Off to the East Coast

Christchurch is our next destination so it is across to the east coast we go, climbing into the mountains before descending to the Canterbury Plains. There are small patches of snow on the mountain summits, but I struggle to imagine how it would look covered in white.

The changes in the terrain as we head up, up, up, then slowly down, down, down is fascinating. Even the flowers have changed, with wild foxgloves giving way to beautiful wild lupins, and then patches of yellow gorse.

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The thought that men carved through these mountains by sheer physical labour boggles the mind; and vestiges of the old Cart track can be glimpsed.

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Lord of the Rings has been a bonanza for tourism operators throughout this land, with every opportunity to exploit the link grabbed with gusto, as we discover as we arrive at Otira.

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Descending from Arthur’s Pass the hills change character again, becoming an interesting montage of dirt, gravel and hardy grasses and the occasional rocky outcrop.

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As we approach Christchurch the land is completely flat, our hill climb but a memory. But not for long, as we are actually staying in Governors Bay, so must climb the rim of the crater that surrounds the bay. The whole area is in fact a series of (hopefully) extinct volcanoes, with the various craters merging together like honeycomb. It is a crazy cyclist’s dream as there are an endless number of steep hills to climb, with gradients that would break many a heart. The local car hoons and motorbike riders are also in their element as they attack the curves and steep ascents and descents with gusto, and noise.

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Before Governors Bay we stop off in Lyttelton, a township that suffered badly in the 2011 earthquake, which was centred just outside the township. The port seems to be back in full swing, as containers line the wharf and trucks beetle back and forth, and London Street is definitely open for business, with new funky cafes and shops, but it has been a hard struggle back, and many properties are still waiting to be repaired.

The road from Lyttleton snakes around the bayline to Governors Bay. Sitting pride of place is the Governors Bay Hotel (  http://www.governorsbayhotel.co.nz/)  owned by friends of ours from Elwood Primary days, Jeremy & Clare. They have turned what was once a down at heel hotel into a thriving gastro pub, catering to very happy locals and tourists alike. As we arrive on a hot Friday afternoon, the locals are gathering, eager to end their week on the lawns, enjoying the Bay breeze and the bay views. Clare and Jeremy dispense drinks and food with a welcoming smile for all; making all the hard work look effortless.

The hotel has 7 rooms upstairs, 4 of which open out, through French doors, onto the upstairs verandah and the views across the bay to Quail Island. The pub does a pretty good accommodation trade, and the verandah can often resemble the United Nations, with a variety of accents holding forth.

We join the crowd on the deck, and soak up the warmth, the views, the wine and the excellent food. Joined eventually by the exhausted mine hosts, ready to share a cleansing glass or two.

Next day is devoted to exploring Christchurch, which is still a building site. But slowly, a new city is emerging from the horror of the 2010/2011 earthquakes. And one day it will be lovely again as they seem to have planned in a lot of open space, and inner city living.

As always my eye is taken by the street art; many walls have been given over to large street murals.

We visit the temporary cathedral, and the White Chair memorial to those who lost their lives. And, the remains of the old Cathedral, where a lively Korean Festival is taking place.

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Lunch is at Madame Woo, providing some much needed Asian food for Himself.

Then a visit to The Tannery complex and a mooch around the shops before heading back to the Governor for drinks, and dinner, on the deck.

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Sunday we devote ourselves to exploring the Banks Peninsula, setting out to circumnavigate it in a clockwise direction. As you travel around the coastline you get wonderful views of the crater walls, and the various bays that cluster around the coast.

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Our first stop is Diamond Head, where we discover, to our joy not one but two coffee places to choose from. We choose the one on the left, that may or may not be called Preserved , a Café come home brewery come Cooking school. It has a deck and seats out the back that provide grand stand viewing over the sports oval behind it.  Clare tells us later that she used to watch her sons play sport from the comfort of the cafe. The coffee is made by a biker looking guy who tears himself away from his home brew making, and would you believe it turns out to be the best coffee I’ve had in NZ thus far. He is thrilled when I tell him so.

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We carry on, sticking to the coast road, which turns out to be a winding one lane dirt road until we get to Pigeon Bay. Luckily we only came across one other car, and it was in a spot that he was able to edge across, allowing us to squeeze past ( do hope the rental agreement didn’t mention staying on bitumen only – there’s been a lot of dirt roads on this trip!).

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Pigeon Bay is quite the hive of activity – turns out there is a bitumen road into it from the other side of the peninsula. There is a junior boat race in full swing, and we spy a sign advertising high teas outside the village hall. How can one pass that up? So, we slam on the brakes and hop out. Have we made a booking we are asked. Well, no – who would have thought that one needed to, but it turns out that Deb puts on a highly sought after high tea in the hall on the first Sunday of the month. But, our lack of booking doesn’t prove to be an obstacle as Deb rustles up a table for us, although apologises for the lack of flowers on it.

We get talking to some of the fellow guests. One couple are local farmers, bemoaning the lack of rain. He agrees to stop wishing for rain until the 13th December, which is the day we leave! The other pair work at the nearby luxury accommodation, and since Googling it, do I mean LUXURY (check out Annandale Luxury Villas), and one of them is from Melbourne and used to work at Zartowa, Elwood’s very first café. How’s that for coincidence!

The high tea is a delight, and Himself is in heaven with the clotted cream.

Happily full, and with just a little bit of a sugar rush, we head off for Akaroa, a small French settlement, and major tourist attraction, on the peninsula. The cruise ships that used to dock at Lyttleton pre earthquake have defected to Akaroa, so at times it can be absolutely heaving with tourists.

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We wander up the street as far as the lighthouse, before heading back to the car and the return journey.

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That evening we dine, with Jeremy & Clare, at their son’s bar, Civil & Naval, in Lyttelton. Louis has been one of the pioneers of the revitalised Lyttelton, and the bar is abuzz with customers. The staff are all young and groovy; the vibe is laid back. There are almost more dogs than people, as all the locals seem to bring their dog with them, and one of the staff also has a dog. Add into the mix a resident cat and things can get quite rowdy!

The menu is small and designed around sharing, and everything we try is delicious. An excellent way to end our Christchurch sojourn, even if it does make me feel ancient to think that I last saw Louis as a small boy and here he is running a very successful establishment.

 

West Coast, NZ

As we leave Nelson the grey clouds are gathering – we are moving further south just at the right time. For the first hour the scenery is pretty ordinary as we travel through large swathes of pine forests, and pass trucks hauling the timber away. Things change when we get to Big Bush Pass and finally enter areas of native forest.

Apparently both the Maori and the Europeans had a field day felling the native forests, until finally even the Government became alarmed. After 15 months of negotiation, the Tasman Accord was signed in 1989, whereby the forestry companies agreed to no more logging of native timber on Crown land and the preservation of some 30,000 hectares of native forest. Thank heavens, as the native forests are a delight with their wide variety of trees, hence colours and textures. Now the drive gets more interesting.

Not native but lovely nonetheless are the wild foxgloves that can be seen everywhere, mainly purple, occasionally white. Must be a very strong plant as it is literally everywhere, probably technically a weed, but a very decorative one.

We arrive in Murchison, hanging out for a coffee. At first glance it appears a township we could easily dismiss but there is a quirky humour on display, starting with the pie van and its sign (mind you, the owner and baker is a Yorkshireman). We can’t resist the sign, so settle on the picnic table with a bacon & egg pie.

Then the sign in the award winning butcher shop takes my fancy. Convenient, and timely given the new law just passed in Victoria!

