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Italy and San Marino

Tour of northern Italy (with a stop at one of the smallest nations in the world...)

sunny 30 °C

Been quite a while since I updated this, and I can't remember exactly how I ended the last post so I'll continue with what I remember.

My last night in Nice was rather long and boozy so waking up to leave for Italy didn't leave me feeling all that great. It took some water, juice and food to have me feeling a-okay before getting behind the wheel.

My first stop in Italy was La Spezia, and while I would love to have done the scenic route the entire way, it would have taken almost double the time of going by the motorway, and since I did have toll tags for both France and Italy, that's what I did. It did feel like a long old drive, though I'm sure the fact I was feeling a little tired didn't help, but I made it to La Spezia safe and sound, having to park my car some distance from my Airbnb. The lady who ran it was incredibly friendly, with full of tips and information about where and what to visit.

Of course, my first day was to go visit Cinque Terre. I knew we'd be in for some good weather when I woke up and headed to the train station early and it was already rather warm. I did have to queue for a while to get my pass, but trains ran frequently. Over the course of the day, I did stop and visit all five villages. I didn't spend too much time in the first couple of villages, Riomaggiore and Manarola. I had planned on doing the short hike between these two villages, but was informed the path was closed, and was also closed between Manarola and Corniglia.

I spent a bit more time in Corniglia, though getting to the town itself was hard, having to walk up what felt like a never ending set of stairs, though the views on offer were spectacular. As I always wear my walking shoes, I checked the time and distance between Corniglia and Vernazza and figured, why not, I'll hike this one instead. Considering the heat, it was a long, hard slog, well over ninety minutes mostly heading up to begin with, then a rather quick descent the closer I got to Vernazza. Ended up talking with a group of American tourists on the way, which helped pass the time.

Spent a long time in Vernazza recovering, and definitely enjoyed my first beer of the day! Walked up a nearby hill, again taking in some fantastic scenery (will upload more photos soon too.) Though I do feel quite fit nowadays, the distance between Vernazza and Monterosso was just too far, at least for me. If I hadn't done the previous hike, I might have considered it. Being the last stop, I spent more time in Monterosso than anywhere, the town actually split in two by a large hill.

Each village is full of things to see. Definitely more than one chiesa (church) and usually a museum or two, but most people, including myself, arrive to simply take in the scenery and try and snap our own photo of the rather famous ones you'll see in books or on the internet. The only downside is that it was absolutely packed. No criticism of tourism, considering I'm one myself, but I'm sure it would have been quieter in say... January. But I'm thoroughly glad I did it, definitely enjoyed it, and would heartily recommend.

Though I returned to La Spezia rather knackered, the next day I was out again, this time riding a train for an hour or so as I headed north to Genoa. I had contemplated staying there as I planned my trip, but La Spezia was better for the links to Cinque Terre. Genoa is an absolutely gorgeous city, absolutely steeped in history, and I loved walking the narrow streets of the old town. Better yet, the city had at least three (and probably more) funicular. Some only go up and down between two stations. One, though, heads right up into the hills surrounding Genoa.

For the first time since Andorra, I found myself in nature rather than a city, and on nothing but a whim, figured I would go for a walk, as I found a board suggesting I could take in some scenery while I also walking by some old forts that line the hills. It was rather quiet, not many tourists heading this far, and I eventually ended up following signs for a restaurant which offered panoramic views. Not sure how long it took me to walk there, well over and hour as I stopped often to snap a photo, but they didn't lie. Panoramic views on offer, the food was pretty good, and reasonably price as well. As always, the walk back was a little easier and definitely quicker as I didn't stop all the time! The only disappointment is that the weather did turn that afternoon, a thunderstorm rolling in. I ended up in a cafe, the lady behind the bar suggesting it was a frequent occurrence during the summer. A reminder of Sydney...

My last day in La Spezia was spent in the very town I was staying. It's a small town, and one used by tourists as a base rather than a place to visit. But there are a few hidden gems, and the docks are certainly a nice place to visit, with a number of bars and restaurants around. Being a Sunday, it was actually rather quiet around town, any tourists probably elsewhere, and considering how hot it was again, it was only in the evening that the streets and piazzas once again started to fill up.

Leaving La Spezia the next day, I stuck to the coast this time as my next stop of Pisa was only a short drive away, in comparison to some of the distances I've covered so far. My Airbnb was an apartment quite a distance from the centre of town, but my host provided all the information I required, including how to get into town. Walking wasn't realistic, particularly given the heat, so I ended up getting a bus each day. My first night, all I did was head to the local supermarket, grab some beers, then headed to a local pizzeria, where I enjoyed a fantastic local pizza.

