The Europeans are a classy bunch, well, mostly. The high fashions of Paris, Milan and London are well known across the globe and browsing throung the streets confirm this. At this very moment I’m sitting in Extrablatt am Neumarkt in Köln having a breakfast and I’m amazed at how well dressed every-one around me are. Scarfs, jackets, boots and cardigans of the highest quality, design and fashion are in abundance. Even jeans are wore with style so typical of European way and not in the casual way the Saffas will wear them. Its not always easy to put your finger on the exact difference, but the general look certainly is different.
But, ‘o my word’ the Europeans are bad at beach attire! The men, I specifically mean the men, are incomprehensibly bad when it comes to dressing for the beach. Let me put it clear that I find very little fault with the swimming attire the European beach-going ladies wear (or not wear). But why the men have stuck on wearing only ‘speedos’ or even worse, those tight fitting little trouser costumes with the short straight ‘legs’ sometimes even with the little fish belt and buckle, that I last wore as a five-year old boy back in the sixties, I simply cannot comprehend. As soon as a boy turns 7, the mom should put him in baggy shorts, and nothing else, and that is what he should wear to the beach for the rest of his days. But then again, its probably better for them to wear those ugly costumes, than the few (mostly guys, it seems) who wear nothing and parade around on the fringes of some normal family beaches in the Adam suits. These Europeans surely have some strange habits.
My preference, though is travel, photos and stories, not fashion. So travel I did once more during the past summer holidays. With parents visiting and us having to hit the road all the way to the Costa Brava in Cataluña, that stunning country bordering Spain,
we decided to try out the very popular RV (recreational vehicle) or camper van as they are also called, as means of transport and accommodation. I am used to camping; in South Africa, I own a 4×4 trailer and we have done many off-road camping trips to nature reserves, wild life areas such as Baviaanskloof, Marakele, Mapungubwe, Kruger National Park, Botswana and Swaziland. Take note, these are all remote wilderness type destinations, none are beach holiday ‘caravan parks’, which means the shear thought of camping in the RV in a crowded caravan park where the tent ropes of your neighbour stretches into your braai area was daunting, to say the least. I do, however, believe in trying out new things first and then decide whether its good or not in stead of just writing them off from preconceived perceptions, thus entered behind the wheel of the monster camper with some uncertain anticipation and hit the road.
Many of my travel companions in the past must have rued traveling with me, as I tend to add time and kilometres in curiosity of places and other roads than the obvious straight line. The result of this was that we added 600km to our already 1200km trip from Köln to the Costa Brava but the positive is that we were able to explore the Loire Valley of France and to witness the decadence of the royalty of 16th century France. The architecturally magnificent Chateau de Chambord being one fine example of this decadence. This castle was built for François I in the 1500’s and took 30 years to build. It was built as a ‘hunting lodge’ and apparently with money laundered from the church. Must have been some hunting party when these guys came together to shoot boar as this chateau has 440 rooms. Since it was built in the wild and for hunting purposes, the effort and cost to furnish it was so vast that it was never furnished on permanent basis. Each time it was used, everything was brought with the hunting party; imagine that! No wonder François spent only 7 weeks there in all his life, and no wonder the French revolted some 250 later.
Our end destination was Lloret de Mar (pronunciation lesson nr 14, Lloret is pronounced Joret as double ‘l’ in Spanish is a ‘j’. Disclaimer though for the Capetonians, please don’t start calling Llundudno Jundudno as it is named after a Welsch town, not a Spanish one). Lloret is a smallish town on the spectacular Costa Brava, some 70km north of Barcelona and this is where my daughter decided to spend the next 8 months to learn Spanish. I too asked the question ‘why learn Spanish in Cataluña?’ but when I saw the beauty of Lloret de Mar, any other reason wasn’t required anymore. With beaches (ignore the men in their bathing shorts for proper comprehension here), cafès, villages, parks, horse-riding and Barcelona at her doorstep, it will require some discipline to focus on the studies, thus preparing her well for what lies beyond being able to speak Spanish.
