Barcelona,  March 2017

Back again in Barcelona – we can’t keep away!  And in the first two days we saw Castellers, a parade, a demonstration and some Sardana dancing.  We love this city because there is always something happening.

Plaça Bonsuccés – a favourite square from our 2013 stay

Castellers are the traditional human towers of Catalunya. They existed in the 1800s but had a renewal in the 70s and 80s. The movement even has a UNESCO World Heritage listing and there are many groups around Barcelona. It’s worth checking the website to see if any Castellers are nearby: http://www.cccc.cat/contents/calendar-of-performances-6

We saw two teams in Plaça del Pi.  They start off  by wrapping support sashes around their fellow Castellers, then many form the wide base (Pinya). As well as supporting the tower, this acts as a safety net. Others climb up to form Castells (castles) in various formations, finishing with a small child or children who raise four fingers, symbolising the Catalan flag.  Only the smallest children on the top wear helmets, but we did notice an ambulance with open doors on standby. Thankfully there was no need for it and everyone enjoyed the spectacle.  The record is nine or ten levels, depending on where you read the information. We thought six was pretty good!

The other team offered support in the base – it was all very friendly with lots of applause and high fives after the Castells were completed.

Disassembling is all part of it. This single tower was left as the others climbed down.

Castellers are even featured in tiled panels and a modern sculpture in Plaça de Sant Miquel (near Plaça Sant Jaume) represents this much loved tradition.

I got caught up in a parade to celebrate The Diada of one of the saints. Anyone could join in – you almost had to in the narrow streets – and the atmosphere was fun and bustling.

The demonstration was interesting as it seemed to be about NOT having a separate Catalan state.  On previous trips, especially on Catalan National Day, we had the feeling that the majority of people wanted self-determination.  After seeing the demonstration, I did a little internet research and found it was about half and half. These people were chanting Viva Catalunya and Viva Espanya – so see themselves as both.  Their Catalan flags did not have the star indicating the desire for independence. Interesting!

Sardana dancing was something I had heard about.   I happened to be passing the cathedral on a Sunday morning and there it was.  It is a traditional Catalan circle dance and seemed to be open to anyone.  It seemed quite leisurely and many (but not all) the participants were elderly.  There was one big circle initially then a few other smaller ones formed.


I had passed the beautiful courtyard of the Frederic Marès Museum many times but had not visited the museum.  The museum is free on Sunday afternoons so I thought I would have a quick look.  Hours later I emerged bamboozled by this incredible collection.  Marès was a sculptor and some of his works were wonderful, but it was his bower bird collections that were amazing.  He collected everything!  Scissors, watches, toy soldiers, clocks, fans, boxes, garden shears, keys, umbrellas, crucifixes – the list goes on.

All were displayed beautifully in this historic building.  These angels from the 1600s seemed to have particularly angelic faces as did Mary and Jesus from the 13th century.


From the museum, the Saló del Tinell can be seen – a reminder that this was once a royal palace.


The courtyard of the museum is free to enter anytime and there is a small café – would be a nice refuge on a hot day.

We saw Casa Amatller every day, not in reality but  on a photo that served as our bedhead in our BCNGotic apartment.  That’s it in the middle next to the more famous Casa Batllo.   We had peeped into the foyer a few years ago before it was open to the public, but this time It was definitely on the list. 

Unlike its popular neighbour, there’s no queue and the audio tour is self-guided, so it can be a leisurely experience.  Admission is 14€and you are given special shoe covers to preserve the floors.  The house was designed  by Josep Puig i Cadalfalch for Antoni Amatller and his daughter.  It is over the top Modernism – something everywhere you look. There was quite a contrast between the father’s and daughter’s suite but every room had details that were not obvious at first. I loved wandering about and listening to the commentary.  The chocolate shop/café at the end was delightful too.

Though it was not really beach weather,  a few optimists were actually swimming in March.  We preferred a walk along the promenade in the sunshine.

I found a few more businesses with the plaques showing that they have been in existence for at least 50 years.  I have found about five of these on previous trips. There is probably a list of them somewhere but I prefer to find them on my walks. This time it was Casa Beethoven in La Rambla,

And this book and paper shop in the Gotic.



Restaurants

Long term locals took us to El Salon, tucked away in the Gotic area behind the big Post building.  This was a great place and we had two small complimentary starters and some wonderful squid with white beans and slow cooked lamb with a few glasses of local wine.  We’ll definitely go back next time.

Arume was a quirky place and the sister restaurant to Cera 23, one of our favourites from previous trips.  The duck paella was really delicious and the little complimentary soup at the start and liquor at the end were very welcome, but we didn’t think it was quite as good as Cera 23.  Still worth a visit though.

Quirky display of washing at Arume

Our third visit to Senyor Parellada was certainly our best.  It’s an elegant Catalan restaurant in the Banys Orientals Hotel.  This time we went with Catalan speaking friends – maybe that was the difference.  Very good service and food this time.

Caelum always seemed to have delicious cakes on display so it was inevitable that we ended up there for afternoon tea. Some of the cakes and products for sale are made in convents and monasteries and the place had a cosy and serene feeling.  Caelum means heaven. Eating cake, drinking hot chocolate, listening to music and watching the world go by in Barcelona certainly came close!

La Luna is a must for us every time.  It’s a casual place in a vaulted old building.  Great atmosphere and great tapas. We again had the quesadilla and the slow cooked lamb  Can’t remember what else, but all delicious.

