Monday May 22, 2017
I arrived in sunny Barcelona on Thursday morning and made my way to the hostel with no problems. The metro system here is very easy to use, and the Hola BCN card means I can take any modes of public transport, unlimited for four days. My room wasn't ready, so I ended up wandering in one direction to see what I could find.
I ended up at Plaça Espanya, where there was an automobile exhibition on. I wasn't particularly interested though, I wanted to make my way to the massive building up on the hill. I'd find out that this was the Palau Nacional, the site of the 1929 International Exhibition, and it overlooks the Magic Fountain, which lights up at night and synchronises with music.
I went back to the hostel and took a break. I'd been suffering from allergies as I made my way through the east of France and Geneva, but I'd miraculously stopped sneezing as soon as I landed in Barcelona. I was still tired though. I went for dinner some time later and made a complete fool of myself, spilling Fanta on my pants and flicking oil from my prawns into my face. I also had a talk with a lady from Hong Kong who seemed critical of my life choices (she called New Zealand boring and seemed shocked I was spending only four days in Barcelona, compared to her two weeks). It wasn't a pleasant night.
On Friday, my first stop was Sagrada Familia. As I exited the metro station, I looked around to see where the cathedral was and as I looked behind me, my jaw dropped. It's massive. It's not even finished - it's going to be taller than that. The architecture is gorgeous and so purposeful. Everything is there for a reason and has a meaning. The stained glass on the east are greens and blues to capture the morning sun, while the glass on the west are reds and yellows for the evening sun. The columns lining the nave look like trees with branches supporting the roof. Each facade depicts one of three crucial points of Jesus's life - the Nativity, the Glory and the Passion. Each apostle is represented by a tower, each gospel writer has a tower as well, a taller tower represents the Virgin Mary and the central tower, the tallest and yet to be finished, will represent Jesus. I spent ages wandering around, admiring all the different symbolism and choices behind them. It's truly stunning. I will have to return in 2026 when it is complete.
I saw several more of Gaudi's buildings throughout the day. I visited Plaça de Catalunya and La Rambla. There was the Mercado de La Boqueria, full of delicious fruit, meat and seafood. I went all the way down to the waterfront by Maremagnum and took a quick doze there. I loved every moment of it, just absorbing the atmosphere of Barcelona and the glorious sunshine.
I returned to La Rambla for dinner - twice. Once in the market and another just off the main road. The advantage of tapas is that you can easily eat more in a single night, but it does get quite expensive, especially for the solo traveller. In any case, it was a much more pleasant experience than the night before.
I caught the Magic Fountain show as well. A full hour of music and lights as the glow of sunset gives way to night; the atmosphere was warm and friendly as we enjoyed hits like Pompeii, Counting Stars and Somebody to Love.
On Saturday, I went to the Arc de Triomf and explored the gardens around that area before taking a stroll on the beach. I can see why Barcelona's beaches are so popular. Your view is a beautiful expanse of blue sea while you laze about on the pristine imported sand in balmy 20C weather.
I took a tour to Montserrat in the afternoon. It's a mountain to the northwest of Barcelona where a monastery was built in homage to where a relic of the Virgin Mary was found. Montserrat translates to English as Saw Mountain (serrat like serrated) and true to its name, the jagged peaks of limestone looked very saw-like indeed. One rock formation on the mountain is called the camel, and a small triangular gap in the structure has been used in a death-defying wing suit jump. No thanks.
You could easy spend a full day up here walking all the hiking trails to various panoramic sites. I only had time to take the funicular up to Sant Joan, where the views of Barcelona and the Mediterranean were breathtaking. You could see the Pyrenees as well, off the in north. I got to try four types of local liquors as well, made by the monks at the monastery, because there's not much else to do on the mountain. There was a sweet herby one, a coffee one, a hazelnut one which was very good, and the last one was a creme brûlée cream liquor which was my favourite.
Yesterday, I did my laundry in the morning, then returned to the beach to take the cable car to Montjuic. It was quite a wait as there are only two cars, but the view of the city is awesome, and it was such a good day as well. I spent the entire afternoon around Montjuic, walking around the castle, various parks and the Olympic Stadium.
For dinner, I took the funicular back down to the city and found a highly rated paella place. I was seated at the bar next to three Singaporean girls, whose accents I had recognised. We had a good talk about travels and food, and it was refreshing to get that level of social interaction. They apologised for taking pictures of their food.
We shared our starters, which was really nice of them, and I also ended up eating some of their seafood paella because they couldn't finish it. The bar had been playing American music throughout the night, and we couldn't help but sing along when Britney's Hit Me Baby One More Time came up. So good. A really enjoyable dinner with excellent company and atmosphere.
