A Travellerspoint blog

Our Barcelona Top Ten

sunny 18 °C

In no particular order, here are ten things that we loved about Barcelona...

1. Our hostel...
We all know that hostels are great when you are eighteen...but they are especially sweet in the off-season when you are travelling as a family! The price is right, the staff are friendly and relaxed, there is lots of common area for kids to roam around and there is never a line-up for the shower! The Barcelona hostel is minutes from La Rambla so we were right in the thick of things. My very favourite part is when we all get snuggled into our bunk bed, turn off the lights, and say good night.

2. La Rambla..
Sure it is full of tacky tourist stands and expensive sidewalk restaurants, but it is one of the loveliest, big-city strolls that I know. I loved the people watching and Angus enjoyed visiting the pet stands and coming up with good reasons why he should travel with a pet guinea pig and/or baby goose.

Nils and Angus strolling La Rambla

Nils and Angus strolling La Rambla

3. The tapas and paella..
The boys loved going through the menu, ordering a couple of small dishes and then reordering the ones that they liked the best. I loved the communal paella coming to the table and everyone digging in.

Angus digging into his tapas

Angus digging into his tapas

Delicious paella to share

Delicious paella to share

4. Free walking tour...
We met Bill, the Australian tour guide, at the foot of La Rambla just under the Christopher Columbus Monument. Bill has lived in Barcelona for three years and the day before, he had herded twenty people on his tour. On this lucky day, we were the only ones who showed up so we had him all to ourselves for three hours. Among the quintessential early twenty something Aussie walkabout experiences he has had included being a ski bum for two seasons in Chamonix and Gstaad as well as being one of the pom pom wielding tour leaders for a young students go wild Euro experience
tour company called Stoked - "oh m'god, what gnarly fun" - seriously, no, seriously...Nils is just a tad jealous.

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A piece of art depicting Orwell's tuberculosis cell under a microscope

A piece of art depicting Orwell's tuberculosis cell under a microscope

5. Football fever...
Barcelona is crazy about football. We walked by a school during our walking tour and saw boys playing football. Each one had on a FC Barcelona shirt on...3 Messi against 3 Puyol. We were so lucky to be here when Barcelona FC played Real Madrid match so we could witness firsthand the rivalry between these clubs. Angus choose a place for us to watch the game and there was a Barca fan at the table to the right of us and Real fans at the table behind us. Barca scored twice in the first half so much cheering and light-hearted jeers all around. Real Madrid then came back and the final was 2 - 2 which meant that the atmosphere on our walk back to the hostel was subdued...but safe.

6. Gaudí's Buildings...
Nils had visited Barcelona back in the fall so took us on tour of these unique and distinctive buildings. The twisting metal, curved concrete and use of colour make you wonder why every city doesn't have some Gaudi in it.

Angus enjoying a Gaudi creation

Angus enjoying a Gaudi creation

7. Barcelona Beach...
Prior to the 1992 Summer Olympics, a good number of industrial buildings were demolished and 4.5 kilometres of beach were established. On a warm afternoon, we walked down there and enjoyed the views. The other suggestion that we have is that they actually open the public washrooms so that Angus and I don't have to walk 4.5 kms of coastline looking for somewhere to pee.

On the Barcelona beach

On the Barcelona beach

8. Barcelona Parks...
We split up one afternoon, and Angus and I walked through a number of beautiful downtown parks. At the Park de la Ciudad Vella, we rented a boat and rowed around in the sunshine. There are a number of fountains and gardens in the park designed by Gaudi at the start of his career.

9. Spanish Post System ...
We love these guys for letting us send our large bag of ski stuff home for a smallish amount of money. We are light and streamlined now!!
Thank-you to the Correos.