Then there is the plaque commemorating the irate farmer who blew himself up:

And, the ladies loo sign:

We will be back in Murchison on our return to Picton so shall check out more of the town’s delights then but now it is on towards the coast. Just out of Murchison we come to the Buller Gorge Suspension Bridge – apparently the longest swing bridge in New Zealand – so in we go. Lord knows why, as I’m terrified of heights, even more so when the surface is moving back and forth. But, I bravely go forth. I do decline however the invitation to return by zip line!

After this excitement we travel towards the coast, turning south just before Westport, however the No Fuel for 90kms sign has us turning back to Westport to stock up, given we only had enough fuel in the tank for 90kms.

Our next stop is Punakaiki to see the famous ‘pancake rocks’ – rock formations that resemble layer upon layer of crepes. Geologists are unsure how the formations were made, but they certainly draw the crowds, and we must admit they are pretty impressive. As is the subtropical forest lining the coast.

The day is marching on so we scamper past the outskirts of Greymouth, heading for our home for the next two nights, Hokitika. Not a lot is happening in Hokitika when we arrive around 6pm. It’s like any quiet country town – wide, empty streets, with nondescript houses neatly lined up on either side of the road.

Our Airbnb cottage, Fantail Cottage – full of fantail bird decorations, but no sign of the actual bird – is cosy albeit a bit twee, sitting on the outskirts of town but still an easy 3 blocks from the centre.

We dump our gear and walk into town in search of food. After a quick look at the beach we order a pizza at Fat Pipi Pizza, which we take to the West Coast Wine Bar which allows, in fact encourages, BYO food. We are the only customers, apart from one other couple who leave before we do.

We get off to a slow start next morning. A late breakfast in the cottage then into town for a coffee and a wander around. Both Lonely Planet and our landlady recommend Ramble & Ritual for our coffee so it’s where we head. And wouldn’t you know it but our coffee is made by an English lass. I swear there are no Kiwis actually in NZ! The coffee is okay but I think their beans are not really to our taste, quite unusual flavour but a charming little spot.

Hokitaki is a fascinating town, dotted by grand buildings that hint of a very different past. Turns out that it was the epicentre of the gold rush, and became a major, but very dangerous, port, welcoming prospectors from all around the world. In turn, business followed. Apparently in its heyday 80 hotels lined Revell St alone.

Time for sightseeing further afield so we hop in the car and head out of town to visit Hokitika Gorge. In the distance we can see the snow capped mountains.

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On the way we pass the memorial erected to commemorate the site of New Zealand’s first mass murder committed by yet another psycho farmer. The memorial is dedicated to the police, both official and voluntary, who died. The gun barrel in the middle is aimed at the farmhouse site where the massacre occurred. I did however love the mention of Graham suffering an irrational conniption.

The glorious turquoise water of Hokitika Gorge is certainly worth the drive out. Really takes you by surprise as you come out of the tropical forest that surrounds the Gorge. Something to do with limestone I gather. And, another swing bridge – yeah!

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Leaving the Gorge is slightly delayed by the young tourist who managed to get his van stuck down a culvert and needed towing out by a local farmer. An entertaining diversion for us but not for the very embarrassed young man.

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We returned back to Hokitaki via Lake Kaniere and a quick visit to Dorothy Falls, displaying a completely different colour of lovely, pristine water.

A late but yummy lunch back at Ramble & Ritual before a final walk along the old quay and beachfront, learning more about the town from the information boards dotted along the river’s edge. We bump into various locals along the way, all of whom love a bit of a chat. Hokitika is, all in all, quite charming.

We end our night in Hokitika with a walk to the glow worm dell just outside of town. It is like a magical cave, but you will have to take my word for it as the glow is not strong enough to be captured by the IPhone camera.

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Windy Wellington

Flying into Wellington, the capital of New Zealand, can be a pretty hair raising affair as the plane skims across the often white capped water, squeezing between the hills surrounding the airstrip suspended in the strait. The slight anxiety was not helped by Pete’s dentist telling him the day before our flight that Wellington is one of the more dangerous airfields for landings due to the vagaries of the crosswinds. But, all’s well. Our only issue now is to front up to Customs with our hiking boots and poles, as all hiking/camping equipment needs to be inspected. My shoes are whisked off to be washed, and we are then cleared to go.

I am always charmed by this city, with its eclectic mix of architecture, and the homes strung around the coastline, all jostling for a Bay view. The lovely gothic wooden homes remind me of San Francisco, but many of the modern buildings are not to my taste. Currently several of the newer CBD buildings are covered in scaffolding, or in some cases, abandoned, thanks to last year’s earthquake, which definitely rattled the rafters.

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We are staying with friends in the Aro Valley, an easy 20 minute walk to the quay area, and just around the corner from buzzing Cuba Street. We celebrate our arrival with a couple of glasses of local wines before heading up the street to Rita , a new eatery in Aro Street that is already packing in the punters.

  • This is the place for the decision challenged as there is almost no choice. You are told what you will be eating, but you can add an extra starter and/or a pasta between entree and main and/or extra vegetables. The basic 3 course meal is $65, then you add the rest. Tonight we have kahawai (which is a New Zealand fish) with the freshest peas I have ever tasted, followed by lamb (and we added in a cos lettuce side) and finished with rum baba for dessert.

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The food is simple, with super fresh produce and beautifully cooked. The only downside is the noise, which is close to deafening. A small space, wooden floors, packed with happy customers. Bursting out into the street brings blessed relief to the ears, but we were certainly well fed.

Fall into bed, it’s been a long day.

We ease into Saturday; venturing forth after a leisurely breakfast. Cuba Street is our first destination, with its vintage shops and cafes. Thought this suit at Hunters and Collectors would be perfect for Pete.

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Time for coffee, so we head into Memphis Belle, where the young man persuades me to try their soy milk with the promise that if I didn’t like it I wouldn’t pay. And he’s right – the first soy outside of Bonsoy that doesn’t overpower the coffee. But, it is all the way from Denmark, or was it Norway – hardly good food miles. We rock along to Bye Bye Miss American pie whilst we sip away.

Wandering the laneways, full of street art, is reminiscent of Melbourne. As are all the cafés- Wellingtonians like their food, and coffee, as much as we do.

We spy an artisan chocolate factory and detour for a quick taste, and of course some buying – purely for emergency hiking supplies of course.

Then its down to the quay for a wander before hopping into the car for an explore of some of the Wellington coastline.

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Shelly Bay, with its views back to the city, and its array of old warehouses, is currently in hot dispute as to its future. Needless to say the developers have their beady eyes on it, but currently artists are happy to call the old sheds home. There is also a bustling seafood cafe, Chocolate Fish, famous for its fish sandwiches. After a poke around a couple of galleries and a chat to one of the charming resident artists, we find a table out of the wind to sample the fare. And, the grilled fish sandwiched between fresh white bread is surprisingly good, but perhaps my hunger helped.

Back into the car for more sightseeing, ending up on top of Mt Victoria for a quick overview of the city. The brisk wind makes this a short visit, but it’s time now to buy dinner supplies. We head into Moore Wilson’s and my heart skips a beat – what a fabulous food store, bursting with an amazing array of goodies. I could stay in there forever. Instead, we load the basket with wines, cheese, salmon and asparagus and head home for a feast.

Sunday has been earmarked for a visit to Te Papa but first we stop for a coffee, this time at Midnight Expresso, and a mosey through the Cuba Street shops.

Te Papa has a very moving exhibition about Gallipoli; the highlight being giant sized but incredibly realistic models of various soldiers, and one nurse, together with their stories. The conditions these men fought in, and the human carnage, is difficult to comprehend, no matter how many times you hear the story. Such a terrible waste of, usually young, lives. How terrified they must have been. Heartbreaking.

