Wednesday 29 August 2012

Photo slide show (YouTube version)

Some people have had difficulty viewing my holiday slide show on FB and my blog. Here's the YouTube version. I think it's best at "medium" size, with sound.

PM Spain & Portugal 2012 (YouTube)

Photo slide show

Here's a slide show of a selection of 50 photos from my trip out of the 200+ that I took.  They are shown in the order in which I took them: Seville, Madrid, Puente del Congosto, Porto, Lisbon, Madrid.

Turn on your computer speakers and watch in full screen.  The whole show takes just over 9 minutes.

Slide show: Páraic in Spain and Portugal, 6-25 August 2012

Saturday 25 August 2012

Where are my socks?

Today is the last day of my holidays.  Tomorrow I'll be back in a place where I understand the language pretty well.  Friends here are very patient with my intermediate-level Spanish — and speaking the language is part of the adventure for me — but it does get a bit tiring when you have to constantly ask people to repeat or speak more slowly.

In Portugal I understood almost nothing by ear, though reading was a bit easier as the words are close to Spanish.  There are a few rules that you can pick up quickly.  For example, many words in Portuguese have an "r" in place of a Spanish "l":

plazapraça(square (in a town))

Just thinking as I'm about to pack my bags: I haven't worn socks or long trousers for almost three weeks.  I think I'll keep both near the top of my bag on the train tonight just in case I need them when I arrive in Paris in the morning.

Friday 24 August 2012

Piety in the streets

The people who named the streets around this part of Madrid — between Puerta del Sol and Lavapiés — must have been particularly pious.  At least to look at the names of the streets you'd think so.  Here are a few examples (all preceded by "Calle de/del/de la"):

Amor de Dios(Love of God)
Ave María(Hail Mary)
Jesús y María(Jesus and Mary)
la Magdalena(Mary Magdalene)
la Fe(Faith)
la Cruz(the [Holy] Cross)
la Cabeza(the Head [of John the Baptist])

And that's not to mention all the saints (Santa Ana, Santa María, San Agustín, San Eugenio, et al).

Thursday 23 August 2012

Why did I bring an extra travel bag?

Liquid luggage to be transported back to Paris
This is why:

Since I'm travelling by train, I can take bottles with me.  Also, baggage weight is not really a problem.  At least it's not a problem in that there is no real limit imposed.  So this load is going into my hard suitcase, and my clothes can fit in the extra bag.

I'm sure I'll break my back on the way, but it will be worth it!

Worth the wait

When I visited the González Byass sherry production in Jerez last week I was tempted to buy a few bottles of the stuff I tasted on the tour.  The Tio Pepe (fino) was 8.08 a bottle.  Then I thought I didn't want to haul bottles back to Seville, then to Madrid, and eventually to Paris.

Today in Madrid I bought a few bottles of González Byass sherry (fino, oloroso and cream).  The Tio Pepe was 5.95 a bottle.  So I got it cheaper and nearer home.

Glad I waited!

Tea on tap

After several days of staggeringly hot weather, it's a very reasonable 32°C in Madrid today.  Still, I've just had my third cold shower and it's only early afternoon.

This morning I went to the local baños árabes, or hammam — which the Spanish insist on pronouncing hamman — to take advantage of their summer special deal: bath + 15-minute massage for the price of a bath only.

The thermal bath house — called Hammam Al Ándalus — is built over an ancient Moorish construction.  It has three baths — cold, warm and hot water — and a Turkish-style steam room.  The idea is to do a circuit of warm-hot-cold-steam-cold as many times as you like for about an hour.  It really is a relaxing experience.

There are brass taps in various corners with fresh drinking water, and even one with warm mint tea!

The massage after the bath was pleasant, though not quite as vigorous as I would have liked.  You get to choose from four scented oils, each with supposed particular benefits for body and soul.  I chose violet to "heal the tired body and ease the stress..." or something like that.  Actually I just liked the smell.

