Sicily – home of temples, volcanoes and adventures

 

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The view from the campsite near Scopello

From our quirky campsite near Scopello we travel South, visiting the ancient Doric Temple of Segesta on our way. Perched on a hill in unspoilt rolling green countryside with views that stretch down to the sea, passing motorists may indeed wonder whether they’re hallucinating. The temple which is over 2,500 years old (430-420BC), was built by the Elymians, an indigenous people of Sicily, but was never completed, following an attack on the settlement by its rival, Selinunte. As I gaze up at this surprisingly intact temple through the hazy sunshine, I can’t help feel that this remarkable and peaceful site is a complete contrast to the Parthenon in Athens which although built around the same time, is crammed with tourists taking selfies.  At the Segesta site, on top of a nearby hill (Monte Barbaro) 400m above sea level, there is also a semi-circular theatre dug into its walls. The 360-degree vistas of the surrounding countryside provide a natural backdrop to the stage. Originating in the 5th century BC, the theatre was altered during the Roman period, but retains its 4,000 seats, and is still used as a venue for Greek plays, concerts and other events.

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The temple of Segesta and Greek theatre on Monte Barbaro

After our visit to Segesta we settle into a campsite in the South West of the island near Selinunte; the largest archaeological site in Europe. In 409BC Selinunte was one of the most progressive and eminent cities in Magna Graecia, but following an attack from its old enemy, the Carthaginians, the town, including its numerous temples, acropolis and agora were reduced to dignified rubble. The site is huge and most of what remains is still in ruin, although an attempt to rebuild several of the temples has been made. You get a sense of the size and importance of this ancient town, and after walking around most of the site, as well as both there and back (as there was no sign of any public transport), we were absolutely shattered. We walked back through neighbouring Triscina which felt more like a town from a Spaghetti western, than modern Sicily. Searching for a cafe to quench our thirst and rest our weary legs we stumbled across what seemed like the only saloon in town. After two beers and free tapas (balsamic pickled onions, bruschetta and some crisps) we were replete, but well and truly ‘templed out’.

The temples of Selinunte 

Next, we head to the South East corner of Sicily. After a very long drive and several diversions we treat ourselves to a lovely meal in the pretty seaside village of Marzamemi. Its renovated tonnara and fishermans houses are now lively bars, restaurants and artisan shops which sit round a charming piazza. What a contrast to Triscina. Our next stop is Catania, Sicily’s second biggest city and we visit Siracusa, rich in Greek, Roman and Norman history, on the way.

Fountain of Diana and seafront view at Siracusa, Piazza at Marzamemi

We have one more ‘must do’ before leaving Sicily, and that is to visit Mount Etna, so we arrange a trip with Escursioni sull’Etna, a small tour company offering trekking experiences on the volcano. Our tour guide Marco speaks excellent English, is an accomplished mountaineer, member of the mountain rescue team, volcanologist extraordinaire and has first-hand experience of living on the volcano. Mount Etna, 3,300 metres high, is the biggest active stratovolcano in Europe. It first erupted beneath the sea some 500,000 years ago, and the original crater is still visible on the coastline to the North of Catania. Etna’s most destructive recent eruption was in 1669 and the resulting lava flows destroyed 10 villages before reaching Catania’s city walls, destroying much of the city of Catania and filling its harbour.  More recent eruptions in 1991–1993 saw the town of Zafferana threatened by a lava flow, and although the lava flow stopped short of the town it destroyed our guide Marco’s family farm. “We are lucky today”, Marco says “Etna has been very active and has started erupting in the last few days”. But although we hear the eruptions in the distance (just like quarry explosions) there is low cloud at 1,800m and as we walk over the rocks of the old lava flows, there is an eerie mist which shrouds our view. Marco points out a lava cave, formed as a result of surface solidification of the lava flow during its last stages of activity. A frozen crust forms as the surface cools over actively flowing liquid rock and volcanic gases from bubbles in the lava collect under the tunnel roof and support it, forming a cave. Strange rock formations remain from multiple eruptions leaving a landscape that feels more like mars than earth. As we travel back towards the sea Marco reminds us that the city of Catania sits on the volcano, and its people accept that the volcano both gives and takes and by living here they accept this gamble every day.

