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Trip Report thursdaysd Wanders South

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I planned my European trip this year in three parts. It was built round my niece's wedding in England at the end of August, and the center section was two and a half weeks in England. Since I had to travel in the summer, I decided it was the perfect time to finally visit Scandinavia, and I just finished the TR for that section:

http://www.fodors.com/community/europe/in-pursuit-of-vikings-fjords-and-cooler-weather-thursdaysd-goes-north.cfm

I stayed very busy in England, and got behind on the TR, so instead of writing a TR for England (maybe I'll do that after I get home), I'm starting over with the third part, a zig-zag trip south, taking in north-east France, a little Switzerland, northern Italy, and the Basque country, finishing in Barcelona on Halloween.

As with the other TR, I'll be posting the same text, but with photos, to my blog:

mytimetotravel.wordpress.com

September 11-14, 2015: Struggling in Strasbourg

Growing up in England, I would spend every winter suffering through a series of colds. When I moved to North Carolina, where the summers are (very) humid but the winters (very) dry, I was delighted to make it through the cold season with just one or two illnesses. Since the weather while I was in London this trip was more like winter than summer, I suppose I should not have been surprised to succumb to a virus. A visit to a walk-in clinic in Portsmouth produced the depressing advice: "take paracetamol and come back in two weeks if you're not better". At least the advice was free.

By day five, when I was scheduled to fly to Strasbourg, I was no better, and although had no wish to fly while sick, I didn't have a Plan B. At least I figured I was no longer infectious. I made it through the flight without too much discomfort, retrieved my bag (from a different carousel than the one listed on the monitors), took the train into town, and it was only when I checked into the Hotel Suisse, right behind the cathedral, that I realized I had become almost completely deaf. Happily, by next morning I could hear again, but it had been frightening, and walking the streets with no sound from the traffic was decidedly eerie.

Despite my temporary deafness I had been able to order dinner, at La Cloche a Fromage. In my experience, few places want to provide fondue for one person, but La Cloche was happy to fix fondue or raclette for solo diners. The restaurant also owned the most extensive cheese selection I have seen outside a shop, and I went back another night for the degustation menu. Add in a cheerful staff, some of whom spoke impeccable English, and I was tempted to go back a third time.

On my previous visit, in 2009, I had fallen in love with the cathedral, easily one of Europe's best, and the main reason for my return. Perhaps it was because I was visiting in mid-September instead of mid-April, or perhaps river cruises had become more popular, but Strasbourg was a lot more crowded than on my first visit. Some, like the couple from Nancy who sat next to me at dinner Saturday night, were French, but most seemed to be groups off the river boats. Still, I got a good long look at the cathedral, both inside and out. The magnificent west front, totally covered in statues, still soared over the Place de la Cathedrale, the stained glass still fascinated and the gilded organ still gleamed. Protective railings hid the lower level of the pulpit, but the angel column and astrological clock in a side chapel still drew the largest crowds.

Building started exactly a thousand years ago, and as part of the celebrations the west and south fronts were lit at specific times at night. Unfortunately, it was too cold and wet for me to want to linger outside, especially as I remained sick. Indeed, so far from getting better, I was getting worse, with paroxysms of dry coughing attacking me at irregular intervals. Research on the web ruled out bronchitis, but perhaps I had walking pneumonia? When asked about a clinic, the helpful woman on the hotel's front desk sent me literally round the corner to a doctor.

The French doctor agreed with the English: virus, will take two weeks to clear up. But he did write me a prescription for some medications, and the visit was interesting. The waiting room held maybe seven chairs, and across the hall was just an office and an examining room, and the doctor. No receptionist, no nurse, and no back office staff processing insurance claims. Since I had neither a French nor an EU medical card, the doctor wrote me a bill, for all of 30 euro (the three medications cost 13 euro). No wonder the American health system, weighed down by the red tape and bureaucratic overhead of the insurance industry, costs so very much more than the European ones.

Besides the cathedral, I had planned to spend more time admiring the many old buildings in Strasbourg, and to make a return day trip to Colmar. Between the weather and the virus, I had to scale back a bit, but I did see more than the cathedral.

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    I'm looking forward to this trip report. I've Always wanted to visit Strasbourg, and the Basque country also calls my name.

    Also in Italy, most family doctors don't have a secretary or other staff. When you join the National Health Service, you choose a family doctor from a list of doctors practising in your town. (You can choose a doctor in a different town if you prefer.) The doctor gets paid a flat fee to attend to your primary health needs, and to refer you to a specialist, if she thinks it necessary. So there's no insurance claim at all.

    Doctors here spend a good deal of their time just writing new prescriptions. Even if you're taking a medicine that you'll need to take for the rest of your life, you have to get it refilled about once a month, and you can't do it by phone (yet). Our family doctor has taken on a secretary to help with the prescription part of the practice, although each one still has to be signed by the doctor.

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    bvlenci - highly recommend Strasbourg. More coming. Also good base for other worthwhile places, like Colmar. The difference between the French doctor's office and my US doctor's office was so extreme it was almost funny.

    LTD - nice to see you here!

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    I love Strasbourg and Colmar :) and your TR's, so definitely following along.
    Just noted on your other report about airbnb and the keys, I recently registered with them and booked some accommodation without even noticing the part about key pickup LOL, lucky you reminded me to check this...

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    Good to see you all! So nice to meet you at the London GTG, gail.

    I'm going to put up one blog post for Strasbourg with just photos, as I have a bunch of ones of street signs, but will write a second post before I do that.

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    September 12-14, 1015: Strolling Strasbourg

    When I visited Alsace the first time, I chose to stay in Strasbourg rather than Colmar because I figured there would be more to do if it rained. It rained a lot, and I visited pretty much every museum on the T.I.'s list, even including the Musee d’Art Moderne et Contemporain, although admittedly, that was as much for the building as the contents. The building was indeed interesting, and I enjoyed a special exhibition on color, but the permanent exhibition, as I expected, left me cold.

    It rained a fair amount this time too, but I only revisited a couple of museums. I had wanted to go back to the Musee de L’Oeuvre Notre-Dame, where the collection includes the statues removed from the cathedral during the French Revolution and later replaced by copies. Alas, it was closed, apparently for work on the building, and instead I went next door to the Palais Rohan for the Decorative Arts Museum. I enjoyed it a bit more this time - perhaps I had missed the explanatory text last time? But I did not revisit the Beaux Artes and Archaeological Museums in the same building.

    With somewhat limited energy, I didn't make it back to the enjoyable Musee Alsacien, but I did have a nice time at the equally recommendable History Museum (if you go, do get the audioguide). I had actually forgotten about the magnificent three dimensional plan of the historic city, which has a room of its own. I had not forgotten the informative displays on the years of the city's independence, but I think the 20th century displays may have been new. The city, and the region as a whole, did not have a happy time, tossed back and forth between France and Germany as the fortunes of war dictated, and the citizens had a particularly hard choice after Hitler annexed the area in 1940, the men who remained being conscripted into the German army.

    The city today feels thoroughly French, but a border existence has of course left its mark, and I considered the half-timbered buildings of the Petite France area, the tourists' second target after the cathedral, more German than French. Very photogenic, of course, and although it was overwhelmed by tourists on the weekend, I found it quieter on Monday. But photo-worthy buildings can be found all over the old town, and Strasbourg is a great place for just wandering.

    The Petite France area is also notable for its canals, and the old town as a whole is surrounded by water. Sunday afternoon I abandoned the crowds west of the cathedral and strolled east along the river bank. My rewards included an attractive church and a pretty park. If I had kept going east I would have reached the very modern enclave of the European Parliament, but I didn't have that much energy. I could have joined one of the boat trips, but during the middle of the day they were packed, and later my cornea problem would have made it almost impossible for me to see against the sun.

    Talking of modern buildings... I was traveling with a downloaded chapter from Lonely Planet (no question, I much prefer paper guidebooks, but on a long trip some compromises are necessary), and Lonely Planet recommended a visit to the newly opened Grand Mosque. A little puzzled to find no mention of it in the literature from the T.I. I stopped by to enquire. Oh yes, I was told, it does exist, a little far from the center perhaps, and yes, you can visit. Not in the literature? But it's a new building and we concentrate on the history. Not being at my brightest at the time, I did not point out that the Modern Art Museum and the European Parliament were also new.

    I didn't make it to the mosque, and I didn't make it back to Colmar either. I had intended to go my last day in town, but the morning was occupied first by my visit to the doctor, and secondly by a panic when my iPad refused to turn on. By the time I had taken it over to the Apple store on Place Kleber, which I had fortuitously noted the day before, and where the problem was quickly fixed, it was too late to get to Colmar before lunch, and after lunch the rain started up again.

    I did make it back to my favorite restaurant from my last trip, Strissel, on Saturday night. I had made a dinner reservation at lunchtime, but it had disappeared. Fortunately, I had made it for 7:30, which was early enough for me to get a table anyway. The place was slammed, and I watched a lot of people turned away. The foie gras d'oie "Maison" was as good as I remembered, and a local specialty, tarte flambee gratinee, more filling than I expected.

    This visit would, of course, have been more successful if I had been feeling better, but I still managed to enjoy myself, and would still be happy to return. And if I returned I would definitely go back to La Cloche a Fromage and Strissel!

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    Wifi in my hotel in Varenna was abysmal, and wifi in my hotel in Stresa (well, on Isola Superiore) didn't work until late last night...

    September 15-18, 2015: Not So Hot in Nancy

    Traveling while sick, especially traveling solo while sick, is a miserable experience. Admittedly, some situations are worse than others. Breaking my wrist in Switzerland was a lot worse than the virus I had acquired in London. Still, I had a lot less energy, and even enthusiasm, for sightseeing than usual. The weather in Nancy didn't help, being cold and grey when not actually wet and windy. Even my Norwegian umbrella, guaranteed sturdy, got blown inside out a time or two.

    This is by way of explaining why, although I had returned to Nancy to revisit its museums and wander its streets photographing Art Nouveau buildings, I managed the former and not the latter. A more accurate weather forecast might have helped, as the weather was worse instead of better my second full day in town. Still, even Art Nouveau buildings need a little sunshine to photograph well, and trying to manage both an umbrella and a camera in a high wind is a recipe for disaster.

    While I am a big fan of Art Nouveau, the term covers several different styles, and I like some more than others - I am not wild about National Romantic for instance. French is one of my favorite variants, and Nancy was the home of French Art Nouveau, and of some of its most famous practitioners. My museum day began at the Musee des Beaux Arts, although once again I was totally unimpressed with the main collection, and had some difficulty finding the Daum glassware in the basement. The museum had been extended at least once, and the visitor is confronted by elevators that only go to certain floors, and signage that is less than helpful. The staircase in the addition is quite nice, however.

    Once I found the access to the basement, at the far end of the main floor, I had the feeling that the area was treated as something of an afterthought by the museum staff. It was anchored by the massive remains of some of the city's former fortifications, I noticed a rather bleak lecture room, one wall held a massive modern tapestry depicting good fighting evil, designed by Jean Lurcat and created by Aubusson, apparently for the university, and one long, low room held case after case of Daum glassware, mostly from the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. A couple of other cases held more recent output. After a slow and appreciative walk past the glassware, I took a look at the rest of the museum. About the only thing that held my attention was an installation of colored lights and mirrors. You could walk into it, and I found it quite attractive.

    But the museum I most wanted to revisit was the Musee de L'Ecole de Nancy, a house built for Eugene Corbin, a patron of the Nancy school, and completely furnished with items from the period, some of them owned by Monsieur Corbin or his brother. When I had visited the last time I had been carrying a heavier than usual day pack, as I was switching hotels, and had been a bit distracted. The museum still didn't have secure storage, but I carried the important items in the waist bag that doubles as my camera case, and left my day bag in the unguarded cloakroom. This time I went round slowly (when not attacked by a coughing fit) and was pleased to find a second option on the audio guide, commentary supposedly from the owner.

    The lack of secure storage was a problem at other Nancy museums. The Beaux Arts museum said they didn't have a cloakroom, but when I found a perfectly good set of lockers, and went back to the front desk to point this out, said that they were off limits because of terrorism. (The security guard took pity on me and let me use one, but don't count on it.) The Lorraine Museum had no storage of any kind, and once again I was carrying a heavy day pack while I waited to check into the Hotel des Prelats. I can't really recommend this museum, all you really need to know is that a former King of Poland became Duke of Lorraine and Bar after his daughter married King Louis XV of France (must have one's father-in-law suitably situated), and that he was responsible for Nancy's stunning Stanislas square. Unfortunately, the beautiful gilding on the baroque ironwork that is a feature of the square looks its best in sunshine, and there was no sunshine while I was in Nancy. Consequently, I took no photographs of the square, having take a lot the last time.

