Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Some Huge Buildings: Part III - Salamanca

One of Many Cathedrals
We wandered around Salamanca and looked at the many cathedrals, universities, and plazas. This one was one of the biggest and one of the most ornate, as you can see from the picture below. 

That doorway was the middle of three, the two on both sides being almost as lavishly decorated. Then on other sides there were even more carvings. It was quite a spectacle. We even saw the famed frog - a tiny carved amphibian that for some reason has become the thing to find for promised good luck, especially at exam time. (But we did have some help from Lonely Planet so I don't think we get any more luck than usual.)

Here it is at night. 

Another Cathedral that Didn't Look Like a Cathedral
This cathedral was opposite the one above, both facing each other across a plaza. We didn't think it was a cathedral at first because it looks more like a court or some legal building, but it turns out it was a cathedral. I guess they tried to go down a different architectural path from the one right next to it so people could differentiate. Don't want to have overslept on Sunday and then find yourself walking into a Baptist church rather than a Catholic, for instance.

The Plaza Mayor (One of Many Plazas)
We did a circuit of these buildings and plazas during the day, then waited for nightfall and went out again. We heard that there were some pretty great lights on at the Plaza Mayor. Incredibly impressive in daylit, it was even better at night. There was a band playing in one of the restaurants on the ground level, and it was filled with people all enjoying the sights. 

In the morning we snapped this picture from our window - Salamanca rooftops. After this we went to get chocolate con churros, which are doughnut strips that you dip in a thick hot chocolate. Nom. 

Some Huge Buildings: Part IV - Barcelona

Monday, 29 July 2013

Some Huge Buildings: Part II - Segovia

The Aqueduct 
The Romans built this without a drop of mortar. All to get a little bit of water for bathing in. Those Romans. 
We somehow managed to find a car park right next to it. We ate our lunch there and I watched someone in a van trying to parallel park in front of us and get squeamishly close to our front bumper. 

We walked from one end to the other, and seeing a map we figured that the cathedral was nearby. I asked a passing woman "donde esta la cathedral?" I couldn't understand much of her answer, but it seemed like she was saying it was way far away in another direction. 

The Cathedral
This was the cathedral in the historic part of Segovia. That's all I know about it really. 
It's quite yellow. 

There was also a castle nearby. It was a recreation of an older one that burned down in the 1800's. Not sure how a stone building burns down but oh well. They built it more enthusiastically the second time so it was fairly over the top and apparently the inspiration for Walt Disney's Sleeping Beauty castle. We were impressed that the castle had a very deep moat. The moat was the best bit so we didn't take pictures. 

Some Huge Buildings: Part III - Salamanca

Some Huge Buildings: Part I - Zaragoza

The Alcazar

It had orange trees. Most things in Spain have orange trees actually. They were in the central courtyard that was surrounded by a nice little walkway pictured below. The archways had very intricate carvings that were good for getting up close to and staring at in amazement. We did not, however, do the same for the plaques that I'm sure were very informative, because they were in Spanish. 

Basilica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar

This cathedral was built around a pillar. It is said that some guy saw the Virgin Mary ascending up to heaven near it or something. So they built a church around the pillar. Obviously. Then they built another church on top of that one. Then they built a bigger church over that one until it became a cathedral. (I'm paraphrasing but close enough.) Many make the pilgrimage here to kiss the pillar and mothers even bring their babies, though I don't know how they make them kiss the pillar. 

As you can tell from the title, this building was huge. See the little guy in the left of the picture below? That's Goya checking out how huge it is. 

We got lunch at a local restaurant. Luckily the waiter spoke a bit of English and could tell us a few words from the menu. I got gazpacho soup to start, which was very good, though I reflexively blowed on it when it came. It was strange to have cold soup. Yannick and I both got the pork dish for main. It looked like an exploded sausage, with sliced and fried potatoes. It tasted like a sausage too: pork, onion and herbs. There was a sauce by it that tasted like a spicy mayonnaise. I forget what the dish is called; I want to get it again.

When we tried to leave Zaragoza, our GPS had a bit of a tantrum and we had to find our own way out of the city, with all its one way streets and streets that look like footpaths and things that appear to be roundabouts but aren't. If I'm posting this blog, you know that we managed to escape.