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Time for lunch. On a recommendation we seek out Charley Noble, only to find it closed tight. Not open for lunch on Saturday and Sunday. Go figure. But, rescue is at hand with, also recommended (thank you Clare), Shed 5. We make ourselves comfortable and watch the constant parade of passing people, whilst we enjoy the wine and food.

A quick pop into the Wellington Museum to check out their artisan’s market – nothing here to make us linger – then on to see the remains of  Plimmer’s Ark, a 150 year old wooden sailing ship that was discovered during the renovations of the Old Bank Arcade.

Followed by a meander through a few more shops as we wend our way back to Aro Street, where we have a cleansing ale at the local brew house, Garage Project. Wellington is awash with coffee shops and craft breweries; both very popular pursuits with locals and tourists alike. The small Garage Project Bar is pumping. We squeeze in and make our choice from the array of beers on offer – White Mischief for him, Petit Mort for me.

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Refreshed, it is a short walk back to ‘home’, and we end our stay with yet another beautiful meal cooked by Rochelle and Dean, washed down with more lovely NZ wines.

The night ends with a very Wellington experience – a 4.5 earthquake rattle, which wakes us with a start in the small hours of the morning. It is the loud noise that startles us more than the movement. Luckily Rochelle had warned us, so we knew what it was. Didn’t last longer than a minute, with some small shudders to follow. Talk about finishing our visit with a bang, but no damage done.

Thankyou Wellington, it’s been grand.

 

 

The Last Hurrah of the Ski Season

You have been able to tell the skiers amongst us by the smiles on the faces and the funny face tans. This has been a bumper snow season, something that has made many hearts beat faster for several months now. Mine is not amongst them, and I was frankly shocked to hear myself suggest to Himself that we return to the mountains for a last hurrah of skiing. He needed no further persuading, always eager to get out there in the fields of white.

My motivation, apart from my love of all things surrounding and apart from the actual act of skiing – the drive up through the beautiful King Valley; the lovely AAC Dinner Plain Lodge; the food & wine consumed; the beauty of the snow covered landscape – was to see if I could conquer the act of stopping. A crucial skill, and one I had yet to master. My strategy of hurling myself backwards onto my arse is not sustainable, particularly at my age. So if I am to continue joining them on the cross country slopes it is a skill I need to acquire.

The drive up was its usual delight, starting with a coffee and wine purchasing at Fowles Winery.  The King Valley was looking more beautiful than usual thanks to the budding of the multitude of blossom trees, the magnificent magnolias and the camellias and rhododendrons. Don’t just think of Bright for the autumn colour – it also revels in Spring glory.

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Bright was our lunch destination this time around, to try out a relative newcomer to the eating scene – Tomahawks  a small shed of a place in Camp Street (just up from the Chinese restaurant on the corner). A funky spot with a small but delectable menu, and staffed with charming young things. We enjoyed our lunch, but should not have indulged in the donut ice cream sandwich with caramel sauce. My guilt stayed with me until the next day, even though I only ate half of this piece of decadence.

There was still snow as far as the eye could see, from Mt Hotham to Dinner Plain. And, as promised by Himself, the snow on the cross country trails was soft and forgiving, so I buckled up for two days of slogging it up and down the trail to Wire Plain. And whilst some small improvements may have been gained, I still found myself backside down in the snow more times than I wanted. It would seem that as soon as any downward momentum is picked up, all rational thought seems to leave my head and panic sets in, making me incapable of sorting out my left from my right  and of achieving any effective inward rolling of the ankle in order to achieve the desired cessation of forward movement. I am left slightly bewildered by the person who ever thought of strapping planks of slippery wood to ones feet and walking up and down hills on them. What was he thinking (as I’m sure it had to be a He).

Thankfully  for my bones and feet (which did not take kindly to the cross country ski boots) our third day dawned wet and windy, and I was allowed a leave pass.  Instead, we climbed into the car and escaped the sleety hail/snow (called sago by those in the know) and travelled down to Omeo and up the Omeo Highway to Anglers Rest and towards Mt Wills. Another lovely, but winding (take note if you are prone to car sickness) valley, following a very full and fast moving river. The wattles were coming into bloom, in all their different hues of yellow.

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The valley was once dotted with gold mines and their accompanying townships, most of them well gone by now, although their names remain on the map. Between Glen Valley and Glen Wills we came across the Glen Wills cemetery, the burial spot for some 97 locals between the years 1894 and 1920. 40 of the 97 were infants. A sobering reminder of the hardships of the pioneering life.

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After a brief look into the famous Blue Duck Inn at Anglers Rest we returned to Omeo, and enjoyed a tasty home cooked lunch at the Homestead House Cafe, opposite the Golden Age Hotel.

Our entertainment was provided by eavesdropping into the Ladies Golf Club Committee meeting, all 3 of them, as they debated the catering for an upcoming event. One of the three was keen to offer the slices and cakes free of charge. Another took quite some persuading, but grudgingly agreed to give it a try. We also know that sausage rolls, meat pies and dim sims will be available for sale. We were tempted to ask when the event was being held as the post game tucker was sounding quite enticing!

We took a brief detour outside of Omeo, lured by the Winery 16kms sign. It sure didn’t look like grape growing country, so we were intrigued.  Turns out there is a very small acreage at Cassillis, but the wine makers are now semi retired. Their tasting shed is closed and they only sell at local markets. However, the chap who has recently bought the grape vines plans to keep growing the grapes for them, and will have the wine available for tasting and sale on Public Holidays and maybe the occasional weekend. He’ll put out a sandwich board on the Great Alpine Road when he is open for business, so unless there is a board don’t take the turn off the road if wine is what you seek.

Next morning the promised snow showers were a fairly wet affair, but our time had come to leave the mountain. Our drive down to Harrietville was a slow one, thanks to the cloud and wet snow fall –  not much to be seen out of the windscreen.

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We rewarded ourselves with a coffee at Sixpence Coffee, a small coffee roasters, cafe and bakery in the backstreets of Bright. Despite the wet and cold day, the little space was packed with people enjoying their lattes and a freshly baked cake or pie.

Then it was onwards to Melbourne. Already my vow to abandon any further attempts at cross country skiing was starting to fade. Like childbirth, you forget the agony and sink into the après ski glow. But hang on, I stopped at one child, so perhaps not the best analogy for me! Will I keep trying to conquer this exasperating sport so I can enjoy all the trappings that go with it? I’ll see how I feel come August next year, and how much of the agony I remember.

 

 

Road Trip to Aussies – Orange to Bellingen

We keep to the back roads on our way further north, with the next leg in our road trip being Orange to dang, dang, dang Tamworth – home of country music. Watching the changes in the landscape keeps us fascinated.

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Just before Tamworth we are intrigued by the white fluff along the roadside. Wool that has been desiccated by the mower? We stop and have a feel and are still unsure. Pete hazards a guess at cotton but we look around at the dry paddocks either side and think, surely not. But, Lo & behold shortly after we pass fields of harvested cotton and HUGE bales of cotton wrapped up in yellow plastic. It would seem that the bales moult as they are transported, leaving a white fluffy carpet beside the road. A mystery solved.

In Tamworth we stay at the rather bizarre Retreat@Froogmoore Park – I couldn’t resist a place that had a Dungeon Room, replete with a whip. Although much to Pete’s disappointment we are in the Madea (Japanese) Room. The interior decoration in this place is interesting to say the least. But, the gardens are beautiful.

