Wow! Valencia (2)

There was just so much to see, so many places to go and such a lot of interesting buildings wherever we went.

The medieval silk exchange, Llotja de la Seda, was a shock. Not due to the beauty of the place but the volume of visitors. Somehow we’d been sheltered from mainstream tourism, suddenly we were flung right into it. Rightly so, it’s an inspiring place and a World Heritage Site.  The spiral columns are an absolute marvel, the orange tree courtyard strangely peaceful and from the outside it looks like a gothic cathedral!

Equally bold, in it’s way, is the futuristic design of the City of Arts and Sciences, 21st century architecture at it’s most amazing.

There’s a arts centre/opera house, a planetarium/cinema, a science museum and an aquarium. It took us most of a day to visit the last two.

It seems the City is still in debt for the huge cost of construction and there are already maintenance issues but the whole area had a very positive vibe.

Different again, the Museum of Prehistory is housed in the former Casa de Beneficia, Charity House, organised round five courtyards in traditional 19th century Valencian style. It’s exhibitions cover the life and labours of human societies in the Valencia region from prehistoric times up to the Roman period. Fascinating, if you like that kind of thing! We couldn’t take it all in, we got up to the 5th century BC so we’ll have to go back to learn more. The reconstruction of a house from this period was illuminating – but where did they sleep?

As much as anything we enjoyed walking the streets, enjoying the atmosphere, the graffiti and the food!

Next we went to Girona.

Wow! Valencia

We loved Valencia. It was only a short journey by bus and taxi from Biar but such a contrast. After week of rural tranquillity we were both ready for a taste of city life and Valencia offered everything we could wish for.

So here, in no particular order are some of the things we enjoyed.

We stayed right in the heart of the old quarter with it’s tiny, winding streets. One hundred and eighty years old, the building we stayed in was in perfect harmony. Here’s what the apartment looked like inside. Notice the beautiful floor tiles!i

That’s me in the mirror!

And outside, with Alan on the balcony.

On a recommendation from Andrew, one of the Biar walkers, we sought out the paintings of Joaquin Sorolla in the Museo de Bellas Artes. Born in Valencia in 1863, Sorolla was a hugely successful modern painter. Like his impressionist contemporaries he love painting in sunlight producing beach scenes, landscapes, portraits and more.

Most of the other works in the gallery are much older and include examples by the Spanish greats including Goya, Velasquez and El Greco.

We went to the market, a very impressive art nouveau building, where we bought fruit and olive oil. Nearby we came across a well-stocked, traditional hat shop, all styles available and so we bought a hat!

The Turia River used to run through the centre of the city to the sea. After parts of the city were devastated by floods in 1957 it was diverted south of the city. This major intervention left a huge tract of river bed which has been turned into a vast urban park running through the city. It’s well maintained and well used.

We hired bikes for a day and rode through the Turia Gardens to the beach, a vast expanse of sand. It was very sunny but windy and the sea was decided chilly – paddling only!

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The next post will be about other amazing buildings in Valencia and the museums we visited.

Moros y Cristianos

Or, in English, Moors and Christians. These festivals commemorate the 700 years when much of Spain was occupied by the Moors, who were Muslims from North Africa, and the eventual reconquest by Catholic monarchs in the late 15th century. Usually the capture of a town or city by the Moors is enacted followed by the subsequent reconquest by the Christians. Miniature castles are erected where mock battles are staged and there are processions and other events over several days with different groups representing the two sides all wearing elaborate costumes.

Biar and the surrounding towns are famous for their celebrations. We were a week too early to enjoy the ones in Biar but the castle was already in place in the main square. But a week too late for nearby Alcoi, reputed to be the most impressive festival of all, where the castle was being dismantled the day I was there! More about my visit to Alcoi in another post.

Eventually we did manage to see the final procession of the celebrations in another nearby town, Onil.

These events are so big that in Alcoi there is a museum solely dedicated to them and in Biar there is a tailor whose only business appears to be making festival costumes.

Next we’ll be posting about the lovely city of Valencia!

