Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Don Quixote Country

The town of Aranjuez was built as a royal playground in the mould of Versailles. The palace and grounds are truly wonderful and typically over the top in richness and opulence. Lawrence and I both thought it was much lovelier and grander than Versailles – but then again neither of us was much taken with the French King’s playground.
The Royal Palace - Arunjuez style

The Palace was built in the mid 18th century and redecorated by Isabel in the 19th. Her taste was questionable, but of the era – very ornate. There is one room that is completely oriental rococo – I’ll leave that to your imagination!!

The grounds, however, are lovely and enormous. You could spend days wandering through them. We are going to hire bikes to look at a section near our campground. After Isabel was turfed out, the new King decided that the area should be opened to the people and the town was planned. It is so lovely with very very wide tree lined streets that are a joy to wander around and find a coffee or a vino.

Today we went in search of wine. However typical of this region, all the major producers are co-operatives that buy in grapes from the endless vineyards. Sadly the whole La Mancha area has become very industrialised, so although there are still mile upon mile of bush vines, they are amongst factories and petrol tanks.
Some Don Quixote country still exists

The bush vines make you wonder how they actually grow anything, they look like Mallee roots sticking out of the ground.  We didn’t find anywhere to taste but did find a tank farm belonging to Felix Solis, one of the major producers. This is wine production on a scale you just don’t see in Australia, thankfully.
Felix Solis - wine anyone??

We had lunch in Valdepenas and made the mistake of eating in the first place we saw because I was about to faint from hunger. Of course at 2pm we were the first patrons. 5 courses for 16 euros – how can you resist?? Once again we ate so much that dinner is not required, and that was without desert. The wine was 11 euros and absolutely delicious. Lots of subtle red cherry fruit with soft tannins and great length. 11 euros!!!! You wouldn’t be surprised to pay $50 for it in Australia. The great value of the meal was offset by the 60 euro parking fine…

The weather is stunning but it is so cold in the morning you can hardly breathe. It was 2 degrees when we ventured out at 9.15am.
The Man from La Mancha - don't you love him?

Tomorrow Toledo…

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Motorway Robbery

We left our camp and new friends in Villanova and headed west via Zaragoza. This is a city that has grown enormously very recently and our caravan park was really in the burbs, however it was easy to get to the old city and enjoy what it has to offer. The 2 main attractions for us were the Cathedral and the Basilica.

The cathedral was started in the 14th century and would have been lovely initially with its elegant columns and beautiful vaulted ceiling however was ruined in following centuries by the addition of side chapels of every kind of bad taste Rococo you’ve ever seen.
The Cathedral - no photos allowed inside

The Basilica is a massive monument to 18th century over the top grand ‘look what we can do ‘ architecture. The whole place is completely soulless as far as I’m concerned. I thought it looked like a bank and Lawrence thought a train station.
The Basilica

We headed to Aranjuez (south of Madrid) via the Autopista as that was our only option. Heavy fog enveloped us to start, then sunshine, then fog.

We’d heard that you can be readily robbed in Spain, however we didn’t expect it to be by the Police. We were pulled over on the motorway by the local Plod and were fined 100 euros on the spot, cash,  for having a dodgy headlight, driving in fog. Obviously a slow day for the Guardia Civil. Bloody highway robbery. Lawrence, fortunately, restrained from punching one of them.
Lawrence trying to be polite to the Guardia Civil
We drove through really interesting country. So different from the soft autumn colours of the French landscape. This is arid harsh country, with colours similar to Australia. Some of it resembled a cross between South Australia and Arizona. We drove between high flat plateaus and rugged hills of limestone, with some snow capped peaks in the distance.

After driving through endless miles of industrial and suburban sprawl around Madrid, we arrived in our camp set in the grounds of a former castle, by the river. It was a lovely vista when we arrived, having expected the worst.

The weather is still sunny, if cold. This morning, it was so cold in Zaragoza that our gas stove struggled to work!!

