UK AND SPAIN 2014

Pre-amble

I've finally figured out why I do this "blog". A week after we got back, I discovered that I had lost almost all recollection of one our best trips ever and the 'lasting impressions' I'd looked forward to savouring when we were doing what we did, didn't last at all. Going over the photos and recording the little things somehow helps; has the effect of making the 'spaghetti stick to the wall' (a good thing when it comes to memories).

This blog a bit more perfunctory than the others and, at this stage, not much more than a first draft. Past blogs took me a couple of months to complete and that's no longer appealing.

I hope that we have conveyed our appreciation for great hospitality to our several hosts separately, to make up for the lack of specific mention here.

Leaving Vancouver

Love Vancouver's airport (great First Nation's artist Bill Reid'ssculpture dominates the Departures lounge) but still glad to be finished with pre-trip planning and on our way. Us at the airport having our usual celebratory dwinkie in the lounge. Lyn broke a couple of bones in her foot some six weeks before and while the boot is now off, progress towards her usual walking pace and endurance is slower than she would like. It's going to provide a few limitations to our trip—she starts out able to walk only a couple of kilometers a day—but it isn't a big problem and with her dogged determination becomes even less so as the trip progresses.

On the ground in London, we head for Salisbury on the National Express. We have arranged a house-swap with friend Julia, who is currently looking after our cats in Vancouver. We've given ourselves a day in Salisbury (2 nights) before we head off again. We have brought two sets of gear: one for the UK, which we pack into our small bags

Whatstandwell with Brian and Nora

We trundle our bags across Salisbury's uneven sidewalks to catch our train, and our trip to Derby and then Whatstandwell goes smoothly. Our hosts in Wsw, Brian and Nora have visited us in Vancouver; we've stayed here with them before but we're only here for a couple of days at their home right on the River Derwent and the time flies by. Nora's injured too so she and Lynda opt out of the walks but Brian and I do a couple: one past Chatsworth. But we all pay a visit Sherwood Forest*(darn, where did those pictures go), and take a walk in Belper. *The uninformed traveller, hoping to find an extensive forest, herds of deer, a fascinating visitors' center and a variety of interesting trails and exhibits should adjust their sights if they wish to enjoy the modest entertainments offered here. It was difficult to locate signs for the Forest in Edwinstowe, the adjacent town, and the "Forest" is little more than a large wood; walks, perhaps to cope with the hordes of tourists heading for the one Great Oak at certain times of year, are rather straight, paved trails. One can enjoy what is there better if expectations are not high.

Harrogate with Sue and Richard

All too suddenly, we're saying goodbye to Brian and Nora, and heading up to Harrogate to meet my sister Susan and husband Richard who have taken the train down from Scotland to spend a couple of days with us. Pleasant days re-connecting with my sister and her husband in Harrogate in Yorkshire. Went (by train again) into York on our first day with them and actually spent a pleasant hour or so in the Railway Museum there before wandered through the outskirts of York. This is a marvellous old city, with Roman and Viking ruins all over the place. Harrogate (the next day) equally charming in a Victorian/Georgian way.

Wetton Mill/Darfar with Max and Di

Again all-too-sudden-goodbyes, and from Harrogate, we took a train to Derby, then a bus west for an hour to Ashbourne on the edge of the Peak District, where Max and Di picked us up in their car. We then drove to the National Trust cottage, Darfar that Max and Di had booked at Wetton Mill. Lovely place, right on the Manifold River trails, and we did a brief walk on the hills behind us before dinner. From Darfar, we we roamed far and wide: walking up to Wetton via Thor's Cave; through parts of the Dovedale Valley; had some superb lunches at a variety of pubs, and a look around Alstonefield, where we'd done a walk with Brian and Nora a couple of years before but didn't immediately recognize.

Salisbury

Got back to Salisbury Monday Sep 29th evening; walked back the mile or so from the train station (Lyn's foot gradually improving). Busied about Tuesday morning, as we were due to picked up by friends we met in Crete in 2011&mdash, and taken to Old Sarum. For those of you who have not been keeping up with yer old ruins, Old Sarum was the original site of the cathedral city of Salisbury, only a few miles north of the current city. We wandered around the 800 year old ruins for a while, and then took a walk down to the River Avon, back up through a pasture with a herd of cows (apparently only a small number of people are crushed to death by them each year), and into the car park—weather sunny and cloudy by turns.

Wednesday was our first day away from company since we'd travelled North so we split up: Lyn heading for the local shops before her foot started to complain again; I did a 6km walk out to the West of Salisbury, to the village of Harnham. Lovely.