First day was, of course, spent in Pisa itself. I had to be the usual tourist and head to the Leaning Tower, snapping a number of photos, but there are plenty of other buildings to visit while you're there. I definitely headed into the cathedral, which was absolutely stunning inside, and also into the Duomo, which was rather empty inside but still awe-inspiring. I spent a few hours in and around the tower and the other buildings before grabbing a map from a local tourist office, asking what else there was. The map suggested a couple of routes to take, and it was amazing how quiet the city was once you were away from the tourist areas. And Pisa had plenty of architecturally stunning buildings, plenty of museums to wander into, and though it was another stinking hot, humid day, it was pleasant just walking around, though trying to keep to the shade!

Day two had me hopping onto a train and heading towards Florence. Many people do it the other way around, staying in Florence and heading to Pisa, but considering I'm driving, Pisa was the better option for myself. Anyway, Florence is as beautiful and stunning as you can imagine. I booked my tickets for the Uffizi well in advance, and I could have honestly spent all day in there looking at everything. I'm sure I did spend a few hours in there, enjoying the fact it was rather cool. It was absolutely packed, no wonder they suggest you reserve an advanced ticket, and it was amusing to hear some of the stuff continuously telling people to be quiet. Felt more like a church at times.

Aside from the Uffizi, I pretty much saw all the other famous landmarks. I spent at least forty-five minutes queuing up to enter the Cathedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, but I'll admit, the inside wasn't as great as the outside. And I did chuckle to myself when I remembered climbing the cathedral in Assassin's Creed. The Basilica of Santa Croce was definitely worth the entrance fee. To be honest, during this trip, I think the basilica's have proven to be just as beautiful as most cathedrals. And, of course, no visit to Florence is complete without crossing Ponte Vecchio. I crossed a bridge further down near the basilica and walked back, snapping a few shots before crossing it myself. If you're wondering, it's full of jewellery shops nowadays.

Florence is obviously a very old city and I could have spent two or three days wandering around, taking in all the sights. It was stupidly busy, even Cinque Terre wasn't as packed, and nowhere in France or Spain had been anywhere near as bad. I was definitely travelling during European summer! Add to that, Florence was... almost obscenely expensive, but Italian standards anyway, nearly matching the price of some places in France. Understandable, I guess, but it made buying pints of beer rather expensive.

Day three was another day trip from Pisa, this time to the small town of Lucca. And talk about an undiscovered gem. Yes, there were a few tourists around, but I swear the Italians keep this one a secret. 'Si, go to Pisa, got to Firenze. Lucca? No, nothing there. Very boring.' It's definitely worth a day trip as you can walk the four or so kilometres of the city walls, and then simply stroll around the streets of the old town. Plenty of landmarks to see, but as it's so quiet, compared to Pisa or Florence at least, you can sit outside a cafe, have a drink, and just enjoy the peace and quiet. Admittedly, you could easily see everything in town easily within a day, unless you're a completionist and want to see every museum and every landmark possible, but I can heartily recommend it as a day trip from Pisa.

My drive from Pisa to my next stop of San Marino had me driving through the Tuscan countryside. I avoided the autostrada as I wanted to take the scenic route. The road through the mountains was a lot of fun but hard work to drive, but the views on the way were absolutely spectacular, stopping in a small town right at the peak to take a few photos. I was passed by any number of bikers, and there must have been at least fifty of them doing the same thing when I arrived. For those wondering what road it was, it was the SS67. My sat nav took me from Pisa to Florence, driving through there wasn't a lot of fun, exiting the city on the east, following the SS67 to Forli, and then head south-east on the SS9. This would be a nice route to take if you were heading to Rimini from the west coast.

San Marino, one of the smallest nations on Earth, is definitely worth a visit. I was staying in another Airbnb, on the very edge of the San Marino/Italian border, though in San Marino itself. Having arrived rather late in the day, and feeling rather knackered after an exhausting drive, I headed to a pizzeria which had some fantastic reviews. Best pizza I'd had so far. Hands down, no contest. I headed to one or two bars after that, but I pulled up stumps rather early and got some much needed shut eye.

Public transport in San Marino isn't great, and knowing what I'm like, wanting to enjoy a few beers during the day, driving wasn't an option. But I did have the bus timetable for the service that runs from Rimini, so had to sit around and wait awhile before it arrived, expectedly late of course. The City of San Marino sits on an enormous hill overlooking the rest of the country and what seems like half of Italy. The city and country itself are old, very old. Heading to the tourist office, I made sure I got my passport stamped, grabbed a map, and was offered some sound advice on what to do.

Any plans were stopped, for a while at least, as there was a festival of sorts taking place, and there was a beer tent. After grabbing a pint, I ended up speaking with a German couple for a good few hours, knocking back a few beers, and having a good laugh. Good people, and I've kept their details to keep in touch. But though I could sit and drink beer all day, I did want to check out some sights, so I walked up the hill to visit the three forts. Achingly beautiful views were on offer, while at the highest point, you could see some stunning shots of the City of San Marino itself. It was nice just walking around the old streets, though admittedly, the city is tiny. You definitely don't need more than a day. I did grab another pizza from a restaurant with good reviews, and ended up catching the last bus back, which was only at around 20:30. I did ask about taxi's and was told they can be pricey.

