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Anna is currently in Auckland.

Hola Amigos!
Madrid is loud, gritty, cosmopolitan, and large, with tree-lined streets that go on forever, plazas, and large parks. Yesterday, with my two hostel room-mates, Erin and Joanna, I did three art muesums, yes, three! The Prado Art Gallery, with a collection of painting right through from the 12th century to the impressionists, the Museo Thyssen Bornemisza, with a smaller collection of famous paintings, including a lot of early Picasso, Gaugain, etc, and the Museo Reina Sofia, which specialised in the most famous Spanish painters, Dali, Picasso, Gris and Miro, with Picasso´s famous Guernica being their star player. We sat in the beautiful and huge Parque del Retiro for lunch, and then wandered through there afterwards, watching the people on the lake floundering around in rowboats. We had the whole Murphy´s law thing happen where you pass a whole lot of cafes, and then when you're hungry, there's NOWHERE to eat, so we spent ages wandering around after the Prado trying to find a cafe for lunch, before another 30 minute wait in a busy cafe while the poor harassed waitress tried to understand our takeaway order and get us sorted, only to get to the park and find avenues lined with cafes!! Ah well. My two poor US freinds started to get cramped legs from all the walking (this is their first stop, whereas its near the end for me, so my legs are hardy now!).

Day 2 we headed to the Palacio Real, the Royal Palace, where we goggled at 25 sumptious rooms (as ridiculously opulent as Versailles... a room with stuccoed porcelain decoration of cupids with lurid green ceramic upholstery and garlands of fruit on all the walls from floor to ceiling, and all over the ceiling, anyone?) and then walked through the massive park at the back, through the shady avenues and beautiful fountained squares. Then up into the city, exploring some beautiful fountain bedecked plazas with their stunning buildings surrounding, to the Plaza Major, where we sat and people-watched over paella and a specialty Spanish drink I don´t remember the name of which is like an almond milk tea, very refreshing. Then it was on, past an awful lot of very cool shoe stores, through a district where the prostitutes were out advertising their goods at 3pm in the afternoon (!!) and up to Cueca, a funky arty district full of alternative fashion stores and cool little boutiques. A very cool couple of days.

My tour starts tomorrow, and I'm not sure how much access to the internet I´ll get, but I'll try and keep some posts happening!

Me beside the lake in the Parque Del Retiro.

Me and my hostel-found Houston friends, Joanna and Erin, in the Palacio Real's beautiful Parque del Campo del Moro, looking back at the Palace at the top.

Me in the guard´s post at the Palacio Real.

The Plaza Major, a very Italian feeling square lined with cafes where we had lunch on Day 2.

The Plaza Santa Ana, with its beautiful buildings and cafes everywhere... this is very typically Madrid.

Posted on 01 Jun 2007 by Anna
Alpine Anna :-)
Hi everyone! So I know I'm 5 days behind, and I haven't detailed ANYTHING about my last two days ont he Cote D'Azur, or my time in Avignon, but just to let you all know I'm currently in Marnaz, a pretty little town in a glacier-gorged valley in the French Alps. My friend Natalie is an au pair here, and is able to trip across to Italy (1 hour away) and Geneva (30 minutes away) very easily :-) I'm just jealous! It was so good to catch up with her and talk to someone I know again!

Also, much to Natalie's disappointment, the area has had a drop in temperature and a big dump of snow, but I'm loving it... how often do you get to go from 36° to 6° in a few hours? The snowy landscape here is also very different to what I've seen in New Zealand; instead of vast volcanic landscapes, the hills are covered in dark pine trees, and as its spring everything is fresh and clean and feels like an advertisement for room freshener. Natalie has been driving me up through beautiful villages, all with heidi-style chalets of stone and dark wood, and window boxes of red geraniums. So many times we've turned a corner to a street that looks like a Disneyland theme park, and it's hard to reconcile in my mind that these are working villages, with families that have lived here for generations, and the new houses are built the same as the quaint old ones purely because they function so well.
So in the last day and a half I have seen Geneva and it's towering Jet D'Eau, and a pretty little medieval walled town on Lac Laman (Lake Geneva) called Yvoire. I've sat in a deafeningly silent chapel in a pristine self-sufficient Carmelite convent called Le Reposoir (a 12th century building that became a convent in the 15th century... ridiculously old) where the nuns live in an order of silence, and sat down to a proper meal with a french family. I've stomped about like a kid in the most freshest of powdery snow I've ever seen, then visited Chamonix, one of the most major of the ski resort towns, in the heart of the French Alps. I've been to the very foot of Mont Blanc, and seen my first ever real live glacier. I've been across the border into a new country twice (Switzerland and back, two times in 2 days), and seen an excellent Picasso exhibition in Martigny, Switzerland. I've eaten praline glace (icecream), and for lunch today, savoury crepes filled with bacon, raclette cheese and potato, a typical alpine combination.
And to top it all off, Natalie and I treated ourselves to a michelin-recognised restaurant meal tonight, where we had a rich four course feast, of a gazpacho shot with foie gras and blueberry creme brulee, an entree of quail and foie gras salad, a main of wine-soaked pigeon for me and prune-stuffed rabbit for Natalie, and then rich chocolate truffle cake and a mille feuille (creamy pastry concoction) stuffed with berries and fruit of the forest sorbet to finish. Accompanied by a sweet sparkling local wine from a vineyard called Ayze.
How to top that??!!!
Posted on 29 May 2007 by Anna
Anna in Monaco
I arrived at about 4pmish in Nice, again in the heat, to an absolutely fantastic hostel (thank goodness! about time for one) called Villa Saint Expurey. Its a converted monastery up the hill behind Nice, and has such perks as free internet, a free and very good breakfast (freshly baked bread every morning!), a laundry service where they wash and dry your clothes for you for only 5 euro (to do it at a laundromat costs about 8), and have meals and a bar available each night, with amazing pizzas for 5.50 euro, and drinks for 1euro, which is about as cheap as you're going to get a dinner. Hence they're one of the highest rated hostels in the world. I dont think I was in the best of rooms, being for the first two nights in a 6 bed dorm right by the very noisy bar/common room/restaurant building, which was the old chapel, and the third night in a 13 bed dorm, which is never ideal, but the services of the place, the genuine helpfulness of the staff (mostly kiwis, aussies, americans and canadians were staying there, which meant the reception staff and most people at the hostel were speaking in English, yay!!!!), and the great people I met, more than made up for that.