My main impressions of Tamworth are a wide, palm lined main street; statues of Australian country singers; a stunning Deco pub; and a very loud and crowded bat colony along the river.

We have a lot to do the next day, so decide to skip breakfast at Froogmoore (never did work out why the odd name) at $25 a head and head to Armidale instead. But, we ended up stopping in the lovely village of Uralla, just before Armidale, and chanced upon the terrific The Alternate Root Café, housed in a beautiful 1908 shopfront with a magnificent old tin roof. Excellent coffee and a very tasty breakfast left us very happy road trippers.

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We merely passed through the outskirts of Armidale, intent as we were on travelling along the poetic sounding Waterfall Way. The name conjured up visions of a lush green landscape, but we were still moving through grazing pasture land. Where were these waterfalls then? 40 kms later we veer slightly off the highway and into the parking area for the Woollombi Gorge. A short walk later we see in front of us a magnificent Gorge and a series of beautiful waterfalls tumbling down the rockface.

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We travel a bit further along Waterfall Way to the minuscule hamlet of Ebor where we discover the beautiful Ebor Falls, Upper and Lower.

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As well as the waterfalls there are panoramic views across the valley. Who would have thought that all this beauty lay just beyond the boundaries of a not very interesting road.

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From here it is on to Dorrigo and its UNESCO World Heritage listed rainforest – a micro climate again tucked just off the Waterfall Way. Unfortunately , we arrive too late to take advantage of the walks on offer, but we do get a feel for this unique environment.

It starts to drizzle as we hop into the car, and so we follow the rainbow into Bellingen, a delightful village nestled into this beautiful valley. Day disappears with a glorious sunset, a fitting end to a day of natural wonders.

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We are staying at the Bellingen Valley Lodge, a motel stuck in the time warp of the 1970s. Good bones but needs some love and care. But, we did have that glorious view of sunset, and the bed is comfortable.

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Dinner is at the newly opened Popla and it is fabulous, one of the most enjoyable meals we have had in a while – great food and charming staff. Worth a trip to Bellingen just to eat there.

Next morning we explore the hippy haven of Bellingen, starting with an excellent coffee at Amelia Franklin – they roast their own beans, and run barista courses, all out of an ex servo in the Main Street. Coffee is followed by breakfast at Black Bear, a cafe recommended by the lass at Popla last night, whom we bump into both at Amelia Franklin and at Black Bear. It is a small place! Breakfast is followed by a quick peruse of the shops before heading to the Pacific Highway and the last push to Kingscliff.

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We stop into Ballina for lunch at the cafe at the Surf Life Saving Club, overlooking the glorious beach. Leaving town, we stock up on local oysters and prawns for our evening feast at our Kingscliff Airbnb. To be washed down with one of our bottles of Orange wine. Sorted. It has been a highly enjoyable road trip. Now on to the next chapter.

A Day in Orange, NSW

We are staying 2 nights in Orange, in the very lovely Blue Room at deRussie Boutique Hotel . When I tried to book this was the only room available and the Manager offered it to me for $100 per night less, so what’s a girl to do. I do love a bargain. And, we felt very special in this lovely suite.

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I had heard that Orange had become a booming food and wine centre, hence our decision to stay an extra day to explore some of the wineries in the area. But, a word of advice – don’t visit Orange on Sunday and Monday, as it turns out most of the restaurants are closed. Sad Debra face when she discovers this.

But, all is not lost and dinner on Sunday night is at Union Bank, where we have a very pleasant evening. And better yet, it is just around the corner from our hotel, so a brisk walk in the cold cold night gets us there in no time.

We have a slow start the next day, enjoying our complimentary continental breakfast in our suite, before walking round the other corner to the Byng Street Cafe for our coffee hit (and a drooling over the food on offer). This café would not be out of place on any Melbourne street.

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It’s time now for wine tasting, so off we head to De Salis Winery, perched beside Mt Canobolas, at around 1050 metres. They talk about Orange being a cool climate wine region. I would suggest it’s a COLD climate wine region, especially at this altitude! We are greeted at the winery by the two friendly winery dogs, and Mitch Svenson, assistant, and very enthusiastic, wine maker to his Dad, Charlie. Mitch is the reason we are now proud De Salis wine club members, and walk away with numerous bottles under our arm. He sure can talk!

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We wave goodbye to Mitch, and the dogs, and head to Ross Hill Winery  , but first we leg it up to a lookout to get views over the Orange landscape.

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We are the only visitors at the winery, but are greeted warmly by one of the sons – wine making in Orange is very much a labour of family love. Tasting leads to buying, of course. As we are settling up I spy a sample bottle of Pistol Packing Momma from Liberator Wines. My interest is immediately engaged as my Dad was a Liberator bomber (although I may of course have got my bomber planes mixed up – I’m sure Dad will correct me when he reads this!). Turns out this is a special range they produce in honour of GrandPa Ross, who flew a Liberator called Pistol Packing Momma. We are presented with a complimentary bottle of the wine to give to Dad, with their regards. How nice is that.

Our final wine stop is Philip Shaw Winery, where we settle in front of the wood fire for a cheese platter and wine tasting, delivered by a very charming young lady who runs the room single handed, never missing a beat despite the fact that she has numerous tables, plus wine tastings and sales to deal with. Again we leave with a box of wine. We are certainly not going to be thirsty on this trip! We have been very impressed with the wines we have tried, and are delighted to add a new (to us) wine region to our repertoire.

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Enough wine has been drunk, so we drive to historic Millthorpe for coffee and cake at the Old Sugar Mill. Being a Monday nothing is happening in Millthorpe, but I gather it is heaving on weekends.

We’ve had a lovely day ambling around the area. Certainly the wines are terrific, and the people we encounter are passionate about their craft. Dinner that night is booked at Percy’s Kitchen. We arrive at the allotted time, and are greeted and shown to our table. Would we like something to drink? Let me have a look at the wine list I say. Off he goes, never to be seen again. 30 minutes later we still have not been able to give an order for either food or wine, in a half empty restaurant. The menu doesn’t actually excite us, so we rug up and beat a hasty retreat up several blocks to a bustling Chinese Korean restaurant called Mr Lim – recommended by the man from Ross Hill winery. And are we glad we did – we had a terrific meal, and a great end to a fabulous day exploring a little of what Orange has to offer.

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Dark Mofo 2017

We all know about The Guggenheim Effect, and how an outstanding piece of architecture, housing an amazing array of art, managed to transform a once struggling industrial town in the Basque Country into an international tourist destination. Here in Australia we have the MONA Effect. The vision of David Walsh and his team of curators has managed to put Hobart front and centre on the cultural tourist map of every Mainlander. 

To spread the joy across the Year, we also have MONA FOMA (Museum of Old and New Art:Festival of Music and Art), held in summer – which has become more fondly known as MOFO – and Dark Mofo, which is the reason I find myself in Hobart this June.

Dark Mofo is Hobart and MONA’s celebration of the winter solstice and all things dark, and light. This is its fifth year, and its growing popularity is evident in the packed flight heading out of Melbourne, as why else would you be going to chilly Hobart in the middle of Winter?!

We are eight, eager to experience as much as we can over our 3 days. Our Airbnb house is perfectly located within easy walking distance to all the action. The only drawback being the fact that it sits right on Davey Street, the main drag in town – and even though this is a small city it would seem that the total population of Hobart likes to spend their time driving up Davey Street. The constant sound of traffic roaring past is not exactly conducive to a good night’s sleep.  But, this is only a small dampener on our enjoyment of the festivities.


We ease into our stay with a delicious dinner at Peacock & Jones, admiring the Dark Mofo red light theme as we walk along the harbourside.


