(Roman)tic France

Sad to leave Barcelona this morning, but excited about our next leg of the journey – Switzerland shortly, and today a stop by the intriguing 2000-year-old Pont du Gard aqueduct, as well as the gorgeous Medieval town of Avignon (France, pictured above).

The Pont du Gard is part of the Roman aqueduct of Nimes, built around the years 50AD in order to carry water 50km on a ‘downwards’ angle to the city, and used up until the 6th Century. The structure is remarkable, built beautifully; it is technologically advanced even by today’s standards – considering no computers were used to engineer the bridge. Take a camera as well as your swimmers – the waterhole underneath this cool Roman construction is perfect for a dip, or even canoeing. Perhaps take a packed lunch though – the restaurant is expensive and the cafeteria wasn’t overflowing with fresh options.

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Not too far up the road is a spot so pretty that evidently Brad and Angelina own a ‘house’ nearby (probably more of a personal hotel than a house, but you get the idea). Avignon (one of the major cities of Provence (Southern France), and located on the banks of the Rhône river) is surrounded by an old Roman wall, and the city maintains a romantic medieval charm.

Avignon’s claim to fame is that it was the city to which the Popes fled when leaving the corruption of Rome in the 14th century. The palace they built, ‘Le Palais des Papes,’ or the Palace of Popes (pictured below), is the world’s largest Gothic edifice. It was largely emptied over the centuries but now serves as a museum and is an imposing building within the city walls.

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It is estimated that about 200,000 people live in Avignon, 16,000 of which live ‘intra-muros,’ or within the ramparts built in the 14th century. The city is now sprinkled with buildings and monuments ranging from the new to the old, the very old, and the ageless, and offers a delightful array of shops, pubs, restaurants, cafes and alfresco dining options typical of cute French towns in the area. We are staying at another Ibis which is ideally located within walking distance of the town, and is once again a comfortable, clean place to rest until tomorrow morning’s early start.

 

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Modern, beautiful Barcelona

I had a sneaking suspicion that I’d like beautiful Barcelona. All of our friends in London have maintained for a while now that we’d like the place; additionally we’ve been attempting to learn Spanish on and off since late last year. I suppose Spain has always been of interest to me, so it’s been amazing to actually visit. Evidently we’re not alone in maintaining a fascination with the country – tourism is a critical industry and more tourists visit annually than the actual population of the nation!

While I’d love to explore the rest of Spain because I believe there are many more beautiful and exciting pockets to discover within the country itself, and despite us really only encountering an ‘overview’ of Barcelona, our general consensus is – we love it here! I’d love to return to Prague or Rome, but Barcelona is one of those places we could live in. It’s one of our new ‘cool’ cities, like New York, Tokyo, London or Vancouver. Barcelona has a nice energy – like London, but without the hectic pace. Our time here has been sunny, brimming with friendly people speaking in their seductive native tongue, delicious food, fabulous neighbourhoods with interesting architecture, sculpture and modern art, chic shopping, beautiful beaches lined with sexy bars and restaurants (like the Carpe Diem Lounge Bar, pictured below, where we enjoyed a cocktail last night with Leann and Evan), and even a fabulous dog park opposite our (very comfortable) Ibis hotel. It’s all here!

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Two days in Barcelona hasn’t been long enough for Cooper and I, but we felt that we utilised our first free day (yesterday) pretty well by purchasing a hop-on-hop-off Barcelona Bus Turistic pass (buy online for a 10% discount) which cruises around the city on three separate routes and offers a value-for-money guided overview of each neighbourhood, history and attractions.

Temperatures have been a little down from Italy (thank God) so the open-top view from the bus was enjoyable as we snapped photos of the city under the sun. There are more attractions here than I can even begin to name in this post (and unfortunately many more than we could actually visit in two days) but at least we managed to learn about and see many of the city’s gorgeous medieval cathedrals, Olympic stadium and arenas from 1992’s set-up (an image at end of post), Barcelona football club’s headquarters (and thousands of fans gearing up for the game that was being played last night), precincts down by the marina, and of course many enthralling sculptures and architectural wonders that Barcelona is renowned for.

