Sunday, October 19, 2008

They took our cup, but they couldn't take our spirit: Conquering Valencia.

Next, and more substantial stop on the itinerary was sunny Valencia, home of the America's Cup, one of the longest central city parks ever, and quite possibly the strangest set of buildings in the world...
We started our touristing by visiting the Torres de Quart, which, until the mid-nineteenth century formed part of a city wall, and now is just a cool old tower/fortification. From there, we rolled through the central food market, though were pleased/disappointed [depending on which way you want to view it] to find no bunches of hanging carcasses this time.
Made our way to the Cathedral, which dates from the thirteenth century, and *supposedly* holds the chalice used at the Last Supper, used by a number of popes over the years.. Not that we saw anything of said relic though, of course... so we just admired the amazing interior instead, not so crazy and intense and over the top as some we have seen recently, but gave it more of a feeling of calm inside. Also mighty impressive from outside, as the Cathedral was completed over a number of centuries and so is a real mix of styles, mostly Gothic, but a bit of Neoclassical and Baroque, together with a smattering of remains of the old Visigoth cathedral that stood on the site prior to the current building's construction...
After the Cathedral we went for a very long and very strange walk through one of the most distinctive features in Valencia, the many-kilometre long park that runs through the city in the bed of a dried up river which was diverted after severe flooding in the 1960s. Passing many playground, fountain, and wandering dog, we made it to the "ciudad de las artes y las ciences de Valencia" [or City of Arts and Sciences] - quite possibly one of the more ambitious architectural projects we have ever seen.. It is made up of four main parts, the first you pass is 'L'Umbracle', shaped by 55 fixed arches and 54 floating arches covered in climbing plants, which covers 7,000 square metres... the 'El Palau de les Arts Reina Sofía' is a giant eye shaped performance arts centre...
then comes 'Hemisferic', a giant dome containing an Imax theatre... eventually you get to 'L'Oceanogràfic', a giant open-air ocean park, the largest complex of it's type in Europe, and containing 45,000 animals from 500 different species... But really, the most impressive thing is the buildings themselves, regardless of what they hold - they are crazy huge constructions of glass, steel, bizarre angles and lots and lots of water... an absolute engineering nightmare to construct, I'm sure, but spectacular to behold now!
Our final port of call was the harbour itself, and the America's Cup village it holds there, since those nasty Swiss stole it from us.. The village itself felt rather desolate and empty, but that would be the case with nothing going on... I imagine it positively hums in race season. And we got to see a few giant framed, signed photos in the America's Cup exhibit centre, including our friends Grant Dalton and Dean Barker, but not that traitor Russell Coutts... though I'm not sure he isn't happier with his millions of dollars than he would be with a photo on a wall in a building no-one seems to visit in a coastal Spanish town.... still, we know something about national pride! :)
Outside and around the village was what will be used for the Valencia edition of the F1 Grand Prix, though it also looked rather sad with the odd car just puttering along in no particular hurry...
Anyway, we walked till we couldn't walk any more, and while the only kiwi-related site we have seen in a long long time wasn't exactly thriving, it was very cool to be able to say we have been there...
And now for more touristy times... off to busy Barcelona :)

History, religion, castley goodness - One day in Granada.

After Seville, we had a superspeedy stopover in Granada, home to the most-visited monument in Spain, the Alhambra.
The Alhambra is a palace and fortress complex of the Moorish rulers in Spain, begun [they think] in the 9th century, and completed in the fourteenth century [though modified plenty since then..] Anyway, anyone looking for a history lesson can find it at ...
It just has to be seen... the name means 'red castle', and was meant to be because it was built on red clay... but now the walls and fortifications themselves appear red, though they were once whitewashed. The sheer scale of the site is completely daunting, covering over 140,000m squared area... and walking around it it feels every bit that big. Simple though it may sound, what got to us was the sheer 'castle-ness' of it all... irrelevant/unexciting if you have grown up in an area steeped in centuries and centuries of history, but to two [literally, at times] lost kiwis 20,000km from home, it was mind-blowing. The history that this site has seen, the destructive forces it has withstood, and those that it did not make it through - as evident in the many ruined/collapsed bridges/former buildings around.
In an attempt at shortest post in some time, we'll leave it there... awe-inspiring, larger than life, and oozing history all over the dusty red clay - whatever hassle it takes to get to Granada is worth it just to say you've been.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Sunny, super, Seville - yah, Spain!!

