Friday, 31 August 2012

Days 66-72: Barcelona!

Barcelona was amazing. The city was so beautiful, everywhere you looked there was something amazing to see.  The first day we didn’t do much at all as we were feeling so grotty. On the second day we bought tickets on the bus tour around the city.  I’m really glad we did that, it meant we got to see a lot more than we would have otherwise, and we got to learn about the things we saw as well, as they provided an audio guide in English to the things that you could see. From this we got our first sight of La Basilica de la Sagrada Familia.

We had lunch at a place on the water front. We had a Catalan cheese platter served with bread crisps and violet jelly, followed by some sort of beef steak bolognaise thing, which was very nice the meat just fell apart in your mouth.  Of course, being in Spain we had to have some Sangria to wash it down with. Sangria is amazing, this one was particularly so. It had chunks of apples and oranges and was just so delicious. My mouth is watering just remembering it.

After lunch we got back on the tourist bus and went around another route, and learned more than I ever wanted to know about some important stadium that was built in Barcelona, you may be able to tell that I promptly forgot everything I learned. After the tourist bus we decided to go back to the hotel, but decided that we should get some food before going back there as there really wasn’t anywhere around to get food. So we went to a place near the metro stop. We had some more Sangria, some bread with tomatoes and Paella. The Sangria was again very delicious, this time it was also REALLY strong. 

The next day we decided to visit the Park Güell. It took us a long time to get there, partly because we stopped and had lunch, partly because we looked in a lot of the shops along the way, and partly because we stopped at a Gaudi Museum, where we watched a 3D movie about the inspiration for some of his works. It was one of the most bizarre movies I have ever seen, and I've seen some pretty weird movies. For example this movie included a skeletal knight, meant to be Saint George, on horseback fighting a weird Dragon thing. The final thrust of the sword that killed the dragon was through his eye, and left the sword in. The sword then turned into a Chimney thing, and the Dragon into a house, with its rib cage making up the attic and the spine and tail turning into the spiral stair case. More on this later. Despite how weird it sounds, it kinda makes sense when you see the house. Gaudi was one weird Genius.

 Park Güell is one of Antoni Gaudi's projects, it was designed as a new housing development, but was abandoned before its completion due to lack of interest. The lack of interest is incomprehensible now as it is one of the biggest tourist attractions in Barcelona, and I for one would gladly live there. It is often described as a Doctor Seuss playground, I can see why, but I'm not sure I agree. 

La Sagrada Familia, which we visited a couple of days later is one of the single most amazing things I have ever seen. It is absolutely indescribable. Guadi designed the Cathedral and started building it in 1882, knowing full well that he would never see it completed, it's not yet finished and is expected to take at least another twenty years. But it was his passion, and his baby, every aspect of it is designed to be beautiful, even the stairwells are designed to look like sea shells when seen looking up at them. It was one of the most light and peaceful churches I've been in. You walk in and feel rested. Gaudi loved light, and designed the church to have an even distribution of light around, he even designed the upper most windows the be made only of light grey, white and clear glass to allow the natural light in, which some how enhances the rest of the stained glass windows. I can't do it justice, it is something that you will have to see for yourself. 

The construction of the church is funded entirely by anonymous donations, and now the entry fees as well. I will definitely be going back to see it when it is completed. If it is this amazing now, with only a few of the towers and windows complete, what will it be like when it is all finished?

The last big thing we did in Barcelona was visit La Casa Batilo, the house based on the Dragon killed by Saint George. I'm guessing you are sensing a bit of a theme to our time in Barcelona, and most of the tourist things we did were to do with Gaudi, that is only because the more of his work we saw the more fascinated by him we became. His work is sensational. In fact at La Casa Batilo they promised us that we could experience Gaudi's work with all five of our senses, they lied and only provided experiences for four, but I improvised for the fifth. 

The Casa Batilo, was the home of the Batilo family, who lived on the first floor with the other floors being let out as individual apartments. Gaudi designed not only the entire house, but most of the furniture, the water tank systems, and also created a new script to label the different apartments in the house. The light well in the middle of the house was decorated with blue tiles that got darker the closer to the top they were so that your mind was tricked into thinking the tiles were the same colour all the way  down. There are very few right angles in the house, because the entire house is inspired by water, and you don't get right angles in water. The glass in the light well is manipulated so that when you look through it it looks like you are looking through water.  

