Tag Archives: city break

2019 Catch-up – What we’ve been up to lately…

Wow, it’s been over three months since our last blog post.  Time certainly moves on quickly when you fill your days.  We decided that this blog would be better suited for the recording of our exploratory travels in Benny, and that intermittent updates of our daily grind working on house projects were deemed not interesting enough to post about.  Instead, we have gathered together a few of our highlights of 2019 so far, to help capture a smattering of the interesting, noteworthy places we have passed through and a few events we have recently attended.

Angôuleme International Comic Festival (January)

Each year Angôuleme hosts one of the largest international Comic Festivals in the world.  Despite Nicky not being a particular fan of the genre, after some gentle persuading she was keen to visit and see what the festival could offer.  We thought of staying over, but decided to make it a day trip as the city is only an hour from our base.  The town itself was quite beautiful, set on a steep-sided hill dominated by a cathedral, and absolutely thronged with people.   There were many main exhibition venues spread out around the city, with free buses carting the crowds between each. The breadth and scale of each exhibition hall was incredible.  No longer the sole domain of superheroes, the comic genre reflects every conceivable topic; suicide to pornography, biting political commentary to historic tales, incestuous abuse to supernatural thrillers.  Every topic is described in detail, in a multitude of styles, the lined black inks of noir whodunnits through photo-realistic renderings of fantasy creatures to the large-eyed cartoon dramas of angst-ridden Manga teenagers.  We watched skilled artists personalise purchases of their novels by adding requested character artwork and personalised messages to any blank pages, and long lines queuing patiently for such a prize.  It was a great day out, fascinating to learn more about the process and the artwork and see a few of the big names behind the comics.  The only downside was the that almost all displayed comics were in French; I had held hopes that at a large international festival there would have been more availability of popular comics in English.

Chartres, cathedral city (February)

Heading home for our annual visit, check-ups and servicing dates, we stopped off just short of Chartres in Marboué, leaving our city visit until the next morning.  Here I had a hilly 10km training run around the nearby villages.  The next morning we found easy parking on the south of Chartres at a long gravel car-park that doubled as an aire, then walked along the gently meandering river an easy thirty minutes to reach the celebrated Cathedral quarter.  The city was quiet and still in the early morning, the sky a solid undisturbed blue, and only a few other walkers and joggers were around.  We walked slowly through the historic streets and enjoyed a visit inside the cathedral, marvelling at the intricacy of the carvings.

Trip back to the UK (February-March)
After Chartres, we competed the road north to park at Saint-Nicolas d’Aliermont, our usual pre-ferry stopover.  Here we went for another 10km run that proved much hillier than we’d expected, before crossing early the following morning.  Once back in Blighty our days were packed with appointments with dentists, opticians, MOTs, Benny servicing, and more.  We fitted in bouts of visiting friends, hopping from High Wycombe to central London to Northampton to Thaxted, before catching a flight from Stansted to Belfast.  There were more family visits around Lisburn, Ballinderry & Portadown, interspersed with lough shore runs, an American football game (more below) and a trip to my nephew’s student digs in Whiteabbey.

Craigavon Cowboys – our First American football game (March)

It was a freezing day with a bitter north wind on a playing field in the People’s Park, Portadown.  My nephew David was playing his recently discovered new sport with his local team, the Craigavon Cowboys.  We were there to support.   It was a little confusing at the start, not having realised that they only had one goal set up, effectively playing on a shortened pitch, so each change of possession required a direction and position change, with the team in possession always playing towards the one end-zone.  It was never fully clear what would happen in event of an interception, but I’m sure the black and white striped professional-looking officials had it all worked out.  With player shortages, my nephew played in both offense and defence sets, enjoying lots of game time.  The cold wind and less players to swap ensured less standing around time between plays, allowing the game to flow quicker than normal, to be constantly moving and action-packed.  We enjoyed the spectacle of it all.

