Friday, February 26, 2010

On the French Riviera

We can see now why people come to the south of France for vacations and to live. While we were staying in Nice we took a few day trips to the different areas up the coast and saw some amazing sights. We took the tram from the hostel to the bus station and then caught a bus to Menton. Menton is about 50 minutes up the coast. Both the tram ride and the bus ride cost a total of 1 Euro each, an amazing bargain. The road to Menton follows right along the coast and the ride was stunning. You would not believe the numbers of houses you can cram on one cliff! We arrived just a few minutes before the Citrus festival parade and found a place amongst the enormous crowd. There were actually a number of festivals going on at the time and it was hard to choose which ones to get to but the Citrus festival was fantastic. The parade was something I've never seen before, the route was crowded and the people in the parade sometimes took to mixing it up with the crowd. People were shooting those sticky strings at each other and some floats had confetti cannons,to top it all off they went around twice. After the parade several of the bands found spots along the way and gave extra performances. The most interesting part of the festival was that all the floats and displays were made of oranges and lemons. Beside citrus fruit the Riviera is also famous for money and money we saw.

I'm sure not everyone who comes here is wealthy, we are a prime example that this is the case, but there sure is lots of money around. Our visit to Monaco and the Monte Carlo Casino brought us very close to some of that wealth. Here you could see valets parking very expensive cars such as Rolls Royce, Farrarie, Alfa Ramaro and a Bentley. I knew Bentleys existed but had never seen one in the 'wild' until now. We could not get over the number and size of the yachts here. Not just the motor ones but luxury sailing boats as well. Some were far bigger then our house and definitely had better furniture. We braved the stares and advanced into the lobby of the casino just to admire the decor but we refused to pay the 20 Euro fee to 'see' the gaming tables. We would have been refused the opportunity to participate because our clothes would not have passed inspection and there was an inspection. One of the fun things we did here was practice our French.

Now we have been trying our limited language skills in other countries and trying to learn some as we go but in France we have a better footing then in most countries so far. Terry especially has acquired a good skill at French and her recent studies have enabled her to formulate questions and sentences beyond how to order coffee. This has come in quite handy but has resulted in some funny situations as well. Terry, in her skill, has become quite convincing to most people here, this often brings the answer to her questions. The problem with that is if the answer is too much beyond a qui, non response it leaves us (her) somewhat left behind. It really is fun asking a question and getting a whole paragraph in rapid French back in response. It leaves her (us) in somewhat of a 'deer in the headlights' look. We keep trying and the people here are very understanding and very accommodating. We are looking forward to Paris and more challenges. Wes

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Always a Surprise

Here we are sitting on another train, this time bound for Nice, France. It will be our modis operendi for the next few weeks, the next six to be precise. Every three to four days back on a train until we fly back to Spain from Ireland. Today is another adventure in traveling which we don't always plan. We arrived for this train with about twenty seconds to spare, a mistake of timing and a little lack of knowledge, specifically the fact that the train station was 6 blocks from the nearest metro and had no connections, very unlike the station we arrived at. We have had a few of these experiences, running for planes, missing trains and once having a taxi chase down a bus we had missed, all good fun! This experience involved us being intentionally bypassed through security to make the train, an event that surprised me considering the bombing of the Madrid station in 2004. There seems to be no lack of surprises for us. Beside the connection surprises we have had some pleasant ones here in Barcelona.

Some pleasant surprises we had were two cathedrals and a museum, all discovered from a walking tour we took. The first was Sagrada Familia. This cathedral is currently under construction, having been started around 1874. It will be ready for worship this year and will be completed around 2030. The Cathedral was designed by Antonio Gaudy and overseen by him for forty-three years, the last 12 exclusively until his accidental death being struck by a tram. He had, at this point, become so obsessed he was mistaken for a homeless man and died in the "poor" hospital here. The Cathedral was nothing like we had ever seen, the art inside and out a spiritual experience. It was quite breathtaking and quite something to comprehend this undertaking in this age. Our visit was took place in the midst of 300 workers anticipating the deadline of the completion of the worship area. When the spire of "The Risen Christ" is completed it will be 71 meters high. All this modernity was followed by "La Cathedral" of 1375.