Well, our Spanish experience didn't get off to the greatest start, when we got entirely confused, and planned on catching a train from Lagos to Seville... which, it turns out, you can't...
So, we got a train from Lagos to Faro [the 'capital' of the Algarve region], then waited two and half hours for another train to Vila Real de Sao Antonio, where we found two Australians who shared a taxi with us to a ferry terminal, where we caught a ferry across the Portuguese border into Spain [who knew there was water there?], then a taxi across town to the bus station, where we made the last bus by about 20 seconds, caught a bus to Huelva, and then a bus from Huelva to Seville....all of which taking about 10.5 hours... then a walk to the hostel... by which stage we were somewhat tired, though slightly bemused by just how many forms of transport we had managed to use in one day..
Anyway, the point is, whatever it took, it was more than worth it, because Seville is a simply stunning city, and everything anyone could want for a first introduction to life in Spain.

The city is [as so many are, we have discovered] built on the banks of a river dissecting the city centre, and we began by visiting the huge daily fresh food market with a lovely New Zealand couple [from Ekatuhuna, of all places!], who we had met in our hostel. As an aside, I find it interesting, that considering well over a quarter of the New Zealand population live in Auckland, we have been travelling for just over five months, and have met a grand total of five other kiwis [general rabble at the Walkabout for rugby matches not included], being one from Hamilton, one from the Hawkes Bay, one from Rotorua, and now two from Ekatahuna...
Anyway, the market was huge and impressive, as we have found most European food markets to be. Probably the most entertaining thing, however, was the fact that one of the meat stalls [of which there were many] had bunches, yes, bunches, of fresh, unskinned, fluffy looking rabbits hanging from the front of the stall. Which, as Antony pointed out, wasn't so bad. But then there were the bunches of feathery pigeons beside them... and the pheasants... all hanging by their feet from the front of the stall - quite possibly one of the strangest food-selling situations we have encountered. But then, around the corner was the little Spanish lady with a vat full of live snails, who she seemed to spend her time chasing back into their hole when they inevitably tried to escape.... Needless to say, we didn't make any purchases that day...

After the market we crossed the river and headed over to the historic city centre, first swinging by the Torre del Oro, which was originally a military watchtower, and got it's name after the Spanish stored gold brought back from conquests to America within it. Continuing on along the riverbank, we made our way in to the Cathedral, which stands as one of the more impressive structures we have seen so far. The cathedral sits on the site of an original mosque, and was begun in the early fifteenth century. I think the only remaining part of the mosque is a minaret that is now a bell tower, protruding well above the rest of the cathedral builings. Currently, it is the largest medieval gothic religious building, the largest Catholic Cathedral in the world, and has the largest altar in the Christian world.... so yeah, fairly fantastic!! We loved that there were some great big open squares around the cathedral so you could actually get a good view and appreciate what you were seeing, rather than coming around a tight city corner and having to squint into the sky to get a glimpse... We still felt the Dom in Cologne was more impressive/imposing in it's exterior appearance, but this definitely shoots to the 'top churches' list!

We also had a look at the Alcázar, which was originally a Moorish fort, and has some vast impressive gardens, but only from the outside. The university also got a visit, though I feel some of the students thought we were crazy people [and were probably right!], as some of the buildings that are now part of the campus originally formed the oldest tobacco factory in Europe, which is also the setting for the novel and opera 'Carmen'. While on a literary trend, we passed by the Hospital de la Caridad, which was founded in the seventeenth century, by Miguel de Mañara, who was supposedly the inspiration for the fictional Don Juan, who repented from his hedonistic youthful life and founed the hospital for the sick and homeless.

We eventually found ourselves in the Plaza de España, which was created for the 1929 World Expo held in Seville. This is an amazingly impressive semi-circle of buildings set in a massive courtyard, with a very cool fountain front and centre. The whole thing has a large moat and a number of very impressive bridges, but we were disappointed to arrive when the moat was dry... :( Still, a very cool find, even if it is actually currently only used as a local government office. More interestingly, it was used posing as the 'Cairo Great Britain Army Headquarters' in Lawrence of Arabia... random fact of the day!

