Day 6/181: Girona

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Over here in Spain “Semana Santa” or “Holy Week” is a pretty serious festival leading up to the climax of Easter Sunday. Dozens of places have major parades throughout the week, similar to the events we reported on last year when we went to Tarragona to see their particular processions both day and night. Nothing quite so dramatic this year but we started by going to see the Palm Sunday parade at Santa Maria de L’Assomptio church, something we had last seen three years ago.

But this is Spain (or at least Catalunya) so there is no certainty when it comes to start or finish times for anything and unfortunately that was the case when we arrived at eleven as advertised to find the parade over and Mass just starting. OK we’d seen it before but we were still a bit disappointed that we’d missed the big event. However we were mildly intrigued when no-one left at the end of Mass so sat tight to see what would happen. Suddenly the huge front doors opened and in came a traditional Catalan band with trumpets and drums and lovely colourful costumes.

But what they did next was even better. They proceeded to act out the Stations of the Cross via fourteen human pyramid-type displays, ending each one with a scene involving people climbing on top of each other like the famous Castellers you can see all over Catalunya. This was more than enough compensation for missing the parade and we were duly enchanted to have discovered another tradition we knew nothing about.

Palm Sunday Catalan-style!

The following day we were off on our travels again! This time it was not nearly as far as the other journeys (we didn’t even leave Catalunya!) but it was a visit we had been promising ourselves since we changed plans on the journey back from Scotland and came straight to Vilanova from France without stopping. We had originally intended to stop in the town of Girona, one hundred miles north of Vilanova, but we were so tired and within striking distance of our destination that we drove right past. So we promised that we would have a couple of nights there at the first real opportunity and that turned out to be last Monday.

Girona is famous in the UK thanks to Ryanair of all things, because it was the Irish budget airline that hit the headlines in the early years of their domination of the skies by advertising flights to Barcelona (Girona), fooling travellers into booking flights to Barcelona only to discover that they landed at Girona airport and were faced with a one-hour bus journey down to the Catalan capital. Thankfully, the complaints were actually heeded by the Aviation authorities and Ryanair had to stop advertising flights to Girona as “Barcelona”. They have of course since then negotiated rights to land at BCN El Prat, only a couple of miles from the city itself, and it’s this airport that we fly to and leave from.

We chose to simply drive up to Girona in the Audi, having booked an Ibis Budget hotel a mile or so from the centre of town for the ridiculous price of 35 per night! We took the non-toll road north around the back of Montserrat and found the journey relatively simple. We were there by two in the afternoon and had a lunch of sandwiches we had brought with us. After a quick nap we headed out and quickly sussed the way down to the city centre via a big road with a hospital, a Carrefour and a Mercadona supermarket on it. Once we reached the river Onyar, we could see the cathedral dominating the left bank with two or three pedestrian bridges crossing over to the old town.

The first thing we had to do once we were over the river was to kiss a lion’s behind! This statue was right at the far end of the bridge and Mary had read that tourists were encouraged to kiss the animal’s backside in the knowledge that they would then definitely return to the town one day. Well, that will remain to be seen! With this dubious ceremony behind us, we delved into the old town and unearthed a church dedicated to Saint Narcissus, the patron saint of Girona, as well as the battlements and gardens surrounding the cathedral itself. We notched up a few kilometres walking up and down the beautiful narrow cobbled streets and quickly felt ourselves at home in this old town.

I’ve kissed worse!

Turning one particular corner, we found ourselves confronted by a large group of protestors chanting and waving Independence Catalunya flags. This was clearly a follow-up to the news a day or so before that the former President of Catalunya, Carles Puigdemont, had been detained by police in Germany pending extradition to Spain and a probable thirty years of imprisonment for acts of rebellion and sedition. We decided to have a drink at a nearby café and watch what developed. Not much actually did develop and, after a couple of rousing speeches against the Spanish regime in Madrid, the people all dispersed peacefully. I must admit I was a wee bit disappointed as I had hoped to be present at something politically-important happening.

