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Europe A fortnight on the continent

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Europe - A fortnight on the continent


Europe - a fortnight on the continent Our European adventure took in four countries covering several thousand kilometers of landscape. Along the way we visited towns and cities in Spain, Portugal and France, ventured across the Straight of Gibraltar to Morocco and had a close up and personal look at the Rock of Gibraltar. Along the way we immersed ourselves in the culture of the regions we traveled through. Our journey was spontaneous and mostly unplanned and unexpected. Serendipity took firm hold on our Ait Transat flight from Calgary to Paris when we looked into the inflight magazine and found 10 places to see in Portugal, our main destination on this adventure.

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Europe - A fortnight on the continent


After a brief stop in Paris, we boarded a flight to Barcelona to start our journey. Two days of exploration showed us a vibrantly modern city with hints of past glory. Barcelona is a collection of wild architecture, most designed, or inspired, by the architect Antoni Gaudí. The metropolitan area is home to some 5 million people. Football is the local passion and the city boasts a major training centre and a winning team. Language here is either Spanish or more commonly, Catalan, although English is widely spoken as well owing to Barcelona’s prominence as a tourism magnet. Looking like something straight out of science fiction, the Torre de Comunicacions Montjuïc, communication tower designed by Santiago Calatrava was built to transmit television coverage of the 1992 Summer Olympics Games.

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Gaudi’s grand vision is displayed through many buildings around the city. Almost organic in appearance, the flowing lines and artistic sculptured adornments of Casa Batllo typify the architect’s signature.

Europe - A fortnight on the continent


The Torre Agbar dominates the Barcelona skyline along with the Sagrada Familia. The Torre, designed by Jean Nouvel, stands 38 stories tall and is known as the gateway to the city’s new technological district.

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The crowning glory of Gaudi’s vision is the Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família a large Roman Catholic church in the heart of the city. Construction of Sagrada Família commenced in 1882, a year later, Gaudí became involved, taking over the project, transforming it combining Gothic and curvilinear Art Nouveau forms. Construction passed the midpoint in 2010 with some of the project's greatest challenges remaining. The Basilica is expected to be completed in 2026, the centenary of Gaudí's death. While the exterior of the Basilica is spectacular with its delicate spires towering over the city and ornate “carvings”, the interior goes a step beyond. Branching pillars soar to flower-like domes in the ceiling leaving the impression of being inside a living structure.

Europe - A fortnight on the continent


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Hopping on, and off, one of the tourist buses took us through the heart of Barcelona, giving us an overview of places to return to on foot.

Santa Caterina Market, with its mosaic wave-like roof was built on the site of Barcelona’s first covered market opened in 1848. The market is part of a restoration project aimed at preserving historic relics of the city’s past.

Europe - A fortnight on the continent


The Placa Espanya and the old Arena, now a high end shopping centre, are a natural meeting place for locals and tourists alike. The National Arts Museum (shown on the following page) provided a vantage point to overlook the Placa.

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Europe - A fortnight on the continent


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Leaving Barcelona behind, we flew to Portugal. After a night in a Lisbon hotel near the airport, one that you couldn’t miss meaning that we drove in endless circles trying to find it, we headed south along local roads. Avoiding major highways, we drove through the countryside with its cork trees and through many towns and villages noting the Moorish architectural influence, white buildings with red roofs and many arched, and tiled, doorways.

Europe - A fortnight on the continent


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Europe - A fortnight on the continent


Our goal for the first day was to make our way to Sagres, the western-most point on the Algarve Coast. Long sandy beaches, complete with beach-side restaurants are a natural tourist destination drawing many international visitors. In Lisbon we were told not to miss a meal of fresh sardines which were in season and plentiful. With enough wine, like a very nice local vino verde, they aren’t bad.

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With the afternoon wearing on, we decided to look for a room for the night. We were pleasantly surprised to find a suite with a huge balcony overlooking Sagres Bay. The Casa de Sagres became an instant favourite for these weary travelers and at 50 Euros with breakfast, a welcome bargain. Europe - A fortnight on the continent


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Our second day saw us moving east along the Algarve, we stopped at a cliff-top restaurant in Castelos. Overlooking the beach and breakwaters, we settled down with a litre of sangia branco, white sangria, which was to become our standard midday refreshment.

Europe - A fortnight on the continent


After recovering from the sangria, we made our way to Estoi, a charming little village north of Faro. Estoi, like most of the towns along the Algarve sports tiled walls and the ever present arched doorways, reminding us that the Moors once lived here. Of course we couldn’t pass up a refreshing glass of Sagres at one of the cafes in the plaza.

