with their children heading off to the local elementary school as seemed to be a celebration for the end of the school year. 

We visit the local “boucherie” (meat market) and have to stand in line as seems to be a locals favourite. The display cases are filled with all sorts of meats (including lamb,rabbit and horse meat), pates, prepared meats/meals, prepared salads, rotisserie chickens and meats prepared to be cooked (brochettes, breaded, etc). Watching the butchers prepare cuts of meat is very interesting, they are very quick and use very sharp knives; do not get in their way.

After a quick stop at the apartment we head off to explore Paris with the end destination being the Petit Palais. Towards the Seine, through the area of St.Paul and Le Marais, by the Hotel de Ville and the Tour de St. Jaques. I always like walking along the Seine were you find all the booksellers, some interesting characters there…..sometimes I think they have been sitting there since the last time we visited! Walk behind Notre Dame, but do not venture onto either Ile Saint Louis or Ile de la Cite, as we have been there many times on previous trips. Many tour boats going up and down the Seine. Can see the Eiffel Tower in the distance, in the same direction we are heading. Pass the Musee d’Orsay, one of my favourites in Paris, and walk pass the Louvre. Spend some time in the Tuileries Gardens and decide to have a quick lunch there. 

Hotel de. Ville (City Hall), Louvre, Eiffel Tower, booksellers along the Seine, Cleopatra’s Needle and the Grand Palais

As we were waiting for our lunch, a young boy about six years old, who had been sitting with his grandfather, got up and went to each empty table and rearranged the menus and ash trays. He was doing this with great concentration, Robin says a future waiter…. very fun to watch.

The cutest waiter in the Tuileries Gardens

Continue on, pass L’Orangerie (visited here the last time we were here, beautiful Water Lilies by Monet) and head toward the Champs Élysées.

 As we cross to go to the Petit Palais, the whole of the avenue between the Grand Palais and the Petit Palais is all cordoned off as is the Pont Alexandre lll (bridge) across the Seine, and we must go through security, including a body pat down (one line for women, the other for men). This area is blocked off and events are happening to publicize the City’s bid for the 2024 Olympics. They want to get the people of the city behind the bid. There are teams of people demonstrating and playing different olympic sports: archery, golf, soccer, hand ball, volleyball, etc. 
We enter the Petit Palais and have to go through another security check. Entrance to the Petit Palais is free. There was a trampoline set us in part of the Petit Palais as part of this Olympic bid event. Both the Grand Palais and the Petit Palais were built in 1900 when Paris hosted the Exposition Universelle. It now displays a collection of paintings, sculptures and art objects from antiquity to 1918. The building is magnificent as is its central courtyard. Mosaic floors, the grand vestibule entrance, the painted ceilings and the beautifully painted Cupola. Especially like the art deco art/glass work, even a whole room devoted to art deco furniture.

Le Petit Palais
We venture back out into the busy area hosting the Olympic bid events and make our way over to the Quai d’Orsay and exit the high security area. Some of the security police are heavily armed and all wearing body protection.; and a sign indicating that one is NOT to take pictures of the police. With everything that has happened in Paris and France in the last few years, the security seen today, probably due to this public event and number of people attending, is not surprising and in all honesty, welcome. We have to go through another security checkpoint to go into the grounds of Les Invalides. 
As we are leaving the area, we spot a Canadian flag flying; so nice to see, really gives one a good feeling. It is the Canadian Cultural Centre. It is closed, but none the less love the flag!

We decide to take the Metro back close to the Marais area. We get on the train and it says it is leaving in 4 minutes, then 2 minutes. We are all waiting and waiting and nothing happens. Now about 4 – 5 minutes after it was supposed to leave and all the doors are closed. All of a sudden two men run toward the front of the train, unlock the door (o.k., we know they work for the train) and then nothing happens. They have left this door open, so a lot of passengers, including us decide to leave the train. A young employee who assists people on the platforms informs us that some “knucklehead” pulled the emergency stop so everything electric(?) had to be reset and the train would leave shortly. We all get back on the train and eventually it leaves.

We decide to disembark at St.Michel and we walk to Ile Saint Louis……Notre Dame extremely busy as usual and so many tourists around. When I see these crowds and experience the heat (27C today) it continues to remind me never to come to Europe in July or August!

Cross the next bridge and a series of three high speed police pontoon boats are speeding down the Seine. Police patrols everywhere and carrying guns….big guns! As I said before, good to see. 

Now late afternoon, so we decide to stop and have a “cold” drink at an outdoor cafe in the 4th arrondissement , our apartment in the 3rd. Well folks, I think we picked the best place we could have, we had free entertainment for one hour. We went to a cafe in a block from the Quai d’Orsay so it wouldn’t be so busy with noise and traffic. The police have just set up a blockade and stopped traffic from entering two streets just by the Tour Saint Jaques. We find out from the waiter that the Gay Pride Parade will be starting later this afternoon, so Rue Rivoli blocked off, and they have rerouted the traffic away from this area. 

Well, let me tell you there is a lot of honking going on and very mad people driving as it is hard for all this traffic to get rerouted to the Quai d’Orsay. There is one policeman and one policewoman here. The traffic is crawling around this corner we are at, trying to all merge toward the Seine boulevard. Some try to stop and convince the police that they need to get into the sector, but these two young police guards are having nothing to do with it, whistle at them and wave for them to continue on their way.The funniest thing had to be a local gentleman who was incensed about this blockade, yelling at some of the drivers about how ridiculous being made to detour and sometimes waiving cars on as if to assist the police. In the midst of all this, motorcycles are weaving in and out between the cars and trucks. 

At one point, the young policewoman gets tired of trying to stop drivers and motorcycles from getting through as the barricade gates did not block the whole street. She finds an industrial size garbage bin and moves it, by herself, so that it forms part of the blockade…..now, no one can get through! Sometimes it can be entertaining to simply watch the world going by. 

Just a little history on the Tour Saint Jaques. This 52-metre (171 ft) gothic tower is all that remains of the former 16th-century Church of Saint-Jacques-de-la-Boucherie. The church was demolished in 1797, during the French Revolution, leaving only the tower which is now considered a national historic landmark. Apparently also part of the Compostela of Santiago pilgrimage route. Have been by here many times on previous trips, but never knew its’ history…now I do.

Tour Saint Jaques, picture taken on our morning walk before street blockaded in the afternoon.
Paris has a bike sharing program, Velib which seems to be well used by locals and tourists alike. A company called “CityScoot” had now introduced a scooter bike sharing program. It was launches in 2016 and has 1,000 electric scooters. One uses an “app” to find a scooter, get a code and ride (.20 Euro per minute). No, not going to try it! This is one city I for one will not drive in….just too many crazy drivers weaving in and out of traffic…..lots of mangled/scratched cars in this place.

Another great day in Paris, I think Robin’s fit bit is in overtime….not quite as much a Lisa’s though, saw her and RIch’s steps today…yikes!

Sunday we decide to go to the Picasso Museum which is just around the corner from our apartment. When you only have a few days in Paris, you really need to plan your days when it comes to visiting museums as they are closed on various days. As we are entering the museum, a young girl comes up to us and offers us free tickets, she says part of their group did not come and they could not get refunds. We offer to pay her but all I have is a 5 Euro note or a 100 and all Robin has are 50 Euro notes. She takes the 5 and everyone is happy. I told her we would pay it forward when the opportunity presented itself….I do believe in this sort of karma!


The Picasso Museum is located in the Sale Mansion which was built in 1659. It is called the Sale (which meant salty) as was owned by a gentleman who made his money collecting a tax on salt! The museum/mansion was closed from 2009-12 for renovations and they did a glorious job. Our timing was right as we were early so not too many other people around. Beautiful Picasso works covering his career and the top floor had his own collection including works by Miro, Renoir, Matisse and others. It is so interesting to see the evolution of Picasso’s work. We spent a couple of hours at the museum and thoroughly enjoyed it.

Stop for a coffee and Robin informs me that he is going to order a cappuccino. I ask him why, as he has not had a cup of coffee for fourteen years since he overdosed on coffee on a trip to Italy. He says “I just feel like it”, but afterwards he tells me that won’t be happening again anytime soon. Love just sitting in the cafes and watching the people walk by…got some great pictures here of lots of people dressed in their own personal style!


Walking through the Marais in the last few days, we have noticed lots of pop up shops featuring designer clothes for sale, very different styles, definitely not run of the mill shops. Not sure if this is just taking now or if this is ongoing. Interesting to look.

We walk to Place des Voges, which is nearby. This square was commissioned by Henri lV in 1605., and he told the nobility to build their houses around the square, but they had to respect certain rules, such as using brick (quite unusual for Paris). The square was originally called Place Royal until the Revolution. In 1799 it was renamed Place des Vosges after the department of Vosges that had raised the most taxes for the revolutionary wars. This was the first public square in Paris. Beautiful arcades/galleries surround two sides of the square. Spend some time relaxing in the square.

Place des Vosges

Then a little further we arrive at the Bastille and the Sunday market is underway. We stroll through the market and buy some lunch. Doesn’t seem to matter whether or not we need something, still enjoy the experience of going to the markets. Take in the view of the Opera House as well while we are here.

Decide to venture further out and we take the metro to the Champ de Mars, which is the large garden at the foot of the Eiffel Tower. As we are about to cross a street heading towards the Champ de Mars, we get stopped by a young gentleman. He asks us not to cross the street as there is a film scene being shot and speeding cars will be coming through. One of the bystanders asks who is in the film, but he says he is not allowed to say. The speeding cars do come through as well as police cars an armoured vehicle and several police motorcycles. Not very long and we are allowed to proceed. 

Eiffel Tower, Claire at the Picasso Museum and Robin having a coffee after 14 yrs!
Spend some time at the Champ de Mars, walk a while and decide to make our way back to the Marais. We make our way to Luxembourg Gardens. Great to see all the people enjoying the gardens. The Luxembourg Palace and gardens were built in 1612 for Marie de Medici, the widow of King Henry lV. The garden today is owned by the French Senate which meets in the Palace. It covers 23 hectares and is known for its lawns, tree-lined promenades, flowerbeds, model sailboats on its circular basin. The children playing with the sailboats is really an iconic scene. As we are leaving the gardens, we here music. A band is playing in the bandstand so we stay a while and listen to the music, very pleasant. 

Luxembourg Gardens
From the Luxembourg Gardens, we walk back to our apartment down Boulevard Saint Michelle across two bridges and into Le Marais which is packed with people. Another great day in Paris…I think I said this about yesterday as well! 

