1998-10 (OCTOBER, 1998)

The 'In Visa Limbo' Trip To The Continent...

Day 1 - Saturday: A very early start to the day. Up at 3:30 a.m. to drive our hire car down to Folkstone to catch the 06h51 Le Shuttle. Andrew, Linda, Jules and myself in the little car (and we dropped Andrea off in Wimbledon, too!). No real bother getting into Paris (paige all the way). We dropped the car into overnight storage at Gare Nord so we didn't need to worry any more about it. Finally, we scored a cheap hotel in Montmatre and then began our day. First up (of course) was lunch. Next, a Metro ride down to the left bank of the Seine and a wander around the Notre Dame and war memorial. The rest of the afternoon we spent meandering in and out of the roads alongside the Seine until we got to the Louvre. A wee wander around there, and a little detour along side the Seine, had us in the Concorde for sunset. We continued up the Champs Eleysee (past a huge 'History of Flight' exhibition) until we got to the Arc de Triomphe. We found the subway under the road and sat for a while under the arch and took stock. The vote was to find an eatery near the hotel, eat, and go to bed. Fine by me. It had been a good but long day.

Day 2 - Sunday: A reasonably respectable start today given how tired we were. A breakfast of bread+jam, coffee and juice was included in the price of the room, which was good. I signed up for another night at the hotel and sent the crew off to the Pompidou Centre, whilst I went to sort out my train to Florence. No real problems there (except for the typical French customer service at the station). Looks like it was lucky I booked a day in advance too. I went to meet the others at the Picasso museum and found out the Pompidou was closed for renovations. We had a great look around at the Picasso museum. There were some real gems there and a broad mixture of all the mediums he used. Next was a leisurely lunch (late) at a nearby cafe. The others decided it was time for them to head home so I accompanied them back to the car at Gare Nord. We parted company and I made for the Rodin museum but got there 10 minutes after last entry. I went for a wee wander instead up to the Seine via the Invalides and the Grand Palais. It started raining heavily so I headed home and had a supper of bread and pastries in my room. Hell I was knackered!

Day 3 - Monday: I did the Louvre (officially the world's largest museum) today. I saw every artefact in every room (at least the 80% that were open that day). It took just under 5 hours. Don't get me wrong, though, I took it all in. Like, there was this statue... and these paintings... um... and the cafe was nice. My favourite thing in the whole place were the Americans - comments like "shoot, honey, isn't that a nice shade of blue" are just priceless. Onto the sleeper train to Florence tonight. I'm sharing the carriage with four Italians that don't speak English. Trying to communicate our joint attempt to assemble the couchettes was fun! "No sitting, just sleeping".

Day 4 - Tuesday: Arrived in Florence a little worse-for-wear after my night on the thinly covered plank. Still, my discomfort was mainly my own fault - I had my pockets so stuffed with crap. I had to queue for over an hour at the tourist hotel but managed to stretch to a single room with a shower for 3 nights. It's very cool. It's in the Piazza del Giuohi - halfway between the Piazza della Signoria and the Duomo. I can see the bell towers of the Badia and Palazzo Vecchio from my top-floor bedroom window. I had a leisurely day today tidying myself up and then just wandering around taking in the living museum that Florence is. Everything is just breath-taking. A walk around the centre at night rounded the day off nicely.

Day 5 - Wednesday: 'Uffizi Day' today. After a leisurely breakfast with various bits each from little local establishments, I joined the queue outside the Uffizi at 10h00. I finally got in at 11h45, but, hell, it was worth the wait! The first half, especially, has to be some of the most beautiful collection of pieces to be seen anyway. I poached in on several of the tours that were running to find out more about my favourite pictures. The portraits of Frederico da Montefeltro and his wife Battista Sforsa by Piero della Francesca, and the Birth of Venus and Primavera by Botticelli were several such pieces. I also had a good nose around Piazza Duomo and Piazza della Signoria (and all the interesting buildings in the vicinity) again today, this time with the camera in tow. I slipped back to the hotel at 15h30 for a quick 40 winks and woke up at 18h30! Ooops!