Stonehenge

Thursday, the Crete Gang picked us up again and we drove to Stonehenge—30 minutes beyond Old Sarum. Geez, the place has changed! When I last visited here in the 70's, you could walk right up to the stones, chip a piece off and take it home with you. I didn't but I suppose a lot of people did so the rules have changed a bit: now you park a mile or so away at the spanking new Visitor's Centre...along with about a couple of thousand other people and it is the end of September on a weekday! Still, at least there is information available through flash new exhibits and an audio guide, whereas back in the 70's it was just a bunch of old rocks standing in a field near the highway and if you didn't know what they were, too bad. Now though, after we had seen the exhibit, we boarded the shuttle bus and about 40 of us disembarked and joined the hundreds already there. We made our way in a cordoned off path around the monument never getting closer than about 50 feet. For some reason, although Starling numbers are dwindling in England, there were hundreds of them circling around or sitting on the stones. The audio guides provided some assistance but knowledge about the stones is still a bit sparse (in spite of the enormous amount of research that has been done in the last 30 years) so after a while the basic information gets recycled several times.

Shaftesbury

We skipped the shuttle and took the pleasant walk back to the visitors' centre, across more fields with signs threatening more cows but we saw none. Can see 20 miles across the rolling pastures and woods on the Wiltshire Downs here. From Stonehenge we headed to a town called Shaftesbury, which is where Peter grew up. He hadn't visited there in 30 years so it was interesting hearing his tales of a misspent youth as we wandered around this extremely picturesque little town. Ended up in a coffee shop where Lynda enjoyed her first scone-with-clotted-cream-and-jam tea.



Around Madrid

Julia had barely returned from Canada to reclaim her house than we were off to Spain. Uneventful coach-ride to Luton and a night at the Holiday Inn Express, which is almost on the runway at Luton Airport, but annoying, over-the-top security at Luton Airport—all bottles and liquids have to be in a separate bag; digging all of that out of our bags and repackaging it in the middle of an airport is not yer most relaxing pre-flight activity. Still, across France and into Madrid with no problems. Managed to find our way by bus and foot (20 mins) to our hotel, which is in the old part of Madrid, close to everything (well done Lynda!); and right across the street from a wedding!

We saw tourists in our 'hood but they didn't outnumber the locals so there was a very authentic feel to where we were. However, in Spain, it seems that about 90% of the population smokes and that takes a little adjustment. On the other hand, everyone spoke at least a little English and we found people very friendly and helpful. Here and elsewhere in Spain, we were warned about pickpockets but saw no threat of crime...although the very visible police presence everywhere was probably helped.

Madrid: Reine Sofia

Didn't expect much of Madrid but the three galleries/museums we visited were fabulous. Here's the first, the — the Museo Reina Sofia, which houses Picasso's Guernica, but doesn't allow photos inside.

Madrid: Prado

The Prado Museum, a stone's throw from our hotel, is perhaps the most famous of the sights to see in Madrid and lived up to expectations. At most museums there's a significant discount for seniors but we lined up for the free evening which was an even better deal. [On the third day of our stay in Madrid we also visited the Botanical Gardens just to the South of the Prado; it too was worth a visit but photos in the late afternoon didn't come out well.]

Madrid: Thyssen-whatever

Thyssen-Bornemisza art gallery was, we both agreed, the best of the galleries. Superb collections, well organized and with the best AV guide.

Madrid: Royal Palace

The Madrid Palace. A walk and a subway stop (easy, cheap and very clean) and we were there. By this time we were museumed out, and some of the tour guides here were really loud in the small echo-prone rooms, so perhaps that contributed to feeling that this was a bit of a yawner. .

Madrid: McDonalds

To offset the cultural highs of the previous Madrid entries, we did McDonald's on our way out of town. Same crummy food standard but at least the decor was way above that for North American outlets.

Around Seville

I see from looking through my emails that I didn't write much on Seville. Seems a shame as it was eventful. We blew into town on the AVE [see below on "Trains" and this time opted for a cab to take us to the hotel. This turned out to be our only negative experience in Spain, as the driver took us for a few extra blocks but as we didn't tip him, it probably didn't cost us anything [Cab drivers haven't all woken up to the fact that the modern tourist can see where they are going on their iPads!]. The hotel again proved ideal— only about 10 minutes walk from the Cathedral and the Alcazar. This part of Seville is definitely more touristy than where we were in Madrid but not so much so that it was a problem. On our first evening, we walked around the corner and attended an excellent Flamenco performance.

Seville Cathedral and Alcazar

Next day, we lined up for the Alcazar Museum/Palace (the gardens of the same name were closed because they were filming a TV series) and the Seville Cathedral (including climbing the 300' to the top of the tower). NB All of this within easy distance (Lyn's foot) of our hotel.

But dang if we didn't get the photos mixed up here, so what you are seeing is a mix of several sites:



Views from the Mushroom

We also visited the Seville Mushroom...or more accurately stumbled across it as we were exploring the local streets, as it is surprisingly well hidden from plain sight. Worth a trip if only for the Roman ruins exhibit that you can pay to see underneath the parasol.

Along the Canal

The Canal is only perhaps another 5 minutes walk beyond the Cathedral from our hotel, and provides further points of interest. River boats ply the waters; there are extensive parks; several major attractions lie along the broad sidewalk that follows the canal.