Tuesday, June 26th is our last day in Paris and weather still great, 27C today. We head off and our objective today is to discover the Montmartre area. We have been before, but just to see the Basilique du Sacre Coeur. Take the metro and start off by having a coffee/tea in Place Pigalle; very civilized. At the end of the 19th century, Montmartre was full of painters, writers and musicians, all of whom were drawn here due to the cheap rents. Still today lots of musicians and painters around. 

We walk a couple of blocks and come across the Moulin Rouge. It was established in. 1889 and was named after the local windmill and one was built above the entrance. The cabaret gained a reputation for highly provocative dancing, most notably the cancan. The Moulin Rouge was the subject of the famous painting by Toulouse Lautrec and the film by the same name. Funny enough, a taxi driver in Rennes told us we must attend the Moulin Rouge as no one can do the cancan as good as French women….somehow I think it is now probably East European women doing the cancan! All right, big assumption on my part.


Incredible the amount of sex shops around this area, but I guess not surprising. Needless to say I did not take pictures of these picture windows…..only suffice to say that the Eiffel Tower played a role in the “sex” toy department. 

Make our way to the Cimetiere de Montmartre. As you walk in there is a chart you can take with you which shows some of the more famous graves and mausoleums. The cemetery was opened in 1825 in an abandoned gypsum quarry. The quarry had previously been used during the French Revolution as a mass grave. It is the final resting place of many famous artists who lived and worked in the Montmartre area. Always interesting to visit these old cemeteries and see the grandeur of some of the graves.

Cimitiere de Montmartre
One of the reasons we chose Montmartre today is that the Salvador Dali museum “Espace Dali” was open. Very near the Basilica but on a side street, one could easily miss it if not looking for it. This is the largest collection of artworks by Salvador Dali in France. Sketches, bronze works, glass work and statues. Dali’s works might not appeal to everyone, but we like to see all genre’s of artwork, must keep an open mind.

Espace Dali
Robin is just reading on the Huffington post that Salvador Dali’s body is to be exhumed for a paternity test…just too weird that he is reading that while I am writing about Dali.

Stop for lunch at a small outdoor restaurant. A beautiful setting on a back street with a lovely arbour. Strike up a conversation with a French couple next to us as she had noticed Robin had a fit bit. She told us she got a fit bit about four years ago and lost a lot of weight; she says she walks at least 10 kilometres every day. Funny what can initiate a conversation. 

Go in to visit the Basilique de Sacre Coeur and now have to go through a security checkpoint; this was new since the last time we visited. A sign indicates that one is not allowed to take pictures inside the church. Everyone is taking pictures inside the church….what is wrong with this picture? On a good point, everyone is keeping quite silent so people can pray. I read that notwithstanding the pollution, the basilica remains white as it is built with Souppes stone ( a creamy white limestone) which is resistant as granite, but it exudes calcium when it comes into contact with rainwater. The construction of the basilica starter in 1875 and finished in 1914 and is built on the highest point in the city of Paris.

Head back to our apartment by metro, pick up something for dinner and pack to return back home to Canada. We have certainly enjoyed our six weeks away and have seen and experienced a lot of new sights. Met some wonderful people along the way, joined by Suzanne, Colin and James for a few days and Rich and Lisa for 6 days. Great company along the way. 
It is always nice to be away, but we are looking forward to getting home. 

This is the end of my blog, until our next adventure. Thanks to those of you who have commented and liked my blog. I enjoy doing the research of places we visit and enjoy writing my blog. Thanks especially to my favourite travelling partner and wonderful husband, Robin. 
Till the next time…..a la prochaine!

Tours and the Loire Valley – June 2017

 I am always interested in what drives the economy of the area we are visiting. The economy here in the Central part of France is mainly agricultural. The main crops are composed of grains (mainly wheat and corn) and grapes. Sugar beet,canola, and sunflowers are also cultivated in the region.

The industrial sector is getting more and more developed, benefiting from the decentralization of Parisian industries. The main manufacturing relates to the vehicle industry, with large tire, parts, and plastics plants.

Orléans, about one hour from Tours, represents a key transport and commercial centre, with production of  chemicals, processed foods, textiles, and machinery. The region is a major provider of nuclear energy. Tourism is also an important aspect of the economy.. 

I am sure that most of you are aware of the recent elections in France where Mr. Macron came into power. On the past two Sundays, the citizens of France have voted for their legislative representatives and Macron received an overwelming majority. Will be interesting to see what happens over  the next few months in France. 

Saturday the 17th of June, we left Amboise and drove to Tours, only 30 minutes by car. We will be staying in Tours for the next 6 days with our son Rich and our daughter in law Lisa. Always a little tense getting to a new city and trying to find your new digs; and today the market was happening in Tours and our apartment is in the old town. Fortunately I had gotten in touch with our landlord and asked him the best place to park so that we could drop off our luggage, as the apartment is located in a pedestrian zone. His instructions were perfect…..parked on a side street, on the sidewalk where construction was taking place! Fortunately it is Saturday and no road work happening, otherwise we would have been towed away! 

The landlord shows us around the apartment. It also has a lovely courtyard for our use. We head off to the local train station to pick up Rich and Lisa. They arrive right on time (Trains in France always seem to run on time…except if they are on strike!). We head back to the old town, but cannot take possession of the apartment until 2:30 pm as it is being cleaned. Actually not an issue, as we are all hungry so we stop for lunch. Then walk toward the Loire river and walk around a bit, then pick up Lisa and Rich’s luggage and head to the apartment. We are parked in a car park, just a few minutes walk from the apartment. 

Tours
We need to keep going as Lisa and Rich somewhat jet lagged and from experience we all know you need to adjust to the local time as quickly as possible. The market is over, they normally close up around 1 pm, so we missed picking something up there. We head over to “Les Halles”, which here in Tours is open every day. We decide to eat in tonight and we simply pick up some prepared foods. Stop by the local “Carrefour” and pick up additional groceries and some wine….of course! Very hot outside +31.

Everyone freshens up and we enjoy a nice supper and evening in our outdoor courtyard, very pleasant and great to have Rich and Lisa with us for our time here in Tours. 

Sunday is Father’s day and so great to have Rich with us, not often that Robin is able to spend Father’s day with one of his children as they both live in Toronto. Very lucky!

We head off to Amboise, where we have spent the last five days, as we know the Sunday market is happening. The town is very busy, but we just wanted Rich and Lisa to see it, as it really is quite charming. 

We then drive onto our destination for the day, Chateau de Chenonceau, which is about an additional twenty minute drive from Amboise. 

The chateau was built in the 16th century along the river Cher by Thomas Bohier and Katherine Briconnet by demolishing a fortified castle and mill that stood on the site. They went bankrupt, it passed to Francois l. Later Henri ll gave it to his mistress Diane de Poitiers. After Henri died, his not so understanding widow, Catherine de’Medici expelled Diane and took back the chateau. Well…I can certainly understand that!

Approaching Chateau Chenonceau
The most unusual part of this castle is that it is built upon a bridge, although the bridge does not quite reach the other side of the river. There are two stories constructed over the bridge (plans inspired by the Ponte Vecchio in Venice) with a gallery that runs the entirety of the chateau. There were plans, at one time, to finish the bridge and extend the chateau to the other side, but that never transpired. 

We opted to get audio guides, which I quite enjoyed. We walked through 20 of the rooms. Wonderful floral displays in each of the rooms; the tapestries, the furniture, the fireplaces and the woodwork all in wonderful condition. When visiting these chateaux, one must always to remember to look up and look at the ceilings…..either paintings or beautiful woodwork, sometimes painted as well. Spectacular gardens on either side of the castle…..Catherine’s garden on one side and Diane’s garden on the other. The gardens are built on raised terraces to protect them from flooding from the Cher river.

I loved all the floral decorations in each of the room; stunning!

The beautiful floral arrangements at Chateau Chenonceau

During WWl, Simone Menier (Menier chocolate factory family), transformed the chateau’s two galleries to look after the war wounded. They say that her bravery led to actions on behalf of the resistance during the second World War as well. 
During WWll, parts of the chapel were destroyed which included all the stained glass, so the windows are from the 20th century. The chateau was on the demarcation line in the Second World War…the entrance was on the occupied zone on the right bank and the south door of the gallery gave access to the left bank, so it made it possible for the resistance to pass a large number of people into the free zone. I do have a fascination with everything WWl and WWll related. 

I also enjoyed touring the kitchens, located in the basement of the castle. Not sure I would have wanted to cook during these times, but everything looks interesting. You could even see how worn the wooden cutting boards and can only imagine the knives and cleavers working away on these surfaces, similar to the worn treads of the staircases due to the feet going up and down over the centuries. 

The kitchens of Chateau Chenonceau

Had lunch on the grounds, lovely to sit outside. Very hot today 32C, but fortunate to have a lovely breeze.

We head back to our apartment in Tours so we can freshen up. Lovely dinner out tonight to celebrate Father’s Day, thank you to Rich and Lisa for a wonderful day and dinner!

Father’s Day Dinner at L’Embellie in Tours
 

When walking home after dinner out the other night, couldn’t help but notice this display in a window. Look more closely and it looks like an ATM. Well, as it turns out you place an order for a pizza, then you come back and pick up your pizza.Not sure how the whole process works, but certainly an interesting concept!

Monday arrives and we head out by car to the local tourist office where we were to meet our guide for a walking tour of the city of Tours. As we find a parking spot, we veer to take it, but unfortunately did not see a small truck and “smash” ; we hit him. The good news is that nobody was hurt. We told Lisa and Rich to go ahead as we would deal with the situation. Well, 6 hours later, many phone calls, a tow truck (we smashed the front panel and bumper of our car and a flat tire so unable to drive) two different car rental agencies and we have a replacement car for the next 3 days. Must say that the people that we dealt with today have been very helpful.

That is the reality of travelling, sometimes these small things happen, but you can’t get mad….go with the flow!

Got back to our apartment around 4 pm and Rich and Lisa had just gotten back. Fortunately they were able to go about their day. It was 37C here today….very hot. A heat wave has struck most of France. 

As we are relaxing later this afternoon, I can’t help but notice Robin and Rich…like father like son….both watching a soccer game while on their computers!

Out for dinner tonight at a restaurant in Place Plumereau, one of the liveliest square’s in Tours.  Walk around a little after dinner, great to see other parts of the town. Always lots of people out having drinks and dinner.  Place Plumereau is a medieval quarter with quaint streets and several wood beam houses.

Chateaux are what is thought of when one mentions the Loire Valley. There are chateaux in other parts of France, but not as concentrated as here in the Loire. There are several reasons for this. 

