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  • Day848

    Zaragoza - Caesaraugustus

    October 1, 2019 in Spain ⋅ ⛅ 20 °C

    We have driven past Zaragoza, Spain's 5th largest city, a couple of times having been unable to find a decent place to stay. But a great municipal aire with a tram stop next to it gave us the opportunity to finally see the city.

    The Romans founded Caesaraugustus (from which Zaragoza is derived) in 14 BC and, during the 1 & 2 centuries AD, large public works were undertaken to create a city of splendour that reigned as one the Iberia's most important commercial centres. Then the Visigoths arrived and sacked the place in 472 AD.

    As medieval Zaragoza developed, Caesaraugustus lay buried and forgotten for 1500 years. Incredibly, it was only in the 1990's while excavating building works were taking place that the hidden treasures below the ground were revealed. We have visited numerous Roman theatres in our travels and, though this one was not as in tact as others, the way in which it was displayed, explained and re-created was by far the best and we learnt so much. Did you know that the Romans used concrete and boards to create walls which were then finished with alabaster, marble or smooth stone?

    The Basilica de Nuestra Senõra del Pilar is one of the best we have ever visited. Located on the huge Plaza del Pilar, the exterior is a feast for the eyes but the spacious, baroque interior, with inner dome, complete with frescoes by Goya, is something else. Many pilgrims visit the Basilica as the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared here atop a marble pillar (pilar).

    The famous painter Francisco de Goya was born nearby and we found out all about him and his art with a visit to the Museo Goya, recently refurbished and well laid out over three floors.

    The free aire only allowed us to stay for 3 days so it was time to go but we could easily have stayed longer. Now we know where to stay, we shall definitely be returning to see the other magnificent sights we didn't have time for on this trip.
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  • Day846

    Sightseeing in the Pyrenees

    September 29, 2019 in Andorra ⋅ ☀️ 16 °C

    The Sau Reservoir was our destination for the day and the road journey there was perfect for sightseeing on the bike. The reservoir provides Barcelona's drinking water and there is a hydro-electric power station there as well, all set in beautiful scenery that is reminiscent of the Grand Canyon. During the construction of the dam, the church of Sant Romà was flooded leaving only the Romanesque bell tower visible today.

    A few days later we headed out into the Pyrenees for an overnight stay in the mountains. Unbeknownst to us, our destination of La Seu d'Urgell, was hosting the white-water kayaking world championships and qualifying for the forthcoming Olympics. We only found out when turning the TV on to see if the Russian Grand Prix was on and finding the kayaking on there instead! By the time we got there the racing was over but we saw the final prize-giving and closing ceremony.

    Hotel Andria was a historic building in the old town and had a great restaurant that we enjoyed. Biker-friendly, we were treated to free drinks on the terrace before dinner.

    The next day, after a fab breakfast, we crossed the border just 12km away and arrived shortly afterwards in Andorra le Vella, Europe's highest capital city. We had little idea of what to expect of Andorra but we were certainly not expecting the plethora of shopping opportunities including numerous new car and motorcycle dealerships, lots of motorcycle clothing (we were tempted), and huge shopping malls selling everything and all this high up in the mountains! Maybe it's not so surprising given that the country enjoys a tax-free status but, even so, it was a bit of a shock after riding through the little villages and surrounding countryside just beneath the border.
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  • Day846

    Summer is over, it's official

    September 29, 2019 in Spain ⋅ ☀️ 29 °C

    To mark the official end of summer in Catalonia (last weekend of September), towns and villages host a festival which involves 5m-high giants that are paraded through the streets. Here in Taradell, several villages joined together and provided us with a fun parade. The giants tend to come in male & female pairs, such as a medieval King and Queen, accompanied by grotesque dwarfs and traditional music.

    Catalonia may think that summer is over but we do not believe it yet.
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  • Day844

    Girona

    September 27, 2019 in Spain ⋅ ⛅ 27 °C

    Northern Catalonia's largest city was known as Gerunda in Roman times. It was then taken from the Muslims by the Franks in the late 8th century, and became the capital of one of Catalonia's most important counties, falling under the power of Barcelona in the late 9th century. All this history has resulted in a historic centre with many Gothic and Romanesque buildings. We visited with friends, Hans and Mireille.

    Built over an old Roman forum, parts of the cathedral date back to the 5th century. What we see today is mostly Gothic, having been built over the Romanesque church during the 14th century, with a baroque facade. The Gothic nave (where the congregation sit) is the widest in the world, which gives a huge sense of open space. With 86 steps leading to the entrance, it towers over the historic centre. An audio guide helped us navigate around and explained the details that can go overlooked. One room was full of richly embroidered and bejeweled ceremonial robes and in the Treasury was a large tapestry from the 10th century depicting God's creation of life.

