31 December 2012

a highland christmas

On Friday 21st December I hoped on the overnight bus from London to Edinburgh.  Now I this sort of travel/accommodation isn't the best but I usually don't mind it here and there.  It's a cheap combo.  What I seriously did mind was getting sick on the way.  Nausea is awful.  Blurgh!  Thankfully there was an onboard toilet, I was able to catch a taxi and it was just a short distance and I had a sympathetic friend to welcome me.  Needless to say we didn't really do much on Saturday.  I spent it mostly sleeping, eating very little and sitting and chatting a while.  But I suppose if I was going to get sick (and apparently this was some winter bug that runs rampart annually here) this first day was the best option.

Sunday was a much more pleasant day.  It was nice to feel mostly human again.  Caroline and I walked into town and climbed Carlton Hill for a view of Edinburgh.  We had a yummy lunch at The Elephant House (the place where JK Rowling spent a lot of time writing some book series).  We then wandered briefly through the graveyard in the church behind the cafe where it's said she went name picking for her novel characters.  Found a couple.  We then met up with one of Caroline's friends and all went to this pokey little tea shanty called Anteaques.  A cosy place where we all felt we should have been in our frocks and bonnets.  We each ordered a different tea which came in a tea pot able to dish out 4-5 cups of the stuff.  We drank as much as we could over the hour or so we sat and chatted.  A lovely little rest spot we all enjoyed.  Caroline and I went off to do our Christmas grocery shop and head home to rest up for the big drive.  Bring on the highland Christmas! 

We picked up our rental car on Monday morning, loaded it up and set off north with the help of a sat nav.  We drove on up through Inverness and across the mountains into Ullapool and on a little further up to a little village called Achiltibuie.  I think it's somewhere near Whoop Whoop.  It was dark when we arrived after our 6hr or so journey.  It was really nice to drive again even though it is a bit tiring driving that far in one day.  It's been close to a year since I've been behind the wheel.  Caroline and I happily snooped about the cottage some friends of mine had let us borrow and we were delighted with each corner we poked into.  It's a lovely little place and cosily perfect for some Christmas indulgence.   With quite a collection of whisky on display Caroline decided we must sample them all.  We both agreed the first we sampled, the strongest, hottest one, was the best.  Though whisky is still not a drink I'd generally ask for.  For the most part, our time at the house was filled with relaxing by the open fire, crocheting and knitting, watching a whole assortment of dvds (movies and tv series) and of course eating.  Christmas day began with me waking early (job habit) and coming down stairs to fetch my present to myself from the nice stash I'd piled up under the decorations the night before.  Waiting inside was my snuggly new dressing gown.  I turned on my computer and skyped home to chat with family who were at the other end of Christmas day and every now and then opened another present.  I got some nice and unexpected things.  So blessed.  After a while Caroline emerged from a delightful sleep in and we gave our presents to each other.  We filled in our day with indulgent laziness.  The most active thing we did was to get our Christmas dinner cooking and scrub up for it.  Christmas dinner was delicious!  We began with mulled wine followed with our main course of roast duck with vegies and garlic bread and rounded off with Christmas pudding and custard.  A candlelit dinner for two. Ha ha.  It was a great day.  I've not much to complain about.  I saw no snow which was a little disappointing as I'd planned a northern journey dreaming of a white Christmas.  No luck.  But it's so beautiful in the highlands of Scotland that my disappointment was greatly dimmed.  And the lovely cottage and blissful relaxing made me happy.

Wednesday, Boxing Day, we decided to head out for the day.  We packed our lunch, got in the car and went further north.  We'd mapped out some destinations and Caroline had written down the names of the places only to discover her mobile hadn't saved them.  So we went running on research memories from the night before.  We accidently stopped by a view of the Summer Isles which was lovely on this clear morning.  Back on our planned route we managed to locate our major stop for the day.  We grabbed our bag and went walking, walking...along the 'bush' path that was sometimes a creek, on through the dry cold, yes, on some more until we reached our destination.  The Falls of Kirkaig. And with all the rain the river was gushing.  We climbed back up the path a little to have lunch in the sunshine before trotting on back to the car.  We then went up to Clachtoll beach where I stood for the first time on a lovely sandy beach, blue sky mostly, sun shining decked out in my snow gear to keep me warm.  He he he.  Back tracking a little...and then back tracking again to find the road we actually wanted to take (the sat nav is good when you set a route but not so useful to try use as a map), we came across our next stopping point with but minutes to spare really.  The ruins of Ardvreck Castle were sufficiently seen, photographed and climbed upon along with the viewing of the surrounding horizon and the foreground that filled the space between us before it got dark.  By the time we reached the house at about 4:30pm it was almost completely night time.  It was a great day for exploring as this was the clearest day we had.  The rest were overcast and wet.  Once home I changed into my pjs and dressing gown for an evening of the holiday theme.