A lava cave and walking on an old lava flow of Mount Etna

Our last day in Sicily and we have an overnight ferry to catch. Just enough time to squeeze in a visit to the coastal town of Cefalũ (bad decision number 1), or so we thought. We’d forgotten it was Sunday, and the Sicilians seem to go a bit crazy on a Sunday…… it’s the lethal cocktail of religion and drink! They head to the coast, spend the day lunching with family, filling up all seafront parking spots and cause chaos on the roads. By the time we arrive at Cefalũ, we only have 45minutes to visit one of Sicily’s prettiest coastal towns, before we need to make our way to Palermo for the ferry. We set off in time, but after a series of wrong decisions we find ourselves chasing the clock. We miss the turning for the autostrada (mistake number 1) and by the time we get back on to the motorway there are roadworks and the traffic is down to one lane. We decide to come off the autostrada hoping to catch the quiet coastal road (bad decision number 2), only to find that we have to go back to Cefalũ in the opposite direction. At Cefalũ we decide to take the coastal road to Palermo which then climbs into the mountains (bad decision number 3) and by the time we hit manic Palermo, packed with Sunday revellers, we decide to follow google maps instead of the satnav (bad decision number 4) and the route takes us through the middle of the city which includes a 90 degree turn after a very tight stone bridge (not easy in a 7.5m motor home). Stress levels are high and by the time we reach check in, we have only 40 minutes before the boat leaves (latest check in is 90 minutes before!). We resign ourselves to missing the ferry, but by some miracle they let us check in and join the queue. So, we leave mad, wonderful Sicily behind and we are on our way back to mainland Italy, where our adventure continues………..

The streets of Catania

From Sestri Levanti to Sicily – why not?

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I’d always planned to spend some time in Italy on this trip, so after our time in the South of France we drive across the border and travel along the North Eastern coastline of Italy. As soon as we cross the border there is a noticeable change – there are many more potholes and roadworks are ‘a plenty’. In this part of Italy, the scenery is stunning, but the driving isn’t easy. The motorways are built above coastal towns and bays and the lush mountains are to the North, which means there are tunnels, followed by viaducts, followed by more tunnels.  And as we enter Genoa, everything goes a bit ‘pear shaped’. There is major roadworks across the city and the satnav lady gets herself in a bit of a pickle, taking us round and around in circles. We pass through the same Piage 3 times, and as we head in the wrong direction again, my stress level begins to rise. I pull over at the next Piage, where we stall and cause more havoc, and John takes over the driving and I do the navigating (a better combination!). I switch to google maps in the hope that we might find a way out of the city and eventually after 90 minutes going around in circles, we break free and head in the right direction……. welcome to Italy, where road chaos reigns!

Italy is very different from France. While France is on the chic side of shabby chic, its neighbour, Italy on the other hand is definitely on the shabby side. Being more on the shabby side myself…. I just love it. I have always found Italy to be ‘untouristy’, very up front, yet unpretentious. It’s somewhere where that’s easy to blend into the background, to disappear even. Our first port of call is Sestri Levante, a beautiful little town on the Ligurian Riviera and the campsite has stunning views over the bay. We take a stroll into town and

Enjoy lunch on the beach. It is Wednesday after all, so why not!

Lunch at Sestri Levante

Our plan is to then move to Tuscany and visit Lucca, Sienna, Florence and Bologna. But there’s a problem. The weather forecast for Tuscany is rain for the next 10 days and we start looking further afield. On a whim, we hatch a plan to head south, as far south as you can go in Italy……to Sicily.  Some might say why Sicily? Well, there’s the weather, the scenery, the Greek, Roman and Norman heritage, the food etc, etc. But then on the other side, there are plenty of reasons not to go. It’s too far, we will need to get a ferry or drive a long way, what about the Mafia etc, etc. And so, like most people, when I make a decision, I tend to weigh up the pros and cons, the why’s and the why not’s. There isn’t a right or wrong decision of course, as I try and tell myself when I’m, struggling to make a decision, so that’s when the other why not can be helpful. This isn’t the reason not to do something why not, this is the open why not, the spontaneous why not, the ‘you will never know until you try it’ why not, the ‘embrace new things with open arms’ why not. And I have learned on this trip that if you listen to this why not it helps to challenge indecisiveness and it has taken me to places, I’d never dreamed of. After all, that’s what travelling (and maybe life itself) is all about. Isn’t it better to be open to life’s possibilities, I hear the helpful why not whispering, rather than shutting out opportunities with our fears, before they even have a chance to get going?  So, we take an overnight ferry from Livorno to Palermo (Sicily) and