Stop number four of my journey of the Italian peninsula was Reggio Emilia. Not exactly on the tourist trail, but it was convenient for day trips to Modena/Maranello and also for Bologna. Unfortunately, I'd been carrying a cough for a little while by now, ever since entering Italy, to be honest, and it really knocked me for six during my drive from San Marino, so that meant my first day in Reggio Emilia, where I was going to check out the city itself, was a wash out. All I did was head to the local pharmacy, and using Google translate, got my hands on some cough medicine, headed back to my apartment, and got some rest.

Though I still didn't feel all that great the next day, it was time to visit Modena. Actually, though I did want to visit Modena itself, it was time to visit Maranello and the home of Ferrari. The first museum, though, was the Enzo Ferrari experience, where the city has turned the house he was born into a museum, and the building next to it is filled with some of the most beautiful Ferrari's ever produced. They also show a film of Enzo Ferrari during the visit, highlighting details of his life and the history of the marque itself. The collection isn't enormous by any stretch of the imagination, easily visiting in no more than a couple of hours, but if you're a car buff, it's a must.

Through the website, you can also book a bus to take you from Modena to that museum and then onwards to Maranello. I'd booked mine long ago, so boarded for the half hour trip. Maranello is Ferrari, or Ferrari is Maranello. As soon as you enter, the Prancing Horse is everywhere. The bus takes you past the Ferrari factory and various other buildings linked to the marque, before arriving at the Ferrari museum. I can say this right now, it is worth absolutely every penny spent buying the ticket. I could have easily spent all day in there just looking at all the cars. Not just road cars, but sports cars and what everyone probably wants to see, the Formula One cars. The place reeks of history.

While I was there, I decided to try my hand at one of the simulators, just for a laugh. It wasn't cheap but I somehow managed to cram my fat arse in one of the cockpits, and as I was driving a Ferrari, it had to be Monza. You only get seven minutes but I managed a few laps, my fastest only nine seconds slow than Kimi Raikkonen's current lap record. There's hope for me yet!!! I also enquired taking a Ferrari for a drive, as there are plenty of garages offering the Ferrari experience. Let's just say it was well outside my budget, ten minutes being one hundred Euro, and so on. So I figured I could always head back one day with a wad of cash and take one out for an hour.

Back to Modena, I headed to the tourist office, grabbed a map, saw the main sights, headed to a bar which sold craft beer, enjoying a great chat with the barman, whose English was solid after living in the UK for a few years, before returning to Reggio after quite the day.

Day three was Bologna. About another half an hour on the train past Modena, I had toyed with the idea of heading north from Reggio instead of south, but I couldn't miss Bologna, not with everything on offer. It was probably one of the muggiest days of the trip so far, though, the walk just from the station to the main tourist office leaving me almost soaking wet, not in a nice way. Grabbing a map as always, I also booked a ticket to climb the Torra degli Asinelli (Asinelli Tower) for later that afternoon.

Like most maps, it came with a suggested walking route, so I followed that first, definitely visiting the basilica first, which was surprisingly free to enter, and utterly beautiful inside. The route took me past most of the famous landmarks dotted around the old city, before I abandoned it around two-thirds the way around and did my own thing as usual. Bologna is as old as all the other cities I've visited, finding my way down along old narrow streets, buildings seeming to close in on you, but it was the shade I found most enjoyable.

Climbing the Asinelli Tower was quite the experience. It was stiflingly hot inside, so by the time we reached the top, everyone was sweating. Climb was worth it though, the views provided were... well, as I've said about a lot of things, absolutely spectacular. It was a little cramped up there, though they do keep the numbers reasonable, just about everyone managed to get the shots they wanted. Up that high, there was also the slightest of breezes, not really enough to cool right down, and entering the tower to climb down, everyone was sweating again at the bottom. Good fun though.

If you look at the list of things to do in Bologna, you could easily spend two or three days taking in everything on offer. But if you're doing a day trip, you can easily knock off the main sights, while visiting one or two things perhaps overlooked, quite easily. And it's another place I recommend that everyone should visit. Though popular, and it was busy, it was nothing compared to previous stops.

I'd avoided the autostrada through most of Italy, and there was absolutely no point using it to head to my next stop of Verona. This wasn't an Airbnb but an actual B&B I'd booked long ago, as driving near the centre of Verona was difficult, parking impossible, so I was again on the very edge of town, once again relying on buses to get me home.

Verona is... gorgeous. Absolutely, utterly, fantastically gorgeous. I loved it. So much that, for my third day, I abandoned any idea of doing a day trip and stayed in the city. There is so much to see and do, but it's not just that. As always, I had a map, and followed that somewhat, but getting lost in the old town was fun, and heading up across the river to the funicular, to take photos from the other side... I spent a long time just sitting on the wall and simply looking, camera in my pocket for once. Of course, those with a love for Shakespeare will go looking for Juliet's house, and you can also visit her grave/mausoleum if you're so inclined. They do have a statue of her outside the house, all the tourists lining up for a photo. Most would go to grab one of her breasts and all I could think was 'She was around 14 in the play, perverts!'