Antic Forn was one of our favourites when we stayed in Barcelona for five weeks.  It’s a simple neighbourhood place but at this time of year they have calçots on the menu.  These are sort of a spring onion/leek cross and traditionally they are grilled and eaten wearing bibs, with great ceremony.  We really enjoyed the meal and the waiter said he remembered us from a few years ago. 

We went to a little lunch place in the Passagte Sert, called Cardona 2.  A simple lunch, but three courses and wine for 9.90€ – no complaints from us.  The Passagte itself is worth a look – some charming shops and a café at the end.


Ziryab Fusion  A Middle Eastern/Spanish degustation tapas meal was a great finale to our time in Barcelona and a little twist was the map on the wall –  La Ruta de la Seda – The Silk Road in China, coincidentally our next trip! 





Florence (via Lake Trasimeno) March 2017

With the drive from Assisi taking 2 to 3 hours and no need to be in Florence until late afternoon, we had time to make a detour.  Lake Trasimeno was virtually on our way and we had heard good things about a little town called Castiglione del Lago.  We had a quick look at Passignano sul Trasimeno, thinking it may be just as charming. It was pleasant enough but it was definitely worth going on to Castiglione.

Passinagno sul Trasimeno

On a high promontory overlooking Lake Trasimeno, charming Castiglione (well, the old town) is only a couple of long streets ringed by old city walls.  The two main sights, the palazzo and the castle, were linked by an amazing walkway.  After going into the Ducal Palace and admiring the frescoes, we set off down this narrow tunnel to the castle.  Not sure what it would be like in midsummer, but we had it to ourselves.  I was back in my childhood, immersed in books about smugglers and exploring secret passages.

On to Florence and luckily I had read detailed instructions about returning hire cars to the airport (some people seemed to have driven round for hours!)  We have accomplished the drop off without too much difficulty.  Hint – the drop off is not in the airport but in Via Palagio degli Spini, without too much signposting. You need to turn right under an elevated road.  There is a free shuttle bus from there back to the airport – ours got caught in a huge traffic jam, which we then negotiated for a second time in the taxi.  We were looking forward to arriving and relaxing.

The location of our apartment was perfect for 51 weeks of the year, just not this one.  We knew something was up when the taxi driver told us we’d have to walk the final block. Our Florentine street:

Fortunately the workmen started late, took a long lunch break and finished at a respectable hour.  Our bedroom was at the back of a long and beautiful apartment so it had very little impact on us.  Just not the view we’d expected!  Our host carefully avoided any mention of it as he explained the workings of the place.  A case of the jackhammer in the street rather than the elephant in the room.

Florence was so busy!  After a week of meandering around Umbria and going to half full restaurants and empty tourist attractions, the mass of tourists was a shock.  We were not used to queuing up for a gelati or being asked if we had reservations in a restaurant.  We had to plan our days a little more.

Before Mr Frequent Flyer’s work commitments, we spent our time together looking around several of the sights of Florence.  We had visited before so didn’t feel the need to race around ticking places off.  We wanted to see the Boboli Gardens and wandered over to the Oltrarno side of the river, admiring the Ponte Vecchio along the way.  Then we realised we should get some lunch first.  We headed to the Piazza Santo Spirito, a delightful microcosm of Florentine life with a market, cafés, dog walkers, children running around and of course, a church at the end of the square.

The Boboli Gardens, when we got to them, were vast and sunny.  We chose not to go into the Pitti Palace, instead enjoying the beautiful weather, gardens and views.


The Bardini Gardens were included on the same ticket and could be reached via a gate and short walk from the Boboli Gardens so we saw them on our downhill walk back.  Beautiful views over Florence and so quiet. 

Ponte Vecchio

As our previous visits had been in winter, we’d had a drizzly version of  the quintessential view from Piazzale Michelangelo.  Taking bus number 12 from outside the station I took advantage of the bright blue sky, enjoyed the views and snapped away with  the camera.  It was an easy meandering walk down, passing Santa Croce on the way.

Views from Piazzale Michelangelo


Some buildings had flood markers from the terrible floods in 1966 which killed 101 people and destroyed numerous precious works of art and manuscripts.

……………And still the digging continued……..


Near our apartment was an attractive building which seemed to be an important stop for numerous tour groups every day. With a bit more investigation I found out that it was a historic pharmacy.  ‘Pharmacy’ does not really do it justice.  It is a magnificent old palace with a large courtyard – part of the cloisters of Santa Maria Novella.  It is part museum and part retail store with many elegant rooms, architectural details and even a tea room. All kinds of beautiful lotions, soaps and creams are still sold there but anybody is welcome to walk around and take pictures without any obligation.  The whole place has delicious scents in each room and even the product lists are works of art. 

Visiting the Duomo was a must and it was not unbearably crowded early in the day.  The exterior was amazing and the whole Piazza with the Duomo, Bell Tower and Baptistery just seemed to be the real  Florence – so recognisable.  The interior was less spectacular until I was under the dome.  Massive and colourful, it took my breath away, despite having seen it before.

The Golden Doors of the Baptistery. Very popular despite being copies of the originals.


Inevitably there was graffiti around Florence but also some pleasant street art.

I stumbled on the Michelozzo Courtyard on one of my walks.  Designed by Michelozzo in the 1400s and housing the Medici Palace, this courtyard was spectacular and freely open to all.   They were even giving away oranges from the large potted trees!

Piazza Santa Maria Novella where in  1976 we stayed somewhere on the right in a little Soggiorno for a couple of dollars!