After a busy time sightseeing, we ventured back out one evening, as the city just seemed to have a magical feel to it... and we were well rewarded! Seville just does an absolutely super job of presenting itself as a beautiful historic European city, with fantastic soft lighting used after dark at all the main attractions, which was added to by the amazing buskers spread around the city centre, from classical violin to Spanish guitar... it all made up for a supremely enjoyable evening walk, and some super photo opportunities... [appearing on a Facebook screen near you soon..]

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

lazing it up in Lagos

After the busy sightseeing and the scary hills of Porto and Lisbon, we were ready for some serious relaxation time. So it´s lucky that next stop was lovely Lagos, sunny resort town on the Algarve coast of Southern Portugal.
Weather forecasts aside, we couldn´t have had a better weekend... Lagos, home to just under 15,000 very lucky Portuguese people, swells to bursting point with tourists in the summer months, but even though we topped 25· and the sky was clear, the place felt half-abandoned. The beaches were sparsely populated and the streets were quiet - exactly as it would have been if we could have planned it!

Doing the sightseeing part took all of about an hour, including a wander around the museum at the Igreja de Santo António. The museum itself was a fairly random assortment of old weapons, minerals, models of boats and religious ornaments. Oh, and a coin collection including some fairly manky looking New Zealand currency! The church though, was another exercise in excess in terms of decoration - it was actually quite tiny, but every inch was taken up with intricate gilted wood carvings, and way too many carvings of cherubs [some of whom, Antony was most disturbed to notice, had beards..]
There are also some remaining parts of old city wall fortifications, and a very cool little fort on the waterfront from the 1680s.

And once you´ve seen all that, all that is really left [what a shame] is the beach!
One of the most frequented beaches in summer was very lightly attended when we went, with absolutely stunning white sand, perfect blue water and spectacular cliffs and caves on either side... We also climbed a fairly scary looking cliff top path to reach a more remote beach, with just as much awesome sand, water and super view, but with far fewer people - we even got it to ourselves for a few minutes, and that´s something I can be fairly certain we would have missed out on if we were here in summer.

Lagos was a superb relaxation point early on in our trip, and definitely worth the stop, even if only to confirm that there is definitely no photoshopping necessary in all those lovely postcards of the Algarve coast!!

The Lisbon Workout plan..

We managed to arrive in capital city Lisbon after turning up to the wrong train station in Porto, but what fun is travel without a few near-misses...?
Lisbon instantly had a lot more of a ´big city´ feel to it, lacking the charm we had enjoyed so much in Porto. Our hostel was right in the middle of what we decided must be the financial district, where we watched, without much surprise, a stock exchange board show consistent 5% drops... turns out the world´s financial problems even follow you on holiday...
Lisbon is both less and more hilly than Porto [makes sense, honest!] The main road through the town from the waterfront up past the old town and into the heart of the city is on only a mild gradient, but to either side there are some serious hills, that after you have walked up, feel rather more like mini-mountains.. One of the most distinctive sights is the Castle of São Jorge, which, conveniently if you are a masochist, is located on the top of the highest hill in Lisbon! Some of the roads/paths leading up to the castle were scarily windy and narrow, but scarier when you realised that cars also used them - in both directions!! The castle itself dates back to the 2nd century BC if you believe the Portuguese, but subsequent raids, earthquakes and general degradation mean that what you see today is a mix up of centuries of renovations.
We also took a walk to the Monastery of São Vicente de Fora, which has the tombs of most of the early kings of Portugal beneath it...but unfortunately they wanted to take euros off us to let us in, so we didn´t get to see much.
One of the most interesting parts of Lisbon is the Baixa, an area of organised grid-like streets, narrow and straight, apparently one of the earliest forms of urban planning, and constructed after the great earthquake of 1755 that seems to have flattened most of Portugal. The tiny side streets are great fun to walk around, though the main pedestrianised street that runs straight up the middle gets less entertaining with each step, as there are people positioned at almost every intersection ready to offer you drugs, which might be a novelty the first time, then it gets old really fast. Together with the feeling of being in ´just´ another big city, the fact that every monument and church in town charges you for entry, the drug-pushers helped lower our opinion of Lisbon.
Still, the weather was beautiful [almost too much so, we can´t even comprehend how stifling it must be to travel there in actual summer!], there were some lovely parks, picturesque views and one hell of an uphill-workout!! And a big Jesus watching over you the whole time... what more could you want? :)

Friday, October 10, 2008

Port, Porto, Portugal. Nice.