Unorthodox pricing policies

On Sunday evening in Lisbon I stopped in a bar on my way to dinner and ordered a gin and tonic.  I asked how much and was told 5.50.  A little steep, I thought, as I was fishing for the money in my wallet.  Then I felt the urge for another, so I ordered a second gin to use up the rest of the tonic in the bottle.  I asked again how much, prepared for a fight if he tried to charge me another 5.50 as I didn't take a second bottle of tonic. "Cinco euros, por favor."  There was only one other client at the bar, and I was only there ten minutes, so the barman clearly knew I had had the second gin, but the total came to less than the price of a single.  I didn't argue, but I left a tip.

Tonight in Madrid, on my way home from dinner with MGG, I stopped in a bar for a coffee and a brandy as a nightcap.  The barman put the bottle of brandy and a huge glass on the counter while he went to get the coffee.  When he came back I indicated with my raised eyebrows and nodding head that I'd prefer my brandy in the glass.  "Serve yourself," he said.  So I did.  Generously!  Then we got talking and I said I'd like another.  Again I was invited to serve myself.  The bill? "Cinco euros, por favor" (Spanish and Portuguese are quite similar in their written forms).  Five euros.

These European traditions really should be shared.

Wednesday 22 August 2012

Bad connections

I reserved a first-class couchette on the Lusitania "train-hotel" to travel from Lisbon back to Madrid.  I allowed myself this luxury since I've been able to do most everything else on the cheap.  Thanks to my friends — FOC and MGG (and the latter's family) — most of my accommodation on this trip has been gratis, and the few hotels I've paid for have been quite cheap.

There are two options for catching the night train in Lisbon: at Santa Apolónia, the oldest railway terminus in the city, or at the more modern Oriente station 10 minutes later.  My hotel was closer to the former, but the website of Portuguese rail says that there is a VIP lounge at Oriente where passengers travelling first class can wait in comfort.  Having treated myself to a first class ticket, I decided to take the metro to Oriente to sample the style.  A gin and tonic or a glass of fino would be just the thing to whet the appetite for dinner on board the train, maybe pick up a newspaper to kill an hour or so before departure.

Oriente station
Bad decision!  I waited longer than I expected for the metro, and again for the connecting metro.  Then on arrival at Oriente I had to climb several flights of stairs.  You'd think a metro station that serves the city's primary mainline railway station would have escalators given that a fair number of passengers will have suitcases.  Luckily my case wasn't too heavy, but I sweated a bit all the same.

When I found the first-class lounge I discovered that they meant "lounge" as in sitting room, not as in a place to have a drink.  Water and coffee were on offer, except the coffee machine was out of order.  There was a large range of newspapers in Portuguese, and no other language.  The seats were plastic with a minimum of upholstery, and a few "designer" cubic stools were strewn about.  The wifi worked fine.  The difference between first class lounge and the standard waiting room is that it is surrounded by a glass wall so that people can see you are in first class, and you get access to the wifi.

First-class compartment on
the Lusitania "train-hotel"
The same compartment
converted for sleeping
Once on board, however, things were quite different.  A charming hostess led me to my private cabin and invited me to relax for a few moments before going to the restaurant car.  I had time for a shower (in my private bathroom) and a few minutes later the hostess came to call me for dinner and told me she would prepare my bed while I was dining.  Dinner itself (included in the ticket price) was a pleasant three-course affair.  Though not exceptional as a meal, it was very good compared to the usual fare served on trains.  It's an à la carte menu with about five or six options for each course.  A half-bottle of wine, mineral water, coffee and after-dinner liqueurs are included.  I went to bed shortly after midnight.

In the morning the hostess called me at 7.45 in time for a shower and breakfast before arriving in Madrid at 9, fresh, clean and well-fed.

That's the way travel should be!

Tuesday 21 August 2012

Wandering aimlessly

My only previous visit to Lisbon was in 1998 when I spent a weekend there before heading to the north of Portugal for the wedding of two friends.  I don't have strong memories of that visit apart from the trams — called eléctricos — and the general run-down appearance pf the city (similar to what I observed in Porto a couple of days ago).

Well, the trams are still running, but the atmosphere seems to have changed in Lisbon.  Recession or not, the city seems to be thriving.