The nearby town of Fiesole was an easy bus trip from San Marco in Florence.  Still only €1.20 as are the other shorter bus journeys.  Bus number 7 runs every 30 minutes and gradually climbs up to the hillside town in about 25 minutes.  The wealth of the area was evident in the villas tucked away in the hills on the way up. The Etruscans, then Romans settled in Fiesole long before Florence existed.  It has various historic sights, but most visitors come to admire the views of Florence.  I ate lunch at the café at the Roman theatre, then wandered up (and I mean up) to San Francesco and its small panoramic terrace.

 

Main square Fiesole

Numbers seemed to feature in the names of some of our Florentine restaurant selections. Two typical Tuscan places were within steps of our apartment.  13 Gobbi was recommended by our host but unfortunately also by Rick Steves, resulting in a once little local place being packed with American tourists – not a word of Italian to be heard. Great food though, as was CentoPoveri, (‘100 poor’) fortunately with a more balanced mix of tourists and locals. This place even had a €10 lunch menu, though we were always further afield at lunchtime so didn’t try it. 


Finally the roadworks were finishing but so were we and we were off to Barcelona.

Umbria, March 2017

Collecting a hire car at Rome airport in March was very streamlined compared with our experience in August two years ago.  It wasn’t the car we’d ordered but then it never is (the ‘or similar’ clause).  It seemed a better model and virtually brand new so we were happy. Not happy with the rain though.  We headed north to Orvieto and a delightful apartment in the hills nearby (once we found it!). Lavanda e Rosmarino apartments were slightly further from Orvieto than we’d expected but fortunately we had bought antipasto, truffle pasta, dessert and wine along the way with thoughts of eating in on a wet night. We cranked the heater up, read the supplied guidebook and settled into this comfortable place.  The apartments would be great in summer too as they are around a large swimming pool.

Orvieto is spectacularly situated on top of steep cliffs.  Apart from the weather, it seemed to us to be the perfect hill town – small, attractive, historic and not too touristy (at least in March).  We parked below the town and caught a series of escalators up.  We walked around in the rain briefly before deciding to try one of our host’s recommendations and have a long lunch.  


Empty when we walked in, but soon full of locals, La Pergola was perfect for a long lunch.  Delicious bruschetta to start then sublime pasta with wild boar,  gnocchi with spinach and bacon and some house wine. A simple place with well prepared typical dishes, a cosy atmosphere and reasonable prices. What more could we want?  

Just as we finished eating the sun came out and the Duomo shone against the blue sky.  We had a look inside and especially liked the dramatic Capella di San Brizio with its colourful ceilings and graphic wall depictions of hell.  We walked to the recommended St Patrick’s Well only to find it was closed for a few weeks, but the walk was not wasted as there were great views from that end of the town. Noticed the Pozzo della Cava and decided to give it a go and see some of Orvieto’s underground.  A great decision.  Cheap admission, well described caves and and a cheery old man in charge meant that it was a fun visit.  There were storage areas for wine, rubbish chutes, cisterns and all kinds of chambers.  Signor led me into the restaurant at the end and I wasn’t sure what was happening but then he got me to look down through the glass floor to a cistern way below. He laughed as I jumped and we all enjoyed the joke.

Civita di Bagnoregio was somewhere I’d seen on a TV program and been fascinated.  I was mesmerised by this tiny place perched on a hill and if I am honest, it was the real reason for this short stay, with Orvieto coming a close second.  It was no less captivating in reality, though we were surprised to see how many tour groups were there in this little out of the way village.  Obviously, the word has got around. The residents of this town are certainly taking advantage of their fame, with an admission charge, several B & Bs and multiple restaurants.  A big turn around for a place once dubbed ‘the dying town’. 

From Civita, we continued through Umbria to Assisi, with a lunch stop and walk in Todi.  Spectacularly sited on top of a hill, Todi was not at its best in the drizzle, but a delicious pizza lunch at Le Cisterne kept our mood buoyant.  On to Assisi where we found our home for the next four nights – a charming 800 year old stone house.  We loved Assisi and were very happy exploring it and its environs.  Situated on the slopes of Mt Subasio and surrounded by a partly intact thick wall, it is easy to see how the residents of Assisi felt protected from invaders. The weather turned for us and sunny, crisp days replaced the drizzle. 

The Basilica di San Francesco was a highlight, with its frescoes by Giotto and two distinct churches – the upper and lower.  I am not really a fan of Rick Steves’ guidebooks but must admit his walking tour podcast which we downloaded for free had great descriptions of the frescoes. There was enough detail to cover each one but not so much that you felt completely bamboozled.  Being March, the church was not too busy though barriers outside for people to line up showed that high season would be completely different.  We had bag searches by men and women with serious weapons – sad but necessary in these tense times.  In the town there were many reminders of St Francis and his followers.  Of Assisi’s many sights, we enjoyed seeing the Temple of Minerva, the San Rufino cathedral and Santa Chiara with its pink and white facade and lovely terrace.


We were staying close to the Rocca Maggiore and climbed up for fantastic views of the surrounding countryside.  This fort dominates the town and is spectacularly lit at night.  The tiny staircases and some see though floors are not for the claustrophobic!


The Eremo delle Carceri was a peaceful ‘hermitage’ in a deep gorge, 4km out of town.  Some pilgrims were walking up the winding road but we drove to this retreat used by St Francis and others.  There were signs around reminding visitors that it was a holy place ensuring that it was serene and peaceful, even for non religious people like us. 