We stop at Lucca on the way

The streets of Lucca

sharing the most amazing Margherita Pizza for lunch. We arrive on a Saturday evening (in the dark) in the chaotic city of Palermo, where the driving is Mental, with a capital M. Over the next few days we begin to explore this island of contrasts.

We take a train to Palermo

and visit the Royal Palace, where under the rule of the Norman King, Roger II (1130) the Palatine Chapel was built. The chapel represents an extraordinary fusion of Islamic, Byzantine and Romanesque architecture which has been awarded Unesco World heritage status. The golden mosaics covering the walls and the Moorish wooden ceiling are mesmerising.

The Royal palace and inside the Palatine Chapel 

After a lovely Sicilian lunch, we spend the afternoon wandering around the city centre, visiting Piazzo Pretorio and Quattro Canti (1608), the historic centre of the city. More stunningly beautiful baroque church interiors – don’t miss Chiesa di SS Savatore and Chiesa del Gesũ, – they stopped me in my tracks, not something that happens with churches very often.

Inside Chiesa del Gesũ, Piazzo Pretorio and Quattro Canti

Outside Chiesa del Gesũ there is a wedding party, waiting for the bride to arrive. Everyone is immaculately dressed and smiling but turn the corner and in the dirty back alleys, full of litter and graffiti there is a sinister edge. Here, I wouldn’t be surprised to meet those men in dark suits and sunglasses carrying guitar cases!

As we travel across the North West coast of Sicily,

we take in the Capo Gallo and Zingaro nature reserves and visit la Tonnara di Scopello (a medieval tuna-fishing estate). We walk along spectacular coastal paths, with wonderful spring flowers (yellow thistles, bright purple clover and red poppies), crystal clear turquoise waters and idyllic pebble coves.

     Capo Gallo, la Tonnaro di scopello and Zingaro nature reserve

But in contrast, as we travel through some of the small towns, there is a definite air of neglect. Roads full of potholes, pavements strewn with litter are uneven with weeds and trees roots and many houses seem in a state of disrepair. As other parts of Italy have moved with the times, Sicily somehow seems to have lagged behind. Perhaps Sicily, considered the most conquered island in the world (Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Moors, Normans, Spaniards, Northern Italians, mafiosi, fascists….), dominated by outside forces and lack of investment for so long, has resigned itself to accepting its lot and has moved a little more slowly? As we tuck into a Sicilian tapa, followed by Cannoli (tube-shaped shells of fried pastry dough, filled with a sweet, creamy ricotta), I wonder what the answers might be, and so I am looking forward to exploring this fascinating island and finding out more.

Were in the Côte d’Azur – ooh la la!

20190509_151840.jpgThe view from Antibes sea wall

We’re in the French Rivieria, where the rich and famous mingle and the it (no, not information technology) crowd strut their stuff. Only, we’ve got our timings slightly out. We’re 2 days early for the Cannes film festival and 2 weeks too early for the Monaco Grand Prix. However, being one of the not crowd, it means we get to see these beautiful towns without the beautiful people (apart from us of course).

Our first port of call is Antibes,

famous for its 1920’s American Jazz scene and inspiration to the surrealist painter Pablo Picasso. It’s a beautiful sunny day and just a 5-mile cycle from the campsite. We wander through Vieil Antibes (the historic quarter), with its narrow cobblestone streets festooned with flower boxes. We visit the towns impressive 16th century ramparts and sea wall where there is a spectacular view across the bay to Nice and beyond where in the distance the impressive snow-capped Alpes Martine complete the vista. We soak up the atmosphere and enjoy a beer in the sunshine.

