Belgium – A Delightful Little Country

I started this post a year ago today, and I’ve just notice I missed actually publishing it…so here we go!

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Helene & Pierre

The train from Paris to Brussels is smooth and fast. I was met at the station by Helene, who I’d met when she and Pierre were in Australia and staying at my place. We took the bus to her home, dumped my suitcase before starting on a tour of Brussels.

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Helene & her parents
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Welcome to Belgium meal – home made by Nanette.

Nanette, is the most fabulous cook and had prepared a special dinner to welcome me. It was delicious – especially the dessert tasting plate!

The city centre is compact and very attractive.   2014-09-13 13.44.46 I tried delicious biscuits, visited the Cathedral, the Grand Place, and saw host of other famous landmarks and rubbed the reclining bronze statue (whose name I do not remember!), but the story goes that if I rubbed it I would return to Belgium.

Helene’s family warmly welcomed me to their homes in both Brussels and Wavre which gave me an experience of both the city and countryside. It was just a brief visit, but we managed to jam in heaps!

Belgium might be a tiny little country, but it’s full of history and wonderful scenery. I visited Namur, with its stunning citadel perched high on a craggy hilltop from which you can see for miles. Ideal place to watch out for invaders!

View from Namur Citadel
View from Namur Citadel

We also took a day trip to Bruges which is just delightful. It’s like stepping into a story book with its beautiful old buildings, the river that meanders through the centre of town, pictureques scenes abound around each corner. So many wonderful chocolate shops, delightful lace makers and fabulous little cafe’s. Definitely a place worth a couple of days at least. Sadly, I only had a day.

We even squeezed in a quick visit to Dinant, the birthplace of Adolphe Sax, the chap who invented the saxaphone. A big thank you to Christian for driving us all there! It’s another very nice little town to explore on an afternoon.20140913_182813

Delightful Bruges
Delightful Bruges

Belgium is just a tiny little country but full of beauty; I was very impressed and was very lucky to have Helene as a guide.

Michelle

 

In the air … A travelogue by Special Correspondent for Dragon Sisters Nowette Awle

I’ve decided to add these articles to my personal blog, with permission from our guest blogger, as they are really fun memories of our 2010 trip. I hope you enjoy them. Michelle Hanton

When a Dragon Sister mentioned going on holiday to Venice and a luxury cruise, I thought, ‘Well that’s OK for some. Some of us have a job to hold down, a family to hold together and myriad obstacles to abandoning all responsibility in favour of racking off on some self-indulgent girls-only jolly!!’ However, where there’s a will, there’s a way; and the more I thought about it, the more I thought: “I will!!” Mindful of the fact that it may well be a very long time before I ever make a dash for Dragon Sisterly debauchery on this scale again, I kept a little travelogue of all the happy happenings along the way.

‘Jetting off’ to Europe has a connotation of speed, glamour, pizzazz about it, which in the interests of honesty I have to say is a far cry from reality. The trip from here to there in cattle class is more akin to a slow boat to China but is it ever worth it!!

Oz – Dubai:   A 14 hour flight with Emirates Air manned (bizarrely) by an entirely Spanish cabin crew. I discover early on that my movie gubbins is not working and I finally give up the ghost after being pinged back to the beginning of Benjamin Button for the 3rd time. The steward who promised to check it out vanishes without a trace. Which doesn’t matter since it is obviously a technical problem only fixable by NASA and handsome as this Spaniard is, he seems more at home with the coffee pot than mission control. Speaking of which, the coffee is curiously scarce, being served a la Manuel chez Fawlty Towers in the middle of the meal. The options are (especially if you’re slow with your nose bag) to drink coffee before your main course, cold at end of your meal, or do without. I ask one trolley dolly “will you be back with coffee?” She says “No!!” but smiles prettily before whipping away the precious pot. And, obviously, don’t hold your breath for a refill – because you’ll need an oxygen mask before that happens! Happily, all drinks are free except champers ($8 a glass). Sadly, I choose the white wine which is barely chilled (tepid) and if you want more than one drink you have to go on a “seek and detain” drinks trolley mission. In short, beverage hospitality is not at all forthcoming!! Otherwise, the cabin crew are very nice in an overall charmingly inattentive way!

