French Riviera & Monaco

After an exciting month in Spain and Portugal, we flew across to Nice on the French Riviera. This was to be our central base to explore the famous coastal ports of the region – Antibes and Cannes to the west, and Villefranche and Monaco to the east.

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Never did my meticulous (some would say pedantic) planning come in more handy than having the foresight several months in advance to select a window seat on the left side of the aircraft for the Barcelona to Nice flight. Mid-afternoon on a spectacular June day and we were treated to a truly stunning introduction to the French Riviera. Just jaw-dropping.

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I’d heard mixed reports about Nice, but on balance I quite liked it. The famous Promenade des Anglais which runs the length of the main beach in Nice was simply stunning, both during the day and as the sun started to disappear. There was never a shortage of gawking tourists, wealthy Europeans and expensive sports cars lapping up and down.

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But just ten minutes walk away from the Promenade and you get a snapshot that no matter how ritzy the reputation of this area may be, no section of Europe has been averse to the impact of the Global Financial Crisis. The gritty ‘immigrant’ neighbourhoods start within a hundred metres of the highest of high-end shopping districts, and most travel guides will now tell you that even the Promenade is off-limits after dark.

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We had rented a 1-bedroom apartment through AirBnB about ten minutes walk from all the action. The description 1-bedroom was extremely misleading – but not how you might be thinking. With some better space distribution they could have very easily made this a 3-bedroom – it was huge.

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Our first day exploring delivered us a beautiful sunny 30 degree day. The sea glistened such a striking light blue – like we’d seen in Mexico and the Caribbean. Unlike home there was very little sand to walk or lay on. Just thousands of burning hot grey rocks. Thankfully there were some amazing vantage points for us to take it all in. We continued round to the Villefranche harbour and walked for miles past some gorgeous rocky swimming holes and outrageous holiday homes.

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The second day out we caught the bus west to Cannes. Amazingly in this playground for the rich and famous you can take the 90 minute bus ride for just 1 euro. The train can cost you up to ten times that, but is somewhat quicker. Before we left we confirmed the pronunciation, so not to embarrass ourselves in front of the bus driver. We found a great website which described how it sounded this way – Cannes: ‘Cans’ come in a 6-pack, ‘Khan’ was Gengis’ last name, and ‘Can’ has a famous film festival.

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We missed the Cannes Film Festival by a matter of weeks, but the red carpet was still there with many interested tourists snapping away. We took a stroll through the cobblestone back-streets and had a surprisingly good value three course lunch at a small Mediterranean restaurant while we watched the world go by. This was what traveling was supposed to be like. After lunch we ascended to the highest point of Cannes for amazing views across the town and sea.

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From Cannes we moved back east to Antibes (‘On-tee-b’) – a lesser known but very popular family holiday destination in the region. We walked for miles out of the town centre past some of the most picturesque wharves and shorelines. As the sun started to set and cloud began to amass, it was time to get back on the bus and head home.

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We didn’t realise it at the time, but day 3 in Nice would prove to be one of the most unique on the trip – it rained all day. Remarkably this would be the only day out of 165 that we didn’t get out and about because of the weather. Even in London and Manchester, what rain we did encounter was fleeting. What it did give us was time to catch up on planning, bookings and the blog.

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Day 4 was special for three reasons – 1. It was Karina’s birthday, 2. It was beautiful and sunny and 3. We were crossing the border into a new country. I had specifically planned to spend Karina’s special day in glamorous surrounds of Monaco. In an interesting contrast we got all dressed up in our best clothes then shuffled down to the bus stop. The 45 minute ride from Nice to down-town Monte Carlo passed some beautiful coastal landscapes, seemingly each one better than the last.

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We started at one of the world famous Casinos, meandered around the harbour, along a big stretch of the Formula 1 track and up the hill to the Monaco Palace and Cathedral. It was nothing short of spectacular. All the TV shows and Formula 1 coverage had painted a vivid picture for me – and it certainly lived up to it. We settled in for drinks and dinner at one of the local establishments and watched as the sunlight disappeared over the back of the City-State. Birthday 30 will be hard to top next year.

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Despite nursing a hang-over, I was up bright and early for our last day in the French Riviera. It was almost as important as Karina’s Birthday – at least for me anyway. On the other side of the world, the teams were running out onto ANZ Stadium in Sydney for State of Origin Game 1. Thanks to the strong League and Union presence in southern France, I was able to find an Irish Pub in the Old Town of Nice showing Channel 9’s coverage live. Crammed in the corner was about 15 Australians (thankfully mostly Blues supporters) swigging pints and yelling at the TV. A great win for the home team and a memory to last a life-time. Karina filled her day visiting the flower and food markets (and discovered the best salted caramel gelato as recommended by her friend Grace), so we both got what we wanted.

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Next up was a month-long stint in neighbouring Italy that we were both looking forward to. We were headed for Venice via Rome. Surely nothing could go wrong in two short flights. But you should always expect the unexpected in Italy.

Aaron

València

Travelling is not all relaxing, exploring and partying.  Being away for 6 months means we need to do things on the cheap wherever possible. So that means public transport, no taxis and very few hotels in the centre of the city.

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To get from San Sebastian in far northern Spain to Valencia on the central east coast (about 500kms – or roughly Sydney to Coffs Harbour), we needed to do the following:

5:45am – Wake to pack up at our San Sebastian accommodation
6:15am – Walk 10 minutes in the rain to the central bus plaza
6:30am – Catch first airport bus of the day to San Sebastian Airport (which is 35 mins away)
7:10am – Arrive at San Sebastian Airport
7:30am – Check-in for 8:30am flight to Barcelona
8:10am – Board plane
8:35am – Take off
9:35am – Land at Barcelona Airport and collect luggage
10:30am – Catch Aerobus to central Barcelona
11:15am – Use McDonalds wifi to find address of new accommodation in Valencia, respond to emails
1:00pm – Catch Metro Underground seven stops to Sants Estacion
1:30pm – Exit Metro to Renfe Overground Train Station (dragging our luggage up at least 5 flights of stairs where there was no escalators)
2:00pm – Find Renfe Ticket Machine to print online purchased tickets
2:30pm – Board train to Valencia – Aaron writes new blog, Karina enjoys a relaxing in-train movie
5:30pm – Arrive at Valencia JS Station
5:45pm – Collect Valencia City Map and Metro Map from Tourist Information Centre, walk 10 minutes to Valencia Metro Station
6:05pm – Catch Metro three stops to Colon Central Metro Station
6:15pm – Walk seven blocks to accommodation
6:35pm – Arrive at address with owner who doesn’t speak any English, eventually she finds us on the street and shows us in
6:45pm – Dump bags and lament another 13 hour day in transit
7:00pm – Connect to internet and try to find a restaurant within walking distance that opens before 8:30pm (Spanish dinner time)
8:00pm – Find restaurant with some English on the menu
9:15pm – Return home exhausted and fed

Not that I am complaining at all (I most definitely am not!), but every couple of weeks we have a huge transit day like this.