A lot of the gentrification of Barcelona was the result of the World Expo and the Olympics. The infrastructure is well developed and it is incredibly easy to get around on the metro; the Barcelona public transport company even runs some of the funiculars. It remains as one of Europe's most popular tourist destinations and I can finally see why. Sagrada Familia alone was worth the trip here, but there is so much to see and do. The food has been fantastic and the weather absolutely glorious. I'd love to come back with a group of friends and enjoy tapas in its fullest form, with bottles of sangria and mojitos.
Thursday May 18, 2017
Geneva has been lovely. It's incredibly picturesque here, much like Queenstown with the main feature being the lake, then the mountains (all French!) surrounding the remainder of the city. The Jet d'Eau is unmistakably the most recognisable landmark, shooting water 140m into the air, but the city has many other wonderful things to see.
The bus from Lyon took a while, but we made it to Gare Geneva just before 8pm, an hour after scheduled arrival. We were held up at the Swiss border by passport control and customs, who took two passengers off board for questioning. I met Jesse for dinner and retired for the night; it had been quite a long day.
On Tuesday, I had a tour at CERN, which I had been looking forward to. Unfortunately I didn't get to see the LHC as it was operating, but we did see CERN's first particle accelerator, the Synchrocyclotron, as well as ATLAS, one of the four detection stations stationed around the massive 27km diameter ring of the Large Hadron Collider. Though we didn't see much, there was a lot of learn about how the machines worked and how they were built, and I found it fascinating and mindboggling how big these machines are. You don't really get an appreciation of their size until you see them up close. After the tour, I met Jesse for lunch at CERN's cafeteria; he also showed me the WWW plaque.
I took the bus to the other side of town and crossed back into France at Veyrier. There's a cable car to Saleve, one of the mountain ridges overlooking Geneva on one side, and the French Alps on the other. The views at the top were stunning, and it was such a beautiful day as well. I walked around the tracks for a good few hours, enjoying panoramas on both sides. I returned to Geneva and had a simple picnic with Jesse and Rachel by Jonction, the confluence of the Rhone and Arve rivers.
Yesterday I had a late start because I've been hit with pretty severe allergies and have been quite tired as a result. I walked to the UN building and over to the botanic gardens, then down to Bains des Paquis. I continued through the city centre to Plainpalais where there was a flea market; really, I was there to find a place called Aux Merveilleux de Fred, a patissier. Nearby was the Cathedral of St Peter and a very good creperie; I continued north past Old Town to Jardin Anglais, Jet d'Eau and Parc de la Grange. We went for dinner at this place in Old Town that did roast chicken, then we got some Movenpick (so quintessentially Swiss) and a few drinks at a rooftop bar near Jardin Anglais. The view from there was awesome, we were overlooking the lake as the sun set. The fountain had been lit up in rainbow colours to celebrate Anti Homophobia Day.
I rushed to Geneva Airport this morning, barely awake. I was a little behind schedule, but thankfully nothing went horribly wrong and I'm now waiting for my flight to my next exciting destination. It's started to cloud over here, a stark contrast to the brilliant blue skies I've had over the past two days.
Tuesday May 16, 2017
The French leg of my journey is almost over. I'm currently in Lyon, another beautiful city built at the confluence of the Rhone and Saone Rivers. Yesterday, I took the bus from Vallon Pont d'Arc to Valence and had a 15 minute layover before the train to Lyon. Though I needed to go to the toilet, the temptation to play on my final Piano en Gare was too great, and as it was a Sunday, there were quite a few families around who enjoyed my rendition of Let it Go.
I had ambitions to do some exploring after dinner in Lyon but it began to rain heavily, producing a whoa omg double rainbow in the sky. I left my explorations for today; I walked all the way to the confluence point of the two rivers, then took the metro into the town centre and walked around there. I can't help but think I should have stayed here a bit longer to enjoy all the Lyonnaise bouchons, traditional restaurants that serve typical Lyon foods like sausages, pâté and roast pork. I may have to come back in the future.
The last two weeks have been heaps of fun though. I thoroughly enjoyed the sights around the whole country, my favourites being Mont St Michel, the Machines on the Isle of Nantes, and the Ardeche River kayaking adventure. The food has been very enjoyable too, I didn't have a single bad meal. My rudimentary French has definitely helped, and I found people very polite. I couldn't hold a full conversation with anyone, but I managed to order food, ask for directions and get information. My ability to read is much better than my ability to speak, so I understood menus and signboards quite well.
