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France – Christmas in Paris (mini-break Part 2)

<post continued from Paris Part 1 >

Day 3 – South of the River

Tired from our first two days exploring, we were late waking, having slept nearly 10 hours. We must have been properly exhausted, a body and mind overload. We walked south from the campsite, passing a hippodrome flanked by a closed tarmac road inundated by keen cyclists and runners. We caught the metro from Boulogne – Pont de Saint-Cloud to the end of the line at Gare d’Austerlitz and began the long walk back west. We first reached the Jardins des Plantes, adjacent to the Natural History Museum. The grounds were filled with large, wildly colourful and exuberant animal models that brought instant smiles to our faces. Walking here was such a different experience from other places in Paris, one of simple, childlike joy, a haven from the busy roads and towering architecture.

Paris (natural history museum)

Paris (garden bears)

Paris (giant turtle)

We lingered under the warm morning sky, enjoying each vibrant display. There were large groups of students being corralled into the museum as we passed, likely on a school outing. We passed through the inflated body of a huge shark marking the entrance to the adjacent zoo, it reminding us of silly sentences from learning French on DuoLingo such as “Le loup mange le requin”- when could I ever use that, really? We exited the park by a large brightly-tiled mosque and continued on to reach the impressive monolith of the Panthéon in the nearby Latin Quarter. We ate snacks amongst the chatting students lounging and lunching on elaborate timber benches. I eavesdropped on their loud conversations, catching less than a tenth of the words, making me wonder if I’ll ever get a proper hold on the language.

Paris (student area seating)

Paris (pantheon)

We dropped down a the hill towards Le Jardin du Luxembourg, but found ourselves distracted by a display of large, beautiful photos of polar regions that lined the boundary fencing to the park. We followed this exhibition right around the perimeter, loving the poignant quality of the work and dreaming of a return to the wilds of Greenland. Some day. We finally entered Le Jardin du Luxembourg adjacent to the palace, stopping first to glance at a formal pond and grotto. The sky was back to a glorious blue and it was warm in direct sun, so we sat a while at the edge of the gardens and enjoyed a bout of people-watching. It was a welcome oasis away from the crowded bustling streets, and these restful moments revived us for more exploring. We cut across the sparse gardens, heading north into the fray once more.

Paris (resting in Luxembourg gardens)

Paris (place saint sulpice)

Our route north took us through Place Saint-Sulpice to reach another pocket of colourful Christmas Markets in the plaza outside Saint Germain des Prés church. Here we bought some vin chaud to warm our hands as we lazily browsed the stalls. We returned to the banks of the Seine and walked along, passing the Musie d’Orsay, before reaching Passerelle Léopold Sédar Senghor, a bridge replete with love locks, conveniently sold by all the local hawkers. There were many thousands of locks, each with a name or message added to symbolise a thought, love or connection. The idea could be seen as either deeply symbolic and profound or as credulously trite, wasteful littering, depending on your given mood or perspective. But it certainly didn’t seem to be lessening in popularity over time.

Paris (louvre from bridge)

Paris (Wall of peace)

From here we crossed to Tuileries gardens and sat for lunch overlooking the manic traffic wildness of the Place de la Concorde. Huge numbers of blue flashing lights roared past, and we wondered if the Gilets Jaunes had begun protesting again nearby. We crossed back south of river, across stalled traffic, to reach Les Invalides and the École Militaire, and then approached the Tour Eiffel from the south. We made our way through the busy crowds to Trocadéro where we enjoyed the raised, expansive view as we awaited dusk falling and the turning on of lights. This was to be our last magnificent view of central Paris from this trip, a fitting memory for our short days here. Tired, we again caught the Metro back to Pont de Neuilly after dark, then undertook our now usual walk back to the campsite.

Paris (spproaching tour Eiffel)

Paris (eiffel tower panorama)

These two posts on Paris read like a Bret Easton Ellis novel, the long lists of places we visited like the detailed musings of Patrick Bateman. It’s difficult to step back and find a way to encapsulate the trip beyond the obvious linear diary approach. When you factor in the constant stimulation of culture, history, architecture, lights, smells and sounds, it takes a long time for the brain to fully process the experience and then recreate some order from the constant movement and delightful chaos. We walked 23km on our third day – it’s a huge city, and we only saw a small portion of it. Even utilising a pack of ten metro tickets (€14.90 for 10), we covered 64 kilometres on foot over the course of our three days. City breaks, at least the way we always seem to do them, are more exhausting than hiking mountains.