The historic quarter of Antibes

Next, we take a local bus to Nice

I have wanted to visit this city for some time, and its impressive. I’m surprised at how much it has to offer. The city centre is pristine and there is certainly plenty of money here. We head for the Cours Saleya (market Square) for a cuppa and wander along its stalls; flowers, vegetables and local produce. I buy some Provençal herbs, tapenade and aromatic jasmine tea. We continue along the tiny alleys of the historic quarter which are brimming with delis, bars, boutiques and restaurants and visit the Musée Masséna, an Italian neoclassical villa which retraces Nice’s history from the 18th century. A walk up the hill through the leafy Cimiez district to the Musée Matisse, a French painter who spent most of his life in Nice, is not be underestimated, but well worth the visit.

The market square and a little bar in the historic quarter   

Henri Matisse is known for his bright colours and his work continually evolved throughout his career, though painting and sculpture and in his later years through decoupage. I’m still not sure about his more abstract pieces after my visit to the museum and as I descend the stairs, I find John in the main foyer staring up at a supersized Matisse decoupage picture. “I don’t understand” John says, “it’s like he had too much blue paper and ran out of the other colours. That bit in the middle just doesn’t make sense” I look up and the finished work could be the giant-sized painting of a 4-year-old, but I guess the mystery of modern art is that it leaves you with more questions than answers. As they say beauty really is in the eye of the beholder. We finish our day in Nice with a lovely meal washed down with a Picon biere (a caramel coloured bitter made from a base of fresh dried oranges). It’s what I would call interesting, an acquired taste, but it’s a perfect match for the sunshine.

Central Nice

We visit Cannes,

and we’re early for the famous Cannes Film festival. The Palais des Festival et des Congrés and some of the beach front restaurants/stages are still under construction, but there is a definite buzz about the place. We walk along alles des etoiles du Cinema, a path of celebrity hand prints, and the boulevard de la Croisette, past the legendary art deco Carlton International hotel, and soak up the atmosphere. The prices are jaw dropping, one beach front restaurant offers an Aberdeen Angus steak for 99 Euros! We quickly walk past and stroll along the marina, full of impressive yachts of the rich and famous. I spot a rather shiny yacht, called Glow. I’m sure that’s the name of Jennifer Lopez’s perfume, but alas, she is nowhere to be seen!

Outside the Palais des Festival, celebrity hand print, Carlton International hotel

We make a snap decision and take a ferry to Ĩle Ste-Marguerite, a tiny island just 15 minutes away from Cannes and it’s like stepping into a different world. We grab coffees and a sandwich from a snack bar (12 Euros 50!) and walk one of the many well marked out paths across this tranquil castaway Island, its clear blue shores fringed with pines and eucalyptus.

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The shores of Ĩle Ste-Marguerite

On our last day we take the train to Monaco

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View of the bay of Monaco from the Jardin Exotique

Squeezed into 200 hectares Monaco is the world’s second smallest country (principality). How do they do it, you may ask …well it’s because it literally hugs the cliffs. So, if you ever visit be prepared for the hills and the steps, the ups and the downs. We start off with Jardin Exotique which hosts the world’s largest succulent and cactus collection – you guessed it, it’s up a hill, but the views of the bay from the top are spectacular. Next, we head to the Musée Océonographique de Monaco (down one hill and then up another) with its centre piece being a 6m deep lagoon.  On this pistol shaped rock (called le Rocher) the private residence of the Grimaldi dynasty, the Palais du Prince and Cathédral de Monaco is also worth a visit (although we didn’t as I was absolutely shattered by the time, we made it up there).The roads in this city snake their way up and down the hillside and you really get a sense of what the atmosphere would be like with the Grand Prix……maybe next time! 

Getting ready for the Monaco Grand Prix, Jardin Exotique & on le Rocher

And there ends our visit to the French Rivera, and we are on the move again, heading for Italy. So, for now it’s Au Revoir France, Ciao Italy. I’m looking forward to visiting a new country and a new adventure.