Thursday we carried on the theme spending another day cosied up inside doing nothing much.  We did dress and break out for a while mid afternoon while there was still light in the sky.  We just wandered the street of Achiltibuie.  Caroline made a new friend, we paused to look at a ruined house (highland style with only the rock walls remaining) and laughed with surprise when some horses stuck their heads out the door, and when we'd had enough walking we went home again.  For another evening of the usual of course and consuming most of the leftovers.  Unfinished vegetarian haggis and neeps/tatties, unfinished Christmas pudd, mini pavlovas, chocolate... We also prepacked, tidied and cleaned up.  We were setting out early for the drive back to Edinburgh.

 With some detours and geographic locating challenges due to insufficient research, we managed to find Eilean Donan Castle and took on the wind and rain to see it.  It was really hard to get photos without raindrops on the lens and we actually had to work at not being blown away.  But we did see it and walk around it and then got back in the car feeling a bit drenched.  I think my jeans finally dried by the time we got back.  Driving through the Glencoe area was quite amazing even though we couldn't see much due to rain and low cloud.  There you get to drive right up close to the mountains as they hem the road that winds through the valley.  Back in Edinburgh we dropped off the car, exchanged photos and relaxed for one last evening together.  Saturday morning I got on the train to London.  It was nice to travel without having to stay focused on the road.  I knit most of the way home.

Not a white Christmas but still a jolly good one.  Next Christmas...with my family!!!  ^^

Click the pic for a closer squiz

22 November 2012

the spain series: the finale

After my Barcelona sight-seeing day, Thursday was my country-hopping day.  I was up for my early start and jogged a little to make sure I was at the meeting point on time.  It wasn't long before the five of us waiting around were in a van heading out of the city.  Heading off on our task of being in three countries in one day. 

First stop was the little medieval village of Baga, Spain.  It was very chilly but the blue sky and shining sun made it a beautiful morning in this picturesque little town.  We really just wandered the streets for a while before we bundled back in the van and were on the road again.

 We certainly were spending most of the day travelling as I expected but the scenery along the way was very nice.  Being the person I am, I honestly don't mind travelling--sitting back, quietly amusing myself, observing the world as it passes by.  Our guide was informative too and told us lots of various things and was happy to answer questions.  He and the tourist in the front seat would start up a conversation in Spanish and then he'd go and explain in English what they had been talking about.

By mid morning we'd crossed the border into France by a mention of it by the guide as we crossed a little village bridge.  We stopped in the walled town of Mont-Louis and walked around some of the wall of the fortified citadel that is still used by the French army.  Here I particularly felt the cold as I only had ballet slip-on shoes.  Though the temperature was about 10 degrees it was lovely and warm sitting in the sunshine when our guide bought us coffee and something from the bakery.  I had a pain au chocolat.  Mmmm.

Our next border crossing was more of a deal.  Not only did we leave France and travel briefly in no-man's land between the police patrol lines, but we also entered Andorra.  Another country to mark off as 'visited'.  It's a tiny place squished in between France and Spain and pretty much surrounded by mountains.  It was quite strange to be in the capital, Andorra la Vella, and see mountains just behind the buildings.  In fact surrounding the city.  We had a few hours here and I wandered down to the old town, spied a melting clock sculpture by Salvador Dali, snapped some photos, tried to find a suitable tourist keepsake to add to my collection and wandered back up the street and into the newer city area still searching.  I stopped briefly to order some lunch and headed back down toward the old town deciding I should just get the first one I saw.  Only I forgot about the Spanish culture which is obviously carried out in Andorra as well of closing shop between 1pm-ish and 4pm.  Damn!  It was now in that time period and we were leaving before it was over.  Well, thankfully, ceasing all sentimental drama, I found a tourist shop still open that ended up having just what I was looking for.  I spent the last half hour sitting in the sunshine writing my parents a postcard and eating chocolate and taking in the city scene and mountains beyond.