    One piece of good news: After two months on the road I was in dire need of a hair cut. An enquiry at my hotel produced a recommendation for a salon literally next door. I was pleased with the result, especially as it cost about half what it would have done at home. (Checking the real estate listings, I was also surprised by the house prices - considerably lower than I expected.) I finished my visit with dinner at the Brasserie Excelsior, one of the few remaining commercial Art Nouveau buildings in town. If I return to Nancy, and I may well, I need to remember that the interior of the restaurant is not that interesting, and the food overpriced and pedestrian. On the bright side I can recommend the omelets at T'Roi, just off the square, and the enormous slice of raspberry pie and coffee I enjoyed at Foy, on the square.

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    Anyone still reading?

    September 18-21, 2015: Respecting Zurich

    On Fodors, people are always being advised not to go to Zurich. Now, if the issue is whether to spend time in the mountains or the cities, under most circumstances the mountains should win. But it also seems that when it's just a matter of cities, Zurich is still always getting dissed. Now, the only time I tried to visit Switzerland's mountains, my trip was cut cruelly short when I fell and broke my wrist as soon as I arrived in Murren. I do want to go back, but for an appreciable amount of time. On this trip, I was just looking for a three night stop to break the train trip from Nancy to Varenna, on Lake Como.

    My first notion was to wander through the Black Forest on the way south, but I got spooked by recurrent German rail strikes, and I wasn't sure anywhere rated three nights. I did book a hotel, with difficulty, in Konstanz, but then discovered that Oktoberfest started the day I planned to arrive. Since I am no fan of beer, loud parties or oompah bands I promptly canceled the booking and made one for Zurich instead. Zurich made the train trip easier too: one change in Basel between Nancy and Zurich (where the passport control offices were empty but the customs office was manned), and a direct train to Como where I could transfer to the ferry to Varenna. So I put up a post asking whether anyone had a good word to say about Zurich, and I did some research on my own account, and I concluded that three nights might actually be too short. Between interesting museums, a pretty lake, and several possible day trips I thought I would have no difficulty staying busy. And I was right, although I would have been happier if the museums I was most looking forward to seeing had not been undergoing renovation.

    I spent the rather gloomy afternoon of my arrival day walking down one bank of the river and up the other side, visiting three churches on the way and checking out a few of the shops. (Not that I had the least intention of buying anything.) I enjoyed the river views, admired several of the buildings, and was repaid a number of times for looking up. The Grossmunster, supposedly founded by Charlemagne, had impressive, carved, bronze entry doors, stained glass by Giacometti, and a stern statue of Zwingli close by. Across the river in the Fraumunster I was reminded that I don't care for Chagall's stained glass (or his paintings, for that matter). No photos were allowed in those two churches, the third, St. Peter's, was notable only for the largest church clock in Europe.

    The next morning the sun shone and I activated my Zurich card, which covered public transport, and headed for the Bellerive museum, only to find it closed. I was able to photograph a Corbusier house right opposite, and since I was close to the boat dock I decided to take a "short" (ninety minute) trip on the lake, covered by the pass. This worked very well, as I saved sightseeing time by eating lunch while I was on the boat, and I very much enjoyed the views. True, the lake is not surrounded by mountains, but the hills are fine, and so are the many villas and villages.

    In the afternoon I attempted to visit the Design Museum. Its usual digs are also closed for renovation, but it was hosting a couple of exhibitions in a building further out. (The permanent collection can only be seen on a guided tour, and the times didn't work for me.) I found the exhibition on digital media mildly interesting, but was seriously impressed by a display of Steve McCurry's photographs. Many were from Afghanistan, covering over thirty years, but some were of places in Asia that I had visited. His photographs are so, so much better than mine... I finished the day at the History museum, where I enjoyed the period rooms, some built into the museum itself, and some impressive gold hoards, along with artifacts from La Tene. The museum was being expanded, but the main collection seemed to be intact, and the courtyard hosted an exhibition of photographs of work and workers, a number of the occupations shown are now obsolete.

    My second full day I went to St. Gallen, primarily to visit its magnificent library. No photos are allowed, so I can only tell you that its claim to be one of the best libraries in Europe is well founded. Its collection goes back to the 800s, and the room itself is impressive. I was glad of the audio guide, which also covered the temporary exhibition on the development of legal systems. While checking directions on my phone I noticed a Textile Museum, which took up part of the afternoon. I had not previously known that embroidery had been Switzerland's main export around the turn of the 19th century.

    The biggest problem with Zurich, alas, was the cost. Hotels were high, but I scored a reasonable if somewhat worn place a stone's throw from the huge main station (which had an equally huge shopping arcade underneath). Food and drink, however, were stratospheric. Over $5.00 for a single shot of espresso! Fast food (at the Nordsee chain) almost $20 without wine! So I did not eat particularly well in Zurich. Plus it turned out to be the center of the DCC scam. Every place I used my credit card, and I mean every place, from coffee shops on up, had their machines set to offer USD before CHF. At least the machines gave me the option, but I got very tired of figuring out how to select CHF. (For those unfamiliar with this piece of banking chicanery, it means that you are charged in your home currency with a hefty markup on the exchange, instead of in the local currency plus whatever currency conversion fee your credit card company charges - which for the cards I travel with is zero.)

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    Frankly, I have always liked Zürich, but probably not for the right reasons. I think it is quite lovely and interesting, but more importantly I have friends there with whom I stay and who won't allow me to spend a single franc when I am with them, except for the final ritual chocolate shopping. They pay for the restaurants, they pay for transportation, they pay for anything that I glance at in a shop with the intention of buying it.

    They don't even seem to realize that the reason I visit them in Zürich so rarely is because it is so embarrassing. Luckily, I am able to host them in Paris from time to time, but even then they still pay for about half of their expenses, no matter what I try.

    Of course, I will not deny that their finances surpass mine considerably so this is perhaps the way that things should be in a perfect world.

    Last time we went around the Zürichsee quite a bit, and this is some of what I saw: http://anyportinastorm.proboards.com/thread/6969/exploring-richsee-area?page=1

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    Love the post and the pics, kerouac, thanks for the link. Those bells were priceless!

    Happily, no snow when I was there, in fact bright sunshine for my lake cruise, but I was still feeling under par and didn't take photos.

    No "incident" on my train, but I did notice that almost everyone in my carriage got off at the last, otherwise undistinguished, station in France. No passport checks, but French custom's officers came through, and there were custom's officials in Basel checking some people. I also noted that the French train still came in before the currently defunct passport booths, and that they had not actually been removed.

    I sympathize with your feelings about your friends' generosity, and I do agree about liking Zurich, although if I go back to the area I will try to improve my timing and stay in Konstanz, where I can maybe afford to eat! I liked going downstream from the station, and admiring the buildings, several of which had interesting carvings, and I liked going upstream under the trees, which were sporting autumn colors, and had branches trailing in the water.

    BTW, for anyone reading who is interested in my hotel, it was the Arlette Beim (or Am) Hauptbahnhof.

    Question for kerouac - is the DCC scam confined to people with US credit cards, or is it practised on Europeans as well?

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    Actually, just about every ATM in Switzerland gives you a choice between receiving Swiss francs or euros and just about every coin machine (bus and tram tickets, parking meters...) also accepts euros but at the exact current rate. I'm sure that DCC is proposed for purchases but at the normal rate since everybody knows the proper exchange rate by heart.

    Everything that I have read seems to imply that the Swiss are certain that they will adopt the euro sooner or later since they are surrounded, but they want to delay the moment as long as possible.

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    Hola from Cuenca Ecuador. I have only just found this, have been pretty much incommunicado since middle of August ( when you were on the Hurtigruten if I remember rightly!)
    I am going to try to keep up but not sure if I will manage to make any pertinent comments. I get back around the same time as you, November 2 whenever that is.
    Hope you are feeling better by now. Just going to reread more carefully.
    Take care.

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    Interesting, kerouac, thanks for the info. If the exchange rate is correct, it's a convenience, not a scam. In the case of USD, it is very definitely NOT the correct exchange rate. I was too busy looking for the way to opt for CHF to pay close attention to amount in USD, but I'm pretty sure that coffee, already in the stratosphere at 5.05 USD had another 20 cents added, and a meal at 20 USD was marked up by 2 USD. So 5 to 10%, which could add up fast in Zurich!

    Hi Kathie, when do you leave on your next trip? Am still short on energy, alas, but the cough has mostly gone.

    Hope you're having a great family time in Ecuador, gertie. Yes, mid-August was Hurtigruten and my niece's wedding.

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    Kerouac, So glad you discovered Einsiedeln last year! I stayed in Rapperswil a few years ago, and this had been a researched daytrip for me, including the Goldapfel Backerei Museum...aah, memories!

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    September 21-24, 2015: Sun and Rain on Lake Como

    Switzerland's scenic mountain railways are a major tourist draw. I rode one of them, from Montreux to Interlaken (although part of the journey was on a bus) on my ill-fated 2005 trip. That ride I went first class, paying extra for a front row seat in the dome car, sitting above the driver. But just as there are multiple scenic routes (the most famous - or most promoted - are the Glacier Express, the Bernina, the Golden Pass and the William Tell) there are different ways to experience them. The tourist trains offer options at different price points, you don't have to take the most expensive, as I did in 2005, but regular passenger trains also run those routes. True, you don't get a dome car, but you get a pretty good view anyway, at potentially much lower cost.

    I planned a variation of the William Tell route, which starts with a slow boat trip down Lake Lucerne, before passing through the Gotthard tunnel and finishing at Locarno or Lugano (change at Bellinzona). My train from Zurich would also go through the Gotthard tunnel, but instead of changing trains at Bellinzona I would ride all the way to Como, where I would take the ferry up the lake to Varenna. Only one train a day would stop at Como and not require me to change trains, and by booking ahead I paid a mere 10 CHF for it (10.39 USD at today's exchange rate). The base price for the William Tell route (which admittedly included the boat ride), without any kind of pass, was 197 CHF, or 123 CHF with a half-fare travel card, and that wouldn't get me to Como.

    My cheapskate train ride was a great success. Lake and mountain views alike were excellent. The Swiss railway website had said that second class would be packed the whole way, but at the back end of the last second class coach, where I was sitting, there was space to change sides when the sun started hitting my reserved seat. Yes, I arrived in Como on a hot, sunny day, the first in what felt like forever. I hefted my case down the steps in front of the station, and then rolled it easily through town to the ferry dock, where I found a mob of day trippers. Since they all wanted to sit outside in the sun, and I chose to sit just inside in the shade, they were not a problem. Although I abandoned my nighttime cough medicine in Zurich (I had been waking up groggy) I was still feeling fragile, and just sat and admired the beautiful lake views instead of taking photographs.

    I had had some difficulty with reservations for the Italian Lakes, even at the end of the season, and was sleeping rather more expensively than usual at the Villa Cipressi, although they had put me in the annex above the breakfast room instead of in the more impressive main building. I still had a pretty good lake view, which I appreciated, and a big room with a comfortable bed, but wifi was so bad as to be essentially useless. This would have been less of an annoyance if the weather had stayed fine, but I should have taken photographs on the lake trip, as my first full day was grey and cloudy, and the second featured driving rain and wind so strong it blew my supposedly sturdy Norwegian umbrella inside out.

    I did make it to Bellagio the first day, finding it, as I had expected, well provided with expensive shops and restaurants, but also with with good views. I found a neat little place, Art in Flower, near the top of the main drag, for a quite reasonable lunch, wandered back down through a quiet park, and then around the point that divides Lake Lecco from Lake Como. I caught the boat back as rain started.

    Given the horrible weather, and my lack of energy, meals occupied more of my attention than the mostly non-existent views. I enjoyed one excellent dinner in the Villa Cipressi's dining room - although a big group of women from Missouri (or was it Michigan) kept the noise level high. I highly recommend the delicious veal. I can also recommend the pizzas at the Royal Victoria Grill, just a short walk away, and the friendly service at the Albergo del Sole, also nearby, although the food was just average.

    What I can't do is recommend the Osteria Quatro Pass, since they did not honor my reservation. They claimed to have mixed up the names, but not only is mine unusual, but I had a reservation for one, and all the tables held at least two people. Their offer of an aperitif and a suggestion that the wait might only be twenty minutes did not impress me. I rarely drink aperitifs, I would have had to drink this one standing out in the alley, and I had no faith at all in the estimate of the wait time. I went back to Albergo del Sole, where I was comped a much more welcome limoncello at the end of the meal.

