Madrid

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Madrid

Please note this trip was before the Covid 19 outbreak. All future trips currently on hold until who knows when

Spain was the destination for my birthday trip with us having a week in the capital Madrid. There is a lot to see and do in Spain’s capital as you would expect also their are some very good sights outside of the city that are good for a day trip if you have the time. We stayed in an area just outside of the centre, but easily walkable to the main attractions, called Atocha. A nice quiet area with some good restaurants nearby and a short walk to the metro, the perfect base for our trip. As Madrid is Spain’s capital, and as you would expect, the most populated city in Spain. It lies on the River Manzanres, and if you look at a map of Spain it is right slap bang in the middle of the country. Madrid has plenty to offer in the way of sights, restaurants and nightlife, and is a great long weekend destination, although we stayed for a week, which enabled us to explore other towns and attractions outside of the city.

Top attractions to visit

Plaza Mayor (Click here for a 360 degree view) is situated in the heart Hapsburg the old part of the city and is one of the capitals most visited areas. The large square with its many restaurants around the edge is the perfect place to while away an hour having a cold beer or a cup of coffee. As you can imagine it can be an expensive experience because of the location, that said, its a must. Just through the arch in the corner of the square and down some steps you will come across Restaurante Botin which is the worlds oldest restaurant as published in the Guinness book of records. Founded in 1725 and famed for its suckling pig and lamb roasted in the Castilian style it’s a popular place. Although we didn’t eat there it looks amazing from the outside. In the window there is a small model of the building a great photo opportunity. If you like music and your passion is blues music like mine a great place to go in the evening is a blues bar called La Coquette situated in Calle de las Hileras this very intimate little venue has a great vibe about it. They have live music every evening. It doesn’t open until 9pm with music starting around 10pm. I’d advise getting there when it opens as seating is quickly taken up. Unfortunately they do not have a website but they do have a Facebook page.

If you happen to be in Madrid on a Sunday or a public holiday a must visit is El Rastro Market. Situated along Plaza de Cascorro and Ribera de Curtidores, its very popular with locals and tourists alike. So many stalls selling everything from clothes, antiques, food and general wares its a great place to spend a few hours. The nearest metro station is La Latina. After visiting El Rastro a good place to get some lunch is the Mercado San Miguel Built some 100 years ago, it started out as a wholesale food market. Today in this magnificent historical building it caters for all gastronomy tastes, from fresh fish and shellfish, Iberian ham, amazing cheese, and tapas. It’s a great place to head to for lunch, and is extremely popular with the locals and is always busy. It’s open Monday to Thursday and Sunday from 10am to midnight and until 1am on Friday and Saturday

If you want stunning views of the city then you should visit the Circulo de Bellas Artes which in itself is an art gallery, featuring works of art, paintings, sculptures and a large collection of books. The other reason to visit is for its roof top restaurant and bar, with great 360 degree views over Grand Via and the city. Entrance at time of writing is 4€ and drinks are reasonably priced. Location is Calle de Alcalá 42

If its parks you like take a visit to Parque de el Retiro a very beautiful and well kept park and a great place to go to escape the hum drum of the city. The park is filled with beautiful sculptures with its centre piece a large lake. A must view near the rose garden is the statue of the fallen angel. It’s the only sculpture in the world dedicated to the devil. and curiously stands 666m above sea level. Another lovely structure is the glass house, it does not house any exotic plants which it once did but is now used as an exhibition hall. The cast iron and glass structure is well worth looking around and a good photo opportunity

Another great place to visit is the Palacio Real de Madrid. This palace is the official residence of the Spanish Royal family, but is now used only for state ceremonies. I would advise booking in advance online to avoid the queues, as its a popular tourist destination. At time of writing admission is 12€

If Flamenco is your thing then take a look at Casa Patas. it’s a typical old Spanish restaurant serving traditional dishes and tapas. (Click for 360 view) The shows are performed in a large seated area at the back in a separate room. Casa Patas is not your normal touristy Flamenco show but authentic, traditional and passionate dancing, music and singing. Entrance is 40€ with a drink so a little pricey, but in my opinion well worth it

Day trips outside of Madrid

If you have a little more time than a long weekend, a week in our case, then there are some great attractions and towns outside of the city.

