Day 23. London. Monday 10 October

Great sleep. Great bed. It is true that there is nothing like your own bed. There are some beds that whilst they do not resemble your own, will do quite nicely for a short period of time. So perhaps they should come with a rating. I would suggest a one star rating = 1 night. 2 stars = 2 nights. 3 stars = 3 nights. 4 stars = 4 nights. 5 stars = 5+ nights. Well this is a 5 star bed. The bed in Paris was a 5 star bed. The bed in Amsterdam 3 star, Berlin 1 star, Barcelona 3 star and Madrid 3 star. Pillows should also be rated accordingly.

We walk along the Thames to the Tower of London. Last time I was in London it was closed for the Christmas period so I missed out. Not this time. The Tower of London is over 18 acres so we decided on a few key items we wanted to see. We started with the Crown Jewels. I am amazed that these are the real jewels and not replicas. One of the maces holds the biggest diamond in the world. A whopping 105 carats. The diamonds, the sapphires, emeralds, rubies and pearly. Stunning. The crown that was placed on the head of Elizabeth II only has 2868 diamonds in it! The royal regalia is breathtaking. Photos do not do it justice because it cannot capture the reflection of light. We did a tour with a Yeoman of the Warder, or Beefeater. He was hilarious and very knowledgeable. A great way to learn a lot of history in a short space of time. We walked along the walls, visited the torture chamber and checked out the interiors of the some of the towers.

We made our way to Westminster Abbey. We have been there before but the wedding of Wills and Kate and caused me to visit here again. We take the audio tour which is expertly narrated by Jeremy Irons. It is a spectacular oration. The kids loved the audio tour as well and we all moved around taking in the history and admiring with awe this most beautiful of spaces. It doesn’t receive any funding by the government but uses the admission fee to assist with restoration. Surprising considering it is a place for royal occasions! Time for lunch now. All the sightseeing makes you hungry. We visit an old favourite Pret a Manger. I always think of the skit with Catherine Tate ‘A no bread sandwich’ when I eat there. The food is amazingly fresh and gourmet. Their carrot cake is still my favourite. 

Harrods is the agenda for the afternoon. We start with high tea in the tea room. The scones with jam and clotted cream were to die for. We all had these big silver teapots, with a full silver service and royal china. Devine. An afternoon of shopping and then I decided to buy some exquisite food offerings from the food hall for dinner. Harrods is an experience and I really do believe that there isn’t anything you wouldn’t be able to buy there. The service is amazing, there is always someone to help you and you never have to wait for anything.

Home on the tube. It was armpit to armpit. I hope London solves its transport problems before the Olympics as it quite poor on world standards. I am sure someone is working on it.

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Day 22. London. Sunday 9 October.

Aussie Aussie Aussie – Oi Oi Oi! This morning we rise early to go and watch the Wallabies play South Africa for a spot in the semi-finals of the 2011 Rugby World Cup in New Zealand. The game started at 7:00am (Madrid time) and we head over to the Dubliners Irish Pub to watch the game on the big screen. As we head over bottles are tinkling in our narrow street as people are returning home from the previous night. There were more South Africans (Saffers) than Aussies. When Australia scored I led the colloquial chant and a guy came in the door and responded Oi Oi Oi. He was portuguese but living in London. He sat with us and cracked us up the whole time. He was staying in the hostel upstairs and couldn’t sleep anyway, so thought he would come and support the Aussies. He was a sweet guy, very funny and we laughed so hard. Good that we can laugh in the early hours of the morning. So glad that the Aussies won!

We booked a cab with the ‘lemons for breakfast’ guy on the front desk and it was hilarious. Taking a taxi in Madrid is similar to Bingo, maybe your number will come up, maybe not. The guy that turned up couldn’t fit the luggage in the car and 2 bags had to be nursed in the back and then when Mark was just about to get in the car he started taking off. Mark had only 1 leg in the car. Its amazing that we got to the Airport in one piece. Madrid Barajas Airport takes security very seriously. When I went through the security scanners I beeped (think it was a stud on my pants) and I got called over and the woman started putting on rubber gloves. Uh-oh. She did the big pad down-any harder it was have been a Thai massage. She believed it was the stud. Got on our EasyJet flight easily. I did um and ah about paying a little extra for Speedy Boarding, but I am glad I made the investment. We never had to wait for check-in and got to board the plane first and got in either first or second row. I liked EasyJet and would be very happy to fly with them again. We arrive at London Luton to overcast skies. Goodbye sun, hello grey skies.