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Europe - A fortnight on the continent


Manta Rota, on the eastern side of the Algarve became our destination for the evening. Finding a hotel close to the beach, we set out on foot to find food and refreshment. A seemingly endless beach of white sand dotted with umbrellas ran from horizon to horizon along the ocean. Swimmers were few in number owing to the early June temperatures, so we contented ourselves with strolling along the beach in search of a pub. Finding a suitable establishment, we settled down for a glass, or two, of Sagres, our new favourite beer.

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While we were in the neighbourhood, we decided to see Gibraltar. Estimates of travel time from Manta Rota to the British Colony ranged from an hour and a half to about 2 hours, it took nearly 4, but we did get there. Gibraltar is a bustling little country. Crossing the border from Spain, we found ourselves crossing the runway for Gibraltar International Airport, a strange experience considering the security of airports at home. Land is at a premium, there is a lot of it, but most of it is vertical, so buildings are packed in tight on the waterfront plain and up the hillside. Finding a little restaurant at the base of the rock, we ordered a traditional English meal of pizza and wine before continuing our exploration.

Europe - A fortnight on the continent


Having come this far, we took the plunge and boarded the cable car to ascend the Rock. At the summit, we met the Barbary macaques, a thriving colony of some 300 of the little thieves. As we arrived, we noticed that one of the young monkeys had purloined a stuffed toy from a tourist. Apart from humans, the Barbary macaques of Gibraltar are the only free living primates in Europe. Mostly confined to the Gibraltar Botanical Gardens. Sometimes called Gibraltar’s apes, the macaque is actually a tailless monkey.

From the outlook atop the rock, we could see the Atlantic coast to the west, the Mediterranean coast to the east and the Moroccan coast to the south. 25


Being so close to Morocco, we decided to make a side trip to Tangiers, so we made our way to Tarifa to spend the night before boarding a ferry the next morning. Tarifa is the southernmost point on the European continent, sitting firmly astride the 36th parallel. Passing through the Puerta de Jerez, the sole remaining gate through the old city wall, we found ourselves in the old town centre, a maze of winding streets and alleys with shops, cafes, and restaurants.

Europe - A fortnight on the continent


As Tarifa is just south of Jerez, the home of the drink we know as sherry, so it was not surprising to find evidence that the fortified wine is popular with locals.

Several ferries make the crossing between Tarifa to Tangiers daily. The manager at our hotel advised us to book a tour rather than set out to explore Tangiers on our own recognisance, good advice.

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Making port in Tangiers (Tanger in the local tongue) we found a somewhat chaotic mix of the very modern and the very old. Our tour of the city took us through the city centre and the outskirts providing a good overview of the nature of the city.

Like many of the cities we visited, the streets bustle with traffic of all sorts from delivery vans to scooters and pedestrians. While navigating seemed to our eyes to be almost suicidal, the locals weave in and out of the flow and avoid collisions with the art of a dancer and the skill of a race car driver. Europe - A fortnight on the continent


We drove past the King’s residence, a quiet and understated estate in the hills above the city. Immediately across the road the Saudi government maintains a “summer residence� for the royal family.

Our tour took us past a little bit of home, the Canadian Immigration office in the city centre.

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Leaving the more modern city centre, we ventured into the old medina, a maze of narrow alleys and streets choked with vendors carts, cars, and people. As in other areas of the city, the dress code varied from western t-shirts and jeans to the more traditional galabiyyas (long shirts) and jubbas (long coats) for men and the ever present hijabs and tunics for women. The casquette (baseball cap) seems to be the new standard head gear for men. Fruits and vegetables of every colour and description can be found on the vendors carts on most streets. Other delicacies included calamari, prepared from fresh squid by an enterprising street vendor.

Europe - A fortnight on the continent


No worries about the flies in the local meat shops... they don’t weigh them.

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Almost any unoccupied space becomes an impromptu market stall for vendors selling just about anything from carrots to tea pots and caftans.

Europe - A fortnight on the continent


The Berber people come to the medina to sell their produce to the locals. The Berbers, who refer to themselves as the i-Mazigh-en, loosely translated as “the free people� can be identified by their colourful dress and the sombrero-like hats with multicolour tufted woolen balls. While they don’t mind having their pictures taken from a distance, they do have strong reservations about close-up images, so we contented ourselves with admiring these noble people from a respectful distance.

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Our Tangiers expedition included lunch of kebabs and soup at a traditional Moroccan restaurant complete with music provided by a 4 piece band.

Europe - A fortnight on the continent


Deep in the medina, we were educated on Moroccan medicines, herbs, and spices by “the doctor,” a vibrant entertainer who described each item with an enthusiasm that would make our Shamwow and Oxiclean hawkers pale by comparison. Of course we were encouraged to buy everything the good doctor demonstrated, from skin creams to hair oil and saffron.

Next stop… a carpet factory and showroom where we learned about how to choose the ideal rug. The craftsmanship of the weavers is truly remarkable, each rug was woven so tightly that one couldn’t find the backing.