This place I cannot fairly describe. It seemed to fit a pattern we have recognized in Spain with much of the cathedral dedicated to the Spanish saints. The exception being that the naves for the saints were enormous and very elaborately decorated. The stain glass windows were immense and very beautiful but the central feature and the one that stood out was the choir section. The choir area, not a loft, was in the very centre of the church. It had only one entrance and the massive pipe organ was just off to one side and elevated. Each section of the area was marked out by family shield of the families that contributed to its construction. The sheer vastness of this complex is really beyond description and left us with mouths open. Finally came Picasso

In the centre of Barcelona is the Pablo Picasso Museum. This museum took us through the entire life of Picasso, from his first sketches, through his work in Paris and finally to his cubist stage. It was a complete and dedicated gathering of his works that spanned his entire life. It was utterly fascinating to go through all the development of his art and see works from this. It was like walking with him through all his life as an artist. It was particularly fascinating to see his copies on Velasquez, whom we saw in the Prado art gallery. We were actually captured but Velasquez's work with the royal family and then to how Picasso interpret this was wonderful. To end we have to say that Terry and I have loved Spain, Terry especially loving the architecture and cannot wait for our next visit, which may be as early as the first week of April, but we'll see.

Monday, February 15, 2010

A Rock and a Hard Place

Well here we are in Madrid on the first day we have been deterred from having a complete day of sight seeing. We have managed through the pouring rain in New Zealand, through 48 degree heat in Australia and cold and snow in Turkey but the wet snow and wind we faced in Madrid soaked and froze us by noon and we called it a day. This would not have finished us under normal circumstances but three of the four places we set out to see were closed, so wet cold and shut out did us in. We have discover that Monday closings are a normal thing in this part of the world and as we don't plan our stays around Mondays or much else for that matter, this has effected us on a few occasions. The funny thing about this is that we usually lose track of the days anyway, so we get surprised regularly when Mondays come. We have had a few surprises on this trip but that can be expected when away for such a long time. We have also had lots of cultural experiences to compare to Canadian culture and culture of different countries. Spain we have found to be wonderful after just two days. The people are happier here then even Greece, always helpful and much, much calmer. We met a friend here, Silvia Roman, for just an hour and a half. Silvia, we met through Groundswell in Alliston and she lives in the south of Spain and was in Madrid for the weekend visiting family at the time arrived. Silvia introduced us to her father, David and her younger brother, David. David (I'll let you figure out which one) took us for a short tour of Madrid and we had some interesting conversation. Between Silvia, David and David and some sign language we worked out the translations. One of the things David mentioned was how Madrid was the same as Athens with it's noisy traffic and crowded streets but sorry David, no comparison.

I have to say some of the most intense traffic we have experienced was in Istanbul, Thessaloniki and Athens. Madrid does not meet the scale of those places. It is calmer, more sophisticated and cars actually let you cross the street. There was no way you could take a chance in the aforementioned places that traffic would stop for you. Even if you were walking with the light, which no one did, were in a marked crossing area and had the benefit of addition people around you, you could still have to "run" out of the way of cars and trucks. I think the biggest difference we have seen has been the lack of police presence here in Madrid, I say lack comparatively. The exception to this has been in the train station which was attacked on March 11, 2004. Terriosts set a bomb here which killed 176 people and police protect the station and the memorial there. Police seemed to be everywhere in Turkey and Greece.

While in Turkey we ran into a large protest close to our hostel. We followed innocently behind and found as we went the number of people grew, especially when the ferry from the Asian side of Istanbul landed. We let this large protest get well ahead of us and were ready to cross the bridge over the Golden Horn when the riot police emerged from the underground right in front of us. They came out fully equipped with shields and batons and headed after the protesters. We stepped aside. In Thessaloniki we found ourselves right in the middle of a national strike. Protesters blocked major roads and police were everywhere. Out for a walk in Athens we stumbled upon another battalion of riot police. This group were armed right down to their feet, shields ready and accompanied by an armoured bus. We made an about face. While on the Plaka in Athens about a dozen police appeared, it seemed, out of no where, on foot and on scooters chasing street vendors through the walkways. We watched with amazement. After this we noticed patrols all over Athens, four to six constables together, often checking papers or running down someone. Madrid has none of this and seems at peace to us. So here we are, safe and secure and loving the differences. Wes