And exactly here, at Lloret de Mar, is where we camped in our RV for a week. The RV camping went well, as its very easy camping with everything in its place. Setting up camp very much consists of
park your vehicle,
turn the fridge from 12V to 220V,
stack out your chairs and table
and open a beer!
Lloret de Mar, as most of the towns on the Spanish coast, stems from old fishing towns where some remnants of the days gone by are still visible. A pristine example of the ‘old town’ still relative intact is the walled old town of Tossa de Mar, a few kilometres north of Lloret. With a sandy stretch of beach lined with multiple restaurants where the tapas, wine and beer are excellent and the view across the sandy beach from your dining table exquisite. To the south the beach is intercepted by a rocky hill with the old walled fishing town and remains of the church still beautifully preserved. Walking the inside path of this old village provides the most stunning views across the roofs of the town to the west, the sandy beach to the north and the pristine rocky seaside to the south, and when we were there, the rising full moon over the Mediterranean to the east.
We had to return home, the holiday was over, and Köln a long drive (10 hours for 450km in the August holiday traffic of southern France just to get to Lyon) away. Then the reality shock of returning home hit me and I realised that my family has now reached that first major change which happens to all families, but for which we were not nearly sufficiently prepared. We had to leave our eldest behind. Cara finished school in June and her first ‘after school’ objective is to learn to Spanish. This is why we headed to Lloret specifically, because this is where my daughter will stay for the next 8 months to learn Spanish before embarking on her university studies. It was one of the hardest parenting duties I have ever had to do, driving back home while your kid stays behind, in another country, nogal!
But then, thinking about it rationally, I realised this is exactly why we moved to Europe originally. We came here for new challenges and opportunities and this has always been a major item on Cara’s bucket list, to live in Spain, learn to speak Spanish and to work with horses. That is precisely what she is now doing. Thus, slowly but surely we are fulfilling what we set out to do, sometimes with a very serious emotional shock accompanying the reality of our decisions, but also with the gratitude and a sense of achievement overshadowing that emotional hesitation. Still, as her younger brother said when we arrived home and the visiting grandparents also left for South Africa ‘our home is suddenly weird’.
‘Once through the Picos, we headed east to Zaragosa as a sleepover before hitting the sights, sounds, sun, siestas and soccer of Barcelona. But that’s another story.’
And this now is that other story.
If you’re visiting Barcelona for the first time, and you’re worried because you don’t speak Spanish, relax, neither does Barcelona. Barça is the main city of Cataluña and as is the case with the Basque country, conflict between Catalan independence seekers and Spain has been going on for many years. Of the 5.7 million Catalans, some 80% are Catalan speakers.
So not Spanish are the people of Cataluña that they abolished steer fighting and changed the Barcelona bullring to a Mall, causing a political stir due to the ‘un-Spanish’ sentiment this signified.
Barcelona, with ‘such a beautiful horizon,’ was our destination for the second week where we had a small (read small) apartment booked in the most ideal location in La Barcelonetta. La Barcelonetta is that triangular piece of Barcelona bordered by the harbor, the city and the Mediterranean. The apartment was a mere 50m walk from the ‘playa’ La Barcelonetta, the beach which gained prestige as ‘the best urban beach in the world’ and overall ‘third best beach in the world’ according to the 2005 Travel Channel show World’s Best Beaches. Thus, Heleen secured a prime location, which in a sense proved disadvantageous as well. So good was the ‘beach holiday’ that we did miss out on some other ‘must do’ sights in this magnificent city. Blasé-ly I suppose, I can say that since we have been to Barça previously, it was OK to afford ourselves a more relaxed pace in coping with the humid and high in the 30° days.
Nowadays in our home, FC Barcelona is probably the biggest attraction when you talk anything Spanish, and thus we were fortunate enough to be able to fit in two Camp Nou matches into our relaxed schedule, one of which was a sell-out ‘el Clasico’ versus Real Madrid. Utilizing the well-known reference books such as Eyewitness, Lonely Planet and others, I realized how hugely underestimated attending games in a venue such as Camp Nou is in terms of tourism value. A visit to the Estadio Camp Nou, including attending a ‘big match’ such as a la liga encounter must rate as one of the highlights available to any tourist visiting Barcelona. My advice is to add this to your bucket list immediately.