Ten magical days in Provence

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“This doesn’t feel right. Are you sure we’re at the right campsite?” I say, as we drive up to reception. It had been an interesting 24 hours. We had extended our stay at the last campsite due to 60 km/hour winds, with gusts of up to 100 km which, on the top of an exposed hill near the picturesque Luberon village of Gordes, caused a lot of rocking and rolling in the van. In the hurry to get away in the morning I’d put the co-ordinates of another campsite into the satnav and we were now just north of Orange, about 180 km North West of where we wanted to be. Never mind, as they say good travel has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving. The sun is shining, and we get to drive through even more of the stunning Provence countryside. Peter Mayles had A year in Provence (I think he ended up staying much longer), but we only have 10 days to sample the exquisite delights of Provençal life.

I could live here,

I think to myself as I sip some Châteaneuf-du-Pape on a terrace overlooking another breath-taking vista, in the oh so French village of Rousellin. And it’s here that I bump into an old friend of mine – a Citroen 2CV. I had a blueberries and cream D reg rolltop in the early 90’s and never quite got over the loss when her king pin crumpled!

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We start our whistle stop tour of Provence at a campsite near to Aix (pronounced Ex)-en-Provence. On our first day we take a local bus into Aix-en and

I step into the epitome of shabby chic cafe life.

Around every corner sits another little square surrounded by plain-trees casting flickering light and shade on the pavements. There are countless art galleries, lovely coffee shops and bistros and when you look up, although there is still a chill in the air, the sky is the most amazing blue colour and the air is crisp and clear. It’s no wonder many artists have been drawn to Provence and one of France’s most famous, Paul Cezanne lived and painted in Aix-en for most of his life. We visit his studio and favourite outdoor painting spot where he completed more than 80 paintings of the majestic Montagne Sainte-Victoire, his muse. Luckily for us our campsite is right on its doorstop.

                      The centre of Aix-en-Provence

We spend the next few days walking in the Sainte-Victoire natural reserve   

There are many well-marked walking routes and the scenery is breath-taking. On our second day, as we walk towards the Zola damn and lake, and we here a deafening squawk of what sounds like birds, but as we grow closer, there are no birds. It’s then that I remember I’ve heard this sound before, and I think it must be frogs. Later I learn that its male frogs calling for a mate, all croaking, whistling, chirping and ribbiting. We sit by the lake and listen and within 10 minutes the noise dissipates and then stops. Simply amazing!

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Montagne Sainte-Victoire in the evening sun

Sainte-Victoire nature reserve

From Gordes, we cycle to the picture postcard villages of Luberon

– Rousellin (where ochre is mined), Lacoste and Mors. The only problem is that every one of these villages are built on top of a hill, which means that visiting them requires a slow climb to the top. I’m not good on hills, not on foot, and certainly not on a bike. So, by the time I had cycled back to the campsite, which sits 500m above the valley floor, I felt like my face was going to burst and it was the colour of a roasted lobster. The only way I managed to get up was to focus on the dashed white lines at the side of the road, no looking ahead, no thinking about my burning thighs. Next time I’m in Provence, I’m thinking a small sporty cabriolet would be a much easier way to visit these villages.

  Hilltop villages of Gordes, Rousellin and Murs

Our final stop in Provence is near the village of Moutiers-Sainte-Marie, in the Verdon Natural Regional Park. This is our chance to do some Kayaking and we cycle to

Lac de Sainte-Croix and the Gorges du Verdon

The Verdon river flows into the lake after passing through the limestone Gorge, considered to be one of Europe’s most beautiful. The lake is stunning, a startling turquoise-green. Water from its glacial source contains suspended rock flour minerals, which create the colour.  We paddle towards the opening of the gorge itself and this is a wow moment for me, a definite 10! The limestone rockfaces which have been sculpted by thousands of years of rushing water, the first green of Spring sprinkled across the trees clinging precariously to the rock faces, and the turquoise-green river ever flowing.

20190507_123712 The Gorges du Verdon

So, after 10 days in Provence, all I can say is I loved it for: its exquisite hilltop villages; the colours – the greens, blues and ochres; the amazing wildlife – brightly coloured butterflies, crickets, chirping frogs, amazing birds, and don’t forget the sunshine – I’m definitely coming back!