 Exiting Andorra is a bit slower than coming in.  Vehicles are police checked for tax-free goods.  In Andorra, so our guide informed us, wine and smokes are cheaper and tax-free and thus there's a limit on how much you can leave with.  Apparently it's also worth coming for petrol and electrical goods if you live close enough.  So leaving Andorra behind, we re-entered Spain and took the scenic route back to Barcelona.  Arriving after dark I went straight to my hotel and checked my email.  I then went out to meet up with Natália again and some other girls she'd met at the hostel.  We had some great pizza for tea and roamed the tourist shops before I headed back to my hotel to prepare for another early start.

This was my most anticipated early start of my Spain holiday.  I was up and out of my hotel while it was still dark and picked up from the meeting point and again driven out of Barcelona.  We wove through country roads just north of the city until we came to a specific hillside.  Here the ute and trailer that had joined us along the way unloaded our ride.  I'd been mentioning doing this for quite some time to various people.  It was a wish I hoped to fill while I was having my UK adventure.  A fun, extraordinary activity that I hoped to be able to say I did in some foreign beautiful place.  For my birthday this year, my previous boss and her husband gave me money toward doing it.  It was a wonderful, thoughtful present and I'm glad I finally got to use it as I'd hoped.

So in Spain, just north of Barcelona, the hot air balloon was rolled out and I and the other rider held the mouth of the balloon open while the big fan filled it with air.  When it was looking quite balloon-like, the pilot set up the gas burners and gave a few squirts of flame.  Within seconds the air was warming enough to start the rise and before much longer the basket was upright with the balloon floating above.  I was buzzing with each stage, my excitement sneaking out in smiles and soft shrills.  The three of us climbed into the basket and with a few long blasts of flame were gently lifting off the ground and watching it shrink away.

It was a splendid experience.  I heard of what it's like from friends so none of it surprised me--except perhaps the first filling of the balloon with just a fan blowing air, which makes total sense really.  It was wonderfully peaceful.  Floating quietly through the air high above the ground with only the occasionally blast of the burners.  Wonderful!  The scenery was truly splendid and it was a fantastic sunlit morning to view it.  I made sure I soaked it in while I was up there.  Paddocks, crops, housetops, animals; various shades of green in patches outlined with an autumn tinged spread of trees, the design and layout of towns, the scene spanning out to the base of the surrounding Pyrenees mountains. In the distance, when we were up high, we could see Barcelona and Montserrat (the most well known mountain nearby). 

It was also a little thrilling as the temperature changes caused us to drop in altitude. We went up and down a number of times during the flight which lasted about one hour.  Sometimes we seemed to be going down fairly fast and the pilot would give a blast or two and then pause but we'd continue dropping.  He'd give another blast or two but the response was slow.  It took a while for the hot air to shift our direction but we gradually would and then the lift would increase in speed.  It must take a bit of practice to not overdo the delayed response.  A few times we got pretty darn close to the tree tops.  As we were skirt over a patch to where we would land we even skimmed some before popping down in a turned over field.  The chaser (the guy who picked us up from Barcelona who followed the balloon flight with ute and trailer) managed to get nearby but we had to jump out and pull the balloon along while the pilot kept it floating just above the ground.  Once in position, he re-landed it, switched it all off, opened the balloon top and the pack up began.  We helped pack the balloon back into the bag once it was deflated--part of this required sitting on the bundle to expel the final trappings of air.  By now the sky had completely clouded over and as they were hauling it all back on the trailer drops of rain began to fall.  Perfect timing.  Back at the launch site we were presented with flight certificates (written in Spanish but I can basically read it) and the gave us some breakfast.  The pilot toasted ham and cheese sandwiches over the balloon burner.  He he.  Then they dropped us happy chappies back in Barcelona.  A wonderful birthday treat and something I glad I got round to doing.  Splendid!

In the afternoon I managed to find some stamps and post some postcards, saw the Arc de Triomf which in Barcelona is red bricked, and then found my way to where I was heading: Museu Picasso.  It's apparently the largest collection of Picasso artwork and was initiated by Picasso himself who spent quite a chunk of time in Barcelona.  Picasso firstly makes me think of cubism.  Those whacky portraits with facial features all askew. But this collection was like a Picasso lifeline and was mostly pre-cubism days.  There actually wasn't much cubism in the museum.  It was interesting to look through the various stages he went through with his artwork and his phases of different medium usage.  There were some I liked the look of, a fair bit that didn't capture my attention and a lot of seemingly rough sketches.  Couldn't take photos of course.