Friday morning we wander down to Salamanca Place in search of breakfast, and settle on Tricycle Cafe in the Salamanca Arts Centre, blending in with the locals who favour this quaint little spot. Browsing in the shops and galleries that line the precinct finishes off the morning.

Come afternoon we toy with the idea of walking up Mt Wellington, but quickly banish the thought when we actually look at the mountain, and hop into the car instead. And wouldn’t you know it, the cloud descends just as we reach the top. We linger in the chill long enough for a brief parting, enough to get an idea of how magnificent the view could be.


We have a date that night with Paul Kelly and the very sexy Camille O’Sullivan in their show Ancient Rain, but first we must eat, so walk down to Princes Wharf, which has been transformed into the Winter Feast site. Shooting flames and a light forest beckon you into a wharf shed packed with food and drink stalls, and lots of very jolly people enjoying a veritable cornucopia of choice.



In fact, the people you encounter are one of the joys of Dark Mofo. Tasmanians are an extremely friendly bunch anyway.  Add into the mix visitors all there for the same reason, determined to enjoy themselves, and you have the right ingredients for goodwill to all. Strangers happily sit cheek by jowl, striking up conversations about all manner of things (next day we meet one young Sydneysider who had us in hysterics with her dating stories). It is at the Winter Feast that we meet a couple (who we find out met 7 years ago at the Melbourne Cup) who tell us about a fab little cafe, Small Fry,  that we visit later in our stay. The mood at Winter Feast is upbeat despite, and perhaps because of, the crowds. And the food on offer is terrific. 

The Federation Concert Hall is heaving with people. Ancient Rain does not appeal to all. Given it is based on Irish poems and letters, it is hardly surprising that the overall mood is fairly dour (let’s face it, they are not the cheeriest bunch), but Camille O’Sullivan sings like an angel and she draws me into her world – I emerge blinking in the light, slightly in love.

We devote Saturday to MONA, and the opening of its latest exhibition by the Museum of Everything but first a visit to the Salamanca Market, held every Saturday morning. We have great fun browsing the stalls, chatting to stall holders and shoppers alike. 


Catching the ferry to MONA is a great way to start an amazing visit – excitement and anticipation builds as you travel up the beautiful Derwent River.


To quote the MONA brochure: From June 2017, MONA will be crammed to the hilt with an astonishing assortment of artworks from The Museum of Everything: the world’s first and only wandering institution for the untrained, unintentional, undiscovered and unclassifiable artists of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. It certainly was crammed – we spent about 2 hours just in the Museum of Everything, some of it wonderful, some of it not. But, it was fascinating, and I am intrigued as to how and where they discovered this stuff.



We were on the 11am ferry there and the 5pm ferry back – it is so easy to spend a whole day at MONA, particularly on opening day when there is a passing parade of entertainment thrown into the mix. We need a hot whisky punch to revive us before climbing aboard the Mona Roamer ferry back to Constitution Dock.



Straight off the ferry and into the Winter Feast shed, along with everyone else. Food, drink and a singalong round the fire. 


We could have lingered longer, but Dark Park beckons, so off we trot to admire the laser light show, and enjoy a whisky tasting in the shed.


Sunday morning we head off to the Farm Gate Market in Bathurst Street, via an excellent take away coffee at Small Fry – where we drooled over the menu, and admired the focus and care of the chef in the tiny kitchen.

The market was full of very yummy things – so, we bought most of our evening meal requirements: veggies, fruit pies, cheeses, cream.


Then, down to Consitution Dock to buy the fish:


And, a quick admire of the sculptures at the Dock:


before dumping our bounty to undertake a brisk walk, under grey skies, through Battery Point to the Wrest Point Casino and back. At the Casino we are delighted to see a seal doing a solo swim, just for us.


A quick change and off to the Theatre Royal to see Sleeping Beauty, a collaboration between Victoria Opera and the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra. I am definitely not an opera fan, but this production is lots of fun – telling the story of Sleeping Beauty via puppets, and singing of course. 


Home then, red wine and our wonderful home cooked meal of local Tassie produce. A very fitting way to end our Dark Mofo experience, as we fly home tomorrow (an experience marred by the Jetstar flight being delayed by 2 hours).

Thank you Hobart, Dark Mofo and MONA for a terrific long weekend. A bientôt.

Beautiful San Sebastián 

What a beautiful town this is. The curves of its bays. The laid back atmosphere. The beaches. The food, oh the food. This is my kinda place. It’s great to be back here, and even better that we are staying with friends who have decided to decamp here for a good chunk of this year. Their apartment is in the Gros district – a block from the beach (in fact you can see the water from their apartment) and easy walking distance to the Old Town and the train station, but removed enough from the tourist madness of the Old Town. It’s a proper, local community.


We have devoted our time here to mooching, eating and drinking. So, pretty much the same as anywhere really! We have been blessed by gorgeous weather. Lucky, as this area is verdant for a reason – it does rain a lot. But, so far so good. Mind you, we start hiking on Tuesday, so I’m sure things will change given our track record.

Our first morning was spent buying supplies at the mercado. As usual buying more than we needed but not being able to resist. Pete is on dinner duty for two nights so that we can boost our vegetable intake. After shopping it was time to take to the hill and climb up to our luncheon spot, Mirador del Ulia. The hike up the hill was worth it – spectacular food and an amazing view.





Of course this was a complete indulgence, but we thoroughly enjoyed it. Each little course that came out was greeted with an Oh, Ah. We listened closely to the explanation of each dish, then resorted to the menu to try and work out exactly what we were eating, but that often wasn’t much help either. We just had to give ourselves over to the taste. Each morsel was a work of art, for both the eye and the mouth. Each bite was savoured and discussed. We easily wile away the afternoon, making the most of the experience, and that glorious view. 




Going back down the hill was much easier than the going up, helped of course by the bottles of wine consumed. Needless to say, no dinner was required that night!

Needing to feel more virtuous the next day, we set off for a 7km hike along the coastline to the next village, Pasai Donibane,  which is part of the first leg of the Camino del Norte (if starting from Irun). What a stunning walk, when blessed by sunshine as we were. It has its ups and downs, and I quickly realised I have become hill unfit since my last serious walk. The Picos de Europa walks next week are going to be a bit of a challenge.


There is a steep ascent, followed by a steep descent into Pasaia but the view from the top looking down into the entry to the harbour is breathtaking.


Pasaia is split into two by the inlet. On one side is the new town, on the other the Old Town, or Pasaia Donibane, where Victor Hugo once spent some time. The path takes you down into the harbour on the new side. From there you hop on a boat to ferry you across to the Old Town (.70 euro per person).


We joined the throng and chose a table at one of the several restaurants dotted around the square. A glass of wine each, and 3 plates to share – prawns, calamari and a mixed salad. That did the job. Back on the ferry to new town, and a short walk to the bus for the journey back to San Sebastián. 

The evening ended in much hilarity as we watched the Eurovision final in real time, live. Of course we cheered on the Australian entrant, but the Belarus duo rather stole my heart with their bouncy little tune, and bride and groom costumes. Portugal turned out to be the clear winner. An interesting choice, but it is a beautiful song. And of course, a wonderful spot for the Eurovision contest in 2018. 

We started Sunday with an excellent coffee at Sakona Coffee Roasters, a cafe that would not be out of place in Melbourne. They obviously take their coffee seriously, but serve it with a big hearted smile. And they are not just coffee roasters – the breakfast plates that went past us had us thinking we must come back for breakfast as well as coffee.


We join the crowds of tourists and locals promenading around the waterfront, admiring the views across the bay.