    Of course, the morning I left the sun was out, but I took a taxi to the station anyway (it was uphill). Although I was early I found Platform One already packed with people, several with huge suitcases, and few of whom had apparently bothered to look for the departure board (hidden in the waiting room), which said that the train we were all waiting for would leave from Platform Two (there were only two). True, we didn't need to cross the tracks until shortly before the train was due, but even after a few of us led the way, there were still die hards on Platform One when the train to Milan pulled in.

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    September 21-24, 2015: Sleeping on an Island

    From Lake Como I moved on to Lake Maggiore, notable for the three Borromeo islands and two islets, named for the prominent banking family that acquired them in the 16th century, and still own Isola Bella and Isola Madre. The first town I visited in Italy, back in 2004, was Stresa, on Lake Maggiore. I wanted to revisit the lake, but I had discovered that I could sleep on one of the islands, Isola Superiore (or dei Pescatori), which I thought might be both more peaceful and more fun. I booked a room with a partial lake view at the Belvedere, which got me a large plain room, a large square terrace, and a fine view, although very little sun as the terrace faced north and east and was shaded by buildings. However, the no-view rooms looked out on a narrow alley, so the upgrade was definitely worthwhile.

    I had also upgraded, I forget why, part of the train journey from Varenna to Stresa. I had to change in Milan Centrale, a station I would rather avoid, but I left Milan in Tourist Preferente class, which somehow managed to fit four large-feeling seats into the same width carriage as regular tourist class. I sank gratefully into my seat in the almost empty carriage, having had to tow my case all around the station in search of toilets and food, and then the full length of the platform to reach my carriage. The trek from Stresa's train station to the ferry took a while, but at least it was downhill.

    Sleeping on Isola Superiore turned out to be a good news/bad news deal, with the tilt towards bad. The views were lovely, and the island was quiet at night. However, it was tourist central during the day, especially at lunch time. At night, most of the cafes shut down, leaving a few expensive restaurants and a couple of lakeside places hosting tour groups who arrived on chartered boats. I got a 10% discount at the Belvedere's restaurant, and had one good meal, but one not so good meal, there.

    Besides Isola Superiore, you can visit Isola Bella - baroque palace and formal gardens - and Isola Madre - older palace and extensive, wilder gardens. There's a combo ticket that gets you into both palaces for a reduced price, but you have to visit both on the same day. I had three full days and no need to rush so instead I arrived early two days running on the two different islands. This worked for avoiding crowds on Isola Madre, but not for Isola Bella, where there were plenty of tour groups. I only visited Isola Madre on my last trip, and having now seen both it is the one I would choose to go back to, even though it is obvious that any available funds are spent on Isola Bella.

    The palace on Isola Bella is infinitely grander, built and decorated to impress, but I preferred the family retreat feel of the palace on Isola Madre, where you can wander at will. In fact, in order to dodge the one tour group there, I went round twice. The shell grottoes in the basement of Isola Madre left me cold, in both senses of the word, while there is a beautifully frescoed sitting room with garden views on Isola Bella I would love to spend time in. I also loved wandering under the trees in the less formal grounds on Isola Bella, where I picked up a stray feather from a molting peacock. Unfortunately, my camera battery gave out shortly after I arrived there, and I wasn't carrying the spare.

    Besides the islands, tourists are encouraged to take a three-cornered trip to Switzerland - a couple of trains to Locarno, and the boat back. I had taken that trip in 2004, and the Centovalli train through the mountains from Domodossola had been scenic, although very crowded, and I had enjoyed Locarno and its historic castle, but I really felt no need to repeat the excursion. I did wander again along the waterfront at Stresa, past the grand hotels left over from the turn of the 20th century.

    I enjoyed two beautiful days before the weather turned bad on me again.

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    Hi Thursday, I'm just catching up on your trip and I'm interested as you're going to lots of places we haven't made it to. We have a very old friend we moved to Geneva a few years ago and we still haven't managed to visit him in Switzerland, but I like the idea of the successful cheapskate train ride you described!

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    Have had some really, really bad wifi....

    September 28 - October 2, 2015: Enjoying Turin

    With a choice of Milan or Turin after the Italian Lakes I had no difficulty picking Turin over Milan, which I had already visited. Turin seemed over-provided with interesting museums, not to mention cafes and restaurants. Hotels were a little more problematic, and I wound up sleeping a bit above my usual price point at Townhouse 70, which had actual turn-down service (provided even when I put out the do-not-disturb sign). The staff were very helpful, breakfast was good, and I slept well.

    Founded by the Romans, for centuries Turin was the seat of the House of Savoy, which held sway over varying swathes of northwestern Italy and southeastern France, and ultimately provided reunified Italy with its first king and its first capital. The city had the buildings and avenues one would expect of such a power base. In the city center many of the streets were lined with soaring arcades, no doubt providing welcome shade in the summer, and providing me with shelter from the rain. A little further out the streets were still wide, wide enough that I noticed cars parked along the center line! When just one or two cars were using this novel parking lot, they had their hazard lights on, but where several were lined up they didn't bother.

    The Savoy family also built castles and palaces in the surrounding countryside, and although many have disappeared one, designed as a hunting lodge, still stands in Veneria Reale and was recently renovated after years of abandonment. Calling it a hunting lodge is seriously misleading, palace would be more accurate, although in one of its earlier incarnations it was even bigger. The grounds have also been rescued, and should really be seen on a sunny day. Unfortunately, Accuweather once again proved inaccurate, and I visited on the wrong day.

    The basement provided more information than I really needed on the history of the family and of the building. All of the furniture was long gone, so the rooms upstairs were mostly empty, but the walls and ceilings were plenty grandiose. A special exhibition on Raphael contained a number of pictures borrowed from Florence, a city I still have not visited. While I could appreciate Raphael's ability, I was not converted into a fan. I'm afraid I was actually more appreciative of the Venetian barge in the stables.

    The really grandiose palace, of course, was in the center of Turin. I was suitably impressed, but the more baroque buildings I see, the more excessive I find them. The Madama palace/castle, which I also visited, did offer some medieval church artifacts, along with cases of silver, glass and ceramics. And, reached through the wintry gardens, access to a tower and a view. At least you could visit the gardens at the Madama palace, those around the Royal Palace were suffering from neglect and off limits.

    Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed my visits, but not as much as those to other museums in town. I confess to complete disinterest in the Shroud of Turin, so I skipped that museum, as well as the well-regarded museums devoted to film and Fiat. I would like to have visited the Decorative Arts and Risorgimento museums, but there I would have had to join a guided tour in Italian. The official at the Risorgimento museum seemed positively offended that an English speaker might want to visit his museum! But I had a lovely time at the virtually deserted Asiatica Museum, and a pretty good one at the popular Egyptian Museum, said to be the best outside Cairo. It was certainly a great deal better maintained and curated than the one in Cairo, although my audio guide was partially defective.

    The Asiatica's collection was small, but included some exquisite pieces. Not to mention, Tibetan thangkas from the 15th century which I was surprised to see in Turin. I did ask how they came to be there, but the language barrier proved insurmountable. The ritual artifacts made from human bone in the Tibetan section were even more surprising! A temporary exhibition on the Spice Route, featuring National Geographic photographs, reminded me that I still haven't made it to Central Asia...

    The man who completed Turin's Egyptian collection, Schiaparelli, obviously had unusually good relations with the Egyptian authorities. Although short on gold artifacts, the museum held a very great deal of everything else you might expect in the way of sarcophagi, grave goods, and statues. The remains of a couple of pleated linen tunics must be among the oldest textiles on view anywhere, and a bed, complete with bed linens, was not much younger. The visit ended with a long mirrored room full of large statues. The museum was extensive, and by that time I was almost too tired to appreciate them.

    Aside from museums, I also made sure to visit some of Turin's historic cafes. I mostly drank coffee - proper macchiatos! - since although the one spritz I allowed myself in the San Carlo came with munchies, they were not particularly good munchies. (I was starting to feel that I had been eating and drinking too much and was gaining weight.) The San Carlo, once a hot bed of revolution, featured mirrors, frescoes and chandeliers, but ultimately my favorite was the smaller and darker Mulassano, covered with beautifully carved wood panelling.

    One consideration in picking Turin over Milan had been that I didn't have to get up quite so early to catch the direct TGV to Lyon, but I still left the Townhouse 70 shortly after 7:00. I had been looking forward to a reputedly scenic journey through the mountains, but the weather was uncooperative. In Italy one band of cloud lay in the valleys, and another draped the mountain tops.

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    Hi Thursdays, I'm catching up with you again. I hope you are recovered from your illness. There is nothing quite so annoying as being sick while traveling... especially when moving every few days.

    I have wondered whether we would enjoy Switzerland - we have mountain views at home and have been to the Himalayas and the Andes. You description of your train journey sounds interesting.

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    Hi Kathie, good to hear from you.

    Thanks, I have recovered, although I had a sore throat a couple of nights ago, which was worrying, but then it just went away.

    Unfortunately, my visit to the Bernese Oberland was cut short when I broke my wrist, and I only had a glimpse of the mountains the morning I left. But that was enough for me to want to return - I don't have mountain views at home, alas, but I have seen the Himalayas and the Andes. I didn't want to take the time this trip, as it warrants more than three days. But consider the Italian Lakes as well, they have mountain backdrops (see the photos on my blog).

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    October 3-6, 2015: Pau and the Pyrenees

    I went to Pau because of a book. Not a particularly good book, I suppose, nor is the author, Dornford Yates, much read these days. His descriptions are too elaborate, and his attitudes too Edwardian, for current taste. But in his day he was quite popular, both for romantic comedies, which I read, and light adventure, which I did not. Pau is also, perhaps, not so popular these days, but in the early 20th century it was a favored winter destination for the English, who rented, bought or built villas there.

    While I was interested to see the villas, a number of which remain, what drew me was Yates' description of the Pyrenees as seen from the town. Pau is built on two levels. At river level you find the train station, the town swimming pool and a number of houses. But take the old-fashioned funicular up from the station, and the rest of the town spreads back from the edge of an almost sheer drop, with a kilometer long promenade between a chateau and a casino, facing the mountains. The boulevard, lined with palm trees, even has a balustrade.

    Back in 2004 I visited Pau on a day trip from Bayonne. The train ride, climbing among trees dressed in spring green, was almost magical - it felt like the morning of the world. The chateau was impressive, although the tour was in French and Henri IV's crib ostentatiously decorated with plumed spears. The park by the casino made for a pretty walk. But the mountains were shrouded in cloud. I promised myself I would return, but for more than a few hours, to improve the odds of actually seeing the Pyrenees.

    None of Pau's hotels were particularly enticing, so I booked an AirBnB apartment with a balcony that promised mountain views. With no good route by train from northern Italy to southwestern France, I was glad to find a cheap flight from Lyon and the mountain train route from Turin. While I booked into the NH airport hotel in Lyon I had thought to go into town for dinner, and even solicited suggestions here. But I had been eating rather well in Italy, and needed a break from rich food. In the end I spent the afternoon catching up on sleep, and dined off the hotel's buffet - lots of salad, meats and cheeses.

    For some reason the T-Mobile plan on my smart phone doesn't work well in the south of France, and I had a little difficulty connecting with my host. But the apartment matched the photos, the terrace looked towards the mountains, and adjacent windows gave me a grandstand view of the Place Clemenceau, which was hosting events for Breast Cancer Awareness. My host also gave me directions to a couple of open grocery stores, which was a relief since I had arrived on a Saturday afternoon.

    This was my third AirBnB rental. The first taught me to make sure there was an elevator if the apartment was above the (European) second floor. This one reinforced the lesson from the second: don't rent from bachelors. True, this time there was plenty of closet space, and even a power point next to a mirror, but only one towel (another was delivered next day) and the sheets and towels were too dark for me to be entirely sure about how clean they were.

    I didn't revisit the interior of the Chateau, although I did stop by the modest house where Marshal Bernadotte had been born. He had a truly remarkable rise, from total obscurity, by way of Napoleon's army, to King of Sweden. The current Swedish royals are his descendants. The museum, however, is probably only of interest to Swedes. I also had a nice time checking out more of the villas, but aside from the Chateau and the mountains, there really isn't a lot of sightseeing interest in Pau, it's more a place for flaneurs. The changing scene in Place Clemenceau enlivened the weekend, but would be tamer during the week. Saturday included couples dancing the tango in one corner of the expansive square and four children's trampolines in another, with a parade of motor bikes towards the end of the afternoon. Sunday morning was quiet, but a series of marathons started and ended right below my windows later on.