San Lorenzo de El Escorial

On your way and a good place to stop halfway to Segovia is the Monastery San Lorenzo de El Escorial. A truly magnificent structure and a must visit. Construction started in 1563 and was completed in 1584 and is in remarkable condition. When we arrived it appeared that you just walk in, but when we went to go inside we were asked for a ticket. We asked where the ticket kiosk was and was directed to a ticket machine all the way back to where we came in, the machine was in a corner and not easily visible so take note. Entrance fees at time of writing was 8€ and is good value for money as once inside the architecture is jaw dropping, especially the magnificent library. Give yourself a couple of hours to have a good look around. Unfortunately as we were moving onto Segovia we did not have time to look around the town so you could easily spend a day here.

Valley of the Fallen

After leaving San Lorenzo we stopped off at the Valley of the Fallen, which is about a 20 minute drive towards Segovia. The valley of the fallen is the former resting place of the infamous dictator Franco and is not normally found in guide books because its not a piece of history that most Spaniards want to remember. It’s a sprawling huge over the top memorial to this disposed dictator. It served as the burial place of Franco’s remains from his death in November 1975 until his exhumation on 24 October 2019, as a result of efforts to remove all public veneration of his dictatorship. Apparently every year on the anniversary of his death a huge gathering still takes place to celebrate this man’s slaughter of the many Spanish people who died during his dictatorship. The death toll during his regime is estimated to be between 100,000 and 200,000 people. The reason for our visit was Mark who is taking a degree in politics wanted to find out more. Once inside it felt very sombre and dark, almost creepy a real stark reminder of Spain’s infamous history

Segovia

Finally we reached the really lovely town of Segovia, a world heritage listed site, so as you can imagine the town has some stunning architecture, with its magnificent Roman built aqueduct leading to the main square. Made up of around 166 arches it brought the water from La Acebeda to the Alcázar a distance of more than 17km. Don’t forget to take a closer look at the stones used to construct the arches. No mortar or adhesive was used in its construction, amazing. Some of the upper stones have ridges on their sides. These marks were caused by dragging the stones and raising them into position The town has a beautiful main square, a stunning Cathedral and a must visit, Alcázar, palace. Walt Disney is said to have modelled Sleeping Beauty’s castle in California’s Disneyland on the Alcázar, but to be fair if you google it appears that another castle in Germany has also laid claim and perhaps many others. So take a visit and make up your own mind. Also have a stroll around the old Jewish quarter with it’s quaint little house out of the way restaurants and bars, just walk around and soak up this really lovely part of town.

Toledo

Another great day out from Madrid is the city of Toledo, it lies about an hour’s drive south east of Madrid, and as its Spain I will certainly guarantee some more stunning architecture. It boasts a magnificent cathedral the Santa Iglesias Cathedral Primada de Toledo. The cathedral is one of only three High Gothic cathedrals in Spain and is architecturally stunning both inside and out. Work began in 1226 and was finally finished in around 1493. The outside is beautiful but the inside will leave you open mouthed, especially the altarpiece which is something to behold (Click here) for the official website which has lots of information and some great photos of the interior

Whilst in the city also visit the beautiful stone built and very imposing Alcazar Perched on top of a hill overlooking the city with some great views over the surrounding countryside, the Alcazar which was once used as a Roman palace in the 3rd century has been destroyed and re-built throughout years of history and conflict but is now used as Army offices and also houses a military arms museum. If your thing is military I’m sure the inside is worth a visit, (entrance fee is currently 5€) but if it’s not, like us, then a walk around the perimeter just to soak up the grandeur of the place is worth doing.

Well that’s it for Madrid. Next post will be our Bulgarian trip in 2019. So stay safe and keep following.