The city also had a lot of Roman ruins. Haven't mentioned them too much above but Verona has an arena, which is still used to this day for events, including opera, and there is also the ruins of a theatre nearby. I made sure to visit both of those. Depending on which side of the river you're on, you can follow the banks until you arrive at the Ponte di Castelvecchio, with a museum attached to it nearby. As always, there is an abundance of churches you can visit, but if you're going to visit just one, make sure it's the Duomo Cathedral di Santra Maria Matricolare. Worth every cent of the entrance fee.

Of course, you can't visit Italy, particularly on a long trip like I'm taking, without visiting Venice, so that was a trip for day two. Was it as good as I expected? Was it as beautiful as everyone says it is? Abso-beeping-lutely! Don't get me wrong, it was so stupidly busy, it wasn't funny. Well, only the toursity parts were. So I had a plan. I followed the signs to the Ponte di Rialto, took a couple of snaps, followed the signs to Piazza San Marco, did all the touristy stuff around there, then went an explored. Walk around five minutes away from either of those places, and Venice is wonderfully peaceful.

Tempted to a gondola ride, just for fun, until I saw the price. Ridiculous, so that was a no. Instead, I crossed the Ponte dell Accademia and kept walking until I was near the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute. Sitting at the point, you are provided with wonderful views of the Piazza San Marco on the other side of the Grand Canal. Heading back, there were times I was the only person around as I turned down narrow little streets. The main thoroughfares were busy though nothing like around the main hotspots. There are so many churches to visit, you could spend all day doing just that, but I'll admit, at times Venice seemed almost too quiet, even empty of life. Then when you realise that Venice is actually quite large, when thinking about it, but only fifty thousand live there now. To be honest, with all the tourists, and I know I was one, but I almost don't blame them. Little wonder they are bringing in all these initiatives, large and small, to almost stop tourists arriving altogether. It'll never stop completely but it might put off a few. I've read plenty of tourists receiving large fines for the smallest of infractions.

As I said above, my third day, I spent in Verona again. Didn't do all that much. To be honest, I'd been on the road for quite a while, and I was starting to feel a little tired. That's why I was actually looking forward to my next stop, as I planned on relaxing more than I had during most of my trip so far. (And my stops in Italy hadn't finished just yet either).

Posted by benjamin2981 23:42 Archived in Italy Tagged venice road_trip verona bologna italy pisa basilica cathedral roman hot old_city old_town ferrari cinque_terre arena roman_ruins maranello leaning_tower airbnb romeo_and_juliet Comments (0)

Sevilla, Cadiz and Gilbraltar

Andalusia and the last time I'll be in an English speaking majority for... a few months!

sunny

Apologies for anyone following this, I've been on the road for over two weeks, didn't take my laptop, so I'll be writing the following just from photos taken and memories. I'll have another blog post up quite quickly, covering where I've just returned from. (I'm currently in a nice apartment in Granada...)

Anyway, my last post was regarding my quick adventure through Portugal. Thoroughly enjoyable, and it's somewhere I would like to spend more time in the future. Damn Schengen rules...

The drive from Sintra to Sevilla was the longest of the trip so far at 308 miles. That's just under 500 kilometres. Didn't do it all in one hit, though I only stopped for fuel and a quick drink before finishing the drive. Experienced the first really bad traffic of the trip so far. It sucked. I was delayed by a good half an hour, but that didn't particularly matter. My Airbnb wasn't exactly in the centre, though I knew that when booking it. Dos Hermanos is only a short metro ride away from the centre, and was convenient for me regarding my car, as there was ample parking. My hosts were fantastic as well. It was a husband and wife team. The husband didn't speak any English, though we managed to communicate through hand gestures, his wife spoke enough that we could communicate, and she was certainly very helpful regarding my stay.

My two days in Sevilla were spent pretty much just seeing all the sights possible. Of course, that meant the Plaza de Espana, the cathedral and the Alcazar, while I also participated in my first walking tour of the trip to get a better understanding, and also learn some tips from fellow travellers. I said it to people at the time, but Sevilla definitely goes into my top three beautiful cities, for the time being. The locals were friendly and accommodating, though it was also the first time I was surrounded by many fellow tourists. Sintra was busy, but Sevilla was something else. Crowds everywhere!

During my second evening, my Airbnb host organised an evening of flamenco. There are plenty of stories as to the origins of flamenco (is it actually Spanish or imported?) but that's an argument for another time. All I can say is that I thoroughly enjoyed the ninety minute show, as did the people I was sharing the table with. Dancers would also perform on the street for tips, one such couple performing as I waited in line for the cathedral.

The weather had certainly warmed up during my trip through Portugal, and by the time I arrived in Cadiz, summer had almost arrived. Sevilla had been quite warm, so I was pleased to be by the ocean at least, my Airbnb only a stones throw away from the seven kilometre long seafront. I could see it was still just out of season, though, as I was told later the beach would be full of sunbathers or swimmers at the height of summer. While I was there? Not deserted but not the crowds one would expect.