1) By the early Middle Ages some towns had become prosperous due to trade as they were strategically placed along the Loire. So, for defensive purposes, fortresses were built to protect their territory.

2) Also, the rich fertile land was much desired. 

I read that the King owned a great deal of the land, so the nobility began to build chateaux so they could watch over the King’s land and also to defend themselves against invaders. Interesting fact that even the furniture was built with the notion of defence as well…high back chairs to protect the sitter from being stabbed from behind. Also it is said that the credenza was a table used by the nobility’s official taster to test for poison in the food. Not sure I would like that job….short tenure perhaps!

By the 15th century the Loire was effectively functioning as the country’s capital. When the 100 year war came to an end, King Francois 1, went to Italy and came back with the Renaissance movement. As mentioned earlier, he also convinced Leonardo da Vinci to come to the Loire Valley to continue his work. Due to the influence of the Renaissance movement, the chateaux became more ornate as did the gardens. A great deal of the chateaux are built with a chalky local stone called “tuffeau” (tufa). 

Tuesday find the four of us piling into our new rental car, a fiat 500, very cozy! This was the last available car in Tours yesterday, so really no choice. Also, a basic model so no GPS. I am driving so I solicit Lisa to be the navigator. She does a great job!!

We are on our way to the town of Villandry to visit the Chateau of Villandry, built near the Cher River, some 25 minutes from Tours. It is said to be one of the best examples of the Renaissance era. The chateau was built in 1536 by Jean Le Breton, the Minister of Finance for Francois l. There was a medieval castle that was destroyed to make room for the new chateau. Only one keep (tower) was kept from the medieval structure. In 1754 it became the property of the Marquis de Castellane (from Provence) who built the outbuildings and redesigned the inside of the chateau to bring it up to 18th century standards of comfort. The traditional gardens were taken out in the 19th century to create an English style park around the chateau. In 1906 the castle was bought by Joachim Carvallo and remains in this family today. Carvallo restored the castle and then brought back the Renaissance gardens. 

Villandry, the Chateau and outer buildings

We decide to see the gardens when we arrive, it is already 25+ degrees. There are several different gardens

1) The Ornamental Garden – low boxwood hedge designs with floral centres

2) The Water Garden 

3) The Sun Garden 

4) The Maze – no dead ends, can’t get lost!

5) The Herb Garden

6) The Vegetable Garden

7) The Woods – did not go into the woods

The Group – Robin did not get lost in the maze!
Not sure how many gardeners they have on staff, but there were certainly a great number of them working while we were touring. In one section they were in the midst of taking out bean plants and lettuce. I stopped a young gardener and asked what they did with the plants they pulled out, were they given to the poor? He told me that due to government rules and health regulations, they were unable to do so; a real pity. They are now using modern organic growing methods, even to the point of introducing certain insects to reduce or negate the use of chemical plant treatments. 

Each year, in March and again in June, the planting schemes are changed. The crops are rotated every three years to ensure the quality of the soil is not depleted. Colours of plants are taken into consideration when planning out the gardens. All the water on the grounds is recycled through the various canals and fountains. The gardens are bordered by pear trees; quite a few pears on the trees. All the plants in the vegetable, herb and ornamental gardens are all marked so that one knows what is growing.

The garden plot plans and names of plants used in each area.

We then walk through the rooms of the castle which are furnished. Lovely tapestries and art work. I was especially taken with a wooden ceiling in the Drawing Room. I read later that the ceiling came from a ducal palace which was built in the 15th century in Toledo, and when it was dismantled, it was bought by Carvallo and brought back to Villandry. 
Some interior shots of Chateau VIllandry
The wooden ceiling

So……my thoughts on Chenonceau vs. Villandry…….Chenonceau is a killer chateau in a beautiful setting and Villandry has unbelievable gardens! There it is in a nutshell! In all honesty, these two chateaux are well worth visiting! Enjoyed them both.

We stop for a light lunch in the tiny village of Villandry…..a typical french lunch…a potagier salad for Lisa, a croque Monsieur for Rich and a salad of tomatoes and chevre cheese for me….yummy! It is sooooooo hot; I think around 37C!

We then drive on to the little village of Langeais, which I had wanted to visit; really can’t remember why, but glad we saw it. A sleepy little town with the centrepiece being the Chateau de Langeais and the local church. The buildings in the town looked like they have all been recently cleaned. This little town is so pretty with its flowers on the bridges, a stream running through the town and its winding streets. Funny thing is that it almost looks deserted. We peek into the courtyard of the chateau, but decide enough chateaux for the day. Walk on to the church, not sure of the name, so I try to look it up only to find out there are two churches in this small town….of course there is!

The small village of Langeais
Chateau Langeais

So it was either the Church of Saint John the Baptist or the Church of Saint-Laurent. Inside the church was a banner celebrating the 700th year of the birth of Saint Martin, which took place last year in 2016. Around Tours and the area a lot of mention of Saint Martin, also silver markers in some of the sidewalks in Tours and signposts in the countryside referring to the route of “Saint Martin of Tours” , reminiscent of the markers one sees for the Camino Compostela of Santiago. Saint Martin was a soldier in his earlier life and then became a cleric. When you see the posters or pictures of him, it shows his cloak torn in half. It is said that he once cut his cloak in half with his sword to give to a beggar. Also, Tours was a stop along the Camino of Santiago. In my reading I found out that the Path of Saint Martin is a pilgrimage walk for the towns that Saint Martin had visited. 
The church in Langeais

Back to apartment to cool down and relax prior to dinner. Out to “Mamie Bigoude” for a dinner of galettes and crepe deserts. We opt to eat inside the restaurant as is simply too hot to sit outside. The decor in this restaurant is hard to describe. Seems to be a green and pink theme. One wall is covered with needlepoint pictures and Rich pointed out that on another wall was a needlepoint of a naked woman laying on a sofa. Cuckoo clocks on the wall, light fixtures will balls of wools hanging off of them (not sure why they don’t catch on fire!), an elk head covered with plaid material as is a bike!

After dinner we take a walk to the “Cathedral of Saint Gatien” very imposing, unfortunately it is closed for the evening. Lisa and Rich visited it the following day and said their was was very impressive stained glass windows. 

Cathedral of Saint Gatien, Tours

We continue our walk through a part of town we have not yet seen, another old sector full of restaurants. Everyone is out enjoying drinks, probably trying to escape hot apartments. We saw a couple walking down the street with two fans and the next day came across recycling boxes…all discarded boxes which were at one time holding fans. It is hot, hot , hot!!
Once again, very glad that our apartment here in Tours is air conditioned, able to sleep at night. I know I have already said that; but really…..it is HOT!

Wednesday we head off early to the city of Le Mans, abut one hour by car on the motorway. We find parking, then the tourist office and we decide to separate. Rich and Lisa head off on their own as do Robin and I. We meet a couple of hours later for lunch. The local market is going on so we opt for some baked goods, then stop for a coffee/tea….in the shade. Walk up to Saint Julien Cathedral and go inside for some contemplation and prayer. It is undergoing some restoration work, but still able to get inside. Beautiful vaulted ceilings with very impressive buttresses on the outside.

Le Mans 24 hour car race held last weekend. Each person who wins imprints their hands and feet and plaques throughout the town.

Walk around the old town, then we head back to Tours around 2 p.m. 

Le Mans old town
When we got back from Le Mans today, the electronic sign at the pharmacy indicated it was 42C. We all think that may have been off a bit, but definitely high 30’s. Those crazy kids…Lisa and Rich decide to continue seeing more sights of Tours; way too hot for Robin and I, we head to the air conditioned apartment. After all, I have to work on my blog!

For the last couple of days we have seen signs posted on the road that there would be restricted parking for the music festival happening this afternoon and tonight, June 21st. Never dawned on us that it was the first day of summer. When we got home this afternoon, we could hear the start of the music. Well, it just got louder and louder. Lisa and Rich went out for dinner and we opted to eat in tonight. I sent a text to our landlord wondering when the music would end………I get a text…midnight or maybe 2! He then knocks on the door and says “Did you not know about this, it’s the first day of summer, this happens all over France” . First I hear of it!

Robin and I venture out and what a sight. The old town (our apartment in the midst of all of this) is packed with people, not only in the old town, but further out and also down by the river. People in all the restaurants and outdoor areas, eating and drinking. Also carrying their drinks while walking down the streets. We came across a group of six policeman walking down the street…I guess making sure things don’t get out of hand. I don’t think the pictures do this festival justice. All kinds of music being played on every corner, sometimes a few doors down from each other. In the courtyard across from our apartment their is a DJ playing very loud Euro techno….oh, by the way, our stone walls are reverberating! Really! We came across a young girl about 10 yrs of age playing a piano in the museum courtyard. Two DJ’s competing, a reggae band, a steel drum band, a drumming group, the Blues Brothers in another square, a guy playing inverted steel drums, an older group of people singing accompanied by a fellow playing an electronic piano and a group of young people playing all types of trombones, saxophones and trumpets. All in all, quite the event. Lisa and I were saying we might have to put in the ear plugs we had for the flight over to Europe. Will give a further report later! By the way……did I mention it is HOT. Soaking wet again after walking around the music festival tonight. 

  
Just an update on “Le Festival de la Musique”….Lisa put in her ear plugs, Robin fell asleep right away (he can sleep anywhere, anytime), Rich says took him a while and I read till about 12:30 pm and then listened to the thumping music till about 1:30 am. 

Thursday, our last day in the Loire and everyone indulges me. I wanted to see a very small town about one hour from Tours, called Montresor. We are using our IPhone maps to direct us as the Fiat 500 we now have does not have a GPS. The vocal instructions on the IPhone Maps program keeps telling us to continue onto “Mont Razor”….we laughed every time she said that. As a matter of fact, if you are the one chosen to navigate, you must read the written instructions, as you can never understand the pronunciation of the names of the roads/streets/towns. 
We arrive in Montresor and stop for coffee/tea. This small town is definitely not on the tourist route, very quiet. It is almost as if we have landed in a fairy tale. Quiet streets, no one about, a castle and a beautiful stream lined with weeping willows. 
Montresor was marked on one of the maps I had picked up, as one of the prettiest towns in France. A ancient wall, a chateau, a church, ancient Halle from the seventeeth century and a walk along a small steam all add to its charm. 


We proceed to the tiny information centre in Montresor, actually quite a cute little place. They are selling all sorts of local artisans goods. We get into a conversation with one of the ladies and ends up she is English. Lisa and Rich to proceed to pick her brain as to what day trips they can take when they get to London next week. Some good recommendations. 