Cordoba-Mezquita

The Mezquita: Three centuries of development
(Cathedral added later but shown here)

We made a last-minute decision to skip the White Towns just South of Seville and go instead to Cordoba to visit the famous Mezquita. We walked our bags to the train station (20 minutes--wish we'd known that on the way in), caught the high speed train and were in Cordoba 45 minutes later; caught a cab again at the station as it was pouring with rain (but were luckier with the driver this time) and checked into our hotel right outside the gates to the Mezquita (see photo with Lynda below). We were inside the Mezquita within about 2 hours of leaving our hotel in Seville. The Mezquita lived up to all expectations: what a place!—possibly the highlight of our trip. It consists of a Christian Cathedral built (pointedly) inside a magnificent Moorish Mosque, which in turn was built on the ruins of a Visigoth church, which was constructed on the site of a Roman temple to the god Janus.

If the history is impressive, the Mosque, built and improved on in stages over about 300 years (the major expansions and their authors are shown in the animation), is more so. At its peak it served as a place of worship for 40,000 people. But it isn't merely big; it is so magnificent that even the Christians were (thankfully) reluctant to destroy it completely.

Granada-Alhambra

The train ride from Cordoba to Granada passes through endless olive farms before beginning a steep descent (Cordoba is about 400ft above sea level; Granada almost 2500 feet) into a realm where the snowy Sierra Nevadas are visible to the north and there's a bit of chill in the air.

Granada is known chiefly for the Alhambra Moorish Fortress with the enclosed Palace of Charles V and the Gardens, and it didn't disappoint. The Alhambra sits on a hill overlooking the town. You have to book your visit so I walked up to the front office through a confusing maze of streets to collect our actual tickets so we could get an early start on our 8:30am tickets for the next day. That foray proved useful for finding my way around, as there was nobody out at that time of the morning and the signposts to the major tourist site in town are minimal. Even once you get in to the grounds, you would think that this is the first day that they had allowed tourists in, judging by the confusion.

But we did get in, and the four hours we spent making our way through this immense (and beautiful) site and the gardens were another highlight of our trip

Around Granada

Alhambra may be the major tourist attraction of the town but it isn't the only one. Next day, we wandered out to the Plaza Nueva; had lunch on the river with the Alhambra above; and then through the Jewish Quarter (which, as one Jewish museum promoter told as rather mournfully, no longer has any Jews).

London

Flew from Malaga into Stansted then National Express to Salisbury. Had breakfast next day with Julia and then headed back to London, caught a bus to our hotel (bit of a fleapit but upscale for London but the area was interesting).

Next day we were off to meet some acquaintances from my school days in Canterbuy. Very pleasant afternoon, starting with a walk around the Tower of London where the poppies were on display. We then wandered along the river, over to St. Paul's (didn't go in) and then back to our flat.

Quick visit next day to the V&A (Lyn) and the Science Museum (John), and then out to Heathrow. Flew into Vancouver in light rain and were quite pleased, after an excellent but by now exhausting holiday

Afterthoughts and impressions

Trains and Buses

Trains and buses were a constant factor in our movements and I can't resist saying a word about them. The trains in the UK have changed a great deal since I left in 1968. They weren't bad: they went just about everywhere and were usually on time. But train travel was something one endured rather than looked forward, as the trains and stations were grimy and scruffy, and you had to know what you were doing. Quite a difference now. The trains are privately run and there has been a major effort to spruce up stations, trains and especially methods. There are flashy new ticket machines where you can print your on-line ordered tickets and pleasant cafes have replaced the drafty waiting rooms. We took 13 train trips total; all the trains were on time; we had booked seats much of the time and the journeys were very pleasant. The oddest change though was that for most of our trips, the old 'clicket-clack' and the rollicking side-to-side movement were gone; we flew along in smooth quiet!

But the AVE high speed train from Madrid to Seville topped even that. At the sci-fi station in Madrid, we passed through the security check, boarded the train and took our reserved seats. The train started out of the station so smoothly that I only knew it was moving because I happened to be looking out of the window. In about 10 seconds we were doing 70km/hour according to the display at the end of the compartment; within ten minutes, as we left Madrid, we were at 250 km/hr, on a ride that, apart from a bit of a jolt when a train passed in the opposite direction, was as smooth and quiet as any train. Did the 550 km to Seville in about 2.5 hours.

The National Express coaches we took in the UK were almost as impressive...and about half the price of the train (although often 30% longer). They were occasionally a few minutes late in London as, unlike the trains, they can get caught in traffic. But we were seldom late getting in. The rides were smooth and comfortable. But the Spanish buses again topped that. We took another sci-fi bus from the centre of Granada to the bus station and caught the bus to Malaga. Reserved leather seats; were provided with a bottle of water; and were in Malaga Airport right on time.

Food

You'll notice the frequent pictures of food in the photos. Great food on this trip even in the UK. We had a couple of superb pub lunches—such a welcome change from the days when you were charged outrageous prices (well, that hasn't changed!) for dull and overcooked fare (that has). And the quick meal/sandwich offerings at Marks and Spencers and others have many Brits abandoning home-cooked meals; it's cheaper for two to eat store-bought!