A&N x

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France – Christmas in Paris (mini-break Part 1)

Day 1 – Arrival, La Défense & Tour Eiffel

After a hectic morning packing session, we left La Jourdanie in good spirits for our drive north.  We followed the A20 for hours, skirting around Châteauroux and Vierzon.  We swapped to the parallel D-road to avoid motorway tolls and later stopped briefly in an aire in Theillay for lunch. We swapped drivers and Nicky faced the first proper traffic as we reached the southern outskirts of Orléans.  We crawled through the centre, paying the price for avoiding tolls, and made our way to the town of Angerville to overnight by their stadium.  We were stopping an hour or so short of Paris so we could arrive early in the morning and have that day for exploring. We slowly walked around Angerville to stretch our legs.  A few late arriving lorries naughtily parked up near us, in a zone clearly marked as max. 3.5t, disrupting our otherwise quiet overnight stay.  We headed off early for the last hour or so into Paris.

Paris - (la defense display)

Paris - (approaching la defense)

We must credit Ju & Jay at OurTour for seeding the idea; we’d read their blog post on visiting Paris and we thought it would work for us to pop up for the Christmas markets.  Under six hours driving for a classic city break – why not?  We arrived in the Le Camping Paris (AKA Indigo Paris) campsite before 10am and had no hassles checking in early.  We arrived under blue skies but facing down a biting wind that whipped heat away from any exposed skin.  The only downside was that the usual navette was not running, so we had to walk directly from the campsite each day.  We headed first to La Défense, crossing a wide bridge to a long island and then on to the opposite side of the Seine.  On the main boulevard in the shadow of the Grande Arche we found a huge Christmas market with a vast array of stalls, incredibly busy with lunching workers.  We browsed the goods, smelled the foods and absorbed the atmosphere.

Paris - (nicky and grand arch)

Paris - (aaron at grand arch)

Paris - (la defense plaza and markets)

Security was tight, with intermittent bag checks and armed soldiers patrolling the perimeter.  It had only been a few days since the deadly attack at a Christmas market in Strasbourg, so the alert level was justifiably high.  Everyone seemed relaxed though, so the atmosphere was unaffected.  We ate lunch on the steps of the Grande Arche, sheltered a little from the wind and overlooking the lively markets, the vista stretching all the way to the distant Arc de Triomphe.  We watched runners threading themselves through the crowds and this seeded another idea for later. We returned through Puteaux, passing a cute kiddy Christmas display, then followed the western bank of the Seine south.  We saw the campsite across the river where we could spot Benny before reaching the next bridge to return.

Paris - (run into the city)

Paris - (riverside run)

With 10km of walking already in our legs, we sipped a cup of warming tea to recuperate.  Then we changed clothes and headed  back out to face the cold, this time for a run.  We headed through long stretches of woodland, crossing busy roads and along bustling city streets to reach the glorious sight of the iconic Eiffel Tower.  We approached along the river from the south, through a fairground and masses of tat-selling hawkers.  Here we were surprised to find new glass security barriers surrounding the perimeter of the tower that were not in place last time we visited (over 8 years ago, for my 35th birthday – time flies!)  A sad but likely necessary installation, reflective of the times we live in. There were long queues to enter the tower or the restaurant, with slow security checks, so we instead continued our run around the bare gardens.  More armed soldiers passed as we stopped to pose for obligatory tourist photographs.

Paris - (run past eiffel tower)

We happily walked a little, to better enjoy the crowds and buzzing atmosphere.  So many touts were selling the same tacky plastic pieces, flashing Eiffel Towers in all colours or gaudy keyrings, 5 for €1.  With our iconic jaunt complete, we returned through busy shopping streets, skipping past distracted shoppers and dodging a multitude of the powered scooters that seemed prevalent in the city.  Above us the skies dulled and clouded over as the sun dropped, sucking all the light from the day.  Light had faded to a low grey as we crossed the woodland to return to Benny.  We had completed a fully enjoyable 13km run, and just in time as the rains started for the night.  After long, wonderfully hot campsite showers, we wrapped up warmly and prepared a tasty dinner, contented with our first day in Paris.

Day 2 – North of the River

Paris - (louis vuitton foundation)

We awoke to the continued pitter-patter of rain on our roof, so indulged ourselves in a lazy breakfast of croissants and jam before leaving around 10.30am when the rains had stopped.  We walked north through the woodland, spotting flocks of bright green parrots in the bare trees, to reach the Louis Vuitton foundation.  This building was another Frank Gehry creation, and there were large crowds queueing at security checks to enter.  We walked around the perimeter, taking in the hypnotically constant flow of cascading waves that dropped down a long, wide staircase to a shallow reflecting pool.  We soon reached the metro station at Les Sablons and travelled 14 stops east to Bastille. The trains bore a strong similarity to London.  During the journey we did some back-of-a-napkin math and realised Nicky had sat on tube trains, from her days working in London, for more than a full month of her life.