10. Sagrada Familia...
This cathedral project was started in the 1880's under the supervision of Gaudi. He was involved until his death in the mid 1920's. The ongoing design and construction has continued ever since, and it is not anticipated to be complete until the mid-point of this century - wow. The interior is an amazing fusion of the old and the new. It certainly relies upon traditional, medieval Cathedral building themes. However, on closer view, it is thoroughly modern and almost space age. Max commented that it did not look dissimilar to scenes he had seen in certain World of Warcraft structures and it is also not unlike the architectural designs of the Elven kingdom in the most recent Lord of the Rings trilogy. Superimpose 2001- A Space Odyssey and maybe some Star Wars CGI sets, and you begin to have an idea of the themes of this very impressive structure. The classic organic element sof Gaudi's design are evident everywhere. The seemless transition from what appear to be human bone and catilage into wood fibres and branches are quite fantastic, in my humble opinion. See for yourself in the attached photos.

Sagrada Familia

Sagrada Familia

Sagrada Familia

Sagrada Familia

Puyol - awestruck as well in Sagrada Familia

Puyol - awestruck as well in Sagrada Familia

Sagrada Familia

Sagrada Familia

Awestruck Nils in Sagrada Familia

Awestruck Nils in Sagrada Familia

Off on the Marrakech express....

Posted by clarkesabroad 13:32 Archived in Spain Tagged barcelona Comments (1)

Ski bums in Andorra

Schussing with our new best friends Natasha and Alexi

sunny 10 °C

We arrived in the very small village of Ransol, Andorra just about 2 weeks ago. Since then, the male Clarkes have put in 8 days of skiing while I did a very enjoyable 6 days of skiing. On my days off, I did some prep for the upcoming Marrakesh run and enjoyed the views around our condo. Our place is located up a big hill which is a bummer (Max's contribution to this entry) after a long day of skiing but has given me a good hill training spot.

View from our condo.

View from our condo.

As you can see from this picture, the Andorran Mountains are beautiful, but we haven't seen any new snow during our time here. The snow-making on the hill is pretty aggressive and produces good quality snow, so we have been able to continue to enjoy pretty excellent, full days. There are 205 kms of runs, but you can't ski anywhere except the groomed areas, as the off-piste is bulletproof crud - overall all good though!

We have made it to Andorra!

We have made it to Andorra!

Ski bum in fashions by MEC

Ski bum in fashions by MEC

Taking a lunch break in the sun.

Taking a lunch break in the sun.

The first day we were quite excited to get started so we were up early and on the slopes by 9:30 am.  We skied all day with a short break for lunch.  There are five resorts in this same valley and you can easily move between them during the day.  By the end of the day, we were at the furthest away from our home base (we had followed the sun) and started to ski back.  It took longer than we thought so it was about 4:15 and it was shady on this one steep run.  Nils, Max and I went down about 1/2 way and Angus was at the top and got spooked.  He sat down and took his skis off and then yelled that he was going to take his boots off so "that I can walk down in my socks".  

We screamed back at him to keep everything on.  In the meantime, a man came down behind Angus and somehow his skis came off.  He grabbed on to Angus and they both came just barreling down the hill.  It had become very icy in the shade so in their snowsuits, they were just flying.  It looked so funny that Max and I were in stitches but it was quite scary.  Then the man's 2 daughters who were at the top of the slope stopped and each took off one of their skis and then one after the other, slipped and went shooting down screaming all the way.  We were yelling at them to put their boot into the snow to slow themselves down but they didn't (or couldn't understand).  By this time, Angus was up and walking to us.  The man threw himself in front of his girls to stop them.  I kept thinking that they could have gone flying off a cliff because they were slipping so quickly.  There was equipment strewn all over the hill...a regular "yard sale".  The girls were completely hysterical but soon calmed down.  We got to the bottom and chilled out with mulled wine and hot chocolate.
Action shot

Action shot

The lack of snow on the mountains around our place has allowed us to go on some nice hikes on our non-ski days.

Angus and Nils avoiding cows on our hike.

Angus and Nils avoiding cows on our hike.

Evil cows roaming Andorran hillside.