    The walkable medieval walls encompass the centre and give great views over both the modern and ancient parts of the city which is a delight to visit. You do feel as though you have taken a step back in time as you wander through the maze of narrow streets. Each building has a shop at ground level, ranging from a small supermarket or bakery to upscale designer jewellery, with 3 or 4 floors above, all painted in soft colours.

    Easily visited from Barcelona, Girona would be a great place to visit for a few days.
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  • Day842

    Montserrat - monastery and mountain

    September 25, 2019 in Spain ⋅ ⛅ 19 °C

    50km northwest of Barcelona, legend has it that Montserrat mountain was "sawn by angels to make a throne for the Virgin Mary" and once you actually see the mountain, you know that the description fits perfectly.

    The limestone turrets of rock extend from its 1236m-high bulk where halfway up lies the Benedictine Monestir de Montserrat, home to the Black Madonna, one of Spain's most revered icons. The monastery was founded in 1025 to commemorate visions of the Virgin Mary, accompanied by celestial light and a chorus of holy music, experienced by shepherds and is Spain's second most important pilgrimage sight after Santiago di Compostela.

    The Black Madonna is a Romanesque dark wooden figure holding the infant in her lap, that takes pride of place high above the main altar. Traditionalists believe it was carved by St. Luke and hidden by St. Peter in the mountains. From the long, snaking queue of people who were lining up to touch the icon, it seems that version is very popular still.

    Together with our Dutch friends, Hans and Mireille, we timed our visit to coincide with a short performance by the boys choir and we were not alone! The Basilica, adjacent to the monastery, was absolutely packed with tourists from all over the world who spoilt the atmosphere a little by holding up cameras and tablets while the service was taking place.

    Once outside again, we wandered around and took in the superb views high above the surrounding plains where mountain hiking and trails dispersed some of the crowds.
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  • Day840

    Vic, Spanish Catalonia

    September 23, 2019 in Spain ⋅ ⛅ 19 °C

    After spending time in the French Pyrenees, we wanted to explore some of the Spanish Pyrenees and rendezvous with Dutch friends, Hans and Mireille, who were staying in a campsite in Taradell, about 50 miles north of Barcelona.

    This area is in the heart of Catalonia, where passions run deep concerning the desire to separate from the rest of Spain and become independent. Everywhere you turn, you can see yellow ribbons, flags and banners supporting independence and it does take a little while to get used to it. The people here speak Catalan, as well as Spanish, which shares many similarities to Portuguese. Everyone uses the Portuguese "Bom dia" to say hello rather than the Spanish "buenos dias".

    Just a 15 minute ride away is the town of Vic, with medieval streets, Roman ruins and Plaça Major, the largest, unpaved square in Catalonia, where the market is held twice a week. As we wandered around the market, our gaze was constantly lifting up to the medieval and baroque buildings that surrounded it, all painted in ochre and red. You could be mistaken for being in Sicily. From the square, the narrow streets of the old town snake out and make for a lovely walk.

    We came across a 1st-century Roman temple that had been restored during the 19th and 20th centuries but a short film gave us an insight to its history. It is the only surviving building of the city dating from Roman times.

    We had to stay in the cathedral a little longer than we had anticipated as a film crew from Barcelona were filming in the square in front but it gave us a chance to try and work out some of the colourful World War II frescoes depicting the Stations of the Cross. Unfortunately, the extra time didn't help.

    The Queralt Bridge, was the only way into the city from Barcelona until 1274 when the King diverted the road. It is one of Vic's most recognisable landmarks and was featured on the five pesata note in 1954. The bridge is adjacent to the tanneries district, which is now in disrepair but from the Middle Ages until the mid-20th century this was the place where leather tanning was carried out.

    To finish off our visit, we bought some Llonganissa, a local cured sausage produced in various towns on the Vic Plain, made from lean pork, diced bacon fat and seasoned with salt and pepper. Lots of shops sell them and even have them on display outside. Judging from the queues in the shops, we were not the only ones who enjoyed them!
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  • Day834

    Château de Quéribus, French Pyrenees

    September 17, 2019 in France ⋅ ☀️ 28 °C

    Along the parched and rocky outcrops of the Roussilon and Languedoc area of the French Pyrenees are dotted castles that were strongholds of the Cathars, an ultra-devout Christian sect who were persecuted during the 12th century and eventually crushed by the forces of Pope Innocent III (who obviously wasn't) during the Albigensian Crusade.