It is then pintxos time. We pick a bar that is crowded, nab a small table outside, then battle the customers gathered around the bar inside, groaning with a mouth watering pintxos display. We restrain ourselves and select only a few, as we know the thing to do is a pintxos hop – have a drink and one or two pintxos at a number of different bars. In fact, acting like a local comes way too easily. I swear if I lived in Spain I would become an alcoholic – it always seems to be the right time for a drink!


We move on to another bar and repeat the process. Muy buen. Muy muy buen. Our final stop is La Vina, which is rightly famous for its incredible cheesecake, which is just as delicious as I remember from our last visit. I am a happy woman.


Our stay in San Sebastián has been short, but very very sweet. I look forward to returning after a week of hiking in the mountains. There are still so many bars to sample! 

Four Days in Madrid

Madrid is a first for both of us. We arrive around midday, and quickly and easily negotiate the transfer from Renfe to the metro at Atocha station. We are only 2 stops away from Gran Via, on the blue line. Travelling makes us once more envious of the public transport systems overseas – frequent; networked with interstate trains and airports; easy to use ticket machines in multiple languages selling single tickets and providing change; clear signage; and accurate notification of upcoming stations (how often have I seen incorrect station information on the Sandringham line? Lots. Why can’t we get it right?!). The only thing I don’t like is that there are always stairs that you have to lug your case up, or down. I usually end up in a slather. But, enough grumpy old lady whinging.

We pop up like moles into the pedestrian mall of Calle de la Montera, where it intersects with Gran Via. Our hotel, Praktik Metropol, is just there. Not very encouragingly, just above McDonalds. However, it turns out to be a perfect location and we can easily walk to everything, and get to and from our train station. Also turns out to be an interesting location, as working girls (and I don’t mean the secretarial kind) throng the street. Pete, bless him, comments on how many girls with tight clothing are clustered around the street.


First impressions – a little bit grubby, at least where we are. Lots of street vendors of jet black skin. An array of different architectural styles, with many grand buildings. A more organic street layout – we miss the grid pattern of Barcelona. Harder to get a handle on where you are, and the different neighbours. After 4 days however we start to get the hang of it, and the different identity of the various neighbourhoods. Only feel uncomfortable once, in the area around the Lavapiés metro station – I think some deals might go down there.

As in all the cities, we walk and walk. The only time we actually use the metro is to and from the train station. Walking allows us to get more of a feel for a city, and we can appreciate the different architecture. Over our few days in Madrid we see beautiful examples of Deco, Art Noveau, Baroque, and modern.


After checking in we put my cafe research to good use and head off to the Malasaña district, and the Federal Café. You could easily think you were in Melbourne, and we probably tripled the average age of customer, but didn’t let that deter us.


Lunch done, we continue to the Temple of Debod, the Royal Palace and the Almudena Cathedral. The sun is blazing forth and there is not a cloud in the sky. The temperature hovers around 28 C. Hot. Not surprisingly, the gardens around the Temple are littered with people, some soaking up the rays, others seeking shade and relief from the heat. The park affords views across the city, and we realise that there is a massive green wedge right in the middle of the city, stretching as far as the eye can see. Our map tells us this is the Casa de Campo – 1.7 hectares of greenery, named for the fact that it was once the Royal hunting estate.


They are changing the guard at the Royal Palace and we just catch the horses trotting off for their off duty time.


I, of course, go into the Cathedral. Himself abstains. The interior is quite a surprise as the decorations are very bright, and modern. Not at all what I was expecting. Almost tribal.


We have booked into an Urban Adventures Tapas Walking tour that evening, starting at 7pm. Our meeting spot is the statue in the centre of the Plaza de la Villa. We are a group of 7- a family of 3 from Armadale, NSW and an elderly European couple who are residents of Calgary, Canada. Our tour guide is the lovely Andrea, a resident of Madrid who is enthusiastic about both her city and its food. We learn a lot about the history of Madrid in between eating and drinking.


I thoroughly enjoyed the tour for what we learnt, but I have to say I wasn’t overly enthusiastic about much of the food, and drink, although felt it was very authentic. It is no wonder we have seen a lot of overweight Spaniards – bread, fried food, salty food, sweet food. I wonder what their diabetes and cholesterol rates are. Pete and I dumped several of our samples surreptitiously into nearby bins, whilst I shuffled my drink along the bar.

We start off  in the Mercado de San Miguel, which is full of people, although it is apparently relatively quiet as it is a Monday. This is not a produce market, rather small food outlets. You buy food, and drink, to have here – if you can find a spot to perch in the central seating area – or to take away. Andrea says it is more likely to be a tourist haunt than a locals spot, although she was here with a group of friends on Saturday night. Here we sample olives, and cheese. And vermouth (akin to drinking cough medicine is my verdict) with the olives and a rather nice vino blanco with the cheese. One of the olive Tapas is a skewer of olives, pickled pepper and salted anchovy – it is called The Gilda (but pronounced Hilda), named after the character Rita Hayworth played in the film Gilda. Apparently she asked a bartender for some olives with a bit of spice to go with her drink. He created this Tapas in response and it was christened The Gilda/Hilda.


Walking the streets we learn that the street signs will usually have a picture of what the street name means, and that dotted throughout the town are plaques embedded into the pavements in front of significant buildings. Andrea tells us to look out for both as we walk around the city.


We pass by the famous Botin restaurant, the oldest restaurant in the world and famous for its suckling pig. Unfortunately it is not on our itinerary as we are partial to pig in all its forms. There is a queue of tourists outside, waiting patiently to be granted entrance. Botin has its own plaque in the pavement.


We move into the La Latina district, an area that is frequented by locals, as well as tourists.


Our destination is Casa Lucas, where we have 3 Tapas – a local ‘salami’ on bread;  a kind of ratatouille, topped with a fried quail egg, on bread, with matchstick chips; and oxtail meatballs on a bed of mashed potato. All of which were yummy, and washed down with a vino tinto.


Next up is the Cerveceria La Campana, which is famous for its bocadillo calamares, a speciality of Madrid. The place is packed, but we manage to squeeze in down the back. Pete & I elect to share one between us. Good thing we did as it turns out to be a soft, unappetising bun filled with overcrumbed and slightly chewy calamari. We eat the calamari and leave the bun. I gamely try the local wine mixed with lemonade that is a common accompaniment to the calamares. One sip is all I manage. There is no accounting for taste as this restaurant goes through 7,000 kilos of calamares every 15 days!!!


Our walk takes us through Plaza Mayor, which is full of people enjoying  their evening meal al fresco.


Andrea points out Chocoleteria San Gine, which she insists makes the best chocolate and churros in town, and makes us promise to return and try them. We end up breaking our promise (Alex would be very disappointed in us).


Our next stop is Casa Labra, famous for its cod croquettes and fried pieces of cod. There are other items on the menu but Andrea says that people rarely order anything else but cod – rather wonder why they bother then if that is the case. Casa Labra is an institution in the city, and was the spot where the Socialist Party was founded in 1860. But it is here that Pete & I sidle up to the bin and dump our croquettes, which are full of  gluggy bechamel sauce and sparse with lumps of cod. Quite awful really.


Our last stop for the night is La Casa de las Torrejas, via bustling Puerto del Sol. Andrea points out the plaque in the pavement marking Kilometre Zero. From this point all roads leading out of Madrid are measured.