Again indescribable. Have some photos:
The main stairwell. Notice how the wooden bits look like the spine of an animal.

This space was designed for a man, woman and their chaperone to sit in comfort. 

The main reception room. 

The light well through the glass.

The roof, supposedly the white cross is the hilt of the sword and this is the head of the Dragon. 

Days 21-50:England (take one)

Alright I'm failing pretty badly at this whole updating my blog thing at the moment. It's pretty stupid really because we have done some awesome things while we've been here.

When we first arrived we stayed with my aunt in Shepperton, outside of London, we stayed for a couple of nights and spent one full day in London with two of our closest friends. The day involved being completely baffled by the sheer number of people. We walked from Waterloo station, past Westminster Abbey and big Ben, down past Downing street, and to Trafalgar square. After stopping for lunch we decided to have a look at some of the best known big English stores. First we went to Hamleys,the giant toy store, a store that would make anyone feel like a kid again. Next to Selfridges a Huge department store, and on to Harrods, another huge department store.

After our day in London we headed down to Oakham, the county town of Rutland, and the place where my grandparents live. It was lovely to see my grandparents again, and really nice to be able to relax. I loved travelling around Malaysia, but it did feel like we had to keep going, there was so much to see while we were there and we had so little time, that we felt guilty when we took some time out to just blob. We did a fair bit of blobbing once we got to Oakham. We didn't feel as guilty about it for a number of reasons, it rained a lot, which made it easier to stay inside, but more importantly, we are planning to live in England so anything we don't do now, we will have a chance to do later.

Everything in England is so big and old. That's one of the things that strikes me most about England. Everywhere we go there is something to see that has been around far longer than any man made object from back home. So far we have been to churches and found grave stones dating back to 1577 and earlier, been to a pub that has been around since 1190, we've been to an Iron age camp that is being excavated to discover exactly the what the shape was.

The stone-age camp was the first place we went to. It was a lovely day in Oakham, one of the first nice days they have had for months and months apparently and we decided to make the most of it by going to Borrough-on-the-hill. When I stayed with my grandparents when I was twelve I visited Burrough several times as it was only about half a mile away from the village in which they lived. It has only changed slightly from the place that I used to visit, and that is only because they are excavating it to find out the exact shape of the roman camps. The views from around Burrough are stunning. You can see for miles across the English countryside.

After a few days of rain, in which we didn't bother to do anything much we went to Melton Mowbray to have a look around. Melton is a tiny little town, but one thing it really knows how to do is Hand raised pork pies. They are rather hard to describe, and when you do describe them they sound revolting, but are actually one of the most delicious things you can imagine. If  you like meat of course.

Main room in the Guild hall.
We also went to Leicester. I didn't really like Leicester much. The town was soulless. Although was a very pretty Guilde hall which dated back several hundred years and had been used for the town hall and mayoral offices for centuries as well. The place was stunningly beautiful.

Nottingham on the other hand, was much nicer. The whole city feels friendly and it has a lovely atmosphere. It is also home to the "Oldest Pub in England" called The Trippe To Jerusalem as Crusaders used to stop there on their way out to fight. We did a few touristy things in Nottingham, went to the caves of Nottingham, an underground network of caves that have been dug out of the sandstone over centuries and used for various purposes like tanneries, and air raid shelters, and are still used as cellars by many of the pubs in Nottingham. We went to the Crime and Punishment Museum, in the old Gaol, which was really quite cool. And we went to Nottingham Castle, which was hugely disappointing, as it has been turned into a museum featuring Eastern wonders, and modern art.

Nottingham was so nice in fact that we have decided that when we are finished travelling around Europe we will look to live in Nottingham. After a lot of discussion and thought we decided that Edinburgh might be nice to visit, but not somewhere I would want to live.

Argh! That's enough I'm never going to finish writing this post. I give up. You can have half a post so that I can get on with updating about the rest of the trip.