The nearby pretty towns of Spello and Bevagna were almost deserted and we had no trouble finding parking spots in either.  Both were worth a look, but we preferred Spello and its hilltop location.  Despite getting lost after taking a minor road, we eventually got back and had a great view of Assisi after checking out the supermarket in the town below. 

Santa Maria degli Angeli below Assisi contained the tiny church, the Portiuncula, restored by St Francis.  We loved the tiny, charming and modest ‘church in a church’.  No photos were allowed, though people all around us were ignoring this rule. Here’s a picture (from Wikipedia Commons by zyance).

The larger basilica was also the place where St Francis died, so a very holy place for many.

Food was definitely a highlight in Assisi.  The outstanding place for us was Osteria Piazzetta dell’Erbe, which was stylish in decor and food.  Unfortunately I lost my little notebook where I listed the delicious dishes we ate on this trip, but I remember that the food was innovative and we had complimentary starters, great wine and friendly service.  It was a step above the hearty traditional food of other places.

Trattoria da Erminio was a simpler place and very quiet on the night we visited – more staff than customers. It was a family place with great food (I remember the artichoke lasagna) and very friendly service and inexpensive wine. 

La Rocca was close to ‘home’, so perfect on a rainy night.  It was in a hotel and the dining room was large and fairly empty, but a cute baby kept us entertained as we ate great truffle pasta. 

After four nights we packed up, squeezed the car through the narrow streets and set off for Florence.

London  March  2017

A few days in London was enough time to get into the time zone, visit a couple of new (for me) attractions and poke around the shops in nearby Oxford Street.  A three day stopover in Hong Kong en route from Australia eased the jet lag somewhat, so I was out and about the first day.  Mr Frequent Flyer had a busy few days so I was mostly solo.  We have been to London many times, including two long stays, one of six months and one of a year in the 80s, so I never feel the need to race around frantically.  It’s more like gentle pottering. 

Before leaving home, I had booked a ticket for The Book of Mormon.  The matinee was a Wednesday, our second day, so I was reasonably confident I wouldn’t fall asleep. No danger of that!  Loved its catchy tunes, irreverence and satire, though it wasn’t for everyone.  A couple next to me did not return after interval.  I had a perfect single seat in the middle of the dress circle.


The next day in Holland Park, the sun came out and the neighbourhood adjoining the park glowed.  I had forgotten that sections of this park are quite wild and I enjoyed the solitude and the daffodils just starting to show their colours.  The park has something for everyone : children’s playgrounds, formal gardens, a design museum, tennis courts and a theatre.


But I had come specifically to see the Kyoto Garden.  A beautiful Japanese garden complete with pond, waterfall and koi, built in 1991.  Very peaceful and calm, especially in wintery March, though interestingly Pokemon Go players were requested to keep out and respect the serenity of this and the nearby Fukushima Garden.




The flowers were starting to bloom in the rest of Holland Park and there were peacocks and squirrels around.  I couldn’t resist a peek at the Youth Hostel where I’d stayed in the 70s.

The Churchill War Rooms, or more correctly the Cabinet War Rooms,  was somewhere Mr FF recommended from a previous visit.  So on a wet morning I ended up there knowing I would at least be dry underground. It was an amazing piece of intact World War II history.  The admission included an audio guide, perfect for a leisurely self guided tour. It was not only Churchill who was based here, but the whole Cabinet.  There were offices, dormitories and bedrooms left as they were in the war years, making it easy to imagine the long hours or days spent in the bunkers as bombs rained down.  As they spent so long underground there were signs telling them the weather above. 


The other part of the bunker was The Churchill Museum with various exhibits, some interactive, about his life including some inspiring speeches and various newsreels, papers and personal items.  His unhappy childhood was touching to read about, but apparently not unusual in the aristocracy at that time. 


I had no idea of the extent of Churchill’s love of painting, nor indeed his talent and I enjoyed seeing various reproductions of his works.  There was a great quote where he said when he got to heaven, he would spend a considerable portion of his first million years painting.

Emerging in the sunlight, I walked through St James’s Park , saw one of the Horseguards in Whitehall,

then headed to the Cafe in the Crypt at St Martin in the Fields for lunch.  Right at Trafalgar Square and set under an 18th century vaulted ceiling, this was a great place for soup and a sandwich before going to a free lunchtime concert in the church above.  Concerts are held on Fridays and other days.  The program is here: http://www.stmartin-in-the-fields.org/music/concerts/.   My concert was Voxcetera, a chamber choir – an hour of beautiful music. 

Dinner in Greenwich with friends completed our short stay and we were off to Italy.

Barcelona,  September 2016

Back in Barcelona again and back to our favourite apartments, BCNGotic in the Born area. These are well run and well equipped apartments in a great area and have staff working in the reception during office hours, so there is never the ‘collecting the key’ problem we have had at times in apartments. This time we had a larger apartment with a terrace – perfect, as we had friends coming to stay for a few days.  Just being in the Born area and walking around the streets was fun, as was showing our friends ‘our’ Barcelona.


One of the joys of Barcelona is that despite having spent plenty of time there over the last few years (including a five week stay), there are always new things to see.  Torre Bellesguard was somewhere that really appealed. Gaudi without the crowds?  Yes please!  We caught a taxi which I erroneously thought would be 10 to 15 €. After a suspiciously long journey along the coast we looped around towards the Tibidabo area and it ended up costing 25€.  To be fair, the driver may have asked me if I wanted to take the freeway (in Catalan) and I, pretending some fluency after a couple of terms of Spanish, had no idea and said Si,Si.  Once there, it was great. See below for a much cheaper transport alternative.