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Roses and Adge: not what I expected

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Expectations…. where do they come from, and how do they affect our emotions? I have been looking forward to this ‘gap year’ since I first started to think about travelling in my late teens, but my life turned down another path and so, to be here on my ‘seniors gap year’, 30 years on, my expectations are high, perhaps too high. For the first 3 months we travelled in organised small group tours and once we had decided which trips to go on the rest was easy, no decisions to make, we just followed the crowd. Now as we move from our initial base in Costa Blanca, there are decisions to be made about where to go next and what we want to do when we get there. However, in the week we spend in Roses (pronounced Rusas) near the French border and Adge (like edge but with an a) I struggle with trying to make the ‘right decisions’ and this challenges what I’m expecting from the next part of my trip. As you are all aware, a lot of the time reality can be quite different from what we expect. In Roses I’d expected sunshine and blue sky, but instead we got rain, strong winds and mainly dull, even cold (11 degrees) days. I’d spent hours pondering over the lonely planet guide book, planning a boat trip from Roses to Cadaqués, a cycle along the canal du Midi in Adge and canoeing on the Gorges du Tarn. Great, that’s a plan, I’ve made a decision! I’ve always struggled making decisions, possibly because I want to make the most of every moment and don’t want to miss out on anything. However, things don’t always go to plan. Our boat trip in Roses gets cancelled because of the weather and a visit to the Gorges du Tarn is out of the question after one of the wettest Easter weekends in decades.

I have theory, a formula that seems to influence my happiness, and perhaps others too. The formula is: happiness equals experience divided by expectation. So, if I score my expectation and experience of a certain event out of 10, there’s an overall score for happiness ranging from 0-10. Let’s say my expectation of visiting Roses was 8, but my experience was 2 (cold, wet, windy and I couldn’t do anything I’d planned to do), then using the formula my happiness score is ¼ or 0.25. However, on our last day in Roses which was cold and windy, John planned a bike ride, something which wasn’t on the itinerary. My expectations were low (1) and it took a lot of coaxing to get me out of the van, but it was surprisingly enjoyable. We cycled through a nature reserve which was sheltered from the wind and watching the house martins dip and dive in front of the bikes was a real treat. I’d give the experience a 6, so my overall happiness score for the bike ride was a 6.

And so, as the week goes on and we settle into our next campsite in Adge, I try and work out how I can get the best out of my gap year. We plan another boat trip but it’s cancelled again, this time because of the strong mistral winds. We console ourselves and go out for our first proper French meal. The menu is in French of course, and the waiters speak very little English, so I keep safe and order salmon and crème caramel. John’s been practising his French and fancies some veal (expectation 9). However, when his plate arrives there is a roll of fat with something pinkish in the middle. He nudges it around his plate and disappointment was written on his face – he couldn’t eat it. It wasn’t until we translated the menu on the way out that we noticed the dish he’d ordered was Tête de Veau, a local French delicacy consisting of calf’s brain…. happiness score 0. The next day we cycle to the Cape d’Adge aquarium and spend an afternoon gazing at the tropical fish. I’d forgotten how much I love aquariums. The tropical fish gawp back, full of colour and character and I easily slip into a scene from Finding Nemo, vowing to watch the sequel, Finding Dory soon. The visit to the aquarium gets a 7 on the happiness scale, it was an unexpected enjoyable afternoon.

After the second day of strong wind (still no boats running), we make a snap decision and take the train to Montpelier. Feeling rather grumpy on this day that felt more like a cold blustery Autumn, rather than a Spring day, and not expecting much, we walked into the open square of Place de la Comédie, dominated by the opera house and was blown away by the cities 17th century architecture. We pick up a great map of the city from the tourist information centre and work out our own walking route around the cities old quarter. We walk along the plane-tree lined narrow streets past many grand hótels particuliers (private mansions in their day, but now many are hotels or museums), the neoclassical courthouse, the Cathédrale Saint- Pierre and La Faculté de Médecine, which in its  day (late 12th century) was one of the first operating medical schools in the western world. Montpelier even has an Arc de Triomphe, a copy of the gates from Paris erected in honour of Louis XIV, an Aqueduct (Saint-Clément) and many parcs, green spaces and a fabulous esplanade. And let’s not forget the artsy shops and workshops; puppet makers, old book repairers, carpet weavers and potters, and amazing cafes and restaurants. At the end of our tour of the old quarter we find a Moroccan tea house, unremarkable from the outside, but with an incredible tea menu (I’m in heaven) and delicious crepes …. I give our day out in Montpellier an 8!