Biar

From the distance Biar is dominated by it’s castle which is surrounded by the narrow streets and alleyways of the old town where we stayed. There is also a new section of buildings and wider roads and, finally, a perimeter of industrial development.

I thought the climb to the castle would be out of my reach but one day, just wandering the streets, I found myself very close. While I sat on a bench admiring the view and considering whether I dared go higher, a women coming up behind me dangled the keys under my nose and told me she was on her way to open up. So I followed, very slowly, paid my euro and, eventually, made it to the top. The castle has been much rebuilt and restored since it’s original construction by the Arab invaders, also known as the moors, in the 12th Century. There’s not so much to see there apart from a distinctive Arab ceiling but the panoramic views from the tower are stunning. The different sections of Biar stand out clearly together with the hilly countryside around.

There actually isn’t very much to do in Biar so my mornings were spent quietly once the walking group had left. I explored the town admiring the ancient streets, bought my lunch, had a coffee on the square. The small museum of local life was worth a visit – especially the baskets – it’s amazing the number of jobs a basket can be designed to do!

There’s also a pottery making traditional decorative ware where I bought a plate. We’ll see whether it gets home safely.

The small hotel, Villa de Biar, has a nice garden and even a pool. So my afternoons were spent reading outdoors, sadly the pool water was too chilly for a swim.

When the walkers returned, late afternoon, things got more lively – our evenings were spent eating drinking and socialising. Many of the world’s problems were solved! One evening a local band played for us and late one afternoon we enjoyed a wine tasting organised by the hotel staff – see how big the samples were, there were some fuzzy heads next morning!

The towns and villages in this part of Spain all celebrate their ‘Moros y Cristianos’ festival – more about that in the next post.

Snow, Sea and Servas

It’s over a year since our last post so, as we’ll be in Spain for three weeks, we’re having another go.

This trip is all by public transport and no flying. It started with the train from Guildford to Portsmouth and then on to the overnight ferry to Santander.

The Pont-Aven is very posh ship – the flagship of Brittany Ferries. Our four-berth en suite cabin was just right for two. The other two bunks were folded up to the ceiling so, in effect, we had a twin room with a sea view.

We spent our time reading, observing our fellow passengers and, of course, eating and drinking.

The food wasn’t bad but, having enjoyed a very pleasant waitress service breakfast in the restaurant, we agreed that another time we’d avoid the self service cafeteria where we ate the previous evening.

Twenty four hours later at 17.30hr we arrived in Santander. Leaving the ship is easy for foot passengers, just walk down the ramp, past the customs and you’re there, close to the centre of town. We could see the wonderful Hotel Bahia from the port and in less than 10 minutes we were checked in. This hotel is good, we couldn’t fault it, 80 euros well spent.

We didn’t have time to sample the breakfast as we were up early and on the 07.15hr high speed train to Alicante via Madrid. Fortunately the station was a short walk away.

Train travel is a great way to get an idea of a country, we passed through lots of varied landscapes, saw the snow covered Picos de Europa mountains in the distance and travelled through the 28.4km Guadarrama Tunnel at speeds reaching 250km per hour. It’s the longest tunnel in Spain and the fifth longest in the world.

We completed the 634km journey in just under 8 hours and arrived ahead of schedule in Alicante.

Our hosts were Jorge, Esther and Alex of Servas, Spain. If you don’t know about Servas you can find out more at www.servas.org. It’s a great way to travel the world.

We stayed at their summer apartment outside the city centre at the beach which is lovely, long and sandy and not very busy in April. On the way there we visited the Castillo De Santa Barbara which dominates the city.

We had a lovely sunny day followed by an enormous thunderstorm when we were just back from the beach.

Of course our hosts were at work and school so the second evening we cooked for us all. It was a very strange experience for all concerned hosting people in their own home!

Return to La Mariposa

 

We had a ride in La Bastilla’s pickup to Jinotega bus station where there were no seats left on the 9am bus to Managua.  So we bought our tickets for the 10.30 service and sat down to wait, fortified by instant coffee and a packet of “Maria” biscuits.

