mardi 17 juillet 2012

Christian and Islamic Cultures Come Together in Córdoba

Islamic influence in Córdoba 
Córdoba, in Andalusia, is reported to have the highest summer average in Europe. It certainly was hot when I visited with friends, Isa and Julio. Apart from the heat, I was struck me by the Islamic influence in the architecture and decoration. I was very much reminded of my stay at Riad Sekkat in Marrakech. Córdoba, historically was Spain's most significant Islamic city.

Part of the Great Mosque complex
Great Mosque gardens and courtyard
Some of the Islamic elements in the Great Mosque
The Great Mosque is considered to be the city's main tourist attraction and can be found in the heart of the old town. The old town is one of the largest in Europe and is probably best explored when the temperatures are not in the range of more than 40°C. The mosque is rather unusual in that since the 15th century it has been a Christian cathedral. 
Córdoba Cathedral's ornate altar within the Great Mosque 
Beautifully maintained buildings
Ceramics are well known in Andalousie and this café has their tapas menu on ceramic tiles  

For friendly service, cold beer and some great jamon and tapas (including my favourite croquettes which were so light and fluffy), I can highly recommend the Bodegas Campos Taverna.

If you are thinking of visiting Andalusie, then Córdoba should definitely be on your list of places to see.

Los Lineros, 32
14002 Cordoba Espana

vendredi 13 juillet 2012

Looking for Warmth in Andalucia, Spain

My trip to Spain got off to an exciting start with an aborted landing at Malaga airport. The animated Spaniards at the back of the plane, who had not stopped talking since leaving Paris, only momentarily draw breath as we sharply took off again due to a sudden wind change. In spite of the pleasant company of Tom, a lovely Canadian man who was making the trip that he and his recently deceased wife had planned, I was rather relieved to finally land. I was surprised by the large size of the airport as well as how modern it was. Isabel, a former student at the Alliance française de Rouen and now a very dear friend, was there to greet me. Isabel doesn’t speak much English so the plan was that we would  speak French given I have no Spanish.

The weather in France this spring and summer has been rather awful so it was quite a shock to step out into the 31°C heat. We took the coast road passing through Torre del Mar. This is a popular vacationing location and now in addition to the Spaniards, Germans and English there is a increasing French presence. The area is typified by the towns and villages hugging the coast, the dry rocky mountains that soar close by and are spotted with villages glowing in white. Mansions can be found spread-eagled on the mountain ridges making the most of the view to the ocean. Scattered between are the modest farmhouses, their orchards and the vineyards.
Approaching Isabel’s village, Torrox, about 60km from Malaga, one can’t fail to be impressed. It is nearing 10pm and starting to get dark. I am convinced that what I am seeing is not real. It has to be a movie set with the pristine white buildings, the palms and flowers. The tiled rooves and the drainpipes let you know you must be in the Mediterranean region. Some of the buildings have tiled frontages, the footpaths are spotless – literally gleaming in the central plaza. Public seating is bountiful, but demand is high from the Spanish grandmothers who are enjoying catching up with each other. To say that the atmosphere is laidback would be significantly understating thing the situation.

The smell of jasmine greets us we approach Isabel’s home. The sensuous perfume fills my bedroom. Isabel talks about her home and the connections she has with it. It is where she was born and was formerly her grandmother’s home. Beautifully decorated with mementos from her travels creatively grouped and displayed, it is spread over two floors with an additional large rooftop terrace.

Quickly dropping off my luggage, we take the 2 minute walk to her parents’ home. Here I am greeted not only by her parents but also by her brother, his wife and 3 children who are visiting. It is a family home filled with lots of warmth, love and laughter, not to mention great food! Isabel’s brother is cooking hamburguesa de pollo that are divine. I think I was asleep in under two seconds when I finally got to bed about 1.00am.
Breakfast on the terrace includes coffee and fresh bread spread with olive oil. What a great way to start the day. I wonder what the Australian Customs people would say if I tried to bring in 5 litres of the oil which has been pressed at the local cooperative from Isabel’s father’s olive trees.

I really hadn’t done any planning for this part of my holiday apart from the flights to and from Spain. Isabel has thankfully taken everything into hand and shows me a suggested outline for my 10 day visit. Would it do? I hug her – it is everything I could have wished for and more.