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After a big sleep we wake to find the lady who we are staying with has set up her outside patio area for us to have a big breakfast. As she only speaks Spanish, we cannot understand what she is asking us so we keep saying ‘si’ which ensures we have a full stomach for the day ahead.

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We explore the city and notice it has the most beautiful architecture. The city had a stylish charm to it, a very different feel to its older siblings Barcelona and Madrid. Unlike Barcelona and Madrid though, it felt like there weren’t many tourists in Valencia.

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We visit the Valencia Cathedral (Basílica Metropolitana de la Asunción de Nuestra Señora de Valencia) and walk the extremely tight spiral staircase to the top, which provides a beautiful view over the city. This cathedral is home to a chalice which is thought to be the chalice used in the Last Supper, the Holy Grail.

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We discover the Gardens of Turia situated in the old sunken riverbed of the River Turia, which used to find its way to the sea right through the centre of the city of Valencia until the 1960′s. After a severe flood which resulted in the death of many people, the city decided it was best to divert the river to the south of the city, in order to prevent future disasters.

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The Gardens of Turia is a long park which has sport fields, children’s playground, bike tracks, fountains and green spaces and allows you to cross the city by foot without any traffic. We walk through the gardens, and take some time out for a laydown and relax. We have been walking on average about 8-10 kilometres a day for the past 2 months full of excitement, but now our bodies are slowing starting to feel tired.

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We continue our walk down the bank of the gardens to find the City of Arts and Sciences building – which has the most striking architecture and is by far the most modern tourist destination one can find in the city of Valencia.  Its construction began in 1996, and was opened in 1998 to be an entertainment based cultural complex, and among many things has an opera house, performing arts centre, oceanographic park, IMAX, museum of science and sports and concert plazas.  We walked around the outside of the whole complex, and from every angle it looked different and was very impressive.

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The Spanish lady we were staying with had the most gorgeous little dog called Paola. She would greet us when we came home each evening and would be waiting for us to open up our bedroom door in the mornings. It was nice to have a little companion for a while.

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The main reason I wanted to come to Valencia, was because it was the original birthplace of Paella. Paella is a rice dish, which consists of seafood and or other meats of chicken, beef and rabbit. This traditional dish is cooked over an open fire in a shallow steel pan that has two handles. Then this pan is shared by two or more people depending on the size, and is eaten directly from the pan.  After some online research, I find the most well regarded authentic restaurant that serves real Paella (places that serve single servings of Paella are likely to be frozen). And it did not disappoint. I don’t think I’ll be ordering Paella ever again from the Spanish restaurants in Newcastle after eating the real thing. The rice was aromatic and extremely flavorsome.

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To walk off our Paella feast, we catch the tram to the beach. Valencia’s eastern border is the Mediterranean Sea, and we visit the Playa Malvarrosa which is the main beach. The sand is so flat and goes forever to the shore. We wander around and find Valencia’s huge port, which turns out to be the 5th busiest container port in Europe.  With an ice cream in hand we wander around and notice monuments which shows this city hosted a couple of America’s Cup yachting jamborees and an annual street circuit Formula 1 motor race.  The beach and port feel definitely reminds us of Newcastle back home.

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During the evening we walk around the old city (Ciutat Vella) and through the city gates (Torres de Serrans), and it had a medieval and gothic feel to it. Some of the buildings were so gorgeous to look at.

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If I return to Valencia, I will be sure it is in the month of August, as in the nearby city of Buñol, the La Tomatina Festival is held (since 1945), where for an hour, low quality, ripe tomatoes, grown especially for the occasion, are thrown in all directions. Aaron is not too keen on the idea, but I think it would be awesome!

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Karina xx

Gastronomic San Sebastian

San Sebastian was a place I had never heard about until 18 months ago. In the early stages of planning our trip, more and more people I spoke to told me I must go to San Sebastian.  After a bit of research I discover San Sebastian is now generally recognised as the greatest gastronomic destination in the world, beating off constant foodie favourites New York, Tokyo and Paris. I didn’t need any more information than this – we were going to San Sebastian.

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After an early flight from Barcelona to Bilbao, an hour bus trip to San Sebastian and a 30 minute walk from the bus station to the town centre, we realise the week in buzzing Barcelona had taken its toll on us. It is rainy and miserable in San Sebastian anyway, so we decide to call it a day and spend the afternoon in. I trawl the internet, and takes notes about where we must eat, what we must eat and the etiquette of eating out.

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After a night of dreaming about the most mouth-watering culinary delights, we wake to it being a little overcast and rainy.  Although it wasn’t the best conditions to be checking out the beach, it was perfect conditions for sampling the cuisine. With my own recommendations list in hand, we walk through the old town, and start our food lunch crawl.  It’s all about the pintxos in San Sebastian. Pinxtos are a traditional small snack similar to tapas served in the local bars. They are eaten while hanging out with friends or relatives, and usually before the hours of having lunch or dinner. There is a strong socialising component attached to enjoying pintxos, and as such the experience is regarded as a cornerstone of San Sebastian culture and society.

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Pintxos can be already prepared sitting on the bar for you to help yourself, or you can pick something made to order off the menu. We start at La Cuchara de San Telmo with some gourmet freshly cooked pintxos of suckling pig and veal cheeks, for the ridiculous price of a few euros each. Everything about our first pintxos experience sets the scene for our next few days here; the vibe of the pub was cosy and friendly, ordering  food was a bit of a surprise guess, the bar staff were entertaining, and most importantly the food was melt in your mouth amazing. The kind of food, that every bite you would close your eyes and hum to yourself.  We venture to another place, to sample the most amazing mushroom risotto and more succulent meat. We notice the streets are not that busy with people, but we are guessing we are a little late and have missed the pre-lunch pintxos crowd.