I did my second walking tour during my first day, as although I'd done a little research on Cadiz, it wasn't an extensive as other places. Our guide, Mario, was brilliant, with plenty of funny stories regarding the history of Cadiz, and he more than earned his tip. Cadiz isn't a particularly large city, and although geared towards tourists, proven by the fact four cruise ships arrived while I was there, I think most come for sand, sea and surf rather than culture. Still, I managed to occupy myself for two days, finding a number of bars to enjoy a drink and tapas. The Champions League semi-finals were on during my time there, and I found I believe the only Liverpool supporter in Cadiz during my first night! The second night, I was in a different bar sat next to some Dutch guys as they watched their team lose in the last minute. I'm fairly sure they would have been drinking all night...

Again, it was only a short two day / three night stay before moving on again, my next destination Gibraltar.

I had to park my car on the opposite side of the border, as driving in Gibraltar isn't easy, and parking is non-existent for non-residents. And as I was leaving Schengen, I didn't want to return until I had to. That meant ensuring I had everything I needed in my bag before crossing the frontier. (Thankfully, I didn't forget anything!)

My first night in Gibraltar, again at an Airbnb, was again by myself. My hostess, Marie, was fantastic, enjoying a long chat upon arrival as she shares a real love of travel too. I spent my first full day in Gibraltar not doing a hell of a lot as I was waiting for a friend to arrive. Ryan flew in later that night, and after settling in, we headed out for a catch up drink.

The next day, we caught the cable car to the top of the Rock, taking in some of the spectacular views from the viewing platforms. It was a clear, sunny and hot day, and it's true, you can see Africa clearly. We then spent a few hours walking down the Rock (as others were running or walking up it for a charity event), stopping at a few sights along the way. One was an old battery, the gun still in place, which did give the best view of Africa. There were also some old tunnels, from various sieges and the two wars, a few memorials dedicated to various services, and also the remains of a Moorish castle from centuries ago. By the time we arrived at the bottom, we were both knackered so, after a wash back at the Airbnb, headed out from some dinner and drinks.

That was Saturday. On Sunday, we planned to do as little possible. It would be my first day of doing practically nothing since leaving, and I aimed to take advantage of it. The best idea was to head to the biggest sports bar in Gibraltar to watch the Formula One then the last day of the Premier League. The place was crowded, as expected, downing a few ciders in the sun. Once that was over, we had a bite to eat before heading back to shower, then returned to the very same place!

And that was the end of the European adventure, part one. On the Monday, we bid farewell to Gibraltar, loading up my car for the short drive to Tarifa. After parking up, we ended up having a rather torrid day. Firstly, we were told the ferry was delayed, unsure of when it would be sailing, and we were advised to head to Algeciras later the same day (having waited until noon for news!) We caught the bus there, only to be told upon arrival that ferries were now sailing for Tangier from Tarifa. So we had to hop a second bus back to Tarifa, eventually boarding the ferry around 5pm.

It would be a ninety minute sailing to Morocco, which will be covered in the next post.

Posted by benjamin2981 08:15 Archived in Spain Tagged beaches alcazar road_trip walking driving cadiz cathedral drinking old_city ferry old_town sevilla gibraltar flamenco the_rock Comments (0)

Country No. 3 - Portugal

Porto and Sintra only. Would have loved to stay longer...

sunny 23 °C

I'm not sure if it's just me, or if many have had the same luck, but all of my Airbnb hosts, even those I didn't get the chance to meet, have been nothing short of fantastic.

My drive to Porto from Santiago was fairly straight forward, though I did worry when entering Portugal and the motorway. Through France and Spain, my little tags would beep to state payment would be taken. It doesn't beep in Portugal, so I wasn't sure if it worked or not. (I'd only find out leaving Porto for Sintra that it was all okay.)

Motorways in Portugal, outside of the main cities, are practically empty. But the drivers? Well, they are... pretty bad. Didn't come close to an accident, but watching some of the antics on display was amusing. Entering Porto wasn't particularly difficult, though I had to ignore the sat-nav more than once due to never ending roadworks on the approach to my Airbnb. Managed to snag a parking spot close by and unload my stuff.

Most of my communication prior to arriving was with Lurdes, but it was Aderito who sat me down and went through everything with me. Utterly fantastic, as basically gave me a two-day itinerary with the map he had. The little cottage I had was perfectly suitable for my needs, so I headed straight out into town, as I had arrived rather early. All I wanted was a beer or two, avoiding most of the tourist sites as I would spend the next two days wandering. I found a sports bar, conveniently located close to my Airbnb, and admittedly I spent a couple of hours there each night as they were playing the Champions League semi-finals, and I can't remember the last time I watched any Champions League!