Antonio Gaudi is the name, when visiting Barcelona that simply pop’s up time and time again and for good reason too. Gaudi was the genius architect of so many landmark architectural creations in Barcelona, of which the ‘Templo Expiatorio de la Sagrada Familia’ is probably the most well known of them all. I visited the Sagrada de la Familia for the first time in 2007 and was slightly disappointed then. At that time, the entire inside was still scattered with scaffolding and I could not appreciate the architecture and grandiose of this church in full.
Thus, with the five years’ earlier experience as reference, it was with slight hesitation that we took the trouble to actually take the kids to the most famous of Barcelona’s sights. And am I glad that we went? The interior is now finished, with no scaffolding and workman around, and wow!, it is magnificent. Some areas on the outside are, although stunning, grotesque in design and in traditional cathedral frame of mind not what you would expect. But sit down, stare, scan and take it in, and then it makes sense and it awes you. The finished inside is just simply beautiful and my limited writing ability and words can never do justice to it. Of course it’s not traditional. Its Gaudi, for Pete’s sake! Nothing Gaudi is traditional and he did spend about 16 years as a semi recluse in the cathedral while working on it. But it is incredible, huge, beautiful and awe inspiring. Marietha, you should visit it again.
The first stone was laid as far back as 19 March 1882. And the current project plan states that it will only be completed in 2026. It is always unfortunate though, that these monumental places of worship are such tourist attractions with the common tourist behavior and masses spoiling the dedicated atmosphere, which should reign.
Among Gaudi’s many architectural relics is also the Parc Güell. Industrialist and friend of Gaudi, Eusebi Güell had the idea of building an estate (let’s say Midstream like) with 60 stands amongst a natural park environment. He entrusted the design of the park to Gaudi and though the estate never realized and only three plots sold, the park and the Gaudi relics are something from out of this world. Due to the topography of the land, he designed a system of viaducts, all supported by interesting incline columns as to preserve the natural land, but still provide roads, to service the entire park. The location of the park in the mountain overlooking Barcelona makes it a favorite late afternoon destination where people flock to enjoy the views and lazily sit around while people watching.
People watching, needless to say, goes down very well with sipping something, soaking the sun, sometimes even staring and a bit of swimming or splashing, but in this sea never surfing and then siesta. Since we arrived in Europe in October 2011 we never sat still (refer this blog upwards) as we were so keen on simply utilizing the availability of travel in the Europe. This summer week in Barcelona turned out to provide a few good hours of actually relaxing at a slight slower pace, sort of to catch our breath and as the Kalahari Bushmen says ‘to allow your soul to catch-up with you’. It was necessary and hugely rewarding as the Barcelonetta ‘playa’ is scattered with cafès with a good view across the beach.
Man’s nature when traveling is to squeeze as much as possible into the time available and I often think of how much enjoyment you sacrifice this way. There is a huge trade-off between photos taken in front of things/places and then being ticked as visited versus experiencing things and places by spending time and absorbing sights and sounds. We used the Barcelona leg of the Spain trip successfully to slow down the pace and experience and enjoy more rather then rush and pursue more. So often less is more.
And this, I believe contributed hugely to this Spanish holiday to be one of the highlights of our past 12 months in Europe. And maybe, it will set the (lack of) pace for many more trips like this to come.
That well-known, and more than once used by me, saying ‘traveling broadens the mind’ is just so true that I cannot but use it over and over again. I love it so much when paradigms are shifted, and so much more when it’s my own. What I thought will be a two-week visit to Spain turned out to become a two-week visit to a few of the ‘Spains’, consisting of Aragôn, the Basque country, Navarra and La Rioja, Cantabria, Asturias and Catalonia and no Spain at all! Thus, I will somewhere in the future have to spend time in Spain. One simply cannot fit so much to see, so much history, conflict, culture, restaurants, roads, art, architecture, photographic potential, beaches and people into two weeks.