French Camping Trip Part II

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French Camping Trip Part II

After our time in Annecy in the Rhone Alps we moved on to Châtillon-sur-Seine which is in the Burgundy region. The reason we chose this town it was central to the towns we wanted to visit, those being Auxerre, Troyes and Dijon. We stayed on a municipal site called Campsite Louis Rigoly on the outskirts of this quite and quaint little town. Municipal camping sites can be found in most French towns, they are really resonably priced and very well maintained and very clean “well this one was” We were told about municipal sites by some people we met on the camp site in Annecy, word of warning though, the more popular destinations can get very busy, especially in the peak seasons, so better to book ahead. Campsite Louis Rigoly was off the tourist trail and as it was mid September we decided to take a chance, although the site got quite busy in the evenings with motorhomes, most stayed just one night as they were just passing through. I have to say we were not disappointed. The facilities were spotless, individually marked out pitches with plenty of space between campers and very reasonably priced 15.60 euros per night with electric, which was half the price of our previous site, it also included free entrance to the indoor municipal swimming pool next door, although we did not use it. A great base for the places we wanted to see.

The first town we visited was Dijon famed for is mustard, although strangly its not produced locally anymore Dijon has some stunning french architecture as you would expect. Its historic buildings were not heavily damaged by bombing in World War Two and are largely intact. The historic centre is mainly closed to traffic so you can stroll around and view the magnificent architecture stress free. There are countless restaurants, most of which have outside seating, great for people watching and soaking up the atmosphere of this glorious town.

Must sees whilst here are the Cathédrale Saint-Bénigne de Dijon “click link for some good images of the inside”. Constructed between 1280 and 1325, and is now listed as an historical monument. The Palace of the Dukes of Burgundy a beautiful structure right in the centre,near to the place de la Liberation The earliest part being built in the 14th and 15th century. The Church of Notre-Dame of Dijon situated in the heart of the preserved old city centre. Place de la liberation (click for 360 degree view) a great place to grab a coffee and admire the surroundings. There is so much to see and do in Dijon we only scratched the surface as we were only there for a day. Need to stay longer next time.

The next town we visited was the delightful town of Troyes. you will need a good day to explore this amazing town, so get there early.

Troyes (pronounced Twaa) is the ancient capital of the Champagne-Ardennes region, famous for its vineyards and finest champagne. It lies approximately 93 miles from Paris . The city centre is aptly shaped like the cork of a champagne bottle with a rectangular outline defined by avenues of trees and a rounded top circled by the River Seine. Spend some time wandering its narrow, cobbled streets and soak up the amazingly preserved medieval half-timbered buildings. For lovers of architecture its a must visit, and a unique opportunity to enjoy the history of this remarkable city amongst some of the most beautiful countryside along the Seine. Also walk through the Ruelle de Chats where legend has it, as the building’s are so close together the cats used to jump from one rooftop to the next.

Also around the region there are some other great places to visit, Fontenay Abbey which is the oldest preserved Cistercian abbey in the world, and has been declared a world heritage site. Entrance fees are 10€ for self guided or 12.50€ for guided and my opinion well worth it.

Also another great way to spend the day is to visit the quaint little town of Noyers and to visit the Château Ancy-le-Franc both can be done comfortably in a day, and will not disappoint

Our last stop on this leg of our french trip was to visit the city of Auxerre , another amazing french city Auxerre lies on the banks of the river Yonne and is the fourth largest city in the Burgundy region and is associated with the production of the world famous Chablis. We decided to stay here for one night away from our lovely tent, as we wanted to visit Le Château de Tanlay on route to Auxerre, also to have some home comforts for the night. The city as you would expect some more fabulous architecture the Abbey of Saint-German d’ Auxerre Auxerre Cathedral both of which sit high on the hill overlooking the city and the Yonne river. The 15th century astronomical clock tower situated in the heart of the old quarter of the city. With lots of great sights, good restaurants and great sights it’s worth spending the night.