    And the mountains? Yes, I did get to see them, and I enjoyed them very much. Only with real clarity at dawn and dusk though, and I did wonder whether the persistent haze was less a function of the weather than of pollution. The book that sent me to Pau was published nearly a century ago, and in that time Pau has been a center of the aviation industry, after hosting the world's first pilot school, and later of the petrochemical industry.

    Monday afternoon I found a free ebook version of "Jonah and Co." on the Project Gutenberg website, and enjoyed rereading it.

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    Great write up, I too have wanted to get to Pau, but so far it has avoided me.

    Mrs Bilbo broke a wrist above the artic circle (nasty place to break) in Finland and the whole hospital had a receptionist and that seemed to be about it. Doctor looked at it, said "its broken" and set it before sending it for a 3d xray to check her work, Machine was next door and generated a CD which the doctor put in the her pc, yep set as she wanted it.

    Being Brits the cost was zilch and we got to keep the CD. Still the 90 minute drive over frozen ice in a taxi hurt Mrs B and my wallet a bit.

    The total time taken, about 20 minutes, enough time to watch Emerdale in Finish on the TV.

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    Thanks, bilbo. Yes, Pau isn't the easiest place to get to. There is still a train to/from Bayonne (I think I conflated the Bayonne to Pau ride with the one to St. Jean Pied-du-Port, which is currently partly by bus.) But there are just a few direct flights - Paris and Marseilles as well as Lyon.

    Sorry to hear about Mrs Bilbo's wrist, and especially the taxi ride! I had to have pins put in mine, and spent the night in the hospital. Alas, not free, since I am an expat Brit these days.

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    kathie - it was a restful visit, although the weather wasn't the best. However, I think I had an allergy to something in the apartment. I thought I was coming down with a cold, but then realized it was only in the main part of the apt. Possibly to the mosses - and funghi? - growing on the balcony....

    kerouac - the top? You mean up where the chateau is? I thought that was the main part of the city.

    Forgot to mention an odd fact about pronunciation. Reading the book, I thought the town was pronounced, roughly, "paw". In 2004 I discovered, I thought, that the locals pronounced it "po". I preferred my version, but when in Rome. Then I happened across a wiki piece that said that in Occitan and Basque it is indeed pronounced "paw".

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    October 6-11, 2015: Basing in Bayonne

    Bayonne, besides possessing plenty of interesting old buildings and a Basque Museum, makes a good base for the French Basque country. When I stayed there in 2004 I spent more time day-tripping than in town, visiting Pau, St. Jean-de-Luz on the coast, and St. Jean Pied-de-Port in the mountains. Having already stayed in Pau, and having not especially admired St. Jean-de-Luz, this time I visited St. Jean Pied-de-Port, Biarritz, and Bidart.

    Rick Steves, the American travel guru, recommends basing in St. Jean-de-Luz. I suppose that might make sense if you had a car and were using the same base for France and Spain, but for someone using public transport it makes no sense at all. It is not even part of the Biarritz-Anglet-Bayonne bus network, which offers a day pass for a mere two euro, and if you're taking the train to Spain you have to change in Irun or Hendaye. Then, seaside resorts don't usually interest me, although I had a wonderful time in Biarritz this trip.

    Neither the hotel nor AirBnB offerings in Bayonne were inspiring, so I opted for closeness to the train station and stayed at the Ibis Styles. The rather decrepit hotel I had used in 2004 had closed, and the building which I think had housed it looked ready for demolition. The Ibis was cheap and cheerful but had horrible wifi, and if I wanted to eat well I had to cross the bridge to the old town. (I got plenty of use out of the cheap bus passes.) The hotel sent me to the Bistro St. Cluque, which was conveniently close when it rained, but I found the food at best average. This was sad, as when I checked my old website I saw that it was the bistro I had very much enjoyed in 2004. (My new favorite was La Chistera, under the arcades across the river.)

    Two wide rivers meet in Bayonne, and plenty of water was flowing under the several bridges. The Basque Museum was on the riverfront across from the main part of the old town, and kept me occupied for a couple of hours. Farming implements and stone crosses on the ground floor were succeeded by china and furniture further up, and then by information on Bayonne's history as a port. Nothing on the Basque independence movement, although there was some information on Basque identity. A temporary exhibition informed me that rugby had become an important sport in the area at the beginning of the 20th century, but the permanent collection was all about pelote.

    I nearly lost my nice Norwegian umbrella after visiting the museum. As it was wet, I put it on the floor by my chair while I ate a rather good lunch at a place just past the old-style iron and glass market hall. When I left I forgot it, and a couple of hours later when it started raining again, realized what had happened and went back for it. The bistro was about to close and at first seemed to be claiming no knowledge of my umbrella. Eventually they said that one of the waitresses had gone home with it, and once we established I was not leaving town for a couple of days, said they would arrange for its return in the morning. At least they lent me another umbrella, and I did get mine back in the morning. What would have happened had I been a day tripper with no French I don't know.

    I enjoyed Biarritz so much I'm giving it its own post, but St. Jean Pied-de-Port occupied less time. While the train tracks from Bayonne are being relaid passengers have to switch to a bus at Cambo-les-Bains, and the route seemed less scenic to me than I remembered. The town is the starting point for many of the people walking the Camino to Santiago, although I would be inclined to begin on the other side of the Pyrenees! Not too many pilgrims around in October, just a handful in St. Jean-de-Port, and I would see a few others in Pamplona and Leon further along the route.

    I loved the mountain views, of course, but once you've hiked up (and up) the ramparts to the (closed) citadel, and along the river, and photographed the old buildings on the side streets, there is really nothing to do in town. Bidart, which I visited as an alternative to St. Jean-de-Luz, was particularly unsuccessful, being a more suitable destination for someone with a car, and in any case preeminently a place to surf, or to watch surfers. I did find watching them an interesting accompaniment to lunch, but that was long enough. I went back to Biarritz for the afternoon.

    I had arrived in Bayonne on a train with rolling stock so old, it still had compartments instead of airline-style seating. I left the same way, headed for Hendaye, where the train would arrive just too late to connect with a Euskotren commuter train to San Sebastian and I would have to wait nearly half an hour for the next.

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    October 8 and 10, 2015: Beautiful Biarritz

    Biarritz. Seaside resort par excellence. Grande dame of the Belle Epoque. So not my kind of place. And yet, I had a wonderful day there. So good I thought about staying there instead of Bayonne if I were to revisit the French Basque country - at least until I saw the prices in the cafes.

    I'm not fond of resorts, and I don't much care for beaches - I have mile upon mile of golden sands just a couple of hours drive from my house, and I rarely make the drive. I no longer plan to visit tropical beaches on trips to Asia, unless I am really, really tired. But I love Nice - in the off-season, only in the off-season! - and I loved Biarritz. I don't think it's just because they're French. Nice is a great town to visit quite apart from its (pebbly) beach, on which I have never set foot. And it's a short bus or train ride away from lots of other compelling destinations.

    Biarritz isn't a particularly good base - Bayonne is better - and I didn't care over much for the town, although there are a number of interesting buildings along the seafront. But the day I visited the sky was blue and the wind was strong, and there were enough rocks along the coastline to produce plenty of wave action, and that's what I enjoyed. Since I visited the first time on a weekday in October, the ocean-front walkways weren't crowded - I found the crowds a couple of blocks inland, on the shopping streets. When I went back on a Saturday, on a calm day, there were many fewer breakers and many more people. Since I was back in town to visit the Asiatica Museum I didn't mind too much.

    The bus from Bayonne dropped me outside the T.I., and I headed down hill to the ocean, roughly in the middle of the promenade. Walking north, at first I was right on the edge of land, but then, after climbing rather a lot of steps, I wandered under wind-blown trees to eventually arrive at a lighthouse and a welcome cafe. Public transport didn't reach that far, so I walked back into town for lunch (forgettable) before continuing south, finding rocky headlands, one crowned with a Madonna statue, and a small fishing port where I could walk out on the jetties among the waves.

    My visit to the Asiatica Museum was also enjoyable, although photographs weren't allowed because a previous visitor had abused the privilege. Most of the artifacts were south Asian, with some Chinese ivories, and Chinese and Japanese porcelain, and some of the pieces were said to be unique. As in Turin I was surprised to find a number of early Tibetan thangkas and bronzes. Afterwards I indulged in a crepe de citron and coffee in one of the cafes overlooking the beach.

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    Hi, thursdaysd -- I've finally had a chance to read about your southern wander -- at least as so far recorded -- thanks so much for posting such detailed and informative reports! As you so often do, you have reminded me of some wonderful travel moments and inspired further travel aspirations.

    I haven't seen any references to coughing for a while, and sincerely hope that means that you finally recovered from the lingering cold that plagued some of the earlier parts of your journey.

    Looking forward to more....

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    Thursday - I was really interested to read your thoughts on Biarritz.

    When I was a child I used to visit a very grand house with my grandmother. The very elderly lady we went to see there would tell me all about the lovely art work, truly incredible stuff. Needless to say it's no longer there. Anyway, I admired a drawing of a girl my age and she said, "It was drawn on holiday in Biarritz". This was the first time I'd ever heard of the place but it made an impact. In more recent years I've though vaguely about going when I've seen it on a Ryanair destination list but always wondered what one would find there? It was delightful to visit through your eyes.

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    Thanks kja - it took about three weeks rather than the two the doctors predicted, but I did get better. Alas, I do have noticeably less stamina than I did when I started doing long distance travel in my mid-fifties. Good thing I didn't wait any longer!

    Thanks wtb - not a good destination during the season, I'm sure, but mid-October mid-week was a great time to visit. The prices in the cafes on the shopping streets were high, and the cost of food in the historic hotel overlooking the beach shocking, but there were several cafes along the promenade that were reasonable, and I love sitting in a cafe watching the waves.

    I made it back home Saturday afternoon, and am gradually getting sorted out, so I'm hoping to pick up the pace of the TRs - have the UK one to write too!

    Don't have my photos on smugmug yet, but there are some Biarritz pix on the relevant blog post:

    https://mytimetotravel.wordpress.com/2015/11/04/beautiful-biarritz/

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    Kathy--

    I haven't followed all of this but vaguely remember thinking this was a 3.5 month trip. If I am correct, can you tell why you chose to do one super long trip of this length rather than perhaps making two shorter trips that would cover these destinations?

    We too are getting older, and while we love to travel and take longer than the standard two week trip, this seems like a really long stint of time to be gone. We are also noticing that that period of being wiped out upon return from a trip and the recovery from jet lag seems to be getting longer.

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    julies - yes, this was a 3.5 month trip. Although far from my longest trip, which was ten months in 2004, I was thinking I might need to scale back a bit. Of course, the nasty virus I caught in London really didn't help - I decided I needed to put London at the end of any future trips, not in the middle.

    One reason for longer trips is the PIA that air travel has become, not to mention amortizing the expense across more days on the ground. This trip I flew business to get to Europe and economy coming back, and the flights weren't that bad, but still you never know. (And I did NOT appreciate having my daylight flight take place in what amounted to a darkened movie theater!) Another is that the places I go don't usually have direct flights from the US and I like to limit connections. But really it's just that once I get started I like to keep going!

    Re-entry hasn't been too bad. I slept twelve hours the first night and thought I was synced, but it has taken a few days. I don't usually have jet lag going the other way, which is more important. I have good friends who keep an eye on my house and drive my car every couple of weeks and field my mail, and of course I can keep track of my finances on the net these days, although it took a couple of days to get Quicken updated.

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    Agree 100% with the fact that flying now is never fun and usually falls into the category of grueling. We too understand the concept of amortizing the cost of the international flight by staying longer so the overall the trip budget becomes less per day. Flights to Europe have become so much more expensive in the past 8 years or so that it takes careful planning to try to not spend a huge portion of your vacation budget just on that transatlantic flight.

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    FWIW, I think the Giacometti windows are in Zurich's Fraumunster, not the Grossmunster. IIRC, they are just to the right upon entry, with the much moe visited Chagall windows to the left. IME, many people simply go left to see the Chagalls, oblivious to the Giacommetis Sad.

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    kja - a little research says that they both have Giacommetti windows. The Fraumunster only has one, installed in 1940, the ones in the Grossmunster date to 1932. Photos weren't allowed inside, but there are photos on the web.

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    Thank you very much for your trip report. I learned a lot about some places I knew I wanted to visit (Strasbourg) and places I didn't!

    We have recently returned from a trip to London, and your comment about not appreciating flying home on a daylight flight in a darkened movie theatre really resonated with me, and reminded me I need to formally complain to Delta about that.

