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Just Tourin' about

Tours, France

semi-overcast 26 °C

Begrudgingly torn away from our beloved sun-kissed beaches, we delved into the leafy greenery of Touraine, the French province that hosts the Loire Valley and countless other picturesque country villages; arriving finally in Tours, a major hub for exploring its French-fairytale neighbours. The Rhone river gushes through this expanse of land, and meets the calmer Cher on the outskirts of Tours.

Tours is this glorious melting-pot of old and new France, a perfect illustration of the crux between tradition and transition. The buildings are preserved in typical Touraine fashion, tall, wooden buildings that remind you of a luxury barn, flowers at the windowsill and lacy curtains behind timber shutters. In the bars, teenagers and retirees swing-dance together under Christmas lights; the locals must be taught jazz dancing in school or at home from a young age because even the most unlikely characters can Charleston with the best. But by evening, the students come out to play in the streets, and there are more dreadlocks and Doc Marten's on display than at your average concert. Of course, they all still drink good wine, even over a cheap kebab or nachos. We discovered that Tours is no longer the staunch advocate of refined French living it pretends to be when we decided to stroll along the banks of the Rhone to watch the fisherman and see if we could make it to the next town. After puzzling at random shopping carts and sleeping bags strewn across the grass by the water, we figured out we had stumbled into a gypsy encampment and scurried away with our tourist tails between our legs.

Other than its proximity to wine heaven, the people of Tours pride themselves on two points: perfect spoken French (meaning I understood nothing they said) and the best crêpes in the world (something I understand well). I tried a traditional crêpe smothered in Chantilly, apricot liqueur and fruit conserve. Worth the belly ache afterwards.

More notably, the Touraine area is swarming with Chateaux, beautiful castles that played home to royals and aristocrats in times past. We visited Chenonceaux, the castle that the palace from Beauty and the Beast was modelled on; giving Daniel a plethora of puns regarding beauties and beasts throughout the afternoon. But really, it was stunning, you can stand in the turrets and watch the river rushing underneath the marble arches of the building. The gardens are so perfectly groomed, though I got tugged away from them after Hodge learned there was a donkey farm on premises.

Tours has been so pleasant, a picture of red wine among green leaves. Throw in a gypsy sitting at the table next to you and you have a reflection of the new deep France.

Posted by gpontour 12:24 Archived in France Comments (0)

Under the Basque sun

San Sebastián, Spain & Biarritz, France

sunny 27 °C

Much to my happiness, my skin now has that slippery, oily feeling that only comes from the continual day-to-day slathering of sunscreen. Our time in coastal Basque Country has been a hazy marquee of blue waves and white sand by day and cold beer and yummy pinxtos by night. We have rested like absolute whales on two gorgeous beaches and enjoyed their endearingcultures while crisping under the sun.

The first half of the week was spent in San Sebastián, located in Spanish Basque Country and locally known as Donostia. Like so many other parts of Spain, the Basque region is very culturally distinct and still harbours its own dialect and customs. The Basque dialect is near impossible to pick up as a tourist, it is a rushed muddle of Xs and Ks. This made ordering pintxos a bit of a circus because the name for 'cheese ball' might read 'xkacix'. Yep, lots of pointing and smiling. Pintxos are Basque tapas, normally small rolls with meat or cheese presented on a toothpick. Perfect to nibble on over a sunset drink. My favourite was this spicy meatball coated in tempura batter.

Apart from its vibrant bar scene, San Sebastián's major drawcard is its sensational beach. The main tourist beach, La Concha, lays nestled between two mountains (we had ambitions to climb one but ended up glued to the sand) and is an impressive stretch of ocean perfect for swimming and fishing. We definitely got a shock the first time we dived in; the water we have become accustomed to is much warmer than the Bay of Biscay's. But it was still a bath compared to Torquay. San Sebastián is a beautiful and ritzy hideaway from the aridness of Spain, and proved one of my favourite destinations.

For the second part of the week, we moved 90 minutes north-west to Biarritz, also belonging to the Basque region but definitively French (the French are very serious about the 'one nation, one identity' kind of society within its borders). Biarritz is sleepier than San Sebastián, an elegant town perched on a glorious shoreline. There are two kinds of people in Biarritz: wealthy French retirees who enjoy the yacht club and sunset walking groups, and grungy surfies with perfect tans and battered combi vans. Walking down the street, it is perfectly normal to see Hermes and wetsuits sharing a shop front.

Biarritz had some of the most picturesque sunsets I've seen, gently disappearing behind the rocks and reflecting golden and rose on the water. I loved visiting the old fisherman's village, now home to cool little bars and cafés, and watching the nightly spectacle.
Hodge and I put on a spectacle ourselves one evening when we decided to visit the local casino, which seemed to be the pride and joy of the town. It turns out that playing Blackjack in French is harder than you'd imagine. Still, we got the hang of it eventually and successfully commandeered the table. Not to say we won, of course.

Our week on the beach has been an absolute blessing in terms of rejuvenation. It was lovely to strip off the backpacks and money belts for a few days and enjoy doing absolutely nothing under the Basque sun. You'd struggle to find two better places to do so.