The house was up on the hill in a nice residential area. It was 9€ to get in and included an audio guide. The gardens and exterior of the house were done independently and then we met up with a guide for the inside.  There were only seven of us looking around so it was very peaceful compared with some of the other Gaudi sites. The exterior had straight lines – very unusual on a Gaudi design.  It was his homage to the medieval castle which originally stood on the site, occupied by Martin of Aragon, who also went by the delightful name Martin the Humane.

The house is still a private residence so we were only able to see a few rooms. The entrance hall was stunning – very light and colourful, with a tiled staircase and an unusual 3D star window.  There were little details everywhere which the audio guide and real guide pointed out.

The upper floor was unfinished, apparently because of a lack of funds, but it gave it an austere beauty and showed the ‘bones’ of the house. 

The view from the terrace over the affluent suburb (some nice swimming pools!) and much of Barcelona only reinforced the name of the house.  Bellesguard means beautiful view in Catalan. As well as the panorama, a Gaudi-esque surprise was waiting for us on the roof.  I won’t describe it or put a picture – it’s fun to discover it for yourself.

Our return to downtown Barcelona was easy.  We walked a few blocks downhill to Placa Bonanova and caught the V13 bus all the way down Carrer Muntaner to the Boqueria market for the price of a single bus ticket (1€ with a T10 card).

Another place that appealed was the Anatomy Theatre in Carrer de Carme, only open on Wednesday mornings. We walked through the old hospital in guess what, Carrer de Hospital, and found it easily. The hospital was built in the 1400s and the first stone was laid by Martin the Humane (him again!) It’s now the Library of Catalonia and also has a children’s library in the orange tree filled courtyard. Gaudi died in this hospital after being hit by a tram in 1926. No need to prebook the Anatomy Theatre as there were only five of us on the tour.  The non-Catalan speakers (three of us) were given a small iPad type thing but we were all hopeless and kept somehow logging out.  This caused great hilarity for us but the guide, concentrating on his two Catalan speakers, did not seem amused by our lack of skills. There were a few rooms as this is the College of Surgeons building, but the main sight was the theatre itself, built in 1762.


 There were observation screens where people could hide while observing dissections (not thought of as morally correct if you were not a medical student).  The names of prominent doctors were displayed on the domed ceiling.

The MEAM (Museu Europeu d’Art Modern) was only a few minutes away from our apartment. It is in an 18th century palace, Palau Gomis and has an impressive archway entrance and vast rooms with Catalan ceilings.  We spent a couple of hours enjoying the exhibits – all figurative, so no abstract art. Well worth a look. One of the exhibiting artists was at work in one of the rooms. It’s an unusual place in that all the works are from this century.  

Santa Maria del Mar church was a must on our walk back, as were the old Born Market (now an archeological museum),  Passeig de Born and the monument to the Seige of Barcelona.  A highlight was visit to the lovely old fruit, nut and spice shop Casa Gispert (Sombrerers 23).  I love to pop in here each time I’m in Barcelona. This place was established in 1851 and they still use the wood fired roaster to roast the nuts, as they have for more than 160 years. It has one of those plaques which shows it has been there for many years. 

Once you know about the plaques, it’s fun to look out for them as you walk around. Here are a few other longstanding businesses in the Gothic area and their plaques. 

The lovely Roca cutlery shop

El Ingenio Mask and Costume shop

 I wanted to visit the Encants flea market,  probably with romantic notions of picking up some unnoticed antique. Surprisingly, it is a modern building with a mirrored ceiling.  It was more of a junk place but fun to visit and have lunch at one of the little cheap and cheerful bars upstairs, where the potatoes were cooked in an unusual way and a glass of sangria was just 1.5€!


Ciutadella Park was perfect for a stroll on a beautiful sunny day.  The boating lake, the fountains and all the open areas are a breath of fresh air in this busy city and the mammoth is well, interesting.



Placa Reial is a place we always return to.  It’s such a beautiful square and the lights are some of Gaudi’s early designs.

Lots of time was spent on random wandering around the Born and Gotic areas.

We discovered the delightful Passatge Sert with its lovely cafes between Carrer de Trafalgar and Carrer de Sant Pere Mes Alt.



Some Restaurants we enjoyed

La Luna – We have been here before and like its atmospheric setting and range of tapas.  The big Guinness sign out the front is no indication of the atmospheric and stylish setting inside. The service is a bit hit or miss but they are very friendly. It’s a fun, informal place.

Senyor Paralleda – Just opposite our accommodation, this is a traditional Catalan restaurant. Quite old fashioned – think waiters in black, white tablecloths and big chandeliers. It is part of the hotel Banys Orientals. A chance to try some Catalan specialties. Good food but not outstanding. Nice atmosphere. 

Cera 23 – This was probably our best meal. A nice touch was that they greeted me by name as we arrived (presumably no one else had booked for the same time!). The rest of the meal lived up to the restaurant’s reputation for delicious food. We shared Octopus and Ceviche for starters, then the four mains were Beef Cheeks, Tuna, Slow Cooked Lamb and the Black Rice Volcano – all fabulous and accompanied by local Catalan wines. 

Arcano – This was a new place for us and we loved it.  Tucked away five minutes walk from our apartment, it was atmospheric with big arches like La Luna.  The food was great – just about as good as Cera 23.  We had a platter of grillled vegetables and some tuna tartare for starters, then Argentinian ravioli and slow cooked beef for mains. All delicious.