Some Huge Buildings: Part II - Segovia

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Sos del Rey Católico

Sos del Rey Católico, Spain

We found ourselves in this town a little late in the day, so we spent the evening exploring its streets. It was the end of our first day in Spain.

The main iglesia was situated very near the main square, in which we found the whole town gathered for a performance by a brass band. Sos was small enough that wherever we went, we could always reorient ourselves by following the music.

There were a couple of children in bicycles and old people talking that were the few we encountered outside the square. It seems that sitting outdoors talking and staring is a favourite pastime of elderly Spanish folk. 

Though we couldn't capture them well on camera, there were dozens of swallows flying around, swooping down and around manically. It made me think it was the start of The Birds, though after watching for some time it became evident that it was not a sinister show but one of fun and amusement. 

We saw a young man walk out onto the balcony in the picture. Seeing that we were taking photos he made a hasty retreat back inside. It made me think what it might be like to live in such a place. 

Waking the next morning in the hotel room, I opened the window and heard birdsong and people jabbering away in Spanish. I really am starting to love the language. The shower had a bizarre jet system that looked like it was for massaging your back while you showered. I thought I'd give it a go, but I hadn't actually looked where the jets were located, so when I turned it on I was blasted in the back of the head and the back of my knees. I immediately burst into giggles and couldn't stop so I had to turn it off. It really wasn't pleasant, but it was funny.

Friday, 26 July 2013

The Zoo! Also the Pyrenees

Preparing to cross the Pyrenees and venture into Spain, we spent the night in Lourdes, where there so happened to be a zoo. But this was no ordinary zoo! It was a zoo full of animals that you might find residing in the Pyrenees. I was pretty excited and that's why we went.
A grand brown bear. So majestical, chillin' on that log. He probably made the log by pushing down a whole tree with his bearly might!

After the zoo (which I didn't want to leave), we set a course for Anso, a little town in Spain, and spent many hours driving along very narrow winding roads. 

It looks like there's a sapling growing from my head. What is seen cannot be unseen. 

 Anso was cute town, and Spanish-looking. We tried to ask a lady in a dairy where a campground was. She told us that the word we were using, "campamento", was a word you use for children's camps. From then on, we used "camping" said in a Spanish accent. (This is very similar to France, where you use the word "camping" said in a French accent.)

We didn't end up finding a campground, so we stayed in that lovely hotel room in Sos del Rey. Though the hotel in question had normal pillows, many hotels in Spain - and by many, I mean half of the hotels we stayed in (though he only stayed in 4 in total) - had one long pillow instead of two individual pillows. It was quite odd, and as we were very unused to it, it was uncomfortable as well. I didn't mind it too much, but Yannick likes to move his pillow around a lot and he couldn't do that without ripping the pillow from beneath my softly resting head. 

Things I Learned: Spain is a different colour.
The Spanish countryside is largely yellow from hay and wheat, followed closely by the green of shrubs and olive trees, and red in places where you can see the freshly ploughed earth. 

Little French Towns: Hello Kitty and Gherkins

With a very slow start to the morning, the day after we visited Mont Saint Michel, we thought we could stop over in Dinan, as Lonely Planet said it was a nice little medieval town. First, we found parking, and as it was just past midday we planned to go to a creperie called Ahna.

But we got lost. It was a very nice place to get lost. There were loads of old houses and many of the roads were cobbled. It smelled in parts here too. Yannick thinks it is because people in France do not pick up their dog poo.

We happened to just stumble upon the creperie after almost two hours, and it was delicious. A simple ham and cheese galette to start, followed by a specialty of the region - flambeed Calvados crepes, Calvados being an apple liqueur. The waitress who served it to me at one point exclaimed 'Soufflez! Souffez! Souffez!' and I thought she was just getting excited, but Yannick said to me 'blow!' so I blew out this one part of the crepe which had not meant to be on fire. Now I know what soufflez means in that context. We accompanied our meal with a local cider which was one of the best I have had. We hauled ourself back to the car with very full bellies. Shortly after, we found a rest stop and pulled over to have a nap in the shade. 
I woke up to the sound of Yannick eating chocolate.

We found a campsite in Héric. Unlike New Zealand, none of the campsites we stayed at in Europe had a kitchen, and many didn't have soap and/or toilet paper in the toilets.