Evil cows roaming Andorran hillside.

Boys in the mountains.

Boys in the mountains.

Andorran house on the hill

Andorran house on the hill

The boys explored the Iglu Hotel on the hill. Nils brought home a brochure but I am still not sold on the idea of spending the night in ice even in a "an artfully-designed couple igloo enjoying an undisturbed Eskimo experience on thick fur".

Max and Angus outside the Iglú Hotel on the hill

Max and Angus outside the Iglú Hotel on the hill

Max sidles up to the ice bar at the Iglú Hotel

Max sidles up to the ice bar at the Iglú Hotel

Andorra is a funny place, as parts of it seem to have been squarely in the rapture of the Spanish/European building boom and subsequent
crash. The end of road of the Ransol village has a not insignificant multi-building completely vacant condominium development. It doesn't
look like it is going to be occupied anytime soon. In addition, in the Grandvalira ski area, there generally appear to be a ton of hotels and
an impressive amount of up-hill lift capacity. There are loads of quads and at least two six person lifts. I guess there is a big potential European
market, so maybe, at some point it may all make sense...we shall see.

After French, Spanish, Catalan and English, the next language on the signs is Russian, so methinks that Pavel, Vladimir, Olga, Irena, and Alexander
have moved some Rubles offshore to the rugged Andorran countryside. As was famously heard by Ray Kinsella, "if you build it, they will come...?!"
Well, they certainly have built it.

We leave tomorrow on a bus to Barcelona and then on to the Marrekech Express next Friday!

Posted by clarkesabroad 08:48 Archived in Andorra Tagged skiing Comments (1)

Scarabouche, Scarabouche...

Doing the fantango in London

sunny 2 °C

When I left off the blog, we were just heading out to see "We will rock you" - a musical by Ben Elton featuring the music of Queen. We loved it!! I asked for audience participation and it delivered. At the end of the show, The entire audience was up swaying and singing "We Are the Champions". I remember Richard blasting this in our basement on Brookridge. The encore was, of course, "Bohemian Rhapsody" and I wish that Matthew and Mary McBride were there with me because they know all the words.

The very fantastic Lindsay Scott and Julian Connerty graciously allowed us to stay at their place in the wonderfully named Muswell Hill part of London so we were very comfortable when we got home from touring the city.

Max and Angus explore the Imperial War Museum

Max and Angus explore the Imperial War Museum

On New Years Eve, we headed to the nearby Alexandra Park Palace ("Ally Pally") and had a great view to watch the fireworks right across the city. The panorama of a very large metropolitan area is truly impressive. People were upbeat and friendly, and there was a bunch of "fizzy" being enjoyed. Londoners were cautiously optimistic about 2012, and their big Olympic year.

Lindsay and Julian took us out to a traditional British Panto in a lovely theatre in Hackney. These performances are held across the country during the holiday season and are all based on fairy tales. Panto stands for pantomime but it isn't mime - it is a play with singing, dancing, jokes, audience participation, "top bananas", and birthday wishes. Our version of Cinderella was complete with cross dressing evil stepsisters and a rousing Bollywood finale.

While in London, we visited Jason Neely, a very good friend of Nils' who he hasn't seen in over 20 years. Jason works for Reuters and lives in London with his wife Namju and daughter Kate.

A visit with Namju and Kate.

A visit with Namju and Kate.

Jason and Nils were obviously keen dancers in their time and even organized this dance in January 1982. Unbelievably Jason was able to find this poster for the event in his London archives. Al Foster watch out...Nils may take over as the Whitehorse 80s Dance DJ!

It must have been fun in Port Credit in 1982!

It must have been fun in Port Credit in 1982!

We set off on January 6th to drive back to Montpellier. We took the Chunnel which I have always wanted to do. I got a little freaked out thinking about being under all that water once the train started to move. Happily, I just closed my eyes and woke up 30 minutes later as it was announced that we were in France...wow, that was easy.