After our return flight to England, we stayed with Nicky’s dad in Downham Market before reaching Nicky’s mum near Louth.  Here we had a few days of relative quiet, several long runs, a spot of tree surgery, and several days of opening and checking through the remainder of our packed possessions to see what could return with us to our French house.  We had a great night of comedy at Louth theatre, even if we had front row seats, an instant involvement in the show, and became the soft targets of several witty one-liners.   Then too soon again we were off, spending nights with friends in Market Harborough, Northampton and St Albans before finally reaching the south coast at Peacehaven to await our ferry.  We saw a monument marking the southern-most point of the Greenwich Meridian on UK soil and enjoyed our last fish and chips before returning (on an earlier 1am-5am ferry as our morning sailing was cancelled due to high winds) to France.

Nantes & its mechanical menagerie (March)

Nantes - visit (courtyard)

After our late ferry switch and a wild, rough crossing, we were missing a night’s sleep but a day ahead of schedule.  We paused at Fougères to catch up on sleep, then checked into a campsite in the centre of Nantes as a birthday treat.  Here we watched the exciting finale of the Six Nations, then the next morning caught a tram to the centre to explore the sights.  The Île des Machines, our main target, did not open until 2pm, so we had plenty of time to see the historic centre. There was a race on, a pink charity event, with many thousands dressed up, and we wished we’d known and could have participated.  Instead we became spectators, seeing the crowds of happy runners from all angles as we wandered the city.

Nantes - visit (elephant)

After lunch we made our way to the Île des Machines and queued to enter the venue, seeing the mechanical spider, sloth, crane and giant ant, amongst many others.  We climbed in one prototype  branch of a giant tree, the next extension to the park, due to be completed in 2020.  But the main event for us was the wandering Elephant, strutting and spraying at tourists on its slow trundle around the grounds.  A grand spectacle.

Marathon de Cheverny (April)

We drove to Cheverny on a slow Friday afternoon, leaving us time to find the designated free aire by the cemetery and settle in before the racing began.  Nicky was running the 10km on Saturday afternoon, and I was running my first marathon on the Sunday.  Each race was to begin in the grounds of the Château de Cheverny, an impressive house famous now for being the inspiration for Tintin’s ancestral home in Hergé’s comics.  Nicky ran well, beating her expectations to finish in 48 minutes, a new post-back operation PB. The pressure was on for me to meet my target.

The day began with a blanket of chilling cloud, dropping the temperature to 4 degs, before warming up slowly through the morning.  All my long training runs were through cold winter months, and a hot sunny day would have rendered them for naught as I wilt badly in heat.  Unfortunately, my mind failed early -I knew exactly what not to do, yet did it anyhow.  I began much too fast, still feeling I was going slow and backwards as many were wildly rushing past me.  It was only at the 10k point that I realised I was under 50 mins, far ahead of my projected pace schedule.  I reined it in, but it was too late. I was closer to my schedule on halfway, at 1hr 48 mins, but by 25k I was done.  My legs were lead, refusing to turn over properly.  I had never felt this level of fatigue on long training runs, so put it down to the over-fast start.  I paid dearly for it, struggling through the next 12k, then with 5k to go I ran hard again, forgetting the pain and pushing through to make it end.  I just made it in under my 4hr target, at 3hr 56mins.

We were running to support a charity – WalktheWalk – as Nicky’s friend Emma was recently diagnosed and currently undergoing treatment.  Our Justgiving page is still open should any kind readers wish to donate.  Many thanks.

So, that’s a few of our recent highlights.  In between, we have been catching up with friends ( Hi to Dave & Kate, and Chris & Peter ) reading, writing, painting, sketching, playing music, watching movies and completing DIY projects.  And running, lots and lots of running.  Our swim training will start again soon, with the warmer weather and water. Our wetsuits are certainly well rested, having gone unused since last September, and our bikes have been left unpedalled throughout autumn and winter.  With my marathon completed our running will likely taper back to only a couple of times a week, leaving time for more cycling and swimming.   This week we have a garden to cut back, dig over and plant out and then bathroom to tile, then we’re off to explore the Costa Brava for a few weeks.  Phew!