We continue to Loches, where Robin and I had a quick visit last week. What a difference. When we were here last week it was market day and the town was jammed packed, could hardly find a place to park. What a difference a week makes. It is so hot, we find a restaurant with some shade, unfortunately no breeze anywhere. Walk around the “Ville Royale” and decide to head back to Tours. 

On the way back we decide to stop in Montlouis sur Loire to visit a “cave”. This Montlouis cave des Producteurs is a co-operative of fifteen wine producers. Robin and Rich do some wine tsting while Lisa and I venture into the caves where they keep the wine while it is aging. These caves were dug out when in years past they were quarrying for rock to build. 


Robin and I drop Lisa off near the apartment, then we proceed to return our car rental. Take a taxi back to the apartment and get into a lively conversation with the cab driver. When he found out we were Canadians, he told us he really like Celine Dion and that three years ago he did a motorcycle trip from Las Vegas up through Calgary and the Rocky Mountains. He said he loved Canada. When I asked him if he went on the trip with his wife, he said he wasn’t married, but he had gone on the trip with his “amie”, but he no longer had this “amie”. He now had a new “amie” but she could not have the time off to go on the trip. When he found out where we wanted to go, he laughed and asked us how we slept last night as he knew it was the music festival!

Our last night in Tours and a lovely dinner out with Lisa and Rich, a toast to his 50th birthday (gosh..that is just not possible!). Head back home to pack as we are all of tomorrow morning by TGV off to Paris, a one hour 15 minute ride. We will then go our separate ways. 


It has been a wonderful six days here in the Loire with Lisa and Rich. Saw many new sights and great to spend some quality time together. Thank you to Rich and Lisa for making the effort to come and spend some of their short vacation time with us.

Off to Paris tomorrow morning!!

Amboise and The Loire Valley- June 2017

Left Quimper on Sunday morning, June 11th and arrived in Amboise, in the Loire valley around 2:30, about 5 1/2 hours by car with a few stops. To pass the time, we connected Robin’s iPod to the radio so we could listen to music. I don’t mind most of Robin’s country music, but sometimes a little “honky” so often I push the “forward” button to the next song and he is okay with that. Well today a song comes on and following are the lyrics….”He said, I will love you till the cows come home and I could only wish that the cows go blind”…..well…..I was laughing so hard, I started crying! 

First a little history on the Loire region. The Loire River is France’s longest river…both Robin and I thought it might be the Seine. Still learning things, that is why I like researching where we are and where we are going. The Loire was the region’s principal means of transportation as well as an effective barrier against invading armies. The Loire also divides France in two, both geographically and climate wise. To the north is the moist, temperate climate of northern Europe and southward lies the drier climate of the mediterranean. 

When we think of “The Loire Region” one thinks of chateaux and wine. The wine production includes several regions situated along the river from the Muscadet region on the Atlantic coast to the regions of Sancerre and Pouilly Fume in north central France. Loire wines tend to exhibit a characteristic fruitiness with fresh, crisp flavours. My friend Susan who is very knowledgeable on wines might correct me on the above, so I referred to Dr. Google for some information on the wines in the Loire. 

As far as “Les Chateaux  are concerned there are some 300+ in the Loire Valley. They started as fortifications in the 10th century to the splendour of those built half a millennium later. When the French kings began constructing their huge châteaux here, the nobility followed suit. Their presence in the lush, fertile valley began attracting the very best landscape designers. Numerous chateaux have magnificent gardens, and in all honesty, I look forward to visiting these probably more than the chateaux!

Our first apartment in the Loire is in the small town of Amboise, population about 15,000. Amboise is known for Chateau Amboise and Chateau du Clos Luce.

Chateau Amboise was first built in the 9th century and it expanded over time. This is the part I like….In 1434 it was seized by Charles Vll from its owner, Louis d’Amboise. He was convicted of plotting against Louis X1 and condemned to be executed in 1431. However, the king pardoned him but took his château at Amboise. Once in royal hands, the château became a favourite of French kings. And I say to myself…and their was a revolution why!!!!

The Chateau du Clos Luce is very near the chateau and was built in 1471. It was a summer residence for the royalty. Leonardo da Vinci was invited to spend time at the Clos de Luce by King Francois and he settled here in 1516, and lived here for the last three years of his life. It is said that the King fgave da Vinci an allowance as well as financing his works.  

Met our landlady, Pascale at the apartment which is located in the “Vielle Ville” of Amboise. 
The apartment we are in is called ” La Maisons des Cochers” (The Coachmen’s House). In the eighteenth century, the stage coaches for Tours and points beyond left from the house next door and this house was the lay-over accommodations for the coachmen. The livery for horses and coaches was a bit farther down the street. A very confortable modern apartment with great funky artwork. 

We get settled in and take a walk to the banks of the Loire River, only 2 blocks away, then into the old town to view the castle. We will definitely visit the castle while here. We decide to stop at a cafe for a glass of wine as is late afternoon and very hot. It was 30 degrees when we arrived, quite a difference from the past couple of weeks in Brittany where we have had cool weather +18C. A french couple from Paris are sitting next to us and we strike up a conversation. They were away for a long weekend in Bordeaux to celebrate their son’s birthday and they were taking their time getting back to Paris using the secondary roads. As they were leaving,they warned us to be very careful in Paris regarding the pickpockets. Yes, we said, we are very aware of the pickpockets and the different ruses they use, a good laugh recounting some of these stories. This is the second couple from Paris that we meet in our travels this year, that tell us that once they are retired, they will move out of Paris.  Everyone says too big, too much pollution and too much crime. Our landlady here in Amboise told us she and her family moved here from Paris some eighteen years ago as it was no place to raise children. We still love Paris for a few days at a time, but certainly understand their perspectives.

Lots of tourists in town this afternoon. Amboise is known for its Sunday market and we are told people come from all over to attend the market. Although we missed it, we are hoping to come next Sunday. We will be in Tours by then, but told it is worth coming back to see. 

L’Horloge, Amboise
 
Monday morning arrives and we head off to grocery store to get our provisions for the next few days. We had bought enough food in Quimper before we left on Sunday as we are aware that most grocery stores closed on Sundays. Good call on our part. Head off by 10 am with our rental bikes and bike along the Loire for a little ways, then the trail winds through the local farmland, vineyards and small towns. About 18 degrees when we head off and by the time we get back four hours later about 30 degrees. A couple of nice encounters along the way. 

We pass by a huge garden and there is an elderly gentleman (probably 80+) and he is weeding in his garden. We stop and I tell him that he has a very big beautiful garden and I ask if he eats what he produces. He smiles and says yes. He then tells us that he has another garden on the other side of the house that is about the same size. My friend Theresa would love working in this garden…a beautiful setting.

Later we stop in one of the small towns along the way for a coffee/tea. In these small towns the local bars are coffee houses early in the day and one goes in to order. I pass by a group of older gentleman having their coffee. Of course, I say “Boujour Messieurs”, smiles all around. So I ask them “Ca va?” ( How is it going?) one of them replies “C’est tres difficile”….(It’s very hard) and he laughs. I just love these encounters, makes the day that much better. Everyday life!

As we headed off on our bike ride today and throughout the day, we came across several people, alone and in groups, who had large backpacks and were travelling along the path. I noticed that hanging off the back of their packs they had large scallop shells. Dawned on us that they were on the Compostela de Santiago. Winn, thought of you today…..this is a friend of ours who did part of the Compostela in Spain last year. 

We cycled 42 kms today cycling through the towns of Lussault sur Loire, Montlouis sur Loire and ended up at La Villes aux Dames, just 6 kms from Tours. Back along the same route. 

Tuesday morning and I decide to get a cappuccino from a small coffee shop right across the street from our apartment. It was closed on Sunday when we arrived and yesterday as well. This coffee shop is unique for France. The young man who owns it grinds the coffee beans as you order, not done before as in most shops. He even asked me if I wanted a single or double shot. I told him not many places in France ask you that. A young lady with her dog in the shop so we speak for a few minutes. She told me she spent fifteen years in Canada and thought my accent was a bit different then what she was used to. She had lived in Quebec and was used to their accent. 

As I was leaving the coffee shop, two elderly gentleman on the street were speaking, so of course I say “Bonjour Messieurs”, they both reply. As I walk by, they are saying goodbye and one says to the other, “Have a nice day” the other man replies “I will try”. So I say to the man that is walking along side me now “He will try to have a nice day” and he tells me that the man he just spoke to is “very poor and struggles in life”. Oh my, one goes along merrily and then the reality that not everyone has things easy in life is indeed the truth. One should never judge others as we do not know what they are going through in life. Once again I am reminded of how fortunate Robin and I truly are!

Off to the bike rental shop and today we are trying electric bikes. We are cycling “La voie royale”….(The royal route). We leave around 9:30 and still cool enough that we needed light jackets. Left Amboise along the Loire, then up through the countryside passing some lovely homes. Through the Foret d’Amboise then arrive in the small town of Blere where we stop for coffee/tea. We are now cycling along the Cher River, which in all honesty seems to be larger than the Loire. A couple of locks along the river, but a local told me that their aren’t any boats along the river. Just some tourist boats near Chenonceaux. 

La Foret Amboise, a lock on the Cher River and a beautiful cross in front of a vineyard.
As we were riding through the forest, we came across some people who were cutting and gathering fire wood. There were also piles of stacked firewood throughout the clearing and they were all numbered or had initial painted on the sides. My guess is this signifies who the wood belongs to.  There must still be a lot of the older homes that use wood for heating, as in our travels we have seen lots of wood piles. 

The Cher River and the town of Blere. Lots of umbrellas hanging above the streets, not sure why!

Continue on our way and make it to Chenonceaux where we stop for lunch. Do not visit the chateau as we will be visiting next week with Rich and Lisa. We are doing a circuit and cycling back to Amboise and there are lots of uphill sections…..great to have the ebikes and we kick in the electric feature going up the hills. Well I think both Robin and I are converts when it comes to the ebikes. Will definitely have to look into converting our city bikes when we get back home. Another great day of riding, gone about 5 hours today. Great day for riding as was not too hot and nice coolness when riding  through the forest..

Another great day for riding in the Loire region.

Rillettes — a new favourite over pate. The preparation of meat similar to pate. The meat is cubed or chopped, salted heavily and cooked slowly in fat until it is tender enough to be easily shredded, and then cooled with enough of the fat to form a paste. They are normally used as spread on bread or toast and served at room temperature.

We decide we want to go to Saumur, but realize when we put the location into the GPS in the car, that it would take 1 1/2 hours and we decide to pass, don’t want to spend three hours in a car today. So we look at our map and decide to go to Loches instead. Wow, talk about a lucky choice. When we get to Loches, which is only some 30 minutes from Amboise, the weekly market is happening. Mind you when this is happening, it’s always hard to find parking, just need persistence…follow someone walking toward the car park! 