I spent two days walking around Porto, the first day covering 28 kms, the second day a paltry 17.7 kms. The first day I took the tram out to the very west of the city by the coastline. It was rather misty to start with and I was worried I'd be in for disappointment. But after sitting down for a coffee, I waited until it cleared, turning into a gorgeous, sunny and warm day. I followed the coastline for a good few kilometres before turning inland, wandering here, there and everywhere, mostly following the guidance of Aderito, who didn't disappoint. Visited another contemporary art museum, but could also wander the parks and gardens. I spent hours walking that first day, so was absolutely knackered upon returning to my Airbnb, though after a shower, headed out for at least a couple of drinks.

Day two was more of the same, though sticking to the inner city and I guess more 'touristy' parts. I had lunch at Cafe Santiago, where I feasted on a Francesinha Santiago. Basically a sandwich full of meat, covered in cheese, with a fried egg on top. Calorific, but utterly delicious and I managed to polish off the whole thing. Other than that, it was just another day of wandering. I could list every monument I saw and photographed... But I can only say that you should definitely visit Porto. It's beautiful when the sun is out, particularly if you're by the river. If you cross the river and head to towards another museum, you get some breathtaking views of the old town.

I would have loved to have spent another couple of days in Porto, wandering the narrow streets and simply kicking back and relaxing. I left early on my last day there, and had a mini heart attack when I found the garage I had parked my car in closed. Thankfully the man responsible, who didn't speak any English, turned up, mimicking that he was just eating breakfast.

During the drive to Sintra, I figured I'd stop off by the coast, eventually stopping at a town called Nazaré. For those who don't know, it's where some of the biggest waves in the world have been surfed. There were no enormous waves on the day of my visit, but I spent a couple of hours walking the promenade before taking the funicular up to the nearby hill, the town basically split in two. Again, some stunning views on display, and if I ever return to Portugal, I'll spent a couple of weeks slowly working my way north to south, or vice versa, and would definitely spend a couple of days lazing on the beach.

I'd heard Sintra could be very expensive, and although I spent €30 paying for entry into parks and palaces, everything else was as reasonable as Porto. My host, Filipe, was again fantastic, full of advice, particularly about where to have dinner, which I chose to visit on my second night. I only had one full day in Sintra, so had to make the most of it. Standing in line for the bus, I started talking to a Dutch family, and as we were well to the back of the line, they asked if I'd like to join them on a tuk-tuk. I'm on holiday, so why not? The driver was a bloody mad-man, spending half his time turning around to talk to us, but it was bloody good fun too, though I prayed to all the gods that we arrived in one piece.

The Palacio de Pena was beautiful, and I'm glad we got there as early as we did, as the line I noticed upon leaving was horrific. The park surrounding the palace was stunning, glad I'd taken my hayfever tablet, and I climbed to the highest point in the park, where the High Cross is located. The Moorish Castle was also good fun to walk around, climbing to the very top, where more views could be taken in. And finally, I walked all the way back to the historical centre to visit Sintra Palace. I didn't walk as far as Bilbao or Porto, but I certainly did a lot more climbing!

My last night in Sintra was spent at a local restaurant, partaking in a dish of Portuguese food, before heading out to enjoy a couple of beers before heading back to my Airbnb. The last place I was in had a guy with a guitar, and he was a rather good singer, so I ended up staying for a couple, just to listen. The football on TV in the background was also a good reason to stay.

And that was it. I know I could have done so much more in Portugal, but as I've said time and again, I'm just limited by what I can see and do. However, there is always the chance of another trip in the future, so perhaps I can visit a few places I've had to miss this time around.

Posted by benjamin2981 08:59 Archived in Portugal Tagged museums road_trip walking history driving palaces portugal old_town porto sintra airbnb historical_centre Comments (0)

Day Eight & Nine, Le Mans - April 8th / 9th 2019

Fougères to Le Mans (7th) – 88 miles / 22169 steps (8th) / 15455 steps (9th)

sunny

I’m not really sure where to begin!

Well, there was little point explaining much for day seven. After enjoying another lively discussion with Remy and Christine at breakfast, it was time to leave Fougères. I had my first experience of trying to find a petrol station on a Sunday, as I didn’t pass one leaving Fougères, so figured I could fill up in Laval before getting on the autoroute towards Le Mans. Although I didn’t come close to even the light coming on, it was something I will have to be aware. Most of my journeys are not longer than a couple of hundred miles to begin with, but I will fill up more often than not before the longer stretches. (Luckily my first really long journey isn’t until after Morocco in May.)

Anyway, finding my Airbnb host in Le Mans was simple enough, my sat-nav not sending me around the houses for once. And I really have lucked in with my hosts so far! Simone is a delight, with a wicked sense of humour. Within a couple of hours of arriving, she asks ‘Would you like a biere?’ Now, bear this in mind, she is a 70 year old woman, who just happens to love hosting people!

So we head off down the road to a local bar, where I’m introduced to some locals, and one guy, Antoine, spoke good English and had just finished his own travels in the USA. Must have spent a good couple of hours (if not longer, to be honest) before we headed back, with another friend in tow, Laura, who is also staying with Simone. I’m then treated to some home-cooked Vietnamese food before heading to bed. Not a bad introduction!