We are here for about a week to see Aranjuez, Madrid and Toledo.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

You Wouldn't Read About It

We have seen a vehicle almost as odd as ours!! If not odder… We’ve met a lovely Dutch couple who have a converted 1970 red Mercedes fire engine. And you thought we were mad!

We are back from our sojourn in Barcelona after spending 3 nights in a lovely hotel on La Rambla. Being off-season, there are some real bargains to be had.

The city is as fabulous as I had remembered and read about. Lawrence was here 4 years ago, but my last visit was 1978 (I was only 3), so things have moved on a bit.  We found lovely tapas bars with charismatic waiters and fab food. Treated ourselves to a long late lunch where I ate so much Paella I could not eat for nearly 24 hours afterwards. We became quite Spanish (sort of) having late breakfast, so we could have late lunch, and late dinner. Late dinner for us was 8.30 – 9pm tapas; we could never make real grown-ups dinner at 11pm, apart from anything else we’d be pissed by then.

Architecturally, the place is amazing, from the maze of streets in the Barri Gotic to Gaudi’s absurd buildings. I am completely in love with Gaudi and everything he did. The man was truly a genius and is now at the top of my list of “people you would love to invite to dinner”. 

The ceiling in the nave
The Sagrada Familia is the most beautiful and fantastical building I’ve ever seen. It is simply stunning – words cannot describe it. Started in 1882, the nave is now complete and was consecrated by Il Papa last year, and it is the one building I could imagine myself sitting through a Catholic mass and not being irritated and bored. They have achieved quite a lot since Sandie and I were here 33 years ago. It is all privately funded, with not a cent from the Catholic Church or Spanish/Catalan govt.

Part of the Nativity facade - don't you love the dog?
 The other Gaudi building I fell in love with is ‘La Pedrera’, one of his apartment buildings. The actual apartment that you can walk through is so beautiful that you just want to move in and start making Gin & Tonics.

Of course we drank some lovely wine and even had a few glasses of Cava. Cava has come a long way since the 1970s, and is quite a pleasant aperitif. We also drank some great Rioja and some very decent Rosada. We have been very impressed with lovely the ros├ęs all across southern France and now Spain.

The market ‘La Boqueria’ behind our hotel, is Spain’s best market (allegedly) and we spent time wandering through drooling at the produce. We bought a bag of mixed mushrooms that Lawrence cooked simply in butter and garlic tonight – delicious.

The weather in Barcelona was not so great – but not bad enough to dampen our spirits. Really had only one late afternoon and evening where it really rained. Now the sun has come out again, and we managed to sit in the outdoor bar of our caravan park and have a beer in the sun this afternoon. I can understand why so many Dutch, Danish and English spend the winter here.  This place is so enormous, that we went for a 40 min walk this afternoon and didn’t see all of it – you really can’t imagine how big it is. There must be at least 10,000 people here in the summer.
Parc Guell - by Gaudi of course

It has though, put us off spending any further time near the coast. The whole coastal area near here is quite hideous; loads of bad 60’s development compounded by bad 80’s development. We are heading inland tomorrow towards Madrid.

And furthermore: I’m loving all the comments on the blog – making me laugh, keep them coming.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Across the Pyrenees

I wrote this blog about 5 days ago, but since then our internet access has been very scratchy and we have both been sick as dogs with gastro. Today we are finally in Barcelona, will report back in a day or 2 on our eating binges.

We finally left France on our journey south to find the sun. We had intended to spend our first night near Chateau de Queribus that we had loved and do some walking. Sadly, the weather defeated us so we carried on towards the border, thinking we’d find a ‘free camping’ spot somewhere along the way. I was picturing a pretty spot in the Pyrenees, however our naivety in this endeavour hit us in the face loud and clear when we reached Le Perthus on the France/Spain border. This town was once a duty free haven in its previous life before the European union, and is now a sad, cheap shopping mecca for people with nothing better to do than to take a bus trip with a shopping trolley to buy cheap booze and fake watches.