Free our President!

Dinner was a Menu del Dia on a street seemingly dedicated to gastronomy and we ate with real appetite that evening. We really enjoyed the power-walk back to the hotel, noting along the way a very interesting wood of plane trees, with not so much as one leaf on any one of them. In the fading light, the wood took on a slightly eerie appearance and we decided to leave our exploration for the light of day. Twenty minutes later, we were safely back in the hotel where we watched TV before climbing into bed and falling asleep quite quickly.

Mary in the wood of planes!

Next morning, while Lady Burton had her daily cardboard breakfast in the room, I snuck downstairs and had a breakfast of more normal things washed down with Tea AND coffee for once! We both ensured we were well fed as we anticipated a long, hard day of visiting the old town in detail. As an extra bonus, Mary had read up on the town that morning at the hotel and discovered that Girona was the site of many scenes from the series “Game of Thrones”, thanks to its vast collection of cobbled streets, ancient walls and stone stairs. So it’s not a surprise that, after walking through the wood of plane trees, we headed straight for the cathedral where we saw the ninety steps leading up to the main door, steps that leading character Jamie Lannister rode up on a white horse at an important moment in the series.

The cathedral steps

That was interesting, but we’d come to visit the inside of the cathedral so in we went and were immediately delighted, as all Scots would be, to discover that, as it was the last Tuesday of the month, entry was absolutely free (and the Audioguide was only 1 too!) We spent an excellent couple of hours in the cathedral, emerging into strong sunlight and a temperature rising towards twenty degrees. After a bite to eat at an organic food restaurant (True, we don’t always lunch at McDonald’s!) the rest of the afternoon was devoted to walking up and down the town walls, visiting the gardens, towers, outposts, squares and stairways which make up this wonderful old town.

Uncle and Auntie Gypsy!

We found three more places where scenes from GoT were filmed, all involving the girl Arya. I was able to persuade Mary to sit down in the exact spot where the girl had sat blind and begging in one of the scenes, allowing us to recreate our own Burton version of the moment. Mary however is not a natural beggar to tell the truth and she couldn’t act being blind very well either, but I did manage to get a photo that sort of shows what the scene was like. As Arya is soundly beaten with a staff on that spot, I suggested we try that too but Mary’s face told me she was not too keen on that idea and I quickly moved on!

A blind beggar!

 

The last thing we had to visit were the original Arab Baths round the back of the cathedral. These were a fine example of basic Turkish baths with a cold room, a warm room and an ouch! room where the water was kept at about 45 degrees Centigrade thanks to the fires constantly lit underneath the pool. We zipped through these in five minutes flat, but we did pause in the changing room at the front for a quick photo.

She loves a bath!

Tourism over once again, we walked back via the wood then further up into Mercadona where we bought things for the tea. It was early to bed again, but not before I watched Spain knock six past Argentina in a football friendly match. On that form, the Spaniards will be one of the hot favourites to win the World Cup in Russia later in the year. The following morning we overslept and missed breakfast so we both had to have the cardboard option (Weetabix) plus a banana and a cup of tea thanks to the nice man at reception giving us two steaming mugs of hot water. Now, the plan was to pick up Mary’s friend (yes, she does have friends!) at BCN at 19.30, so we had the whole day to make our way back to Barcelona, so where should we go?

A quick look at Maps on the iPad and we settled for a quiet afternoon in well-known Lloret de Mar, one time the haunt of all Brits looking for some sun without paying over the odds. It took us just half an hour to get there, by which time it was Spanish lunchtime, so we parked up on the promenade and opted for an Italian restaurant where we had the most delicious Menu del Dia sitting just inside, a step from the pavement and perfect for people-watching. “Spot the Brit” was the game but they were so obvious as to make it not much fun. While all reasonable people retained some dignity with clothing to keep the breeze off yet let the sun’s rays warm them, the newly-arrived families were already in shorts, flip-flops and Primark tops, kids with ice-creams and Mums and Dads on the ale!

