Feliz Nuevo Año, de Seville

With only a few hours until midnight on la Nochevieja, as New Year’s Eve is called in Spain, you’d think it would be easy to find a suitable restaurant in the packed alleyways around Seville Cathedral, but it wasn’t. Even when we found one with an available table, we were usually disappointed to discover once again that they were operating on a menú fin (set menu) basis at a cool €60 per person. Or else it was too bar-like. Or too smoky. Or loud. Or not Minecrafty enough for the kids, I don’t know. We pressed on. We tried down here, we tried down there. No luck.



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Trip – Part Tres

We were sad to leave beautiful L’Avenc but also excited about our next adventure – crossing the Pyrenees into France.  

 The day started bright and clear as we headed north into the foothills of the Pyrenees stoping at Sant Joan de les Abadesses for lunch and  a  quick look at its famous bridge.  Then up through the mountain pass to Puigcerda and the French border. 

The drive up to Puigcerda was breathtaking.  We followed the river valleys and zigzagged our way up the mountains.  Predictably there was a bit of carsickness in the back seat so we took it slow and had lots of breaks.
Once on the French side we followed the Tet river valley.  By this time the weather had set in and the valley was swathed in cloud and rain making for an atmospheric, if tricky, drive.
View of the town from the Fort
 Our final destination was Villefranche-de-Conflent. This is a perfectly preserved town still completely within its original medieval fortifications and surrounded on three sides by rivers.  We checked into our B&B called A l’Ombre du Fort (In the Shadow of the Fort).  This lovely old house is situated just outside the town walls by a river.  On our first evening we followed a path by the river, crossed over a bridge and jumped over the (live!) train tracks to enter through a portcullis. Now, if you are Australian you really get excited about walled medieval villages overlooked by a hilltop fort.  This stuff is old – real old, not Australian old which is basically anything older than your Nanna.
Chapel at Fort Liberia
The next morning we tackled the fort and decided to walk up the mountain path.  We managed to stop the kids from complaining by inventing an elaborate Minecraft scenario involving zombies who were chasing us – whatever gets them up the hill…  Fort Liberia is a perfect kids’ fort – ramparts, dungeons, lookouts with deadly sheer drops and inadequate medieval fencing – it’s got it all. After a thorough exploration we were ready to head down to the town for lunch.  We decided to take the other way down – the 775 step subterranean staircase built to safely move troops from the town to the fort. We were all a bit wobbly legged after that so we recovered with a cafe lunch in the medieval square.

After our stay in the mountains it was time to hit the coast and the trendy French resort town of Collioure.

A beautiful town full of lovely houses, pebbly beaches, piers, castles, lighthouses and surrounded by hilltop forts.  Full of restaurants, cafes and shops we enjoyed exploring the coves, visiting the local art gallery and living the café lifestyle. 

This town was popular with the fauvist painters and there is an art trail that you can follow. It was ridiculously picturesque and full of little bays and coves to expore.

And that was our whirlwind tour of French catalonia.  Now it was time to head south back into Spain.


Guest Post – "Barcelona" by Ralph Lavelle

The very first thing after retrieving our stuff from the luggage carousel at Barcelona airport, I sought out una librería, a bookshop. I’d been looking forward to reading in Spanish in Spain, and I knew that, unlike Bono, I’d find what I was looking for – La sombra del viento (“The Shadow of the Wind”) by Carlos Ruiz Zafón – in the first bookshop I came across. From what I’ve read, this gothic blockbuster lies somewhere between a Dan Brown potboiler and an erudite, labyrinthine Umberto Eco one, and is just as successful.
A couple of days before leaving for Europe I had researched bookshops in Barcelona and found a couple worth investigating, but I knew it might be a few days after our arrival before I got to them. On the other hand, the airport bookshop would give me what I needed quickly, the Zafón, which indeed I started reading that same day. Más vale pájaro en mano que cien volando (“a bird in the hand is worth more than one hundred flying”) as they say.