    As we approached our destination on the bike, we both looked up high to see a building that seemed to have literally grown out of the rocks. That couldn't be it, but it was and so we started up the twisty road. On a rocky perch at 728m, with 360° views towards Spain, France and the Mediterranean, Château de Quéribus was once a Catalan castle of Lords before becoming a French royal fortress. It all depended on who was in power at the time. It had nothing to do with Catharism, except that it was the site of their last stand in 1255, though it was first mentioned in the 11th century.

    You would think that it's location alone would be a good enough defence, but the entrance posed a real trap from any unwanted visitors. As well as three consecutive doors, lethal vents were incorporated on every side housing cannons and soldiers ready to pour hot oil. The King of France's engineers transformed the small castle into a fortress with two and later three sets of ramparts spread out on the ridge.

    The most impressive room is known as the "pillar room" with high vaulted ceilings where each set of four crossed arches meets at the point of the enormous central pillar, with the weight being distributed among them, making the structure near indestructible. How did they manage to build such a structure with none of the tools and technology that we have today.

    From there we ventured deeper into the Pyrenees riding through gorges, climbing high, twisty roads and almost got to Andorra before we turned right and continued our loop through small hamlets and fortified towns where we wondered what people did who lived there all year, especially in the depths of winter. They must be very hardy and self-sufficient.

    Our base at Latour-bas-Elne on the coast was a good jumping off point for exploring the mountains, pretty coastal towns like Collioure and a nostalgic return to Port Vendres that we had visited on our journey into the Mediterranean on the boat 12 years earlier.

    Having seen some of the Pyrenees from the French side, our next stop was to see them from the Spanish side.
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  • Day808

    Italy, Provence, Deb's visit & nudists

    August 22, 2019 in France ⋅ 🌙 26 °C

    We found the sun by heading south, past Milan and Turin, at the Italian seaside town of Albenga where Antonio and Maria-Grazie welcomed us at their agriturismo (private land with basic camping facilities). We explored the old town on foot and then further a field on the bike. We were the only Brits staying but the other Italian campers made us very welcome and invited us to join them for a Saturday night pizza party. We had a great few days, practised our Italian, we're given a bottle of local wine and a chilli plant and were then made a great offer by the owners to return for a month next year!

    From there we took the toll motorway, rather than the twisty coast road, across the French Riviera, and €70 later arrived in the Petit Luberon hills in Provence. At the end of August, the summer holidays were virtually over and the campsite had plenty of space and a lovely pool to cool down in. This part of France, just north of Aix-en-Provence is real Provence famous for its fields of lavender, wine and olives. We had the roads to ourselves as we circumnavigated Le Petit Luberon, riding through sleepy villages of terracotta tiled houses surrounded by grapevines dripping with bunches of grapes ready for harvesting. This was an area of France that we hadn't visited previously but one which we would return to. We couldn't stay longer as we had a rendezvous in Montpellier with Debra, one of Sandra's sisters, who was joining us for a week. So we headed to Palavas-les-Flot, as close as we could get to the airport.

    The next morning, we headed over to Charlemagne campsite in Marseillan Plage, our home for the following week. The site had every facility and a full entertainment programme that we made full use of including aqua gym, modern jazz dance lessons, archery, body strengthening (only Deb did this!), water slide, and nightly evening entertainment. The miles long sandy beach was just across the road and made for a great beach walk lapping the Mediterranean sea. We visited the market and bought olives, sausisson and wine, cooked al fresco and dined out locally all with lots of laughs. On the last day we took the train in to Montpellier from where Deb flew back to the UK and enjoyed a delicious lunch in the sunshine of a pretty square before we said our goodbyes for a while.

    A couple of days later Chris and I did the beach walk again but this time in the opposite direction. Within a couple of hundred metres, we noticed that there were a few nudists on the beach. A couple of hundred metres later and we realised that we were in the middle of, what we later found out was, the world's largest nudist colony! We weren't bothered but tried to act cool and nonchalant as we walked along the shoreline knowing that we had to do the whole thing in reverse. We saw every shape, size and age during our walk and Deb was very disappointed that when we were together, we had turned left instead of right on the beach, when we told her about it!
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  • Day799

    Lake Maggiore, Italian Switzerland

    August 13, 2019 in Switzerland ⋅ ⛅ 24 °C

    During our time in Portugal, we became friends with Remo, a keen motorbiker who lives in the county of Ticino, the Italian part of Switzerland. He kindly invited us to visit him during our time there and we are so glad that we did.