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With all this eating and drinking, an afternoon nap is required. With our stomachs craving more pintxos, we take to the cobbled stone streets, along with the rest of the inhabitants.  As the Saturday afternoon is coming to an end, but darkness is still a little while away – the vibe on the streets is just incredible. There are all generations out socialising, enjoying a drink and a bite to eat, a tradition which over the decades has transformed into an inexpensive daily ritual.  San Sebastian is located in the north of Spain, in Basque country, where people consider themselves Basque not Spanish. It is located right near the French border, and the feeling of the vibe is a cross between French chic and lively Spain.

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The next few hours are appetizingly relaxing – we have a drink and share some pintxos at each place we visit.  Cripsy pork belly, tender cow cheeks, juicy lamb, tasty octopus, freshly made seafood crepes, mini beef burger in a pumpkin bun served with banana chips, skewer of prawns in crunchy noddle. The list goes on. I drink what the locals drink; Kalimotxo which is half red wine half Coca Cola, and Txakoli which is like a fizzy white wine which they pour from above their heads to take the bubbles out.  The Kalimotxo was my favourite and something I will definitely be trying back home (although I don’t think Mum would be too fond of me using her red wine to mix with Coca Cola).

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We get lost in the cobbled stone streets and end up in an open square where there is a theatre performance unfolding, with a full audience.  We find our last foodie place, La Vina, just in time for their daily speciality, “tarta de quesos“, at 10pm to be bought out of the oven. This baked cheesecake is the best tasting cheesecake I have ever had – the fluffiest, creamiest, and tastiest. The pictures really don’t do it justice but it’s the perfect way to finish the night.

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Sunday morning is the most beautiful glorious day and we know we must get outside and check out the beach.  San Sebastian has two beaches, La Concha and Zurriola, the latter being a good surfing beach. We walk the length of La Concha beach, which is in the shape of a sea shell and has two large mountains as each end. The beach is just so beautiful in the way it lines the city, and you can just imagine in summer that it would be jam packed with tourists and locals. Once we arrive at the end of the beach, we take the funicular railway up Monte Igueldo. It provides the most spectacular views over San Sebastian, and you notice that the Spanish coastal city is surrounded by mountains.  At the top of Mount Igueldo, there was a quirky old amusement park. Aaron and I go on our first ever roller coaster together, which turns out to be a hell of a lot more thrilling than expected.

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With the sun still beaming, and us wanting to see more, we walk back the length of La Concha beach and climb the other mountain, Monte Urgull.  This mountain is known at the Jesus mountain, as it has a large statue of Christ (similar to Rio) at the top looking over San Sebastian.  After 15 minutes of a steep incline we reach the top and walk around the Jesus statue. Again the view from the top is breath-taking, with the water glistening against the beautiful marina.

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Sunday afternoon and the town is alive. San Sebastian is a bit smaller than Newcastle and like most Spanish cities is obsessed with football. The local team Real Sociedad is playing host to European giants Real Madrid. We walk the streets and join the festivities, with street parades and Sunday markets – the little town is buzzing. Down another street we wander, there is a group of about a hundred excited football supporters chanting and yelling and jumping around getting in the spirit for the night ahead.

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That is until a disgruntled neighbour tips a bucket of liquid over the balcony. We learnt about this in Barcelona and thought it was a myth. A security guard had told us to keep our voices down when wandering the tight cobblestone streets, otherwise the local residents are known to pour a bucket of urine over the unsuspecting noise makers. We didn’t need to be told twice, and from then on have always whispered when walking through the Spanish streets late at night. We didn’t stick around to find out what was in the bucket, but the once excitable football supporter’s spirits were dampened quite literally.

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That evening we decide, after our mammoth pintxos crawl the previous night, to just stick to the one place. We were not disappointed with Bar Nestor. The place is known for its meat, they don’t have a menu, only beef and tomatoes. We talked to the chef and he helped us pick our cut of meat, and then cooked it to perfection and served on a sizzling hot plate, whilst we sat and ate it at the bar. The best part though was the incredible tomatoes, drenched in olive oil and served with a baguette. So simple, but using the best produce. We giggle at the fact the owner of the bar has a remarkable resemblance to a particular Australian serial killer.

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Our last day in San Sebastian and we take it easy sampling a few other places for lunch, and one final hurrah with a Restaurant called La Fabrica. The food was divine, but we realise the standard is so high in San Sebastian, that there is no such thing as a bad eatery. They simply wouldn’t survive against the competition.

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This had proved to be my favourite place in Spain and we knew we would be back again one day. Hopefully in summer, where your time can be spent equally between the beach and the pintxos bars.

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Karina xx

Barcelona – The Catalan Capital

Along with Las Vegas and Berlin, Barcelona was one of the three cities I was most looking forward to visiting on our travels. Rich in history, but better known as a vibrant modern international city – it certainly has something for everyone. My introduction to the place was via the 1992 Olympics . I remember watching the Spanish archer firing the Olympic flame into the cauldron, and a fascination was born.

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Arriving at the airport and things were off to a good start. Thanks to my degree and career I’m always interested in how global cities present themselves via the architecture and construction of their airport. I haven’t been to Singapore, Dubai or some of the new Chinese super airports, but out of the 40 or so I have been to – Barcelona is a clear winner. Which is handy, cause we would be back here five more times on this trip.

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A melting pot city of 4 million inhabitants is always going to have its undesirable element, but we’d read that things had degenerated significantly since the global financial crisis. With Spain on the brink and unemployment at record highs, Barcelona had become a mecca for petty thieves. A handful of articles and travel guides had referred to it as the ‘Pick-pocket Capital of the World’. Particularly along the famous La Rambla – a long tree-lined street filled with restaurants and bars that links the centre of the city with the beach. Having been to Paris, Madrid and Lisbon before this, we already had the radar jammed at the highest level.

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We had rented an awesome studio apartment in a quiet street close enough to La Rambla, but also far enough away. It was a perfect sanctuary to escape the hustle and bustle at the end of the day, even if we had to climb 120 stairs each time. We took an afternoon walking tour on our first full day to get an introduction to the city and its history. This covered the Old City, Jewish Quarter, Roman remains and introduced us to the two most important things in Barcelona – the State of Catalunya and Antoni Guadi.