When I'd had enough of that I wandered the streets some more until I sat down in a little restaurant and ate paella for tea.  I decided before I came that I had to have this dish while here but I wasn't that thrilled with it. I don't think it was the best restaurant but it satisfied my hunger.  I then scurried off to the train to go see Font Mágica de Montjuïc before it stopped it's show for the night.  It was quite a sight walking up the street toward it.  The street was lined with little fountains lit up leading up to Font Mágica, the main fountain lit up in red.  Behind it the National Museum of Catalan Art was lit up and beaming.  I must have only caught the end or perhaps it's the time of year.  I only saw it in red but it apparently has a variety of colours.  It dances it's display to music and I was there for maybe 15mins before it finished for the night.  Still, it was nice to see it in action.  After that I headed back to my hotel for my last night in Spain.

Saturday I walked into town and found that little take away place again and successfully ordered a cup of tea in Spanish.  No English used. I was a tad chuffed with myself though it was pretty basic phrases.  He he.  I then wandered toward the sea deciding I should visit the beach here.  Unfortunately by the time I got to beach I was completely distracted by mentally repeatedly practising the phrase "¿Hay un baño por aquí?" and utterly busting by the time I finally found one.  Much relieved I took a short stroll along the dark sandy beach smiling at the fact I was walking by the Mediterranean Sea.

After roaming shops again for a little too long I hurried myself back to my hotel to collect my luggage and jump trains to Barcelona Sants Station.  It took me longer to get there than I'd anticipated however and the next train to the airport was 20mins away.  I was feeling pushed for time so I ditched the train idea and went back to the street, searched and found an ATM to gather some cash and went to catch a taxi.  Even that took a while as I knew and had seen the Spanish word "Libre" displayed in some taxis meant "free".  I had assumed--wrongly so--that the other word I saw meant the opposite and so hailing a taxi took a while.  It wasn't until I half hailed and the taxi noticed and pulled over that I realised it was probably the Catalan word for free.  So I took the taxi to the airport which got me right to the exact terminal and company I required on time.  Phew.  First time I've caught and paid for a taxi for myself.  Now relaxed I settled in for my flight and farewelled Barcelona and thanked Spain for a lovely holiday.

19 November 2012

the spain series: episode two

Once I'd alighted from the overnight train from Madrid, I was off in search of another train to ride.  The little Spanish I've learned was a bit useful but I quickly discovered that in Barcelona, in Catalonia country, the main language on all the signs was Catalan.  It's a tad similar but not the same.  Thankfully most tourist-using signs had Spanish as well and sometimes even English (like at the major train stations).  And even though most people seemed to be pretty decent at English, they at least knew Spanish so I could usually manage one way or another though I still think my Spanish is very limited.  Anyway, with a change on the Metro, I was just one block from my hotel.  I was excited about being able to sleep sprawled out in a bed when night time came again.  For now it was about 8:30am and I couldn't check in yet.  I locked my luggage away and accessed the internet to email Natália, whom I met on our Madrid bike tour and arrived in Barcelona the night before.  I then headed out to Mirador de Colom which is a tall monument somewhere nearby where she was staying.  I stopped by a little take out and got a sandwich and cup of tea for breakfast.  They serve big teas and put in warm milk.  Cool.  I sat on the steps of the monument enjoying the sunshine while I waited and hoped she'd read my email.

I waited round longer than the time I mentioned though I didn't end up giving that much time before meeting.  I'd forgotten my phone was still an hour behind on British time.  She found me though and she bought a couple of Portuguese guys she'd met at the hostel who were wanting to look around the city as well.  It ended up being a great sight-seeing day because they had plans about what they wanted to see and the only thing I knew about Barcelona and had planned to see was La Sagrada Família.  And of course, exploring with company is more enjoyable.

First stop was one I would have happily skipped but Natália is a bit of a die-hard fan.  We went to the FC Barcelona Stadium.  That is, home of the Barcelona soccer team.  We roamed the store for a while.  Mainly just waited for Natália to decide what she wanted and could afford to buy.  The label hikes the price indeed.

From there we went to my one planned-to-visit landmark--Sagrada Família.  I'd seen it in photos and it looked interesting.  When I saw it in person I was truly amazed.  It's a church--a landmark, heritage church.  In Europe.  But it's not gothic style.  It is soooo different from anything I've seen.

The style is one of it's own.  The cone peaks alone make it stand out but the sculpture style is interesting as are the various shapes used in the construction.  This is the side we saw first.  The sculptures depict the crucifixion of Christ.  Below, between the cone peaks, you can see the golden resurrected Christ.  This side is the newer side.  It's the side I like best.  We went around the other side too where the beginnings were sculpted in.  Creation I think and the birth of Jesus and such.  It's highly detailed and a bit more gothic like.  I think I like the newer side better because it's different.  Unlike so many of the other churches around Europe that I've seen, the scaffolding and building site accessories here were not because of restoration or cleaning.  This church, begun in 1882, is still under construction.  Estimated finish is still 20 years away or so.  I was greatly impressed by this structure and I was yet to find out it was part of a running theme in Barcelona.