Nerja could be considered a touristic location – but it has great reason to be. There is some seriously spectacular scenery. The village sits high up on the cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean Sea with its beaches and rocky outcrops. Having tackled getting a sim card for my smartphone it is time to explore. We buy an icecream, listen to some flamenco music being played by some buskers and wander the pedestrianised town centre.

Isabel has not only planned out activities but also local dishes that I must try and where she recommends eating them. Wanting to be the perfect guest I am happy to comply. Lunch is at 2.30pm and is called patatas a lo pobre. It is a potato dish cooked the way that poor people would have prepared it. The potatoes, green capsicums, garlic and olive oil are cooked in a fry pan. A fried egg is served with the dish and is eaten with the accompanying bread. Delicious and hearty. I am fortunate to be able to attend my first Spanish birthday party. Paula has turned 9.

An elderly neighbour telephones and Isabel and I are charged with translating from Spanish a request to be sent to a French bank. It is this sense of family and community that has really impressed me in the very short term I have been here. In spite of not being able to speak Spanish and Isabel’s family speaking very little English we have managed to communicate with lots of hand gestures and miming. I have managed to learn a couple of Spanish words and this has everyone laughing. After lunch, Isabel and I, armed with our laptops, go to the local tapas bar, 20 m away, where we buy a couple of bottles of water and a couple coffees for the measly price of 4€ all up. We spread out our laptops, bags and I plug into their power. No-one minds.

Evening and we take the scenic route to Frigiliana. We stop so many times so that I can take photos as we climb to the summit (in the car – you know I wouldn’t be walking). Every bend in the road presents yet another stunning vista. Poor Isabel must be wondering if we shall ever get there. The village is perched on the hilltop looking down a valley towards the sea. Can it get any better than does. I know as soon as I arrive and see the fountain with the Star of David, the Christian Cross and the Islamic Crescent that this place is special. These people have worked hard to maintain their homes in the tradition style. The stones that form the serpentine streets form decorative patterns both in terms of colour and layout. In several hours of wandering the streets I don’t see any dog pooh and see one cigarette butt. There is NO other litter whatsoever.

I am privileged to taste a family speciality for dinner: cold garlic soup. We then have garlic chicken. Isabel’s sister-in-law confesses that she likes to have garlic at breakfast rubbed on to toast with the homegrown olive oil. Her husband jokes about not having any friends with all the garlic. Isabelle’s mother hugs me warmly as I leave and I know that this is one very special family.

mardi 10 juillet 2012

Liège-Guillemins - Europe's Most Impressive Railway Station

Gare de  Liège-Guillemins
In just over 2 hours after boarding the Thalys train at Gard de Nord in Paris, I arrived in Liège, Belgium at the spectacular Liège-Guillemins station. It has been described as one of the most impressive railway stations in Europe - and I would have to agree. Designed by the Spanish architect, Santiago Calatrava Valls, it was inaugurated in 2009. Nestled against a tree-covered hill, the station is described to be in the shape of a woman lying on her back. It is easy to see why with its steel, glass and white concrete, wavelike structure rises 32 metres and extends 160 metres. It may seem odd to devote a blog post to a railway station, but I really felt that it was something extra-special.

It took about 10 years to build at a cost of €312 million. As I stepped from the train on to the platform, next to the rocket from Hergé's Tintin, I had an uninterrupted view of the town of the Liège. The platforms are open having no walls, just the amazing roof structure. The shops and various services are underneath the platforms. Being in Europe, Béatrice and I did manage a to have a glass of excellent champagne at the railway station prior to my departure. I understand that the restaurant at the station is exceptionally good and has become a destination for locals when dining out. This breathtaking structure is a wonderful introduction for any visit to Belgium although I do wonder how travellers manage in the depths of winter. 

Just a brief mention regarding the service on the Thalys train. For an extra 5€, I opted to travel first class on the train from Paris to Liège. Normally I would not bother with travelling first class as I find trains in France to generally be excellent. I thought however it was worth trialling first class. The seating is a configuration of 2 + 1 so I was able to request a seat by itself giving me the advantages of both being next to the window as well as the aisle seat. Parfait! In addition I also was offered both at lunch and dinner times a three course meal including cheese as well as wine, tea and coffee. The meal was not exceptional - but it was certainly adequate for the brief journey. WiFi is available on the train and is free in first class.

