Berlin was fabulous …

I forgot to say about our flight from Lisbon to Berlin. It was on Ryan Air and while the flight was cheap, the terminal for the ‘cheap’ airlines is nothing more than a cattle shed!! We hadn’t come across this before. We have got used to the walk to the end of the terminals or the bus ride out to board the plane on the edge of the airport, but this new level of ‘cattle shed’ is pretty awful. There isn’t enough seats for everyone and if flights are delayed then the whole process is just hideous. You are governed by which mediocre restaurant has seats available if you want to eat and you hover around stalking the first person to move from their seat. It is the luck of the draw and we got McDonalds, which is fine – we don’t mind it from time to time. We hadn’t had it for a while so were okay with it. Every bite you took and every chip you ate was being watched by other hawk-eyed travellers stalking you for your seat – the hunters become the hunted!! Let’s not talk about the toilets and the queues. All in all Terminal B in Lisbon for the cheap flights is not a process I want to repeat!

We finally arrived in Berlin at midnight and caught a taxi to the hotel in the city. €45 from A to B but it was quick! Europe is not a cheap place to visit when you are spending NZ$ but what’s another few dollars at this point! We were booked into the Holiday Inn Express which is close to ‘Check-point Charlie’ and had breakfast included – perfect. Finally after checking in, we crashed into bed for a luxurious sleep after our [thankfully] short flight which was just a bit better than awful. Cramped and hard seats with over worked unhappy cabin crew made it our second worst flight! Nothing will every compare to the dreadful Norwegian Flight, but this Ryan Air one came in a close second. Saying that we have flown with Ryan before and it was okay. We are booked on our next flight to Singapore with ‘Scoot’ which is the cheap version of Singapore Airlines and it was half the price of the main airline. Fingers crossed it is okay – actually I write this from my Scoot seat and I can report that it is okay. There are no luxuries on board but it is a Dreamliner, so a quite flight and reasonable seats. Just one small disappointment is that half the people on board seem to have ‘meal deals’ and we weren’t offered that with our booking!! Anyway the trials and tribulations of travel … it all just adds to the kaleidoscope of our trip.

So Berlin is an amazing city. I hadn’t realised that it had so many rivers and canals running through it. They branch off in every direction and create a wonderful vista of waterways, tree lined with willows gracefully dipping their long branches in the ‘murky’ water. You wouldn’t get me swimming in it but with the sun sparkling on it and the buildings and trees reflected on it, it does look beautiful.

We actually ended up doing a Spree River cruise for a couple of hours and it was a fabulous way to explore the city. There are so many incredible buildings – old and new, and wonderful new apartments along the canals. The were so many people in the parks relaxing under the trees or in beer gardens and us cruising by and all of us just watching the world go by.

We got the hop on/off bus here as well as it is such a big city and while the underground is pretty extensive, you really don’t get to ‘see anything’ while you are underground. Berlin is a city that is covered in green parks (or waterways) and tree lined streets. I kinda love that the skyline it isn’t swamped with skyscrapers.

While doing the hop on/off bus and the river cruise it became apparent just how much damage WWII had inflicted on the city. Every other building or bridge has been repaired or replaced after the war. Some of the buildings are complete with bullet holes, some have statues with limbs missing that are not going to be repaired, so as to remind us. Then you have ‘the wall’.

I had always thought don’t mention the ‘war’ or ‘the wall’ was the modus operandi BUT Berlin has embraced [all] its history and actually is now in full exploitation of it. From Checkpoint Charlie to the East Side Wall gallery, to sections of the wall placed around the city, to the memorials for those who perished – it is full on history recapped and it is bleak, and it is emotive, and we should never forget.

Of course leaving sections of the wall in place didn’t please everyone and no-one wants their house to be next to the part that is left, so they created a wall ‘monument wall’ and then turned one part into the famous East Side Gallery which is the longest outdoor gallery in the world. Graffiti and tagging covering nearly every inch of the parts of the wall which remain in-situ.

The memorials for those who perished are simple, yet effective. One is a small reflective pool [to commemorate the murdered ‘Gypsies’ although this is not a term used as it is offensive, so it is a memorial to the Sinai & Romany peoples] and the other is [called ‘Memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe‘] of large concrete, almost coffin, like sculptures laid out in rows on uneven ground and of uneven heights, like a giant maze – there are more than 2700 of them and you can walk in between them. Some people were playing hide and seek, some people were reflective, some people lay on them and some people just moved slowly about touching them. There was an exhibition below where you saw the story boards of the horrors, saw the photos of the families who were separated, read the stories of the survivors and were left with a heavy heart as you ‘freely‘ walked out into the sunshine.

So Berlin is a city of the past, fabulous buildings, monuments, statues and history and Berlin is a city of the future, embracing its history and becoming a modern city (although their underground needs a bit of an overhaul … well at least some elevators to the get you into the bowels of the earth!). Some of the new buildings are just amazing and are tangibly tied to the past. The new Federal Chancellery is built with a bridge connecting the East and West sides of the river to celebrate Berlins unification and is called the ‘federal ribbon’. It is very modern and forward thinking.