The view from our table

Lunch finished we set off to walk off the worst of the excesses via a stroll along a cliff path to the north which, we discovered, was an eight-kilometre hike to Tossa de Mar further up the coast. We decided not to visit Tossa again (Mary said I was already one!) but did climb about ten thousand steps to the castle at the top of the cliff which turned out to be an empty folly. We returned to the Italian restaurant briefly for coffee then set off for Barcelona, choosing the non-toll N11 to the usual toll-laden AP7. Bad move! An hour later, and Lady Burton’s nerves in shreds, I headed back up to the motorway, paid the toll and blissfully cruised down into the tunnels of Barcelona, emerging almost at the airport.

She borrowed my cap

With two hours to kill, we drove down the C32 to Barnasud, a large shopping centre in the wee town of Gava where Mary had some therapy while I sat and had coffee and a muffin. Heather, the friend, was duly picked up at 19.30 at the airport, talked non-stop as usual all the way to her flat in Vilanova and then we drove back to the campsite where we had a quick but late tea and an early night. On Thursday, Mary went into town to have her hair done while I had a round of golf with Jeremy and on Friday, Good Friday, we went to a service at the church of Saint Antoni Abat at the top of the Rambla.

Good Friday

We enjoyed our visit to Girona earlier in the week and would recommend it to anyone who still has the power of their legs, as you need them to get around all of those old cobbled streets. Two days is quite adequate to see it all or maybe three at a push but you really don’t have to kiss the lion’s bum if you don’t want to. I’ll leave you with us on one of the pedestrian bridges, this one designed and built by none other than Gustave Eiffel!

Eiffel in love with her!

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Day 6/172: Portugal

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I’m now nine days late writing this blog. Every day I’ve intended to start to it but life has got in the way each time and pushed me down a different path, a path I’m not particularly worried about going down. Nor is Lady Burton for that matter. She quite likes the surprising paths we end up going down, some of which have big surprises included and some of which have exactly what we expected. Sunday it was Barcelona and Monday it was Tarragona, neither of which we intended to visit but did. Someone said in the car on Monday “If you want to make God laugh, tell him you’ve got plans!” I like that.

When we arrived back from Portugal last Monday, Jeremy picked us up in the Audi again and we were soon ensconced in our caravan, having tea and chilling. I went up to the bar at nine o’clock to play bingo and meet some of the friends. I did not go up to be told by Vera that my pal Fred had had a motorbike accident that afternoon (along with another pal Dick) and that while Dick had a few broken bones in his hand, Fred was unconscious in Tarragona hospital Intensive Care unit with a bleed on the brain. We were all pretty shocked by the news and felt terrible too for his wife of only 6 months Jeanette. But the good news is that, after a couple of anxious days of scans and checks, Fred is awake and aware again and that explains why we were in Tarragona on Monday. We took Jeanette, Fred’s brother and his wife to visit Fred in hospital. We dropped them off, bummed around the city for a couple of hours then went up to see Fred ourselves for the last half-hour before driving everyone back to the campsite.

So why were we in Barcelona the day before? Well, via the magic of Facebook, Mary discovered that Nicole, the daughter of her cousin Anne, was in Barcelona for a couple of days along with boyfriend Lucas to celebrate said boyfriend’s twenty-first birthday. Mary offered to meet up with them for a couple of hours and treat them to lunch and so it came to pass. We took the train in, met them in Placa Catalunya and took them to “Fresco” an all-you-can-eat restaurant chain. We all filled our bellies there, caught up on the gossip in the Barnett family and put them in the Metro with directions as to how to get to the Camp Nou where they were going to see Barcelona v Athletic Bilbao. Lucas filled his ambition of seeing Lionel Messi score a goal live at the Camp Nou (Barcelona won 2-0) and I honestly don’t know if Nicole fulfilled any ambitions at all at a football game.