Well it’s time to sign off now it’s been a while since my last post but I have more to catch up on. Our Bulgarian road trip, also our trip to Madrid so please stay following.

French Camping Trip Part I

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French Camping Trip Part I

Yes you read the title correctly “Camping”. I know its far removed from my normal travel blogs from around the world but this trip was equally enjoyable. Now I haven’t been camping since I was a small child but as I am now the ripe old age of sixty two I decided to give it another go. Our destination on the first part of the trip was Annecy on the French and Swiss borders. We took the ferry from Dover “much cheaper than the tunnel” and headed for our first overnight stop at a town called Epernay, which is about 213 miles from Calais and about a four hour drive. There is a faster route if you go on the toll roads but French tolls can work out expensive so we avoided them as much as possible on the trip. Epernay is situated in the heart of the Champagne region of France. We stayed at the Hotel Premiere Class which is a very nice and clean budget hotel. It was easier to do this than setting up the tent for just one night. The next day we were off bright and early for the next leg of our journey to Annecy, which was 333 miles and around five and a half hours drive. This time we did take the toll roads, but you pay dearly for the shorter journey time 51 euros in fact. But avoiding them the journey would have took much longer.

We did not book our campsite, we just researched a few before we left the UK, Our first choice when we arrive was fully booked. Our second we did not like, so we were beginning to think that we probably should have booked one, as everywhere seemed very busy indeed, but fortunately our third choice although a little further from town called Le Solitaire du Lac had spaces, and although very busy it was very nice and on the edge of the lake. The facilities were very clean and plenty of them “no queueing for the showers in the morning, also plenty of hot water. Not like I remember from previous camping and caravanning experience.”

Annecy is a beautiful town with lots of amazing architecture. Its situated in the Auvergne-Rhone-Alps region of France not far from the border with Switzerland. We were surprised how busy the place was, being the middle of September. The town of Annecy is situated on the edge of a lake with a circumference of 42km surrounded by mountains, so you can imagine very beautiful spot indeed. The town has plenty of really nice restaurants and as you would expect in France plenty of Boulangeries (Bakery’s) with their mouthwatering fresh baguettes, croissants etc. There is plenty to do in the town, like visiting historic churches eating, or just sitting outside the many cafe’s watching the world go by. Oh and of course as its on a lake, water sports. Also if cycling is your thing there is a cycle path around the periphery of the lake if your feeling energetic.

As we were based in Annecy for a week we took the opportunity to see some of the surrounding sights and towns in the area, our first place to venture to was the delightful town of Chambery which is about an hours drive away. It has a lovely cathedral, a château and the Fontaine des Éléphants (“Elephants Fountain”) its most famous landmark. It was built in 1838 to honour Benoît de Boigne‘s feats when he was in India. We also visited Chamonix a very beautiful town situated at the foot of Mont Blanc. Chamonix and is around one and a half hours drive from Annecy but well worth the trip. With its chocolate box chalets, shops and restaurants, with the magnificent backdrop of Mont Blanc and the surrounding snow capped mountains.

Must do’s in Chamonix

Take the Montenvers Mer de Glace or cog railway up the mountain to the glacier, its quite expensive but oh so worth it “at the time of writing the cost is 33.50 euros per person. The journey along the railway which rises steeply takes about 30 minutes with stunning views along the way. When you reach the glacier the views are breathtaking. After soaking up the views its time to visit the ice cave, which is inside the glacier itself ” all included in the ticket price”. To reach the cave you first must go part of the way down by cable car then you have to walk down 500 steps to the cave itself. One thing that amazed us on the way down was how the height of the glacier itself had receded over the years. There were markers displaying the level the glacier was at years gone by, on the steps as you go down, it was quite shocking how far it had receded, and we are talking about recent years. Another must do is take the cable car from the the town to the summit of Aiguille du Midi. “click the link for more info” There are two legs to the journey to the summit via two cable cars, unfortunately for us only the first stage was open because of maintenance work on the second leg, but it was still worth doing it to admire the view of Mont Blanc and the town below with a glass of cold beer in hand. You can walk up instead of taking the cable car, but trust me this is only for the very fit and seasoned hikers. We saw some from the cable car and believe the walk was very steep indeed. Also if you are the adventurous type you can para glide your way down. Read about the second leg of our trip in “French camping trip part II”

The Ancient City of Anuradhapura.