Loches

Stop by one of the meat/cheese vendors and he gives us a taste of some of his products. Asks us where we are from , when we say Canada, he asks if from Montreal. I tell him we are from the west, so he asks if from Salt Lake City or Vancouver. I politely inform him that Salt Lake City is in the United States. He says, very close to the border though, right! No, we advise him about 1,500 kms from Canada. A good laugh!

The market in Loches
 
Quite a nice market here and a very lovely town. The town is set above the Indre Valley on a rocky outcrop and is known as a “Cite Royale”. Charles Vll lived here with his amour, Agnes Sorel. Beautiful medieval and Renaissance era structures throughout the town. The Royal City is surrounded by a “donjon”. Had to look up the meaning of the french word “donjon” which came up as “keep”. A “keep” refers to large towers in castles that were fortified residences, used as a refuge of last resort should the rest of the castle fall to an adversary. Joan of Arc and Anne of Brittany also spent time in this town. 

Came across some very different and interesting art work. The town is having an art exposition throughout various venues, showing the art of a Russian artist Mihail Chemiakin.


We walk up to the Collegiale St-Ours church and go in to spend some quiet contemplation time. In the entrance of the church was part of an old tree stump that was full of thumb tacks. Had never seen this before, but was a fund raiser for a catholic organization to help the poor. Pay one Euro and you can nail a thumb tack into the log. I know, different that is for sure, but I donated my Euro and nailed in my thumb tack.

Walk around a corner to a small garden overlooking the valley and we come across a plaque on a wall, which indicated that Jean Chretien (previous Prime Minister of Canada) visited Loches and unveiled this plaque which commemorates his ancestors who lived here and immigrated to New France in 1656. Found this so interesting, what a small world.


Have a wonderful lunch at a small restaurant overlooking the valley. I get into a conversation with the waiter and when he finds out we are from Canada, he told us that as a young boy he dreamt of moving to Canada to build a log cabin in the woods! A little later a police woman comes into the restaurant to speak to the owner. Our waiter comes back and I say to him “What did you do wrong, the police are here?” His quick response back to me…”They are looking for two Canadians!”. Had an aperitif for lunch today…a sparkling white Vouvray with a bit of cassis…..yum, similar to a Kir Royale, but using a local sparkling wine. 

Art work and windows in. Loches
Store signs in Loches
Back to Amboise to meet up with Robin’s sister, Suzanne, her husband Colin and their son James who will be here in Amboise for the next couple of days. They live in England, so quite easy for them to come over, glad they have, we do not see them enough.  
Lovely spending the evening with Suzanne, Colin and James catching up. We will spend the next couple of days with them.
Thursday we head off to Chinon, which is about one hour by car from Amboise, taking the country roads. Love the scenery on the wonderful windy roads….the farmland, the rolling hills, the vineyards and the small towns dotting the hills. 
Arrive in Chinon and the market is happening today, so always a challenge to find parking. Walk around a bit through the market, stop for a quick coffee, then onto the very small town of Crissay sur Manse. 

This town is classified as one of France’s most beautiful towns. Not much to the town, but we spot at the local restaurant for our lunch, a spectacular setting overlooking the fields and vineyards. A little walk around, then back to Amboise, once again taking the back country roads.

James,, Colin and Robin waiting patiently for Suzanne and Claire
Crissay sur Manse
Out to a nice dinner tonight at an outdoor restaurant to celebrate Suzanne’s birthday.
Suzanne, the birthday girl and her big brother!
 

One thing that I keep meaning to mention, are the local police or tax assesors attending the markets and collecting a fee from all the vendors. At one market even noticed that the police officer was pacing off the size of the booth. Not sure what the tariff is based on,might have to ask a merchant…my curiosity always gets the best of me; I just have to find out!

Love the shop signs
Friday finds us starting off our day with Suzanne, Colin and James, visiting the Chateau du Clos Luce and the Parc Leonardo da Vinci located here in Amboise. The chateau was built in 1471 and is very near Chateau Amboise. The Clos was bought in 1490 by by Charles Vlll and for two hundred years was a royal summer residence of the Kings of France. Leonardo da Vinci settled here in 1516 after being invited by King Francois l. He was appointed “first painter, architect and engineer” of the King. Da Vinci was free to work on his many dreams here and lived in this residence for the last three years of his life. 

The beautiful grounds at Chateau du Clos Luce
We toured the Clos, but in all honesty, the part I liked the best was his workshop and the model room in the basement. Also a beautiful extensive garden where some of Da Vinci’s works are replicated; not only some of his inventions, but paintings as well. It is said that Da VInci got a lot of his inspiration from nature, specifically plants, trees and water. His workshop included many of his sketches for some of his ideas which were very interesting.

Reproductions of some of Leonardo da Vinci’s work
Head for Chenonceaux for the afternoon. Colin wanted to take the boat which goes for a tour in front of Chenonceaux Chateau on the Cher river. A different perspective in which to see the castle. Robin and I will visit the chateau this coming week with Lisa and Rich. 
Chenonceaux from the. Cher river
Our final dinner together in Amboise

Our few days with Suzanne, Colin and James have come to an end. We are so grateful that they made the effort to come over from England to meet up with us for a few days.  Off to Tours tomorrow to meet up with our son. R ich and daughter in law Lisa…we can harldy wait!

Quimper and South West Brittany – June 2017

Left Rennes on Tuesday morning, June 6th and arrived in Quimper around noon. We are in a small attached bungalow house with a beautiful garden. Very cold and blustery today and rain forecast for the afternoon and tomorrow morning. 

What a welcome we received from our host,  Olivier Francois. He stocked the fridge with homemade preserves, a bottle of local apple cider, some local salted butter, a bowl of fresh fruit, a baguette and lobster pate! Super friendly, showed us how everything worked and spent a bit of time with us telling us where we should visit. We hope to be able to use the garden area while we are here.  

A little history on the house we are renting here. In the early 50’s about one hundred families joined together to build their housing. They opened up this hillside, built retaining walls, built roads and built all the houses together. A lottery then took place to see who would reside in which house. Today, we are told that the people in this neighbourhood are very close and watch out for one another. Our host told us that he went on holiday for a few weeks, forgot to lock the house and even left his car keys in the ignition and everything was fine when he returned. Some of the original people still here and now sons and daughters of the original builders have moved here as well. Francois Olivier has redone the interior of the house; very comfortable, beautifully decorated and so well stocked. 

Although showers forecast for the next few days, should not stop us from touring the nearby towns. We always pack our umbrellas and light rain jackets, so we will be well prepared. 

Quimper sits between two rivers, the Odet and Steir. The population of Quimper proper is about 63, 000 and 120,000 for the surrounding area of the city. Quimper is known for its Faience (ceramic/pottery) which is still manufactured by hand in the Locmaria district. In 1690 Jean Baptiste Bousquet settled here as the firewood, clay and water were plentiful, so that he could continue with his craft. 

Quimper was a hub for resistance activity in WW11 and was lucky enough to avoid most of the destruction that happened in other Breton towns. 
Lots of traffic circles here as in other cities in France. Our host told us that Quimper was the one of the first towns in France that experimented with traffic circles. Robin and I don’t mind driving through them at all, just remember that whoever is inside the circle has the right of way! I have a friend (you know who you are) who hates traffic circles and will do anything to avoid them. We only have a handful of them in Calgary. I think they are a very efficient way of moving traffic, makes sense to me. 

First thing we find is the local grocery store to get stocked up for the next few days. It is so great being in Europe where one can buy everything you need, including wine in one location. We walk into the Locmaria neighbourhood and visit the Faience museum and visit a local Faience manufacturing plant. Oldest church in Quimper (X11th centrury) is also located in the Locmaria neighbourhood. 

Faience pottery, a specialty of. Quimper

The pottery’s design reflects a strong traditional Breton influence. Most scenes depict Breton men and/or woman in traditional Breton costumes going about their daily lives, all very brightly painted. In recent years, artists have updated the designs and some we saw at the Faience Museum and a well known factory, HB-Henriot. These artists have taken a more modern take on their pottery designs. One design that particularly caught my eye was a table setting. Each dish design melds into the next, then even into the tablecloth…really quite amazing. Shirley, you would love this!

Have to tell you that since we were in Budapest, Robin has come down with a really bad cough and severe nasal issues. This morning, Wednesday the 7th, I texted our landlord, Olivier Francois, to see if he could recommend a Doctor. Well 5 minutes later, I get a text giving us the name of a Doctor, but not only that, he has already made the appointment for us….WOW! This guy is so amazing! 

We head to the old town of Quimper (Kemper in Breton), referred to as the ” The Bishop’s Town”. The Cathedrale Saint Corentin towers over the old town and its spires dominate the skyline. It is built in the Gothic style and dates back to the 13th, 15th and 19th centuries. Beautiful flying buttresses and an ornately carved portal as one enters the church. Wonderful stained glass windows were made in local workshops. The choir part of the church is built out of line with the nave to accommodate an older chapel, I believe one of the pictures shows this, quite out of the ordinary. Beautiful pipe organ dating back to 1643 and has been restored several times over the years. 


We also make a stop at “Les Halles” (the covered market), which here in Quimper is opened every day, but the big market is on Saturday. Has everything one would need on a daily basis, looking forward to visiting the market on Saturday, which is not in Les Halles, but in a park area near the river. 

The streets in the “vielle ville” are named after the the trades that made their living here centuries ago….Place du Beurre (Butter Square), Rue des Boucheries (Butcher’s street), and so on. These streets are pedestrian friendly, quite narrow and lined with timber framed houses. Creperies definitely rule the restaurant scene here in QUimper and for that matter, all of Brittany. One square we stopped at for our lunch had 6 creperies…not a word of a lie!

La vielle ville de Quimper

Stop at a shop to buy some makeup removers and in my conversation in french with the saleswoman (probably about 50+) she asks me where I am from as I don’t have a Breton accent, and are we on holidays. I reply that we are from Canada we are indeed on holidays, but in fact we are also retired, so really the same thing really! She laughs and tells me she would take either, but would prefer to be retired. 

We find the Doctor’s office which is just on the outskirts of the old town. Robin has been diagnosed with bronchitis! Off to the pharmacy to get antibiotics and other medication and hopefully he will be better in a couple of days. He has had a hard time in the last couple of weeks. He finally listened to me and went to the Doctor!