I spent a very pleasant two days there exploring the centre of the city — squares and boulevards, but mostly back streets — with no particular objective in mind other than to see whatever I'd see.  I wandered up and down the hills — they really are steep — and when I got tired I'd take the first tram that came along and see where it took me.  I like that idea of getting intentionally "lost" in a city.  Of course you never really get lost as you can just take the same bus or tram back.

These old wooden trams are a perfect size — just one car, four wheels, 900mm gauge — for trundling through the winding narrow streets, with sometimes only a couple of centimetres to spare between coaches when they pass each other.  In fact some of the streets are so narrow and corners so tight that the tram almost shaves the walls.  The sign inside says not to lean out the windows.  A few passengers almost learnt the hard way why.

Tram 28
My favourite tram is line 28.  I caught it in the Bairro Alto, one of the hill-top quarters to the west of the centre.  It was packed with tourists like me, and I'd say not a single Lisbon-dweller.  It descended slowly to the centre (sea level) and then wound its way up the hill on the other side, past Castelo de São Jorge, through the narrow streets of Alfama, to the charming district of Graça.  I still didn't know where it was going so I stayed on board until it finally came to its terminus at Martim Moniz, a short walk from my hotel!

That evening I had the best meal of my four days in Portugal in a place called Baleal, in Rua da Madalena, 265.  It's an unassuming place, described as a restaurante-cervejaria.  At the entrance there are several aquariums showing off some of the options for dinner.  It's in a quiet street just far enough from the main drag that not many tourists seem to find it.  This one did, and the prawns and cod were delicious!

Sunday 19 August 2012

Faded glory

I didn't visit any churches, galleries or museums in Porto, so my experience of the city is rather superficial.  I'll keep the cultural treasures for another visit.  This time I just wanted to get a feel for the place.

Typical blue-tile façade
(this one in good condition)
After my dip in the Atlantic yesterday I took a bus that takes the scenic route into the city centre.  It follows the coast as far as the mouth of the Douro, passing some very nice beaches on the way, then takes the quays upstream to the historical centre.  There are rows of terraced houses along the quays, many with blue-tiled façades, that were no doubt beautiful in their day.  Nowadays, however, they are mostly in a shabby state of disrepair.

Henry the Navigator
(Infante Dom Henrique)
This was actually a good introduction to the historical centre of the city.  The whole place has an air of faded glory.  The second city of Portugal, home to Henry the Navigator who encouraged and funded the early Portuguese explorers, Porto looks like it has been through hard times since its golden era.

I spent the afternoon walking around the historical centre, up and down the steep hills between Praça de Liberdade and the banks of the river.  There are many signs of restoration work going on, but it will be a long project.

Next time you're in Porto, take bus number 500 from São Bento to Matosinhos (described in reverse above).  If you're not staying out there you have the option of simply taking the same bus back again, or taking a more direct bus, or the tram.

Lisbon today.

Mission accomplished

I need to dunk my carcass in the sea at least once a year.  It's something I look forward to every year, even though the dip itself might only last 10 minutes.  Last year off the coast of Galway it was reduced to about 90 seconds to avoid hypothermia.

This year, I planned for two options, Cadiz on the southern Atlantic coast of Spain, and Porto in the north of Portugal, where I am now.  The first option was scratched in favour of a trip to Jerez, so this year's swim happens in Porto.  Or to be more precise, in Matosinhos (you should hear how they pronounce that) in the suburbs of Porto, 20 minutes on the metro/tram from the centre of the city.

The nearest beach to my hotel is a few minutes' walk away.  It's not at all the kind of place that's full of "beautiful" people, so I felt quite comfortable.  The water was thick with seaweed (last night's caldo verde came to mind) but pleasant apart from that.  The waves were big enough to make it interesting — enough also for some young people learning to surf — but not overpowering.  The sand is white and soft and the whole area is very clean.

Looking forward to next year's dip already!

Better fit

As I mentioned in the previous post, there were no cats being swung in my hotel room in Porto last night.  I forgot to mention that the price I paid (€25 per night) was less than I had originally agreed to pay when I reserved a few weeks ago (€37 per night).  This was a spontaneous gesture by the owner to compensate me for getting the smallest room in the house.