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The Ancient City of Anuradhapura.

Our last stop on our tour around Sri Lanka is the ancient city of Anuradhapura. Located in Northern Central Province, it is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world. It is believed that from the forth century BC until the beginning of the eleventh century AD it was the capital of the Sinhalese. The ancient city covers a large area and is split into two sections. The Citadel area in which you have to pay, and the area to the south which is free apart from Isurumuniya Viharaya temple which cost 200 lkr, .87p. It costs $25 to visit the citadel, once again a disproportionate amount to locals, but it’s not to be missed. Like I said the citadel covers a large area, there are plenty of Tuk Tuk drivers willing to take you on a tour. They will come out with an array of different prices so make sure you barter if that’s the way you want to go. We decided not to take the tour but to walk around the site, to the surprise of all the Tuk Tuk drivers who thought we were mad, and who told us that the distance would be anywhere between 17km and 25km. In fact it was just over 11km. It was a really nice amble around which took around eight hours, that does include taking in the sights. It was an amazing day. There is also plenty of wildlife to see on the way, a lot of which would have been missed if we were in a Tuk Tuk or taxi. From exotic birds to plenty monkeys getting up to there antics. At one point we were approaching a small stream when we heard a loud splashing noise. Initially I could only see a duck sort of running along the water, but as we got closer we saw it was being chased by a huge Monitor Lizard. (In fact it was so big we thought it was a crocodile) Luckily for the duck it managed to escape. When the lizard crawled up the bank after its failed attempt we were both amazed at its size. I could go on and list the many stunning structures around the site, but I would be writing for days. So all I can say if you are in Sri Lanka it’s a must see place. One great structure that I will mention is the Jetavana Stupa, which is possibly the main sight in the citadel. The reason I mention Jatavana Stupa is because its currently the highest Buddhist Stupa (made up of 93,300,000 fire burnt bricks) in the world. Also in the 4th century AD it was the third highest structure in the world. Only the two Great Pyramids of Egypt were higher.

Top Tips.

It goes without saying take plenty of water if you aim to walk around the citadel as you can imagine it gets very hot. Also there are not many vendors around plying there trade.  On our second day visiting the site we did get a Tuk Tuk to take us around the sights in the free area (because we were pretty exhausted from the day before, and also the sites are quite far apart). Make sure you have some short socks and a sarong, (or wear long trousers) with you when visiting the temples, as your not allowed in with shoes or bare legs. The socks are a must as the stone floors get hot, I mean extremely hot, After visiting our first temple, the flagstones were so hot I burnt the soles of my feet, we had to run from shadow to shadow it was ridiculous “they stung for a couple of days afterwards”. We had to ask the Tuk Tuk driver to take us back into town to buy some socks. So be warned. Quite how the local people stroll around without any bother is beyond me.

Suggested sights outside the citadel.

Sri Maha Bodhi Tree

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Isurumuniya Viharaya

Dambulla Cave Temple, Lion Rock and Kaudulla National Park.

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Dambulla Cave Temple, Lion Rock and Kaudulla National Park.

After our couple of nights in Kandy we moved onto Inamaluwa, which is situated midway between Dambulla and Sigiriya. It’s a very quite place with not a lot going on, but has a few home-stays dotted here and there. “Incidentally they are also very cheap, the cost of ours was just £14 per night” but the main reason for choosing Inamaluwa was because it is roughly midway between Lion Rock and the Dambulla cave temple. We decided to stay for three nights giving us two full days as we had a lot to pack in. On our first day we visited Dambulla Cave Temple, also known as the Golden Temple of Dambulla. It was given UNESCO world heritage status in 1991. The rock in which the five cave temples are situated towers some 160 metres above the surrounding plains, so you can imagine there are plenty of steps to reach them. One Top Tip that I read about is don’t view the caves in the order you arrive at. Walk to the far end and view that cave first, as each cave gets more spectacular, until you reach the last which is the largest and the best. Try to get there early before the tour groups arrive.