I don’t usually like to rant on my blog, but I am going to make an exception. The woman that greeted us as customs/immigration was a troll. In fact I think that the Spanish inquisition would have been easier. Not only were the questions long but she was rude with it. I had to show her my return air tickets etc. She was having a very bad Sunday and she was trying to ensure that everyone else did too. Perhaps Australia should think about employing her for border control as I think the boat people would turn around as opposed to dealing with her.

Our apartment in architecturally designed and amazing. They are loft apartments right near the Tate Museum. Being architecturally designed some things are stunning to look at but totally impractical. We have rain showers and a mezzanine bedroom and floor to ceiling windows, etc etc. But I have learned that some things are not practical. The cupboards in the kitchen sit perpendicular to the floor and have no kick boards. Which means that when you open the door you hit your foot. Took me a while to learn that one. It was well after lunch so we head to our local, the Founders Arms, for a Sunday pub lunch. Overlooking the Thames with views over St Pauls etc, what a welcome to London!

We walked over the Millennium Bridge and walked through the city. Took a big red bus, walked to Piccadilly Circus, walked through the west end and walked all the way back to our apartment. Massive walk. Had dinner at our local again and home for bed. Its hard to adjust from the Spanish way of life. We had been used to getting up and going out, late lunch about 2-3pm and then siesta and then out for dinner at about 9 for dinner and very late to bed. Not so in the UK. I am still a fan of the siesta, it should be mandatory. Great way to live.

Day 21. Madrid. Saturday 8 October.

This morning Mark and I enjoy a breakfast for two as our darling teenagers have a sleep in. The coffee at our breakfast haunt is absolutely amazing. I don’t normally drink coffee, but if someone can make me a good one I’ll take it. I’d like to take this home with me! On the way back from breakfast we notice that Irish pub across the road from our Hotel is screening Rugby World Cup matches. England was playing France in the second match of the day. I grabbed Ryan and we went over to watch it. There we were, two Aussies in an Irish Pub, cheering with the French, willing them to beat England. It was standing room only and it was 9.30am! Allez-Allez-Allez was the call from the French and we chimed in when France scored. Great win Le Bleu’s.

We checked out Grand Via a big shopping street and some markets at Plaza de Espana. Then we took the Metro to Caixa de Forum to check out the vertical garden of Patrick Blanc. These are amazing installations. Brilliant use of space.

On the way to the Forum we had to put up with some pretty inappropriate Gypsy behaviour. Gypsies try and con money out of anyone, and they are very persistent. These ones were particularly aggressive and ones that we were really glad to see the back of. We spent the afternoon meandering in and out of the tiny streets in the old part of the city. We check out Plaza Mayor. We had so many laughs over an overweight guy dressed up as spiderman. We named him ‘fat spider’. But he had a great sense of humour and really made us laugh. Just a guy using his talents and making people smile. Ole!

Madrid has really impressed me with its charm and beauty, and its mystery. It has surprised me on many levels, its very impressive.

 

Day 20. Madrid. Friday 7 October

Breakfast for our stay in Madrid is eaten at a local café around the corner. The owner of the hotel also owns the café. Stunning coffee. Unusual other treats. Breakfast is one benchmark that provides interesting comparisons. The French have never heard of Cornflakes or All Bran (fine with me). In Amsterdam it’s common to have sliced cucumber with your breakfast. Or chocolate sprinkles on your toast. In Germany, muesli reigns supreme (mine had a million different fruits, well only 12 but that’s impressive). In Spain its ham, ham and more ham. There is actually a ham museum here in Madrid. There were over 14 different items on our breakfast menu and only 1 didn’t contain ham. That’s what I ordered – toast and jam. Yoghurt however does make an appearance in all the different breakfasts so far.

First up on the agenda this morning is our segway tour of Madrid with Madsegs. I have always been a bit hesitant about doing this thinking that I would probably demonstrate the 10 different ways to fall off and face plant. However, I took to it really well. Its easy once you get the hang of it. There were only 6 of us (us 4) and a couple originally from Sydney now living in Hong Kong. Our English speaking tour guide loves his Segway. So much so that he has competed in the World Championships and has won them. We were all having so much fun. When we got to the first park, we could up the speed limit, which we all opted to do. By half way through the tour we were going down steps and up and down small hills. He tells us that because the Segs have fat snow tyres on them that we are able to do this and that not many Seg tours can do this. We travelled so much ground over Madrid; it really is a big city. It is also a very beautiful one. I am surprised at just how beautiful it is and wonder why I have never visited here before. The Segway tour was brilliant, it went an hour longer than scheduled and we got a CD will film and photographs at the end.

For lunch Mark and I tried this vegetarian place called Moaz. We saw one in Barcelona and it looks fresh and healthy. We both had the felafel pita filled with a range of salads. It was awesome. Kids had McDonalds. Ryan couldn’t stop laughing, as when he ordered he asked for a Quarter Pounder meal and the girl said, “you want nuggets?”