Days 58-65: Orleans and Toulouse

So let’s start with Orleans. Orleans is somewhere I have always wanted to go; I have always had a strange fascination with Joan of Arc, and have always wanted to see the place whence she came. So when we decided we were going to the Loire Valley, and discovered that the popular places like Tours were well out of our Price Range I decided to push for Orleans instead. This I think was a mistake.

Don’t get me wrong, Orleans was very pretty, and we ate some nice food, and saw some nice things, but there wasn’t much to do, and I think we would have been better going to Tours than Orleans. We didn’t get to go to a vineyard or try much Loire Valley wine.  Oh Well C’est La Vie as they say.

On the first night we arrived quite late, and after finding our hotel, we decided to go out for dinner. We went to a place near to our hotel, there weren’t many places around, and we were a bit worried because the place didn’t look like it would do very good food. We were wrong. It was one of the nicest meals we’ve eaten. They did a cheap Formule – a deal where you can pick off a select menu and get a starter, main and desert, usually for about the same price as just a main.  We also ordered a bottle of Loire Valley red wine. One of the greatest things about coming to Europe is discovering that I can drink red wine over here.  

For our started we had Aubergine Crumble. This was absolutely one of the best things I’ve eaten in Europe. It was amazing, and, although I don’t have the actual recipe, I’m going to tell you what we worked out of how it was made, so that you can try it for yourselves. You really should it’s amazing.

Aubergine Crumble:

Sundried Tomatoes in oil
Red Onions
Garlic (not too much)
Goats cheese (or other strong crumbly cheese such as strong Feta)

First prepare the Aubergine mixture. Finely dice the aubergines, sundried tomatoes, red onions and garlic, and sauté them in a little bit of the oil from the tomatoes and the herbs, only a little of each.  When the mixture is very soft and well-cooked put it into a medium sized flat ramekin ideally about 10cm diameter, one dish per person.

When the mixture has cooled flake some of the cheese evenly and sparingly across the top of the mixture. You don’t want this to completely cover it, but use your own judgement and preferences.

Next make the crumble. Use flour and butter as you would for any crumble, and add a little bit of polenta to give it a bit of crunch.  Sprinkle a layer over the top of the mixture, not too thick, but not too sparing either.
Bake in the oven until top is slightly browned, and eat while still hot.

You should try it, trust me it’s amazing.  We will be cooking it for my grandparents when we get back to England.

What else did we do in Orleans? We did a little shopping, bought some amazingly soft summer Pyjamas, everything I had with me was way too warm.  We also went and visited the Cathedral in Orleans, I think it was called Sainte Croix, and is supposed to be one of the most beautiful cathedrals in France, comparable only to Notre Dame. I can see why they compare it to Notre Dame, it has a similar structure and form, and it was very beautiful. But nothing like as grand as Notre Dame.

The only other thing of interest that happened in Orleans was being picked up by two guys as we got the tram back to our hotel on our last evening in Orleans. These two guys just started talking to us, they missed their own tram stop and went with us to ours instead. We stood around on the platform making awkward conversation for a while, awkward because only one of them spoke any English, and my French is pretty bad, and Megan speaks even less. After a little while, one of the guys, Alain, decided to ask me in French “Have you ever slept with a Frenchman? Tres Boom Boom” which we took as our cue to leave. 

M had given the other guy, Aladji, her phone number, and we went back to our hotel to get ready to leave. He called about 10 minutes later asking us to come and meet them on the tram station. We said no and goodbye. After another ten minutes or so he called back again asking the same thing, this time we decided we may as well, and said yes. When they got to the tram station they each made a beeline for one of us. Aladji proclaimed his undying love for me, only after I had given him my number. He called me at least 6 times a day for the next week, until I told him that it was too much and to stop calling me, then it slowed down to only 1 or two calls. Now he seems to have given up, but I’m not sure because I’ve been in Barcelona for a week.

Again, Toulouse was somewhere I’ve wanted to go for a long time. I have a very good friend, who I’ve known for many, many years, who grew up in Toulouse. We had always had plans for me to go and visit her there, but with one thing and another it never ended up happening. So I was very excited to go to Toulouse, she had given me a list of things to see, places to visit. When we first arrived it was late in the evening on Saturday, we’d eaten on the train so we really just wanted to sleep. The hotel we were staying at for the first night was very simple and plain, but that wasn’t a problem as we only wanted to sleep.