As we didn't want to buy a large number of loo rolls to lug all over Europe, we tried to find packs of 4. Unfortunately, sometimes the only ones that came in packs of 4 were Hello Kitty loo rolls.

Some of the bendy poles that held our tent together started to splinter and snap, making our tent sad and a bit saggy. We found a nice new tent on sale that was actually a bit larger than our sad one. It's very easy to put up, but not to squeeze back into the bag it came in, so we kept the bag from the old tent and used that one.

We stopped at a town called Arçais which was one place of many where you could see the 'Green Venice', a series of canals turned green by the type of algae-like plant that grows there. 

The stroll along it was very pretty, but sweltering hot, so we stopped for Orangina and an ice cream sundae (Dame Blanche variety) afterwards, then continued south.

Sarlat was our next stop. We wandered the medieval streets trying to find a patisserie that Yannick once went to. We didn't end up finding it, but we did buy two watercolours from an artist running a stall. And now I feel like a grown up because I bought art.

We found a different patisserie and purchased a raspberry tart and a lemon tart. So good! (We have since learned that the patisserie we went to may actually have been the one we were looking for. Funny, that.)

That night after finding a campsite, we went to dinner. We both ordered three course meals, sitting in a courtyard filled with golden light. For entree was cantaloupe and a type of ham like prosciutto. Interesting and delectable. This was when I also found out that I like gherkins again because there were two tiny ones on the plate.
After that I ate the pheasant in thyme cream sauce and Yannick had steak with green pepper sauce. To finish we had ice cream sundaes again. Mine was rum and caramel, his was chocolate sauce on chocolate ice cream. I really enjoyed the meal, and in particular the pheasant.
After we returned to the campsite we laid on the blanket in the shade for a while because we were so full. (Sense a theme?)

We stopped in Auch to see the 'monumental steps' which had a statue of Dartanian (Musketeer). It was a nice stop on our way south. 

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Mont Saint Michel

Mont Saint Michel, France

A little medieval town atop a hill. It's said to be the least wheelchair friendly place in France, and I can see why. You have to park kind of far away, which isn't an issue because there are plenty of free shuttles that drop you outside. Then the ascent begins.

Up and down and along the walls and little streets. 
At one point we saw a very narrow gap between two tall buildings and walked up it. It may have been some kind of drainage system. Every little space you found brought many new places to explore. 

When we thought we'd gone nearly everywhere, we found a cemetery and a little park and a girl arguing on a mobile phone. And then we tried to find dinner, but by that time in the evening everything was closed or looked too touristy.

This was our view on our drive back to the campsite.

Fetchez la Vache!

After seeing all we could of Hadrian's Wall, we drove straight north to Jedburgh in Scotland. We had to buy a loo roll at the campsite because apparently people steal them.

The next day was a bit spontaneous. We weren't sure what we were going to do and when. It ended up being mostly driving. I kept an eye out for peat bogs, which were oddly fascinating to me. Peat is decaying plant matter, sort of like a fossil fuel. In the olden days, people would dig up peat, dry it out and use it on their fire like coal. Peat is famous for producing things called "bog bodies", or corpses that have fallen into peat and been preserved through the ages. The most well known is probably the Tollund Man, who lives in Denmark (not Scotland, I know, but Seamus Heaney wrote a poem about him, and he was Irish, so pretty close).
We found an information centre that had lots of free brochures on the area, so we grabbed those and read them at a lake (loch) we found. They recommended Glen Coe, as well as Inverness, so we plotted a course along the motorway A82. 

 Beautiful scenery with tall mountains and blue lakes, with green grass and trees. The drive reminded me of a drier version of Milford Sound in New Zealand.
Taking this picture, we were suddenly strafed by two fighter jets and were quite startled by it.

We settled in for the night just north of Fort William, which apparently looks out onto Ben Nevis, the tallest mountain in the UK. However, all the mountains around didn't look much taller than the ones we'd seen so we may have been looking at the wrong one.

We passed by many lochs, and went and explored some of them. We did not, however, try to find Nessie at Loch Ness, but there were swarms of people who did. 
(This is not Loch Ness, but what's that I see in the distance?! It looks to me like a sea creature of immense proportions! Ah. Alas, 'tis only a motor boat.)