There are more museums here in Berlin than you can imagine and with half a day recommended at each one we only had time for one. We chose the Museum of Technology. It was incredible (MOTAT on steroids for you Auckland people!). We spent nearly 5 hours here and were a bit jaded by the finish at it was nearly 40 degrees. We didn’t really even see or do everything. From planes and trains, to cars and boats, computers, maze of mirrors, the science of sound and light, and a myriad of other things. With all that technology, housed in two old buildings and a purpose built new building you would have thought they might have included air-conditioning?!?

We walked and walked here, and partook in a beer or three. We watched street theatre in the square at lunchtime, saw a flash mob and watched all these people rifle in the bins. It took us a few days to work out that they were scrounging for bottles – plastic or glass. There is a €0.25c per bottle so it is a lucrative business to collect them. Berlin is a big city and with all the foibles of a big city. Graffiti is everywhere, rubbish around the place, homeless on the streets and in the parks, and people begging. There were ‘gangs’ of [deaf- NOT!!] students trying to get people to sign petitions and give donations, which were actually scams. If you didn’t give money or sign the [phoney] petition, you may have found yourself pickpocketed!

But for all of that, I would visit again – there is a lot to see and do, and it is really a very beautiful city.

‘If you want something out of life … go out there and find it”

ps: Berlin too has a cattle shed airport for the ‘cheap flights’ – no air conditioning, not enough seats, no shops [well duty free] a walk out to the plane …. hmmmm I might get more discerning with my travel as I get older!

See ya Portugal …

Since my last post we have been exploring rural Castelo Branco district, visiting lots of little villages that are from a time gone by and a few more Praia Fluvial’s [river beaches]. The wee streets are cobbled and not used to a lot of traffic. The car that we have been ‘gifted‘ to drive is quite big, so it is ‘go slow’ when we are passing through. The front doors are literally on the street. Louise and Tim came for a visit, and we spent a couple of days in Lisbon.

I am going to give you a quick synopsis of the last week in photos ….

Colin at the ‘natural’ Foz Do Cobrao river beach … not our favourite.

We took some time to visit the textile museum in Retaxo. It is only small but it is really well done and the people we met there are so passionate about the restoration of the machines. They hope to be able to create their own fabrics and then share it with the design school and then sell some of the creations in a shop. It was only €1 pp – a bargain, and Colin was offered 0.50c entry for being a senior – he always politely declines and says he’s not that old! 😂

Louise and Tim visited us for a few days which was fabulous. The weather was okay for the first few days and a bit wet for the last two. Top picture is of us under the orange trees in Castelo Branco and the Bougainvillea in Idanha-a-Nova.

With Louise and Tim in tow, we visited the Bishop’s Palace Gardens [in Castelo Branco] which were absolutely beautiful. Constructed over several years [circa 1720] it has several ponds and a maze of clipped hedges that connect the different areas. The Steps of the Kings, the Apostles, statues of granite, wonderful flowers and staircases made this a lovely place to visit and a bargain at €2 pp. There were lots of lovely tiled wall pictures here.

Our home owners messaged to say they were coming home early, so we packed up and said goodbye to these three – Millie, Tom and Sam were pretty easy to look after but I really missed not ‘walking’ a dog. These guys just hang out at home. Actually Sam did a few runners, but fortunately he came back!!

We visited Monsanto again as we wanted to share it with Louise and Tim, and just because it is so wonderful. Fortunately we had a fabulous day so had extensive views from the top. The plan had been to have pizza at the wonderful cafe Colin and I had visited, but it was closed on Saturdays!! We needed beer to sustain us, so had to stop at this wee bar to quench our thirst. Colin ended up changing a tyre for some ‘tourists’ who ripped their tyre open and needed it changed super quick as they were in the middle of the road. He had quite a few people watch him do it … providing lunch time entertainment 😂

The next morning we drove from Monsanto to Torres Nova where we were to spend the night. The weather was against us and as we passed through many small villages there was nowhere to get lunch! Finally we made it to Torres Nova and spotted a pizza place …. but it was closing [@ 3pm, it was 2.45!]. They said they would do take out for us, so a couple of pizzas later we stood and had our ‘Sunday lunch’ on the street corner in between rain showers!

We checked into a lovely hotel which had a view of the castle and after a ‘nana nap’ we walked down to the river and through the rose gardens [which were past there best and nothing to write home about!]. We had a lovely meal in our hotel and retired for the evening. The next morning Lisbon was on the agenda and our wonderful friends were to return to the UK in the evening.

The weather still against us, and now the traffic in Lisbon, we found a carpark and then a lovely Italian place for our farewell lunch. Tim and Louise helped us find our accommodation and we said our goodbyes. It was such a special time to have them come and farewell us, as we take our homeward bound journey.

Our apartment was right in the centre of Lisbon. A great little apartment, albeit a little noisy! You would be put off by the entrance but actually the apartment was just fine for a couple of nights. Colin and I had been here [Lisbon] 32 years ago and it was great to see some of the things we had seen before, and see some new things.