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In particular, the works of Antoni Gaudi dominate the city which, whilst being both modern and cosmopolitan in nature, boasts a rich history in architecture and the arts. In spite of fascinating Romanesque and Renaissance period buildings, it is Gaudi’s ‘Modernisme’ and structures like the stunning (yet unfinished) ‘Sagrada Familia‘ (pictured above) which attracts millions of visitors to Barcelona each year and is of interest to even the likes of me (and I know nothing about design or architecture, although I can appreciate that which is innovative and pleasing to the eye).

There’s an aquarium and a zoo here, famous shopping and people-watching mall La Rambla, and as mentioned, a simply divine strip of clubs and restaurants (including a popular ‘Ice Bar’ (even the cups and candle-holders are made of ice, as Leann and Evan discovered, pictured below)) by the beach and casino (off Ciutadella Vila Olimpica train stop). The transport network here is efficient and inexpensive, at just €11 for a two-day pass, or about €8 for a multi-trip pass.

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There is something for everyone in this loveable Spanish city – art, design, beaches, shopping, music, food (glorious food – our fabulous ‘lunch’ image above – a €9 authentic buffet in the Gothic Quarter, but we’ve also indulged in tapas and paella of which you can find many restaurants, particularly along La Rambla), history (modern and ancient) and of course, sport.

For anyone landing here during a football (soccer) game, try your luck at the ground’s box-office for tickets – do not buy from sellers in the street as your tickets are likely to be fake.

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Travel tip:

On the note of ‘warnings’ – Barcelona is renowned for pick-pockets and thieves. While we didn’t encounter any problems, some travellers we know did. Keep belongings with you/in sight at ALL times (on the town, in hotel reception, at train stations etc.); and also when you are leaving your bus/hotel/belongings always ensure you are carrying a credit card and cash as well as phone and/or contact numbers for emergencies in the event you are separated from friends/tours/in the face of any kind of trouble or unforseen situation.

A phrase book can come in handy in Barcelona, although mostly we got by with a few key words/sentences and some enthusiastic acting.

Leave time for exploring this city, and it’s probably a good idea to research what you would like to see before you get here, and/or enlist the services of a tour such as the Bus Turistic option so that you have the opportunity to become acquainted with where everything is located and how it all fits into the grand scheme of things: circle points on your map, then follow the train loops and live it up with the gorgeous locals.

Explorer travel tip:

I’ve just discovered that Susan on our Expat Explore bus found an amazing €15 sailing deal – one and a half glorious hours out on the ocean off Barcelona, with live music included! Definitely one to look out for next time around.

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If you’re a fellow Expat Explorer or fan of this city and want to list your fabulous Barcelona finds/tips for other travellers, simply ‘comment’ below.

This is the life: The French Riviera

I never imagined I’d be beside the sea in the south of France, but here I am! Excitement mounted as we glimpsed our first stretch of coastline on our way through from our stop in Pisa yesterday. On the left hand side was a great expanse of ocean sparkling in the sun; to the right, homes and even castles scattered across the mountains, becoming dense closer to the more populated areas. The views speckle in and out as we cruise through one tunnel after another. I’m enchanted by the huge structures perched on mountains in Italy and into France’s border. It amazes me that the people chose to build their homes high on hills – the landscapes differ from what I’m used to in Australia, and although I’m sure it must be challenging to get in and out of some of these high-set homes and communities, they do look quite beautiful as we pass by.

The clear blue ocean of the Mediterranean lay in wait for us us across The French Riviera – land of sun, olive oil and red wine. Evidently doctors in the UK used to send people with tuberculosis to stay in the region because of the healthy, happy lifestyle – over 300 days of sun each year!