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The old town in Montpellier

So, I’m still trying to work out how to manage my expectations on this trip and I’m confused as to which way to go. Should I expect nothing and sometimes be surprised…. “Blessed is he who expects nothing, as he shall never be disappointed” (Alexander Pope) or expect everything and often be disappointed. Perhaps there’s a middle ground and that is to accept that all experiences good, bad, happy and sad have value and are to be treasured. And as a wise old sage keeps reminding me…. “We have a choice whether to be happy or not (most of the time) in whatever we are doing. By choosing to be happy we will have more positive experiences, no matter what our expectations are” (John Renfrew).

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From Alicante to Tarragona

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We are on the move again and after being in the one place for just over a month, I’m looking forward to some new adventures. But before we go, I still have one city to visit close to where we are staying, Alicante. Our friends are up for a visit and we book the local bus to stop at the campsite. John, being the modern man, has decided to stay at home and catch up on the washing, although I think the threat of us ladies doing some shopping is just too much for him! It’s an early start and after rising at 6.45 to catch the bus, our first port of call in Alicante is breakfast……a good old tostada, the staple breakfast, lunch and snack in Spain, best served with tomate, queso and jamo serrano…. yum. After breakfast we visit the 16th century Castillo Santa Barbara, via the lift. You can walk, but as the castle is perched on a small mountain, the 3 Euros 20 cent for the lift is worth every penny. On the roof of the castle the sweeping views over the city, bay and coastal towns beyond are stunning and it’s worth spending time here to admire the vista.

The vista from the top of Castillo Santa Barbara, Alicante

We then wander through the streets of ‘El Barrio’ (the old town), where the quaint whitewashed houses are decorated with geranium window boxes and the pace of life is slow. We stroll along the main Esplanade across from the marina and stop at one of the cafes for their ‘Menu del Día’ (menu of the day) which usually consists of 3 courses, bread, salad and often a glass of wine. June and I share a speciality Alicante rice dish, Arroz, similar to Paella but made with a more glutenous rice. Washed down with a glass of rioja wine it is delicious. We spend a few hours window shopping and catch the bus back to the campsite. On arriving Eddie quickly realises he has left his phone and credit cards on the bus, but after phoning his phone, the bus driver answers and offers to bring it to the campsite. ‘All’s well that ends well’ and it just goes to show that most people the world over will go out of their way to help if they can.

The old town of Alicante 

It’s a 5-hour drive to our next campsite, which is on the beach, about 6km from the city of Tarragona. We share the driving and I’m gaining confidence navigating this 7m long machine on the wrong side of the road. We drive from Valencia into Catalonia and the landscape changes. Its greener here with less agriculture and tall thin cypress trees, poppies and spring flowers now line the roadside replacing the parched mountain plains of Valencia. The towns and villages seem more French, less Spanish as we drive North towards the French border. On our next day we walk into Tarragona, a city I hadn’t heard of before, but had been recommended to visit. A real treat was in store. We discover that Tarragona is a very old city and was first occupied by the Romans in 200BC when as the capital of Modern Spain, it was known as Tarraco. It was invaded in the 8th century by the Moors and rose to power again in the 11th century as a Christian settlement. Much of the original Roman remains and Medieval architecture has been well preserved.

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The cloisters at Tarragona Cathedral

We visit the Amifeatre Roma, perched just back from the beach, it offers amazing views and the Pretori I Circ Romans which contains the vaults of the Roman Circus, where chariot races were a regular sight in the city. The Romans really did know how to party – who needs a night at the cinema when gladiators and wild animals are fighting to the death with a gorgeous seascape backdrop or chariots are speeding through the streets of the city at great pace? The 12th century Romanesque and Gothic cathedral and museum are also well worth a visit as is the Passeig Arqueologic, a walk around part of the old Roman perimeter walls. In the old town we wander down charming narrow, winding streets, past many picturesque little squares where Roman relics pop up unexpectedly on street corners. I loved this city and there is much more that we didn’t see on our 27,000-step day visit. If you are in the area, don’t pass it by, it’s definitely worth a visit.