The Canadian Vimy Ridge Monument is not far from our landing in Calais so we headed there. The monument is every bit as impressive as I had read it was. IT was a sunny, clear day as we stood and looked over the ridge. I walked around the base and thought of all those stone carvers in Jane Urquhart's book of the same name spending years working, chipping in all those soldier's names and numbers.

Vimy Monument to Canadian soldiers.

Vimy Monument to Canadian soldiers.

An interesting and devasting fact which was not completely known to us is that, of the approximately 66,000 Canadians who lost their lives in the Great War, over 20,000 were not recovered and identified for burial. This, in addition to the impressive and moving site, hammered home (again), the awful, brutal, and fruitless nature of that war. What started as a conflict for colonial and general territorial bragging rights between
royal families who were all related to each other, degraded into the terrible killing fields and trenches between France and Belgium. The massive shell craters at Vimy as well as the Canadian cemeteries bear eternal witness to the ultimate sacrifice made by far too many young men.

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Many games of Person, Place or Thing later, we made it back Montpellier and stayed a forgettable night at the "Quick Palace" (Max said "I would not put anything down on the bed in a hotel called the Quickie Palace"). We took the train to Toulouse and after a run along the Canal du Midi and an evening carousel ride, we boarded a bus for a ride through the Pyrennees to Andorra.

We have settled into our condo on the hill with a view of peaks in every direction. Snow levels are low but conditions are good on top so we had a good, tiring day of skiing yesterday and today. Max is taking over the blog for the ski report so stay tuned.

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Posted by clarkesabroad 11:03 Archived in Andorra Tagged skiing Comments (1)

Saying goodbye to "Amèzing" Mèze

We will be back!!

sunny 16 °C

It is Christmas Eve in Mèze and I can't sleep so it seems like a perfect time to catch up on this overdue blog. This is the last night that we will sleep (or not sleep as the case may be) at our little apartment by the sea:( My mind is whirling as I think about our three months here...from moving in and working out the seemingly impossible task of renting a car to the point now where we have a favourite boulangerie which we visit every day, a great relationship with the helpful women at the Intermarché Info Desk who smile and wave at us each time we go shopping and an "in" with the city librarian who invites us to each guest lecture and then makes a point of introducing us to the speaker. Méze has been a great base to relax after our travels through Croatia and Italy. We have been able to settle in and get to know the area. I have enjoyed every day of having the four of us sit down together for lunch and then deciding whether to read, go for a run or just enjoy a coffee in the square with Nils or my friends Elisabeth or Pascale who were so willing listen to me and gently correct my French.

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Mèze harbour.

One thing that I can almost do in my sleep at this point is drive from Mèze to Sète, the city across the basin. Twice a week we have driven Max to volleyball practice there. It has been a great experience for him to meet players his age and as well as being mentored by Sète ex-pro players. As we have mentioned in earlier blogs, Sète is a very enthusiastic volleybal community. Just last week, Max and I went to see the Pro Team play Belgrade in La Coupe d'Europe. It was a very close game but Sète came out on top after four sets. We have been to a few games before this so we knew all the cheers and chants. Along with the rest of the sellout crowd, we leapt out of our seats when the last point was won and cheered the home team for several minutes after the game was called. Wouldn't it be neat if one day Max played pro volleyball for Sète and could talk about club play with his hero, Jake Cabott!

It has been especially fantastic watching Angus get into the life here. He thrived at school and got great reports for his French teacher for participating often and with enthusiasm. He was very eager about going to activities offered by the youth centre here..L'espace Jeune. This week before Christmas, he has spent two full days with 30 other children playing laser tag, bowling, and skating. Yesterday, he went to a cuisine atelier and made this yummy tarte aux fruits which was every bit as delicious as it looks.

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Angus in front of L'École Jean Jaurés - Mèze, France.

Angus in front of L'École Jean Jaurés - Mèze, France.