I loved all the pianos in the train stations...wait a second. I can hear one playing now. I have to find it. This will be my actually final Piano en Gare. The guy playing is amazing but he keeps stopping midway through songs and playing something else. He better finish soon so I can have a turn.
Okay I cut it real close but I got two songs in - Let it Go and the Pokemon Theme song. A couple of keys were bung and I had to rush because my bus was leaving soon, but I made it. I didn't get a chance to get a photo of the piano though, this one will just remain a written memory.
Au revoir France, et merci beaucoup!
Monday May 15, 2017
Far away from the hustle and bustle of French cities is Vallon Pont d'Arc. It sits near the Ardeche River, in particular a section known for its beautiful limestone gorges and the Pont d'Arc, a 60m natural stone bridge that spans the river. I took a bus here from Avignon on Friday, and the town was practically deserted, save for a few restaurants and the supermarket. I walked around town and down to the river, but settled in early for a big day the next day.
What better way to see the magnificence of the Ardeche Gorges than by kayak? I'm the kind of traveller that loves to do things, as opposed to wandering around and seeing things. My favourite day in Italy was the day I walked the length of Cinque Terre. It turns out that the water level is higher than usual, due to wet weather the previous few days. This means that the current flows faster so I don't have to paddle as much, but it also means the rapids will be quite rough. All the better for an adventure!
It was cloudy and foggy when I started at 9am. I'd chosen the 32km route, which some people do in two days, but I decide I could do it in one, even before the increased current speed. Somehow, something was lost in translation and I didn't realise I'd be kayaking this by myself. Oh well. I'm sure I'll be fine.
There was hardly anyone else on the river so I took my time. As expected, I had reached the Pont d'Arc, an hour ahead of schedule, so I had to slow down more. I stopped by a campsite to see if I could get some food, but they were closed as it isn't peak season yet. Another campsite further down sold me a pack of chocolate biscuits, which, with a single banana, was my sustenance for the entire journey.
As the day progressed, the clouds broke away to some glorious sunshine, so as the saying goes, sun's out, guns out. I had enjoyed the solitude on the water, very peacefully floating down and admiring the magnificent stone structures and greenery around me. A few more kayaks and canoes started appearing, but at the end of the day, there wouldn't have been more than 20 on the water. I got wet a few times going through rapids, but never capsized, thankfully. I reached the end point an hour ahead of schedule, even with taking several breaks along the way. It was the best day I've had in France, and very grateful that the weather was so fine.
I do have a slight sunburn on both my shoulders, and I may have contracted a cold, but I would have happily done that trip again. I thought about how much fun I had on the Great Kayaking Trip around Abel Tasman National Park a few years back, and the Ardeche Gorge would have been way more fun with some friends by my side.
I wasn't feeling too sore this morning, apart from the sunburn, and I was out of the hotel at 10am. To my surprise, the main street was closed for Sunday markets, selling all sorts of charcuterie, sausages, cheeses, oils, fruits, vegetables, jams, breads, candles, antiques and other miscellany. A marching band paraded through and stopped outside the city hall to play Adele's Hello, and were replaced by an elderly group in formal garb, dancing to traditional instruments. It was so adorable. I stayed, watching their performance for almost an hour, and left as they started recruiting volunteers to dance with them.
Today is my last full day in France!
Friday May 12, 2017
Avignon is a quiet little city whose main centre is completely enclosed in medieval ramparts which remain standing today. The main feature in its skyline is the massive Palais des Papes, the Palace of the Popes, which housed six Roman Catholic popes for some time in the 14th century.
It has been quite wet during my time here, but I have enjoyed immensely. The streets are in various state of maintenance but that didn't stop me wandering all over town. There's the Pont d'Avignon, which stretches halfway over the Rhone River; Rue des Teinturiers, which has a little stream running along side it, and water wheels all along; and Rocher des Doms, a garden overlooking the Rhone and countryside beyond Avignon. I spent a few hours with an audio guide wandering around the Papal Palace too, because that seemed like the biggest attraction in town.
I was also incredibly amused to find a restaurant called Fou de Fafa, which I confirmed with the owner was named after the Flight of the Conchords song. I mentioned that I was from New Zealand and said that I would try to spread the word about the restaurant to see if it could get to Bret and Jermaine, just because everyone in New Zealand is separated by two degrees.
The weather is forecast to be stormy for the next few days as well, which is incredibly sad because I'm off to Vallon Pont d'Arc to do some kayaking. I found my Piano en Gare but it was in terrible condition and the pedal didn't work, so To Zanarkand sounded terrible on it. I didn't even bother playing Let it Go!