    Last year, we returned from Paris on a Delta flight, but it was a code share with Air France and we had Air France food and staff. This year, our flight home from London was a US-based Delta flight crew, and was a daytime flight. I stay awake as much as possible on these flights, and sit by a window, to enjoy the sunshine and delude myself about the time. I was told off by a flight attendant to close my window shade because "people were trying to sleep." If they want to sleep, that's fine, but can't they put on eyeshades? I wanted to read and sit in the sunlight and I paid for a ticket, too. I got no such nonsense from the French staff on our flight last year (and much more courteous service). Has anyone else encountered this? Any suggestions?

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    KyraS - glad you're enjoying the TR. My flight was AA, with individual seat-back screens, and I think most people were watching movies rather than sleeping. You might post over on the Air Travel forum and see what response you get.

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    October 11-13, 2015: So Long, San Sebastian

    Maybe I would have liked San Sebastian better if I hadn't just visited Biarritz. Maybe I would have liked it better if I hadn't carelessly arrived on a holiday weekend. Maybe I would have liked it better in better weather. And maybe I would have been more willing to stay for my planned five nights if the building housing my carefully chosen pension hadn't been wrapped in scaffolding which would put workmen right in front of my windows and able to look in as soon as the holiday was over. But maybe not.

    Let's take those in order. I had loved Biarritz because of the rocks and the waves, and to lesser extent for the ocean-front buildings. San Sebastian is famous for its semi-circular bay and its golden sands. The bay is, obviously, enclosed by headlands, but they turned out to be a lot further apart than I expected. The bay is fronted by a promenade, but there are precious few places along its length to get so much as a cup of coffee. I did eat lunch at the Cafe de la Concha, but it was a grey day with precious little to look at. Beyond the promenade is a two lane road, and then a solid phalanx of apartment buildings, and hotels pretending to be apartment buildings - nothing so crass as a sign on the seaward side - mostly of uniform blandness. Thanks to the weather it was pointless to go up the headlands, as there would have been no view.

    Holiday time at a seaside resort is precisely the kind of situation I take pains to avoid. Unfortunately, I was planning the Spanish leg of this trip at the last minute, and missed this holiday. Not that I'm sure how I would have avoided it if I had known. I understand that San Sebastian is very popular, but on this weekend it was slammed, and very loud. The old town was just not big enough for all the people who wanted to visit, and getting a table in one of the cafes required an eagle eye and a ruthless persistence. I totally abandoned any notion of eating tapas in the old town, and ate in Gros, the quieter area just across the river where I was sleeping.

    The day I arrived was grey but dry. The next day the rain held off long enough for me to walk most of the length of the promenade and back, but a downpour arrived shortly after lunch and stayed for the rest of the day. By this time I was trying to remember why I had planned five nights in the town. I think I had had thoughts of day trips, and of food, but I was no longer feeling very enthusiastic about either. The scaffolding outside my window was the final straw.

    All was not gloom, I had one very enjoyable evening. Arriving early for tapas at Bodega Donostierra I shared a table with a young Australian couple who had been traveling along the coast and were now headed south for Barcelona and Andalusia. When it became obvious that there was a long line of people hungrily eyeing our space I suggested having a drink somewhere else, and they introduced me to a gin bar local friends had shown them the night before.

    I never expected to find a gin bar fascinating, but the Spanish have raised the making of a gin and tonic to a fine art. First, there is the choice of gin. I always thought Gordons was just fine, but no. We discussed the flavor profiles: spicy, floral, lemony, etc. That settled (I wound up drinking Hendricks), the bar tender (I feel he deserves a more elevated title), produced large balloon glasses which would be filled to the brim with sizable ice cubes. I have always felt that ice just diluted the alcohol, but these glasses held enough ice the cubes kept each other from melting. Assorted petals and peels went into the glasses, depending on the gin chosen, the gin, and something that behaved like dry ice, followed by the ice cubes. Finally, the tonic, poured ceremonially from on high. All three drinks tasted different, and all three were very good.

    So, that was fun, but the Australians left town the next day, the rains came down, and the workmen were due in the morning. I consulted my reservation, and established that I should be able to cancel without penalty, since I would stay two nights. This took a call to booking.com, but was resolved without too much difficulty. So, where next? I could have just moved to another hotel in San Sebastian, but nothing with availability in my price range appealed and I was ready to leave.

    Thanks to previous difficulties with the train system, I had no onward transport booked. Back when I planned the Spanish leg, I had found RENFE trains across northern Spain, although not along the coast, where the situation hadn't improved since 2004: slow commuter trains that meant a San Sebastian to Leon trip realistically took two days. (I had a reservation at the parador in Leon, I wasn't going to skip that.) But when I tried to book the trains in England, all but Madrid to Barcelona had disappeared. I sent a somewhat panicked email to Mark Smith, the guru behind the wonderful seat61.com site, and he replied that a high speed Valladolid to Leon train was in the works, and just wait. I waited a long time, and when the train I wanted finally showed up around the Pau-Bayonne stage I decided to keep waiting to buy my tickets until I got to San Sebastian. So, I could go anywhere a reasonable distance from San Sebastian that also had a good train connection to Leon. Nowhere along the coast qualified, because of those slow commuter trains. Where else?

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    Still following along and marveling at your detailed descriptions.
    I love your "maybe I'd have liked it better if..."

    This could apply to my trip to Berlin this summer and the Dordogne a few years ago. There were just reasons, in both cases, why I wasn't wowed and like you I recognize these could be things that are personal or could be avoided by others given a different set of circumstances (weather, hotel problems etc) or timing (holiday, traffic, crowds). I think a less experience traveler tends to blame the place rather than their experience of it, I feel we read that a lot here on the board for places like Rome.

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    Obviously, I would have had a better time with nicer weather and fewer people, but I still think San Sebastian was not really my kind of town. If I go back I'll make sure to arrange some food tours and make some reservations for dinner too. I don't blame the place, I know a lot of people like it, but a lot of people flock to NC's beaches every year, while I stay away.

    I'm sure that the mountains and coast further west would be more my style, but I also think I would need to drive. The Australians had driven, and kja, on her successful trip last year, also drove.

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    October 13-16, 2015: Pleased by Pamplona

    Pamplona, to me, has always (and only) meant a testosterone-fueled spectacle I would go out of my way to avoid, not to mention associated alcohol-fueled day-and-night partying, ditto. But the largely useless guide to the Basque country I was carrying included Pamplona, and when I skipped the lengthy information on the Running of the Bulls, the town sounded quite attractive. The Running of the Bulls was long over, as was the smaller autumn festival. It was only an hour by bus from San Sebastian, and a direct ALVIA train to Leon would take four hours, an hour less than the Intercity from San Sebastian. Then I found a good rate on an upmarket (for me) hotel and clicked "buy".

    Although two days would probably have been long enough, I did not regret my choice. Even the bus ride was worthwhile, although I usually avoid buses (my luggage is out of sight and I can't move around). I had not realized that the whole trip would be through scenic mountains. Probably it also ran through Basque nationalist territory. A couple of times we pulled off the freeway to pause briefly for potential passengers before rejoining the main road, but once we ventured further away to a small Alpine town, where I saw plenty of Basque flags and slogans. To me it seemed more Austrian than Spanish, underlining the differences between the Spanish regions.

    The Hotel Catedral Pamplona gave me a large room with an excellent view, but was on the far northern edge of the old town, while the bus and train stations were well south. Plenty of good views were on offer elsewhere, as a long stretch of the old ramparts was accessible. At one point it enclosed a large grassy area and a fortification. While I had read that swans, ducks and geese inhabited the protected area, I was stunned to see a deer posed at the edge of the fort.

    While the distant views of the mountains were good, the foreground views were arguably even better, as the town was amazingly well provided with interesting buildings. Plenty of churches of course, as it is an early stop on the pilgrimage route to Santiago (wonder what the pilgrims do during the Running of the Bulls?), although aside from the cathedral they were all closed when I stopped by. Imposing gates, including a couple for the pilgrims. And lots of secular buildings too, some fronting narrow alleys, and some set back around the beautiful Plaza del Castillo. Cafes ringed the square, but so did free benches, occupied by the town folk when the town came alive around 6:00 pm. (Just as we were losing the warmth of the afternoon sun: the Spanish schedule makes more sense in the south in the summer than in the north as winter approaches.)

    Besides the views, the buildings, and the cathedral, The single biggest surprise was in the museum. Aside from the carved capitals I had missed in the cathedral's cloister, the museum housed a collection of large and remarkably well preserved Roman mosaics. Just stunning. I went round twice. I am a big fan of mosaics, and Pamplona would have been worth a visit just for these.

    I ate well in Pamplona, too. The breakfast buffet at my Relais et Silence hotel was way too expensive for someone who only wanted coffee, orange juice and yoghurt (muesli would have been nice, but not essential). I found a local bakery just down the street that stocked plain yoghurt, made an excellent cappuccino and squeezed me delicious fresh orange juice. Breakfast with the locals - when the woman perched next to me finished her coffee and carbs she moved behind the counter to help with serving. People dropped in for their own carbs, including one elderly woman who cleaned them out of churros, the pastry twists dipped into chocolate. While churros and chocolate are decidedly Spanish, I also saw people on the street carrying baguettes, reminding me off France, just across the mountains. Unfortunately, I don't speak Spanish, but on my last morning I typed a thank you note into the Translate app on my phone, which was well received.

    I lunched on tapas at a place further down the street, but thought I was going to have less luck with dinner. I set out, on a freezing cold evening, headed for the Bar Gaucho, recommended in my guide book and online, but it was mobbed. I wandered into a couple of other places, but the tapas didn't appeal. Then I lucked into the Bodegon Sarria (a choice highly approved of by the helpful woman at my hotel). Besides tables at the front for tapas eaters, it had tables at the back for those ordering from the menu. I snagged a table, ordered something that looked like vegetables, and the always reliable shrimp in garlic. The something vegetable turned out to be baby fava beans with slivers of Iberica ham. Absolutely delicious. So good I went back my last night to eat it again, this time with a half order of Iberica ham, to which I could easily become addicted. I had forgotten that Thursday night was cheap tapas and wine night, and the old town was packed. Hurrying back to the warmth of my hotel after dinner, I noted students not just standing outside the cafes, but sitting on the very cold pavement.

    The other night I ate in my hotel, mostly in solitary state. The meal served to remind me that I am not a big fan of the latest cuisine. The tomato salad included foam, sardines and sugar. The hake, cooked at 45 degrees, was accompanied only by a little sauce. The cheese balls that constituted dessert were encased in a black current crust and came with ice cream and more sugar. It was all edible, but I preferred the Bodegon Sarria.

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    <October 11-13, 2015: So Long, San Sebastian>

    So different experiences. I was here October 15-19, tranquile and beautiful as ever, sensational food as always and very laid back and easy going, and few tourists even in the Parte vieja/Old town. We of course had better weather, and I very seldom have less than great food and nights out here after some thirty years of frequent visits. Guess you were at La Gintonería close to Bodega Donostiarra, we had our GT's elsewhere, but I'll check it out next time in town.

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    Better weather and fewer people would certainly have helped, but I'm not much of a seaside person. Another time I'll try to plan better. However, if I hadn't given up on San Sebastian I wouldn't have gone to Pamplona, which would have been a pity.

    La Gintoneria seems to be in the right place, and the general Yelp photos look right, although the glasses are the wrong shape. Maybe they got new ones.

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    Sounds like the old Gipuzkoan capital Tolosa - just South of San Sebastian - would be a place for you. Spent an ecellent day here on our last visit, mushroom festival on the traditional Saturday market, followed by the world's best steak in Casa Julian.

    Tolosa: http://www.euskoguide.com/places-basque-country/spain/tolosa-tourism/
    Casa Julian, you must see this!: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cOaLtnbKOos

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    Wow! What an enjoyable report.

    We will be visiting Strasbourg next summer so that portion of your trip was particularly interesting to me.

    We were discouraged from staying in Zurich too, so will be spending two nights in Lucerne instead. I am excited about the stay because the pictures of Lucerne are breath-taking. Thanks for the tip about conversions from CHF to USD. That tidbit will be quite helpful. As you said Switzerland is expensive.

    Sorry you were not well. I am battling a cold/sore throat now, so your words gave me a 'you are there' feeling! :D

    Thanks for writing.

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    @kimhe - thanks for the Tolosa tip, and the video. I still remember how stunned I was to discover that cider in the US was just apple juice!

    @Teacher91 - thanks! Glad you're enjoying it. If you click on my name and scroll down the list of TRs you'll find Nice to Paris, which has my first visit to Strasbourg. If you have time you might consider a day trip to Nancy - it's just under an hour and a half by train.

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    I've been silently following along from time to time, waiting for your arrival in Spain. Great report, enjoyable to read.