I have a long chat with a lovely elderly Rhodesian (now Zimbabwean) chap most of the flight. We amuse ourselves with quips about the Latin lack of alcohol and whether Basil Fawlty is in fact the captain. Total sleep managed: 2 hours.

Transit c.4 hrs Dubai, United Arab Emirates:   I find I am disappointed in the airport, having heard of it being lavish, luxurious, spacious and everything you’d expect from one of the world’s oil sheik capitals. No doubt it normally is but as luck would have it, a new airport is under construction, consequently the current terminal has us jammed in like so many sardines in transit. The only seating available is in eateries or lined up at the departure gates. Duty free shopping taking up all available space which is quite understandable. So, with nothing better to do, I go shopping. Alcohol is delightfully cheap and smarting from my recent in-flight depredations I purchase 1L each of Gordon’s gin and Bailey’s liqueur for a paltry AUS $46.00. Ah, things are looking up!

Final leg Dubai-Venice 6 hrs.:   The closer I get to Venice the better everything becomes: I find myself seated next to a Brad Pitt lookalike and the movie thingo is working perfectly. I am however too knackered to enjoy either. I really should have slept when in the company of the aged Boer and the defunct movie, then I could have had lovely eye candy and in-flight entertainment for this leg (both featuring Brad Pitt!). How daft am I?! Instead I move to get an extra spare seat, stretch out and manage 2 hours zeds. (Dreaming of Brad punting me down the Grand Canal, singing something soppily romantic in Italian).

Touch down!!   I arrive at Venice airport where I am met by a Dragon Sister. We jump on a bus for the 20 minute ride (which costs E3) to Piazza le Roma, Venice’s bus station. This is the end of the line for all motor vehicles. From here on you have to get about on leg power or on various modes of canal craft. Luggage with wheels and travelling light suddenly become a crucial for the jet-lagged traveller. I’m relieved that Dragon Sisters have factored this in and it is only a 2 minute walk over only one bridge (ponte) to get to our destination, the Sofitel Venezia. This is radically different from the tower block Sofitel Hotels I’m familiar with in Oz. It’s a lot smaller with lots of marble, chandelliers, a curving marble staircase and another-worldly bijoux charm about it. My room is decked out in antique-style decor with an en-suite bathroom and two balconies (admittedly they are the size of airline loos) overlooking the canal and the Papadopolous Gardens and pontes. IMG00402-20090614-0223 IMG00041-20090604-0142Amazingly, all vestiges of fatigue disappear. Having briefly appreciated the merits of my new home, I dump my bags and hare out door to explore.

Ciao Venezia! Here I come!!

Exploring the Albayzin – Granada, Spain

The school year is drawing to a close, at least here in Europe, which means so too is my time here in Spain. I’m making the most of the last few weekends and have been to Granada, Cordoba and Seville this month. Distances are not as vast as at home in Australia, so even though I don’t have a car here, it’s fairly easy to get about from one area to the other. I’m using buses, BlaBla Cars and lovely students who kindly give me lifts if they are headed in the direction I want to go.

Although it’s only a month since my very first visit to Granada, there’s a magic about the place that drew me back once again. My first stop was the cake shop where I indulged myself in not one, but two of the most delicious Arab sweets. It was then down to the serious business of leisurely exploring the Albayzin area, the old Arab quarter. Although I’d visited there before, I didn’t really have enough time for a proper exploration on my first visit.