At Casa de las Torrejas we are to have the Spanish version of French toast. Pete and I err on the side of caution and say we will share one between us. I also opt for a glass of vino blanco rather than the traditional glass of sweet wine. A mistake on two counts, as the postre (dessert) is delicious – like a custardy , vanilla, French toast – and the sweet wine comes in shot glasses and is a bit like a light fortified wine, and goes nicely with the dessert. I could easily have scoffed the whole serve, and drunk the glass of wine rather than the sip from a fellow guest that I actually experienced.


Andrea escorts us back to Puerto del Sol and bids us farewell, after checking we all know how to get back to our respective hotels. It has been a delightful 3 and a half hours, despite some of the tapas, as we have learnt about Madrid and its inhabitants from a charming and knowledgeable guide. It takes us no time to walk back to the Praktik, and our bed.


Day 2 has been earmarked as our cultural day, but first coffee and breakfast at Hola Cafe, where we are served by a set of charming and funky young men.


Then, on to the Prado. Luckily I had purchased a Paseo del Arte ticket (a 3 museum pass) online and a Reduced Price ticket for Pete. This lets us skip the long line queuing for tickets and into the short queue for prebought tickets. The Prado is huge – 2 full floors of works, plus a small section on Level 2 and another in the basement. Not to mention the Temporary Exhibit, which in this case is paintings from Old Budapest. I have to admit that we skipped the few rooms on Floor 2 and the basement, and the Temporary Exhibition. But, we went into every other room, of which there are at least 100. Towards the end I started to get the same panicked feeling I get at Ikea- would I ever get out of there alive. After about 3 hours we emerged, staggering into the light and never wanting to see a religious painting again. Food and drink was desperately required.

La Sanabresa, one of Madrid’s dying breed of casa de comidas (basic restaurants) provided the solution. We were extremely lucky to snare a table as soon as we arrived at this bustling local restaurant, and I would say we were the only English speakers, although not the first. There is a menu in English, although none of the staff speak it. The tables are covered with paper that is replaced with each new customer. 3 courses, bread and a bottle of wine for 11.50 €. The food is simple home cooking, and the wine a very drinkable house red, and we loved it.


Fortified, we were ready to tackle Museum 2, the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, which turns out to be the case of duelling collections. Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, and his Dad, had amassed a huge collection of paintings spanning from the late 13th century to the 1980’s. HH’s Spanish wife persuaded him to establish the collection in Madrid, plus, she too got bitten by the collecting bug and started to build her own collection of paintings. Thus, the Museo contains two collections – His and Hers, often with overlapping artists. Overall it is considered to be one of the world’s foremost private art collections and certainly gives one a look at art through the ages.

Our day spent in galleries, together with Thursday’s visit to the Regina Sofia Museo, leaves me pondering the question of who decides what is great art?  How is it decided that a particular artist is worth collecting, and displaying to the public? How is it decided that an artist is a genius, or a particular work is a masterpiece?  How does the art world work? Over 3 galleries I have seen some work I loved, but more that left me cold, even so-called masterpieces. Interesting isn’t it.

After all that culture we needed to retire to our hotel and gather our strength i.e. have an exhausted tourist nap, before heading out one block to Al Trapo restaurant in the Iberostar hotel. I was a bit anxious about the choice as it is in a hotel, and was almost empty when we arrived at 8.45pm. But, it is mentioned in the Guide Michelin, and the food was terrific, and reasonably priced for this level of quality. Small serves, but that suited us perfectly given our big lunch. Even the butter was beautifully presented, and the bread was delicious. We shared 2 of the starters – scallops in a passionfruit vinaigrette and the green vegetable salad with ricotta cream. Then shared 2 ‘mains’ – the wood pigeon Rice and the grilled skatefish. Everything looked wonderful and tasted even better. I could not resist a dessert, and chose the Forest fruits, Greek yoghurt, frozen herbs which was sublime (luckily Pete did not want any as he may have had to wrestle the spoon from me).  So, so good.



Day 3 was a day of walking. We decided to use the numerous city markets as our navigation points, and worked out a route that took in 5 of them, each in different neighbourhoods so we could get a better feel of the city.

We started at Mercado San Anton, our local market in the trendy Chueca district. At this hour (10am) the stalls were just getting started, but we followed the locals and ended up at a bar serving a small bocadillo and a coffee for 2€.  Jamon for me, calamares for him (and a much better one than we had on the walking tour). A good start.

On to Mercado de Barceló, situated in a very modern piece of architecture (I suspect the building might glow with light at night), but opposite a glorious old Deco theatre.


Next one was the Mercado de la Paz, in the very upmarket Salamanca district. We had a coffee in a very authentico bar before heading back into Chueco for lunch – nothing to write home about.


On then to Mercado de San Fernando, in the more seedy and downmarket area of Lavapies. Unfortunately, the stalls were all closed up by the time we got there. I say unfortunately as it looked slightly different, with perhaps more of an African influence. Never mind.

Back then to Mercado de San Miguel, that we had visited on the food tour. At 4pm it was heaving with tourists. We did a circuit then got the hell out of there. Back to Hotel Praktik Metropol and some quiet time, and a cup of tea, in their lovely lounge area.


Dinner tonight is at Celso y Manolo, recommended by Madrid Food Tours as her current favourite spot. Obviously very hip and happening, with young, groovy waiters and tiny tables. But, our booking isn’t until 9pm, so we fill in time at the Angelita wine bar. Propped up at the bar, with a glass of cava followed by a vino blanco, and complimentary Tapas, we feel very Spanish.

At dinner we order a bottle of red that turns out to be de-lic-ious. So despite the fact I have had 2 glasses of wine at the wine bar I proceed to demolish half the bottle of red. Subsequently I thought the food was fantastic, but I may be an unreliable judge!


Oh, bed did look good that night. Our final day was grey and cold, with rain predicted later in the day. We packed up and left our bags in reception, then headed off to Pum Pum Cafe, not far from our destination of the Reina Sofia museum. Again, we could have been in Australia – a funky cafe, serving avo on toast, and a Canberra salad!! Lovely smiling staff to boot. Breakfast and coffee done, we head to the Museum.


Our main goal was the Picasso Path to Guernica exhibition, which was commemorating the 80th anniversary of Guernica’s first showing. The exhibition focuses on the roots of Guernica’s imagery, and Picasso’s immediate post Guernica work. For those who don’t know, on April 26th 1937, the small town of Guernica in the Basque region of Spain was totally destroyed by German bombers at the request of Franco. For the first time in military history an attack was aimed specifically at the civilian population. Market day was chosen in order to ensure the most casualties. More than 1,600 people were killed, and another 1,000 injured. Picasso had been asked in early 1937 to produce a painting for the Spanish Pavilion but he had struggled to find a subject. The destruction of Guernica became his inspiration to produce a painting about suffering and war.



It was a fascinating exhibition, marred somewhat by the crowds, particularly of school children as young as 5 or 6. Not really what I would have thought was a suitable exhibition for littlies.

A quick lunch at the museum’s restaurant and a brisk walk back to the hotel to collect our luggage.  Metro it to Chamartin and catch our train to San Sebastián – a 5 and a half hour trip. And unlike the train from Valencia to Madrid, no free beverages or food. Very poor Renfe! We had to buy our own vino Tinto and crisps.


We have enjoyed our time in Madrid, but feel we have ticked that box and feel no need to make a return visit. San Sebastián here we come.

Barcelona Once More

Here we are in Barcelona – again. Our fourth trip to this wonderful city. It seems you can’t keep us away from Spain. This time Barcelona is our start and end point for a trip that will take in Valencia, Madrid, San Sebastián and the Picos de Europa. 

Given our multiple visits in just a few years, we are saved from the need to be energetic tourists. Instead, our time will be dedicated to mooching around, with some specific sights thrown in. And of course, surprise, surprise, lots of eating. 