Coming across from Italy and towards the ocean we drove down the biggest mountain range I’ve ever been on. I thought the road from Cairns to Kuranda (Queensland, Australia) was high, but this is about five times that. I’m not partial to heights, but the view down to the coast and across the hills is quite mesmerising, and as we merged closer to the ground we were surrounded by more green mountains, mansions balancing on hill-tops, pretty ocean housing yachts, cruise ships, marinas and thousands of people playing in the lapping waves. Our Etap hotel was located across a road from such a picturesque scene, in the cute little seaside village of Menton – an ideal location for exploring surrounding favourites like Cannes, Nice and Monaco. Also a great place for a few impromptu Expat Explore Friday evening drinks down by the marina opposite the hotel.

Travel tip: This region can be quite pricey, so shout yourself a nice dinner along the waterfront, but buy your own alcohol to take-away and enjoy elsewhere if you are on a budget like us.

From Menton it is simple to explore the Riviera precincts. Purchase a €12 day pass and train it to Cannes (about an hour away, famous of course for its film festivals), Nice (about a half hour away) and Monaco (approx 15 minutes from Menton and apparently the most densely populated country in world, arguably the smallest, and hosts the most number of police-per-person in world).

While some of our group made it to Cannes (and am hopeful they may add some travel comments below) we were a little delayed at the train station so decided to start our free day’s adventure in Nice, a gorgeous beach-side city, surrounded be cliff tops, glittering ocean and people enjoying all kinds of water based activities. There is a handy tourist information centre next to the train station where maps and inspiration are available. We made our way towards the beach where the group parted – some headed straight for the clear blue, the rest kept wandering through the streets to explore the palace, opera house, Saturday markets and other unique photo opportunities.

Our particular team, Cooper, Devin, Amy and I went in search of an old picturesque graveyard to photograph. It all looked simple enough on the map, until we realised we were tracking it up a rather vast hill (in 40-degree-heat and Amy wearing flipflops). Sweating and thirsty, we found the old graveyard but it turned out to be closed to the public! Being that we had come so far though, we hiked a little further up to an amazing lookout and a waterfall that we had seen in the distance way back on the beach. On return to the base we lucked out catching a tram back to train station which would have been a 40-minute walk otherwise – which might just have killed us 🙂

Ironically the crew we left at the beach – Hector, Alex, Brad, Cassie and Ash – were also waiting for the same train that we were, so we all travelled into Monaco together. It is flashy, like the Gold Coast on steroids! At the train station there are maps and travel details but essentially once outside, walk down and towards the ocean – then left 10-minutes towards the casino, or right towards the ‘old town’. I like the Princess Grace references on buildings and street signs, and the new Buddha Bar located in the thick of the action. Expensive cars are parked outside Monte Carlo’s famous casino and tourists flash their cameras like paparazzi at a celeb appearance. Lavish, ritzy and very overpriced for the average citizen, but intriguing all the same. Some of the yachts to me though represent more money than sense.

Back in Menton we went for a final walk in search of dinner but incidentally happened across some bustling markets and shops in the area’s ‘Old Town’, as well as a vibrant VW car festival down by the water. Menton itself is quite charming and a fantastic place to chill out by the ocean and under the sun. The markets smell like soap and perfume (a major industry of France, and we were also lucky enough to swing by the Fragonard factory demonstrating as such on the way into town on Friday); the atmosphere is relaxed, almost like north Queensland, but European. We discovered several gorgeous restaurants and bars positioned along both the street opposite the water in Menton as well as down on the sand near the ocean – some of these places offer use of their private beaches too.

Travel tip (thanks to Expat Explorers Ann and William): try Le Darkoum Restaurant(23, Rue St-Michel, Menton) – delicious Moroccan cuisine, huge authentic meals and belly dancing in a gorgeous environment.

Most of the group enjoyed varying experiences here, and there really is something for everyone to fall in love with on the French Riviera regardless of budget (although that said, obviously some more money is better than none – but I suppose you could always try to win a little cash). Pick up some maps, jump on a train and explore – or slip into your swimmers and laze the day away. Speaking of sun and sand… Barcelona coming up.