However, as they say “when life hands you a lemon, make margaritas”, so we bought very cheap good quality gin and calvados and kept going across the border.

We had both been looking forward to Spain, as neither of us had spent a lot of time there, and all the books etc extoll its virtues, NON-STOP.  We crossed into a town called La Jonquerra, and the first person I saw was a hooker. These poor sad street-walkers stand on street corners and in truck laybys waiting for passing trade.  This is a trucker’s city  - I’ve never seen so many trucks in one place. The whole area is an industrial wasteland, one of the most hideous, drab places I’ve seen. 
The view we were hoping for!!

Moving right along (and way past my limit of 3 hours in the truck), we set our sights for Figueres, which has the second most visited gallery in Spain after the Prado – Museu Dali. One look from the highway and I said “keep driving”. This whole area is so ghastly it’s hard to believe.

We decided to head for the motorway, thinking that a service layover would be our best bet for overnight given the paucity of cute towns – in France these are really quite acceptable and often you get a decent view over the hills etc. Not so in this part of the world. We finally stopped at the third one and spent the night sleeping with truckers by the side of the motorway.

Fortunately, we are completely self–contained and could pull up the drawbridge and batten down the hatches, and pretend we were elsewhere (apart from the floodlight beaming in through our skylight). The police cruised by in the morning, and caught my eye as I was making toast ( I thought we were going to get arrested for vagrancy) “Nice truck” they said. You think??” I said. “Where you going?” I resisted saying Malaysia, “Morocco”, Atlas? “Yes”. So there is my entre to Spain. First person I see is a hooker, first night spent with truckies, and first people I speak to are the police.

I must say here that I am in awe of Lawrence’s ability to manoeuvre the yellow beast around these towns and endless roundabouts. I’m not sure how he does it– sheer determination I expect. I also need to say that as chief navigator, I am completely hopeless. The GPS is helpful, but with new roads and endless roadworks, James (the GPS) and I just end up arguing and getting lost, and poor Lawrence has an extra 50 roundabouts to negotiate. It’s a wonder we actually get anywhere.

We had thought to spend a day in Andorra whilst we had the hire car, but read the guidebook the night before setting off and decided against it. The Rough Guide says “Today, the town is a seething mass of bad restaurants, tacky bars and garish shops crammed with everything from cheap booze, perfumes, and watches to cars and appliances. (minus the hookers)” Having seen Le Perthus, we could now imagine it too clearly.  I’d wanted to go there since I was 19 – what a shame I was 30+ years too late.

We are now ensconced in what seems like the world’s biggest caravan park. It’s about the size of Perth. It’s just fine right now as it is off-season, but I cannot imagine it in August, it would be a seething mass of humanity and its dog. We are just south of Barcelona and quite close to the Mediterranean – we can see it from the bar.

Tomorrow we tackle Barcelona. We might spend a couple of nights in hotel in the city if we can find a cheap one, just so we can eat with the Spanish at midnight – maybe.

Adios (that’s about the limit of my Spanish)

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Sinking to new lows.

Yes it's true, we've been drinking loads of Rose and keep buying cheaper ones to see how little we can pay it before it becomes undrinkable. The other day we drank a bottle that cost 1 euro 80 cents. It was very drinkable, I'm not sure we can find any cheaper than that!

In contrast last night we had dinner in Limoux at the 'Grand Hotel Moderne et Pigeon' (yes - the modern pigeon!) and spent a large amount on very good wine. The local chardonnay is quite stunning as is the red which is odd blend. We had 2001 chardie and 1998 Baron d'Argues. The meal was outstanding. I had scallops with minestrone, L has oysters, followed by wild boar for me and hare for L. Both were just sensational. I had the best mushrooms I've ever eaten.

We spent the night at the hotel as a birthday treat, and I got to soak in a bath.