My Montpellier French class invited me back to the school for a Christmas Party so I was able to get a picture of the class. We also visited Bernadette, Benoit, and Julie, for dinner and a walk around Montpellier to see the beautiful Christmas "illuminations".

The students from Janet's French class in Montpellier.

The students from Janet's French class in Montpellier.

Max was determined to swim on his birthday but didn't make it because it was a little windy that day. However, he, Nils and Angus all went for a dip on December 23rd. I did very well in my role as towel holder. They did not stay in long but many people at the beach café clapped in appreciation for the spectacle.

December 23 swim in Mèze!

December 23 swim in Mèze!

I better get to sleep or Pere Noel will never come. Tomorrow we begin the next part of our magical mystery tour by setting out for England and seeing Nils' roommate for his Germany university days. Manno, his wife Katherine and their four children live in Kent. The one and only time that I met Manno was at our wedding in 1994 and that is the last time Nils saw him as well so there will be some catching up to do.

Postscript: after a long, but uneventful drive, we arrived in Eastry via Dover and a Channel ferry crossing. Our Punto is filled to the gills with our backpacks and Christmas chocolate...everyone of our friends in Mèze gifted us with a box on Christmas Eve. We had a good time with Manno and family in Eastry which is a small English village situated near Sandwich...which not far from Ham..seriously! We hiked the beautiful white cliffs of Dover and spent late evenings discussing village life in Eastry, named one of England's most archetypal villages a number of years back. It reminded me of Pride and Prejudice and Major Pettigrew's Last Stand (a must-read if you haven't already) all rolled into one. We are now in London and heading off this afternoon to see We Will Rock You, the musical written by Ben Elton and Queen...I hope that there is audience participation!! We are planning a quiet family evening of playing Stratego and watching one of Julian's 700 videos.

Happy New Year..I hope that you all have had a relaxing Christmas and all the best for a wonderful 2012!

Posted by clarkesabroad 14:15 Archived in France Tagged volleyball christmas_eve Comments (2)

Enjoying beautiful Montpellier in the fall...

Janet heads back to school...again!

sunny 18 °C

Last week, I left Nils and the boys to fend for themselves in Mèze and headed to Montpellier for an intense mix of French language classes and living with a REAL, LIVE French family. It was a great experience and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to become "bilingue" while enjoying wine, raclette, and a walking around a beautiful city. Okay, the bilingual part might be a stretch but it delivers on everything else.

I arrived at my famille d'accueil (host family) on Sunday evening. Bernadette, Benoit, and daughter Julie live in the Quartier Beaux Arts which is very close to the centre of the city and has many cafes, galleries, and small speciality stores. The weather was fantastic for the whole week so I would walk home through the quartier looking at store displays and listening to the hum of people eating and drinking outside. Bernadette is a great cook so each night, I enjoyed a wonderful meal and then a couple of hours of conversation afterwords over wine. It was great practice...although I came to realize that telling long, complicated stories does not end well. Julie is 17 years old and quite used to having students living in the house...although I was the first "student" over the age of 25 years whom they had hosted. Bernadette appreciated that I actually cleaned up after breakfast each day but I think that Julie might have preferred someone who would go out with her...I told her that I was keen to "aller à la boite" if she had just asked. They want to meet Nils and the boys so we will head there later on in December to see the Christmas lights of Montpellier.

My fifteen minute walk each morning was my favourite part of the day. I put a scarf on and imagined that I looked just like a student. In reality, I probably looked more like a "not very chic" professor. My walk took me across beautiful tree-lined boulevards beside churches and large parks. Montpellier impressed me with its many green spaces and large esplanades.. My host, Benoit, works for VeloMagg, a muncipal programme of bike rentals around the city which is very popular. One night, Bernadette and I biked downtown to an art exhibit in an old church which is now used exclusively for art exhibits. There are many pedestrian-only streets downtown so the route to and from the church was wonderful as Bernadette pointed out places of interest such as the large 16 Century convent which later became a women's prison and is now the National Choreography Centre.