However, let me start at the proper beginning. To do a road-trip, one has to be equipped well, and I have learnt on this trip that the most essential piece of travel equipment to ensure a successful road-trip is an integrated iPod system, though if you allow the wrong family members to influence the playlists too much, you will end-up ‘clubbing’ down the highways in the early hours of the morning in tune with the Pitbulls, Iglesias’ and alike. With roughly 4000 songs just a finger-click away its easy to let ‘die kilometers vlieg verby, with a wicked wicked back-beat’; that is if the traffic conditions allow you. I have also learnt that one of the best reference books on Europe, its history, cultural differences and happenings must be Goschiny and Uderzo’s Asterix and Obelix series.
Each and every car owner north of the Pyrenees is heading down south to the beaches of southern France and Spain, as was the case when Asterix and Obelix went to help Huevos y Baçon and Pepe against that rip-off maestro Julius (why does this now have a South African ring to it?)and a 350km drive took us in excess of 6 hours with many occasions the highway coming to a complete standstill. At Bordeaux I decided enough is enough; I have a GPS and ventured onto those scenic small little roads closer to the coast. I don’t know whether its actually faster, but at least we moved and we saw some pretty awesome scenery.
Spain is not at all a single country. The different regions all have their own and very strong identities and this adds to some serious confusion when visiting them. I mutht thtill figure out when to uthe ‘th’ for the etheth ath in Barthelona, Than Thebathtian, Thergio Ramoth and whether to thank thome-one with a grathias or gracias. Furthermore, I have learnt that ‘ll’ is pronounced ‘jj’ as in David Villa is actually Dahveed Veejja and Seville is pronounced Sêwiejja (take note Chris de Burgh, you’re not saying it right). ‘Actually’ is always pronounced actually and never ever actuajjy, though.
But I’m dwejjing, I mean dwelling, so let me get back to our first destination, a rural retreat in the mountains of the Basque area, where Basque is spoken and not Spanish, and foreigners apparently not often seen, as the shepherd remarked when we had to wait for him on a tiny little mountain back-road to herd his flock of sheep past us, ‘we don’t often see English people around here’, in pretty OK English, I must admit. We were so in awe with the scenery that we completely forgot to take a picture of us being surrounded by sheep. Hotel Rural Mañe proved to be a stunning little Basque country hotel where part of the farmhouse is converted into a beautiful little inn, complete with home cooking and La Rioja wine for dinner. And to cake it all, from the premises they also run a commercial bakery, which means breakfasts too are a delight with various pastries, salamis and jamons for the taking. Furthermore, the friendly and easygoing manager Naiara with their one-year old daughter on the hip and her husband Miguel running in assistance complements the true homely atmosphere and we thoroughly enjoyed our two-day stay.
Basque is said to be the oldest language in Europe, not from Latin origin and thus totally different from anything else spoken in Spain. This was very evident even on the road-signs where plenty of ‘x’s’ occurs in the place names, which sometimes even provided some Xhosa feel to the names, though ‘only in my mind.’ The Basque country is an autonomous community within Spain and many towns are indicated by their Basque names on the information signs. The city San Sebastian for example is known as Donostia, which is important to know if you thought you were searching for San Sebastian on the roadside directions. Neighboring the Basque country are the kingdoms of Aragón, Navarre and La Rioja, and in all my travels this was the most pristine example of the medieval kingdoms I have yet seen. Driving through the countryside and observing the castles, houses, monasteries and towns, I could imagine that the movie ‘Ladyhawk’ was taken straight from this scenery. Visiting the exceptional medieval town Olite (pronounced Olite) and its castle with the view across open land towards Ujue (pronounced Ogoeje) in the north, it’s very easy to lose yourself back into the days of King Carlos III aka ‘The Noble’ in the early 15th century who went for broke and built the magnificent castle, with its hanging garden, exotic trees, elegant galleries, and towers. Incidentally, Navarre, Aragón and Basque are the only parts of Spain that was never ruled by the Moors from North Africa. Here they did not ‘just swallow their pride but they fought back’ and retained their own land.
