Monday, April 30, 2012

My Girona

Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end.

Our final day in France dawned crisp and grey, and we all scrambled around to clean our mobil-home and pack for our respective journeys home. 

After handing over the keys, we travelled back to Argelès-sur-Mer for some final chaussons aux pommes (apple pastries), and then dropped Luuk and Amy at the train station.

We drove south, and the day got windier as we progressed. Just like the day we arrived in France, the day we left brought gale-force winds, which continued into Spain.

As we drove over les Pyrénées and through the Spanish countryside, the weather grew warmer and it was a very pleasant journey. At one stage, there was some sort of accident on the road ahead (we think a truck broke down) and we got stuck in the longest queue we've ever been in, mostly trucks!

However, it was still a beautiful journey, and we arrived at our stylish hotel mid-afternoon, tired, but ready to explore. 
Love the decor!
This time around, I was prepared. I told Adam to have his passport ready so that I could use my fancy Spanish phrase when checking into the Hotel, then we would bluff the receptionist's hasty Spanish reply by flourishing the passport. (Which, I had ascertained, was usually the reply - some form of "Please can I see some I.D.?") Unfortunately Adam wasn't listening and turned around to the receptionist and said "er sorry, do you speak English?". Foiled.

Some facts about Girona:
  • Girona is a city of over 96,000 people, located in the region of Cataluña (Catalonia).

  • Girona was originally a Roman citadel, then passed into the hands of the Moors, then was won by Charlemagne, and was part of the Kingdom of Aragon (The hometown of Henry VIII's first wife, Catherine of Aragon, daughter of Fernando y Isabel) (Ferdinand and Isabella - everything sounds so much more romantic in Spanish though, don't you think?!).
  • The city was a great centre of Jewish culture until 1492, when Jews were expelled under the Catholic Inquisition.
  • The Cathedral was originally a mosque, but after the Moors were expelled, it was altered to become a Catholic place of worship.
  • Much of the city's defensive walls were demolished in the 1800s, but some parts have been restored in recent years. 

The fortifications

(Not the Park!)
As we walked the streets of Girona, we came across a beautiful park (Parc de la Devesa) and wished we had more time in the city, as looked like a lovely place to explore. According to Viquipedia (!) it is 40 hectares and is the biggest park in Cataluña.

Yes, I touched it.
Girona is built around three rivers, and so there were many bridges - which kept the Engineer happy. We also came across the Roman wall and fortifications - which kept the Historian happy. These were amazing, but to Girona's detriment, they weren't well looked after - the beautiful ancient fortifications were covered in litter and the stale odour of urine.
Possibly worse than Narbonne because with these you wanted to spend so much more time looking around or poking around old towers, but you just didn't know what you were touching. Eew. 

Scoops of coconut and mango. Yum. 
Grossness aside, the weather was beautiful, and as you can see, the city looks lovely in pictures. Soon we stumbled upon a newer, more upmarket part of the city, and we enjoyed walking around and having an icecream.

Sniffing an English speaker (not literally), I asked the Gelato man to remind me how to ask for something in Spanish. (Yo quiero....) I tucked this away carefully.

The City of Girona, Spain

Soon, we were getting pretty tired and hungry, and the strong winds were getting a bit much. We rustled up some tea and fresh baguette from a local supermarket, and headed back to our hotel room. Adam watched some football while I wrote some postcards. 

Me writing my postcards. 

The next morning, we had another quick explore of the town centre and then found a café for a breakfast of coffee and pastry.

Aha! Here was my chance!!

"Hola! Yo quiero un café con leche y un croissant. Gracias." ("Hello, I would like a coffee with milk and a croissant. Thanks.")
The waiter began to prepare my order.


Until he turned around and shot off a rapid-fire comment, with a smile and a nod.

I smiled and nodded in return, my usual response in this situation, and Adam turned to me and whispered "What did he say?".

My reply? "I don't know."

Soon, we guessed that he meant we were to take a table and he would bring us our order, so we found a table outside in the sunshine. It was the best coffee we'd had on our holiday, and probably better than most English coffees (apart from the Kiwi-style hipster joints). I sat and wrote my postcards (properly, this time) while Adam took some final pictures.

We then realised we had to be back at our hotel in 15 minutes to check out, so we took off à toute vitesse (at full tilt)

It was a gorgeous day for a drive, and we arrived in Barcelona to a balmy 23 degrees. And a 1.5 hour delay on our flight. I can now say assuredly that the food in Barcelona El Prat airport is TERRIBLE. Gatwick airport beats it hands down.

We arrived back in London to 11 degrees and rain. And promptly wished we were back in Spain! Time to save for another holiday!

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Une Sortie à Elne

The streets of Elne
On our penultimate day of camping, we decided to go slightly further afield. Though not by much! We ended up in Elne, a town that was about 11km north of Le Camping.