    We were in southern Spain so it will be interesting to hear your feelings on how the regions may differ. We loved the south and the north could easily make its way to a future trip. I think you also said you were giving Madrid a second try on this trip, curious to see how that worked out.

    Oct 9-12 we were in Toledo, cold a blustery there too that weekend, especially the night of the 11th. Had my last Toledo GT huddled under a tarp at the little bar next to La Ermita, but with a million dollar view of the Toledo skyline at sunset.

    Anyway thanks for the report!

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    Thanks Nelson - always nice to know people are reading, and even better when they are enjoying it!

    Lucky you being in Toledo. One of the places I really enjoyed in 2004, especially as it was during the Corpus Christi celebrations. Despite all the people lining the streets for the procession, the town didn't feel overcrowded, and I got to see some of the interior patios. But this trip I chose to take a first look at Salamanca instead.

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    Thursday I'm still following along too and enjoying your descriptions. I can practically see you enduring the foam on the food!

    I was very interested to hear your take on Pamplona and the discussion with kja of the Giacometti windows.

    We saw an extensive collection of Alberto Giacometti's sculpture and work at the Maeght Foundation in the south of France but I didn't know/or remember that he worked in glass. I was interested to see (thank you Wikipedia - I hope this is accurate) that the windows you were both discussing were done by his father's cousin Augusto.Whenever I hear Giacometti I presumed it's the same chap but it looks like they were a family of artists, sculptures and architects.

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    October 16-19, 2015: Leon Got Popular

    Of course, Leon has always been an important stop on the Camino De Santiago, which explains its magnificent cathedral and the elaborate plateresque facade of the building that now houses the parador, and was once the headquarters of the Order of Santiago, responsible for caring for the pilgrims. (Pilgrims today may be footsore, and the Camino is not without its risks, but it was far more dangerous, and pilgrims much less well-equipped, in the Middle Ages. They had to walk back home, too.) Leon has also served as both a royal and a provincial capital. But the popularity I have in mind is as a tourist attraction. I previously visited in the spring of 2004, and remember having the cathedral pretty much to myself. Indeed, my photos of the outside show just a scattering of people. Not any more: the outside was busy, people queued to get in, and the inside seemed full despite its size.

    In 2004 I traveled along the coast on the slow commuter trains and loved the scenery. This time I rode in Preferente class on a fast ALVIA, traveling inland. Preferente class was plenty comfortable, and mostly empty, but I found a surprise when I boarded. On the floor by my seat was a Fodor's guide to Barcelona and a small, stuffed black shoulder bag. I thought at first that a seat mate must have gone to lunch and would return to claim them, but no. When it became obvious that the owner had disembarked without them I handed them to the conductor when he finally appeared, along with an explanation on my phone, but it was a chilling reminder to check your belongings when you get off a train, not just a plane. (See also: http://www.fodors.com/community/europe/check-for-your-belongings-on-trains-too.cfm )

    Last time I had admired the parador's elaborate facade from outside, and visited the attached church and museum. Now I was looking forward to staying inside, but I didn't enjoy it as much as I expected. For one thing, the parador was a bit of a trek from everything else I wanted to see, and anywhere else I might have wanted to eat - better to do the walk once to see the parador and stay in the old town. Then, the rest of the building really didn't live up to the outside. The rooms right behind the facade may be lovely. Mine was in the "old" section to the left, fronting the river. Aside from the door and window it was quite plain, with somewhat battered furniture, a decrepit carpet and a bathroom in need of renovation. A third section to the right of the facade looked like a motel, and probably housed tour groups and pilgrims. The food was overpriced and not very good. The staff on the small reception desk were overworked and so curt as to be almost rude. I did get to wander round the cloisters whenever I chose, although part of the upstairs section stayed full of tables for assorted functions. The view into the choir stalls in the upper part of the church was excellent, and I enjoyed hanging out in the bar, where the food was better than in the dining room, but I think I would have been happier staying for a second time in the Posada Regia.

    I was revisiting Leon for the cathedral, as I had heard that the stained glass had been cleaned since my first visit. All 1,800 square meters had indeed been meticulously cleaned and looked wonderful. Then, as with other Spanish cathedrals, the choir stalls were elaborately carved and fascinating. I actually visited three times. The first time I went round with the excellent audio guide. The second time I went round with binoculars and my camera. The third time I just enjoyed being there.

    The other building I very much wanted to revisit was the Basilica San Isadoro. Not for the basilica, but for the associated museum and royal burial chamber. Photographs are not allowed, alas, but the twelfth century frescoes in the burial chamber were as engaging as I remembered, and the treasures in the museum as exquisite. I visited the Basilica on a Sunday, and when I reluctantly left, I found a river of women in pink T-shirts processing along the far side of the plaza. It seemed that Leon was honoring Breast Cancer Awareness on a different schedule to Pau.

    Leon is also home to one of Gaudi's buildings, the Casa Botines, a neo-Gothic structure quite different from his more famous Modernisme projects in Barcelona. Wandering the streets near the old town I found several other interesting buildings, along with fountains and sculptures.

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    welltraveledbrit wrote: "Whenever I hear Giacometti I presumed it's the same chap but it looks like they were a family of artists, sculptures and architects."

    Correct -- Alberto is probably the best known, primarily for his sculptures. Augusto was, I believe, best known for his stained glass and paintings (some of which are, IMO, glorious). Other family members are not so well known, particularly outside of Switzerland. But the Swiss do honor their own artists, IME, so one can see some incredible works by a variety of Swiss artists at museums and other institutions throughout the country. I was so glad to have time for both the mountains AND the cities, with their museums and churches!

    FWIW (basically, nothing ;-) ), I checked my notes and confirmed that I did, indeed, see the Giacometti windows at the Grossmunster. Unfortunately, I saw them late in a day that had become increasingly overcast. My notes say that I thought they must be wonderful if seen in the right lighting; instead, they were -- as we have now proven -- regrettably unmemorable. :-( So my experience of them was quite in contrast to the window at the Fraumunster, which absolutely glowed when I was there. :-) I'm glad thursdaysd got to see the ones at the Grossmunster under better lighting!


    @ thursdaysd -- My experience of the Leon Parador last May was apparently better than yours. It sounds like we were in a similar part of the building, but my bathroom was in excellent shape, as was the period furniture in my room; the staff were generally pleasant and helpful (although like you, I found them busy at times); and the chance to see some of the magnificent parts of the building after "regular" visitors' hours made up for a lot of minor things, IMO. I had a very enjoyable meal there one night -- but it was a special meal in honor of a parador anniversary, so might not be at all representative of their normal fare. And the parador was just steps from the other restaurant I chose in Leon, which was very much to my liking. BUT I agree that it is a bit far from the heart of the city and wish that your experience of it had been more like mine.

    I agree about San Isadoro -- what a privilege to have seen it! :-)

    Looking forward to more....

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    FYI - I usually mix text and photos on my blog, but I felt Leon's cathedral deserved its own post with just photos. So, if you're wondering why I went back to Leon for the cathedral (I can't show you San Isadoro), here's the link:

    https://mytimetotravel.wordpress.com/2015/11/28/leons-cathedral/

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    Thanks, welltraveledbrit!

    October 19, 2015: Briefly, Burgos

    Leon had built a spiffy new train station since my last visit. I had to show a ticket to access the platforms, although I didn't have to send my bags through the accompanying X-ray machine. I'm not sure whether the new station was a response to the Madrid bombings on 11 March 2004, but it seemed possible.

    Back when I was working out my itinerary for Spain, around May and June, getting from Leon to Salamanca by train was a pain, and I decided I needed to break the journey, even though I try hard to avoid one-nighters these days. With a choice of Palencia (where?), Valladolid and Burgos I picked Burgos, although its signature sight, the cathedral, sounded way too baroque for my taste. The train journey was comfortable - I was in Preferente class again - but boring, and Burgos' train station was five kilometers out of town. With no bus or bus stop in sight I shared a taxi into town with a young Spanish woman who had recently moved back from London and said she was glad to speak English again.

    The cathedral was even more baroque than I expected, but held some surprises, starting with the layout. The place was huge, and the main sanctuary and choir were isolated in the middle of it. Lofty aisles ran along either side, with elaborate chapels, each with its own altar and statuary, lined up on the other side. A river runs through Burgos, and I had entered the cathedral on the river side, after buying my ticket in a large modern welcome center. The ground sloped up from the river, and the cathedral had a second entrance on the uphill side, reached by an elaborate stairway, something else I had never seen. But besides the cathedral's sheer size, the staircase, the remarkable ceiling in the sanctuary, and the heavily decorated choir stalls, what really held my attention was a painting. A Leonardo da Vinci painting of Mary Magdalen.

    While the chapel that usually hosted the da Vinci was being renovated, the painting was on an easel in a small side chapel close to the staircase, separated from visitors by a simple rope and almost within touching distance. And no one else was paying it the slightest attention - not that there were many other people in the cathedral to start with. I thought about the Mona Lisa, absolutely mobbed by crazy crowds of tourists jockeying each other for photos almost bound to be inferior to those they could buy on postcards, and wondered about what makes one picture, or one artist, or one place the center of attention, and not others, arguably equally beautiful or talented or interesting.

    A couple of other religious sites would have been worth visiting, except they were too far from the center. The very modern-looking Museum of Evolution, which I would have liked to visit, was closed on Mondays. So I simply admired the walkways along the river on the way to the Hotel Forum Evolucion. After a cup of green tea in the attached cafe, I had a rest in my room's small verandah, which held a lounge chair and footstool. Then I walked back across a different bridge to visit the Museum of Books, which turned out to be a collection of facsimiles of manuscripts and early printed books. Since many of them were facsimiles of unfamiliar works I enjoyed it despite preferring originals.

    When I had briefly explored the town in the afternoon I had found it chilly but deserted. Now, in early evening, it was decidedly cold, but lively. I stopped for tapas - more lovely iberica ham - at La Favorita but didn't see anything else that inspired me, and moved on to La Cantina de Tenorio for some excellent lamb chops. I later discovered that La Favorita was the one place on the whole trip that had managed to pull the DCC scam on me successfully. Avoid!

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    Isn't that da Vinci lovely? I, too, had the privilege of seeing it with no other soul in sight -- what a very special experience. :-) And that staircase was a delight, IMO.

    I think I may have recommended La Favorita? So sorry your experience wasn't like mine: I enjoyed several tasty tapas and had no trouble with DCC there.

    I continue to enjoy hearing about your journey, thursdaysd!

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    Thanks, kja. The ham at La Favorita was good, but so was most of the iberica ham. I miss it...

    Honestly, I spent as much time being amazed that I had the da Vinci to myself as I did admiring it. It's just so strange how crowds propagate themselves in a few key places. Maybe it's some kind of herd instinct at work. I make a very bad herd animal.

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    I miss the jamon, too!

    The herd instinct is amazing. One of my favorite moments in the Louvre was standing alone, in front of a magnificent da Vinci and surrounded by extraordinary works of art that were being viewed by just a few others, all within view of a crowd worthy of a Serengeti migration all vying for a glimpse of the Mona Lisa, or apparently even better (as they saw it), a selfie in front of it. Sometimes it really does seem better to be a bad herd animal. :-)

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    October 20-23, 2015: Stately Salamanca

    When I told the woman running my hotel in Bayonne, in 2004, that I was going to Leon she was insistent that I should go to Salamanca instead. I didn’t take her advice, as it would have required a significant detour, and I enjoyed Leon a lot more than she thought I would. But I didn’t forget her reaction. Salamanca was still a significant detour from the straightforward Leon to Madrid route, but I went anyway. Although the stop off in Burgos had been reasonably interesting – the cathedral was definitely worth seeing – I could have done without the bus ride from Burgos to Salamanca. The bus station was just down the street from my hotel, and the bus was direct. But the ride reminded me of all the reasons I prefer trains.

    The hotel was just round the corner from the Plaza Mayor, on a quieter, tree lined plaza with a central fountain and several cafes. I had a small balcony overlooking the plaza and enjoyed watching the action, which in the early evening included a few kids playing soccer – girls as well as boys. Salamanca’s Plaza Mayor is justly famous, but I didn’t get the full effect, as I arrived to find a gang of workmen filling the whole square with stalls for a book fair. The square definitely falls into the magnificent category – vey big, very symmetrical, and surrounded by matching buildings. Unlike Pamplona, there were no public benches, if you wanted to admire the square while sitting down, you had to pay one of the cafes for the privilege. And just as I prefer my Art Nouveau eclectic, I prefer my squares a bit less regimented (think Krakow). The effect at night, however, when the lights came on, was almost magical.