After some lunch we headed off to see some houses one of the guys wanted to see.  Apparently designed by some Antoni Gaudí who's a bit of a Barcelona celebrity.  We went first to see La Padrera which leaves an impression with it's wonky, wavey exterior.  I also liked the cast iron squiggly balconies.  At 16 Euros, we decided not to go inside.  We went instead to Casa Batllo.  Now Casa Batllo stood out even more.  This Gaudí guy was definitely catching my attention.  This one, Natália told us from her guidebook, was the most interesting inside.  So we decided to pay the 20 Euros to go in this one.

But, my word!  It was worth paying for.  I was astonished and intrigued by every corner or...well,... every inch anyway.  There's not a straight line in the house.  This place was phenomenal.  It wasn't long before I decided I liked this Gaudí guy.  In fact, he greatly impresses me.  Antoni Gaudí (1852-1926) was a Spanish Catalan architect whose big passions were architecture, nature and religion.  It astonishes me that such designs as I saw in Casa Batllo and round Barcelona are so modern and different and out-there even for our day and age. And this man's life wrapped up in the 1920s!!  He was a man ahead of his era.  His designs, which are largely drawn from his study of nature, are amazing and structurally futuristic for his time.  Some of the techniques he applied--drawing from the Master designer's work--were used more widely and commonly decades later.

The house, just looking at it, is outrageously eyecatching.  Just looking at the outside leaves one exclaiming they've seen nothing like it.  There are multiple interpretations of what it resembles but I simply couldn't get over the fact that it looks like there's a dragon on the roof.  Inside there are curves everywhere and the whole place resembles nature in some way, shape or form....or all three.  The fluidity of water, the tortoise-shell or glimmering water surface pattern painted subtly all over the walls, the colours, the banister on the spiral staircase that looks like a spine, the use of wood and patterns carved into the doors...  His use of light and space were extremely well thought out.  The central lightwell inside adapts well with the skylight.  The windows get progressively larger as they get nearer the ground so as to let more light in to the lower levels and the dark blue tiles are condensed at the top and thin out toward the bottom making way for the pale blue tiles to better reflect the light.  The banisters around the lightwell were also made of glass with a wonky effect to it so that as you walked by the blue from the tiles in the lightwell wavered like the surface of a lake.  He was into recycling too and there's lots of colour mosaic decorations, especially in the outside areas.  He designed the house with the housekeeping rooms at the top (laundry and such) and you can see the arches in the pic below that support but also create the illusion of more space than there actually is.  There's also slats in the wall that let the light in but keep the rain out.  We even got to go up on the roof which I didn't expect where we could see the sleeping dragon.  The chimneys he clumped together to create a more visually appealing roof top.

So many amazing, wonderful, intriguing aspects to it.  Too many to remember or rave on about right now.   Fantastic use of light and colour and line and practicality.  If you're ever in Barcelona, you really should take a look inside Casa Batlló.  We were all glad we paid to look inside.

Before it got dark we headed to Park Güell to see the 'gingerbread houses', so labelled by one of the Portuguese guys, and the lizard.  He was right too.  There was two houses by the main gate and they looked like gingerbread houses.  This park has Gaudí all over it.  Also another of the Barcelona landmarks--more Gaudí of course--is the mosaicked lizard sculpture, the salamander.  We didn't see too much of the park really but the area we entered was artful and colourful in a fascinating, eye-capturing style.

After a few quick photos we headed up to the highest point where the light shifted from the natural glow of the sky to the man-constructed twinkle of the city below.  It was nice to look across Barcelona and take it in on more of a whole.  It was easy to spot la Sagrada Família jutting up from sea of buildings.  Bit of a stand out. After a while we went down again to the terrace above the salamander.  The terrace, one of the main features of the park, has a massive Gaudí-designed bench that snakes like a sea serpent creating the fence.  When built it was known as the world's longest bench.  The view was nice from here with twilight in full swing.

From here my day pretty much ended.  When we got back to the train station I headed off to my hotel to finally check in, prepare for the next day's adventure and go to bed--to a nice big bed--to rest up for the early start of my next adventure.  It had been a good day, a full day and lots of great sight-seeing.  More than I would have seen on my own I reckon.