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Barcelona is the capital of Catalunya – an historic state and former kingdom in its own right. Before it joined with the western parts of modern day Spain it had been a very prosperous part of Europe for many centuries. It was also known to be a favourite of the Romans due to its sparkling seaside location. Its people were and continue to be very parochial about their patch of land, language and traditions. For most of them, it is Catalunya first and Spain second. This is none more noticeable than the fact that signs for public transport are generally in three languages – Catalan, Spanish and English. With the economic problems facing Spain, this feeling has grown ever-stronger. Catalunya has maintained its status as the wealthiest and most prosperous state and there is a feeling that local tax dollars are being funnelled out to prop up the rest of the country – in particular the ailing capital Madrid. There is a growing percentage of people who want Catalunya to free themselves from Spain and become an independent state. The logistics of this are almost impossible in the current climate, but nonetheless a very interesting situation that I knew nothing about.

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If you haven’t been to Barcelona or completed an Architecture degree then chances are you’ve never heard of Antoni Guadi. But his story and influence are inescapable in Barcelona. Your average walking tour guide will talk about him for about half an hour and take you to a few examples of his work. Failing that you can do the three hour Guadi tour that takes you across the city. We ended up doing both to see what the fuss is about, and it was well worth it.

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Guadi was an eccentric conservative Catholic Architect who lived in Catalunya through the late 19th and early 20th century. He moved to Barcelona and started work for the city’s council designing street lights and small public spaces. This lasted less than three months, before he was sacked for ‘ill-conceived designs’ that were too expensive for the city. Guadi had a love for the quirky, shying away from straight lines and plain facades. Eventually he would find a niche working for wealthy Catalans on private housing projects. Each owner giving him a blank cheque to out-do his previous effort to (hopefully) become the most prominent address in Barcelona.

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But all this was small change leading up to his most outrageous project – La Sagrada Familia Basilica. Not only did Guadi not survive to see its completion (he was hit by a tram in 1926), but there is still an estimated 19 years work remaining today. With no financial backing from the Catholic Church, the project has ebbed and flowed via donations from the city and general public. Guadi himself deemed it a ‘church for the sinners’ because they were the ones paying for it. Words cannot describe this place, so I’ll let the pictures do it. I have no doubt that when it is completed it will be the greatest basilica, church or cathedral on the planet.

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The internal areas are almost complete and provide a stunning visual spectacle for the thousands of tourists who pass through each day. Thankfully we did our research and got onto the online ticket purchase to save the 2 to 3 hour line. It’s amazing how many people must look up the tourist attractions of a city and do absolutely no further reading. We walked up to the priority entry that was empty except for an employee waiting to open the door and scan our tickets. We paid a little extra to take a lift up one of the almighty spires for stunning views across Barcelona.

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The next day we popped down to La Rambla to check out the La Bouqeria Food Markets. Although set up to steal the tourist dollar, it is still an amazing place with just about everything you could want. At the back are a handful of pop-up tapas bars and restaurants that purchase the food from inside the market and cook it up for you. Getting a seat can be tough during the day, but is worth waiting for. We end up back there a couple of times during the week.

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Walking the length of La Rambla to the beach was a huge surprise. Whenever you see Barcelona on TV it is always the Old City or the old Olympic venues. But the beach is amazing considering its proximity to the city centre. It is a hive of activity and with some beautiful Spring weather, the locals are out in force taking advantage of it. And for a notable percentage of those on the sand, that means taking it all off to soak up as much sun as possible. The stunning Spanish women are tempered by 60-something men whose battered skin suggests they’ve done this every year for the last 60.

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From the beach we also take a cable car up to the beautiful Park Guell on one of the surrounding hills. This is famous for being designed by Antoni Guadi as an opulent private estate for wealthy Catalans, but ended up only housing Guadi, his Accountant and one other buyer. Since then the city has turned it into an amazing open space for locals and visitors alike.

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Over the weekend we were lucky enough to be there for Barcelona’s ‘Night of the Museums’ – a Saturday night extravaganza where all museums and art galleries are open to the public for free. One of the better ones we ventured into includes an entire excavated area under the museum where they have managed to dig down and find old Roman streets still intact.

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On the Sunday night Karina and I part ways for the first time on our trip. I hop on the train with the masses and head to Camp Nou, the enormous home ground of Barcelona FC. For about the last decade Barcelona have been the benchmark of world football lead by talisman Lionel Messi – the best player on the planet. They might not be as famous as Manchester United or have the record of Real Madrid, but their overarching footballing philosophy and way they bring through juniors has left everyone scrambling to catch up. Coincidentally in line with Spain’s dominance at international level.

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Camp Nou holds just under 90’000 making it slightly bigger than Sydney’s Olympic Stadium and slightly smaller than the MCG. Unfortunately the heavens open on the way to the ground and a light drizzle pervades for most of the match. Surprisingly this keeps away a big portion of the crowd with a least a third of the stadium empty. It’s a comfortable win for the home side and confirmation that they take back the title from their rivals Real Madrid.  Amazingly through the first half of our trip I’ve managed to catch the Miami Heat, Manchester United and now Barcelona FC on their way to championship glory. Better than I could ever have hoped.

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On our second last night we head out to sample the local nightlife. Barcelona is definitely slanted more towards bars than 4000 capacity superclubs. Winding through the back streets of the Old City, we end up at a gin bar called ‘Rubi Bar’ – currently the Trip Advisor #1 for nightlife. Whilst Trip Advisor is phenomenal at tipping you into quality restaurants or weeding out the ordinary hotels, I don’t usually trust it for nightlife. This section is usually littered with narrow minded people who turn up to the wrong place, with the wrong crowd, and quickly run home to complain about the bartenders, security, price of drinks etc. But on this occasion they are spot on.

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We wander through a quiet lane of the old town arriving fairly early by Spanish standards and take up at the bar. Turns out the bartenders are the joint owners – a couple of Brits who came to Barcelona chasing women and sunshine and never left. Their specialty is the dozen or so home-distilled flavoured gins on the wall behind the bar. These range from your standard fruit flavours to more quirky options like Olive & Cinnamon. Over the ensuing three hours we try the lot, and in the process become gin aficionados.

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Despite the place filling up the owners are more than happy to chat and impart their knowledge about gin, Barcelona and life in general. They don’t hide away from the fact that Australians are their favourite customers – simply because in the tough economic climate Australians are the most likely to come, try something different and empty their wallets. Which is exactly what we have done. I’m not sure if this is a compliment for us helping or continued definition of the drunken Australian stereotype. The opposite end of the spectrum are the locals who will come and sit for hours and sip on their first drink purchase.

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The next morning, complete with gin hangover, we prepare to say farewell to Barcelona by taking in a few more beautiful parks and public spaces. Seven days hasn’t felt like enough and we promise ourselves a return one day in the baking summer months. I had placed big expectations on the city and it had delivered in spades. In another time we might have even packed up and moved here, but life is tough in Spain right now making us appreciate what we have back home.