Mary, Lucas and Nicole

Rather than come straight back on the train, I treated Lady Burton to a classic Barcelona visit to Gaudi’s “Casa Batllo” (pronounced it seems Ba-Yo), a wonderful building in the Modernist style situated on the busy Passeig de Gracia in the centre of the city. It’s unlikely I could ever really describe this place to you and certainly I couldn’t do it justice no matter how great my description might be. Best said it was the most amazing building we’ve ever been in, not a straight line in or on the five floors, a truly vertiginous experience of wood and plaster curving this way and that, wild-shaped windows, plunging stairwells and all with Gaudi’s trademark broken ceramic tile collages everywhere. What a colossus, what a genius this man was! We even got up onto the roof to get close to the fantastically-ornate chimneys and outhouses that lean out over one of Barcelona’s great avenues. Entry wasn’t cheap (29 Euros) but honestly it was money well-spent and we are very happy to have taken the decision to try it out. If you’re ever in Barcelona, this is a “must see”!

Window overlooking Passeig de Gracia

Souvenir photo (that’s the OUTSIDE wall!)

On the way back in the train, I was sent a short video of Linlithgow Amateurs game on Saturday in which Scott scored a goal to add to his hat-trick of last week. However, and it’s a huge however, the video also showed us in gory detail the hefty charge tackle a few minutes later that dislocated his right shoulder again – for the fourth time! Mary was totally raging when she saw it and the guy who barged into Scott is lucky Lady Burton hadn’t been at the game otherwise he might have ended up in the local hospital alongside Scott! Poor lad our Scotty! Just when he hits a rich vein of form, out pops his shoulder and it’s end of the season for him. At least he’s got Keira to give him loads of sympathy and spoil him rotten, but I do hope he recovers enough to enjoy his trip to Mauritius at the Easter holidays. Get well soon, son!

Poor wee soul!

Right, let’s get back to our most recent adventure which was a week in Portugal, a first for us, including three nights in the capital Lisbon and then four days and nights in a chalet on the campsite in the Algarve where our good friends Mike and Het spend their time nowadays. We chose the Portuguese airline TAP for our flights to and from Lisbon and they were fine, even serving up a wee sandwich, cup of tea and one of the famous custard tarts on both journeys absolutely free of charge. There was no extra payment for sitting together either. We caught an Aerobus from the airport and this left us about a kilometre from our Apart’hotel in the old hilly district. Boy, does Lisbon have hills! No wonder it boasts San Francisco-style little trams as one of the methods of transport.

The first night, I went off the rails!

With it raining so heavily, we stayed in that first evening and chilled out after doing a bit of shopping for our teas. But the following morning we took it easy over a long breakfast waiting for the rain to stop. However it began to look like the rain would be on for the whole day, so we donned our weatherproofs and headed out in search of the sights of Lisbon. As we often have done, we bought tickets for the City tours Bus and enjoyed one of the lines, luckily during a couple of hours when it actually wasn’t raining. This gave us a few ideas for the next day too.

Mary was enjoying herself!

Once off the bus, we set off on foot through the city centre and onto one of the cute wee trams which would take us up the hill to the castle. The guy who offered us a seat seemed polite but when I clocked his pullover hanging over his arm on what was not a warm day, I began to doubt his motives and decided he was probably a pickpocket. Feeling him close to me as I sat in the aisle seat confirmed my suspicions so I kept my right arm between him and my pockets, even though they were all closed zip pockets. He wasn’t going to dip Georgie Boy!

As we got up to get off at the top of the hill, he bumped into me. I pulled away quickly and got off with Lady Burton just behind and we crossed the street to the viewpoint. That’s when a group of girls ran up to me (I thought they wanted my autograph!) and handed me my passport which they told me I’d dropped on the tram! The swine! I couldn’t believe he’d managed to get into my pocket despite all the care I’d taken. My suspicions had been correct. As the tram was well gone by then, we reported the matter to a policeman and he phoned ahead to intercept the tram but we heard no more about the incident.

The surface of this square is dead flat!