I loved all the tiled buildings and hadn’t remembered them, nor the trams. We rode the trams and just loved being in amongst the madness of this busy city. The buildings are all interesting and fabulous, the waterfront is wonderful and it was easy to get around.

This funicular went up and down this steep street which had nearly every inch of it [including the trams] covered in graffiti. We actually walked down it and the caught the tram up. It is unbelievably slippery to walk on, and worse when it rained!

I just loved all the buildings – I forget what/who this one was about, but those balconies and all the carving were beautiful- the photo does them no justice!

Tram line 28 was the busiest but we lucked in and got on at the farthest end grabbing ourselves a seat and enjoying our ride.

Lisbon has all these wonderful alleyways to get lost in and explore. Some people brighten up their homes with lots of wonderful flowers, lots of homes have washing hanging from the lines and all the alleyways are cobbled.

June is the month for the celebration of the Salmon and there are lots of salmon being BBQ’d on the streets, streamers hung everywhere and a real festival feel. Colin and I of course don’t like them, so while we were happy to soak up the atmosphere…only Sagres [beer] tempted our palettes.

There is some incredible graffiti in Lisbon …. I have become a bit of a graffiti follower, but not so much the tagging.

So the Jeronimos Monastery was on our ‘things to do list’, along with Monument of the Discoveries. We had visited both these on our last trip and it was great to see them again. Both just incredible structures.

And so my last picture is of a graffiti message and it is so true … let’s look after this wonderful planet ‘A’ we call home … ❤️

So we are now in Berlin having commenced our homeward journey …

“Travel brings potential and love back into your life”

We’re in Portugal …

… on our very last “Mr & Mrs Smith’ assignment for this adventure. We have found ourselves in Retaxo, Castelo Branco [White Castle] which is north of Lisbon and inland, close [as the crow flies] to the Spanish border. We accepted this assignment back in February knowing that it would be our last one before returning home. It [our trip] has been a fantastic experience and we have challenged ourselves with all manner of things. I will do a summary of our trip at the end but as a teaser [some of the things] we have:- looked after 5 sheep, 2 lambs, 4 geese, 5 ducks, 3 rabbits, 2 pigs, 1 hamster and a mouse, and done 13 train trips, been on 6 ferries and were lucky enough to visit 11 States in the US of A!

We currently have three dogs – Millie and Tom (who are both retired [herding]) Border Collies and Sam who is a Terrier mix. There is meant to be four cats (Jack, Missy, Simon) but one went missing (Sooty) a few days before we arrived! And then a mouse (Charlie) and a hamster (Hammy).

We are 12km from the town of Castelo Branco in a place called Retaxo [Ree-tash-eeo]. We understand that the house is the original railway station, but now a privately owned ‘house’ that has many add-ons. The trains thunder by 8 times a day and I think you won’t live closer to a railway line than this! The trains are only very short (4 carriages) , so it is only for a few seconds as they pass. The new station is only a platform and is about 500m down the road.

We are surrounded by mountains, hills terraced with olive trees, cork trees, pine trees and eucalyptus trees. It reminds us of the Australian hinterlands. It sure isn’t as pretty as driving around in France. We are exploring as much as we can and fortunately the temps aren’t too high yet during the day, and still cooler at nights, so it is a lovely climate.

We ventured into Castelo Branco after a couple of days and of course we arrived just as everything was closing for the afternoon ‘seista‘!! We just can’t seemed to get ourselves into the ‘groove’ with this. We did however find a shop open and ventured in and I bought a couple of things, nothing special, just to replace a couple of my rags! After that we just sauntered about and enjoyed the quietness of the place. There are some streets and alleyways that are from the medieval times, some very modern buildings and a whole lot of buildings that need some ‘TLC’! Colin came across some relics from last century!

Everywhere we go I am on the lookout for the storks. They are so very cool and are only a story book bird for me, so I just love seeing them. When we were in Veliko Turnovo, Bulgaria the storks were nesting but we were on trains or buses so couldn’t stop to ‘stalk‘ them. I never noticed them in Spain or France but they are everywhere here. On the top of tall chimneys, short chimneys, power poles and bell towers.

Here in Portugal storks are protected, and as they return to the same nests [after migrating back from Africa each year] it is frowned upon to remove their nests, which are huge ‘engineered’ colossal bird nests, seemingly balancing precariously on top of their chosen place. I am fascinated that they are so exposed, but then they are a big bird so won’t be blown off easily.

Because we have been out and about exploring we have found them in every place you can imagine. I am like STOP [actually, I am driving as Colin’s licence has expired!!] … so I pull over to get the perfect picture. I keep seeing them in fields and couldn’t work out what they eat but I ‘Googled‘ it and discovered that they eat snakes, lizards, mouse, frogs etc. We have seen a few snakes on the road … maybe they were the ones that got away … cause they were tooooooooo big!

It is meant to be good luck to have them on your chimney! But I did notice that they do ‘big poos’ so I am not sure I would want that all over my roof!! The swallows at home above our front door only do ‘little poos’ and that is bad enough! Not being able to remove them from the chimney as you are not allowed to disturb them could be a bit frustrating as well.