Day 6 - Thursday: A day trip to Siena today. I managed to get there and back by train and bus more by good luck than good management, but hey. Siena is a beautiful town dominated by the Campo (City Square) and the Doumo (Cathedral). I took a self-guided walking tour around the town and took in the Palazzo Chigi-Saracini, the Piccolomini Palace, the Marsili Palace, Postieria Square, the Capitano Palace, the Square of the Duomo, the black-and-white marble Duomo itself, the New Cathedral, the Cathedral Museum (fab view from the top parapet!), the Baptistry, and then over to the Branda Fountain and the Basilica of San Domenico. By the time I got to the Basilica it had started to rain so I jumped on a bus and train back to Florence. I booked a hotel in Florence for Andrea and myself for this coming weekend. I completed the evening with a stroll around the Northern part of the town looking for a place to eat. No joy - it's a waste of a table giving it to one person, I guess. I had to make do drowning my sorrows (ha ha) with half a bottle of Chianti at my local 'self-service-snack-bar' (I had a salad, too, OK?).

Day 7 - Friday: Andrea arrives today! I checked into the Hotel de Lanzi first thing and then headed up to the train station to organise my ticket from here to Barcelona. I booked on to the night train from Milano on Tuesday night, which gives me a day and a night to get from Florence to Milano - I'll probably stay a night in Pisa and go from there. I also did some shopping for food just in case Andrea hadn't eaten when she arrives. All my jobs done for the day I decided to make the most of our 3-star hotel with a little doze in our huge bed, followed by a leisurely bath. I caught the bus out to the airport and met Andrea. Hell, it was good to see her. We caught the bus back into town, by that time well after midnight.

Day 8 - Saturday: Big sight-seeing plans were derailed as soon as we found the Central Market! Andrea bought 4 bags and I bought a great 'weekend' bag. I also purchased a grey chenille jersey (to be in with this Winters colour - grey). We lunched in the fab Trattoria "Za Za's". Best apple pie on Earth! We managed to see the Medici Chapel and Sant Lorenzo Church in the afternoon and slipped back to the hotel for a we sleep. Too full for dinner - just some great gelato and an evening stroll on the south side of the river.

Day 9 - Sunday: Sightseeing again gave way to a little shopping - not that I was complaining! I got some shoes, 2 ties, a cool wee book of graph paper, and an early Christmas pressie each for Milly and Bex. We did the Piazza Duomo, and the Bell Tower and Baptistry. The Cathedral itself was closed to tourists today but we attended a service inside just so we could have a look. A big pizza lunch followed and another wee sleep! Too stuffed again for dinner and did the "gelato + evening stroll" again instead. A wonderful day!

Day 10 - Monday: Up early to get Andrea to her plane. Back to the hotel to pack and jump on the train to Pisa. Arrived just after lunch. Locked up my bags at the station in Pisa and headed straight up to the old town. I bought a 5 entree ticket to all the sites up there, including: the Cathedral (magnificent); the Baptistry (beautiful); the Museum della Opera (very interesting); the Museum So (not so good); and the Indoor Cemetery (fascinating); as well as plenty of photos of the Leaning Tower (of course). Over-nighted in a grotty hotel near the station, but had some great pizza at a nearby pizzeria.

Day 11 - Tuesday: I spent all day on trains today, but the views were great up along the west coast of Italy to Genova and then pretty countryside up to Milan. Had a couple of fruitless hours shopping in Milan before my night train to Barcelona was due to leave (20h00). The only suit I could find that I liked cost 1.4 million lire - just a little more than I wanted to pay! I couldn't find a full-length grey cardigan for Andrea either, boo hoo! The rather expensive supplement I had to pay for the Night Train turned out to be worth it after all. Talk about luxury! A bed, toilet kit, bottle of water, etc. It was all rather civilized. I read The Great Gatsby before turning in.

Day 12 - Wednesday: Arrived at Barcelona at 09h30. I had a couple of minor panics trying to get a train to Seville (no space on any train accept tomorrow, which means I get there a day early and in the evening, which will make finding accommodation interesting) and then trying to get accommodation in Barcelona for tonight! Spain is still busy! It was a glorious day and I'm staying down near the Port Vell, which is fab. I spent the afternoon strolling around the harbour and went into the Aquarium. It was excellent and even have one of those underwater tunnels (like Kelly Tarlton's). I had another drama trying to ring the UK tonight but got it sorted in the end so I bought a watch and a chicken roll to celebrate. I've got to be up early tomorrow!

Day 13 - Thursday: Unlucky for some. A long but interesting day on the train. The route went via Valencia (i.e down the coast) and then inland through the Castilla-la-Mancha to Seville - 12 hours in total. I got to Seville at 20h10 and had some difficulty getting accommodation. I finally got a place halfway between the station in the centre of town and took the bus. I got into the room at 22h00 so I just collapsed (without any dinner - boo hoo!). I really hope I can find Andy and Linda tomorrow!