The next morning we went to our next hotel, we were hotel jumping to save money, one was very central, but very expensive for the first night, the other was quite far out, but much cheaper on the first night. I’m glad we stayed there though, it showed us a place called La cite d’espace. A space museum.

When we got to the second hotel we checked in and then went off to have a look around. My firend had told us of a flea market that happened on Sundays in the Square of the big Cathedral in Toulouse, which just so happened to be only 15 minutes’ walk from the place where we were staying. The flea market, although cool, wasn’t what we were expecting, and seemed not to have much there. This is probably because a) we were there quite late in the day from the hotel jumping, and b) because it was August, and everyone in France goes on Holiday. We had a look around, and then went to look in the Church.

The Church was beautiful. Apparently it was built by one of Toulouse’s very own saints, and built to house a reliquary as Toulouse was a site of Pilgrimage in the middle ages, it was thought that a better church was needed to host them. It was pretty cool, it also means that although M and I are not Pilgrams, we have now seen three pieces of the “true cross” as well as seeing the alleged Crown of Thorns.

The next day we went to visit the city of space that we had seen from our hotel. It looked very intriguing. There were big rockets, and half a globe, and some  a big white building called l’Australia. It was quite interesting, despite most things being in French. We went see an Imax movie about the Hubble telescope, and we went to the planetarium, both of which had translations, then we went to the globe thing which turned out to be a quiz game, which we played, but  as it was all in French we didn’t do very well.  

The rest of our time in Toulouse, we just wandered around the town eating at places that looked nice and not doing very much at all. Not all of the places did the nicest food, and one place gave us both food poisoning, which was not very nice at all! Particularly as the next day we had to take a six and a half hour train to Barcelona.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

days 51-57 Paris

Ok so first off, I think we can all agree that I've been crap at updating for England. There is a post in the works, but we have had a few technical difficulties with the camera, so I haven't finished writing it. So it is now going to go slightly out of order while I write about our week in Paris. I'll try to get the England post finished and uploaded as soon as possible.

So back to Paris.

We arrived on Tuesday, after catching the train from London to Paris. The idea of catching a train to a different country still amazes me, we can't even catch the train from one end of our country to the other. The train was pretty uneventful, but we somewhat appropriately played French travel scrabble on the train. The actual game is french which means that some of the letters are worth different amounts, so we had to come up with some new tricks, and some of our old ones didn't work in the same way. The trip was so short that despite starting the game before we left the station in London we still hadn't finished before we arrived. As soon as we got out of the tunnel in France we were avidly staring out of the window for our first glimpse of the Eiffel Tower, and therefore Paris.
Our first view of the Eiffel tower, can you see it?
 After we had organised everything with the apartment we were staying in, we went off to explore Montmartre. Turns out that we are staying in the middle of several places used in the movie Amelie, which is pretty cool, and just down the road from Sacre Coeur. We went out for dinner, and had le Formule from one of the places near Sacre Coeur. Le Formule is amazing, it is a really cheap way of getting a very good meal, you usually get a starter, main, and desert for slightly over the price of a main. I had French onion soup, followed by penne de Basilica, and creme brulee. The onion soup was a little disapointing, but the rest was delicious.
Sacre Coeur
On Wednesday, we wandered around Montmartre a little bit, and then went to Notre Dame to have a look around. I've wanted to go to Notre Dame, ever since I was six years old and watched Gina Lollabridgida in the Hunchback of Notre Dame. It wasn't at all disapointing. The place is amazingly beautiful, which is just as well really as we had to queue for an hour to get into the church and then another two hours to get into the towers. I learned a lot whilst in Notre Dame, did you know, for instance, that it is home to not only two peices of the true cross, but also to Jesus's Crown of thorns?
Rose window
The Crown of Thorns is supposedly in the red glass .

The view from the top was stunning and completely indescribable. Not even photos really do it justice, but the view was completely worth walking up the 400+ stairs to get there, and I got to see some of the Grotesques for myself.
This one is my favourite. I love how thoughtful he looks.