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Aaron

Charming Portugal

As soon as I stepped foot in Lisbon, I knew I loved it. This may have had something to do with the mouth-watering pastry shop I entered as soon as we exited the airport.  But seriously, over a four day period Lisbon worked its charm on me, and was a real surprise package. It had a grittiness to it which gave it a cool old-school feel, with its charming old streets of patterned cobble stones footpaths, tiled houses, atmospheric squares and graffiti scrawled walls. It felt like a place that had been lived in rather than run down, giving it character and charm.

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The city of Lisbon is spread over seven hills, which makes the streets very windy and narrow. To get around the city there are trams, giving it a San-Fran feel. Our accommodation was in downtown Lisbon, in the neighbourhood of Baixa. We stayed in a hip apartment, which was owned and lived in by a 30 year oldish Portuguese couple, who were well travelled and between them could speak more languages than the number of countries we have travelled so far on our trip.  This accommodation was our first try of renting a room in someone’s home, and sharing the bathroom, living area and kitchen. It proved to be a cheaper alternative then renting a whole apartment, especially when we were out and about exploring most of the time.  Plus the host were able to give us some inside local information about Lisbon as well as some tips about our other future travel destinations. The apartment was right on the down-hill stretch of one of the tram lines and each evening when we went to bed we could hear the rattling and swooshing as each one went by.

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To get an introduction to the city, we do a free walking tour of Lisbon which was a little more strenuous than usual given the seven hills. The tour group we end up choosing turns out to be different to previous companies we have chosen.  For starters we have two tour guides, a male and female and they are both born and bred locals. All other tour guides we have had previously were usually expats working or studying in a country they had fallen in love with. Portugal had been hit hard from the Global Financial Crisis and a lot of people lost their jobs, including our two tour guides. The male guide decided to combine his entrepreneurial skills and love for Lisbon and start his own free tours.

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Over a few hours, we meander through the charming windy streets which open up into tiny or large plaza areas. Our guides tell us of the 1755 earthquake that hit Lisbon and point out signs of still unrepaired damage. Experts estimate that the earthquake measured about 8.5 on the Richter scale and was catastrophic to the population. For decades it also had a profound effect on the religious feelings of those in the staunchly Catholic region. Why would god do such a thing? Why would the areas of the non-believers be spared the majority of death and damage? It was hard work for the Catholic hierarchy in this period.

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One of those areas that survived relatively unscathed was Alfama. This neighbourhood is a muddle of tiny lane ways, white washed houses and tiny churches, with most of the residents living here their whole life. You can feel the sense of community as the older residents are decorating the laneways for a religious festival. The residents even speak Portuguese with their own twang to it, and apart from overhearing speaking inside their houses and in the streets, the rest of this neighbourhood is silent and no tourists are in sight.

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We stop along the way to sample ‘ginjinha’ (a sour cherry liquor which is a speciality amongst Lisbonites) by a lady who home makes the liquor and sells it from her window. A cute story the tour guides share is that as they would bring a tour group through to her each day to sample the liquor, she asked them what do the people do with the photos they take of her and can she see a photo. They explained to her they may put them on Facebook or on the tour groups page. Intrigued by this, she bought a tablet and joined Facebook, so she can see the photos. She has become a bit of a local celebrity now.

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We make a trek to the top of a hill, to end the tour with a spectacular view over the whole city.  As Lisbon is so hilly, after each steep hike you are rewarded by a panoramic view of the shabby red tiled roofs and beautiful blue water off in the distance.

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We make a day trip to Belem about an hour away on the tram. Belem is one of Lisbon’s most historical areas where many great explorers have embarked for their voyage of discovery.  There is a fortress and the Belem Tower on the waterfront, a huge monument dedicated to all explorers, a monastery and a palace as well as many museums. You can see across the water the 25 de Abril bridge which is the spitting image of the San Francisco bridge – not surprisingly we find out it was the same design team behind both.

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Belem is also very famous for its bakery Pasteis de Belem – known for making Portugal’s best-loved pastry. These are a flaky pastry with custard filling baked to a 200 year old secret recipe that you then top with powdered sugar and cinnamon. The bakery is huge, with about six large dining areas. Rumour has it they sell over 10’000 pastries on an average day and even more on weekends. I get to see the little custard delights come fresh out of the oven. As you can see from this photo, I’m not the only one devouring these little tarts.

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Fado music is another great tradition of Portugal, so to check out this style we head to a show entitled ‘Fado in Chiado’.  It involves a male and female pairing singing melancholic and powerful lyrics to the backing of Portuguese guitars. In the background is a large screen showing beautiful pictures of the areas around Lisbon which are relevant to the story being told in the music. The performance lasts about 75 minutes and is spine-tinglingly beautiful. A bit of research after the show turns up that the performers are all amateur – they work day-jobs and do this by night to keep up the Fado traditions passed on to them by their families.

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Our last night in Lisbon happens to be the Europa League Final being held in Amsterdam between local team Benfica and English heavy-weights Chelsea FC.  The main plaza is all set up with big TV’s to watch the game and the place is buzzing with about 10’000 people. Aaron also discovers his new favourite beer, but at 1 euro for just under schooner size it might just be everyone’s favourite.  The local team are underdogs against the big spending Chelsea and despite being on top for most of the match suffer a heart-breaking last minute defeat.

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The food is just all so good and consists of lots of fresh seafood. Their national dish of bacahlau which is a salted cod fish was delicious and teamed with their local green sparkling light wine, it was a hit. And of course the Portuguese grilled chicken was super tasty. One night, Aaron couldn’t decide whether he wanted fish or Portuguese chicken for dinner, so he got both. It was just that cheap. And their amazing pastries and baked goodies were the best!

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We would of loved to visited other areas of Portugal, such as Porto, Lagos, Douro Valley and Sintra, but thought it was better to give Lisbon a decent crack. It proved to be the right choice.

Karina x

Madrid, Spain

After leaving Paris we had planned to spend the best part of a month in Spain, and Madrid – as the Capital – was a logical entry point. There are a lot of exotic destinations across Spain that have probably surpassed Madrid in a tourist sense, but it still held a lot of intrigue. It is a buzzing international city – home to the most successful football club in Europe and a slowly diminishing reputation as a fashion capital.