Tonight we went to a flamenco show at Casa Patas. Very authentic flamenco tablao that hosts amazing flamenco. Seated in a cosy venue, drinking sangria awaiting the performance. There were 2 guitarists, 2 singers, 1 male performer and 1 female performer. It was visually stunning. It was the most amazing night, very difficult to articulate. The passion, the control, the dance, the music, the emotion, the fire. This is flamenco. Everyone in that room was connected to that performance. I was taken to another place. Bonito!

Day 19. Madrid. Thursday 6 October

Madrid is the capital of Spain hosting approximately 7 million in habitants and our next destination. We are travelling there on the AVE fast train in First Class. The train station Eustacia Sants in Barcelona is big, clean and well designed. The train is something else. Very new and modern and very first class. It was a real pleasure to travel on the AVE. It is smooth, fast (over 300km/h) and beautifully designed. It now rates as my number 1 train for first class travel. In just over 3 hours we arrive in Madrid. The taxi driver was interesting using both GPS and map, still couldn’t work out the old part of the city and end up stopping and we had to get out and walk the rest of the way. I just laughed. It was only 2 blocks but I saw the irony in having the latest technology plus a map and still being unable to locate the address. I guess everyone gets a little lost sometimes.

Our hotel is beautiful and brilliantly located right near Peurta del Sol, a major square in Madrid. It is also where the geographical centre of Madrid is; all distances are calculated from this spot. There are a lot of streets that shoot off Peurta del Sol and its right in the old part of the city. Right in the middle of the action. Awesome. Have some lunch and then have a walk about. We visit the supermarket (Corte del Ingles). Best one I have been too yet. I love looking at the similarities and contrasts in food products. I love that there is a whole isle dedicated to Olives and Olive Oil. I love all the weird lollies you can buy and some of the silly names of food. I love the bread called Bimbo.  I think the Haribo sour crocodiles are cute.  I particularly love that there are not 50 varieties of milk. There is just plain, normal milk.  Mark has a cold so he goes back for an early siesta and the kids and I check out the shopping action. We visit fnac, which is a technology store with about 5 levels. I had just found out about the death of Steve Jobs and couldn’t get it out of my mind. When I look at all the technology dreamed and realised by one man and see it everywhere I think of the amazing legacy that one person has left. His imprint on people’s lives is truly amazing. He once famously said “I want to put a ding in the universe”. Well done Mr Jobs. You certainly achieved that.

The shoe shops are amazing; there is not a shoe in existence I don’t think that isn’t here. Not good if you have big feet. Ryan is a European 47 and 45 are the highest they go to. That’s if you can find a 45. The winter clothing is out in the shops and is truly beautiful. I resist the urge for now and am just content to window shop.

We head out to a great little street behind our hotel called Calle Barcelona (how apt?). We have tapas and sangria at a brilliant place called Xaiko. We dined on patatas braves, smoked salmon, prawns tempura, jambon croquettes, chorizo and cheese, plus house salad. Well-prepared food, visually stunning with beautiful flavours.  We are now in the Spanish habit of going out for dinner at about 8.30-9.00 and getting in very late. There were so many people out last night. So much fun and so full of life. My kind of place.

Day 18. Barcelona. Wednesday 5 October.

Barcelona is called many things. Barca for short, BCN or in full, Barcelona. The Catalonian pronunciation is Barthelona. The ce is pronounced more as a th sound. I have noticed this too with Gracias. Most of the time I will hear the locals pronounce it with a ‘th’ as Grathias. Catalonian language closer to French. This explains why, when trying to communicate with the taxi driver on the way in from the Airport, he asked me if I spoke French.

This morning Caitlin and I planned some girl time and Mark and Ryan had some boy time. Cait and I went for a 90 minutes foot spa and massage at the divine Bangkok Health Spa near our apartment. It was a stunning day spa. The treatment started off with our feet being washed in hot water with flower petals. We have walked too much on this trip and it was so nice to treat my feet to some down time. It was our first time to the day spa together too, which was special. We then headed for some tapas. We found a great spot and nearly ordered one of everything. Not really, it just felt like that. All the tapas we displayed at the bar (see photo). Sometimes matching the menu to what you see is trickier than you think. Or, matching the menu to what you see in your mind can prove surprising. I have ordered meals only to find when it is delivered to my table that it’s not quite what I thought. However, sometimes these have been some of the nicest things that I have eaten. Sometimes not. But this is apart of trying food in different cultures; it’s all apart of the experience. We tried a plate of what is called Pinchos. These are delights served on bread with a big toothpick in them. You don’t get to choose them, you order a half plate and the chef chooses and sends them out. My favourite was: toasted bread at the bottom, roasted capsicum (pimento) white fish and  sweet, thick, white mornay sauce topping. I have to confess that this morsel did come topped with a deep fried green jalapeno chilli that I removed. It was so much fun trying all the new things. We were so full afterwards. But very satisfied.