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Leaving the south, we made a, quite literally, mad drive through western Spain on our way to Porto in Portugal. After 1,500 kilometers and a stop to eat and get a turn signal lamp replaced somewhere between Salamanca and Porto‌ a challenge with our limited Spanish, we arrived and found the Boa Vista, a charming hotel overlooking the Atlantic in the east end of the city.

Europe - A fortnight on the continent


The west end of Porto, the Foz do Douro, is a place of beaches and waterside cafes. Fishing seems to be a popular pastime along the pier. Compared to the frenetic and crowded streets in the city centre, the Foz was far more relaxing, a place to stroll along the water and reflect on the our journey and to think about what would come next.

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Europe - A fortnight on the continent


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Porto is the home of Port wine, the heavy, rich and succulent drink that won the hearts of the English centuries before and which enjoys a following world-wide today. We said goodbye to the Boa Vista and the Foz and set out for Vila Nova de Gaia on the south side of the Douro River. The trip, while short, was complicated by our GPS. Fiona, our GPS personality insisted that the only route was to drive through a street closed for construction, she was not pleased and refused to find us another way forward. We decided to do some Zen driving‌ find a vehicle that looks like it knows where it was going and follow it. A tourist bus became our new route finder and ten minutes later we were exactly where we wanted to be. We paid an interesting and enterprising fellow to buy us a parking permit for the day and to watch over our car, only 5 Euros for the full service. Finding one of the Port Houses, we settled down to sample a couple of their vintages, a rich ruby red and a fine old tawny. It should be noted that port wine is much stronger than table wine, something that we remembered as we tottered out of Kopke’s tasting room.

Europe - A fortnight on the continent


Recovering sufficiently to navigate on foot, we walked along the river to discover several more Port Houses. The houses of Sandeman, Offley, and Quevido proved to have excellent vintages as well. We were pleasantly surprised by Offley’s new Rosé Port, a lighter version of the drink that is turning palates in Europe. Sadly, this pink delight is only available in Quebec on this side of the Atlantic, so it’s cheaper for us to fly to Portugal to pick up a few bottles.

Looking out over the tiled roofs of the Port Houses, we could almost see the “angle’s share” wafting into the sky.

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We took time to stroll through the back streets of Vila Nova de Gaia, streets that wind through the district lined by old buildings that add to the charm of the city. All of our wandering and tasting worked up an appetite, so we found a café on the riverfront street and sampled some of the local delicacies and some more port wine.

While we were eating, we noticed a rather boisterous group at the Sandeman café next door. Our waiter explained “they are Spanish and they are drunk.” That summed things up nicely.

Europe - A fortnight on the continent


The riverside buildings of the two cities, Porto on the north bank of the Douro and Vila Nova de Gaia tell the story of the port wine trade, when the port boats (shown on the following page) plied the waters from the vineyards and wineries of the Douro region up river to bring the young wines to the port houses. After the aging and fortifying process that converts the Douro wines into the various types of port, sailing ships would tie up along the riverside landings to take on liquid cargo bound for waiting palates in England.

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Europe - A fortnight on the continent


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We cruised the river on a rabelo boat, the traditional Portuguese cargo boat that for centuries was used to transport people and goods along the Douro river. The rabelo, not found anywhere else in the world, is unique to the Douro region. Closely linked to the port wine trade, the rabelo was, until the establishment of rail links, the fastest and the most efficient transportation between the Douro Valley, where port wine is produced, and the city of Vila Nova de Gaia where it is aged, fortified, and distributed.

The rabelos provide a unique vantage point from which to see, and photograph the cities.

Europe - A fortnight on the continent


The Porto riverside is a riot of cafes, restaurants, and market stalls. While we watched, two young boys egged on a crowd of cafĂŠ patrons to place wagers on whether they would, or would not, take the leap into the Douro. Eventually, the sum must have reached a suitable amount, the boys jumped, swam to shore and presumably collected their euros.

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After a suitable detoxification period, we retrieved our car from its guardian and headed north into the countryside to the town of Guimaraes for the evening. An old eleventh century castle and similarly ancient old city core offset the modern urban shops and hotels that have grown up around the relics of the past.

Europe - A fortnight on the continent


Following the peal of church bells, we found our way to Largo Da Oliveira, one of the city plazas, to find ourselves at a wedding. Not wanting to miss the festivities, we found a table at one of the many cafes. Armed with a litre of sangria branco and some snacks, a kind of oiled bean which matched the drink well, we settled down to watch the proceedings as the wedding-goers spilled out into the courtyard. A running commentary on fashion and speculation about how some of the women managed to walk over cobblestones in nine inch heels ensued‌ very entertaining. We speculated on who was the drunk uncle, who was the mother of the bride and who was going to be first to topple off the heels onto the cobbles.