Paris - (hotel de ville)

Paris - (notre dame)

We alighted and soon were walking through wide Parisian streets full of life, glittering Christmas lights and elegant people.  We passed a long line of nursery school kids, walking hand in hand, all adorned in fluorescent yellow bibs that made us think of the Gilets Jaunes and how they were starting their protesting young these days.   We followed side streets with attractive new shops and tiny stores hosting chaotic ancient trades, cobblers and tailors with shop interiors straight out of Harry Potter. We passed large groups of chattering students, looking much too young to be at university – we’re definitely getting old.  We soon arrived at the main Hôtel De Ville for Paris, a towering, decorative Neo-Classical building.  It was mostly inaccessible, surrounded by Christmas trees and tall metal fencing.

Paris - (notre dame and seine)

Paris - (shakesphere bookshop)

We crossed the Seine to Île de la Cité and joined the crowds admiring the façade of Notre Dame cathedral.  We watched over made-up girls take turns photographing each other, posing on tall bollards like catwalk models.  We crossed the river again to the south, to visit Shakespeare and Co. Bookshop, its aged shelves heavy with books.  The layout was all nooks and crannies and soft seating, indulgent and comfortable even when overcrowded with other bibliophiles; a wonderful place to browse.  We ate lunch back on the island, viewing Notre Dame and dodging pigeons, before heading back north then west along the Seine to Pont Neuf.   We slowly browsed the green market stalls that lined the banks selling books, art and tourist trinkets, considering a few sketches to decorate our walls.

Paris - (aaron at louvre)

Paris - (nicky at louvre)

We arrived at the rear elevation of the Louvre and sneaked through a small passage into a grand empty courtyard and then into the main plaza featuring  I.M.Pei’s iconic pyramidal entrance.  With no plans to enter we were simply enjoying the ambiance.  The reflection pools and dancing fountains had been drained for winter and the plaza was definitely worse for the loss.  We turned north to Palais Royal and along the diagonal to Opéra, it dripping with gold and colour.  We reached Place Vendôme, an impressive square bursting with expensive designer stores. All streets were full of top-end brands, with minimalist displays of pricey coveted goods, three staff members to each customer and private security on each door.  The roads were stuffed with chauffeured cars delivering rich patrons into roped off spaces.  We felt out of place in the lavish, almost vulgar, display of riches, so we dipped into a surprise find on the street – a Decathlon store – for quiet reflection.

Paris - (Opera house facade)

After, we sat on the steps of Madeleine church staring at the obelisk in the Place de la Concorde as we planned our next move.  We decided that would be a metro up to Montmartre and a visit to Sacre Coeur.  We soon alighted at Abbesses station and chose to climb the stairs over joining a queue for lifts, and 144 steps later my overused legs were not thanking me for that decision.  Outside we found cute timber market stalls, thick with wonderful Christmas smells, leading on to many more upward steps.  We shunned the funicular and walked up long flights to reach the first main platform, before turning for our reward – a stunning panorama over all of central Paris.  We stood and stared, picking out monuments and spotting buildings we’d visited.  It was a sharp, clear day, a perfect vista of Paris.

Paris - (view from sacre coeur)

After another security check to enter the Sacre Coeur, we sat a moment on hard wooden pews and absorbed the painted ceiling of the church’s domed ceiling in welcome quiet.  Then we continued into the heart of Montmartre, where we bought a small metal tray, just the right size for two cups of tea, that will act as a small daily reminder of our Paris trip.  We browsed the many artists’ varied work in a cobbled square lined with cafés and bars, enjoying the soulful ambience. We then picked out one restaurant from many and feasted on three courses alone in their warm interior, as all other customers felt compelled to shiver their way through their food at the outside tables.

Paris - (Nicky at Sacre coeur)

When we extracted ourselves, night had fallen and everything was lit up.  It began spitting with light rain as a talented busker sang Purple Rain to the crowds. The tat-hawkers were packing up, desperate for last sales. One guy follows me closely and, despite my polite but firm ‘non’ he continues to aggressively push his goods.  He then harshly grabs my wrist and refuses to let go, until I finally protest very loudly in colourful language. The possibility of drawing the attention of one of the nearby security guards leads him to scarper away, but also left me wondering what terrible, indentured slave-like contract he might be locked into to drive such desperation. It must be a miserable, sad life, and I immediately felt guilty for my dismissive impatience, even if his chosen sales technique was threatening and invasive.

Paris - (montmartre artists)

We fell downhill through more crowded markets and brightly lit shops to reach a large boulevard.  We followed this to Pigalle metro, where, before descending, we could see the lights of the Moulin Rouge beyond.  We caught the metro to Pont de Neuilly and walked the long road back to our campsite on low lit, very busy, urban roads, passing a large tent complex where Circus du Soliel were performing.   Even with liberal use of the metro we had walked over 18km around the Parisian streets  – an exhausting day.