The old town Tarragona, and Amifeatre Roma

The lady at the ticket office in Tarragona had smiled when John asked for a pensionista ticket (he can’t resist a bargain and after all his OAP discounts are subbing me on this gap year) and suggested ‘that he might be old on the outside, but still young on the inside’. This got me thinking that both cities we visited are very old, with centuries of history, but they have survived into the 21st century by adapting and perhaps for cities, but not humans, being ‘old on the inside, but young on the outside’ might be the best way to go!

A lovely cup of tea in Elche

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Okay, so I have a confession, it’s a terrible vice……. I absolutely love tea. It’s my tipple of choice, morning, afternoon and evening. I have even been known to have a ‘cup of tea’ at last orders. I’m not a Tetley or Yorkshire tea girl. Tea, for me must be more subtle and I do have my favourites…Earl Grey (with milk not lemon), Darjeeling, Vanilla Rooibos, Ginger and Lemon, Peppermint and Liquorice to name but a few, but I’m always up for trying a new blend. As far as I’m concerned there is nothing better than sitting down with a nice hot cup of tea (a pot is even better). A wee square of black chocolate goes very nicely, and on special occasions a fruit scone with jam and butter makes for a perfect combination. A cup of tea signals that it’s time for a break, time to stop what I’m doing, time to switch off or sometimes it can help to keep going. It’s strange that although a traveller seeks out new and different experiences, comforting rituals, such as a nice cup of tea, have also become important. However, my quest for this simple creature comfort in the land of café con leche, has been challenging. The coffee and chocolate culture in Spain go back a long way and drinking tea here is not really considered the norm. So, this my chance to practice some of of the lingo. “Te negra con leche, por favour (black tea with milk, please)”, I smile …… a small cup of hot milk with a tea bag floating within (and no tea diffused out) arrives. Okay, so that didn’t work. I try something else “Te negra con leche fria, aparte” (black tea with separate cold milk) …… a cup of tea and a separate glass of milk is placed on the table and when I try the same on another occasion, a cup of tea and a glass with ice (not sure how that one happened) is served. I go back to my Spanish phrase book, and finally during an afternoon in Elche, in one of the city’s quaint little squares, I get it right. The waitress offers Rooibos as a choice, so I go for it “ Té Rooibois en agua caliente y un poco de leche fria en una jarra”( Rooibois tea with hot water and a small jug of cold milk) and lo and behold, a lovely cup of loose-leaf vanilla Rooibos in hot water, in a large mug (most cups of tea in Spain have been tiny) arrives with a small jug of cold milk on the side. And so already I have a soft spot for Elche where I enjoy the best cup of tea in Spain, so far!

We spend the afternoon in Elche (also known as Elx), the third biggest city in the region of Valencia. We later find out that the city has UNESCO World Heritage status for its Misteri d’Elx (an annual mystery musical play sung entirely by men, about the death, assumption and crowning of the Virgin), performed since the 15th century in the Basilica of Saint Mary of Elche. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) it is performed in August, so we don’t get the chance to experience it, but we do visit the extensive palm groves for which the city has also been awarded UNESCO status. The palms are everywhere and you might also spot a pomegranate tree or two, for which this region is also famous for.  We visit the Huerto del Cura, a beautiful garden full of date palms, cacti and other local flora. The Imperial palm tree, in the centre of the garden, is 165 years old and is quiet a spectacle with its 8 additional trunks (children) sprouting 2 meters above the ground in a tree-like candelabra. We visit the Museo del Palmarel which houses hundreds of different palm varieties and spend some time in the Museo Arqueológico y Historia de Elche, a fabulous museum, been built on The Alcazar de la Señoríasite, part of the old Islamic road in the city. The museum recounts the history of Elche, through archaeological artefacts, touchscreen information displays (all in English) and animation. Finally, we visit the Basillica de Santa Maria, where a trip up its tower provides a fabulous view of the city. On the way back to the car, we walk through the Municipal Park which is full of…. yes, you guessed it, more palm trees. A lovely city to visit if you are in this area of Spain, and although I can’t promise, it might be your best bet of finding that lovely cup of tea all you tea lovers in Spain have been looking for!