I will certainly check out the inclusions and compare the prices for future trips. The staff were very friendly and swapped effortlessly between French, German and English. I wouldn't be surprised if they also spoke Flemish. They went out of their way to make the trip pleasant. We were also given the option of booking a taxi for our arrival. The pleasant service started at Gare de Nord when I first queried with one of the staff about composting my 'printout' and continued for both the forward and return journeys. Congratulations to the Thalys staff.
If you are interested in a 3D view of the Liège-Guillemins railway station check out:

lundi 9 juillet 2012

Visiting the Belgian Countryside: Spa and Lac de Warfaaz

Villa Marie-Henriette (houses local museums)
Béatrice, with whom I have been staying near Liège, suggested a visit to the pretty town of Spa.  Surrounded by hills and a dense forest, the Pearl of the Ardennes is not only known for its healing, iron containing water sources but also for its proximity to the Belgian Grand Prix and Les Francopholies de Spa. The francopholies is a music festival promoting francophone music. Unfortunately we were a week too early for this festival. Instead we were greeted by the thump, thump of a techno music festival. Not exactly the quiet atmosphere we were expecting. 

Asbestos covering side of buildings
Many of the homes in and around Belgium have the distinctive diamond shaped covering on the external walls. I am informed that they are made from asbestos and are designed to prevent moisture entering the house.

Staircase next to the casino (oldest casino in the world)
Pouhon Pierre-le-Grand
This building houses one of the water-sources. Unfortunately it was closed due to the music festival so we were unable to fully visit it. 

Former Tourism Office in Spa
Deciding to leave the thump, thump behind in Spa we headed for Lac de Warfaaz. The lake is the result of a barrage built in 1892. Historically bourgeois families would travel from Spa in their horse-drawn carriages and then do a tour around the lake. It is now a destination for fishermen looking for trout and salmon as well as people wanting to enjoy the beautiful setting. The lake is surrounded on one side by a steep forested hill with the occasional chateau visible. Again we did not get to enjoy the promised tranquility of such an idyllic spot. Instead we were greeted by children on a holiday camp who were enjoying water activities along with the usual associated skylarking. We managed to console ourselves with a glass of champagne by the edge of the lake before heading back to Liège with the car rooftop down enjoying the sunshine. 
Beautiful old glass-house near to Lac de Warfaaz.
Lac de Warfaaz

samedi 7 juillet 2012

Crossing the border to visit Maastricht (Netherlands)


Coming from Australia I am constantly amazed at how easy it is to go from one country to another. We drove the short distance from Rotheux, near Liège in Belgium, to Maastricht on the banks of the Meuse River. 

Of course Maastricht is well known for its relationship with the European Union Treaty. Undeterred by this important role, my focus this time was on shopping and cafés. The sales are not only on in France but were certainly evident in Maastricht. 

First stop was lunch at charming café, Café d'Artagnan, where I thoroughly enjoyed my prawn croquettes served with salad and probably the best chips I have ever eaten. I don't often eat chips but these were excellent - crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside (served of course with mayonnaise).  The prices for food and drinks were quite reasonable and a relief after Paris prices.

It was time then to do some window-shopping. There were lots of high end fashion shops, beautiful jewellery and homeware shops. Unfortunately our time was quite limited so I can't recommend particular stores. Regrettably I came away empty-handed.

Overall I was most impressed by the architecture, cobble-stoned streets, cafés and the stores in Maastricht. It had a laid-back relaxing feel about it and was very clean and well maintained. I definitely would like to go back to explore it in greater detail perhaps spending a couple of nights as well.

Grand café d'Artagnan
Graanmarkt 3 6211 HG Maastricht, Netherlands

mercredi 4 juillet 2012

Tilff (Belgium)

Tilff is a pictoresque village not far from Liège in the French-speaking part of Belgium. It is located on the banks of the Ourthe River. We dined at Le Canotier - a popular restaurant amongst locals and visitors and visitors alike. I chose the boulets à la liegoise (pork and beef meatballs with sirop à Liège and raisins) followed by café liégois. The boulets, sauce and accompanying salade and chips (it is Belgium) were all excellent. Tasty and not too heavy or fatty. I expected the café liégois to be coffee flavoured ice-cream with cream but instead it was thick icy cold drink that I think included coffee, ice-cream and cream. Definitely not low-fat.

Ourthe River, Tilff

Le Canotier Tilff
4, place du Roi Albert
4130 Tilff Belgium
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