They say you should not live in the past, and thus, just to keep the balance we also stopped by at Durban and enjoyed a calamari lunch. Durban is the restaurant of Javi Martínez, the Spanish international footballer now playing for Bayern Munich (formerly from Athletic Club Bilbao) in the town Ayegui (I don’t know how to pronounce it) who opened the restaurant after the 2010 Soccer World cup and named it ‘Durban’ in honor of his ‘pleasant experience’ there. Durban (KZN) is a nice town if I may say so, I grew up in Durbs, plus this is where Spain beat Germany 1:0 in the semi-final through a Puyol header in the 73rd minute in 2010. I suppose Durban makes more sense in Navarre than Moses Mabhida.
And then you stumble onto and into these gems of destinations that are probably deliberately kept secret for the exclusive use by the locals, such as Donostia (San Sebastian) and its festival. Our idea was to stop, look around, have a light lunch and venture further down the coast towards the west.
One look at the down-town old part of the city made us look for accommodation immediately, and I saw that if you stand back and leave some things to your kids, their natural initiative simply comes to the fore. Stean saw the little inn, and with Cara’s Spanish skills the two of them secured a four bed single room in the middle of the old-town hub of San Sebastian. I was initially worried that we will not be able to change our minds in the room, so small was it, but eventually we managed.
We unintentionally stumbled straight into the heart of the town and it was the week when they have the town festival, probably the best week in the year to be in San Sebastian. That afternoon, as part of the town festival, it was the annual float race in the harbor and bay of the town. The young people of the town build their own floats with crates, planks, blown-up pillow type thingies and similar megafters, then enter the water and try to stay afloat while drinking, rowing and trying to tip the vessel next to you; one mega big town jol!
Back to our accommodation! They say ‘location, location, location’ are the key indicators when considering accommodation, and this we did. However, we did get a little more than we bargained for. We were the proverbial 5 minutes’ walk from everything important when on vacation; the beaches, the restaurants, the shops, the Spanish ROCK SHOW, (which continued until 01:30), the street parties (that never stopped) as well as the municipal city cleaning services and deliveries who start their days just after 04:00 in the mornings. ‘Location, location, location’ clearly does not have anything in common with ‘sleep, sleep, sleep’! And that was not the end of our surprise for the day. When we went to get the car from the parkade, there was this little note at the ‘casse’ stating that ‘due to the festival and a cycle race, the parkade was closed until 19:00! We were locked in and (un)fortunately had to spend another day in the festive streets of Donostia! More time utilized on sun, beach, sea-kayaking, whale hunting museum and a typical Basque lunch with ‘sardinas’, paella, fish and wine.
We unpacked our tents, inflated the mattresses and went camping!
Such is the beauty of this part of the world, that if you don’t force yourself to stay in the car and drive, you will not progress more than, say 43km per day. We did stop over in Bilbao to fit a Bilbao Athletic stadium tour into our schedule (its clear how football has become part of our travel criteria). Did you know that to this day the Bilbao club is Athletic (English, since it was the English dock yard workers who established the football club in 1898 and which became Athletic Bilbao in 1903) and not Atletico as is the other similarly name clubs and that Athletic Bilbao still holds the record of beating Barcelona 12:1 (1931). Athletic Club Bilbao still maintains the rule of only playing Basques in their team.