Kaudulla National Park.

Now anyone who reads my blogs will know that I am extremely fussy when it comes to visiting National Parks where animals are involved, I have to make sure by thorough research that the park is run for the benefit of the animals and are not just in the business of making money from tourists. So after reading how busy Yala and Udawalawe National Parks were, and the amount of tourists that visit these sites we decided to give them a miss. On doing some further research we decided to visit Kaudulla National Park, which mainly houses elephants. We visited the park in the afternoon like most people suggest. When we arrived there were a few jeeps waiting to gain entry, maybe 15 to 20. It was not long after entering the park we saw a small group of elephants. Over in the distance I saw two much larger groups. Our guides then proceeded to drive over to them. When we got there he stopped and switched off the engine. At this time we were quite close, which was great from a photographic point of view. Our guides then pointed to a large female and told us “she was the grumpy one. Initially we just smiled and did not take much notice. Then the driver started his engine and quickly reversed backwards. All of a sudden we heard a roar and the elephant charged at us, at quite a speed I might add. The driver immediately accelerated hard and veered to the left. The Elephant missed us by inches “i had my GoPro attached to the jeep”. It was a quite exciting but scary experience. When we eventually stopped, our guides were laughing and chatting to other guides about our near miss. When we asked why the Elephant had charged us, he told us that five years previous their was an accident with a jeep resulting in the death of the female Elephants baby, the one that charged us. That’s why she doesn’t like jeeps. This news put a total damper on our day, and really made us wish we never went. They say a elephant never forgets, this poor female has to endure the sight of jeeps turning up every day, reminding her of her loss. In my opinion, the jeeps should not get so close to the wildlife and the companies who provide the tours should be strictly licensed and their guides act in a professional manner, like the many professionally run parks we visited in South Africa. Click here to view near miss. Watch the shadow of the jeep and elephant to see how close she was.

Sigiriya, Lion Rock.

Now before I start I will have my little rant. Every main attraction in Sri Lanka has two entrance prices, one for tourists and one for locals, which is fine if the difference in price is a reasonable amount, like India for example, but in Sri Lanka the price difference is vast. For example entrance fee for locals to visit Lion Rock is just 65 lkr which is £0.30 but for foreigners it is £21.50 per person. The same applies at Anuradhapura 50 lkr locals, £0.23p, foreigners £18. These price differences are the same all over Sri Lanka whichever attraction you visit. Now locals should pay less because there income levels are a lot lower than that of other countries, and I really don’t mind paying a reasonable difference in price but in my opinion this is way to much. Rant over. It was because of the price difference we nearly didn’t climb up Lion Rock, it wasn’t because of the cost “although we are on a budget” it was because out of principle. We were just going to climb Pidurangala rock, known to the locals as “cheap rock”, due to it’s 500 lkr entrance fee, which is situated next to Lion Rock, but after watching a couple of YouTube videos it would have been too much for me to climb. So we swallowed our principles and went to Lion Rock. Oh were we really glad we did as it was amazing. The climb up is a slog but the steps are in good shape, their also a iron walkway to traverse, which could be a problem with someone who suffers from vertigo, but it was really worth the climb. The views from the top are amazing. Click on the heading link for more information.

Top Tip. Make sure you get to the rock at opening time, 7am. Two reasons. First and most obvious it’s the coolest time of the day. Secondly if you go later you will have to endure the other crowds, and I mean crowds of tourists arriving in their coach loads. We came down around 09:30 and the sea of people arriving was amazing. When I turned around to look back up to the rock it was just like a swarm of ants scurrying along. Next stop Anuradhapura.

Cheap Rock