And so, jet lagged and unable to sleep past 5 in the morning for the first few days of our sejourn, I ploughed into La sombra with my Android phone’s Google Translate app at my side every step of the way. For me reading a popular novel set in Barcelona, albeit one of dark alleyways and abandoned mansions, against the backdrop of a civil war, was a perfect complement to the standard tasteful restaurant and architecture guides you get when you come here. Although seriously, I have to say that there’s nothing really tasteful about the Sagrada Família. It really is unlike anything else. We would have given it a miss if it wasn’t for 5-year old Eoin insisting we buy a miniature Sagrada from one of the ubiquitous quioscos, which made me realise how iconic it was, and how it would be madness not to at least be able to say “Yep, seen it.”
Another of the highlights of our trip was Barcelona Cathedral, which naturally enough was dark and sepulchral inside, but whose plaza out front was spacious and full of people taking photos, celebrating mass, or having an expensive coffee, as befits one of the tourist epicentres of this city. The area around the cathedral had a more sinister ambiente in the novel, of course, and it was fun to go home each day after our sightseeing and read about Daniel, el hijo del sombrerero (what a wonderful word), the son of the hatmaker, passing through the alleyways in and around the catedral.
And as I write this, three months after Barcelona, I’ve finally just finished La sombra. It’s been a long and rewarding slog, and I now know know how to say “his hands trembled as he turned the dusty pages in the failing light” in Spanish. Actually I don’t really, but I’d recognise those words if I ever saw them in another Spanish novel. A novel like El juego del ángel (“The Angel’s Game”) for instance, the sequel to La Sombra, which I picked up second hand in Girona in one of those street book stalls you see quite a lot in Europe. God, I miss Europe.

Trip Part Dos – L’Avenc de Tavertet

We bravely set out from Barcelona in our hire car.  Well, R was brave as he was the one that had to remember to change gears with the right hand, drive on the wrong side of the road, navigate the very narrowed-laned streets and listen to me screech panicked directions.  But we made it and slowly headed north-west into the countryside.  We were heading for the Collsacabra mountains about 80 kms away.  

The town of Vic
However our first stop was the charming town of Vic.  The medieval town has a large town square with a weekly market.  Unfortunately we missed it and arrived as they were cleaning up.  We managed to find a charming café for lunch and wondered around before continuing our trip. We had intended to stock up on food as our accommodation was self-catering but everything was closed for siesta. Ah sure (to be said with an Irish accent), we said, we’ll find somewhere closer to L’Avenc to stock up….

R standing in front of the original house with the new extension on the left
 From Vic we started heading for the mountains, and as we continued the weather grew worse.  Dark threatening clouds loomed and the temperature dropped.  The roads steadily grew narrower and the pot holes larger.  The towns were all closed up and deserted. The last few kilometres were on a one-laned dirt road.  Just when we were beginning to worry there it was: L’Avenc de Tavertet.  

 I first found out about L’Avenc when I picked up ‘A Castle in Spain’ in the Library. I’d never heard of Matthew Parris but when I took the book home R recognised the name.  He’s a fairly well known journalist over in England.
It’s a great book about his family’s (very) long journey to restore this 13th century house in a truly breathtaking setting.

We arrived mid-week and for most of our stay we were the only ones there.  We had bracing walks each morning before our breakfast and then recovered in the huge indoor heated pool.

No they haven’t been sucking on lemons, the strange faces are due to an extremely strong and cold wind

Our first walk was up the hill behind the house and out to a rocky ledge with sweeping views down the cloud filled valley.  It was gorgeous to watch the clouds slowly disappear as the sun got hotter.

The next morning was an easier and less muddy tramp through the cliffside fields full of wildflowers.   

We also did a short drive to the town of Rupit for lunch. The old town has been wonderfully preserved partly due to it’s inaccessibility -it’s a long way from anywhere. Apparently on the weekends its full of Barcelonians getting away for the weekend and enjoying its delicious restaurants.  As it was a weekday we had the place pretty much to ourselves.