When we visited Idanha-a-Nova there were a few nests reasonably close to each other and you could hear the ‘clacky, clack’ of the beaks as they called out to their parents, who share the feeding / caring of the birds equally. I just love them [the storks] and I love that they are monogamous … and I love that they bring baby’s hanging from their beaks in a nappy and that they will deliver one to ‘us‘ very soon 💖

We have visited a couple of river beaches here and they range from being very natural to very sophisticated places. The natural ones are basically just the same as you would find next to any river or lake, and the ones where they have contained the water [basically in a lock type set up] are really lovely and often in the middle of nowhere. We have visited a few of them now and although it is too cool to swim just yet, I bet there are lovely when the temps get to 40+.

The natural one was quite pretty, but not spectacular and the water was a bit murky for my liking! Also there was quite a lot of rubbish, broken bottles and crap in the water.

The ‘harnessed river’ beach was great, complete with cafe, toilets and lovely areas to have picnics. I think you could mistake this one as a pool but it definitely isn’t.

On one of our drives we found this lovely gorge … in the distance you can see the terraced hills with olive trees growing.

When I started this ‘musing’ I wasn’t sure what to write about, I didn’t feel we had done much, but then when I started dropping photos in … I realised I had forgotten to include our trip to Monsanto which we did a week ago.

It is incredible and we are definitely visiting here again. The village is perched halfway up a granite mountain with a castle ruin at the top, complete with tombs and incredible views. We walked up to the top in jandals … the few other people we passed were decked out in hiking gear 😂

The village is built in and around the rocks … when is a rock a roof, or a wall, or is a roof a rock. Anyway, it is amazing and I can’t wait to visit again. Luckily for us, our wonderful friends Louise and Tim are coming to stay and so we are happy to be playing tour guide for them. There is a wonderful cafe that serves beer and pizza, so life will be perfect.

So that is us … 12 days into this, our last sit, and only 9 to go!

“We haven’t been everywhere … but it’s on our list”

Valence-sur-Baïse, Condom, Fourcés, La Romieu …

After our Chateau experience (and it wasn’t bad, just not fabulous) we travelled to Valence-sur-Baïse for our next ‘Mr & Mrs Smith assignment’. We drove back through Fleurance, grabbed a few groceries and a bottle of wine and headed to meet our new home owner, Sarah and her daughter Kaia, along with their 3 dogs and 5 cats.

After a very friendly welcome and a casual lunch, Sarah took us on a wander around her property to show us where the dogs like to explore. It is a very cool property and was originally a lock-keepers house, with the river Baïse running alongside complete with lock and private (triangular) island covered in trees and with its own little walk ways. Such a gorgeous place.

As the river winds its way along, they [canal authorities from the past] have in many places taken a ‘short-cut’ around a bend and placed a lock. So you end up with ‘an island’ accessible by the lock bridge. This property we looked after is separated by the lock, but bordered by the river, which creates the island.

The dogs and cats have this amazing space to roam. It would have been an incredible place to grow up here as a child, but at the same time almost terrifying for a parent. When we arrived the river was running high. On the opposite side to the lock, a weir has been created in river, which acts like a pseudo-dam to ensure water supply to the lock. The river was raging and the weir was like a mini Niagara Falls. You could hear it before you could see it. (This photo was taken the next day when it had calmed down a bit!!). Sarah showed us photos of the property when it was flooded and the lock was nowhere to been seen and the island covered in water, becoming part of the river 😮

We explored the island with three dogs charging about and clearly just loving having the freedom to chase things. We were excited to be able to walk about here each day with the lovely Lana, Iris and Saba. A short time later we became aware the Lana wasn’t circling back to check on us and Sara said not to worry she would be digging for mice or other treasures. We returned to the house but Lana didn’t follow, so Colin was dispatched to look for her – remembering that she can’t get off the island [actually she can, but just not today with the water being high].

As time ticked by, the level of concern was raised and it was wondered if Lana had fallen in the river. So another anxious explore of the island, checking as much of the surrounding area as possible and calling, and calling and calling. It was decided to drive along the river a short distance to see if she had been carried further down than expected. Sarah took Colin, and I stayed at the house returning to the island checking in case she was clinging to the bank without being able to get up the steep sides. When they returned without her, and I hadn’t found her we ventured further into the surrounding areas. I was dropped a bit further down the river and walked all along it, while Colin and Sarah went to the next lock.

It became an urgent search for an older dog. I walked for a few km’s along the river and back, and agreed to meet Sarah and Colin at 8pm [it doesn’t get dark til 10pm]. They had been to the next lock and also around some of the fields that border the river. We then searched along another field together, but had no luck finding her. We returned to the house and Colin noticed he had lost his phone!! So we returned to the last places he had been to look for that and a chance to look for Lana again while Sarah stayed back and posted in the local lost pets, Facebook, Community pages … before long a whole group of people were sharing and planning a search for Lana. We finally had some dinner about 10.30pm and decided to regroup in the morning.

As the next day dawned, an army of people were spreading the word, flyers were being printed and we were out searching again. Sarah was of course trying to get sorted to fly off on her holiday that afternoon. Colin and I headed out to our local ‘Condom‘ to get a few groceries and have a search in some of the same places we had been the previous day. We were all hoping that Lana had managed to get out of the river and was just somewhere she hadn’t been before, so technically lost.