In the afternoon, we head out of town and drive to the small towns of Pont L’Abbey and L’Ile Tudy. Not much in Pont L’Abbey except an encounter with some school children. As we are passing the school, I hear “Pardon Madame, aidez nous”. They are asking for my help as the ball they were playing with has gone over the fence to our side of the walk. I am about to throw the ball back and one of the teacher’s comes over and asks me if they said “please”. I reply most definitely and throw the ball back…..I get back a “merci” in harmony from all the kids. 

Drive on to the very tiny town of L’Ile Tudy. This is on the ocean and we are so near, wanted to see it. Until the 19th century it was an island until a bridge was built to join it to the mainland. At one time the village was a busy fishing port, but is now a fashionable for out of towners to have a second home, very evident. A class of schoolchildren taking sailing lessons in the harbour. Nice to be by the ocean.

Pont. L’Abbe and Ile-Tudy

Thursday sees us on the road to Concarneau, known as “Ville Bleue” as traditionally the nets that the fishermen used were made of blue twine. The town is still an important fishing port. Historically they fished for sardines and whales but today their catch is mainly tuna. Their is a fish auction every morning held on the docks. The town has a traditional festival every year to celebrate their history of fishing. This festival originated in 1905 as the sardines were fished out and fishermen’s’ families starved as they could not make a living. The nobles and merchants put on a festival to raise money to help those in need. 

The “Ville Close” (walled town) is a charming one. Not very busy in this part of the world, although we are told that in the summer, one cannot move. Lots of tourists and people who own second homes frequent this region. The old town has a fishermen’s museum and mainly restaurants and shops catering to tourists. Robin notes that most of the clothes being sold are nautical (blue and red stripes). I realize I am wearing my blue stripe shirt, who knew I could fit in so well!


 We take a navette across an estuary (took about 2 minutes to get across) and go for a walk along the promenade for about one hour. Not many people about, very nice to be by the ocean. At one point we come across some signage that indicates that Concarneau was occupied by the Germans from 1940 to 1944 and they had built bunkers along the coast. We could see remains of one of the bunkers. 

Cool and cloudy today, but fortunately it has only rained in the evenings so hasn’t cause us any problems. 
After our walk, we stop in the old town for lunch. My first moulles and frites and Robin has fish and chips. On our way back to the car, we stop at a bakery whose specialty is “kouign” and pick up a few to have with our tea later. These are small sweet cakes made of sugar, butter and almonds. Today you can also get those with varied fillings…chocolate, raisins, berries and caramel…..yummmmm. I was told they have “no calories”!


Only home about 1/2 hour when our landlord Olivier Francois arrives. He is checking up on us, mainly Robin. He asks if the house is warm enough, how is Robin feeling and do we need anything. I do believe that in all the years we have rented, he rates right up there. He is so friendly and extremely helpful. 

Meant to mention that when we were in Concarneau, there was a man looking for edible crustaceans in the rock pools as the tide was out.

When travelling by car and visiting small towns in Europe, parking is so varied. In some cases the parking is absolutely free, in other cases one needs to pay…o.k., makes sense so far. Well, you definitely have to look at the signs. Need to pay between 9 and noon, free from noon till 2 pm, then need to pay again from 2 – 6 . In other areas, you can only park for 1 1/2 or 2 hours, but it is free…so…you have to display a little blue time card and you indicate the hour you arrive. Well, when we arrived in Concarneau we parked where we needed to display the card. Unfortunately this rental car did not provide one, so being inventive, I put a small note on the dashboard saying we arrived at 10:30 and drew a picture of a clock. Proceeded to stop at the tourism bureau to get a map of the town and I told them what I did….they all smiled and sold me a time card for 1 Euro and told me to go back to my car and replace my “little note” with the time card!

Friday we decide to head north of Quimper and visit three towns, Le Faou, Locronan and Pont Croix. We got a great book from the tourism office when we first arrived in Rennes and it has been invaluable for pointing us in the right direction for towns to see in the Brittany area. These towns are classified as “Petites Cites de Caractere” or “Ville d’Art et d’Histoire”. 
Our first stop, Le Faou, is about one hour north of Quimper. Pretty sleepy little town at the head of an estuary. Tide is out, so once again we see boats sitting in the mud flats. The town street are being redone and interesting to see them working on them, No, the streets are not being paved, they are redoing it with cobblestones and them putting a cement slurry over the top to bind them….similar to grouting. We stop at a small wine shop as we wanted to buy our host a nice bottle of wine for everything he has done for us. Get into a conversation with the owner and once again when he finds out we are Canadian, he tells us about his two trips to the Montreal area. He tells me I have a nice accent and I don’t sound like a Quebecois. He says he sometimes has a hard time understanding the Quebecers….I just laugh. He also finds out we are headed to the Loire so advises us that we must visit a certain winery there, a favourite of his. A short stop here, although a nice little town, not much to see. As we are leaving he says “Bonne Ballade”….strictly translated this would mean “good walking”, but loosely translated it means “Enjoy your roaming around!” 

Le Faou

The houses in Le Faou are a bit different that the half timbered houses we have become used to seeing. The majority are smaller houses and slate has been used on the front of the homes. Again, as is most small towns in France, an old church stands in the centre of the town. Find the carvings in the stone spires and portals of these old churches to be works of art. 
Hop back in the car (got to use my little blue parking card again……getting my Euro’s worth) and drive on to our next destination, Locronan. The drives we have taken in the countryside here have been so nice. We are taking secondary windy roads, so fun to drive. Beautiful rolling hills, farmland and then the ocean in the background. Looks like most farmers have already brought one crop in and have already planted their secondary crops. Since arriving in Quimper, the weather has been cooler, but it hasn’t stopped us from seeing the sights. 

The countryside
On the way to Locronan we stop in the village of Chateaulin which sits on the side of a canal that runs from Brest on the coast to Nantes, which is in the extreme south east end of Brittany. Some French classify Nantes as part of the Loire. Stop for a tea/coffee at a “sale de the” and indulge in a almond croissant, which we share, by the way! This shop also has amazing pastries and they make their own chocolates. Not unlike other patisseries in France, all the pastries are works of art. Good thing we are walking a lot!

Locronan sits on a promontory and is said to be the religious centre of Breton origin. This town is also classified as one of the “prettiest towns” in France. The houses here are made of bue-grey granite. The town was found in the 15th century and was Brittany’s sailcloth centre, up until the 18th century. The church here is built in the Romanesque style. Went into the church, as we normally do, for some time of prayer, contemplation and thankfulness for the life we are able to lead. Some beautiful statues, carvings and stained glass windows.

Locronan

Our last stop for the day is Pont – l’Abbe, where we stop for a lunch of galettes. Again a very small town and the main square where we are eating, is where the local workers are having their lunch. This is usually their main meal, and they seem to eat out a lot. Usually a beer or aperitif before their lunch then a good amount of wine with lunch and a desert and coffee. This really is a way of life for the French, no stigma about drinking, just part of their life. We walk through the town after lunch, again some nice stone house, but this place is pretty quiet, not many locals around. Come across two churches within a few meters of each other and the remains of a convent, dating back to the 14th century. The town was known for its embroidery work and they still have a festival each year to commemorate this art. 

I have talked about apple cider and how it is the drink of choice for all Breton’s. Really just dawned on me that every restaurant or cafe that we go to, has the special cups already laid out on the table; they just assume everyone will be drinking apple cider. The apple cider is less than 5% alcohol. 


In this part of Brittany, we have seen very few foreign tourists, mainly just French on holiday or the odd bus tour. 
In Brittany we have seen many, many wind turbines which makes sense as we are near the ocean. In 2016, 72% of France’s electricity was produced by nuclear power. Renewable energy (solar, wind, hydro) only accounted for 18% and the remainder via fossil fuels. 

Went to the Saturday outdoor market today in Quimper. A good number of vendors selling fruits, vegetables, meats, cheeses, prepared meals (thank you, that is our dinner tonight) and others selling clothing and handmade goods. Just picked up a few things are we are headed off to Amboise, in the Loire region on Sunday morning, the 11th. As we were walking through the market, Robin and I were speaking and an old gentleman, probably in his 90’s was scowling at us and he said in very broken english…”where are you from?”. I reply in French….”du Canada”…his face breaks out into a smile and he walks away!

The Quimper Market
Baskets for sale at the Quimper marke. Locals use these to do all their shopping. Won’t fit in my carry on!
At the market today, we stopped by a “caviste” (wine shop) and picked up a bottle of wine. He had a really good selection of French wines from all over the country. In speaking to him, he told us that one really does not need to spend a lot of money on wine. You do not need to buy a “Sancerre” for example, which is quite expensive. You can buy another type of french wine that will be very close to a Sancerre, but will sell for a much reasonable price…….think this is called marketing on behalf of the Sancerre! As we have found before, the Caviste are well worth seeking out, very knowledgeable. 
Stop for a coffee/tea in one of the local squares, seems to be the thing to do after the market. Nice to see the parents with their kids at the market. This town, although a good size, still has a small town atmosphere about it, people are very friendly. Our host, Olivier Francois, told us that his grandmother always told him that to be polite, one has to always keep their door open (really, she meant, literally…keep the door open) and secondly always have a pot of coffee on the stove. He says having coffee with friends is still very much a way of life here, and you can certainly see this in all the squares and cafes.

Over the years when we have travelled by car in France, I have often noticed signs by the roadway that will say “VIde Grenier” on such a day in such a location. In my mind, I assumed in my own french mind, that this meant a celebration to fill the granaries as they were empty after the winter,and the first crop was in. Well….”grenier” can mean different things and yes it does mean granary, but it also means attic. What a “vide grenier” really means, after I finally looked it up, is a garage sale/flea market. One is never to old to learn new things!

We try to go to the “Musee des Beaux Arts”, but unfortunately it closes at noon and we arrive about 11:40. The attendant tells us we really would only have 10 minutes, as they clear everyone out 10 minutes before closing…o.k.

Drive to Pont-Aven, a town that has been on our list and today is the day, our final day here. A bit more sunshine today, which is nice, but still a cool breeze coming off the ocean. A very lovely town, one of the prettier ones we have seen. At one time in its’ history the town had 14 mills and 15 houses. Today these buildings have all been transformed into hotels, art galleries and shops. The reason for so many art galleries is due to the history of artists in the town. In the 1880’s a colony of painters settled here, one of them being Gauguin. Most of the colony was made up on English or American painters. The reason Brittany was chosen was not only for its lovely landscapes but also that they could live here very cheaply. Gauguin only stayed here for 3 years before moving elsewhere, but the artists colony remained.  


 
Robin tells me that France is known as a nation of shopkeepers’. This is very evident when you spend time in small towns. There are numerous butchers, bakeries, pharmacies and lots of optician shops. Believe this goes back to the French spirit of independence. 