A&N x

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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

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 / France – Crossing the Pyrénees to Pau

The building traffic noise in awakening Pamolona arrived swiftly, shaking us early from our slumber.  The rain had died down to a soft drizzle and a murky grey smudge of sky filled our view.  We serviced quickly and, after a brief hiccup attempting to exit the aire, we became just another slowly rolling box in the wet morning rush through the city.

Pyrenees - (viewing the road ahead)

It didn’t take long to escape and reach roads of quiet isolation, rising higher into the mountains.  Suddenly we were in an area of deep forest on high hills, exposed rock faces set in an otherwise carpet of green, looking like the Lost World.  We were the only vehicle for miles on an empty sliver of grey twisting itself upwards through the rocky autumnal landscape.  Rich explosions of yellow, like fireworks, created a fleeting, speckled beauty as we drove past. It was a sublime drive.  We had chosen to follow the shortest route back into France, first east from Pamplona then north east via the Puerto de Larrau pass, dropping directly into France and on to Pau.  Or so we thought, at least.

Pyrenees - (beautiful autumn colours)

Patches of snow between the trees and ferns became more numerous as we rose higher.   Later, light snow, almost horizontal in the wind, fell across our path as we cautiously approached the col.  Right at the top, the country border, we discovered that the French had not cleared their side and that thick drifts had already obscured the road ahead. The steep drop-off sides of the narrow road were indistinguishable from the surface, the layer of snow uniforming everything.  No way we were chancing driving down that, even if only for a few kilometres, so we had to delicately turn and retrace our way back down the Spanish side and follow a lower road east, to Isaba.  This was the crossroads point for another mountain col we could attempt, so we stopped for lunch to consider our options.

Pyrenees - (snow lining the road)

Pyrenees - (nearing the col)

Rather than return over the mountain on another narrow pass that may also be shut or uncleared, we decided to turn south, deeper into Spain.  We tracked back to the main road, a trip a few hours longer but much easier and safer driving.  As a reward for our prudence, the road back was lined with even more impressive, colourful trees, a glimmering fire-burst of yellows, reds and oranges.  Over four hours after leaving Pamplona we rejoined the main road only 40km east of the city, a lengthy but beautiful detour behind us.  From here it was all decent motorway back up into the mountains, through a long tunnel rather than a col into France, then a drop down to the city of Pau.

Pau - (tour de france installation)

We headed first to a large car-park with free parking for up to seven days.  From here we crossed to a leafy park, heading for a signed funicular to carry us to the raised city streets, but found it closed.  On the way we discovered a bright Tour de France spiral installation, with illuminated information tableaux celebrating each year’s winner.  We learned that Pau has hosted the Tour seventy times in the last eighty-one editions of the race – acting as a key entry point to the challenging Pyrénees stages.  We stood in the rain and read a few select years, noting the black tableaux for uncontested (war) years and that all of Lance Armstrong ‘wins’ were still included in the display; all very interesting.

Pau - (place royale)

Pau - (hotel de ville)

We climbed up the hill to reach a paved boulevard that looked more like an elegant sea-front.  It offered incredible views out to the valley below and the mountains behind.  We wandered to the Place Royale, with its avenue of squared trees, that led to the Hôtel de Ville.  The town was quiet, everything closed, and it was only now that we remembered it was a bank holiday.  The quiet emptiness added a grandeur as the architecture of the buildings, rather than the commerce they normally housed, became our main focus.  Pau had grand Parisian-like streets, wide and elegant, with lively touches of Art Deco curves.

Pau - (city streets)

Pau - (chateau de Pau entrance)

We walked through and around the Castle gardens, taking in the view over the western portion of the city.  There were very few other visitors braving the rain and we enjoyed the calming peace of our directionless stroll.  We doubled back through more grand streets to see the tall spires of Relais Saint Jacques and the adjacent courthouse set in a large square hosting several statues.  From here we reached a large shopping plaza, glitzy and new, contrasting with the surrounding architecture, but definitely working as a modern public meeting space.  Even in the dull rains Pau continued to impress us.