This morning when leaving to visit the city I asked if the was a place nearby where I could do laundry.  There is, quite close, but the hotel owner said he'd do it for me.  How nice can you get?

Well, even nicer!   This evening when I got back, he told me that a better room had become available so he offered me that at no extra charge.  It's more than twice the size, has a bigger bathroom and a strong wifi signal.

There are lots of family-run restaurants in the area that do really good seafood.  I tried one last night and another tonight and on both occasions had a large-ish meal with fairly decent house white wine for around €16.

Pensão Central, Rua Brito Capelo, 599, Matosinhos (Porto).

I'll be back!

Saturday 18 August 2012

Tight fit

When I arrived at my hotel in Porto yesterday, I half-jokingly asked for a beautiful room.  Unfortunately they didn't have any left.  In fact the room was quite small, I was warned.  No joke!  The bed, which is a reasonable size for a single, takes up most of the room.  There isn't even enough room to open my cabin-size suitcase fully on the floor without leaning the opening half up against the wall.  The bathroom is a good size, though, which compensates a little.  The whole place has a slightly worn look about it, but it is spotless and the staff are friendly.  For €25 a night, breakfast included, I'm not complaining.

I'm off to the beach today.  The nearest is 10 minutes' walk from my hotel.

One man's fino...

... is another man's something else!  Or: my first vocabulary gaffe in Portugal.

Those of you who've been following my adventure will know — if you didn't already — that fino is the term for the palest, driest sherry from Jerez.  This evening as I staggered off the bus in Porto after a six-hour journey I was feeling rather hot and bothered.  I trundled into the first bar I came across and when I happened to see "fino"  chalked up on the board my mind was made up.  Fortunately I also like cold beer, for that's what I was served.  It turns out that fino in this part of the world means a 200ml glass of beer.

My second mistake was at dinner later.  I decided to take the menu in Portuguese to see if I could work things out thanks to their similarity with Spanish and French.  I imagined caldo verde to be some kind of cold soup, a sort of green gazpacho.  I was more than half right: it's soup, and it's green.  But it is served piping hot.  The green looked like it was from spinach or seaweed (a special thought here for at least two of my sisters who are squirming at the idea).  The caldo part is nothing to do with "cold" — it simply means soup or broth.

Thursday 16 August 2012

Virgins and Saints

Spain, like all developed industrialised societies, is becoming more and more secular. Gone are the days when the Catholic Church dictated the rules of society, when government ministers consulted bishops in private when formulating legislation, and kissed their rings in public to demonstrate their piety. Religious feasts, on the other hand, remain an important part of Spanish society.

The feast of the Assumption, which celebrates the belief — established as dogma only in 1950 — that the Virgin Mary was assumed body and soul to heaven at the end of her earthly existence, is a national holiday in Spain. For traditionalists, it is an occasion to publicly express their religious beliefs, but for most people it's a time for temporal rather than spiritual fulfilment. Like Christmas.

Virgen de la Paloma,
In the Latina district of Madrid the particular object of devotion is the Virgen de la Paloma (Virgin of the Dove), a painting with supposed miraculous properties. The painting is now displayed in an incredibly ornate frame, surrounded by angels and cherubs, behind the altar of a local church. Huge crowds throng the streets on the evening of 15 August. A steady trickle of devotees pay their respects by filing past the icon, some spending a few moments in spiritual contemplation. The majority prefer their spirits served on the rocks, mixed with cola in plastic beakers. And dancing to techno/pop/rock music in the surrounding streets seems more popular than praying in silence in the church.

San Roque
Puente del Congosto
As well as the feast of the Virgin, every town and village in Spain has its patron saint whose feast is a time for celebration in in mid-August. The patron saint of Puente del Congosto is San Roque (aka St Roch) whose feast is 16 August. Children who have grown up and left the family home return — many of them with their own children — to catch up with family and friends. The fiesta starts with an evening mass, followed by a procession through the village. Effigies of the Virgin and San Roque carried aloft. Children in their Sunday best carry flowers and a band plays an interesting medley of religious and folk tunes. 