On Thursday we went to Graveyards. First the Montmartre Graveyard and then Pere Lachaise. I love graveyards, and I could (and did) spend hours in them. French graveyards are very different to English ones, each family seems to have it's own sepulchre, in which whole families get interred. In the Montmartre graveyard, we found a sepulchre with my family name on it, as far as I am aware, I don't have family with that name from france, but it would be interesting to find out if they are related to me. Either way, their sepulchre was beautiful, a lovely blue, and presumably showing the way in which they died. On one side it had a ship sailing, and on the back it was sinking with people in the water.

At the Pere Lachaise cemetery, we wandered around for a while before finding the essential graves to visit: Jim Morrison, and Oscar Wilde. Both were behind fences to stop the fans from destroying them. Oscar Wilde's was behind a glass wall because his family didn't like the fact that so many people would kiss his tomb and write messages on it,  I can kind of understand not liking the messages, but I think if he were my ancestor I'd be touched that so many people love him in that way. It seems sad to lock it up behind a glass wall, although that hasn't stopped anything. To be honest I'm not sure how much I actually like his tomb, it's a weird modern angel thing, and somehow it doesn't seem to suit him. My mum sent me a quote of his of what he imagined for himself after he had died "To lie in the soft brown earth, with the grasses waving above one's head" Which seems so far removed from what he got, I find it quite sad.

On Friday, we went to the Louvre. We'd read up about it before of course, heard that it was impossible to see it all, and you had to get there early to avoid the queues. We managed to do that, we got there half an hour before it opened, and there was already a queue there, but while we were waiting it trebled, so it was lucky we were early. We had decided that the best policy was to head straight to the Mona Lisa, as this would be the most popular place and we wanted to get a decent look, and then work our way around from there. We did this, but there was already a crowd. 

After seeing the Mona Lisa, we decided to make our way around the rest of the floor seeing as much as possible. We systematically walked around the floor, looking at the paintings taking photos of the things we thought were pretty. It took us an hour and a half, and then we decided, to have a look at the Venus de Milo and go and get a drink. Which we did all the while talking about all the people who said you couldn't see the Louvre in a day, it had only taken us an hour and a half to see one floor. or so we thought. When we were having a drink we looked at the map, and realised that we hadn't seen a whole floor, we had seen part of one wing of one floor. We decided to look at the rest of the floor, we had to see at least one Floor of the Louvre. It took us five and a half hours to see one floor, and then another half hour to get out. After four hours our brains had turned to mush and we weren't really taking it in. It was a complete sensory overload, there is, apparently, only so much beauty you can see in any one day. We had to spend the rest of the day doing nothing and recovering from it. It was an amazing experience, but I think to see it all you would need weeks, because you would need to spend a couple of hours a day there and leave before your brain melts.

Stop, Here is the Empire of the Dead!

On Saturday we tried and failed to go to the Catacombs, with one thing and another we got there late and the line was so long that it would have taken nearly three hours to get in, and they closed in less than two, so we decided to come back the next day. We went the next day, and got there early, just as it opened, but we still had to wait for nearly three hours to get in, luckily there was a friendly American family standing next to us which gave us some good conversation.  The Catacombs were amazing. I would recommend anyone visiting Paris go to see them, and get the audio guide, you learn so many interesting things. 

On Monday, we went to the Eiffel Tower. It may because we had already seen so many beautiful things, but this was my least favourite of all the things we did in Paris. The view was good, but the one from the top of Notre Dame was better, and to be honest the tower itself is somewhat ugly. I'm glad I did it, because it was one of the things on my bucket list. But I enjoyed it more because it was visiting the Eiffel Tower than for actually doing it, if you understand what I mean. 

We went out for dinner on our final night, and had very similar meals to our first night here, only this time my onion soup was much better. Then we came back to the apartment to pack, because we are going to Orleans today. I'll keep you all informed of how it goes, and make sure to tell you if I have any visions from god, or hear any voices from Saint Catherine. I'm hoping there will be some Joan d'Arc tribute I can see. I've always been fascinated by Joan d'Arc, so when we decided we were going to go to the Loire Valley, I was pushing for Orleans. Although of course we will be trying some of the amazing wine as well.