Monday was all about exploring Le Mans itself, leaving the motor racing aspect to the Tuesday. However, one thing I’ve learned rather quickly is that many stores and museums are closed on a Monday in France. The big stores remain open, and the more popular museums likely are too, but I was told by the lady in the tourist office that most in Le Mans would be shut. Still, my first port of call was the cathedral, better known as the Cathédrale St-Julien. The only word to describe it is… Wow! It’s not just the fact it’s bloody enormous, but the inside was a treasure trove of sights too. Seen one or two cathedrals during my travels and have to say the one in Le Mans is certainly one of the better examples.

Le Mans also had a rather well preserved old town, called Cité Plantagenêt. Though you won’t get lost along the narrow streets, the numerous old buildings certainly make you think you’ve gone back in time… until a car almost runs you over anyway. The old town is full of small shops, workshops, bars, cafes and, of course, most of them were closed. Go figure.

Heading down to the River Sarthe, one can also take in the remnants of what was once a Roman wall that surrounded the city long ago. What I did realise is that the old town and cathedral were built on a hill overlooking the river and everywhere else, as climbing back up the stairs towards the old town was a pain in the arse!

As it was a rather pleasant day, in fact probably the best day weather wise since leaving the UK, I hopped on a tram and headed to the outskirts of the city, to the Abbaye Royale de l’Epau. Knew nothing about it except it was an abbey, so paid the €5 entry, received an audioguide as well, and wandered the grounds. It was incredibly peaceful. There were not many visitors and the sounds of the city were left behind. I found myself just sitting down for a few minutes, enjoying the silence. Under-rated, if you ask me.

After the silence, I headed back into the city and sat at one of the many bars lining the Place de la Republique. It was rather warm in the afternoon and the top of my head is now paying for it, as I didn’t have a hat! I enjoyed a petit biere in a couple of the bars before wandering into a rather popular Irish pub called Mulligan’s.

And that’s why I woke up with a stonking headache this morning. I was sat by myself, just watching the TV with a pint, when I was approached by a girl as she heard me speaking English with the barman. I was invited to her table with a few others, and she ended up doing the interpreting, as most of the others could only speak a little anglais, and my francais is… well, probably not as good as their anglais. We must have sunk a couple of beers together in there before heading across the road towards another bar. I think I finally left at around 1 or 2 in the morning, couldn’t find a taxi, so I ended up walking for an hour or so back to my Airbnb.

For my second day, my wonderful host, Simone, had organised what was almost a personal guide to take me to the La Sarthe circuit. Katia was a motor-racing fanatic. Definitely put me to shame. She’d spent a few years living in the USA working in the Indycar series, actually living in Indianapolis itself, so her accent was definitely amusing to someone used to hearing accents of angleterre.

First stop was the La Sarthe museum, where I spent a good ninety minutes or so wandering around, taking too many photos of either very old cars, or very old racing cars. They had replicas of the De Dion Bouton, considered one of the very first automobiles ever made, and the very first Benz ‘motorwagen’. Being Le Mans, most of the cars were either originals or replicas of cars that had one raced the famous old track. We’re talking Bugatti’s, Bentley’s, Jaguar’s, Ferrari’s, Ford GT40s, up to the all-conquering Porsche and Audi teams. I think I took a photo of nearly every car. While I’m sure there are many collections that could rival, the only two I’ve seen that come close would be Donington Museum, which I believe has now closed, and the Mercedes-Benz museum in Stuttgart.

Katia then took me on a drive of the track, at least the public road bits, first passing Tertre Rouge, driving the entire length of the Hunaudieres straight, though we had to take roundabouts instead of chicanes, then the section from Mulsanne to Indianapolis and Arnage, before the track becomes ‘private’ and we headed off to lunch near the local karting track.

I’ll be honest, after all that excitement, and a three course lunch for only €12, I was knackered from the night before, and Katia had work to do, so she dropped me off back at Simone’s and I actually had a lie down! I did head back into town for a couple of beers, watched a bit of football (soccer), then headed back again, just in time to meet Simone, Laura and Katia for dinner, as the three knew each other as Katia and Laura had once been Airbnb guests of Simone’s. It was a good laugh, I couldn’t understand a lot of it, but Katia helped translate the important bits.

I’m actually writing this in Orleans, as I left Le Mans earlier this morning, having stopped in Chartres on the way (it was actually quite a detour, but worth it) which I might talk about in my next post.

PS – Maybe I’ve lucked in so far, but if you’re considering it, use Airbnb. My hosts have been sensational so far. Rose-Marie and I had trouble communicating, as my French is admittedly poor, but she was still lovely and very helpful. Christine and Remy were an utter delight, Simone was just awesome, while my current host, Catarine, was very friendly, though she’s had to disappear for a couple of days. Fingers crossed all the rest of my hosts are just as good!

PSS – I think daily updates are a bit much, so will probably just update at the end of each city visit or when I find enough words to describe what I’ve seen and done.