Mark and Ryan went to the beach (again). Ryan is determined to get a tan. I believe that there was a swim in the ocean, beer drinking on the sand and a visit to the Frank Gehry sculpture further up the beach. We are getting into the siesta true to Spanish style. In the afternoons we take advantage of the air-conditioning and lounge around the apartment. This gives everyone a chance to internet, download photos, watch TV or have a little ‘shut-eye’. Mark, Cait and I head in to have a look at La Pedrera. This is another Gaudi icon. Cait and Mark went to check it out whilst I admired from below. It was a purposeful decision to visit late in the afternoon, at about 5.30pm (it opens until 8pm) as there is no one in the queue then and it is magic hour for the light with photos. Mark took some amazing photos.

- Photo Mark Cantrill

We head out for a walk and have dinner at a local Italian restaurant. Our neighbourhood, which happens to surround Sagrada Familia, is beautiful. After the queues disappear for the SF it is filled with locals out in the streets for their nightly get together. We soak up the atmosphere for our last night.

Day 17. Barcelona. Tuesday 4 October

Gaudi is synonymous with the beautiful city of Barcelona. Today we are going to explore one of his amazing works, Parc Guell. The best and most famous example of Art Nouveau landscape-architecture has been designated a UNESO World Heritage Site. Count Eusebi Guell, a wealthy businessman, conceived the project as infrastructure for a garden suburb on what Gaudi described as ‘the treeless mountain’. The only parts to be completed, before worked stopped in 1914 and it became a public park in 1922, were a grand entrance, two houses, 3km of paths, a marvellous terrace and the hippostyle hall, planned as an underground market. Guell’s friend, Antonio Gaudi, was the designer. Both men intended that the project would express the spirit of Catalonia as a potentially independent nation. The park is very popular and has an obscure symbolic content. Shapes and colours were inspired by natural forms which Gaudi, a devout catholic, saw as instances of divine craftsmanship. The park is set into the hills overlooking Barcelona. Serpentine terraces, seats, galleries and acrades run with the mountainside. They are decorated with polychrome mosaics of broken stone, ceramic pots and old tiles. The bright colours might remind one of azuelejo. The curved terraces might remind one of Duncombe, the path layout of Buttes Chaumont. But the design has an energetic brilliance which belongs more completely to the twentieth century than any other public park made in Europe during the first half of the twentieth century.

Read more: http://www.gardenvisit.com/garden/parque_guell_barcelona#ixzz1ZulzNKeiParc Guell is very crowded with tourists, particularly tourist coach groups. They have yet to realise that they do not have total right to the Parc. To take a photo of this lizard above you nearly needed to have a black belt in karate just to get close. I was amazed at the push and shove by people, very similar to the viewing room of the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. Almost, not worth it. I am pleased to have visited here though. It felt a bit like walking through someones imagination. Very Gaudi. A tip is to take the local Bus, No 24 from Place Catalunya right up the hill to the entry. This for the meagre sum of 1.45Euros. Now the beach beckons.

We make our way on the trusty and cheap local transport to Barceloneta to go to the beach. The kids were a bit disappointed that there wouldn’t be any waves. It is a beautiful deep blue paradise. I do however recognise that my own country has the best beaches. The children go and secure a lay-lo only to be told that they cost 6 Euros each to hire. Each section of umbrella and banana lounges are ‘owned’ by some dude who charges ridiculous prices to be there. So they just got their towels and went and laid on the sand (with all the other Aussies and people who laugh at paying to be on a beach). Mark and I had a typical spanish lunch at a seafood cafe on the beach. Gorgeous shaded outdoor areas, prawns, baby octopus, fish, olives. So relaxing. I migrate to the cocktail lounge across the road for a pina colada.  The sea breeze was beautiful and watching the kids is always such an wonderful way to pass the time. Another visit to La Boqueria on the way home, quick visit to Carrefour (Spanish supermarket) and then home.

Went out for a quick and easy bite for dinner. Walking around at night, everyone out in the squares. You hear the sound of chatter and laugher and kids running round. It starts to get busy around the 8.30 – 9.00 mark when every starts to come out for the night. Most restaurants don’t even open before 8.30 so foreigners need to make a little adjustment if you are an early eater. I love Barcelona. I could easily stay here forever! Or for a few weeks longer.