A&N x

< Part 2 to follow >

Spain – The road to Pamplona

We awoke in LaBastida and, after one last wander around to test our legs after our run, we said our goodbyes to the now-empty town.  Heading east, the sky was a sheet of gunmetal, solid and brooding.   Yet even in the dreary rain the deep autumnal colours of the neat vines shone through and lit up the landscape in bursts of yellow and red.

We had a brief stop in the village of Elciego (Eltziego), where a hotel associated with a large wine producer had commissioned a building from Frank Gehry’s practice.  We did a drive-by shooting with our camera, in the spotty rain.  We couldn’t get too close, but it all looked fairly typical of Gehry’s easily recognisable style, with the addition of some brightly coloured panels that offered something different, an interesting variation on an otherwise well-used theme.

From here we skipped past Logroño and headed to the small town of Estella, where we heard rumours of a monastery famous for its wine fountain, distributing a welcome drink for passing pilgrims undertaking the Camino de Santiago.  We parked up and wandered around the grounds, but torrential rain began so we didn’t wander too much further than the celebrated fountain.  The monastery vineyard sets aside 100 litres per day for pilgrims passing through, with polite messages encouraging sparing use so that all can partake who want to.  We helped ourselves to a small bottle-full, enough for a glass each, and toasted their generosity later.

Estella - monastery

Estella - wine fountain

We were told that, if discrete, we could stay over for free in the small car-park at the monastery, but we felt a bit conspicuous and a little in the way and so we drove the kilometre back down to the newly-constructed and barriered aire and graciously paid €4 to the town to park overnight there instead.  Heavy rain continued to fall most of the evening and through the night, but from here we could pick up free WiFi from a nearby café, so we lazed around inside sipping tea and getting ourselves all up to date.  We undertook a quick walk in a brief respite from the downpour where we climbed a small hill behind the aire, looking down on Benny and back across the leafy valley to the monastery.  Then it was back inside to spend the night listening to the constant tapping of raindrops finally lulling us into an uneasy sleep.

Estella - valley view over aire

There was no let-up in the weather come the morning, so we set off through the puddles early, on to Pamplona.  This was to be our last city visit in Spain on this trip.  Views of white peaks in distance, as we were neared the foothills of the Pyrenees, filled up our windscreen.  Through busy traffic we headed to the large central aire, where €10 per 24 hours would supply us with all  services inc. electric.  The rain had paused, although it was bitingly cold, so we wrapped warmly and set off.  The aire was positioned a ten minute stroll along the river from the defensive city walls.   A funicular lift carried us up inside the stone walls and deposited us in a quiet side street in the old historic centre.

Pamplona - (city hall daytime)

The only prior knowledge either of us had of the city was related to the Running of the Bulls, but beyond that it was a blank slate.  We wandered happily with no plan in mind, ducking down side streets and finding small, empty squares before popping out again into busy  thoroughfares alive with people.  We passed communal vegetable gardens, impressive bandstands in wide plazas and numerous churches in varied architectural styles.  On one tree-lined street there was a temporary exhibition on the making and history of Guernica, Picasso’s seminal painting capturing the horror of the bombings.

Pamplona - (inner city gardening)

Pamplona - (Picassos Guernica discription)

Mount Ezkaba, a fort used as a prison during the Spanish Civil War, provided us with a wonderful panoramic view over the outskirts of Pamplona and the mountains beyond.  Some dedicated runners were beasting themselves up steep inclines to the viewing platforms, then walking down only to return again, making us feel like couch potatoes.  We continued to see the Bull ring, said to be the third largest in the world behind Mexico City and Madrid.  A bulky Hemingway statue, mostly torso, stood outside the entrance to the Bull Ring, a memento of his connection to Spain and the manly world of blood sports.   We visited a dedicated Wine shop and bought a few bottles of local wine as gifts.

Pamplona - (valley and mountains)

Pamplona - (wine shop display)

On a busy pedestrian street we found a large, complex statue capturing a deadly looking scene from The Running of the Bulls, a key event in the week-long San Fermin festival.  The statue vividly captured the motion, excitement, confusion and fear the event must hold for those involved.  We circled it twice, taking in all the details and expressions.  From here we returned to Gazteluko Plaza and sat a while, eating snacks and people-watching.  We then returned to the back streets where we wandered by a shop and bought postcards for home, just like proper tourists, before returning to Benny to chill.