On arrival, you're given detailed maps showing Nice, plus the surrounding area, including detailed instructions on which buses and trains go where, how long they take, how much they cost, and suggested day trips or itineraries, which was marvellous. The maps also acted as kind of a beacon, you'd be standing on the bus feeling a little unsure where you were supposed to be getting off, when the person next to you, also looking q little worried, would bring out their map, and after a "Hey! You're staying at Villa Saint Expurey!", Voila, an instant friend.

Day 1, I went on a day trip to Monaco. I went on the bus, via Eze, which was a pretty little town built high on a cliff, with little boutique cafes, a marvellous looking michelin starred restaurant (when I come back to Europe with someone, I'm dragging them to a Michelin star restaurant, I've seen 2 now, and been sorely tempted) and spectacular views of the coastline.

At the Eze bus station, I met three Americans who were from my hostel (again, the tell-tale map and directions sheet, in this case they spotted me frowning over it) and we travelled to Monaco together. Monaco was spectacularly over-the-top... there seemed to be an overabundance of fast cars, expensive houses, and huge boats... a reflection of the tax haven Monaco has created with its very successful casino. After a goggle at the casino, the boats and the cars, we left the downtown area, as it was pretty chaotic as they were setting up for the Monaco Grand Prix that weekend, so there was scaffolding with temporary seating, road barriers, tyre walls, security checks and sponsor signage going up. It was quite a strange experience to see all that and to realise they actually race through the town itself; must be cool to watch.
I then went up to the palace at the top of the hill for amazing views, a wander through the a-little-too-perfect palace old town (and its billion tourist shops) and checked out the guards at the palace, though if you even went beyond the ropes within 10 metres of them you got yelled at by a scary official policeman guy (no, I didn't get told off, but I saw a couple of others get an earful... and since the noise echoes around the palace square, you're pretty much getting publicly humiliated in front of 1000 tourists).

On the way back to Nice, I stopped in at Villefranche-sur-mur, a picturesque little fishing village that actually still felt like a working village, with a daycare centre, dance school and locals going about their evening business, unlike a lot of the villages on the tourist route. After a wander around the old town, I went and sat on the beach, a rocky little bay that was nonetheless pretty, quiet, filled with locals, and had lovely water... all very frustrating as I hadn't brought my togs. Never mind, I had a wade, a chillout, and enjoyed the fact that I was swanning around the South of France...

The port in Monaco, with the big, big boats, and the palace on the hill behind.

Highrolling...The hotel next to the Casino, with yet another sports car in front (Monaco was full of them).

A view from the hill overlooking Monaco.

Me from the castle ramparts looking down at the view.

Monaco Palace guards, in the white you seem to see everyone in the Cote D'Azur wearing.

Monaco Grand Prix setup. It was 4 days before the Monaco Grand Prix, so you can see all the grandstands set up and the advertising around, and the roads being readied for it. Would have been amazing to be there, but the country was chaotic enough 4 days out...

Not one of the expensive sports cqrs I saw, but... Dad! Can I have it?!!!

The pretty bay at Villefrance-sur-mur

Villefrance-sur-mur is very pretty... and very quiet... I heard later that it tends to attract the older generation...

The amazing bourganvillia that's everywhere in Provence and the Cote D'Azur

Villefranche-sur-mur beach

My tired feet at sunset on Villefranche-sur-mur

Sunset, looking back at the village at Villefranche-sur-mur

Posted on 27 May 2007 by Anna

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