Further north, we set up camp at a site in Thurso, which was near where the ferry departed to the Orkney Isles. It was expensive to get the car across, but we bit the bullet as the bus service on Orkney looked a bit infrequent and we wanted the freedom of our own transport. (For Orkney Isles, see the post titled "That Feeling You Get When You Realise You're Standing Where People Stood Five Thousand Years Ago". A bit long, I know, but I wanted to capture the spirit of the place.) Upon returning from Orkney, we stayed another night in Thurso after taking the ferry back. We think now that we should have stayed 2 days in Orkney rather than do a day trip. We also would have booked Maeshowe in advance, as all the tours were full - this was a "chambered cairn", a well-preserved Neolithic tomb.

After Edinburgh (see post titled "Edinburgh" - shorter and more to the point), we headed straight for Doune Castle, which was the set for many scenes in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It even had an audio guide by Terry Jones - Sir Bedevere! It was so cool! The audio guide even played the triumphant music from Monty Python at the end of informative segments.
This angle shows where King Arthur and his knights wheeled up the large wooden rabbit in an attempt to infiltrate the castle.
My favourite bit was seeing the window where the Swamp Castle scene plays out. 
"One day, lad, all this will be yours."
"What, the curtains?"

We purchased a pair of coconuts for use in fake galloping. 

Monday, 22 July 2013

That Feeling You Get When You Realise You're Standing Where People Stood Five Thousand Years Ago

Orkney Isles, Scotland

It's a difficult feeling to describe. I had it several times on Orkney, a set of islands to the north of Scotland.

Upon arriving on the ferry, we hemmed and hawed before deciding to go straight to the real reason we went to Orkney at all - Skara Brae. There were other things along the way, but Skara Brae was top of our list (and really the only thing on the list, everything else was a bonus). We drove past some magnificent standing stones, which I'll get to later. First, Skara Brae. And don't think about skipping ahead. I know standing stones are great but this is better, trust me. 'What can be better than standing stones?' you're asking yourself. Well, just read on and stop dallying.

Skara Brae was a little village once inhabited 5,000 years ago approximately. They lived near the sea and ate a lot of shellfish. They even had little boxes made of stone to keep the lobsters in. They were lidless, pretty much like lobster fences. Each little stone house you can see had a hearth (open fireplace) in the centre, and beds around the outside. The 'bed boxes' as they were called looked like the lobster boxes but human sized. 
Inside, several types of item were found. Carved stone, bone and shell beads were used for jewellery. Pottery had been made here, probably for cooking. The houses are all around the same size, which indicates that there was no leader - everyone was of more or less equal status. However, we may never know for sure of these things. 

Some houses did seem better outfitted than others. Some had more shelves, for instance. It was strange to see where people who lived in such a different world prepared food, slept and sat round the fire. They may have been my ancestors. To see such a place so well preserved. . . well, it was humbling. 

Alright, alright, the standing stones of Steness. 
This is probably a familiar sight. The stones were thinner than ones used at the Henges in the south of England, and taller. One got struck by lightning in the 80's and they think that this has been happening since they were erected. 
A short walk from these stones, another small village had been found and dug up by archeologists. For some reason they decided to cover it back up though, and they made a recreation of the houses above the ground. Here was a strange building with a hearth at the entrance that you had to step over to get inside. There were no beds in the building, so it may have been a religious or ceremonial place. The extra hearth may be to ward away evil spirits. 

Our last visit was to the Tomb of the Eagles, so called because over seventy eagle talons were found inside the tomb. From what we can tell, eagles may have been lured down to the ground by fresh meat, and then killed. In other tombs around Okney, other animal parts were found (a lot of dog bones at Skara Brae) so it's possible that each tribe had a favoured animal. 

The type of rock was really interesting but I won't get into geology right now. Look how tall that one was!


Edinburgh, Scotland

From Perth (not the Australian one) we took the train to Edinburgh, which took one and a quarter hours. We mainly just wandered the streets of the 'old town', which had plenty of little alleyways and things called 'closes' which are like alleys that go into a small courtyard (e.g. MacDougal's Close). 