Posted by benjamin2981 11:54 Archived in France Tagged walking museum cathedral drinking old_town le_mans airbnb circuit_de_la_sarthe motor_racing Comments (0)

Day Two, Bayeux - April 2nd, 2019

No driving but 18395 steps taken!

Slept like a log after my early wake up on the 1st. Barely made it to 10pm before I crashed. Considering I did four solid hours driving from Calais to Bayeux, little wonder I crashed!

Anyway, woke up revitalised and ready to hit my first day of sightseeing. After a breakfast of croissants (go figure!), I ended up walking into Bayeux centre itself, as I’m staying on the outskirts in a village called St Vigour-le-Grand. The walk itself was beautiful, following a river (l’Aure), most of the way into the middle of Bayeux.

First stop was the tourist office. Though I had an idea of what I wanted to see, it’s always best to get advice. Thankfully, when you’re in northern France (from what I’ve been told), most places will speak English, and the lady behind the counter was very helpful. In addition to highlighting sights around Bayeux, she also pointed out places, some of which I already knew, along the Normandy coast.

The first place to visit just had to be the Bayeux tapestry. I paid €15 for it, but that also gained me entrance to the Musee D’Art et D’Histoire (Art Museum. Cultured!) and the Musee Memorial de la Bataille de Normandie (Battle of Normandy Museum 1944.)

The tapestry museum came with an audio description that explained each panel. I think I was the only one listening in English as I was surrounded by French schoolchildren! The on word to describe it is impressive. It seemed to go on forever, and the permanent exhibition above provided even more detail, while even the short video added more to the previous audio provided. Spent a good hour to 90 minutes there and well worth the price of admission alone.

Next was the art museum. I’ll admit, I know nothing about art, but I realised it was more about the history of Normandy itself in addition to just art. Plenty of Roman artefacts were provided, and each room contained objects from the Roman ages up to the 20th century. Considering I hadn’t even heard of the place, I spent a good 90 minutes wandering the rooms. Most art goes over my head, I just think ‘That’s a good picture’ but one or two pieces certainly caught the eye.

Typically, as I was in that museum above, the weather took a turn for the worst. The next stop was next door, the Bayeux Cathedral. And, just like one of my last European adventures, it was in the middle of some maintenance. Still, I spent a good half an hour or so wandering around, and although I am not religious whatsoever, I certainly took photos of stained glass windows and paintings, like replicating various passages of the Bible. Though enormous in scope, was it as grand as others I’ve seen? Perhaps not, though I think the building work hasn’t helped my opinion.

Low clouds moved in as I walked towards the Bayeux War Cemetery, otherwise known as the Cimitiere Militaire Britannique. I took no photos while I was there, except for one, which is of the memorial opposite the cemetery itself. Otherwise, the graves speak for themselves. The one memory I will take is ‘They were nearly all kids’. I’m 37 at the time of writing, and I barely saw a grave containing someone older than me. Most were 18, 19, maybe 22 to 25 at most… I was surprised to see German graves within, and they were nearly all the same ages, most likely indoctrinated by the Nazi’s. In addition to British and German, there were Poles, Czechs, Soviets (Russians), Australians, even a Kiwi or two. I even saw an Italian grave there. All were young men on both sides were sent to die for the cause.

Lest We Forget.

At the going down of the sun, We Will Remember Them.

After that, it was a quick walk to the Battle of Normandy Museum. If you are a history buff, particularly regarding World War II or just D-day itself, then you would thoroughly enjoy a visit here. It explains, almost in minute detail, the events of June 6th, 1944, up until the end of August, when the Battle of Normandy is considered complete, and the Germans were pushed back over the River Seine.

Although the cinema showed quite a long video, I definitely spent more time reading information and gazing upon the exhibits (in addition to some photos). If you like to see things like tanks and guns, this probably isn’t for you, but if you’re after the story of D-Day itself and its aftermath, then I can only recommend it.

I’d done a lot of walking by then, so I needed a beer. Heading back into the centre of Bayeux, I was hoping for a beer and a meal, as my idea is to eat breakfast then to eat around 4-5pm. Trust me, it saves money in the long run.

But nowhere is open before 6pm! Have to remember they do things differently on continental Europe. So I had a couple of small beers before grabbing a baguette and heading back to my little house. I had jambon (ham) and fromage (cheese) in the fridge that needs to be eaten, and I don’t want to be out all night drinking.

At least, not yet!

Not sure if there’s a bar close by that I could at least enjoy a beer in, but tomorrow, a bar I have read about is open, and there are three positives: they speak English, serve beer and food all day. Only reason I’m not there now is that it’s closed on a Tuesday.

Wednesday is about the Normandy coastline, so it will be back in the car and driving north. Upon my return, it will be into the centre of Bayeux again when I will enjoy a night out!

Posted by benjamin2981 08:25 Archived in France Tagged history cathedral old_town tapestry bayeux war_cemetery Comments (0)

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