Pau - (church and courts)

Pau - (palais beaumont)

We returned to the raised boulevard walkway that spanned the length of the centre and again took in the wonderful views south, then we walked east to the far edge of the centre.  A welcome blue sky made a brief appearance as we approached the Palais Beaumont, before the familiar grey descended once more.  We walked around Parc Beaumont, passing empty play areas and lakes, before the returning rain decided for us that our walking tour should come to an end.  We carefully headed down several flights of steep, slippy, leaf-strewn steps to return to Benny for our last miles north.

A&N x

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 – Vitoria Gastiez & Nanclares de la Oca

From Gorbeiako Parke Naturala we headed south, starting off with a narrow miss on the tight entrance road, from a crazy impatient driver who was desperate to squeeze past us without waiting for us to manoeuvre and make space.  The side of his car was lined with deep scrapes, signs of a previous mishap, as is our wing mirror now after his latest idiocy.

Not to be outdone, I later had my own driving faux pas – I brainlessly followed our SatNav the wrong way back out of a car-park to a roundabout on a two-lane but, as it turned out, one-way road when leaving a Decathlon store – it only by chance that nothing was coming.

Vitoria Gastiez (cathedral santa maria)

All drama over, we made it to an impressively busy aire in the north of Vitoria-Gasteiz, where we joined a long run of motorhomes at the back end of a huge car-park.  From here we undertook a longish walk into the old town, a little wearily, feeling yesterday’s mountainous 20km in our legs.

We passed thousands of apartments in tall, sprawling blocks, with scruffy communal spaces but no private gardens other than what could be imaginatively squeezed onto the small balcony spaces.  There was lots of commerce, small stores in long rows, no known brands, all looking locally owned and well used.  There were also lots of small bars, accompanied by the constant and distinctive smell of piss.

We arrived at the north of the old town centre where we were able to ride a long conveyor belt up the hill to the imposing 14th century Cathedral de Santa Maria.  There were multiple escalators on other steeper streets too, a modern means of ensuring an ageing congregation can always make it to church.

Vitoria Gastiez (san vincente church)

We followed our noses through lanes and squares large and small, flanked by tall townhouses with enclosed balconies of painted timber, looking more Venetian than Spanish. After some exploring we entered the grand Plaza de España, where we found the tourist office and swiped ourselves a handy town map.

We next stumbled upon the Plaza de los Fueros, a stepped amphitheatre with peripheral spaces created out of tall walls, all corners, niches and dead ends. On paper it may have represented something profound, intellectual, but in reality it was a horrible piece of urban design, deeply flawed, with dark, enclosed spaces designed only for violence or for use as a makeshift toilet.  We were in awe at any council that allowed it to be built.

George Mélès movies and their history were being displayed in a travelling show trailer in the Plaza de la Virgen Blanca.  As it was our favourite price, we had a good look around inside, imagining more simple times when his oftentimes bizarre films would have been seen as wild, shocking, incredible, sometimes scary and always technically brilliant.

Vitoria Gastiez (plaza de la virgen blanca)

Vitoria Gastiez (george meles posters)

Vitoria Gastiez (palacio de la provincia)

We passed several other large churches including the Neo-Gothic cathedral de María Immaculada, then sat a while in the sunny, leafy square in front of the Neo-Classical Palacio de la Provincia. The oval-shaped historic centre was delightful in the sunshine, much more appealing than the surrounding estates.  We returned through a leafy park and alongside a large cemetery.  It was slightly longer, but a much nicer route.

We decided not to stay overnight here, so we abandoned our original plan and moved to another nearby aire at Nanclares de la Oca.  The motorhome bays there were separate from the adjacent car-park and we were the only van in town, so we had our pick.  We had a short walk into town to look around, and buy onions.  We passed an interesting sculpture, a negative of traditional dress without the person within.  We then saw a huge heron nest on the pretty stone church roof as we wandered the side streets, before retiring for the day.  Later, after dark, we could hear the distinct roar of planes overhead, mixing with sporadic traffic noise, but despite the mechanical interference, we slept soundly.

A&N x