Sarah (and Kaia) set off later in the day on their holiday – we promised that we would keep the search up and keep liaising with the local groups. Although Lana has a collar with her phone numbers on it, it was decided that someone who speaks French would be the best contact locally. Every time the phone rang I eagerly answered it and with fingers crossed hoped that someone could speak English! As it turns out the 4 or 5 times the phone rang it was recorded messages. We returned to Condom the next day and collected some flyers and spent the afternoon walking locally placing them wherever it seemed possible someone may be walking, remembering that we haven’t been here before and had no idea really!! Anyway, we drove to the local supermarkets in Condom and placed flyers on the noticeboards, and stopped at every bus stop or town square we could find to put up more flyers. There was one on ‘our’ lock as well. And the river had returned to its usual idyllic pace.

After a couple of days we had resigned ourselves to the fact the it was most likely that Lana had been claimed by the river, although did continue to search for every day as much as we possibly could. Such a sad and traumatic way to make new friends but somehow you just know that your hearts will continue to be connected along this life journey 💕

We were in constant contact with Sarah and she encouraged us to get on and enjoy out stay. The next few days we planned a few road trips and visited so many [more] gorgeous villages … Valence-sur-Baïse, Condom, Fourcés [with its circular town square!], La Romieu [with the legend of Angeline and her cats], Larressingle [a fortified village on a hill], Lectoure [on the Pilgram trail to Spain], Lavardens [fortified city on a hill], Vic-Fezenac [vic = town without a wall], Montreal-du-Gers [with a wonderful town square with the amazing concrete arches around the edges, with lovely cafes and shops] Nerac [with a lovely historic district and wonderful gothic bridges over the river Baïse and so many more.

Our ‘mini’ road trips [on secondary roads] took us by more Cathedrals, Chateaus, skylines dotted with turrets and fields for as far as you can see …. all the way to the snow capped Pyrenees. The wheat fields with poppies along the road side, the purple carpets of the linseed crops, the yellow mustard flowers and the endless lines of the tractors through the fields. All very beautiful and all very charming the South-west region of Occitanie, France. Combine all that beautiful landscape with the magnificent ‘tree avenues’ that lead you into, or out of all those charming and fascinating medieval villages and towns, and you can see why people just love hiking, biking or driving in France.

Our week in Valence-sur-Baïse was a challenge, but one that we rose to. Sarah still managed to have her holiday, albeit with a heavy heart. We still had an amazing experience staying with all the other lovely pets and enjoyed walking Saba and Iris on her wonderful property [although, I must say I was a tad nervous!]. Colin played with the lock a couple times [just to check the flow of the water!]. The whole week we only had one small boat with an outback motor come through the lock – it was a very funny thing to watch, but I have waffled enough. Ask me about it when we get home!

So that’s the synopsis from last week. We are now in Portugal for three weeks on our 11th (and last) Mr & Mrs Smith assignment, before our homeward journey begins.

“Here’s to all the places we’ve been … and all the places we’ll go”

Narbonne, Carcassone, Auch and Auvillar …

And so, so many little villages as we drove in and around rural [south west] France. It is so beautiful here with rolling hills covered in crops waving gently in the breeze, rustic villages besprinkled with roses and vineyards with vines bursting into life. The buildings are seemingly ruins and dilapidated with shutters and an oldy worldy feel, but many people are still living in them. Rural France is still closed between 12 & 2pm and Sunday afternoons, you won’t find any of the big chain stores in them, the shops are mostly locals and produce markets are common.

The land is continuous rolling ‘flattish’ hills with crops being grown on every spare inch of land. When you look to the horizon across ‘fields forever’ you will always find church spires and Chateau turrets. We most stayed on secondary roads and have had the delight of stopping and exploring a lot of villages along the along the way – Preginan, Fleurance, Nougaroulet, Saint-clar and so many more.

We booked into a decommissioned ‘nunnery’ [which is now accommodation] in Narbonne and it was just so fantastic (I think I liked it better than my Chateau, but more on that later!). We stayed in an apartment on the fourth floor … the lift went to three! Colin again very kindly carried my bag up the stairs … it seems to be getting heavier … surely baby things can’t weigh that much😂. We were invited to climb to the roof, but first we had to walk down to one [on the restored staircase] and then climb back up a decaying staircase to the 5th floor!!

The restored staircase is lovely … but the decaying staircase was treacherous!

Narbonne is such a wonderful town with a river / canal running through it. The buildings are beautiful, it has fabulous history, wonderful shops and such a friendly feel. We visited the underground vaults / stores from the Roman days [Horreum] which was absolutely fascinating. These former grain / wine / oil / weapon stores are still being excavated and are extensive. It is amazing to think that a modern city [well not really modern!] has been built on top of the old ruins [which aren’t really ruins, more a buried city] – we came across this in Sophia as well.