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We had rented an apartment in an area of central Madrid just off the bustling Gran Via. The owners advert for the apartment warned that if you were looking for rest and relaxation, then don’t bother coming to Madrid. We were excited by this, but had no idea what we were in for. Madrid is Europe’s equivalent of New York ie. the city that never sleeps. Our first night was a Wednesday and tired from the transit we were ready for bed at 10:30pm. Unfortunately no one else was. Things are only just getting started for the locals at this time, and the comings and goings roll right through to 5am. If this was a Wednesday then what was Saturday going to be like? We decided (for our own sanity), rather than try to fight it – it was easier to just join in.

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We also learn very quickly the other hallmark of the Madrid way of life – honking. Car, bus, truck, van, scooter, whatever. And we aren’t talking quick on the horn if you do anything wrong, it is sustained honking. The back streets off the Gran Via are ridiculously small single lane passes that amazingly form part of some bus routes. If a delivery van does a drop off for one of the many restaurants, then the bus can’t get through – the result is the bus driver sitting on the horn until the van is moved. This can take 20 seconds or an outrageous five minutes for one we witnessed over the balcony.

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After our great experience in Paris, we again opted for a free walking tour on our first day to be introduced to the city. With the same company, Sandemans, we landed a quirky Scottish lad who had made Madrid his home. He told a funny story about struggling to adapt to the local way of life after leaving Scotland. In his first week out of the cold of the north he was sitting down to eat dinner at 6pm when the waitress asked in broken English “are you enjoying your lunch, sir?”

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Our tour traversed the main streets and plazas, the old city walls, the Royal Palace and a quirky nunnery famous for baking delicious cookies. The nuns live in a private convent and never show their faces in public. To purchase the cookies you turn up to the door, buzz in, walk down a hall to a shutter where the nuns will communicate (only in Spanish) from behind the door. You put your money on a rotating stand, swing it around and cookies will be presented on the other side. This has apparently been going on for decades. Apparently the nuns enjoy any language that is not Spanish and can be heard giggling from behind the door at poor English attempts at Spanish.

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We also get a brief history lesson on Tapas – a great Spanish eating tradition. Tapas are small appetizer or snack sized portions of food that are served at bars and pubs when a drink is purchased. They are also served in restaurants usually with a cost associated. There are a few stories around about how it started, so our guide fills us in with the two most likely scenarios. Firstly, tapas is derived from the Spanish word ‘tapar’ which means ‘to cover’. During the hot summers, fruit flies used to be drawn to sherry and wine, so bar and restaurant owners came up with a novel idea of placing food over the glass. Usually this would be ham or chorizo (salty snacks) that would be eaten at the end and spur on a thirst for another drink.

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Secondly, a story goes that an earlier Spanish King had people working in the southern regions building palaces and residences for him and his family. His developments were taking a lot longer than he thought they should, and found out that almost nothing got done after lunch on a working day. This was because the poorly paid workers would go to lunch and only have enough money for food or drinks, so they almost always took the latter. When the King found out about this, he decried that no establishment in the southern regions shall serve alcohol without food, thus keeping the workers sober and more productive. I’m not sure if that is true, but makes for a good story.

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Our guide concludes the tour with a story about the state of modern day Spain and an interesting tale about the current King Juan Carlos I. In 2008 he was voted the most influential Spaniard of all time. Our guide was quick to temper the immediate thought that this was a rigged vote, by detailing that despite him overseeing Spain’s worst economic hardship and his reputation for womanising, he was responsible not only for introducing democracy and downsizing the role of the aristocracy, but saving the democratic way of life from two separate Army-backed coups. For this he is held aloft almost universally by the country’s population.

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The next day we went back to a few of the sites we had passed on the tour for a more detailed look. This included a chocolate con churros stop-off at a very famous place that is open 24 hours. We visited the Prada Museum, a couple of old churches and the stunning Royal Palace. The latter is now just a tourist attraction as the King has chosen a more private residence out of the city. The Palace has a huge square at the front, to the east is the central part of Madrid, and on the western side you can stand and look across the beautiful rolling hills. Way off in the distance on the tallest mountain is a blanket of snow – remarkable considering it is 35 degrees in the Palace square. They were very strict on photos inside the Palace, particularly in the private church area which was the most opulent and extravagant room Karina and I have ever laid eyes on. Worth the admission alone. 26293012131409

Our next day is spent in the beautiful Retiro Park – an Oasis in the centre of Madrid. It has a number of lakes and historical buildings dotted around the precinct and locals strewn across the grassed areas basking in the seemingly perpetual sunshine.

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During the first few days we had sampled a few tapas bars, but it was all fairly basic fried food. For the good stuff you usually have to pay. With a bit of research and Trip Advisor assistance we were able to undertake a self-guided free tapas tour around the city centre on Saturday evening. There was six stops on the map going the full spectrum from modern wine bar to very traditional Spanish cantinas complete with old men playing cards in the corner. The price for a small beer or glass of local wine ranged from $1 to $4, and you would be served a share plate with either chorizo, ham, baked potato and sometimes a small plate of paella. One of the later places dished up a beautiful plate of barbequed lamb pieces, and with a beer and a glass of wine somehow our total bill only came to about $3 AUD.

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After the tapas tour, we had planned to sample the nightlife but realised it was only 11pm. On a Saturday night, the good bars and clubs can still be empty at 1am. We meandered around and with a cool change sweeping through we took up in a jazz bar / nightclub not far from our apartment. About 2am it started to fill up and we met an extremely nice group of locals and partied with them long into Sunday morning. When the sun appears everyone starts to head home and there are as many people on the streets as there is at midday on a weekday.

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After a pizza stop it is off to bed. We arise late in Sunday afternoon with a couple of hours to spare before heading for an evening at Las Ventas – the traditional home of bull-fighting in Madrid. I had always been intrigued by this so had it as a ‘must-do’. In typical Madrid style, we had no idea what we were in for.

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Bull-fighting is a controversial topic both inside and outside of Spain (in progressive Barcelona it has been banned for some time). I understood this to be because the bull is sacrificed at the end of the event. But I was way off. Unfortunately I hadn’t even prepared Karina for this part of it, so she went in thinking it was just fancy traditional costumes and controlled duelling between man and beast.

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We arrive and take our seats – we had purchased mid-range tickets out of the sun for roughly $50 AUD each. They can get up to $300 to be down on the fence. Remarkably expensive for a country in financial disarray. The arena is packed with about 10,000 people. It is a stunning sight. And we don’t have to wait long for things to get underway.