The courtyard of the Cloître


Elne used to be the capital of the Rousillon region before being overtaken by Perpignan. Now, it is hard to imagine that Elne could once have been a thriving regional hotspot, as it has about 8,000 inhabitants (while Perpignan has 121,000)...

The main attractions in Elne are La Cathédrale de Sainte-Eulalie-et-Sainte-Julie et La Cloître d'Elne (A cathedral and cloister).
The Cathedral was constructed in the 11th and 12th centuries, while the cloister was constructed in stages from the 12 to 14th centuries.

The cloister was not actually built for monks, but for canons, who were clerical assistants in the diocese.

Two interesting pieces of information about the La Cathédrale et La Cloître d'Elne: 

Plaque commemorating the 700th anniversary

1. In 1285, during the Arogenese Crusade, French troops surrounded the town, forcing the townspeople into La Cathédrale, raped many of the women and children on the church altar, and then locked the doors and set fire to the church, killing those inside. It is said that some parts of the church still bear marks from the fire.

This doorway is blackened, possibly bearing the scars of the 1285 massacre

    I could have touched it,
    but I didn't....
    2. In a little room beside the cathedral was an exhibit of historical information, documents, and artefacts relating to the history of Elne and Sa Cloître. 

    One was a painting that looked to me to be medieval, possibly from the 1600 or 1700s. It was in a glass box, of sorts, open to the elements at the top, and there were some bug carcasses at the bottom of the case. Fresh air and bugs! Beside a 400-500 year old painting?! 

    Beside the painting was this beautiful painted box (shown in the picture here) that was even older. This one wasn't even in a glass box!! Just sitting out where anyone could touch it, right on the floor where possible moisture could get to it. The historian and archivist in me nearly died from horror. What a way to look after such precious treasures!!!

    A door for midgets
    View from the rooftop of the Cloister, looking towards the Mediterranean

    After taking time to look around the area, we drove to the seaside at Saint-Cyprien and had an icecream by the beach. Now that's the life!

    (These last pictures are from a visit to Argelès Plage. What a gorgeous sky!)

    Friday, April 27, 2012

    An adventure in Collioure

     Château Royal de Collioure

    One afternoon while on our camping holiday, we decided to visit the closest town, Collioure.

    Collioure used to be an important Catalan trading port, and it played a key part in the journeys of Phonecian, Greek, and Roman sailors.

    The town was heavily fortified throughout history, and still boasts a large sea-front castle, as well as hill-top defences.

    Adam and Luuk do some structural

    The distant church

    In the year 673, the King of the Visigoths occupied the town, showing its importance as a port. From the 900s to the 1300s, Rousillon Counts and Majorcan Kings developed the town, building a fortress that would serve as their summer residences.

    During the 13th century, the town was visited by crusaders such as the Knights of Templar, the Dominicans, and the Cistercians.

    In the 1600s, a French officer for Louis XIV redeveloped the fortifications, and they have largely remained this way since (with the exception of some restoration work carried out in 1922).

    The sea-front castle, Château Royal de Collioure, is really an amalgamation of four castles: one built by the Knights Templar in 1207 which was added onto existing Roman fortifications; one by the Kings of Majorca in the 13th and 14th centuries; the Habsburgs in the 16th century, who significantly reinforced the fortifications; and in the 17th century, the Bourbons built the bastions and re-reinforced the existing structures.

    It was really great to be able to ramble around the castle, especially as the French are less restrictive on their historic features than, say, New Zealand. Unfortunately the underground tunnels were locked up, but much of the rest of the area was able to be looked at, touched, scrambled over, and generally enjoyed.

    Oh sure, Pierre, I know the perfect place to put your new sporting facility...
    A classic example of this is shown in the picture above. Right in the middle of the castle grounds is a basketball court?!?!?! You must have history to spare when a basketball court is built in a thousand-year-old castle....

    After exploring the castle for a good hour or two, we walked around the Collioure waterfront and stopped for a drink and a crêpe.

    Refuelled, we explored the coastline further, enjoying the cave-rock-like place at the end of a wee outcrop.

    The cave-rock place
    Gold leaf, anyone?

    We also poked around the Notre Dame des Anges, originally built as a harbour warning tower during the Middle Ages.

    A nave was added in 1684 in the Mediterranean Gothic style, and the wooden altar piece was carved by a local artist and finished with gold leaf.

    The distinctive belfry dome was added in 1818.

    We sat and enjoyed the view for a bit, then headed back to the car via the cute town centre with its knick-knack, wine, and local arts and craft shops. 

    Time to head back to the mobil-home for dinner and a game of Carcassonne? Definitely.

    Looking towards Fort Saint-Elme and, beyond, Spain