Chateau de Queribus
Over the last few days we've climbed every castle stair that we could find. These castles were built with defence and fortification as the major feature. How they ever built them and lived in them is beyond our comprehension. The climb up to some of them is quite challenging and certainly good for the gluteus maximus.

The scenery around here is breathtaking (as is some of the driving on these roads). From Chateau Queribus we could see to the mediterranean and across to the snow capped peaks of the Pyrenees. We are virtually in the foothills, so the countryside is dramatic, with deep gorges, soaring peaks and sweeping valleys.

We leave our pretty little camping spot tomorrow and head south. We'll do a few nights of 'free camping' on our way to Barcelona, spending one night in Figues and winging it on the other nights. We should arrive in Barcelona by Thursday, and will spend maybe a week there.

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Hunt for Cathar Castles

Well we finally left our haven in Monfort, after about 4 weeks. Thanks to the very generous hospitality of Alison and David, we were able spend most of October in divine weather among cute mediaeval villages with wonderful markets and great food.

We took a week out of that to whizz up to Germany to visit family (Barbara and Stuart) whilst we were still within cooee. Had a lovely stay and managed to stop overnight in Beaune on way home. Of course for us this is a bit like Mecca, only wine is compulsory rather than outlawed. A very lovely bottle of Beaune '92 was consumed and as predicted, it was simply divine, just as it should be. Oh, and the meal was really good too. Obviously we didn't whizz in the truck, one doesn't whizz anywhere in a large yellow truck, rather it's more of a rumbly, jolty, noisy, amble. A hired car did the job for us.

We are now in a very quaint mediaeval spa village Alet-les-Bains south of Carcasonne, with its own ruin (and I don't meant the truck). Once again, we've found a lovely campsite, wedged between the Aude River and the city Ramparts. This area just oozes history, so it's easy to get immersed in it. The castles are dotted all over, most of them have been Cathar havens of protection, and annihilated by the nasty Catholics from the northern France (with the Pope's blessing) about 900 years ago.

This village boasts some miracle water, which I'm going to locate tomorrow. I'm not sure whether drink it or wash in it - maybe both. It might help my hideous head cold if nothing else. As the weather has deteriorated, we have hired a car for the week, so we can zip around dry and warm. The flooding has not affected us, just some rain. We are going to stay here until after Lawrence's birthday on the 13th and then head to Spain and find the sun again.

Carcasonne 'La Cite'
We've taken to playing Backgammon in the evenings in the Mog. Having taught Lawrence how to play, I'm being humiliated by his constant besting of me. I have to admit he's a terrible player, who makes moves that make me cringe and he can't count. "No darling, you've thrown a 6 and a 2, and you moved 7 spaces - try again." It must all be bluff as he beats me 3 times out of 4. How can that be fair??? It's clearly a game of luck rather skill, contrary to popular opinion. Tips anyone???

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Living with Less

When we were planning this trip, Lawrence was commenting that it would be an interesting exercise for us learning to live with less. How do you think we are doing?

We have;
4 x telephones
2 x computers
5 x GPS options ( each of which seems to have an opinion of its own)
2 x i-Pods
2 x Kindles
1 x i-Pad
2 x digital cameras
1 x docking station

Riedel wine glasses
Crystal Champagne flutes
Small wine cellar
Outdoor furniture
Gazebo (with yoga room)
And, a scooter called MoJo.

Mmmm - whats' wrong with this picture??

Kate and MoJo

Mog Makeover

As promised, here is the result of my interior decorating venture. The living area was looking a bit tired and dark, so some sprucing up was required.

My friends and family will know that I can't sew on a button, so this was a big undertaking. We bought the  fabric from IKEA (sorry Julian, more IKEA), and the rest from the hardware store, staple gun, hardboard and paint. Navigating our way around a french hardware store was a challenge in itself. The task of reupholstery wasn't too difficult once I realised that the staple gun wasn't faulty and it was user error - staples in upside-down. Oh dear.

Here are the before and after photos.