Pamplona - (walking the streets)

Later in the evening we ventured out again, forgoing the funicular lift for a steep walk up into the Jardines de la Taconera, where we admired the walls and wildlife.  Originally a 17th century bastion to defend the citadel, the fortress walls were now decoratively laid out with landscaped ponds that were home to many ducks and geese.  We passed through the Portal de San Nicolas and enjoyed a leisurely stroll that led us back into the old quarter.  The wet night streets glimmering with orange light, the air somehow warmer in the soft evening glow. We revisited many of the buildings and places we’d passed through earlier in the day, seeing them in a very different, more vibrant mode.

Pamplona - (park and gardens)

Pamplona - (city hall nighttime)

We had a beautiful dusk walk, hand-in-hand through the well-used and interesting streets.  When we returned to Benny a second time, the ever-present possibility of rain finally occurred and we were glad to be safely inside.  The aire was surprisingly quiet considering its location on a traffic junction and we settled in to eat a late dinner and to give structure and form to our memories of this short stop in intriguing Pamplona.

A&N x

Spain – Guernica & Gorbeiako Parke Naturala

We slept well after our night run in Bilbao and lazily packed up to head the 35 minutes east to visit the rebuilt town of Guernica, or Gernika in the local language.   The morning was light with clear skies, making bright a town with a tormented history.  Not many historic buildings remain due to extent of bombing raids during the Spanish Civil War.

Guernika - Nicky on bridge

Guernika (Henry Moore Sculpture)

Guernika (Central cathedral)

We reached the Parque de los pueblos de Europa, where we walked on leafy paths by a trickling stream, ending in a grassy meadow where several sculptures sat. Henry Moore and local Basque sculptor Eduardo Chillida had both created works to pay homage to the trials of the people of Guernica.  The Moore sculpture was an abstract figure wrapped in shell-like shapes, representing the deep instinct of individuals to seek comfort, refuge, protection, refuge, the primordial urge to feel safe.  It seemed poignantly appropriate.  We passed the cathedral and market square, mostly untouched in the bombings, and walked through the currently empty market square, gently exploring at a slow pace.

Guernika (main square)

We visited the Assembly House of Gernika, the historical seat of Basque power since the Middle Ages.  The highest governing body in the region, the Assembly House is seen as a living symbol of the history of the Basque people.  Its oval Assembly meeting room, plush with red cushioned benches and portraits of previous leaders, is where Plenary meetings of the current General Assembly occur.  Outside, the Tree of Gernika, a symbolic oak tree, is planted within a small formal garden in front of a neo-classical portico.  The ceiling of a large function room tells the history of the oak tree and how it is intrinsically connected to the Basque people, as a place of meeting and discussion.

The old trunk, planted around 1700 CE, is the oldest surviving remains of previous tree incarnations.  It was replaced by a successor in 1860, and that tree lived through two World Wars and a Civil War, surviving until 2015.   The trunk of the old tree, the one planted in 1860 and survivor of the bombing raids, is now stood proud within a circular stone portico in the grounds.  A new tree replacing this historic one was planted in 2015, at 15 years old, as a symbolic continuation of the Basque spirit, renewed by each new generation, but never changing nor faltering.

Guernika (Stained Glass ceiling)

We had thought to overnight in Gurnika and see the celebrated Monday morning market, but it was still early and we didn’t feel the love for the car-park aire, so we headed off south.  We stopped briefly in Artea for a bite of lunch, where we were bravely approached by two 8yo Spanish girls curious about us, and after our first greetings in Spanish we had them practising simple English (Where are you from?  What is your name?) with us.  Less than a mile later we stopped again in Areatza, walking along the river through a pretty square to visit a tourist office that was unhelpfully closed until 4pm. So again, back in Benny and through steep-sided rolling countryside bright with rusty autumn colourings, similar to Limousin where we now live, except with fields here were full of sheep rather than cows.  We reached Gorbeiako Parke Naturala on tiny, single track roads, expecting the visitor centre parking to be empty.  Instead, it was mostly full, with dog and hillwalkers, campers, motorhomers and picnickers all around the ample parking area.  After some deliberation we choose a spot and parked up, then visited the Interpretation Centre for a look at their exhibits.

Gorbeiako Parke Naturala (a brief moment of sunshine)

Gorbeiako Parke Naturala (valley view)

Late at night we could hear jangling bells, and although we could see nothing in the darkness we assumed a large wind chime must be hung in the trees nearby.  We could see no sign of anything in the morning light and it was much later that we decided it may have been a flock of rogue sheep sneaking around, as the flocks on the hills all made similar sounds.  Today we planned to climb to Gorbeia, the natural park’s highest point at 1482m.  We were parked at around 640m, so we only had an ascent of around 850m to contend with.