La Virgen
Puente del Congosto
Traditionally the men walk behind the patron saint, the women behind the Virgin. The procession returns to the church and the population gravitates to the home of this year's host family where copious quantities of sangria and cakes are distributed. After late dinner, the street party resumes around the stage erected in the centre of the village and the music and dancing continue late into the night.

Puente del Congosto
937 metres above sea level
I've known Puente del Congosto — at the southern end of the province of Salamanca, in the foothills of the Sierra de Gredos, altitude 937 metres — since 1997 and have been made welcome there many times by two families I know well. I've seen the village at different times of the year, in the bitter cold of winter and the scorching heat of summer. I've seen the Rio Tormes as a torrent in spring and a trickle in autumn. Each period has its special charm, but the period around the Fiesta de San Roque is the social highlight of the year.

Long may it continue.

Tuesday 14 August 2012

Just off O'Donnell Street

Believe it or not, that's where my Seville hotel was situated. Calle O'Donnell is named after Don Leopoldo O'Donnell y Jorris, who was prime minister of Spain on several occasions between 1856 and 1863. He was a descendant of the O'Donnell clan of Tyrconnel.

Another day, another Alcázar

Yes, Jerez also has its Alcázar.  Though not as big or impressive as the one in Seville, it is worth a visit.  The layout of the Arab fortress is more or less intact even though the buildings are mostly ruins.  With the help of notices (in Spanish and English) you get a good idea of what daily life was like: prayers, ablutions, eating.  They even explain how the latrines worked.  But the Alcázar was not the reason for my visit to Jerez.

The town was founded by the Phoenicians who called it Xera, a name which has been adapted by the varying civilisations and tribes that have controlled it over the centuries.  The Arab rulers of Al-Andalus (whence the modern name of the region, Andalusia) called it شريش, which I'm sure you will spot is pronounced "Sherish".  Not only did this Arabic name evolve into the modern Jerez, it also gave us the name of the most famous product of the town, sherry.

Manuel María González Ángel,
founder of Gonzalez Byass, Jerez
I did a tour of the biggest sherry producer, González Byass, named after its founder Manuel María González Ángel, and his London agent Robert Blake Byass who eventually became joint owner of the company.  The produce several brands of sherry and brandy, the most famous of which are probably Tío Pepe and Croft Original.

After the tour there was a tasting.  They presented us with four different types of sherry, from pale and dry (fino) to dark and sweet (oloroso).  I never thought I'd see the day I got drunk on sherry!  Well, tipsy anyway.

Try it — you'll like it more than you think!

Monday 13 August 2012

Change of plan

Cadiz has been scratched from the itinerary. The pleasant change in weather allowed me to savour Seville a bit longer than I had expected.  Today I'm taking the train for a day trip to Jerez de la Frontera to sample their famous produce.

Sunday 12 August 2012

Alcázar of Seville

But for a turn in the weather (and a tip from HB) I might have missed this jewel!  It was so hot yesterday that I just felt like heading for the sea to escape.  But today the temperature fell to 32°C and there were beautiful white clouds high up in the sky that brought occasional relief from the blazing sun, just enough to make visiting the gardens of the Alcázar possible and therefore a visit to the palace itself worthwhile.

Having been built by the Moors as a fortress early in the 8th century, it was transformed into a palace for the Arab rulers later in the same century. This is the same vintage as the Alhambra in Granada.  After the Christian reconquest the palace was much transformed as each succeeding régime put its mark on the place... but you can read the history elsewhere.

It is a magical labyrinth of patios, passages and palaces, where the style changes as you turn each corner, reflecting its thirteen centuries of existence.  The gardens are extensive and contain almost as many different styles from straight alleyways lined with trimmed hedges to semi-wild "natural" looking patches.  Unfortunately the water organ was not on view today.

An afternoon well spent — and no sunburn!

(Click on the thumbnails for larger views.)

Old clothes

Almost every bar in Spain serves tapas.  You can choose to have one with your mid-afternoon caña, or have several to make a full meal.  There are the classics — jamón, queso, pimientos, patatas bravas, calamares, and so on — and occasional specials, but the style of presentation is pretty standard.

