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08 June 2006

Spain and Madrid

Tuesday, 6 June, 2006
Returned from Spain yesterday, having traveled just over 3,000 kms. It was a great trip with a great deal of fascinating tourism. Started off early last Tuesday to reach Aix en Provence early afternoon to meet Joëlle Legoux. She was involved in moving furniture and books out of her apartment, so we climbed into the hired van with her and gave her a hand and helping her to deliver bits and pieces to store at a friend’s house and some things to her son. At the end of the day we walked around the old town guided by Joëlle and had dinner together, talking non-stop. Discussed the plan for the tour next year, she is very enthusiastic. Stayed in a not worth mentioning hotel, its value was that it had parking. Had a coffee and croissant in a smokey working man’s café before setting out for Spain. Aix is always a trip down memory lane for John, thinking back to his university days there in the 60s. The mistral was so strong all the time, making it very cold and foolishly we had not brought any warm clothes.
We set off in search of the sun, only to see the tops of the Pyrenees covered in snow and the temperature reaching the dizzying height of 10 degrees!. All very beautiful though. We traveled (around 500kms) to a little walled town inland about 150kms from Barcelona called Montblanc where we stayed the night in a fabulous little family hotel. We had great difficulty getting into the narrow one way cobble-stoned streets, but eventually found the little square with the hotel called Fonda les Angels, and a parking place outside. There were heaps of people at the door, and lining the stairs, some with babies in prams, we didn’t know what was going on but soon discovered they were queuing to get into the restaurant for lunch. This seemed to be a very good sign. After we had struggled up the stairs with our bags to the third floor past the crowds, we joined into the queue, but somewhere near the top tbtg. Had a fabulous lunch, no menus, so many beautiful choices couldn’t remember. Just remember a spinach dish with parmesan cheese and almonds, John had a salad. For mains John had grilled rabbit, I had a kind of beef casserole, after which I had melon and John ice cream. Was fascinated to see the grilling was all done on iron racks over an open fire, including grilled artichokes – delicious. Siesta time before a tourist trip.

High up on the fortified town of Montblanc - it was very cold and a fierce wind blowing.

Went to the famous monastery of Poblet about 5kms away, had a great guide – very impressive. Then came back and walked the town trying to get an appetite for dinner…. Had an aperitif in a little bar – they serve massive gin and tonics in Spain – before facing the dining room again. It was a wonderful experience with lovely people running it – three generations of one family.

John is walking into the Poblet Monastery near Montblanc

A very early start for a long drive to Madrid, and preparing ourselves for the drive into the city which I was dreading a bit. However, we had a good map, and found it not so bad, really no more difficult than driving in any big city such as Sydney. The hotel had refused to book a parking space as they have only 20 spaces available for two hotels beside each other, but we were fortunate and got a space. Stephen was arriving by train around 4pm, so we took the opportunity to have a siesta while waiting for him. We had planned to meet Margie and Mick Morris as well – friends from Sydney – they were on their last night in Madrid, so succeeded in finding them and we all met up in a bar. I was most impressed with the metro, very clean and efficient. Had a great night wandering around town, eating and drinking and a lot of fun. Big squares full of tables with wandering musicians playing, lots of people around as the Spanners stay up so late at night, and whole families, babies etc are walking the streets and eating quite late. Thank goodness the weather was warming up a bit, though still wearing jackets in the evening.
Friday we had breakfast in a bar, then set off for the Prado where we spent the whole morning mostly in the Goya section. It was quite exhausting, but exhilarating. Lunch, siesta, then a ride on one of those open topped tourist buses with commentary using ear phones. It was good and helped us to see more of Madrid in quite a short time. Had a great aperitif and dinner, although we were getting weary waiting so late to eat.
Saturday we drove out of town about 50 kms to a palace built by Philip II, where the Royal Family mausoleum is built. Quite extraordinary. Philip II’s bedroom was built opening on to the high altar of an impressive basilica so when he was old and ill, he could listen to mass every day. A marble highly decorated mausoleum was in the depths lined with rooms of very ornate coffins, of kings, queens, princes and a special room for the children. The basilica was something else, but there was a wedding going on so we could only look from the back and sides.
Walked around the streets and found a little place for lunch before going 5 kms further on to visit Franco’s burial place and memorial. A massive concrete structure with huge cross on top of a mountain, and inside another massive basilica. There was a feeling of neglect, with weeds growing and not too many tourists, hardly surprising I suppose.

Concrete memorial to the Generalisimo - underneath the hill is a huge very grand basilica

On the left - dinner in Madrid with Stephen

Managed to find a supermarket to buy some wine to take back, and some for the Keisers as we had promised.
That evening we walked to a very nice restaurant for a delicious dinner. I am afraid Stephen found us very tiresome wanting to go home to bed early, but we simply had to as were planning a long drive north the following day.
We left the hotel at 7.15 Sunday morning and drove out of Madrid for about an hour before stopping for breakfast. Gradually worked our way north and crossed the border into France, reaching Narbonne in the mid afternoon. A lovely town, with a mind boggling cathedral. We were fortunate by chance to come across the curator or guardian who explained a lot of history, particularly about two spectacular 15th century Flanders tapestries. We were so lucky that he happened to be close by when we were looking at them.
We stayed in a very pleasant hotel, and had a good dinner in a restaurant on the banks of the canal, very lively with families out eating and a beautiful evening. The next morning we went to the market and had coffee and croissants at a stall, couldn’t resist buying strawberries.
Set off home, north through the centre of France so we could experience the Milhau bridge. It only opened about 18 months ago and is a spectacular example of modern engineering. It stretches two and a half kilometers from the top of a mountain on one side of a valley to the other. The last time we had traveled this same route, we had to descend down a steep narrow road behind rows of trucks, through the narrow streets of Milhau, and climb again up out the other side. What a difference. I suppose now we can say we have done that!!
Home again to find my strawberry patch loaded with ripe strawberries, gooseberries weighing down the bushes and lots of salad ready.
Have had a lovely day today, just catching up with ourselves and relaxing. I spent the morning weeding and doing lots of washing and this afternoon resting in the sun in the courtyard. It’s still quite cool out of the sun, but beautiful in the courtyard where it is very sheltered, in fact almost too hot.
We are expecting John and Mehr Williams from Geneva on Friday, and they are bringing Susan Curran who has just started work as Director of Communications at the UN Human Rights Council. Lovely to see them and have them here for the weekend, hope its warm enough to eat outside.
Marc and Karen said the weather had been awful when we were away and they felt sorry for a family of Aussies they had staying for two weeks – so few days were nice.

Monsieur Bourgeois and team are here at the moment erecting a new television receiving dish for local channels, just in time for the start of the World Cup tomorrow which makes John very happy.

Yesterday afternoon we used our seniors cards to take in a movie in Macon - Marie Antoinette which has just been shown at the Cannes film festival where it got a few raspberries. It's made by Sophia Coppola (Francis Ford's daughter) and has Judy Davis as the head of Marie Antoinette's bedchamber and amazingly Marianne Faithful as Marie Louise, MA's mother. We liked the shooting (mostly done in Versailles) and the costumes. Felt the actress playing Marie A, Kirsten Dunst didn't quite have the look - she was too much a blonde American girl in looks but she played the part well. And the guy playing Louis XVl was exactly right. But curiously the movie finished as MA & Louis were fleeing the enraged mob after the 1789 Revolution without telling us that their flight ended in disaster and two years later they were both sent to the guillotine! Still, an interesting afternoon.

We have had a lot of rain, but at last its warming up.

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