We had various lunches on the go, including seafood at the Boqueria Market, tapas at Elisabets in the upper Raval, empanadas from little stores and snacks at the flea market.

Next we were off for some quiet time in Sunny Majorca.


Majorca, September 2016

Majorca had always seemed a place for young British revellers on package holidays, so pretty much the antithesis of anywhere we would go. That was until I started searching for a peaceful, scenic place not too far from Barcelona. Port de Soller came up several times on searches, the flights from Barcelona were short and inexpensive and the pictures looked great.  So an apartment was booked for a week, as well as an extra night in Palma and we hoped it would be the right decision. 

It was! From our arrival at the busy but efficient Palma airport to our departure eight days later, we had a great time. After a busy time in Rome and Barcelona, we wanted to wind down a little and Port de Soller was perfect for this.  The apartment was very comfortable and well-equipped but what had sold us on it was its view over the harbour. We never tired of it and the balcony was well used.

Port de Soller had all we wanted – somewhere to swim, walk and go out for delicious dinners, and sunny September weather.  Its picturesque setting and lack of high rise development meant that it still had the feel of the fishing village it once was.  It still has fishing of course, but tourism contributes more to the local economy. 

Love this sign! No music on the beach.

One day we decided to spend the day in the nearby towns of  Fornalutx and Soller.  We looked up the bus timetable and were waiting at the bus stop for the bus when along came a small 12 seater van.  We laughed at the small bus, then realised it was the one we had to catch!  For 1.50€ it took us first to Soller then Fornalutx.  Going along the narrow winding roads, we soon realised why it was a small bus. Fornalutx is a beautiful hill town, surrounded by the Tramuntana mountains and lots of citrus trees. It claims to be the prettiest village in Spain and has won awards supporting this. It dates back 1000 years – this always seems amazing to us, coming from a country where  a 100 year old house is considered old.  The narrow streets were very peaceful, probably because we were there in the morning. We spent an hour or so wandering then had a drink in the small square before heading back for the bus back to Soller.  We did a quick head count of the people waiting as we knew the bus only took twelve.  Phew, there were ten!  Not sure what happens if there are more, but the taxi service number is displayed prominently at the bus stop!

Only two km away, Soller is a much bigger town.  It has a beautiful central square and attractive Modernista buildings, including the C’an Prunera Art Museum.  There are many shops and restaurants so it seemed very busy after tiny Fornalutx.  We had some local specialties, coca and panades, for lunch with a delicious lemon syrup cake. Admired the cathedral and poked around a few attractive shops with courtyards before taking the tram back to Port de Soller. This is something to do once, given that it’s historic (from 1913)  but it was a bit of a bun fight getting on.  We managed to get seats facing backwards with our knees in the laps of the people opposite.  Many people had to stand. I probably wouldn’t do it again but having loved watching it trundle along the beachfront every day from our balcony, we felt we had to. 

Another day, an easy walk of an hour (round trip) from Port de Soller took us into orange, lemon and olive groves, farms and peaceful countryside.  We took the MA 2124 from the big (bus stop) roundabout and simply walked for half an hour.  It was not too steep but we gradually went up and got great views. I was just in sandals though passed a few more serious hikers in boots. There are lots of hikes in this area of varying degrees of difficulty. Next time, if there is one, I would love to walk from Fornalutx back to Port de Soller.


Other walks were around the harbour to Repic beach and beyond, and up the hill to the Nautilus restaurant area.

Restaurants  (We were spoilt for choice in Port de Soller!)

Lua – With great food and views, this was a great introduction to the Port de Soller restaurant scene. The mixed starter plate was the highlight.


Cava – A lighter meal of a selection of delicious tapas and some sangria.

So Caprichos – Again a beautiful setting overlooking the port on a balmy evening. The meals were large and very good. For starters we had a half serve of calamari and mixed croquettes. The croquettes all had distinctive flavours : spinach, pork, tuna, unlike some we have had that all taste the same. The mains of Sea Bass and Slow Cooked Lamb were both excellent.

Ca’s Mariners – This unpretentious place had hearty and delicious Mallorca food. We particularly loved the ‘Grandma’s’ cod stew and the slow cooked goat. 

Kingfisher – Definitely the stand out restaurant for us. It is the number one restaurant on various websites and deservedly so. We booked a few days ahead (essential) and it was a perfect final dinner in P de S. staff were very charming and efficient without being gushy.  We had cabbage rolls for a starter, then mains of Sea Bream fillet and the Sea Bass burger (no ordinary burger!)  We couldn’t resist the chocolate lava cake and as we were eating it, the moon popped up over the mountain very dramatically. 

Our final day and night were spent in Majorca’s capital Palma.  We could only rent the Port de Soller apartment from Saturday to Saturday and we were leaving Majorca on a Sunday. It worked well as our Sunday flight was early in the morning and the airport was close to Palma.  We thoroughly enjoyed our short stay at the Almudaina hotel.  The room was spacious and modern and  a bit minimalist with a balcony looking out towards the sea and cathedral.  The rooftop terrace was perfect for a drink to celebrate or commiserate our last night in Spain. 

Palma surprised us with its charming and character filled old town. The Passeig Del Born, La Rambla, squares and elegant buildings all had similarities with Barcelona.  The Almudaina or Royal Palace (which gave our hotel its name) and the Cathedral were both stunning, situated on the waterfront in spacious gardens.  We also liked the Placa Mayor and the Llotja (Exchange) as well as some great Modernista buildings in Placa Mercat.  Palma itself is worthy of a much longer stay than our one night transit. 