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We should probably have read up a bit more about what happens in each ‘fight’ before arriving, to at least minimise the shock. Your standard fight runs something like this – the bull is released into an empty bullring and gradually a handful of men (the equivalent of Spanish rodeo clowns) jump in and out to stir the bull up and hold its attention, while the matador observes the bull’s behaviour. They have small alcoves around the ring to hide behind in case the charging bull gets too close. While this is happening, a large armour-clad horse is trumpeted into the ring and takes up a position away from the bull. We were not in any way prepared for what happens next.

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The bull is drawn ever closer to the horse, and once it notices the horse’s gradual movements it rears, charges and rams the horse into the wall of the bullring. It batters and lifts the armoured horse for several minutes before the horseman pulls out a spear and rams it down the back of the bull. This sends the bull wild. Apparently this is to wear down its energy levels – we didn’t know this the first time, so assumed something had gone horribly wrong when the armoured horse was first attacked.

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After this the horse retreats out of the ring, and the rodeo clowns (who are more like trainee Matadors) return. The goal is for each of them to face off with the bull, have it charge in their direction and at the last minute jump out of the way and turn and stab a spike deep into the bulls back. This part of the fight is not complete until all four spikes are lodged in the bulls back. This causes a lot of bleeding and the bull is worn down further.

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We had read the top Matadors are like celebrities in Spain and the fights are televised like a football match on the Sunday afternoon. You can see them hanging over the bullring being interviewed by the local Fox Sports equivalent. What surprised me is the fact that the Matador isn’t actively involved until the bull is withering down to 50% health. The famous ‘one on one’ dance element that we see and know of is against a weary demoralised beast. Hardly a fair fight.

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The other amazing fact is that bulls are essentially colour blind. I had heard this before, but didn’t believe it because traditionally you always see the Matador with a beautiful bright red cape. The trainee Matadors use colours of all kinds – yellow, blue, pink etc. The bull is drawn to the cape because of the movement, not the colour. The Matador does this by tapping a sword across the back of the cape to create the impression of movement. As far we could figure out, the goal is to get the bull to attack the cape, shuffle past the Matador without touching and return as quickly as possible. There are a series of moves that can be awarded points and the locals cheer and yell ‘Ole’ when one has been successfully completed.

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The amazement of the one on one battle is removed somewhat by the focus on movement. There are times when the Matador is standing inches away from the bull, but because he is perfectly still it is like the bull doesn’t even know he is there. Theoretically he could stand there all day until the bull slumped down and went to sleep. But there is still that surreal feeling that you are witnessing something wild like back in the Roman days – shortly a living breathing creature will be dead. 99.9% of the time it is the bull, but there is still the chance that something will go wrong and 10,000 people will witness the death of a man.

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After a series of moves are completed and the bull is worn down, the Matador faces off with the bull one last time and strikes his sword deep into the back of the bulls head. If he misses, he must collect his sword and try again. When the bull collapses to its knees, one of the officials enters the ring, stands over the bull and delivers the final death blow to an area above the head. It is brutal to say the least. Still feeling the effects of a massive night out – we are rattled, sitting silently with jaws on the ground as the giant body is dragged from the arena with a sign-post held aloft showing its date of birth.

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This happens five more times over the next two hours. To my surprise two separate Matadors cut things a bit close and are gored by the bull’s horn. They wear chest protectors these days, so they are just thrown to the ground rather than wounded. Still one goes under the trampling bull, manages to roll away and limps to the fence where security are waiting to pull him over. Each time this happens the arena erupts, and we are not sure if the crowd is hoping he escapes or dies before their eyes. It is a truly bizarre experience.

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The crowd is something else as well. There are a surprising amount of locals (as opposed to a tourist gawkfest) ranging from old men in traditional hats to large groups of teenage girls carrying cushions they’ve brought from home. Behind us are a fashionably dressed 20-something couple who appear to be on a date. An interesting choice to say the least.

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We wander out of the arena still in shock, trying to piece together what has gone on. Despite being a little sour on the supposed ‘sporting element’, I know that this is something I will never forget as long as I live. And that is what travel is all about really – different cultures, different experiences. The next day it’s a short flight to the Portuguese capital Lisbon, one of the real surprise packets of the trip.

Aaron

The City of Love

Paris is a city you always heard about when growing up, and of course, a place I always wanted to go. A place that is stereotypically known for the iconic Eiffel Tower, escargots, rude / arrogant Parisians, delicious bread and the Louvre for the Mona Lisa. These few things were unfortunately all I really knew about Paris, so I was keen to read up and learn more about the so-called ‘City of Love’.

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We had planned a lengthy stay in Paris, so decided to split our time in two different places. For our first 5 nights, we stayed in an apartment in Dupleix, where you could actually look up at the Eiffel Tower from the street. It was pretty surreal experience when we first arrived and realised this was our accommodation.

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I’d been told about a recent trend towards free walking tours all over Europe from my boss at work, so thought we’d give it a go. I picked the Sandemans free walking tour (one of the better known companies), which turned out to be an extremely good introduction to the city. How these free tours work is that a young and enthusiastic guide walks you around the city, stopping to share historical stories, facts about the local way of life and other interesting items of note. At the end of the tour you tip the guide an amount you think is deserving of the tour provided.

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Our guide for the day was a young Dutch guy who had lived in Paris for about two years. Initially we thought it might have been a mistake going with someone other than a French person, but as the tour wound on we realised the enthusiasm and passion of a person who has fallen in love with a city is often greater than someone who has lived there their whole life.

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We started in Saint Michel and headed west out of the centre passing by everything of note including the Notre Dame Cathedral, Louvre Museum, D’Orsay Museum, Revolution Square to the end of the Champs Elysees. While history doesn’t look all that favourably on Napoleon, our guide told some impressive stories about reform that he created for the French people. Fittingly he finished the tour with an amazing story about how close Paris came to ruin at the end of World War II. When Hitler had realised the end was near, he ordered his second in charge to burn Paris to the ground. The legend goes that a well-respected diplomat got to Hitler’s lieutenant and pleaded would he rather be remembered as “the man who destroyed Paris” or “the man who saved it”. Wisely he called off the destruction, and Hitler was dead within weeks. Telling this story almost brought our guide to tears. His passion had our entire group enchanted, and he was tipped accordingly.