The route was a rather dull path, a driveable, gravel road for most of the way,  and low cloud prevented us seeing much of a view.  We grasped occasional glimpses of the tree-lined valleys to each side during short breaks in the cloud cover, but only for a few seconds at a time.  We passed a few hardy long-haired horses and a lot of grazing sheep, many wearing the tinkling bells we had heard throughout the night. Combined with the browning bracken, pine trees, prickly gorse bushes with small yellow-flowers and tiny, budding purple crocuses, this could have been any mountain slope in Scotland or Ireland.

Gorbeiako Parke Naturala (summit trig point)

Nearing the top, the cloud got thicker, visibility dropped to tens of metres and an icy wind blasted us from the west.  We added our windproof coats, hats and with hoods up we were still shivering under the wind’s viscous assault.  Exposed and feeling battered, we spent short seconds at the summit, pausing only for a hurried photo with the decorative trig point set below a metal tower structure, then began a hasty descent. Within minutes we escaped the bank of dense cloud and regained solace from the harsh wind, allowing us to begin warming up again.  We jogged short stretches to ease wear on our knees and to aid the warming process.  This descent, by the same route, was memorable only for us finally seeing our first other walkers of the day, near the bottom of the trail – three men with walking poles and wicker baskets, and we thought them likely to be mushroom hunters.

Gorbeiako Parke Naturala (aaron in trees)

Gorbeiako Parke Naturala (the forest)

The centre had told us the walk would be 3.5 hours to the top, and similar to return, but because we didn’t linger, we were up and back in well under four hours.  We enjoyed a well-earned lazy afternoon in Benny, snug away from the wind. A later short pre-dinner walk led us to discover a nearby area of beautifully expressive and wild beech trees, long-fingered, knotted and gnarly, photos of which had initially brought us to this park.  We had nearly missed them, yet they stood in all their wonderful, twisted majesty, set in a thick blanket of crispy copper leaves, only metres behind where we had parked.

A&N x

WorkAway – Solbjerg & Øster Hurup

WorkAway – Solbjerg & Øster Hurup

After visiting Aggersborg Viking fort and having our lovely walk near Skørking, we drove on to a quiet, rural location near to the east coast of Denmark.  The nearest town was Bælum, but we were to be based around 5km away, just south of Solbjerg.  With nervous anticipation, we met our hosts, Synnøve and Jens, and their dog Ollie, in late afternoon.  We made our introductions and felt instantly at ease with this friendly couple, and suddenly felt eager to be involved with their ambitious renovation and art project.

WorkAway (walking Ollie)

WorkAway (alfreso dining)

We walked the large gardens and workshops of the old saw mill they owned, and were shown the progress that previous WorkAwayers from Chile and Austria had assisted with.  The project was explained to us and we started to formulate ideas of how we could best support.  Later we had beers on the terrace as we chatted about each other, our travels to date, the project and the help required from us. We also learned that we would be joined the following day by two fellow WorkAwayers, young brothers from the USA.

WorkAway (the garden project)

The concept of WorkAway is a simple one; hosts, who require some assistance with their business or a special project, offer meals and lodging to registered WorkAwayers who wish to visit, in return for 3-5 hours of work each day.  This arrangement is generally targeted at young backpackers as it offers a way to visit foreign countries very cheaply, whilst having worthwhile interaction and learned conversations with your hosts. The reciprocal curiosity between travellers and locals allows a powerful cultural exchange to arise, alongside the practical help given.  The freely given labour of the visitor is exchanged for a peak into the world view, and cuisine, of the host country; it’s a win-win for both parties.

WorkAway (leafy shed)

WorkAway (shed cleaned)

Our first full day in Solbjerg was a Sunday, and we were not expected to work.  So, with well-received local advice, we decided to cycle to the coastal town of Øster Hurup then north to Lille Vildmose, a nearby nature reserve.  We saw the quiet harbour and long, flat beach before cycling to the visitor centre built just south of Dokkedal.  It was filled with information and exhibits on local wildlife that we enjoyed browsing.  We spent a long while learning about the reserve, before cycling on to the village of Kongerslev to buy some supplies and then back to Solbjerg on a cycle path that ran directly past the WorkAway property, closing our 44km loop.  Even though officially a day off, we couldn’t resist completing a few small jobs around the property, along with providing a few initial sketches for consideration.

WorkAway (top view)

WorkAway (completing benches)

We spent our first true work day cutting back intrusive long grass and painting the vertical planks of a large timber barn in bright sunshine.  It felt good to be out in the sun, working under our own initiative to help our hosts and to earn our dinner.  We enjoyed the hours of painting and watching our progress, feeling the low burn in muscles not often used in our normal travel lives.  This was a large and slow job, and one we returned to a few times during our stay, but we still only managed to complete one full façade.  The welcome monotonous nature of painting gave us time to fully consider other portions of the works and to plan out how best to help recreate the host’s vision.