One day, I came home around lunch time and, across the road from the house there is a house currently under construction. The homeowners had set up a table outside on the sidewalk with four wineglasses, four plates, two baguettes, and a large bottle of red wine. There was no one sitting when I first walked by, but twenty minutes later when I passed by again, they were eating and enjoying the sun out there on the road. I swear that one of the men was wearing a beret and a blue and white striped shirt but I may be just projecting those details upon the scene.

The language school was small and my class only had eight students. Six of them had been together for the past seven weeks so they knew each other well, but I didn't let that stop me from yakking away and trying to wring as much from the experience as I could. Patricia, the teacher, was very experienced and lots of fun. There is a Yukon section in one of the textbooks that she uses so she knew a little about the place. I did a short presentation with pictures which was a hit especially the pictures of the Chilkoot. Each of the students came from a different country (Poland, Holland, China, Wales, England, Switzerland, Germany) but all knew some English. We were a pretty committed bunch and only spoke French together which was cool. I had lunch with Fergus from Wales one afternoon and I am sure that a francophone listening in would have been in hysterics to hear us massacre his beloved native language !

The tipping point of my really loving Montpellier might have been when I sat down with Julie one evening and admired her new red laptop computer. She told me that it was care of "notre Georges" referring to Montpellier's beloved "President de la region" Georges Frêche who died last year while in office...literally. Apparently he was receiving some Chinese delegates last October when he suddenly keeled over with a heart attack. He was a controversial figure but seen by many as a visionary and builder. According to Julie, it was his idea to give each secondary school student in Montpellier a new red Dell laptop computer. She was part of the first year of recipients. She said that students take them to each class, take notes, do class projects, maintain their Facebook pages...WOW! What a great programme! No more fights over computer labs at school...where can the Yukon sign up?!?

On Friday I sadly bid adieu to my classmates during the obligatory wine and cheese luncheon at the school. After telling Nils all about my impressions of Montpellier, he is keen to go there the next time that we pack our kids up and put them in school in France...just kidding Max!

The port of Mèze.

The port of Mèze.

Unfortunately I didn't take my camera so don't have any pictures of my wonderful experience so I thought that I would put a nice one here of Mèze which I took this past weekend. Every weekend, we see families come to the port and have long lunches of oysters and other seafood treats. Finally this weekend, we joined them and had a sunny meal looking out over the water. Nils and I had oysters while Max and Angus had duck, a dish that they have become very fond of and think that I should prepare more often!

Another fun adventure we had this weekend was visiting the Viaduct de Millau. It holds the record as the tallest bridge in the world with the highest stanchion towering 343 m above the valley. I am not normally a bridge admirer but this one is spectacular. It is futuristic but somehow fits into the landscape without looking out of place or obtrusive. The lines are clean and spare..actually quite reminiscient of the fine work of the Yukon firm of Kobayashi Zedda. It was a spectacular late Fall day, so the sunlight reflecting off the bridge and the Tarn valley was stunning.

Viaduct #1

Viaduct #1

A Sunday adventure to the Viaduct de Millau

A Sunday adventure to the Viaduct de Millau

Nils and I were dragging our butts earlier this week after a surprise late night on Monday evening. A french man at my French/English Monday chat session, Pascal, invited us over to visit his restaurant which is closed on Mondays.  We went at 6:30 pm expecting to have a short drink and be home by 8 pm.  Instead it ws closer to 11:30 pm after oysters, foie gras, steak, dessert and more than one bottle of wine.  My French verbs were conjugating all by themselves at that point. Luckily it was close to our place so we sent the kids home to put themselves to bed.  They locked the door and we had to wake Max up to let us in.  We plan to hang out with Pascal more often!

Posted by clarkesabroad 23:59 Archived in France Tagged gardens school montpellier french_language Comments (1)

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