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The next day we focussed our wandering around the Eiffel Tower. It is a pretty spectacular monument, and wherever you walk around the city, you always catch glimpses of it between streets, or over the top of buildings. We’d read some horror stories about waiting 2-3 hours in the queue for the lift, so decided to walk the 674 stairs up the tower. The line is half as long and half price.

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For something a little different, we make the journey to the outskirts of the city to the Longchamp racecourse (they call it a hippodrome which I thought was very funny). Longchamp is home to the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe – Europe’s richest and most prestigious race. It was a mid-week race day, so there was only a couple of hundred people there. The racecourse was absolutely gorgeous. And it’s a lot cheaper than back home. Only $2 to get in – we were allowed to take in our own French picnic and only about $4 for a beer or a mini bottle of wine / champagne. Unfortunately we don’t have much luck on the betting front – it’s hard to pick a winner in English, let alone another language. If anything though, it was a very quick way for Aaron to learn his numbers in French.

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That night we head to a highly rated one man comedy show called ‘How to Become a Parisian in One Hour’ – apparently the only English speaking show in Paris. It’s a French guy who teaches the main traits of a Parisian person and does this by comparing the American versus Parisian ways of acting in certain situations. This includes commuting on a train, being served in a clothes shop, asking for the cheque at a restaurant and dancing in a night club. Turns out most the crowd is French as well – to get an understanding of the nights audience he cleverly starts the show by conducting the French national anthem to find out how many sing along. The show is a very funny, and provides for many laughs when witnessing these situations over the next week of our stay.

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Over the coming days we walk the Champ Elysees, see the amazing Sainte Chapelle and Notre Dame cathedrals and go to the Musee D’Orsay. The latter was a tip from our tour guide in preference to the Louvre, as it is cheaper, shorter line, with a more concentrated collection of classic artwork. He also suggests that a lot of the romance is taken out of seeing the Mona Lisa when you are crammed into a room with a thousand other people trying to take a photo of a surprisingly small painting off in the distance.  The Musee D’Orsay is inside an old train station building which in itself is beautiful to look at.

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For our last night in Dupleix we get to properly experience the ‘City Of Lights’ by taking a night time boat ride up the Seine river. It finishes of course in front of the Eiffel Tower just in time for one of its stunning sparkling light shows.

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For the second half of our time, we relocate to a less touristy part of Paris – a ‘village’ in the city called Republique. This area has a young student vibe and our cute little studio overlooks a bustling intersection packed with restaurants, bars and cafes. People come and go all day and long into the night.

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We make an evening trip to Montmartre up on the hill north of the city. This is an area famous for housing the Parisian artists and alternative crowd during the late 19th and early 20th century. Most of the artists were struggling or impoverished and chose to live here as it was outside the city jurisdiction, which allowed them to avoid taxes and pay cheaper rent. For now it’s biggest drawcard is the beautiful Basilica of Sacre Coeur up on the hill, which gives a spectacular view across the city.  At the base of the hill is the Pigalle neighbourhood – the main ‘red-light’ district and home to the Moulin Rouge. We’d heard many mixed reviews about the current Moulin Rouge show so opt for one of its cabaret competitors Le Nouvelle Eve. A thoroughly enjoyable night, despite the room being filled with a drunken Australian Contiki tour.

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For an area we had heard so much about, the nightlife on the main street seemed surprisingly quiet (and dodgy), so we head back to Republique which is overflowing with locals drinking in pubs and on the street. We join the street party and end up meeting lots of great French people as well as other nationalities. We try and speak broken English / French, although miming and dancing seem to be much easier ways to communicate. Aaron’s favourite place is ‘My Woodie’, an old surfie-themed hole in the wall bar playing on ly 50’s and 60’s surf music, with ‘The Endless Summer’ on repeat on the TV. It is so kitsch and quirky that it just works.

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This night out highlights something very interesting for us – like the angry rushing New Yorker, the rude arrogant Parisian also seems to be a myth. We asked around about this, and it seems that Parisians and French people in general like to think they are educated and sophisticated. Therefore, any outsiders who come into their country and make an effort to embrace their language and culture will receive a warm response. Turning up and asking ‘do you speak English’ or ‘where is the Champ Ulysses?’ will get a more stereotypical response. English is becoming more and more common, but we still made the effort to attempt French. More often than not, this was met with a smile and a response in English – but this could be something to do with the fact we were not American or British.

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The French bread is so good, and crunchy baguettes become a staple very quickly. Armed with a baguette and a growing beard, Aaron was starting to look more and more like a real Frenchman.

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Around the corner from our apartment in Republique, is the Pere Lachaise Cemetery. Many noble and famous people are resting here, such as artists, scientists and authors (Oscar Wilde for one). The cemetery has lots of huge family tombs and the grounds are beautifully set out. The cemetery is also home to the grave site of Jim Morrison from The Doors, who was living in France when he died of a suspected drug overdose. This was a must-visit for Aaron.

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Following a tip given to us from a couple we met in London, we visit the Paris Catacombs. We line up for an hour or so out on a normal looking Paris street and take a long spiral staircase 20 metres below ground. From there you walk through a long narrow corridor for about 15 minutes until you are confronted with a remarkable sight – the remains of six million Parisians, stacked in 800 metres of tunnels and corridors.

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The Catacombs were created at the end of the 18th century to serve as an ossuary. In 1780 Paris’s largest cemetery, the Cimetiere des Saints-Innocents, was closed for public health reasons. In 1785, the Council of State issued an order requiring the removal of human remains. It was decided that bones from all of the city’s cemeteries would be stored in disused limestone quarries. After about 20 years of randomly dumping the bones, the layout of the Catacombs was given more structure divided each side of a long tunnel. Plaques were positioned telling of which cemetery and the year the remains were brought in. This was truly an eerie experience.

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On a lighter note, we also did the cheesy lock bridge thing, where you come to the bridge with your loved one – for your love to be eternal you fix a padlock to the bridge and throw the key into the river. We were in the City of Love after all, plus I couldn’t believe how many locks there were on the bridge (Mum – sorry but this was the spare lock and key you gave to me incase I needed it for my bag!). I thought the combination locks on the bridge were hilarious, but I guess very realistic of the statistics of marriages nowadays.

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For our last night in Paris we dine at a typical French bistro down by the River Seine, which was super cute. From our table out the front we look straight across to the Notre Dame Cathedral.

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The City of Love had proven to be much more than that. Learning of its rich history showed me why it is such a popular and well-preserved city.  No surprise it is the most visited tourist destination in the world. We spent ten days there and still could have filled another ten.

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Karina x