WorkAway (completed chair)

WorkAway (sketches)

The following day there was rain in the air, so we switched to dismantling, sanding down and re-staining or painting some old benches.  An inside job with periods of drying involved, this was again one that got spread out over several days as we wanted to ensure a proper, thorough job was done, rather than rushing.  We took some pride in making sure the works were completed correctly, as we would if the bench was our own.  When our arms ached too much from the sanding, we sat in the garden and sketched out plans for planting, pathways and timber cycle shelters, as per the brief.  This was where our professional experience could really offer the greatest value work to our hosts.

WorkAway (Aarlborg street)

WorkAway (Aarlborg centre)

On another day off from work, we gratefully accepted a lift into the nearby town of Aalborg with Ronja, the oldest daughter of Synnøve and Jens.  After being dropped off in the centre near the bus station, we walked into the historic centre and on to the harbour.  We walked along the waterfront, passing a Jørn Utzon building, his last.  It was more modest, grounded and robust than his iconic Opera House in Sydney, but the roof forms were equally inspired by maritime endeavours that similarly reflected his deep love of sailing and the ocean waves.

WorkAway (Utzon centre)

WorkAway (Aarlborg church)

We passed large sailboats moored along the sea edge as we meandered to a pedestrian bridge, built adjacent to a railway line, that led across Lim fjord to the northern portion of the city. From here we walked several miles to visit the Viking burial site at Lindholm Høje. An active Viking site from 400CE to 1000CE, the entire area had been buried below several metres of drifting sand until excavations in the 1950s uncovered its extent.  We looked around the visitor centre and walked amongst the ancient standing stones, trying to imagine how life was here 1500 years ago.

WorkAway (Aarlborg bridge)

WorkAway (Lindholm Hoje field)

WorkAway (Lindholm Hoje)

One evening we experienced the generosity of a post-dinner ice cream trip, where the younger family members, Ronja and Holger, got involved and drove all four of us WorkAwayers to the beach at Øster Hurup.  They got to practise their already excellent English, we got exposure to the attitudes and music of a different generation whilst enjoying typical Danish treats.  The queue for the ice cream was long (the Danes eat more ice cream than any other nation) but the wait added suspense and the topping of guf, a sickly and sticky marshmallow-like coating, completed the tasty showcase cones.  We chatted and walked to the marina to take in the sunset as we ate through the multiple flavours and layers.

WorkAway (Ronja and Holger)

WorkAway (Oster hurup marina)

WorkAway (sunset ice creams)

Nicky spent a free afternoon baking cakes that were soon devoured by grateful hosts and guests.  Another evening after work I went for a run, with Nicky in tow on her bike for company, around the local forests trails.  We had remarked more than once that it was so quiet in the location, and the run encapsulated that fully, where nothing other than birdsong disturbed us.  It was a little like being at home again; pottering in the garden, undertaking cleaning and maintenance where required, fitting in runs and cycles where we could before enjoying a glass of red and watching the sun go slowly down.  They were relaxing but still full days, shared and open, lived well and with a smiling heart.

WorkAway (running)

WorkAway (before and after)

We felt we experienced the spontaneous kindness of strangers, and were building easy friendships through our shared experiences.  We walked into Solbjerg one evening under a setting sun with Will and Eli, the other current WorkAwayers from Michigan, US. We talked of inconsequential things, exploring our experiences and the subtle differences between our cultures and that of our hosts.  Rural Denmark has so many similarities to midlands England, down to the beech hedges and the gently rolling fields of luminous rapeseed.  Eli said the same, that the villages and countryside here reminded him of the rural upstate Michigan that he was so familiar with; it truly was a home-from-home for all of us.

WorkAway (Solbjerg church)

WorkAway (setting sun)

There is a transformative power in constant curiosity-fuelled travel, but an equal interest and energy exists in standing still, taking a lasting interest in local people and the everyday details of their lives.  The eight days and nights we spent volunteering in Solbjerg was the longest we have stayed in one place since we began our travels nine months ago.  We had previously spent seven nights in Serre Chevalier when skiing in the Alps earlier this year, but this stay topped that.  Interaction with passionate and knowledgeable people and being an active part of something beyond our everyday circle of experience was a welcome prompt that we should all slow down sometimes, to listen more intently, and re-learn the restorative value of change.

WorkAway (family)

There is such a different dynamic and feel to knowing you will be stationary for an extended time, and a guest rather than a customer.  It offers a welcome break from the usual daily schedule, filled ordinarily with packing up to travel, research into where we could stay and how best to get there, as well as what to see along the way.  Several weeks into this tour, the break and the change of focus for us was very welcome.  The challenges of completing our designated tasks, finding inspiration and formulating ideas to assist future WorkAwayers was a timely reminder of the simple joy and satisfaction that can be found in honest application and endeavours.