Posted by gpontour 07:31 Archived in France Comments (0)


Pamplona, Spain

sunny 30 °C
View 2014 European Busabout Adventure on Hodgeontour's travel map.

After leaving Madrid, I anticipated a lengthy hangover, however; this was not to be of the self-inflicted variety (little did I know that the self inflicted variety would come at the end...). The previous two weeks had been spent in three amazing cities Barcelona, Valencia and most of all Madrid. The next place on the itinerary we were repeatedly told was merely included on the Busabout itinerary due to the San Fermin festival, more commonly known as the running of the bulls. Always looking for positives, we thought it may be a nice chance to experience a small Spanish community and staying with a local couple ensured that we would achieve that.

Pamplona was the first Basque Country stop which we would encounter before moving onto San Sebastián and Biarritz. The Basque, like Barcelona and the Catalonians, speak their own language and share a belief that they should be independent of Spain and France respectively. The only problem is that their claims for independence are somewhat redundant considering that 3 out of 7 Basque provinces (all located in France) speak French and don't utilise the Basque flag. Furthermore, of the Spanish majority, only 30-40% speak Basque. I really can't blame them to be honest, after seeing the language there's far too many k's and x's for my liking.

After getting off the bus earlier than anticipated, it was decided that a beer (or cerveza) would be a good way to start the day. Armed with an artillery of three Basque words to help ease the transition, we cautiously approached a waiter and said Kaixo (pronounced ky-cho and meaning hello). The man smiled and said "Español? Italiano? Francais? English?" Excited that the first person we spoke to knew English, we smiled, nodded and said "English". Our hopes were instantly shattered as he blatantly shook his head and said "No." Awkward silence and feverish pointing was henceforth our Basque-English alternative.

We went to our Airbnb located central to the city of Pamplona and pressed the 3rd floor buzzer. Once again substituting Kaixo for the Spanish 'hola', we were greeted with more awkwardness when it was confirmed that pretty much no one here spoke Basque. Our hosts were born in other countries (Poland and the UK) and despite one of them living in Pamplona his whole life, he never learnt any Basque. The decision was made to bin the language and use the basic Spanish which we had gained in the previous weeks.

Now, language aside, Pamplona is a genuinely beautiful city. Centrally located is a large square, adorned with cafes, restaurants and hoards of locals sitting around drinking and playing with kids. Signs everywhere point you toward the route used during the San Fermin festival toward the huge bullring on the outskirts of the city. Pamplona is also famous because of Ernest Hemingway. A favourite spot of the famous author, streets, cafes and souvenirs are dedicated to him in great abundance.

Pintxos. If there's one reason you decide to visit Basque Country and/or Pamplona, it's Pintxos. Spanish style tapas had become a way of life for us in Madrid but pintxos took it to a new level. Picture more elaborate tapas, on bread and served hot. On our final night in Pamplona, our hosts decided they needed dinner at 11pm and despite having already eaten a full dinner at a normal time, we agreed to join them on a Pintxos crawl. Rookie error. The Spanish like to eat late and they like to eat a variety of things (hence the notion of tapas/pintxos). They also like to drink. We joined John and Claudia for a drink and pintxos at the first bar only to stay for 10mins. We then learnt that the rest of the night would consist of three steps - 1) move along to the next bar, 2) order a drink and pintxos, 3) repeat. It was no wonder that within two hours we were outrageously drunk, doing tequila shots in a gay bar. You really wouldn't have known it was a gay bar though - only every single wall was plastered with naked men boasting large packages. Nevertheless, we finished off our time in Pamplona with a bang and glad that we went against the advice of others to stay a while in this beautiful little city.

Posted by Hodgeontour 07:27 Archived in Spain Comments (0)


Madrid, Spain

sunny 36 °C

A city that makes you sweat from the heat, the bustle, the energy. Everything about Madrid is scorching, the pavement crackles beneath your feet, your tapas steam on their plate, your beer is perspiring the second it's poured. The days are long and draining, the sun refuses to trade places with its nocturnal counterpart, reluctantly bleeding blood orange at 9pm when the street lights and billboards take up their post and the city switches into party mode. Yet you just want more of Madrid. There are cities that you feel take from you, wear you down, you secretly want the evening to come so you can hide from them. In Madrid, you don't want to take rest-stops, you refuse to bow out, it's like when you're full but you just keep picking at the feast in front of you.

I have to admit, I really had small expectations of Madrid. Whilst I really shouldn't have listened to others, seeing as you meet more negative people when you're travelling than at your average funeral, almost every person out of the plethora we've met definitively wrote it off as industrial and shallow, like how I found Milan. But, wow, such a place. It was not going down without a fight and it dealt some knockout blows. It may go down in this trip as stealing the championship belt.

The night we arrived, we went to a dodgy flamenco show at a hostel with a friend, figuring that you couldn't go wrong for 12€ with a sangria included. Whilst it was definitely sub-par it whet my appetite to see some professional flamenco dancing, and to my surprise Hodge enjoyed it as well (it may have just been the free sangria). Speaking of appetites, that night taught me a powerful lesson. Listen up, kids. If they offer you hot sauce in a Spanish fast-food restaurant, do not assume it will be the same diluted sweet chilli rubbish that we put on cheap meals back home. It will make your insides feel like the burning nest of Hades and have you doubled over the next morning cursing the inventor of Mexican food.