We also visited the art museum which is located in the Palais Neuf. We saw a picture of King Louis XIII who was the guy who stayed in the Aulnay priory house we looked after back in March and also a picture similar to the one we saw in Florida – I asked the attendant if it was a copy here in France and she was horrified. When I looked back through my photos I found the Florida photo – it turns out they are both originals of the same subject!! Left is Florida,USA and right is Narbonne, France. Still love the story behind it.

In Narbonne the impressive Cathedral [Cathédrale Saint-Just-et-Saint-Pasteur – built in the late 13th Century] is one of the must visit places, although it was never finished as they ran out of money – seems it isn’t a modern problem!! It has a treasure room / acoustic hall which contains medieval transcripts, impressive tapestries and the most amazing ceiling! You can stand diagonally opposite each other and whisper and the other person can hear it. Then when you stand in the middle and talk or tap your feet you have this incredible ‘fold-back’ of sound. It also has the most fabulous stained glass windows. While the Cathedral is free, it was worth the few Euros to go in the treasure room.

Then it was on to Carcassone, which is a monumental, double walled, fortified city that is still ‘living’. It has all these fantastic medieval towers with slate roofs that glint in the sun and tiny lanes that would make you think you are in a Harry Potter movie. Three million people a year visit here and while it was busy when we visited, it was still okay. It is similar to Mont St Michel in the north of France (which we visited in 1987). I burgled this aerial photo from a google site so you can get the idea of it – just amazing! You can see the Pyrenees with snow in this photo, which we too could see too [not quite as much snow though!] but I just couldn’t get a great photo!

From there we went to Auch which is another beautiful city built alongside a river and saturated with wonderful history. There is a monumental stair case which takes you up to the Cathedral (every city, town, parish has at least one, mostly two and often three! – we are a bit ‘Cathedralled’ out!!). The staircase [which connects the old town at the top and the new town at the bottom by 375 stairs] has a monument of D’Artagnan from the three musketeers – I thought he was a fictional character!?, gardens and fountains every 100 stairs or so and at the top of the stairs was a modern (1992) installation to remember the devastation of the floods noted in the bible and more recently the floods in 1977. We stayed here for two nights in a lovely ‘gite‘ [French B & B] which had two lovely dogs and was quite, and relaxing.

Finally we headed to the Chateau – I was really looking forward to staying in a real proper Chateau, a bit posh, a lot sumptuous, with a few turrets and a beautiful garden! Hmmmm when we finally arrived I really wanted to turn around and pretend I didn’t have this dream. It looked so unloved, nothing like the wonderful pictures you see on-line. The pool was empty, the gardens underwhelming and while the caretakers were lovely, friendly and made us breakfast … the whole experience was just a little bit [okay, a lot!] disappointing!! Not to mentioned the 70’s styling inside! Although the large old-fashioned couches were quite comfy, [finding that silver lining again]!! Actually we got upgraded to an apartment with a lounge and kitchen, as all the B & B rooms were full, so it wasn’t all bad, just a bit sad! I think they also needed some ‘Wet & Forget’ – it would help a lot!!

We did have the chance to visit Auvillar while staying here which is just beautiful. It is on the Pilgram trail which leads through to Spain. Auvillar is considered one of the prettiest villages in France. It was perched up on a hill with views out over ‘our Chateau’ and the nuclear power plant! It was such a gorgeous wee village with heaps of places to stay for those on the trail …. I might put the trail on my ‘to-do-list’.

We went into the visitor centre here and gathered some information for our travels and were talking to the lovely young girl and I was amazed that she had barely travelled. She had never even been to Paris!! She had done one trip to Ireland for a long weekend! I rattled off some of the places we had been in France and she didn’t know where many were, and hadn’t visited hardly any of them!! I am amazed that working in a information centre and meeting people from all over the world doesn’t inspire you! Anyway, there you have it … she did however give me a ‘scroll’ with a travel quote which I thought was very appropriate as I have been using them here! So this time the quote is from Auvillar – very appropriate from a place on the Pilgram trail 😊 (and next time too!).

So we have now arrived on our next ‘Mr & Mrs Smith assignment‘ in Valence sur-Baise and will bring you our adventures from here in a few days.

There is nothing like walking to get the feel of a county … even a bicycle goes too fast”

Cerbere, Collioure, Port-la-Nouvelle … we’re in France! 🇫🇷

After a wonderful few days in Girona we caught the train to Cerbere in France. It is the first French town over the boarder (or the last if you are heading south!). We booked ourselves into a small apartment with kitchenette in a complex with a pool and close to the beach. We were hoping to just relax, walk on the sand and perhaps even have a swim in the Mediterranean.

Travail – “travel fail” (thanks Mum!). We arrived in Cerbere [by train] and couldn’t find a taxi. We started walking, then a very friendly teenager stopped and offered help! His English was no better than our French but nonetheless he called his mum, got a number for a taxi and tried to call a taxi for us BUT here in Europe 12-2pm is closed! After doing a hundred [well maybe at least 10!] ‘merci’s / thankyou’s’ he ran to catch his train and we walked into town – 15mins (which wasn’t that far compared to the next town!) found a place that was open and had a casual lunch. We finally communicated with them about a taxi and asked them to call for us and when it finally arrived we transferred to our holiday destination [for three nights!! – pre-paid of course!!].