It’s a very ancient area of the city, also UNESCO world heritage listed, built into the hill on the opposite side of the river to the Alhambra. A series of narrow, steep and winding alleyways offer surprise views and scenes tucked around each b20150430_155323end, including glimpses of the Alhambra in all its glory. There are some areas where cars can squeeze (and it’s definitely a squeeze) along, but for the most part it’s all very, very narrow and you can imagine donkeys being more suited for trekking up and down. I certainly wouldn’t like to have to lug my groceries home from the supermarket, although the idea of a small flat in this area has masses of appeal! I also reckon walking up and down the steep slopes would soon cancel out the sugar ladened cakes I’d be consuming each day if I lived here. Flat shoes are a must and it was with great amusement that I watched a few fashionable young tourists teeter around on their platform shoes.

There is a little bus that you can take up and down, and it’s very cheap (E1.20). We took the bus last time as we were pressed for time. This time my explorations were all on foot, both up and down, round and through the various nooks and crannies, including a visit to the mosque whose gardens are open to the public. The view from here of the Alhambra is pretty spectacular but without the crowds at the Mirador S. Nicholas which is right next door. I also took the big camera this time, so have better shots, but these here are straight from my phone.

My attic room
My attic room where I enjoyed a sound sleep.

By the time I got back to my hotel at around 11pm, my poor little footsies were pretty tired. It was a most welcome relief to slip off my shoes, wiggle my toes and settle back with a glass of bubbly in hand before dragging myself into the shower. The hotel was a converted 16 Century mini palace located right on the Darro. My room, which I’d booked at the last moment, was in what was obviously a converted attic space. I slept like a log!

wpid-20150607_110042.jpg wpid-20150607_105538.jpgSunday morning saw Wayne and myself enjoy a leisurely breakfast before doing some serious haggling for leather bags. Our purchases left us thirsty – shopping is hard work – so we headed  into yet another colourwpid-20150607_125119.jpgful square, for refreshments and watched the local townsfolk go about their regular Sunday businewpid-20150607_124841.jpgss.  In the afternoon we headed back to Ecija which is a total contrast to Granada and certainly a whole lot cheaper in terms of eating out. I guess I’ve been spoilt spending all these months in a little local place where I’ve got used to paying local prices. I reckon I’m going to be in for a rude shock when I am back in Australia again. However, I’m really looking forward to a bowl of laksa!

Michelle

Granada Part 2 – The Alhambra

The Alhambra must surely be the jewel in the crown of Andalucia, a province that is rich with monuments, yet there is something that extra bit special about this historic citadel that overlooks the city of Granada.

Majestic Alhambra
Majestic Alhambra

Nestled against the breathtaking backdrop of the snow-capped Sierra Nevada, the Alhambra, rises as a majestic fortress over the city. The UNESCO World Heritage site stands as a beautiful, intriguing and stark reminder of years long since past when the Moors ruled Spain before Queen Isabella, the Catholic,  finally conquered the Moors in 1492.

Having read a myriad of books set in this period with the Alhambra as a backdrop, I wascropped-wpid-20150430_165935.jpg keen to see its marvellous beauty for myself. Imagine my disappointment when I learnt we were unable to get tickets. I was devastated to learn they needed to be booked months in advance! We’d only decided to go there two weeks earlier as it was a bit of a juggle with my teaching timetable to create the time needed for the trip.

Never someone wh20150430_155323o is easily deterred, I started to ask about amongst my tourism contacts, and despite their best efforts no tickets were available. Nevertheless, we arrived in Granada determined to make the best of things. We trotted down to the local tourist bureau, official Alhambra ticket office and also sought out the locals. The consensus was that, if we were to queue early in the morning, well before the ticket office opened, there was a chance we might be able to get a ticket as a certain quota – approximately 300 they thought, were held back for gate sales. No one was sure how many or exactly what time to start to queue, but heck, this is Spain, and there’s always contradictory information. I’ve got used to it and go with the flow.