    After the square, the cathedrals were next on my sightseeing list. Yes, cathedrals, plural. The “new” cathedral (begun in the 16th century) is built onto the “old” cathedral (begun in the 12th century). Nice that they didn’t tear down the old cathedral to build the new, as I much preferred it. Fortunately the tour groups seemed to prefer the new one, and there was certainly no shortage of groups. I had to wait to visit the old university building until they had all gone to lunch. I was particularly surprised to see groups from a Viking cruise ship, as I was well inland, but a little research showed that they had been bused over from the Duoro river in Portugal. Since you’re not allowed actually into the library in the university I thought the most interesting sight was the original benches in one of the lecture rooms – backless and about six inches wide. I doubt anyone fell asleep on those. The university was founded in 1134, and remains an important part of the city.

    The city itself, built on a hill overlooking the river Tormes, was founded before the Roman period. During the imperial era it was on a main Roman road, and the Roman bridge still exists and is in use for foot traffic. Looking across the river from the far bank, the cathedral dominates the city, but there is no shortage of other religious buildings. The Soto staircase in the Dominican Convento de San Estaban, one of the earliest to be cantilevered out from the wall, was interesting for the technique (although the carving was better on the university’s staircase), and I spent a long time examining the capitals in the cloister of the Convento de Los Duenos (but that’s for the next post).

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    Salamanca looks very elegant, couldn't help but think how hot that square would get in summer though, all those hard surfaces. (We are having one of our 40-42C heatwaves, so have heat on our minds. :). )

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    Yes, I think the climate may be given to extremes. It was really cold at night when I was there, although nice in the daytime.

    It's supposed to be winter where I am (North Carolina), but it's in the high 60s/low 70s F this week. I just had my heating and AC units replaced, and the new thermostat wanted to run the AC!

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    Oops! Realized I left out the second paragraph! Seems to read fine without it, but here it is anyway.

    The woman in Bayonne was half right. She was wrong about Leon, which I liked very much, but she was absolutely right about Salamanca, which I loved. It was also where I cemented my love affair with Iberica ham. I was staying in the (very nice) Salamanca Suite Studios and I spent part of my first afternoon buying supplies, as I had a surprisingly hard time finding muesli, orange juice and Nespresso capsules. Although I ate dinner one night at Bistro Zazu, right next door, I took advantage of my kitchenette to eat in the other nights – it was just too cold to wander around checking out restaurants, or even to sit outside with a cup of coffee on the main square. At least it was too cold for someone not traveling with winter clothes. The very helpful lady running my hotel sent me to a nearby shop that sold nothing but Iberica ham, and it was so good I just wished I could take some home with me.

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    I thought Salamanca spectacular, and am glad you seem to be finding it so, too. One of the things that fascinated me there was the difference between the capitals of the Convento de Los Duenos and those of the Convento de San Esteban -- maybe you are going to speak to that?

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    October 20-23, 2015: Quirky Salamanca

    Salamanca has no shortage of magnificent, beautifully decorated, and historic buildings. But it has a lighter side, and I'm not referring to the 30,000 university students in residence. I'm thinking of the grotesques populating the capitals of the columns in the nunnery's cloister, the car museum, and the Art Nouveau and Art Deco museum. In fact, it was the Art Nouveau museum that tipped the scales in favor of a visit to the city. Unfortunately, photographs weren't allowed inside the museum, so I can only post pictures of the outside. The most notable external feature, the stained glass gallery running the full length of the south side, was beautiful on an autumn day, but it must turn that part of the building, which includes the cafe, into a furnace in the summer. There was more stained glass in the ceiling of the central hall, which probably also heated up under summer sun. The rooms round the hall, on both floors, contained a good collection of typical Art Nouveau glass and furniture, but also collections that seemed totally unrelated - a big room full of dolls, for instance. While no doubt a remarkable collection in its own right, and from the correct period, it was not what I expected. On the other hand, I was particularly pleased by a number of small chryselephantine sculptures from the Art Deco school. The elegant women, toes pointed, arms stretched just so, seemed poised to dance right off their plinths.

    Cars, to me, are mostly a way of getting from A to B. Back when I drove Mazda sports coupes, I would have added "as fast as possible", but since an accident in 2007 (thanks to an aged driver making a left turn when he should have waited) and a switch to a hybrid sedan, I have slowed down. So I was less interested in the technical details of the vehicles on display in the Automobile Museum, than in their historical resonances. Looking at the touring cars from the early years of the twentieth century, I could almost see the passengers, muffled up against the dust of the open (and probably unsealed) road. Luggage space was minimal in the early years, because, of course, you weren't going very far. Or very fast, despite the message of the winged or feline hood ornaments. And then there were the American cars from the fifties and sixties, all hood and teeth. Today's streamlined cars look rather boring in comparison, although no doubt much more efficient.

    I nearly skipped the nunnery, formally the Convento de Los Duenos, which would have been a mistake. The convent, like many of the Spanish religious buildings I saw on this trip, had a two story cloister. But the decorations on the capitals of the columns were something else entirely. When I describe them as grotesque, I am using the word both in the technical sense, "decorative painting or sculpture with fantastic interweaving of human and animal forms", and in the popular sense of distorted, bizarre and disturbing. I had thought a cloister was intended for peaceful meditation, but there was nothing peaceful about these carvings. They seemed to be intended, instead, to frighten. Could it be that the medieval church, with its fanatically distorted views of women, felt that the nuns, vowed to a religious life or not, needed to be constantly reminded of the terrors of hell?

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    I also like your description of the convent, mysterious motives by monks perhaps?

    Palencia? that made me laugh, my brother just spent 8 months there. He was "working" at a local high school 20 hours per week. He had a fantastic time, his wife and daughter learnt Spanish and they travelled all over Spain in their three day weekends.

    I drool for Spanish ham..

    Thanks for sharing.

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    The convent didn't seem to be on the tour group itinerary, but the few people who were there when I was really seemed to be enjoying it. The cloister was a nice place to soak up some sunshine, with grass and flowers in the middle, and a surprising Moorish tiled arch at one end. And the photographers were having a field day!

    @sartoric - lucky brother and family!

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    October 23-26, 2015: Second Time Madrid

    My first visit to Madrid, I toured the Royal Palace, the Prado, and Reina Sofia, enjoyed a flamenco performance, and tried to stay cool in the Botanical Gardens before boarding a night train to Ronda. Ever since, I've used Madrid as an example of a city that others love and I don't. I usually contrast it with Lisbon, a city I loved at first sight. But there are plenty of cities I don't love at first sight, but nonetheless enjoy. It occurred to me that after a decade of putting Madrid down, perhaps I should give it a second look. Maybe I'd like it better in cooler weather. I wouldn't revisit the sights I had already seen, but Madrid had plenty of museums. Just in case, I allocated only three nights.

    Back when I was planning a trip to South America I spent some time trying to learn a little Spanish using a BBC video course (yes, I know the accent is different). I didn't learn much Spanish, but I did like the look of the Puerta del Sol and the Madrid metro, and I booked a room at the Hotel Europa, practically on the Puerta del Sol, instead of the Hotel Plaza Mayor where I stayed in 2004. I can only conclude that the BBC shot the video very early in the morning, because the square turned out to be tourist central, and both it and the street outside the hotel were mobbed, as was the metro. My hotel room, small and worn, did have a little balcony overlooking a slice of the square, and I did enjoy watching the crowds, but I had no interest in joining them.

    My first afternoon was not a success. After I got off the train from Salamanca I decided I would be better off taking the Cercanias commuter train to Puerta del Sol as the queues for the ticket machines for the metro were much longer. Ticket in hand, I had to wait for the platform for my train to show up on the monitor, and then had only two minutes to get there. The train itself was packed to overflowing. After I checked in and set off for the first museum on my list, I found the metro to be just as overcrowded. And the Anthropology Museum was a total waste of time. True, wandering past a row of second-hand book stalls in the direction of the Botanical Gardens, I did happen on the Caixa Forum, which was probably the most interesting building I saw in Madrid, but much of the exhibition space was closed.

    The museum scene did improve over the next two days (I'll do a separate post for them). I did enjoy the Retiro Park, with its lake, its Crystal Palace and its Velasquez Palace decorated with colorful tiles. I did eat quite well, although one of the best meals was at a South American restaurant. But I did not revise my opinion of Madrid.

    Possibly I would have liked Madrid better if I had been staying somewhere quieter. Although that would not, it turned out, have been Plaza Mayor, which I visited one evening, only to find it full of tourist-trap cafes. One or two other squares, recommended in my guide books, seemed to be in rather seedy areas. A walk down Gran Via, which one book claimed had interesting early 20th century buildings, also disappointed. I had my camera out, but the only building that seemed worth a shot was a Best Western hotel with a mural of a Spanish shawl.

    I had originally intended to finish my trip in Madrid, flying home on Icelandair with a stopover in Reykjavik, but when I got around to trying to book the flights, I discovered that Icelandair only offered that route in the summer. Flights from Madrid to the US at the end of October were, for some reason, ridiculously expensive, and trying frequent miles didn't turn up any routings I liked. I found better options out of Barcelona, and decided it was time to see how Sagrada Familia was coming along. I hadn't been over enthused about Barcelona either in 2004, but Gaudi was a definite draw.

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    October 23-26, 2015: Madrid's Museums, the Good and the Bad

    Mostly good, as it happens, and I already mentioned the bad, the National Museum of Anthropology, in my last post. Although I was not revisiting the Prado or the Reina Sofia, I still had plenty of museums to chose from, although many of them closed early on Sunday. I started out Saturday morning taking the metro out of the center to Ciudad Universitaria, where I was interested to see that the streets weren't cleaned the way they were around Puerta del Sol.

    The Costume Museum - the Museo del Traje - was a bit of a trek from the station, but well worth it. Although devoted to Spanish dress through the ages, there was no shortage of English description, the displays were well designed, and I had the place pretty much to myself. Aside from the dress of the elite, which was influenced by French fashions under Bourbon rule in the 1700s, I was interested to learn about the dress of the majos and majas, the Madrid working class.

    My second stop, back towards the station, was rather less successful. The young man at the Museum of the Americas seemed pleased to inform me that the cafeteria was closed, and handed me a map with a curt announcement that it was in Spanish because we were in Spain. I had been in Spain at the smaller Museum of Costume, but they had managed an English map. And I had though the the Americas included a fair number of English speakers. However, it turned out that it wasn't really a Museum of the Americas, more a Museum of Peru. North America was represented by a few displays from British Colombia and a half-hearted nod to the plains Indians. Plenty of ceramics, but very little gold was on display, aside from a few small, somewhat damaged pieces, and the larger artifacts came from Colombia. Of course, the conquistadores had only been interested in gold pieces for the metal, not the artistry.

    After lunch I was firmly back in Spain, at the Museum of Archaeology, although I also encountered Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks and Romans, and, of course, the Moors. This was a more foreigner-friendly museum, with English as well as Spanish descriptions, which I certainly needed for the earlier periods. The Roman section included some excellent mosaics, and the Moorish some elaborate ceilings.

    Sunday involved less travel, featuring the Museum of Decorative Arts, and the Thyssen, where I also ate lunch. The Museum of Decorative Arts was small, but quite good. I was amused to recognize a number of the artifacts in the temporary exhibition of bakelite on the ground floor. Upper floors contained plenty of heavily decorated furniture, and painted leather wall hangings.

    The Thyssen, of course, would be a first tier museum were it not in the same city as the Prado and the Reina Sofia, and was full of excellent art. Although by this time In the trip I had had my fill of medieval religious painting, there were still a few pieces I liked, and I was glad to see some El Grecos and a Rembrandt self portrait. I went through the modern section rather fast, which gave me time to visit the Retiro Park and to wander through a few areas south of my hotel before dinner and packing.

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    October 26-31, 2015: The Eixample versus the Ramblas

    For centuries, Barcelona was confined behind its medieval walls. When Madrid finally gave permission for them to go, in 1854, the city tore down the walls and expanded to the north. Starting from scratch, the area now known as L'Eixample was laid out with wide boulevards and plenty of light and air, forming a marked contrast with the cramped and winding streets of the old city. That was the result of planning, but the presence of three star architects of the Modernisme school (Catalan Art Nouveau) was pure serendipity. These days it is Gaudi who gets all the publicity, but Josep Puig i Cadafalch and Lluis Domenech i Montaner were designing beautiful and interesting buildings too.