Along Royal Mile - so called because it is between Edinburgh castle and Parliament, and some king or other walked along it a lot - were tons of gift shops selling tartan leggings, hats and kilts, alongside whiskey and postcards of the highland cows. Highland cows are brilliant - long haired and ginger, with horns. I found a calendar full of pictures of highland cows on Orkney but I wasn't sure if it would make a good gift, as I think I have a strange liking of these cows.

Yannick found a wall.

This man looks very noble, but the seagull does detract a bit. 

We briefly had a look around the Scottish National Museum. Very interesting artifacts, including a whole skeleton of a warrior's horse that had been sacrificed when he died and sent out to sea with his corpse. The history of Scotland certainly wasn't roses and butterflies.

Sunday, 21 July 2013

The Wall (of Hadrian)

Hadrian's Wall, England

Lanecost Priory
The first stop on our Hadrian's Wall tour was this priory. It was constructed mostly out of stones stolen from Hadrian's Wall, and a local reddish stone of a lesser grade. Two things that stood out: there were some carvings still visible in the rocks from the original builders (they looked like the symbol of the free masons), and there was a tomb dedicated to a baby. As babies died frequently in those days, no one is quite sure why this particular baby got such a dedicated burial.

This picture shows two things of interest: the square shaped Milecastle, and the difference in the wall between the inside and the outside ( at least I hope you can see it in this picture). 
Milecastles were so named because there was one along the wall every mile or so. Here, Roman lookouts made sure no one was trying to get across when they weren't supposed to. There were also smaller watchtowers that occurred more frequently and were smaller in construction. 
The wall itself was quite thick, and was made very sturdy in the middle by what appeared to be jumbled rocks of varying size stuck together with that notorious Roman concrete. Then, square rocks that looked like large bricks were stacked along the outside (on both sides) seemingly for appearance. The stacked ones along the outside were stuck together with concrete as well, but they did seem to either fall down easier, or have been stolen by nearby landowners for their own use, because the middle is what has survived better. 

This was at a place called Cawfields Quarry. Here it can be seen that the wall is three bricks tall in the foreground, and four tall further along. I took to counting the height of bricks at different places. The highest I counted was 14 (above ground at least) at a fort called Housesteads, which I discuss more later.
We had dinner here on our first day of exploring the wall. We had planned to do the whole thing in one day but took our time with it. I'm glad we did, as the two best parts of the wall were yet to come.

The Sycamore Gap
We came to this place from the bizarrely named Steel Rigg. I don't know if Rigg is some sort of old English word for 'hill', and steel used to mean 'nice', but I saw no steel and no rigs here. The walk to the sycamore was hilly. It was constantly up and down hills, along very narrow stone steps. I'm not sure why the Romans were so determined to build the wall here, because it seemed like a bit of a hassle. However, this bit of the wall was some of my favourite. The cows must have liked it too because there was poo everywhere, even on the wall itself in one place. The wall went on for ever, it seemed. In some places it had been covered by tall grass and in others it was seven and a half bricks high. If it hasn't been quite so hot that day, we could have walked further along the path, but as it happens we stopped not long after this photo and turned back. The cows watched our progress.

Housesteads Fort
This was an amazing remnant of the Roman times. The photo above shows a communal lavatory. In the middle are two wash basins for cleaning the hands. The two ditches on either side would have had wooden seats along them, and people would have sat with their feet in towards the middle. Their waste would have fallen into the ditch below to be washed away by the sewer system they had going. It was reliant on rainwater, but there were reserves that they kept in other parts of the fort so that in times of low rainfall, it wouldn't get too smelly. 
There were also barracks, of which only two of perhaps twenty or so survive. The largest building of all was the head honcho's house. It was even larger than the 'headquarters', where all the soldiers and the commander discussed militaristic things. His house had a stable inside it, a decent sized bedroom,  a nice courtyard, and its own toilet and bath area. So he must have been a very important guy. 

In this picture, I am pretending to be a loaf of bread, because I am sitting in what used to be an oven. There were several bakeries in the fort, and that one was the best preserved. 
As well as all the stuff inside the fort, there was a small town outside it, on the safe side of course, with the fort protecting it from the invaders in the north. This is where it is thought that many girlfriends of the soldiers lived, and where there were quite a few other shops that they could spend their hard earned money at. 
After Housesteads we went straight across the border to Scotland, and things got a little bit more Stone Age.