We arrived late at night on Monday, after some 21 hours of flying and 4 hours of hanging around airports. And then we had to stand in the Customs line for 45 minutes (that will teach us to arrive on a Bank Holiday). To say we were tired and longing to be horizontal would be an understatement. It was with great relief that we found Danny from Casa Consell still waiting for us at 10.45pm. A quick tour of the property and we flung ourselves into bed and beautiful oblivion.

We take more notice of our lodgings in the morning. The room is compact, but spotlessly clean. Warm and cosy. Hot water in the shower, just don’t try and move around too much as space is rather restricted. The staff are friendly and helpful, and the location is excellent as we can walk everywhere, or jump on the Metro around the corner. After a basic but adequate breakfast we hit the streets. Our agenda today is simple – find a coffee, organise our train tickets, lunch, visit the Sant Pau Hospital site, dinner.

So, first the coffee – Nomad Coffee Lab in El Born. A café latte for me, and double espresso for him, whilst we admire the barista at work.


Before heading to the train station we have a wander round the El Born market – which isn’t actually a market anymore. Once upon a time it was the largest undercover market, but the grand size proved to be its undoing as the area ultimately could not sustain a produce market of this size. It eventually closed down and fell into disrepair. Plans to restore the space and turn part of it into a Library were halted in 2002 when excavations discovered extensive remains of the medieval city that once occupied the area. It was decided to protect the ruins, and display them to the public. So now the massive iron market roof provides protection for the original city that sat on this spot.

We then head to Estació de França, as we know from experience that it is usually pretty empty and thus easier to get tickets. We decide to use the machines rather than struggle with our inept Spanish through a small hole in the window. Probably the wrong decision as the machine seems to understand that we are ignorant tourists and sets out to make the transaction as difficult as possible – it lurches between being very touch sensitive to not responding to touch at all; instructions are hidden from immediate view; make a mistake and you have to start all over again; put the debit card in the wrong way and it cancels the transaction altogether. Suffice it to say it took us well over 40 minutes, and one very sore finger from screen poking, to buy 3 train tickets! Even now I’m not sure we have the correct ones, but we shall find out.

So shattered were we that we had to immediately repair to Casa Delfín for lunch, and it did not disappoint – grilled sardines, meatballs with peas & wild mushrooms and a spinach, pear, Stilton & pinenut salad. Washed down with a glass or two of wine. Buena, muy buena.


We then head off to the Sant Pau Recinte Modernista, or, the Old Sant Pau hospital, via the Arc de Triomf and Sagrada Familia.


We try and recall what has been added to the Sagrada since our last visit. Maybe the frilly arches on the front? Whatever it is, it continues to be an awe inspiring piece of architecture. But today we are only passing by.


Our goal is at the end of Av.de Gaudí – the very beautiful Art Noveau Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau, also known as Sant Pau Recinte Modernista. The hospital was built between 1902 and 1930, and was the brainchild of the Catalan Modernista architect, Lluís Domènech i Montaner (who also designed the glorious Palau de Musica Catalana). In its day, the hospital was cutting edge and was designed by Montaner to provide light, beauty and open space to the patients. It operated as a hospital up until 2009. Now it is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and is still undergoing restoration. It is just beautiful – if only modern hospitals followed the same design aesthetic.



By the time we get back to the vicinity of our hotel we have probably walked well over 10kms, and I’m tired, hungry and thirsty and therefore, slightly testy. I spy a haunt from earlier trips – Reserva Iberica. Pete takes no persuading for a sit down, a glass of cava and a tasting plate of jamon. That is just what I needed! Spirits restored.


Now we can hold out until the Spanish meal time of 9pm – well almost. We arrive at Tapas 24 at 8.45, but still have to queue. The customers all appear to be tourists like us, but when we finally get a stool I get chatting to the young Spanish man sitting next to me. He is from Salamanca, and tells me he always comes to Tapas 24 when he is in town for business. He says that the locals stay away until around 10pm, when they know the tourists will have departed. 

Our tapas is a mixed bag, some great, some not so great. The highlight is the tomato salad, followed by the char grilled Iberian pork loin:

The squid roll and smoked mackerel are okay, but the Crab & Avocado salad – the most expensive dish of the lot – is bland and uninspiring. Disappointing.


I am now well and truly ready for bed, so we relinquish our stools to the next customers and walk around the block back to Casa Consell and much needed sleep. All in all, a terrific day in this gracious city.

Wednesday morning the sky is grey and rain is predicted – not a good prediction as we are booked to do a 3 hour walking tour with Barcelona Architecture Walks, however the rain holds off until the end of the walk, and even then is just a light drizzle. The theme of our walk is Barcelona & Urbanism, and we learn all about Ildefons Cerdà, the inventor of the science of urbanism and master planning. Cerdà was responsible for the grid design of Barcelona, which he envisaged as an egalitarian city dominated by open spaces. Unfortunately, the final city design was compromised by developers, by the desire of the wealthy to have visible and tangible evidence of their wealth and by the Catalan disdain for anything that was imposed on them by the central Government of Madrid. But, enough of Cerdà’s design was maintained to make Barcelona the very liveable city it is today. 


After 3 hours on our feet we need a coffee and a sit down. So when the walk ends we hightail it back to the Mercat del Ninot that we had walked through to get to the meeting point for our tour. A coffee at one stall was followed by lunch at another, Perellá – specialists in cod, but it was the dazzling array of olives that originally attracted our attention:


We were served by a charming young man with excellent English. Turns out he was from Mexico – came here to study cinema, fell in love, married and is now working in hospitality to make a living. Also got chatting about Spanish wines with a couple of local ladies, who were enjoying a glass of cava, or two! They agreed I knew enough Spanish if I could order the alcohol. A thoroughly enjoyable luncheon break – good food, good wine, pleasant ambiance – only locals, and not very many of them.

Ambled back to the hotel, through different streets and laneways. Pete is getting to know this city very well. I think he has walked most of it. Idled the remainder of the afternoon away at the hotel, escaping the light drizzle and cool breeze, which cleared up in time for us to emerge for dinner.

Our choice tonight was Santa Gula, in the Gràcia district, thanks to blogger Foodie in Barcelona. And what a great choice it was – a small space (if you go, you must book – we saw several parties turned away), with friendly wait staff and interesting, well executed food. We had a thoroughly enjoyable evening. Would happily go again to try out other dishes on the menu.



Thursday morning dawned bright and sunny for our last (half) day in Barcelona. This afternoon we are catching a train to Valencia. How should we spend the morning? Hmm, I know – let’s have a coffee and then brunch to sustain us for the 3 and a half hour train trip. I warned you that this visit would involve lots of eating!

So, we wandered down into the Gòtic district to Satan’s Corner, a coffee shop we had discovered last year. We lingered over the coffee, studying the map of Barcelona and applying our new knowledge about the urban planning that created the city. Quite fascinating really.  


It was still too early for brunch (wouldn’t want to peak too early), so ambled at random through the laneways of the Gòtic area before emerging into the throngs promenading along La Rambla. A street we prefer to avoid however was necessary today as our brunch destination was Kiosko Universal at Mercat de la Boqueria, recommended by the Barcelona Architecture Walks people and Foodie in Barcelona.


Their speciality is seafood, but we started with grilled vegetables and assorted mushrooms before launching into a plate of baby sardines, followed by garlic prawns – both as fresh as can be, and simply cooked, in lashings of olive oil (perfect for dunking the delicious bread into). All washed down with a glass of cava. 


That should sustain us for the train journey. Adios Barcelona – we continue to love you, but Valencia here we come.