As we arrived I had that sinking feeling that all was not well 🤔 When we finally found our ‘apartment’ it was to discover that we were in a resort which would be all good if the rest of the resort was open!!!!! After an hour, we messaged the owner and told him we weren’t staying, and caught a taxi back to ‘town’. It would have been fine if it was as advertised, but it wasn’t – the supermarket was closed! It was 5km from town – not the 1.5km advertised and the restaurant was closed!! EPIC fail !! I immediately asked for a full refund, which we thankfully received.

We ended up staying the night in a lovely (but tiny) hotel with incredible views over the bay. If you were here on a Pyrenees hiking trip it would be perfect! We walked the 500m into town had a quick dinner, bought a few beers then headed back to sit on the tincy balcony!, planned our next destination and watched the sun set. After a lovely breakfast on the main balcony the next morning, the hotel owner dropped us to catch the train to Collioure.

OMG it [Collioure] was fantastic, the accommodation was wonderful and we had a fabulous three nights here – had only booked two but was so lovely we stayed one extra . We paid a bit extra one night and had tapas and sangria, delivered to our wee patio by the hosts daughter! If you are on Facebook, you will by now have seen the hilarious video from that night! I think perhaps you needed to be there to ‘get it’. We have met so many people who have said they couldn’t travel ‘together’ like we are … but we are still laughing 😂

Collioure is such a pretty seaside town, charming, romantic, relaxing and full of history (and vineyards!). We walked and walked here, especially in the old city which is ‘footsteps’ only. The wonderful lanes with colourful houses and cute cafes, the ‘Château Royal de Collioure’ [semi-ruin built by the Templar Knights] on the promenade, which just sort of rises up out of the shimmering blue Mediterranean and commands its place as the guardian of the city. Then high on the hills behind is Fort Saint Elme.

In centuries gone by Collioure was two villages – one on each side of the river. But back sometime in 16th century [after lots of fighting with the Spanish] the Fort was modernised for the King of Aragon and the two small cities became one, although they still have a different charm. Then Spain besieged it again during the 17th century, before the French won it back in the 18th century. So much fighting!! Somewhere in the middle of all that it was a fortified army fortress.

It is the home base for training the French Divers/Army and they were doing some of there training while we were there – “CNEC (Centre National d’Entrainement de Commando) trains men and women in the armed services to survive in war zones.  In the mountains around Mont Louis (the highest garrison in France) and in the sea at Collioure trainees, subjected to permanent mental stress and physical fatigue, learn to manage both and find the strength to accomplish their military objective.” Hmmmmm – is this where they learned to bomb the Rainbow Warrior back in July 1985?!? Greenpeace were to commence anti-nuclear protests [in the Pacific] when the French Secret Service went to NZ and put a stop to their [Greenpeace] mission by placing ‘limpet mines’ on the Rainbow Warrior blowing it up and killing one person. A bit a of hiccup in our otherwise friendly relations – except for Rugby! We were leaving for Europe in 1985 and then were actually in France in 1987 when we won the Rugby World Cup … just a bit of trivia [our travels last time, not the bombing] for you 😂

The Pryenees which are covered in snow, rise up steeply behind the port, are overlaid with terraced vineyards, which have been growing grapes here for hundreds of years – since the Phoenicians! And it is still hand picked and crafted. Lots of Red varietals which is great for Sangria. There is so much work in the terracing and it is said that if the terracing was laid in a line, it would be as long as the Great Wall of China. The other thing that Collioure is famous for is its anchovies … they nearly came on our tapas plate, until we confessed we don’t like them!

Every time we walked to the beach there were artists all sitting and sketching, painting trying to recreate ‘art’ like the masters’ – Matisse, Picasso and Derain [and a host of others]. I found some of the original works by the masters a bit child like! Apparently the ‘light’ here is famous for luminous quality. Anyway we did visit the small art museum, that houses a reputable collection of ‘originals’ but I wasn’t inspired by any of it!! Actually they didn’t have any Picasso or Matisse, so maybe that was the problem. In several places around town there are copies of the famous pictures, from where the artist created his famous work.

One day we took the wee tourist train up to Fort Saint Elme, through the vineyards, and another afternoon we did a three harbour boat cruise. We just loved our time here walking and exploring – I can only imagine in summer it would be crowded and if you were a local you would want to scarper for the hills, except you need to make a living as it is the opposite in winter and there are hardly any people about. The ‘beaches’ are pebbly so not comfy for lying on but the two bays are so beautiful and we thankfully had fabulous weather.

From charming Collioure we headed to pitiful Port-la-nouvelle [sounds okay], which is described as a wonderful seaside resort town, safe beaches with walks and trails. Also a busy port town. We booked ourselves three nights here – our second ‘travail’!! Firstly the weather was terrible, secondly our accommodation was below par, thirdly because the weather was terrible everything closed!!

We arrived after a short train trip to discover that the even the train station wasn’t open! We asked some young men about catching a taxi and they said there were no taxis, but to catch the bus. So while it was pouring with rain we waited for the bus … it did turn up but it wasn’t going in our direction on this loop, but he would do a loop that got us closer to town in 45 mins or so!!