So our Southern European experience started with staying up till 1am, catching a bus across London to catch another bus across London and eventually getting to the airport by 4:30 for our 6:30am flight to Porto... where we arrived in the middle of a serious storm, heavy rains, strong winds, bit of turbulence on the flight, and a very hairy landing [so much so that the entire plane applauded the pilot when he managed to nail it]... but by lunchtime the rain had stopped, the winds died down, and the sun was certainly out shining. And it hasn't left since.
Porto is a fantastic city. Very hilly, so it was a bit of a sharp re-introduction to our walk-everywhere style of tourism after being settled in London for so long, but also made for a much more interesting landscape than the flat-as-a-pannekoeken cities we have been used to. Our hostel was half way up one of the many tiny, narrow, steep streets, and was also one of the best we have stayed in so far.
The feature which dominates the Porto skyline is the Igreja dos Clérigos, with it's 75m tall tower. We scaled the 225 narrow windy steps [how many of those have we climbed up now??] and got an amazing view of the city. The church itself was very cool as well, though probably the most surprising thing about it was the fact that there was absolutely no one else around, probably the first church we have been in where there was no 'security' watching over us, making sure we didn't touch anything we shouldn't. Also felt a bit odd that there were no other tourists around, we're well out of the main tourism season now, but as we sweated our way up and down the streets in 26º weather I had to wonder why other people didn't have the same idea... still, not to complain!
The other prime feature of Porto is, of course, the port! The entire south bank of the river Douro [which cuts the city in half] is covered with the homes of all the major port houses, some of which have been operating for well over 300 years on the same land. So it just would have been rude if we didn't go take a look [and while you're there, you might as well have a taste too!] Almost all the houses offer at least a small sampler for free, though some of them require that you walk half way up a small mountain to get to their entrance first. The most impressive location by far was Taylors, who have a beautiful garden and terrace with spectacular views of the city over the river. They also gave us a free tour, where we got quite educated on the ways of port production... and the taste! Most interesting: white port, almost unobtainable outside Portugal, available in sweet or dry, served before a meal as an aperatif [not afterwards, as a digestive, as red port is], and always ice cold.
One thing that really struck us about Porto was the internal contradictions. From a distance, the city is quintessential Southern European style, with aforementioned narrow streets, cobbled roads, terracotta roofing, pretty yellow and pink stucco walls, and stereotypically Portuguese mosaic tiling. And for a large number of buildings, this impression is accurate. But we were just amazed at how many dilapidated, collapsed, wobbly, disintegrating buildings there were, all over the city, from the heart of the city centre to the suburbs, and even nestling between the elaborate port houses on the river bank. It was as if the concepts of building standards and civic pride didn't exist, because absolutely nothing was being done in terms of repair or, in the alternative, completing demolition. It gave the city a really strange feel, though certainly added to the overall character.
As a random aside: I also think Porto must have the highest number of shoe shops per capita in the world...
Other sights: Cathedral: oldest surviving structure in Porto, and very impressive from the outside, though, like the rest of Europe, it was under reconstruction, and we couldn't look inside.
Igreja Santa Clara: a completely random find, it's exterior is hidden behind some town walls, but we wandered down anyway, and were completely blown away. The church itself dates from the 15th century, but the interior was replaced with what is now one of the finest examples of Portuguese gilding and woodwork - even after all the churches we've seen so far, this one would have to be the most elaborate, intricate carving yet, and unbelievably dark and imposing.
City walls: we couldn't figure out how to actually get to them, but there are some very cool remains of original city fortifications still standing...
Dom Luis I bridge: built in 1886, when it had the record for longest iron arch in the world... It has two levels, cars and buses use the lower level, pedestrians and the 'metro' [otherwise known as overgrown trams] cross the upper. Very cool views up and down the river, and made us not the smallest bit nostalgic for a bit of bungy jumping!
Mangy cats: ok, so not really a sight, but this city had the largest number of homeless/mangy/ feral looking cats of any we have seen. Maybe they're not homeless at all, but each have an abandoned dilapidated house to live in?

Anyway, we really enjoyed the city, the sights, the hills and the port :) .... next stop: big smoke Lisbon.