So, if you’re ever in Barcelona and want to see a bit of the countryside you really couldn’t find a more beautiful and breathtaking place than L’Avenc de Tavertet.  Just go.

Trip Part Uno – Barcelona

We’ve been back two weeks and I’m slowly coming to terms with the fact.  It’s taken a lot longer this trip than normally. Usually at the end of a trip I start to look forward to returning home, sleeping in my own bed and having my things around.  But not this time.  I can honestly say that at no time did I want to come back and definitely resented having to do so. Ok, I did miss our cat and the fact that you can flush the toilet paper down the toilet (one of the less than charming aspects of Greek plumbing is that it can’t handle toilet paper which must go into an, inevitably, smelly bin).
Our family is on a two-year cycle of European holidays.  We have the good year, followed by the lean year of accruing all our holidays and getting by on the odd long weekend away.  These overseas trips are mainly to visit R’s family in Ireland but we always finish off with a couple of weeks at my parent’s house in Zakynthos, Greece.  Scarily enough Alex, who is eight, has been to Europe five times already. Five times!  I didn’t even get on a plane till I was a teenager.





Anyway, we’re back and it was the best holiday yet.  I imagine the main reason is that the boys are older so, theoretically,  each future holiday should be better than the last.  Now that’s something to look forward to.  If I thought that them going to the toilet alone and feeding themselves was liberating imagine when they are old enough to navigate when R is driving and I can have nanna naps in the back seat. 

One of the main reasons for the awesomeness of this trip was that rather than just the usual Ireland/Greece combo we added in 10 days in Spanish Catalonia and the French Pyrenees.  We thought the boys were old enough and they were.  Of course we had to adjust our pace and there were many things that we didn’t do because we didn’t think the kids would enjoy/handle it very well, but I think we managed to find the right balance for all.
Gorgeous old stairs to our apartment

First stop was Barcelona.  We stayed in the El Born district of the old town within walking distance to pretty much everything.  We booked our apartment through airbnb and it was a perfect for our needs.  The old town is enchanting, especially the less touristy bit that we stayed in.  I the evenings local kids would be kicking footballs around dusty playgrounds while the adults enjoyed a drink in the cafes.  On our first evening we can across a local wine tasting festival which of course we participated.  Ok, so the boys weren’t too happy about this, mainly because the fussy little *&^%‘s wouldn’t eat any of the delicious tapas on offer.  We placated them afterwards with a pizza.  In fact for pretty much every meal (except breakfast) we placated them with pizza or pasta.  Every now and then they went crazy and had a bocadillo or tortilla instead, but really, that was only out of necessity.  Our kids are going to have a very unusual memory of Spanish food.

Born, with Santa Maria del Mar in the background
On our first morning we headed south through the Born towards the Picasso Museum. Luckily, we were in town on the once a month free entry Sunday so we’d get off to a good start on our holiday budget by saving a few  euro. We wandered through the lovely old narrow streets, past the austere but beautiful Santa Maria del Mar and ….. to the end of the very, very, very long line to get into the Picasso Museum.  Apparently this free Sunday thing is very popular.  There was no way we could make the boys wait in line for 45mins and then make them traipse around a crowded art museum.  I mean we could, but that just wouldn’t be fair to them.  The museum is closed on Mondays and we were leaving on Tuesday morning so it was goodbye to Picasso…
At La Ciutadella

Kick-ass fountain..

Instead we went to La Ciutadella park where there happened to be a kids festival going on.  Mayhem. Extremely, noisy mayhem. We explored the amazing fountain and went boating on the lake.  The boys had a go.  From the photos it looks like they were doing it themselves, but what you can’t see is me bending precariously (and painfully) and trying, most successfully, to avoid collisions.

Just before he ran over a family of ducks (just joking!)

We did lots of other touristy things are well :  modernista architecture, La Sagrada Familia, La Rambla, Placa Reial, the Cathedral and of course a visit to Zara, Desigual and Mango.

Barcelona in a nutshell.  Next stop L’Avenc de Tavertet.