My cousin Michael has never been an early bird in all the years I have known him, so no way was he planning to leap out of bed, not unless he absolutely had to. I, on the other hand, was determined to give it my best shot. At 6.15 am when it was still pitch dark and with not a soul in the street except me, there I was on my way up the hill to the ticket office. I had planned to walk, but it was so dark, that I decided a taxi would be prudent.

My taxi deposited me at 6.20 outside the ticket office where, to my wpid-20150501_171326.jpgamazement, there was already a queue of about 50 people! I joined the line of Italians, Americans, Japanese and Spaniards of all ages who, like me, were determined to wpid-20150501_154621.jpggain admission. We jiggle from foot to foot trying to keep warm. Some of those in front of me even had blankets on the floor, so goodness knows how long they had been there!

At 8.15, I was the proud holder of 2 tickets for the 2pm admission with a 3.30 timeslot at the Nasrid Palace. As I emerged from the ticket office, I noticed the queue was now some 200 – 300 plus deep. The authorities that manage the Alhambra have restricted the number of entries per day and split them into two sessions. Some may complain, but I think it’s a fabulous idea as it prevents the place becoming too overcrowded while also protecting this unique monument.

Michael and I spent an extremely enjoyable five hours exploring the magnificent gardens, nooks and crannies as well as the various buildings and towers that make up the Alhambra. The history of the place seeps through the walls and speaks to us of decades long past. The walls of the Nasrid Palace, echo with the whisper of a bygone era, a time when the Moors of Granada were a proud and strong race. I loved the Alhambra and would go back in a flash! It was definitely worth standing in a cold line in the pitch black to obtain a ticket.

Michelle

Granada Part 1 – evoking memories of my childhood

My recent weekend  in Granada (1st weekend in May) was a poignant reminder of my Middle Eastern childhood. A lot of things here in Spain remind me of the days in the Middle East – gas stoves, flat roofs where washing gets hung out and kids play, cobbled streets, fresh fruit and vegetable stalls, sunflower seeds, pepitas, strong black coffee served with a glass of water on the side and fragrant teas served in a glass. Actually, it’s not that surprising considering that this area was under Moorish rule for some 700 years and history has a massive impact on how countries and regions evolve.

I’ve always loved history and Granada has been on my bucket list for quite some time now, a place I have wanted to visit since I first read about it, in historical novels way back when I was a teenager. The Alhambra sounded so exotic!

One of my Spanish students did her English exam oral presentation on Granada so I also learnt a lot more from her, in the course of her practice session, about this ancient city.

SO finally, I got the chance to visit Granada when my cousin Michael arrived from Australia. The journey involved a bus ride from Ecija to Cordoba, a train, and then another bus, but it was all most definitely worth it! My earlier blog on getting organised for the journey is here.

With the fall of Granada, the last Moorish stronghold in Spain, the country fell under the strict Catholic regime that resulted in many of the magnificent monuments built by the Moors being replaced with Christian churches. Fortunately, they were not all destroyed and there remains today some wonderful architecture that is testament to the fabulous skills of the artisans of those times.

Street in the Albaycin
Scenes from the Albaycin

Being in Granada is a step back in timewpid-20150430_152739.jpg. Despite the fact that it is a modern city, the history of the place is alive and well.  As I walked wpid-20150430_152707.jpgwpid-20150501_205940.jpgthrough the Albaycin the wonderful sight of Arab sweets, lanterns, fragrant tea shops, and the Arabic chatter of the local merchants transported me back to happy days spent in Jerusalem and Beirut wandering through the souks.

I’m also very happy to report that the Arab cakes I had there were the best ones I have tasted in a very, very long time. Sorry no photos of the cakes, I was too busy eating them!

Michelle

 

 

Granada – here I come!

I’ve dreamt of visiting Granada since I was a young girl reading novels set in the days of Muslim rulers, and then in the period of Isabella of Spain. My dream is finally coming true!