Have enjoyed visiting this part of Brittany, beautiful villages, wonderful landscapes and very friendly people. Our host here in Quimper was just incredible and this little house made us feel like we were right at home. 

Off tomorrow morning, Sunday June 11th for our next destination, Amboise in the Loire Valley. Should take us about 5 1/2 hours or so to get there. 

Rennes and North East Brittany , France – June 2017

We flew from Vienna to Paris on Wednesday,May 31st, then took the RER train from Charles de Gaulle airport to the Montparnasse area and stayed in a hotel overnight. I got into a conversation with our flight attendant, as his jump seat was just beside us. He was very charming and complemented me on my french…..I love it when this happens, makes me feel good…..he immediately became a best friend! He also gave me a free french lesson while we were conversing as there were a few words I could not remember. My french usually improves after a couple of days in France.

On the RER coming in to Paris an Irish gentleman (probably 40ish) sat across from us. Gotta love the Irish. In the time it took to get into Paris, we knew his life history and had a “great old time” conversing and laughing. He was only in Paris overnight on a business trip…..amazing one can do this in Europe!

We chose a hotel in the Montparnasse area as the TGV to Rennes was leaving from the Montparnasse Train station, a 5 minute walk from the hotel. During this 6 week holiday, this will be the only night we stay in a hotel, apartments the rest of the time. Got in around 7:30 pm and headed out for dinner. Happened upon a wonderful traditional french restaurant which had an unbelievable wine list; hard to choose! We both opted for duck for dinner, our favourite when in France. For the most part we are doing our own cooking and have been out for dinner maybe once a week. 

Forget how small french hotel rooms can be, glad that we choose apartments, certainly the way to go for us, way more comfortable and lots more room. To date we have had some interesting and different apartments.. … in Vienna an apartment with slow internet but great location, a walk up 4 stories in Budapest and somewhat noisy at night but very comfortable with two separate baths, an ultra modern apartment in Krems where one needed a degree to figure out how things worked but a lovely outdoor seating area, a cold apartment in Bad Ischl but very well equipped, beautiful views and balcony and now an apartment in Rennes with uneven floors and tight bathroom quarters but great location. All part of the adventure!

Received a very nice thank you from our landlord in Krems, she actually invited us to stay at their private apartment just above their garage if we visit the area again. We had seen it when we went to her home and she gave us the apricot jam, must say the apartment was very “cute”. Nice to receive this invite. 

We headed off to the train station on Thursday morning and TGV took 2 hours to get to Rennes. They always leave on time, and very comfortable ride. While waiting at the train station, a very elegant older lady sat next to us. So needless to say, I struck up a conversation with her. Found out she owned an apartment in Paris and was on her way to Bordeaux where she had a “little” apartment. When she found out we were on our way to Brittany, she mentioned that she had a “little” apartment in St.Malo. She told me that she had never been in Canada, but still on her list……guess she should buy a “little” apartment there as well!

Brittany is an area of France that we have not been to, so we are looking forward to touring the area. It is said that the Bretons like to say they are Celtic, not Gallic. Others in France say they feel they are in a foreign land when they visit this area. Brittany is divided into two nearly equal parts – Upper Brittany along the Channel Coast and Lower Brittany. We hope to have time to see both equally well. When coming in on the TGV we saw the rolling countryside and many farms around Rennes. The population of Brittany was 3.2 million as of 2014. 

From the end of the 14th century until the middle of the 19th century, the cloth industry constituted one of Brittany’s most important economic sectors. Growth in this area was also helped by its international trade due to its coastal area. In the 19th century this industry collapsed as the middle class had not invested in mechanization. 

Today Brittany is the first agricultural region of France, mainly with porcine production, poultry farming and vegetable cultivation (cabbage, artichockes, potatoes, spinach and green beans are primary with peas and tomatoes second in production in France). They are number one in production of dairy products (21% of French production). 
Brittany represents a volume of 302,000 tons of fresh fish among 15 main ports and represents 90% of the total French seaweed production…..don’t know who eats all the seaweed!

Elaborate half-timber houses (called “colombage” in French) are everywhere in Brittany, relics of the medieval days, when this region along with Normandy, was colonized by the English.

The capital city  of Rennes is classified as the gateway of Brittany. It is a very youthful city with some 70,000+ students and greater Rennes has a population of 700,000+. There was a fire that devastated the city centre in 1720 where unfortunately a lot of the medieval houses were burnt, but on the positive side, a good number still exist. In the 10th century Rennes withstood Norman invaders and this became a symbol of Breton resistance. Rennes has the second largest outdoor market in France and we will be going there on Saturday.

Once we arrive in Rennes, we rent a car…..takes us a while to figure out the GPS, get it changed to English and figure out where we are going. The apartment we have rented is in the pedestrian only section of the old town of Rennes, so we have had to park in a parking garage very near the apartment. Always a little hectic trying to find your way to apartments the first time around! Our apartment is in a 15th century building on the second floor. The steps are so worn, one can sense hundreds of people over the centuries climbing these same stairs. The floors are uneven, bathroom small, but has everything we need. 

The courtyard of our apartment

Once we get settled in we take a walk  around the old town, find the tourist bureau and get some groceries. Stop at a cafe/bar and have a cold drink….27 degrees today. The weather forecast is calling for some cooling down and rain in the coming week. 

Thursday morning we head out to the small town of Chateaugiron, some 20 minutes by car outside of Rennes. There is a castle here which was founded in the 11th century by a knight of Norman origin, and had a son called Giron. The town developed around the castle, which is the norm, and the monks from Rennes established a priory here. In the 18th century the castle was extended and transformed into a residential building. Today it serves as the Hotel de Ville (City Hall). A quaint little place which is part of classification of towns in Brittany “The Cities of the Art”. All of these towns have their own unique character and have preserved their rich architectural heritage. 

Chateaugiron


We return to Rennes and go out for a short walk and end up at the Cathedral St.Pierre. It dates back to the 16th century but was rebuilt in 1784. Not particularly ornate inside,but very peaceful, a good time for some reflexion and prayer. The exterior is monolithic and austere.

Cathedrale St.Pierre, Rennes

We head out to meet our walking guide, Marie Charrier. She has lived in Rennes for 35 years and was originally from Nantes. Today Nantes is part of Brittany, but people from Nantes still believe they are part of the Loire. Marie is a retired nurse and just a delight. During our time together she discusses the history of Rennes and Brittany. She and I speak a bit of French, but she reverts to English to ensure Robin understands. She is very proud of her city and you can tell she takes pride in showing us its highlights. 

We start off at the Hotel de Ville (City Hall) and right across the square is the Opera House. The way in which the city hall and opera were built (10 years apart) looks like they could fit into each other. 


Performances held at the Opera house throughout the year, with the exception of July and August. This coming week the production of Carmen is on and they will simulcast it throughout Brittany on large screens. Marie told us that Rennes is a centre for technology and the tech sector is involved in this production. 

The Opera House

We continue our walk and Marie shows us some shops and a swimming pool that have wonderful mosaic work. These works were completed by an Italian artisan that had moved to the area. Onward to a compound with a beautiful building which she tells us is housing for the fire fighters and there families, all paid for by the government of France. We come across the fire station and they are on strike, although still working, they are protesting the government to get more firefighters as they feel they are overworked. Only in France would one complain of having housing provided and on the other hand begrudge work conditions, which are usually pretty liberal. 

Go to the Ports Mordelaises, part of the original gates that protected the city in ancient times. One of the only sections of the original walls. Walk along the Bretagne Parliament Buildings which are now the appeal courts for Brittany and the Loire. Marie told us that in 1994 the building had been set on fire by fishermen that were demanding state subsidies! Marie told us that the fire alarms that sounded that night were ignored as they used to go off all the time, so the firefighters simply stayed at the station. The building was rebuilt and they used ceramic roof tiles….smart! What is very ironic is that the Parliament buildings were one of the few that escaped the 1720 fires!

Along our walk Marie takes us in an area where all the students drink in the outdoor cafes. She says this is the “rue de soif”…”street of thirst”. We mentioned that on Thursday night when we were out walking after dinner, all the bars and restaurants were packed with people and asked if this was the norm. She told us there was two reasons for this…firstly, every Thursday night, the students go out drinking as they will be heading home for the weekend on Friday and secondly the unusual warm weather brings out people. She also went on to say that the professors at the University do not like teaching on Friday mornings as the students are either hung over or missing!

Marie said that this warm weather that Rennes has experienced has been unusual but seems to be happening more…who says there is no global warming!

The Breton language had been banned at one time, but is now seeing a resurgence. All the street signs are both in French and Breton. Maire told us that Rennes has a school where all subjects are taught in Breton. Some shops are devoted to the Breton language and all things Breton (Breizh). 

Rennes even has a metro system, one line. Marie says its the smallest city with a metro system! During our walk, Marie also pointed out which restaurants and cafe to frequent, always nice to get these recommendations. 
Robin and I had asked Marie what was the meaning of the word “TY”. We have come across this quite often; as a matter of fact the apartment we rented is called Ty Cocon and the one in Quimper is called Ty Guests, and we have seen this sign often. Well, it means “at the house of” in Breton…..mystery solved. 

At the end of our walking tour with Marie we offer to have a coffee with her, but she declines as she is on her way out of town for the weekend. She asked if we would be in Rennes later next week and invited us for dinner. “Quelle domage” I say, we are leaving on Tuesday morning. So nice to meet these wonderful people along the way in our travels. A memorable afternoon. 

Saturday morning we attend the market in Place des Lices in Rennes, just a 2 minute walk from our apartment. This is the second largest market in France. Fruits, vegetables, meats, seafood and flowers all in abundance. We indulge ourselves and buy some prepared foods for our meals for the next few nights…..some paella, some mixed salads, quiches and fresh green beans. I bought a small melon (melon Charantais) and the vendor asked when we were going to eat it, and chose one for us. In these markets, you do not help yourself. It is the vendor who gathers what you want. If you want a certain cut of meat from a butcher, you simply point to which piece you want. As in all markets, locals seem to have their favourite vendors….no different from our farmer’s market at home, we have our favourite vendors. 


One of the vendors was selling some stuffed peppers (poivrons) and an elderly gentleman beside us asked for one. She asked which colour would he prefer, red or yellow? He replies “red”. She replies “vous devrez etres amoureux”….you must be amourous! Lots of laughter and smiles all around!

The fish mongers in most markets that we have come across in France over the years are always yelling to people to come and see their beautiful fish. Believe me,they do not need loud speakers! 