After 3.5 hours on the bus we were delighted to see the Mariposa bus and the driver, Joshua, waiting for us at Mayoreo bus station.

It was busy week.  First we set off to see how the spider monkeys were doing. Very well, it turned out, in fact when we arrived the female had undone her lead and was enjoying her liberty on the shed roof! We discovered that setting the world to rights whilst monkey watching is a most relaxing activity! The plan is to eventually set them free but continue to provide food, hammocks and night boxes.

Next we went shopping for plants –  for the garden outside the cabin and the space at the hotel where the parakeet cage had been demolished. Also on our list were a birdbath and a tree for Richard, one of the staff who was leaving at the end of the week. The poor old bus was pretty full on the way back!

Together with Paulette we went to nearby Jinotepe to sample ‘the best Italian restaurant in Nicaragua’ to discover we had another ninety minute wait before it opened.  Instead of coffee and biscuits we had a couple of beers in Barry’s bar before an excellent dinner and a bottle of wine. Surprisingly, there were some sore heads next morning!

Next day there were speeches and a cake for Richard.

At the weekend Janie and las chicas came to visit – which mean two extra beds had to be delivered to the cabin, fortunately there’s lots of room. It was a hectic two days. At night the girls played dominoes while the adults enjoyed the evening on the patio sampling Nicaraguan rum. Of course we went monkey watching – Paulette said ‘Don’t touch the monkeys’, Zaira and Sienna took that to mean there was no problem if the monkeys touched them!

The cabin and garden are looking lovely now, as well as the planting the shutters and doors have been varnished, the outside walls painted together with the kitchen, toilet and shower. Even the floor of the shower has been tiled.  We really hope that it will be attractive to guests who prefer self contained accommodation away from the bustle of the hotel. It’s a great place to enjoy the rural environment and watch the birds.

A highlight was the arrival of two of the parakeets who were set free in the first week – they were using an abandoned ant’s nest up a tree to make a home for themselves.

And then it was time to come home where a lovely English Spring was already underway.

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La Bastilla Ecolodge

Finca La Bastilla is a huge coffee growing estate in the Datani el Diablo Nature Reserve.  Twenty kilometres from the town of Jinotega it took about an hour to drive from Estelí to reach the entrance to the coffee estate. The Ecolodge was 5km further on up a steep, bumpy road – thank goodness we were in a four-wheel drive!

The Ecolodge is owned by the La Bastilla Technical Centre for Agriculture and tourism. It was set up by the coffee estate in 2009 to teach practical and business skills. According to the website 100% of the profits are reinvested back into the education of the students all of whom come from local low-income families.

The accommodation is in pleasant, spacious timber cabins  constructed in pairs with wide balconies overlooking the cloud forest and the coffee plantation.  They have ensuite bathrooms with solar- heated showers.There are also camping platforms and a dormitory.

We hoped to enjoy the views, see lots of birds and enjoy the diverse menu of  international dishes and traditional Nicaraguan food in the restaurant, as suggested by the website.

Not all our hopes were realised!  It was lovely sitting on the balcony admiring the view but we were disappointed to see how many trees had been felled to make space for coffee. Although the coffee is shade grown, we were offered a printed explanation of how much clearance is necessary to secure growth on the very steep slopes.  It’s a shame even so to see so much deforestation immediately adjacent to a national Nature Reserve.

There were fewer birds than we expected and far less than we saw at Finca Esperanza Verde at the same time last year.But we did see the Emerald Toucanet – no picture how ever.

The food was disappointing and monotonous with very little choice for anyone. No fish although as we drove to Jinotega to get the bus we drove alongside the massive Lake Apaña where everyone beside the road had fresh fish for sale! A typical Nicaraguan breakfast of gallopinto (rice and beans) with eggs, cheese and fired plantain is nice, but not every day!

We have to try new places or how do we know what they’re like?  But on this occasion we won’t be recommending La Bastilla to anyone!

Here’s some photos anyway.

The next (and last) post of this trip will tell you all about the last 10 days at La Mariposa and what fun we had with Janie and las chicas when they visited for the weekend.

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