Getting organised to make this trip has been no mean feat!  Student timetables had to be rejiggled so I could have today off to add to the public holiday which is tomorrow. I’ve put in very long hours, cramming  in the extra lessons  as well as maintaining all my freelance deadlines.

I’m very luck to work with great people who’ve helped make this possible through their understanding and flexibility.

We’re travelling through hill country dotted with olive groves and the road climbs higher and higher past fields sprinkled with wild poppies whose vibrant red adds a bold splash of colour to the greenery. Far in the distance the snow capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada loom and I can’t wait to reach our destination.

Michelle

Malaga – a city of contrasts

The drive from my current home town of Ecija to Malaga yesterday was. much to my surprise, so  picturesque. Very green, peppered with olive groves, scenic hill tops dotted with the occasional houses, dramatic drops and finally the views of the Mediterranean sea sparkling in the distance.

A big shout out and thank you to Nati and Javier for giving me a lift as they headed to visit their friends in Marbella.

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Looking out over the port from Alcazaba

The city is a mix of the old and new. Beautiful beaches complete with bars and restaurants, a marina, port and heaps of museums. It’s a city aimed tourists with several information points where they speak a multitude of languages, wheelchair ramps and streets that are no longer cobbled.

A myriad of modern shops and goodness knows how many different restaurants and bars! Plenty of foreign tourists and menus are in English in lots of places which I avoided like the plague!

Instead I settled20150328_152610 for a cute little place that looked much more local as everyone sitting at the bar was speaking Spanish. Special of the day was plump pulpo grilled to order on the charcoal fire.

I sat for an hour enjoying watching all the action at the bar as the staff bustled about. Tapas is a most civilised way of eating and I love being able to order a dish at a time, especially as if I spot something going past that I fancy, I can just order the same so no cases of menu envy here.

View of Gibralfaro walking towards the city
View of Gibralfaro walking towards the city

Although situated smack bang in the middle of modern-day Malaga, once I stepped into the Alcazaba I was transported back in time. To an era where life was very different. The perfume of orange blossom, lavender growing wild and the wonderful courtyards all offered a sense of serenity and wonder at the amazing people who built this wonder place-fortress that dates back to the 11th century.

The Alcazaba and Gibralfaro are testament to Malaga’s Muslim past with each boasting 360 degree views over the city, including the sea and the hill ranges and I can just imagine that in days of old they were fantastic vantage points to watch for invaders and homecoming vessels.20150328_170859

In contrast to the Muslim history is the Cathedral of Malaga, which whilst not as impressive as that of Seville, is worth visiting even if they do charge a E5 entrance fee but I am told it’s free on Sundays. Lots of wonderful stained glass and the interior is not as dark as Seville.

There are also several museums belonging to the various Brotherhoods in Malaga with displays of Semana Santa regalia. I visited Confradia de la Esperanza which was truly impressive with beautiful embroidered garments, gold and silver ornaments, a wonderful painted ceiling depicting the history of the Br20150328_190940otherhood and boasts the largest floats in Malaga. They were truly impressive. In this photo you can see part of the mural.

Last nigh the streets were being prepared for the Semana Santa parades with chairs lining the main routes and verandahs all decked out with red cloths giving a uniform look to the route. Bands are kicking off the week by parading through the streets where the somber sounds of the drums and trumpet mark their slow procession as the crowds look on. Street stalls are popping up everywhere and the city is ready for a week of celebrations.

The first paso just went by earlier this morning. Watching them walk gave me shivers, the experience is very difficult to describe. Primitive almost and at the same time awe-inspiring. Even though we are in a modern city, the feeling is that of a time when the Church was at the height of its power in Spain. It’s a very eery feeling.

The discipline and dedication of those bearing the paso is incredible. It’s also extremely hot so even more impressive. The crowds that line the route are so thick that it’s difficult to walk about.

I’m off to England now and I have to say I think a week of drums would drive me crackers! It has however been a fascinating experience and when I get back on Sunday there’ll still be parades taking place.

Michelle