So we undertook a journey to find some decent flamenco, and really hit a home run. We went to go see a flamenco performance called Mamaroso, and it was fantastic. The dancers are so incredibly athletic and passionate. Flamenco used to be the form of expression used by Spanish peasants to share their experiences and emotions and you can definitely tell; the performers are so raw. The entire show is improvised depending on their mood for the evening. A free cocktail with the ticket topped off a wonderful night, despite Hodge deciding he had a hidden talent for flamenco and stomping all the way home.

A thing I adored about Madrid was that it was such a green city, full of large welcoming plazas and shady avenues. Shady in a good, leafy way, not a 2am in Barcelona way. Retiro Park is a beautiful example of this, a large manicured public space that outsizes even Central Park, filled with sculptures and a lovely man-made lake. This lake is the closest the city has to a beach or shore so the locals sunbathe along side it by day, with hawkers attempting to sell beer to them. We rented a rowboat at the lake and happily paddled around people-watching and trying to spot the jumping fish.

Of course we had to go see the Bernabau Stadium, home to Real Madrid and an institution in Spanish football. These sporting tours actually fascinate me because I think the history of the clubs says so much about the political and social identity of the place; like Franco's legacy to Real Madrid.

Another highlight was our day trip to Toledo, a historic town literally in the middle of the desert. On the train ride, after you've passed the outskirts of Madrid, there is nothing but endless red and orange to see for miles. Madrid in itself is bizarre that way; a thriving and very cosmopolitan metropolis in the centre of such vast arid land. Toledo's architecture is gorgeous, you cross from different parts of the town and the buildings change; each representative of whether the former inhabitants were Jewish, Catholic or Muslim. Toledo sort of rolls down the hill that hosts it, decaying buildings renovated into souvenir shops litter the otherwise rocky, scraggly mountainside. Whilst Toledo was a very multicultural city in its peak, it also played a central role in the abhorrent Spanish Inquisition- we visited the Museum of Ancient Torture Instruments and it was confronting to see and touch the mechanisms. While most of Western Europe's souvenirs are beyond tacky, Toledo takes 'I really wish you hadn't' gifts to a whole new level. The town is famous for its expertly crafted silver and steel, and thus has made most of the swords and armour for blockbusters like Lord of the Rings. I'm sorry, but I opted not to bring home anyone a 100€ replica of Aragon's sword.

But the absolute bonus about Madrid, a gift I never expected- the food is so cheap! Order a drink, a complimentary tapas is slammed down on your table. Order a meal, a bowl of bread appears for free. My favourite place to eat was the San Miguel Market, an open-style market place where you could wander from stall to stall, picking up a glass of wine here, a plate of olives there. The culture of progressing through dinner in nibble-sized portions really appeals to me. Hodge began a culinary love affair with a Madrid exclusive food chain- the Museo del Jamon, or the Museum of Ham. Why? You can order two beers, two bocadillos (crunchy rolls filled with ham) and get change from 3€. Pit stops at their many stores became a regular respite from the sun. Hodge now recommends it to people as 'Disneyland for meat lovers'. Such a Croatian.

Lonely Planet calls Madrid the most alive city in the world, and I now agree. Memories of Madrid will be infused with a buzzing in my ears, sweat on my brow, and the promise of another bright exciting day.

Posted by gpontour 07:22 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

The three S's of Valencia

Valencia, Spain

sunny 33 °C

Sun, sand, sangria.
Valencia made simple. Undoubtedly there is much more to the tale of Valencia but 50 days into backpacking, they were the only things we cared about.

We were not disappointed. The long stretch of the Malva-Rosa shore was far less crowded than the other beaches we have visited, and a perfect place to lay down a towel, snooze in the blazing sun and wander up the promenade for some tapas afterwards. Which is exactly what we did. We spent two glorious afternoons camped out on the sand, reading books (fittingly, I've started Orwell's 'Homage to Catalonia') and taking many ungraceful naps in the sun. Valencia has more days of sunshine than anywhere in Europe and really turned it on for our quick seaside sojourn.

Of course, no day spent in the South of Spain without sampling local food would be complete. The easiest way to think of Spain is as a series of unique and independent regions, proudly clinging onto their own cultural characteristics and gems. The food of Valencia is really delicious so I am more than happy for them to keep fighting the power. It is the home of paella, made traditionally from chicken and rabbit. We had four meals during our stay, three were paella. Other treats we discovered were Aqua de Valencia, a mix of their world-reknowned orange juice and prosecco, and a less drinkable shot of Horchata. I don't even know what the latter is made from, but I wouldn't go back for more. Hodge even tried an ox burger.

What we did actually see of Valencia apart from the beach was very charming, a true 'old town' in its buildings and streetscape. But nothing beats the feeling of salt on your skin and sand in your toes. Bravo, Valencia.

Posted by gpontour 10:05 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

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