    The journey there took us over the Simplon Pass, into Italy, back into Switzerland and then along the twisty lakeside road to just beyond Locarno.

    While making our way up hairpin bends to Remo's apartment overlooking Lake Maggiore, we quickly understood why he recommended that we leave the motorhome and trailer in storage! The views over the lake from his balcony were breathtaking with undulating hills and mountains dotted with small villages that shone like diamonds at night. We felt like celebrities!

    Out on the bike, we spent a day doing a circular route which took us up hairpin bends and over the famous Saint Bernard Pass (not to be confused with the Great St. Bernard Pass that we had done previously) and then back via the Lukmanier Pass. Once again we were mesmerised by the scenery of lush greenery, high mountains, waterfalls, lakes and houses, whose balconies were dripping with colourful flowers.

    Together with Remo, he introduced us to the two valleys behind Locarno - the Valle Maggia where granite villages cling to steep hillsides and waterfalls cascade down to the Maggia River below and the Val Verzasca where the Verzasca River has carved a deep 26km gorge through the mountains and is home to Corippo, Switzerlands smallest hamlet of just 13 people. The granite-built and thick slate roofs of the houses that dot the valleys are like taking a step back in time. Today some are still lived in and many are holiday homes.

    We stopped at the 220m-high Verzasca Dam and watched the brave (or crazy) bungee jump for their adrenaline shot trying to emulate the opening sequence of the James Bond film 'Goldeneye' that was filmed there.

    Unique to Ticino are 'Grotti', rustic inns or restaurants, that are open from around April to October serving traditional Swiss - Italian dishes, usually cooked in open kitchens with wood fires. They tend to each have their own specialities, of say, polenta, and we tried a couple for lunch during our stay. We were not disappointed as we dined al fresco in natural surroundings.

    We had planned on seeing more of this beautiful country and ticking off some more of the famous mountain paths on the bike but, by the end of our week, it seemed as though the great weather we had enjoyed so far was starting to break. Time to head south.

    We cannot thank our friends Michelle, Shaun and Remo enough for their hospitality and for introducing us to Switzerland. There is still so much more to explore that we shall definitely be back.
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  • Day786

    Rendezvous in Switzerland

    July 31, 2019 in Switzerland ⋅ ⛅ 18 °C

    While skiing in the Sierra Nevada a couple of years ago, we met fellow Brits Michelle and Shaun on a ski lift. It turned out that we were all staying in the same hotel and so we spent a few days skiing together. They own a chalet in La Tzoumaz, Switzerland where they spend some time in the summer and asked us if we wanted to join them and friends Bob & Diane there. How could we refuse.

    At the French/Swiss border we had to stop and purchase a vignette for the motorhome and trailer to allow us to use the Swiss motorways. From there, we passed Lake Geneva and headed south to Martigny and then east along the Rhone Valley floor before the zigzag climb up the mountain to La Tzoumaz at 1500m.

    We all marvelled at the stunning mountain views before us from the chalet balcony as we settled in to our new environment, with the motorhome and trailer parked next door as we couldn't get them onto their drive!

    Next day, we took the ski lift higher up the mountain then down into Verbier, walked through the town and then took a series of lifts as high as we could go at 3360m for stunning panoramic views. The return journey included a walk with a picnic lunch en route watching fearless mountain bikers descend the cycle tracks at high speed, as paragilders soared around us.

    We loved the idea of descending the mountain at speed on a bike but no longer have the fearlessness of youth to do it. The solution was to 'trottinette' down instead. A trottinette is a mountain-style bicycle that has no seat, gears or pedals that you stand on and is designed just for going downhill. It's basically a cross between a bike and a scooter with very good brakes, and is great fun. It took us an hour to descend following the designated route and, after a tentative and steep start, we could have gone straight back up and done all over again.

    After all the activity of walking and biking, when Michelle suggested a day at a local spa, some of us couldn't resist. The setting in the bottom of the valley was breathtaking as the lazy river current took us on a meandering journey before we headed over to the sauna and steam room and then into the outdoor and indoor jacuzzi pools. By the time we returned, we were so clean that we didn't need to shower for another week!

    Our time together included watching magnificent fireworks in Martigny to celebrate Swiss National Day, a visit to the town of Sion and a boat ride on Europe's largest underground lake.

    Evenings were spent enjoying Shaun's cooking and then relaxing or playing table games.

    Michelle and Shaun were great hosts and we are very grateful that they shared their Swiss escape with us. It was a real treat to be in the mountains in the summer, rather than skiing in the winter, and we fell in love with it.
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