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

When in Greece

Well, here we sit on another form of transportation, the slow train to Athens. So far we have found train to be the most comfortable transportation to be on, wider, bigger seats and the ability to walk around a bit. The exception to this was the train to Chaing Mai, which we thought was going to leave the track at any moment! Greece has been a complete contrast to Istanbul for us. The people here seem to be much happier, they laugh more often, always smile when you ask for help and seem to be glad you are here. The street vendor pressure is gone and even though the streets are just as crowded it feels to us less tense. We had some negative events in Turkey, the shoe shine scam and the double charges on our food bills to name just two and these seemed to taint us a little but I really believe there is a significant difference.

Thessaloniki has had it's difficulties though. We were two days at the hostel without water. No way to wash or shower and no way to even flush the toilet. This caused some Greeks to have something to say to us about their country and government. How the building of the underground has been a project for twenty years but they only broke ground two years ago. Or how a position with the government can make a person wealthy at the people's expense but still the attitude is better.

The water was off because of the underground being built. Apparently the water main was broken in several places by the construction. We had a chance to look at the construction and saw an old wall running right down the middle of the proposed site. This wall will not be kept but Thessaloniki has taken great pains in preserving some very old sites. We looked at several very old churches, "Osios David" being our favourite. This church was build in the 5th century and the frescos added over the years were amazing. The door was removed by the Turks in the 14th century and carted off to Russia but the rest of the church is intact and original. Another amazing site was the Roman Agora, a market and administration centre that was in use from the 3rd century BC until the 13th century AD. The apostle Paul was denied permission to preach here and had to settle for bringing the Gospel to the Jewish Synagogue near by. The original shops are actually two stories below the current street level. The preservation of sites seemed to speak to us of the care that The Greeks have for their ancient culture. In Turkey the oldest site we saw was the 4th century AD cistern under the centre of Istanbul and the museums contained only Turkish and Islamic artifacts but I believe this is because Turkey was culturally centered in Islam and that effects the art that is preserved and displayed. This has been changing recently as we saw the old mosaics in Hagia Sophia are now uncovered and the beauty of the Blue Mosque is now proudly displayed. Greece seems to be open to its past and so the artifacts we saw were more ancient and open to its historical past. Having said all this I realize I may be looking through different lenses. We are looking forward to Athens and the history there also. Wes

Saturday, February 6, 2010


Well here we sit on another long haul bus but not one like you might think. All through Thailand and now through Turkey we have found service to be an art. In Thailand we journeyed between Chiang Mai and Chaing Rai on a bus and the bus had a porter as well as a driver. The porter was there to deliver snacks and drinks and meet whatever need you might have, we have found Turkey to be the same. Service is what the Turks know how to do. All the long haul buses here have porters as well, who want to make sure your trip is as comfortable as possible. Restaurants are amazing as well, it seems that each table in every restaurant has three to four wait staff. Each staff person has a different task to preform, there is a overseer for all the staff, one person to take payment only and a door recruiter.

Door recruiter are a name I have assigned them and it's not only restaurants that have them. Each store, kiosk and tea shop has a person at the door whose job it is to get you into thier shop. They really want to serve you or at least have you pay attention to them. This is the biggest thing we have had to adjust to, biggest if you discount the fact that we went for two solid months of sunshine and warmth to below zero temperatures and snow within 8 hours! The recruoitors have seemed rude to us as they step in front of you and sometimes touch your arm or engage you in small talk just so they have a chance to introduce thier product. But that's a way of life here, it is not just for tourists as some might think. We have seen Turkish buniess men following other Turks down the street trying to make a deal. If you can get past this cultural differenec you will find Turkey, gracious, friendly and good hearted.

The best part of this came when we forgot our camera in a restaurant. We had been looking for an old Turkish bath that had been converted to a Dervish performance centre. We were only just around the corner from the place but one of the door recruiters of a restaurant insisted in making sure we found the front door. We went back to eat at his restaurant where the owner introduced us to dishes he had developed. We had a good meal at a reasonable price with lots of service but in getting to our show our camera was left behind. Within just a few minutes our camera was delivered right into the auditorium by the same recruiter with a big smile knowing that he had saved the day. And, now that we have adjusted to some of the customs it's off to Greece. Wes