We resolved not to let this attempted robbery spoil our visit so spent the next 3 hours on the hill visiting the cathedral and other interesting buildings. We reached the castle eventually and had a lovely visit as the light began to fade, although we only realized it was dark when we found it hard to see the edge of the ramparts we were walking around! They would never allow people to wander about old turrets and platforms thirty feet up in the dark back in Blighty! We did however get down in one piece and took a wee bus back into town.

Peacocks live up trees!

On our way back to the flat, I spotted what looked like a big covered market so we went to investigate and we were delighted to discover a huge eatery with food stalls all around the edges and long tables and stools in the middle. We decided we would have our tea there the following evening as we had already bought in for that night’s meal. Our legs were weary by now so bed soon followed tea and, as is always the case, once asleep we had no idea which town we were in! Funny that!

The rain returned during the night and we knew our tourist plan was going to be a wet one today. But we set off around eleven like the intrepid explorers we think we are and took a bus/tram down the river to a couple of places we had seen from the City bus the day before. First stop was the Padrao dos Descobrimentos, a memorial on the northern bank of the Tagus River, dedicated to the Portuguese explorers, monarchs, cartographers and scientists of the past. We took the lift to the top and got ourselves a cracking view of the city and the bridge over the Tagus with the massive statue of Christ the King on the southern bank.

The Padrao

Just a couple of hundred metres along from this stood another tourist attraction, the Belem Tower, but unfortunately it had been closed to visitors for a while already so we could only admire it from the outside. The rain was quite incessant now so I was delighted when Mary spotted a red City bus about to leave the area. We got on that one, knowing from yesterday that it would take us around to our next target, the Monasterio dos Jeronimos, a monastery, church and museum dedicated to St. Jerome. We escaped the rain for a couple of hours here and saw some interesting stuff, including the tomb of the explorer Vasco da Gama.

Tower of Belem

After a quick sandwich and a bowl of soup, we stood outside waiting for the next City bus, knowing they are every 30 minutes. An hour later, thoroughly drenched from head to toe, two buses arrived at once. We launched into complaint mode but they blamed the weather and the traffic and frankly weren’t very interested in our plight to be honest! As a result of this hiccup, we missed the last tour on the Blue line and had to content ourselves with a walk around a part of the city centre we hadn’t already seen. Then it was back to the flat, but not before we had a ride on the funicular railway whose terminus was right under the building we were staying in! That was fun but we couldn’t really get any wetter so we no doubt didn’t appreciate it as we could have in the sunshine. Our quick drink before indoors for a shower turned out to be a tourist trap and we were well overcharged for our red wine and Morgan’s and diet coke. Somehow I should have expected that!

The building we stayed in

Lady Burton on the funicular

Our dinner at the Market Hall went a long way towards cheering us up however and we returned to the flat pretty happy with our lot despite Rain, Robbery and Rip-Off! It only remained to tidy up the flat and pack our bags for the train trip the next day. I should point out that our digs were really good and I can pass on the address if anyone wants to visit Lisbon. We never saw anyone in charge at all. It was all done with codes sent by email, one for getting into the building and another one for entry to our room. The room was perfect, the bed was big and comfortable, the TV had all the necessary channels, the shower and toilet were excellent and the kitchen had all mod cons. I think we paid about 60€ a night which is a great bargain really.

Thursday saw us wind our way through the Lisbon rush-hour to make the ten o’clock train (first class!) to a place called Tunes (do people breathe more easily there?) in the Algarve from where we caught the slow train to Lagos. Our friends Mike and Het picked us up there and we visited the town of Lagos before driving round to Portimao for an hour or so. Mike stopped to let us see some storks nesting on the way to the campsite (us, not the storks!) and we had a great catch-up with them (Mike & Het, not the storks) in their caravan after tea in the bar. We were joined later by Ian and Sue whom we know from their time in Vilanova and we had a bit of a laugh until Mary and I absolutely had to crash! We were asleep within seconds of getting to bed and slept like babies.

Great coastline

Can you tell stork from butter?

The four amigos

On Friday it actually stopped raining for a couple of hours, allowing Mike to drive us around the area. We went shopping for food in Praia da Luz and I of course had to take a photo of the most infamous building in the Algarve from which wee Madeleine McCann was snatched all those years ago.