Our final dinner in Spain for 2016 was at a little place with the unusual name of 13%. We had a tapas tasting menu with about eight courses, though they were so busy at one stage that I thought we had about 13% chance of being served!  It settled down and the food was worth waiting for. Highlights were the eggplant carpaccio, the chicken and couscous and the dessert. It was 19€ a head which we thought was good value for their innovative and delicious food.

Our journey home was quite protracted.  An overnight stop in Amsterdam then a day in Hong Kong for some brief grandparenting time meant that we took from Sunday to Wednesday to get from Majorca to Australia. 

Travel for 2016 was over, for me at least. Time to plan some adventures for 2017!

Rome, August 2016

A few days in Hong Kong broke up the long journey from Australia and was again a great chance to catch up with our little grandson and his family.  Then on to Rome for a week – our third visit (though the first in the late 1970s almost doesn’t count as it was part of a whirlwind Eurailpass trip around Europe in winter).  More recently we had been in Rome in 2010 and had seen many of the main historical sites, so this time we included some lesser known places. Mr Frequent Flyer had various work commitments so some of my sightseeing was on my own. 

Knowing we’d be in a somewhat jet-lagged state, we had arranged a driver through our apartment rental. Being met with a sign and having the chauffeur know exactly where he was going was great, though even in our tired state we were aware of the speed of the black Mercedes.  I looked away once it was edging towards 140!  The apartment near the Piazza del Popolo was not ready, but we were able to leave our bags and wander round the neighbourhood as the cleaner did her work. After a quick lunch and some unpacking, we went to Villa Borghese where we were booked in for the 1pm timeslot.  It was a longish, hot walk with inconsistent signage but we knew the general direction and got there about ten minutes before our allocated time.  Everything had to be checked in, even small bags and water bottles. This was frustratingly inefficient with one person initially being responsible for both receiving the incoming visitors’ things and giving back the previous group’s stuff.  The ensuing long line was not a happy place. A helper finally arrived from her break. We got the audio guide (a shorter line) and finally went in. 

Despite these minor problems, it was a magnificent place to visit!  The limited number of people admitted meant that everybody had a good view. The sculptures by Bernini and others, the paintings, the mosaics and the building itself were all wonderful. 


The gallery is only one of several in the huge park which also has a boating lake, a zoo, a Shakespearean Globe theatre, museums, walking paths and viewpoints. 


The other thing I’d booked in advance was the Scavi (Excavation) Tour underneath St Peter’s.  Booking ahead is essential as they only take 250 people per day and there are rules about being over 15, being appropriately dressed etc.  All the information is on the Ufficio Scavi website. The entrance is through the left part of the colonnade facing the church. Two Swiss Guards were at the entrance point.

It was amazing to see the necropolis right underneath St Peter’s and the supposed tomb of St Peter himself. It was quite warm and humid down there and a bit claustrophobic.  Just when I thought it was all getting a bit close, our guide mentioned that this would be the smallest area we’d be in and it would be more open from then on.  Phew!   The guide was very knowledgeable but he delivered the information very quickly which sometimes made it hard to understand.  It was amazing seeing all the layers underneath St Peter’s and the excavations that are still ongoing.  Unfortunately no photos were allowed underground.  An added bonus was that we came out into the area where many Popes were buried, then directly into St Peter’s at the end of the tour, missing the long queues outside.

Nearby Castel Sant’Angelo was a logical visit on our way back to the apartment. Originally designed as Hadrian’s mausoleum, it has had various reincarnations and is now a museum. The view from the top was amazing and we enjoyed poking around the steps, corridors and painted rooms.

The Baths of Caracalla were easily reached by bus 160 from Flaminio near our apartment. Unfortunately we turned right after getting off the bus and walked around three sides of the huge complex before we found the entrance. Once inside, it was a great place and much less crowded than the other places we had been. It had been a huge bath, spa and relaxation place for the Romans and it was not too hard to imagine, with some of the buildings still standing. The audio guide was informative and there was enough shade around to listen and look in comfort.  1600 people at a time could use the hot, warm and cold pools, the outdoor pool and the libraries. Opera performances are sometimes held here – what an amazing venue!

St Paul’s Outside the Walls was in the same general vicinity so we caught the metro to San Paolo and followed the other people, who seemed to know where they were going. This was once the largest basilica in the world and is supposedly the burial place of St Paul.  It contains portraits of all the popes – not very many spaces left.  The original church burnt down in the 1800s and was then rebuilt, but the delightful cloisters are original and were very peaceful to wander through.

For the next four days I was exploring on my own.  Via Margutta was right near our apartment and when we checked in, our host mentioned the ‘secret street’.  I didn’t like to say I had already read about it. It is a short street with lots of creepers growing and vast courtyards in what would have been large private houses. Many famous people lived here – Fellini, Liszt and supposedly Puccini and Stravinsky – and it featured in the film Roman Holiday.  Now it has art galleries, lovely shops and some restaurants.  A beautiful street.




The Mouth of Hell (not to be confused with the Mouth of Truth) was nearby in Via Gregoriana (number 30) so I stopped for a quick look. It was apparently designed to intimidate visitors coming into the Palazzo Zuccari. Even the side windows had the screaming mouths.


Then a quick look at the newly spruced up but crowded Trevi Fountain on my way to the beautiful Galleria Sciarra nearby.  

In contrast, it was empty. It’s a beautiful Art Nouveau arcade built in the 1880s with frescoes and a glass ceiling. 