    Still, aside from mentioning two Gaudi houses - Casa Battlo and Casa Mila - and his Sagrada Familia, the guidebooks give the Eixample little respect. It's the Ramblas, the long pedestrian avenue linking Placa de Catalunya with the port, and the Barri Gotic, the old city center, that get all the ink. Therefore, when I visited Barcelona in 2004, I stayed just off the Ramblas, and I did not, aside from the Gaudi buildings, find Barcelona very attractive. I was particularly disappointed with the Ramblas and wrote that the avenue was "mostly an opportunity for one group of tourists to sip over-priced drinks while watching another group parading past."

    But after visiting the Gaudi houses I ate lunch at Pastelerias Mauri in the Eixample, and noticed that the area seemed much more attractive. So, when I discovered that Icelandair didn't fly out of Madrid at the end of October, and that flying home from Barcelona instead of Madrid offered better routes, I decided that I would revisit Barcelona but that this time I would stay in the Eixample. When I couldn't find a hotel at a reasonable (to me) rate, I booked an AirBnB apartment on the Carrer des Balmes, two blocks from the Casa Battlo. I was delighted, both with the Eixample and the apartment. My opinion of Barcelona completely changed, for the better. I was also confirmed in my decision to only rent apartments from single women and couples - not only was this apartment well equipped and squeaky clean, there were plenty of towels, and the towels and sheets were pristine white. It had a sun-trap terrace with lounging chairs, too.

    I did revisit the Ramblas, and the Barri Gotic. I liked the Ramblas even less this time, with tour groups marching along behind their leaders, and the market so clogged with people I didn't venture inside. I made it all the way to the port, and regretted it when I got a close look at the Columbus monument. A glorification of colonialism, I particularly disliked the Native American, complete with feathered headdress, kneeling worshipfully at the feet of a missionary and gazing adoringly upwards. I did not take photos.

    I preferred the old town, where I followed a walking tour from my guidebook. I thought about visiting the cathedral, but first it was closed, and then there was a line to get in, and after Burgos, Leon and Salamanca I didn't feel too bad about missing it. Especially when I had bought a ticket for Sagrada Familia. Instead I visited the Casa de l'Ardiaca, the former Archdeacon's residence that now houses the city's archives. After admiring the charming Modernisme mail slot by Montaner on the outside, I very much enjoyed an exhibition of the work of Apelles Mestres, a multi-faceted artist I had never heard of.

    I also spent time over on Montjuic, admiring the views from both the bottom and the top of the hill (although it was too hazy to really see Sagrada Familia) and visiting the Catalan Art Museum. Besides appreciating the art and the building, I ate lunch in the restaurant, with an excellent view over the city. But the Ramblas, the Barri Gotic and Montjuic were all secondary to my main interest, Modernisme. I had bought tickets ahead of time for three Gaudi sights: Sagrada Familia (timed entry), Casa Battlo (enter any time), and Casa Mila (preferential entry any time), as well as Domenech i Montaner's Palace of Catalan Music, and I was also able to visit three more buildings and a museum of Modernisme. In the end, I was very glad the Icelandair flight hadn't been available.

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    Ooooh, I loved the Casa de l'Ardiaca! I must admit that didn't know that's what it was until I google-imaged it to see what you had seen. Thanks for helping me find the name!

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    Although I've been home since the end of October, I've been suffering from extremely low energy. I have made little progress planning the next trip, and am still behind on blogging the last one. I have been gradually updating my blog, but mostly with photographs. I'm going to put the text from the last four posts here, but really they were all about the photos (my blog, with links at the top of the page: https://mytimetotravel.wordpress.com/ )

    I should also thank maitaitom, whose extensive posts on Barcelona (http://www.fodors.com/community/europe/maitaitoms-insane-for-spain-2015.cfm ) warned me that I should buy tickets for the most popular sights ahead of time.

    October 2015: Barcelona's Modernisme Houses

    Walking two busy blocks east from my peaceful apartment on Carrer des Balmes brought me to the “Block of Discord” on Passeig de Gracia, so called because of the three very different buildings that share it. All three date from the Modernisme period, but the designs of Gaudi, Montaner and Cadafalch are strikingly individual. All three of the buildings contain multiple apartments, which are still in use, but the “owner’s apartments”, on the first (US second) floor, the piano nobile, are open for visits. All day, with audio guides, in the case of Casa Battlo, just for a few visits, with a live guide, for the other two.

    Casa Battlo is probably the most popular Gaudi sight after Sagrada Familia, and attracts continuous crowds outside and inside. But, just as the Leonardo da Vinci painting in Burgos cathedral is neglected, the crowds ignore the other two houses on the block. That meant that I could buy a (noticeably cheaper) ticket on the day I visited without having to queue, and I was shown round the main apartment in company with just a few other Modernisme fans.

    Casa Amatller was originally built in 1875, but was refurbished by Puig i Cadafalch in 1898 for the Amatller family. The inspiration was mainly Gothic, although the stepped gable recalls the canal houses in Amsterdam. Anton Amatller was a chocolatier, and the shop on the ground floor still sells chocolate. He did not survive to enjoy the apartment for very long, dying in 1910, but his daughter continued to live there for many years (dying in 1960), establishing an art institute and an archive of her father’s collections. While most of the apartment is unchanged, she had her bedroom redesigned in Art Deco style. The apartment has only recently been opened for visits, after a fourteen year restoration, and is fully furnished.

    This was not Art Nouveau as I think of Art Nouveau, but it was certainly worth seeing.

    Lluis Domenech i Montaner’s contribution to the visual feast is Casa Lleo Morera. My guidebook lamented the fact that the interior wasn’t accessible, but it was wrong. Just as with the Casa Amatller, I was able to buy a ticket for a guided tour the morning I wanted to visit, and was shown round by a well-informed guide with just a handful of other visitors. In fact, it was this guide who told me I could visit Casa Amatller and that it was fully furnished.
    Originally constructed in 1864, the building was redesigned for the Morera family in the early 1900s. Morera means mulberry tree, and mulberry trees can be found in the decorations, as can references to contemporary inventions such as the camera and the telephone. Again, this is not my preferred style of Art Nouveau, but I thoroughly enjoyed my tour.

    The Gaudi sites in Barcelona have become major stops on the tourist trail, and these days are priced accordingly. Visiting Casa Amattler, which boasts a fully furnished apartment, costs 15 euro, or 13.50 for students and seniors, including a guided tour, a guided tour of Casa Lleo Morera is 12 euro. Visiting Gaudi’s Casa Battlo, with no guide and no furniture, is a full 22.50 euro, or 19.50 for students and seniors. Add another five euro if you want a Fast Pass that gets you in at any time.

    Even though I had already seen Casa Battlo back in 2004, when it was both cheaper and less popular, I opted to revisit, and to pay for the Fast Pass. Since I was sleeping only a couple of blocks away, I arrived right at opening time, went straight in, and had the apartment and the roof almost to myself for ten or fifteen minutes. When I walked back down from the roof the apartment was already full of people.

    The sinuous curves that Gaudi could coax out of apparently rigid materials were remarkable. Every inch had clearly been carefully considered, from door handles designed to fit the hand, to the shading – dark blue to light blue – of the colored tiles on the interior light shaft. Everywhere I looked there was something to admire, although I wish I could have seen the apartment when it was furnished.

    I am a huge fan of Art Nouveau. I am a big fan of Gaudi. But Gaudi’s Casa Mila/La Pedrera left me cold. Really, it is all about the roof of the building, and while it’s interesting, it’s not that interesting. And the visitor is fobbed off with a secondary apartment furnished more in the style of the late nineteenth century than that of the early twentieth. All three of the houses in the Block of Discord showcase the owner’s apartment, on the piano nobile, but not the Casa Mila. And yet the price is still stunningly high at 20.50 euro for general admission (no senior discount) and 27 euro for “premium” admission, which allows you unscheduled entry through the front door instead of timed entry through a side door.

    I paid for premium admission, and showed up just before the place opened. This did get me in the front door, with a good look at the main courtyard/air shaft, and I was on the first elevator to the roof. Certainly, if you want photos of the roof that don’t include your fellow tourists, you need to beat them to the roof, but the advantage didn’t last long. I did get to tour the apartment mostly alone, but after the gorgeous apartments I had already seen it was a disappointment.

    I would recommend saving your pocket book and your feet and visiting the three Block of Discord buildings rather than doing a Casa Battlo and Casa Mila combination. Just admire the outside.

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    I'm taking solace in these words, thursdaysd -- I opted for an evening tour of the Casa Mila, which does NOT include the apartment -- just the attic and roof. I thoroughly enjoyed the "light show" on the roof, but even so, I've been wondering, ever since, if I missed out on something! Glad to know I made the right choice for me.

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    @maitaitom - thanks! Your report was very helpful, although I mostly ate in and didn't use the restaurant recs.

    The Palace of Music, the Hospital and Sagrada Familia still to come. Plus an Art Nouveau museum and general wandering around. (Did eat in the restaurant at the Hospital, and the suckling pig was totally to die for...)

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    Realized that although I finally finished posting about Barcelona on my blog, I hadn't done so here. As before, this is the text, plenty of pictures at https://mytimetotravel.wordpress.com/.

    I am currently busy planning the next trip, but am going to try to write about the two and a half weeks I spent in England in the middle of this trip and skipped when I got behind on the blog.

    Even More Barcelona

    A Palace of Music: As a corrective to the idea that Modernisme was all and only about Gaudi, it would be hard to beat the Palace of Catalan Music, or Palau de la Musica Catalana, designed by Lluis Domenech i Montaner (who was responsible for the Casa Lleo Morera I wrote about earlier). I might have skipped this building, not being musical, had I not read the description – and seen the photographs – on maitaitom's blog about Barcelona. That would have been a mistake, and the guided tour was well worth the eighteen euro I paid – in advance, as the palace is deservedly popular.

    It is also a working concert hall, and if I were not tone deaf I would definitely have tried to attend a concert, as the space is magical. (But I see on the website that some events include dance – flamenco in those surroundings must be breathtaking. Next time…) The palace was financed by popular subscriptions as a home for the Orfeo Catala, a choral society, and finished in 1908.

    A Hospital for the Ages: One might think that the Palace of Catalan Music, a UNESCO World Heritage site, was the pinnacle of Domenech i Montaner’s career. Instead, I would suggest that a second World Heritage site, the former Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau is even more impressive. For one thing, it is considerably larger, consisting of a main administrative building and two rows of satellite buildings linked by underground passages and formerly used as wards. The buildings remained in use by the hospital until 2009, are currently undergoing restoration, and are open for visits.

    The administrative building, with a sweeping main staircase, is particularly impressive, but wandering the grounds, everywhere I looked I noticed fascinating details. Only a couple of the former wards are accessible, and look rather forlorn, but if you are going to be sick I can certainly think of worse places to do it.

    The Hospital also has a restaurant, just inside the main gates. I had spent the morning visiting Sagrada Familia, but thought the area too touristy to provide a good value restaurant and had taken the bus over to the hospital, only to find myself in a residential area with little commerce. I had to sit outside, as the main room was reserved for a group (it looked like a professional conference, not a tour group), but the weather was comfortable and the food remarkable. I ate a portion of suckling pig with melt-in-your mouth flesh and deliciously crisp skin, so good that I sent my compliments to the chef. Then I spent a couple of hours admiring the buildings, sending posthumous compliments to the architect.

    A Temple of Light: In all, Gaudi spent 43 years working on Sagrada Familia, for the last twelve years of his life he worked on nothing else. After his fatal accident in 1926, work continued, although the Spanish Civil War caused some disruption, and some parts look less “Gaudi” than others. Although work remains to be done, principally the west front and the central towers, the building was consecrated in 2010, and the interior appears complete.
    As with other Modernisme buildings, everywhere you look there is something of interest, but what particularly struck me on this visit was the quality of the light inside. The stone itself is pale, and perfectly reflects the colored light from the stained glass windows.

    Of course, Sagrada Familia is on all the Barcelona “must see” lists, and I encountered crowds inside as well as out. I had bought a timed entry ticket, and there was no limit on how long I could stay. However, a little checking online turns up the information that not only can there be a very long wait to buy tickets if you turn up without one, there is a limit on the number of people admitted at any given time.

    Winding Down: I spent my last afternoon in Barcelona visiting the Museum of Catalan Art Nouveau, where I discovered still more exponents of Modernisme. I was especially taken by furniture by Joan Busquets i Jane, but there were also paintings, stained glass and even a cloisonné table, by a number of different artists.

    The next morning, Halloween, I got up at an unpleasantly early hour and trekked through the Eixample to Placa de Catalunya to catch the airport bus. I flew economy class on American (or possibly rebranded US Airways) via Philadelphia and the flight was chiefly notable for the fact that all blinds remained down for the duration of the daytime flight so people could spend their time watching their screens. And for an actually edible meal – I thought the flight attendant might cry when I complimented her on the improvement in the food!

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