We come across a local selling wines from around France and his prices are reasonable. We buy a few bottles from him and his young daughter is helping him out. I give her the cash and father asks her to give me my change. A math lesson ensues and I say “A, elle est votre banquiere”…”So, she is your banker”. His daughter thought this was funny…..think she needs a further lesson…took a while to get my change!

Even a line up for a coffee roaster who was roasting the beans right at the market. Not selling coffee, just the beans. Also lots of locals selling their home made apple cider, all very professionally labelled and bottled. Apple cider is very popular here in Brittany. 

I think what is amazing about this market, in addition to its size, is that some of the vendors sell just one item. For instance, one vendor sold just mushrooms, another just onions, another just olives while another artichokes. They don’t just sell one type, they have numerous sizes, types and shapes, etc. 

Very cloudy and cool this morning as we attended the market. Stopped at the local bar just near our apartment for a coffee/tea afterwards. A rugby game was on the tv, so needless to say we stayed a while so Robin could watch the game. A young english couple sat next to us and we started talking. They live and work in Rennes in biotech and are very happy here. They say people in Rennes are very friendly and we can definitely confirm that. This is a bar they always come to so they can watch rugby and football (soccer) matches on the big screen. 

In the afternoon, we head out to Saint-Malo, about one hour from here along the coast. In the 17th century, Saint-Malo was the largest port in France and very famous for its Corsairs. A Corsair is a seafarer, commissioned by the King to carry on naval warfare on his behalf. Authorized to prey on the commerce of foreign ships….sounds like a pirate to me; except has to give the booty to the king! One exert I read said that Saint-Malo had a nickname of “the pirates city” and that the corsairs (or sea dogs) were paid by the french crown to harass the Limeys across the channel!

Saint-Malo sits on a rocky peninsula above the Rance estuary. The town accumulated much wealth in the 17th century through trade. There are ramparts around the old town and these were constructed in the 18th century, but were destroyed and rebuilt after WW11. Today they say that this is the breeding ground for phenomenal sailors, certainly lots of sailboats out when we arrived.  

Various shots of St. Malo

Also a very famous person ..Jaques Cartier, sailed from here and claimed Canada for the crown of France in 1535. Saw a mosaic in the church in Saint-Malo to commemorate this sailing. 

The old town of Saint-Malo are surrounded by ramparts. Most of the city was burnt when the Nazis started a fire as they were retreating. It is said the fire lasted a week. The houses were rebuilt using granite. There are still a few of the ancient homes that were spared during the fire. 

Robin entering the gates of St. Malo
We enter the old town through one of the gates and find it full of restaurants of tourist shops. We decide to find a creperie along one of the side streets. Robin chooses a “super” galette (ham, cheese and egg) and I opt for a St. Jaques (scallops). They are both extremely delicious. The galettes are served with savoury fillings while crepes are served with sweet fillings. The galettes are made with buckwheat flour. We cave and share a sweet chocolate fondant crepe for desert. 

The restaurant “Le Petit Crepier” gets quite busy and the table next to us is taken by three elderly french people, a couple and their friend. I strike up a conversation with the gentleman and his wife and when they find out we are from Canada, they speak of visiting Montreal. They tell us that we have chosen the “best” creperie in Saint-Malo as the galettes and crepes are made in house. They say that most creperies buy their crepes and galettes from large companies. They drive from Rennes just to eat here. 


Walk around the town and take in the view from the ramparts (12th century) , see the inner harbour and on the other side take in the view of the many sailboats on the ocean. Lots of people on the beaches as well taking in the sunshine, yes it is now getting sunny and hot. The ramparts are 2 kms in length and surround the Vielle Ville (Old Town). We wind our way through the narrow streets and enter Cathedrale St.Vincent, where we find the mosaic to Jaques Cartier. We are fortunate as the organist is practicing, so we sit for a while to enjoy the beautiful music. We continue and come upon a memorial to the Resistance fighters and those that went to the death camps. Always find these memorials very moving. 

A message from a survivor of Ravensbruck and a message from Charles De Gaulle to the resistance fighters


Came across some gold inlays in the sidewalks with a picture of an animal. When we were leaving Saint-Malo I asked a policeman what these meant. He told us that the animal was a white ermine the symbol of the city.

St. Malo. – looking onto the ocean
 

Next stop is the small town of Dinan, another town classified as a “Ville d’Art et d”Histoire”. It is a medieval town and dates back to a feudal castle built in the 11th century and ramparts were added in the 13th century. It was known as a textile producing town and has imposing half timbered houses. A beautiful little town. 

Scenes from Dinan

Sunday arrives and we had decided to leave early to get to Le Mont Saint Michel. We arrive at 9:30 and get a navette (shuttle) to the island…the tide is out. Le Mont Saint Michel is one of those places that you can see from a distance as you are miles away…..just breath taking. This has been on our “must see list” for years, so very happy that we have gotten to visit. A pyramid shape of the abbey and town rise from the tidal bay, quite a sight. 

Le Mont Saint-Michel

The history of Mont Saint Michel is said to date back to 708 when a sanctuary was built here. In the 10th century the Benedictines settled in an abbey and the village grew below its walls. It was impregnable during the Hundred Year War. Its ramparts and fortifications resisted all of the English assaults and the Mount became a symbol of national identity. At one time the abbey was used as a prison in the 1800’s. Classified as a historic monument in 1874 and listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1979 (another one on the list!). 

Picture of the surrounding area,, the tide was out. Chapetl on Le Mont,not part of the Abbey

While walking through Le Mont, we noticed the name “La Mere Poulard” several times; one restaurant, one hotel and some tinned biscuits. My research tells me that Mme. Poulard founded a restaurant on Le Mont in 1873; La Hostellerie de la Tête d’Or, finding that customers came and went quickly with the tide. She came up with the idea of cooking giant omelettes in a wooden hearth to make them stay. From then on the restaurant became most famous for its speciality giant omelettes several inches thick, made in hand-hammered copper bowls, and cooked over an open fire.The omelettes resemble a soufflé more than a traditional omelette. In summer 2009 the cheapest omelette on the menu at the restaurant is €18, not sure what they cost today. Seemed to be the well healed eating at the restaurant. There was an older lady dressed in a period costume and indeed, she was whipping up eggs in a large copper bowl. There was also an imposing gentleman at the door, probably to keep out the “unwanted”….us! 

The real crowning glory is a tour of the Abbey and the Mont itself. The streets leading up to the Abbey are now restaurants and tourist shops. We spend a few hours here and very glad we made it. Part of the abbey was a cloister, but was under renovation, still able to get an idea what it must have been like in its glory. Also visited a small church which is part of the complex. By the time we leave, the street are jammed packed; good decision to come early. 

Back to Rennes and In the afternoon, we walk to the Parc du Thabor, a beautiful inner city park which takes of 10 hectares and dates back to the 19th century. The streets of Rennes were pretty empty. In Europe most stores, shops and restaurants are closed on Sundays. This is family time and this is definitely evident as the Parc du Thabor is very busy. Young people simply relaxing in the various grassy areas, some playing games, a lot just enjoying each others company. We spend about an hour relaxing in the park. A wonderful photography exposition in one of the lovely buildings. A building which houses many species of birds and absolutely wonderful gardens. 

Le. Parc Thabor

Monday is a holiday today, Pentecost, so the majority of stores/shops/offices all closed. We decide to visit the last two towns we really wanted to see….Fourgeres and Vitre. 
Fourgeres stands on the borders of Brittany, Maine and Normandy in the heart of the Breton Marches. When Britany was still independent, a dense network of castles was built on the border between the Duchy of Brittany and the Kingdom of France. These fortresses, called the Brittany Marches were a powerful line of defense against many external threats.

Chateau de Fourgeres
Stopped for coffee/tea when we first arrived in Fourgeres, in a small cafe in the square facing the castle. I had gone to use the facilities and Robin asked me where they were. I said, in french, “a la gauche” (to the left). The owner of the cafe told me I said it wrong, it should say ” a gauche” or “sur la gauche”. I love it when the french give me lessons. I told her I was Canadian and don’t speak french at home very often, so sometimes I forget words or phrases. 
 I went on to talk to her more and I mentioned that it was very quiet today as it was Pentecost. She started laughing and said “yes, although I don’t even know what Pentecost is meant to celebrate”, although she knew it was a Christian feast. She told me that her daughter had asked her that morning what Pentecost stood for and wanted to know whether or not her mother would be making galettes and crepes for dinner! Her mother responded that the daughter should look up the meaning of Pentecost and why would she ask about the galettes and crepes because she always makes them. 
We make our way to the ticket office to get into the “Chateaux de Fourgeres”. The young lady and I converse in french and I interpret for Robin. When she heard me speak english to Robin, she asked if we were English. I said no, we were Canadians and there is a big difference. She laughed and responded “that is the same with the French and the Breton….big difference!” May be funny, but it is very true. You can see everywhere that there is a resurgence of the Breton pride.    

The chateau is situated on a bend on the RIver Nancon and was first erected in the 11th century. From the beginning, it was a centre for trade and commerce. It is a great medieval castle with 13 towers. It first started as a simple wooden tower but by the 15th century was the immense fortress it is today. It has been well preserved. Just below the fortress the tanners, drapers and dyers installed their mills on the river. There is still a mill along the moat of the castle which is still working. The tradesmen, craftsmen and bankers set up their establishments on the hill overlooking the valley….of course they did! Ramparts were also built around the citadel. There was a big fire in the 18th century in the upper town and after this a lot of the buildings were reconstructed in stone. A very impressive castle and upper town. Today, the castle is owned by the town of Fourgeres. 

Fourgeres – Upper town in the distance in one of the pics
Fourgeres
When visiting the castle we used audio guides, must say, these really help when you are visiting historical monuments or galleries. 
After visiting the castle we stop for lunch at a “creperie”. Must enjoy these while we are in Brittany. We abstained and did not have desert crepes, just our savoury galettes.

Our next destination is Vitre, another “Ville d’Art et d”Histoire”. Here there is an 11th century fortress and prospered thanks to its international trade in “canvas”. A gothic style church (the steeple being refurbished), called Notre-Dame. The “Hotel de Ville” (city hall) offices are located in the fortress. Everything being closed today, we could only enter the courtyard. Simply walked around the town for an hour or so and head back to Rennes. Quite cool and cloudy today, but didn’t  stop us from seeing what we wanted. 

Vitre
Vitre – very quiet!
We have spent a great 5 days in this northern part of Brittany and tomorrow, Tuesday the 6th, we are off to Quimper. It is located in the southwestern part of Brittany; a 2 1/2 hour from Rennes.