As a garden lover, Villa D’Este was a place I was very keen to visit.  I tossed up about going on a tour to Tivoli visiting both Villa d’Este and Hadrian’s Villa in one day but thought it seemed rushed, so instead decided to visit only Villa D’Este.  This was very easy to do independently and meant that I could stay as long as I liked.

Having done some research, I knew that the bus could get very crowded and I might have to stand the whole way. So instead I took the train from the modern Tiburtina station. It was quite a walk to platform 2 Est, but well signposted. I caught the 9.38 train – they go about once an hour. The train was not busy at all.  The first part of the journey went through fairly boring suburbs. Then it suddenly changed: lots of olive trees, glimpses of hill top towns, then a big waterfall and the town of Tivoli.

Easy to find a seat on this train!


 I knew I had to go left from the station and follow the path over the bridge. Slightly confusing in the town but basically straight ahead then turn right after the old castle. It took about 15 minutes.

The gardens and villa were stunning and the fountains were wonderful.  Hundreds of them, mostly running on gravity.  I had a lovely time going up and down the terraces and looking at the water and views. The gardens are so vast that it was easy to get away from the large groups. The water organ was a bit disappointing – the water plays the music but there is not a lot to see.  On the map they give you on arrival, a ‘bar/ristorante’ is marked. This has since closed and there is no place to have lunch inside the gardens. Thanks to someone writing an annoyed review about that, I brought a roll filled with all kinds of delicious antipasti left over from our previous night’s dinner.  I wasn’t sure if it was allowed – I didn’t see any picnics in there – but I just found a quiet spot, next to a fountain of course and enjoyed my lunch.

‘Little London’ (Piccola Londra) was just a single street in Rome but was walking distance from our apartment so I went to explore. The address is Via Bernardo Celentano, off Via Flaminio. It was built in the early 1900s as a planning experiment, inspired by the sort of English style you see in Knightsbridge. The mail boxes are in keeping and the basement flats and front doors look authentic. The colours though are definitely Italian. It’s closed off to traffic at each end, so it’s a peaceful place for a walk.

As in most of Rome, there were some interesting examples of creative parking nearby:Yes, they are ON the crossing!

On the way back I visited Santa Maria del Popolo in the Piazza del Popolo.  This small church looks modest on the outside but is a treasure chest of great works of art.   To see works by Caravaggio, Raphael and Bernini without the crowds (and for free)  was great. The macabre tomb of Gisleni which he designed himself was interesting!

Pizza del Popolo

The Campo Di Fiori Market is pretty much a tourist trap but it is attractive and has a great variety of fruit and vegetables.  I tasted a sample of a delicious peach then bought one which was not quite as nice.


I’d read about a ‘picturesque courtyard’ nearby at Via del Pellegrino 19,  but when I arrived there was a mechanical digger in there redoing the cobblestones. With a bit of body contortion, I managed to get a couple of pictures without the machine taking centre stage.

I loved the Pantheon last time so had to pop in again. It’s hard to believe that the Oculus is about eight metres wide! And that the dome is unsupported!  


Sant’Ignazio church was an absolute delight.  The amazing painted ceiling, the tromp l’oeil dome (apparently painted as an illusion because of a shortage of funds) and the lack of crowds made this Jesuit church a very enjoyable experience. I loved the fact that they had magnifying mirrors so that you could admire the ceiling detail without craning your neck. 

The Vittorio Emanuel monument stands out as an awkward edifice plonked into Rome. Known by various monikers such as The Wedding Cake or The Typewriter, it has been controversial since it was built to commemorate the first king of a united Italy.  I’d never been there and it was free and I had time on my last day, so why not?   The building was not wildly exciting inside but the views from it were fantastic! There was a further paid lift once you got to the terrace but I was happy with the views from there and helpful panels pointed out the sights in each direction.

As we were there just after the earthquake in Amatrice, many restaurants around Rome displayed this fundraising poster and we were happy to help.



Restaurants

La Buca Di Ripetta (Via di Ripetta 36). This was a great little neighbourhood place. Definitely worth booking a table as it gets busy.

Trattoria Da Ugo al Gran Sasso (Via di Ripetta 32)  This was recommended by our landlord and was the only place where I recorded what we ate. We had Mille Foglie of eggplant and cheese plus Bruschetta with Zucchini Flowers and Meat-stuffed Olives for starters, then two pastas for mains: Matriciana and Porcini Mushrooms – both delicious. With a mezzo of red wine and a sparkling water, it was around 45€ – a very good deal for food of this quality. Definitely worth booking as it is quite small.

Pizza Re (via di Ripetta 14)  Thin crust pizza sitting outside on our first balmy night in Rome.  Perfect!


Edy’s
(Vicolo del Babuino 4). Set in a narrow alley just off Via Margutta, this was an atmospheric outdoor place which could have been perfect. The food was good but the service was so chaotic it was laughable.  We got the wrong wine, wrong meal, which I started eating then it was snatched away, then getting the bill took about five requests with the overworked waiter looking surprised every time.  The pasta with ricotta and carciofi was sublime though.

We also ate a couple of meals in the apartment. Can’t really say we cooked – it was more assembling the delicious items from nearby food stores and then pouring the wine!

Fatamorgana and Gracchi had high quality gelati. Fatamorgana had more unusual combinations. Favourite flavours were Ricotta & Citrus,  Coconut & Almonds and Baklava at Fatamorgana and the Coconut or Pistaccio at Gracchi.

We loved our week in the hot and crowded Eternal City. Next stop was Barcelona.