Even though is was raining steadily we decided to walk!! I am not sure why we did this, we should have just taken a sightseeing tour on the ‘other loop’. Anyway walk we did!! Approximately half way (20 mins) we came across a largish supermarket that had a cafe [and the WC!], so we grabbed a quick lunch and then we were off again. When we arrived at our accommodation and we were shown to our room I felt like we were going to be prisoners for the next two days if the weather didn’t ease up!! We did get a few hours here and there, but essentially we wasted two days here and it was even more maddening as there was no tea/coffee making, very poor WiFi and no TV!!! Arrrrrgh … just as well we had a book to read and the bed was comfy!

So that is us for now – lessons learnt 1. Port-la-nouvelle is a July/August destination only, together with Cerbere and 2. Collioure is fabulous and everyone should visit!

“Never get so busy making a living … that you have no time to make a life”

Girona es absolutamente fabulosa! 💖

We caught the high speed train from Barcelona to Girona and it was a short 200kph (40mins) trip. The rolling fields of grasses blowing in the wind, the paddocks carpeted with red poppies and rural Spain dotted along the train track all went past in a semi-blur!

Girona (Spain) is absolutely gorgeous! And beautiful, full of history and such a delight. How lucky we were to discover that the spring flower festival was on – ‘Temps de Flors’. We found ourselves staying in a fantastic apartment which was only a 15 minute walk down to the heart of the ‘old city’ [but a 2hr walk back up! 😂 ], on a great bus route and a supermarket, almost next door. Everything to make our stay there so easy and just wonderful.

Girona is the perfect place to visit if you don’t like big cities, you can walk about in the ‘old city’ easily enough and the buses are great for everything else. It is a medieval city with the rivers Onya [main river] and Ter running through it. Several bridges cross the river and they are all from different eras. The most famous being the ‘Eiffel’ bridge [also called the ‘Pont de les Peixateries Velles’] being designed by Mr Eiffel himself, before he did the Eiffel Tower. There are 5 pedestrian bridges up and down the river [Onya], and all give you a fabulous view of the city. During the festival this year they had ‘woven telescopes’ so you could view the city – such a cool idea and made for wonderful photo opportunities.

The festival lured us into the romantic side of Girona and I fell in love! Girona is trumped by Barcelona [and maybe that is a good thing!], but I truly believe if you are to visit Barcelona you should do more than a day trip to Girona. It won’t disappoint and maybe if you go with your significant other … you will feel the romance 💖 If you ever have the chance to visit Girona, it is a must do. 😊

We walked along the ‘Rambla de la Llibertat’ which is very beautiful and has a very charming feel to it. From the market stalls, to the wonderful cafes and all the Gelato stands it is a perfect place to start your journey.

The Jewish (Jueu) Quarter is an amazing area of wonderful winding cobbled streets that were established in the 12th century. From charming cafes to cobbled lanes this was an enchanting part of the city, within the walls and has been a part of the city for over 500 years.

We we first arrived in Girona we had no idea that the festival was on and so we are sitting in a wonderful cafe, below the Cathedral, and wondered what was happening!! There was a hive of activity and an explosion of colour as the ‘steps’ were decorated for the festival. After a leisurely lunch we wandered along to the tourist information centre to discover that the ‘Temps de Flors’ was commencing that weekend and everyone was in setup mode.

This festival has been a highlight of Girona since 1956 when it was a bouquet competition and has since morphed into the most spectacular ‘FREE’ festival I have ever had the privilege of attending. Of course it has become bigger than ‘itself’ and now all the shops, cafes, restaurants, museums and the city itself have evolved into an incredible exhibition, that now lasts a week!

The wall walk [also called the Passeig de la Muralla] of the medieval city is almost horseshoe-shaped and is so incredible. I loved being able to peer into the houses and gardens below, especially as so many business and homes,had taken the time to join the festival. The wall itself it amazing just on its own, with incredible views over the city across the tiled roofs and beyond to the snow capped mountains.

We climbed several of the ‘lookouts’ to give it just a wee bit more ‘height’ … most were okay for me and I was so transfixed with the view I forgot how high I was!! …. until it was time to climb down!! Some of the tiny spiral staircases made my heart beat a little faster …. taking me back to our stay in Malta! The view of the public gardens, church’s, alley-ways and the city itself were just fantastic …. I want to come back here!!

So the Temps de Flors is just beyond your tiny imaginations [well mine anyway!!] … I have populated this blog with [a few] photos from in and around the city. Most business, and all the museums are involved, which made visiting any of them, just not possible [in the normal sense] as the volume of people was overwhelming!

So Game of Thrones (GOT) fun fact ! We have NEVER seen it but, it has been filmed here – where hasn’t GOT been filmed?!? Anway I suppose if you were a GOT fan, you would have got an extra ‘hit’ out of visiting here?!?

So fun fact about Girona …. they speak Catalan, here although Spanish is widely recognised!! So as you can see we loved it here, a truly wonderful and romantic city 💖

We are heading to France … stand by for that update!

“Because at the end … you won’t remember the time you spent working”