What fascinates me is how this part of Spain is not Spanish at all and when reading and digging deeper, the most interesting political tales comes to the fore. It was noticeable that it was not the Spanish flag flying outside buildings, except for official government institutions, but the Basque ‘national’ flag. Even to this day the separate identities continue to strive and one should not make the mistake to think a Basque or Catalan is a Spaniard. One of the most despicable acts of modern warfare was the bombing of Gernika in the Basque country. On 26 April 1937 German and Italian fighter planes bombed the town of Gernika in a three-hour raid on the town. According to our travel handbook, the Footprint Travel Guide on Northern Spain, it was the market day, which means so many extra people from the surrounding countryside were in the town. And not only were the bombs dropped, but for maximum effect, the fleeing people were machine gunned down. To put this into perspective, remember that this was 1937; it was the Spanish civil war and not yet World War II. General Franco, the leader of the Nationalist forces denied that the bombing ever occurred and claimed that the damage was caused by Basque propagandists. The Basques resisted the advance of Franco’s nationalist forces and Franco offered the Luftwaffe the proving ground of their troops for the war that was to come. Herman Göring, at the Nurmburg Trials had this to say, “I urged him [Adolf Hitler] to give support [to Franco] under all circumstances, firstly, in order to prevent the further spread of communism in that theater and, secondly, to test my young Luftwaffe at this opportunity in this or that technical respect.” Though Germany did officially apologise in 1999 (yes, that’s 62 years after the event), Spain has not said another word about the incident. Pablo Picasso produced a painting by the name Gernika after the incident to commemorate it.
Venturing further west through Cantabria and into Asturias brings even more stunning and rugged coastline with plenty of old-pretty-fishing-town after old-pretty-fishing-town scattering the coastline. The flexibility of two three-man tents and inflatable mattresses we now used for accommodation enabled us to change plans and venues on short notice and it proved to be the perfect travel solution for scenic destinations such as Northern Spain. You see a town, you like a town and you find the camping spot, as easy as that. We ended up for a two night stay in Comilla and then two nights in a ‘nature’s valley’ like Playa de España some 10km out of Gijon resulting in four days of a blissful summer, sun, beach type holiday, reminding of my summer holidays at Scottburgh on the Natal South Coast in years gone by. Both me and my teenage son will obviously profoundly protest and deny any hint whatsoever that we particularly enjoyed the beach holiday that little bit extra due to the very tasteful beach attire of the Spanish girls. It was purely because we are so starved of proper sun and surf after two consecutive winters and 11 months living in northern Europe and not the Spanish beachwear (or lack there-of).
The difference of camping in Europe is that there’s not a braai in progress in front of each caravan at night,
but rather pedestrians roaming the streets scanning little restaurants, their Asturian paella and stews (which for some bizarre reason I missed out on), jamon iberica, sardines and other seafood delicacies. The looks on the kids’ faces were not always that impressed when a huge pan with crab and other seawater kreepy crawlies landed on our table amongst the huge quantities of rice to complete the paella.
Interestingly in the Asturias is that the main drink is cidre and not beer or wine. It has its own ceremony when ordered. Asturian cidre is ordered by the bottle and then decantered in a very specific semi show-off way, to the uninformed onlooker, that is. The waiter lifts the green bottle as high as possible with the one hand and then pours into the glass held as low as possible in the other hand, without looking at the glass. They do spill, and you have to mind your feet not to get them covered in cidre, but that’s just part of the ritual. The idea is that the height of the drop must create bubbles, which are an essential part of the drinking process. The drinker has a short little window of opportunity where the bubbles remain in the glass, and it must be drunk within this period.
As Chris de Burgh so eloquently describes in The Storyman when he sings ‘take me back to the places I’ve never seen’I can also plea to be taken back to northern Spain as I have missed so much in Cantabria, Asturas, Navarre, Aragon, La Rioja and Basque. A week is far too short. We did, for example drive through the Cantabrian Picos (picos de Europa), but it is one of those destinations where you should have the time to venture off-road, up the mountains and into the valleys. Though its in the middle if modern day Spain, there are still Cantabrian brown bears and wolves roaming the remote peaks. The Picos de Europa is a magnificent mountain range roughly 20km inland and apparently derives its name from the fact that it was the first sight of Europe for those early day sailors returning from their pleasure cruises in the Caribbean or around Africa.
Once through the Picos, we headed east to Zaragosa as a sleepover before hitting the sights, sounds, sun and soccer of Barcelona. But that’s another story.