Arroz con langostinos
at Ropa Vieja, Seville
It was a pleasure to discover a variation on the theme this evening in Seville.  My prize for the best tapas presentation goes to a tapas bar called Ropa Vieja, which is a convenient short walk from my hotel, and quite close to the cathedral.  The name means "old clothes" and is also the name of a dish from the Canary Islands.  I didn't have that particular dish, but I did have some excellent croquetas and a mini arroz con langostinos.  I asked for a glass of Rioja (as you do), but the waitress suggested a Cigales, which she described as "between a Rioja and a Ribera del Duero".  Good advice as it went perfectly with my meal.

Each tapa is served on a mini slate, which fits perfectly with the sharp, clean style of the bar itself.  I particularly like the black ceiling.  In fact I love to see people breaking that commandment that seem to be carved on the collective design consciousness: Thou Shalt Paint Thy Ceilings White!

Where exactly is it written, that rule?

Saturday 11 August 2012

The luck of the draw (part 2)

Hotel Don Paco is quite nice — friendly staff, comfortable rooms, pool on the roof, etc. — but my visit happened to coincide with two unpleasant events: a breakdown in the internet service, and the arrival of several hundred children on some sort of tour (I'm not sure of the exact number, but judging by the noise level...).

This morning I booked another hotel, much cheaper, right in the centre of the old town, in a lane off the main streets so it should be quiet.  The receptionist is a very helpful young Belgian woman who interrupted her lunch break to check me in and show me my room.  It's air-conditioned of course, smallish but adequate, spotless with crisp white sheets.  But... the bathroom is shared with two other rooms!  That's a detail I missed while hastily making the reservation.

On the up-side, the difference in price for the remaining three nights in Seville will cover half what I paid for a new camera yesterday.

Friday 10 August 2012

If I had an egg

The prophets of doom said don't go!  You'll suffer!  It'll be unbearable!  Summer in Seville is hell!

But I insisted.  So here I am.  In the blazing sun.  Dripping sweat.

(Well actually I've just had a shower, but I was a sorry sight a half an hour ago.)

And the heat really is incredible!  On arrival at the hotel (in an air-conditioned taxi from the air-conditioned station) I was in a hurry to see the rooftop swimming pool and bar.  As I went out on to the roof the wall of heat that hit me was shocking.  There was a fair breeze up there, but that seemed to increase the effect — imagine a fan oven and you'll get the idea.  I didn't stay long as I had no sun protection.  So I went back to my room and prepared to enter the inferno.

I suppose I'm not the first person from Hibernia — the "wintry land" that the Romans weren't interested in conquering — to come to Andalusia in summer and risk damaging my fair complexion.  And boy, is it worth it!  This city is more beautiful than I had imagined from reading guide books and hearing other travellers' stories.

Metropol Parasol, Seville
(photo taken with my Nokia N8)
I was prepared for the cathedral's bell tower (the Giralda) that had once been a minaret; the Alcázar palace that was originally a Moorish fortress; the dozens of churches; the winding streets and the many small squares with huge trees that provide merciful shade.  But no-one told me about the Metropol Parasol!  Situated in Plaza de la Encarnación, it is apparently the world's biggest wooden sructure.  The locals call it las Setas de la Encarnación (the mushrooms of Encarnación).  It houses a market, restaurants, a theatre and the Antiquarium where Roman and Moorish remains are displayed.

I'm going out now to see if I can find some interesting local fare.  Tomorrow I'll look for an egg to test out that famous theory.

Thursday 9 August 2012

Chillin' and boxin'

Weather forecast for Cadiz
9-13 August 2012
It's around in 39°C in Madrid today and expected to reach 41°C over the next couple of days.  But I'm heading out of town at noon tomorrow... to Seville where the forecast is for 43°C.  I think Saturday could be a good day for my day trip to the sea at Cadiz as it's expected to be a cool 28°C there.

In the meantime, here in Madrid, I'm planning to break one of my own travel rules this afternoon.  I don't like going to "Irish" pubs while on holidays, but I have a good excuse today: Katie Taylor's final is certainly not going to be shown on Spanish television, so I've checked with O'Neill's pub around the corner and they'll have it live.  