Creepy!

At one of the beaches we stopped at, Lady Burton and I contrived to get wet feet, caught by the incoming tide while our backs were turned. Het was too busy taking our photo to notice (or so she said!). In Lidl, we bought a chicken for tea for all of us. Now, at the time of purchase, I didn’t look very closely at what I’d bought, but back in the chalet, Mike was quick to point out that, along with the giblets and two other “mysterious” sealed bags, they’d sort of forgotten to chop the head and feet off! Oh no! So it was up to me, the cook, to wield the big kitchen knife, behead the beast then hack off its claws before assigning it to the oven. Surprisingly, it turned out to be perfectly delicious and the four of us enjoyed an excellent meal. After the day’s exertions we all had an early night with the weather closing in again.

This is going to hurt me….

The plan for Saturday was to take it easy, allowing Mike and I to watch a big football game on TV in the bar. However, to our great surprise, the weather forecast was totally wrong and the sun came out about eleven. As the place warmed up and dried up, we changed our plans and headed out to visit San Vicente, the very, very tip of Western Europe. Mike’s Satnav illustrated the extremity of Europe’s landmass perfectly!

Does this car have brakes?

Mike continued to drive us around to his favourite places, showing us the sights of the Algarve, warts and all. Mary and I were struck by the apparent poverty of the region and unsure as to the levels of wild camping and Roma gypsy encampments we saw. A decision was taken to eat in a restaurant that evening and we were lucky to pick a really good place in Portimao where we ate well yet cheaply. Lady Burton’s chicken came without its head and feet, much to her relief!

Our final day with Mike and Het involved driving up to Monchique, inland from Portimao, visiting the town to see the hot spring spas, stopping to admire the orange and lemon trees, cork trees and (much to my personal surprise) eucalyptus trees in abundance. We finished at the top of the Foia Mountain under which Monchique sits and we even got out of the car despite the biting wind and rain to wander round a local produce centre where we bought four candles (not fork ‘andles!). Mike drove us back to the campsite where we had a welcome nap before going down to their caravan for our last dinner with them in Portugal. Mary started on the diet coke but, thanks to Het’s constant addition of white rum to her drink, she wobbled up the road with me at the end of an excellent evening, once again with Ian and Sue popping in for the last hour.

        Ever seen a cork tree?

Check those two out!

It was an early start on Monday morning as we had to be at Lagos station for quarter to eight to catch the train back to Tunes. Thanks to good fortune and nothing else, Mike decided to accompany us into the station itself instead of driving off after depositing us outside because, as soon as we entered, we discovered there was a national rail strike! The woman at the desk did however give us forty Euros refund and we rushed round to the bus station to see what was available. Mary and I left Mike in the car and by chance took our bags with us into the bus station. We saw a driver hurrying people onto his bus as Mary queued for information and hopefully a ticket and when I enquired I was told the bus was leaving immediately for Lisbon. The driver helped Mary buy the tickets, herded us onboard and off we went! I had to phone Mike to say we were gone, as he was waiting in the car round the corner! What a stramash!

Four comfortable hours later, we arrived at Sete Rios bus station where we amazingly found an Aerobus waiting to leave! Ten minutes later we were in Lisbon airport, took our flight back to Barcelona, were met by Jeremy with the Audi and I drove us home to Vilanova Park. What a journey! I celebrated by going up to the bar after tea for a game of Bingo and I won a single line! I am convinced someone “up there” was looking after us that day.

So ended our week in Portugal. It was great seeing Mike and Het again and visiting the Algarve with them and it was nice doing the tourist stuff in Lisbon. Maybe it was the almost constant rain, but we left with reservations about the country itself (not just because of getting my pocket picked, honest!) and I don’t think we’ll be in a big hurry to go back. But this is George and Mary’s adventure so never say never. Obrigado e boa noite!

I saw a ship in sight! Repeat quickly ten times.