Day 14 - Friday: After a very scenic tour of the suburbs of Seville that lasted over an hour, I finally got back to the train station. I had about 5 hours before I expected to meet Andy and Linda, so I thought I'd find a phone to ring home for messages, but who should I run into while I was looking for one - Andy and Linda! I was so happy! We immediately went for some food and a lengthy catch-up natter. Next we organised another night's stay in Seville and sorted out the hire car. After dropping our stuff in our room we headed over to the Alcazar Castle and Gardens. Way cool place. We lunched on tapas and G+Ts. Another general meander through the streets and then a fab meal in a lamp-lit courtyard restaurant, and home to bed.

Day 15 - Saturday: Picked up the car and headed north up through the Merida and Caceres to Plasencia where we turned off the main road and up into the hills. We tiki-toured around until we ended up in Piornal, supposedly for the night, but there was "no room at the inn". We motored back to the main road and continued North into the Valle del Jerte. We decided to camp for the night in the National Park (Reserva Natural Garganta de los Infiernos). I slept in the back of the car all wrapped up in all my available clothes. It was a beautiful site, though. We dined at the campsite cafe on packet pizza and beers and had a game of pool, too. A bit of a cold night!

Day 16 - Sunday: We headed back up into the mountains and again through Piornal and over the Piornal pass (1269m). We trekked all through some beautiful valleys and stopped for eats at Garganta la Olla (picnic - yum). We continued on to the Montasterio de Yuste, but gave up after a lengthy wait to get into the monastery there. We decided to head over to Aranas de San Pedro for the night, but it was full there too! So we headed 10km North to Mombletran and got the last (very nice) room in the hotel there. We dined in the hotel restaurant after a bottle of cheeky red wine in our room. A lovely day!

Day 17 - Monday: To Madrid! We got to the outskirts of the city with no major hassle but all the shops appeared to be closed! Investigation revealed that it was a public holiday today - no wonder we had had so many accommodation hassles all weekend! We decided to head out to the tourist office at the airport but they were not very helpful. I did manage to book my flight to Dublin from Barcelona though (56,000 pesetas! shit!!). We headed for the turismo at the railway station and had better luck there. A pension right in the heart of town for only 1500 each. We parked up the car and dumped our stuff. We just wandered around town all afternoon (stopped for maccies) and ended up at a bar for the evening. An easy stroll home and straight to bed.

Day 18 - Tuesday: Post office (to post all our postcards), the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía (to see Guernica, but it was closed) and then the back up near where we were staying for some shopping (only Linda bought something - a cool bag). Jumped in the car and headed over some barren landscapes to Valencia. We checked into a campsite 10km South of the city at la Saler. We had our own cute wee bungalow. The campsite is very close to the beach. The thereby town had several places to eat in so we decided to indulge in the Valencia special - paella. We ordered enough for four between the three of us (according to the menu) but what arrived could have comfortably fed about eight! It was good food too! We retired after a leisurely dinner to a night-time vigil against the mosquitos.

Day 19 - Wednesday: Up to Barcelona today, mostly along the paige, but once this had absorbed all available coinage we returned to the free road and the coast. A gorgeous day! We had a bit of a mission navigating back to the hotel I was staying in last week, and when we finally got there it turned out to be too costly for us to stay. Thus we headed for the booking service at the main train station. We were also able to drop the car off here, too. The tourist office was not that successful either, so we went in search of a phone card to begin ringing around when we were approach by a man and given a flyer for some cheap accommodation. That sorted, we dumped our stuff and took an evening stroll down the Ramblas and around port to orientate our two first-timers.

Day 20 - Thursday: Down the Ramblas again (ooh, I forgot to mention the bag-snatch we saw here last night - most distressing!) to the Palau Guell. We got onto a very whirlwind tour of the house and were not permitted any free exploration (in contrast to the last time I was here) which was a bugger. Next we headed out to the cable-car but balked at the cost and continued on to the beach instead. After that we headed up to the Park Guell for most of the afternoon before slipping back to our hostel for a wee afternoon sleep. We went to a cheap place for dinner and then wandered around the bars of the Barri Gottique until late. My last night on the continent - boo hoo!

Day 21 - Friday: Up early for my flight to Dublin. No major bother catching the flight which got in just after midday. I taxied out to a lovely grand guesthouse in Ra???, on the south side of the city.