I'll be raising a glass of tinto de verano to her success, be it silver or gold!

Wednesday 8 August 2012

Up on the roof

Yesterday was a quiet day in Madrid.  Bought a 10-euro prepaid phone card and a few provisions for making lunches; had a beer on the way home. Installed my phone card and tried to use it: message in very fast Spanish said it wasn't activated. Back to the shop to ask what to do; three people in the shop gave each other instructions and between them got it working. Made a quick call to verify.  Had a couple of beers on the way home. Followed the instructions to activate the internet option and got a message to confirm it was done. Cool! Out of curiosity, checked my credit balance: €2.28! After one call?  Waited for Fearghal to get home and we went together to the shop.  They didn't know what to do so we went for a few beers and called the help line.  It turns out that my internet option costs €6 to activate, and that's before you even connect.  A couple more beers!

It was time to go out around 8 so we headed for fino and tapas near Plaza Santa Ana (family and friends may remember this square as the HQ in 2003).  There followed a mini crawl around Puerta del Sol, Gran Vía and Chueca.  The highlight was a bar on the roof of a hotel where we had a beer with our feet in the swimming pool.

After dinner (and wine) we headed home, stopping on the way for a couple of vodka-tonics.  At home, a quick nightcap of calvados rounded the evening off nicely.

I was a bit tired this morning.

Tuesday 7 August 2012

The luck of the draw

As you may have gathered, I like travelling by train, especially night trains. The advantage is that it is much more comfortable than plane travel (unless you can afford business or first class).  The potential disadvantage — if you're travelling alone as I am this time — is that you spend the evening and night in a compartment with three people you don't know.  Who's going to bore the arse off you?  Who's going to have stinky feet?  Who's going to snore all night?

Well, on last night's train from Paris to Madrid I ended up sharing with three guys from Austria (their two friends were next door).  This time, luck was on my side: charming young men all of them!  They are on a trip around France, Spain and Italy before going (back) to university in September.

They very kindly offered to share their stash of beer.  Then we went to the bar and had a few more and talked about the similarities and differences between our respective countries.  Typically, they all spoke English very well, which is fortunate as my German doesn't go much further than Wo ist der Bahnhof, bitte? or Ich habe zu viel Arbeit und kein Geld!  They had very few problems with vocabulary, though they did ask me for the word for one of their holiday souvenirs: a plunger!  They had bought it to unblock the toilet in their rented apartment in Paris.  Apparently it had saved their stay from disaster on more than one occasion so they are carrying it around like a trophy for the rest of their trip.  I presume they washed it carefully.

We parted company for dinner; I went alone to the restaurant car, while the guys stayed for another beer.  I had a chicken salad followed by a tuna steak, accompanied by a glass of cava and a half-bottle of Rioja.  I finished the meal off with a glass of brandy and hit the sack shortly after midnight.

This morning we travelled together from Chamartín station to the centre of Madrid and said our good-byes near Puerta del Sol. 

I thank them for their company and wish them well for the future.

Friday 3 August 2012


You can follow my itinerary by clicking on the markers on the map:

View Paraic in Spain & Portugal 2012 in a larger map

Thursday 2 August 2012

The itinerary - updated

The latest version of the plan with a few days in Portugal added:

6 Aug19.00Night train from Paris-Austerlitz
7 Aug09.00Arrive in Madrid-Chamartín
10 Aug12.00Train to Seville
12 Aug  Day trip to Cadiz and/or Jerez
14 Aug15.45Train back to Madrid
15 Aug  Bus to Puente del Congosto
17 Aug  Bus to Porto (via Salamanca)
19 Aug  Train to Lisbon
20 Aug23.30Night train to Madrid (1st class, private cabin with bathroom!)
21 Aug09.00Arrive back in Madrid for the last few quiet days of drinking, eating, no travelling
24 Aug  Shopping: 12 bottles Rioja (varying vintages); 1kg jamón serrano; large block of manchego cheese; several cans anchovies, olives, mussels, etc.
25 Aug19.00Night train from Madrid-Chamartín
26 Aug10.30Arrive Paris-Austerlitz

Then I'll spend a week in Paris recovering before I go back to work.