 

 

Bilbao

Arriving on the outskirts of Bilbao, we were rather underwhelmed by the dirty, industrial nature of the buildings on the autoroute leading into the centre.  There seems to be a distinct hierarchy in Spanish cities, where the old, historic centre is first surrounded by grand 19th century housing or commercial premises, then a more suburb 20th century housing ring, with a new deep band of heavy industrial complexes encompassing all of this.  As the new roads leading into the city followed the latest zones of loading cranes, logistics sheds, ports and production factories, first impressions never do much but disappoint.  We circled around the south of the city, before heading up into the hills above to find our chosen aire, a spot situated a reasonable way out of town but blessed with fantastic vistas right across the entire city and bay area.

bilbao-from-our-campsite

We found our site and settled in, marvelling at the lack of other motorhomes, as we had expected this particular aire, the only one near to Bilbao known to us, to be close to full.  With water, power, services and WiFi all included on site, this was a luxury stop for us, and allowed us to save the gas recently purchased in a small town outside San Sebastián. From our vantage point we could see the entire city, including the Guggenheim and Athletic Bilbao’s stadium.

We caught the no. 58 bus into town for €1.25 each, a much less stressful way to enter a large city than attempting to drive in and find parking for Benny.  Not being au fait with the route, we followed our progress on GPS and jumped off near the old centre markets, what we felt would be a good place to begin exploring.  We could feel the instant change in our mood, like a weight released from our shoulders, with being entirely free to roam and follow our noses where we wished.  Nothing more to think of or consider but exploring.

This being a Monday, no museums were open but we approached and circled the Guggenheim museum, which was good to see externally with no crowds around, even if the sky was slate grey above and the ground wet underfoot.  We approached the Iberdrola tower, the highest building in Bilbao, and adjacent gardens.  We dodged the rain as we criss-crossed the city centre, following the river and trying to get a feel for the layout, before returning to our hillside camp high above for dinner and drinks with a view.

benny-at-night-in-bilbao

The next morning the weather was promised to be a little better, although our initial view disputed this; the cloud was deep in the valley, completely obscuring the city and adding a spooky quality to the entire scene.  One conical peak in the far distance set itself above the cloud, looking much like a vision of the misty mountain from Lord of the Rings.

We caught the same bus into town, this time feeling like locals as we knew the route and the best stop to alight from.  We could relax and take in the sights and sounds of the journey rather than wondering all the time if we were at the correct location.  We hopped off and walked a direct route to towards today’s main goal – the Guggenheim Museum.

guggenheim-main-entrance

a-at-guggenheim

Gehry’s vision is seen by many as one of the last great museums of the 20th century, creating over eleven thousand square metres of gallery space spread over twenty various sized galleries.  Along with a permanent collection of predominantly Spanish art, a temporary exhibition of Francis Bacon and Andy Warhol works dominated the gallery.

Built in limestone, 0.5mm thick overlapping titanium tiles and glass, the building does somewhat fit within its context, accommodating an adjacent river and the main flyover bridge Puente de la Salve within its constraints.  To enter one is, conversely, led down a long set of marble steps to the lowest foyer level, allowing the 55m high building to sit much lower within the local city context and not dominate the local skyline.  Normally such high-profile buildings would have a grand staircase leading up to the entrance, to emphasise importance and offer a heightened sense of arrival.

guggenheim-at-riverside

guggenheim-interior

guggenheim-rear-canopy

Like many such ‘grand statement’ architectural buildings, the sculptural forms grab the eye and the headlines, but for those who care about such things, the detailing tends to let everything down.  Unconsidered transitions between materials create dirty spots and awkward fudging, broken tiles in-filled with grout, cut edges left unfinished or unresolved.  Few people passing through will care as they wow at the expressive curves and overlapping vertical spaces, but for me the building is lesser for the lack of attention to the finishes.  And as for the choice of randomised harlequin wall tiling in all the WCs, the less said the better.

n-in-the-guggenheim

nicky-meets-marilyn

After our visit, we crossed the river to view the museum from the opposite bank, then walked along to cross back over at the Santiago Calatrava designed bridge further upstream.  Nicknamed the ‘hip breaker‘ by locals, the original design had a smooth glass floor that was entirely treacherous underfoot when wet.  This has now been covered by a rough rubber matting to prevent injury, but this somewhat diminishes the original (flawed) design intent and aesthetic.

We returned to the Old Quarter, east of centre, and visited St. James’ Cathedral, a stone built 15th century Gothic construction, that sits central in the area.  We passed through several delightful squares lined with cafes and many bars, all tempting us with offers of pintxos and wine.  Catching a late bus back to camp we enjoyed another fine night of relaxing with a local red in hand as we watched the city light itself up as darkness fell.

bilbao-city-buildings