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Leaving Guimaraes, we headed south, vowing to avoid toll roads. After travelling about 30 km in an hour and a half, we asked Fiona to find a toll road for us. Moving at a more brisk pace, we found our way to Coimbra, one time national capital during the high middle ages, and site of one of the oldest universities in Europe. The university, founded in the late 13th century in Lisbon, was moved to its current home in Coimbra in the 16th century by of King Jo達o III who still looks over the university courtyard.

Europe - A fortnight on the continent


Further along our route, we came to Batalha, home of the Monastery of the Battle, one of the best examples of late Gothic architecture in Portugal. The central nave with its vaulted ceiling is a testament to the ability of 14th century builders. The monastery overlooks the city plaza where many cafes and shops can be found. On this occasion, we opted for a cappuccino from the Pastelaria Oliveira.

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Our next overnight stop was NazarĂŠ, an oceanside tourist destination west of Batalha. With one of the best beaches in Portugal and some truly mammoth waves, the town attracts surfers from around the world.

The ornately cobbled town is on two levels connected by a funicular, the cable cars of Europe.

Europe - A fortnight on the continent


Older ladies in NazarĂŠ can be seen wearing head scarves and traditional seven-layer skirts. These ladies patrol the streets, providing direction, advice, and the location of accommodations. After taking in a light meal at one of the courtyard cafes, we retired to our room and watched people come and go.

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The next day saw us following the coast roads on our way back to Lisbon. Making a stop at Peniche, we found another beautiful beach complete with an old fortress and many people learning to surf.. We spent an hour soaking in the sun and trying out the local refreshments.

Europe - A fortnight on the continent


Further down the road, we stopped at a roadside viewpoint overlooking the beach at Ribera De L'has. From our vantage point, we could spot dozens of surfers practicing their sport in the waves off the beach. The beach of the home of the Ericeira Surf Clube , a very large complex that provides training and support services.

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Just south of Ribera De L'has, we stopped at Ericeira, a fishing and resort community situated in the middle of over 40 surfing beaches about 35 km north of Lisbon. In 2011, Ericeira was chosen as a world surfing reserve along with Malibu and Santa Cruz, in California, and Manly Beach, in Australia. Its status as a world surfing reserve may explain the Keep the Oceans Clean centre in the middle of town.

Europe - A fortnight on the continent


Feeling a little dry and hungry, we decided to try the local fare at one of the many cafes along the waterfront. Being undecided about anything other than the sangria, our waiter took things in hand and brought us a spread of black olives, fresh cheese drizzled with olive oil and even fresher bread, just enough to satisfy, and a bargain at 13 Euros. From Ericeira we drove to Lisbon to undertake the task of finding, or re-finding, our hotel, only slightly less daunting this time.

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A morning flight from Lisbon put us down in Paris for the final leg of our journey before heading back to Canada. Paris is a city of museums and cafes, the streets are a chaos of vehicles, trucks, cars and scooters flowing like water through a rapids. We opted to walk. The many cafes provide respite for weary pedestrians, but it’s less expensive to eat and drink at establishments without tables.

Armed with a museum pass, purchased at the nearest tobacco shop, we walked from museum to museum taking in the sights and sounds of the city of lights..

Europe - A fortnight on the continent


It’s difficult to go to Paris and not visit the Louvre, if only to see how big the Mona Lisa really is and to see the glass pyramids that are the delight of tourists and the bane of Parisians. The Da Vinci Code came to mind more than once as we walked through the courtyard of the museum. The Louvre is massive enough to require several days of exploration, we contented ourselves with the highlights.

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After working up an appetite touring the Louvre, we stopped at the Café du Musée. No tables in sight, the owner provided us with a crustile, a hotdog in a baguette with brie and mustard, and a cold beer for about 5 Euros. Had there been a chair, it would have been 6 Euros for the beer alone. The Musée d'Orsay is housed in the former Gare d'Orsay, railway station built between 1898 and 1900. Exhibits are mainly French art dating from 1848 to 1915.The d’Orsay houses the largest collection

of works by painters like Monet, Manet, Degas, Renoir, Cezanne, Seurat, and Van Gogh.. Other sights along our day-long walk included Notre Dame and the Great Canadian Pub, what we assumed to be the Canadian Embassy.

Europe - A fortnight on the continent


Our home away from home, the Grand Hotel Levesque was nicely situated about 15 minutes from the Eifel Tower and the ChampsÉlysÊes and only minutes further from other sights served as our base camp for three days.

The street fronting the GHL is lined with cafes and shops selling produce, and wines. We made good use of the wine selection at one of the shops just a few meters from our door.

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On our last day in Paris, we hopped on a train bound for Versailles‌ the home of kings. We arrived to find a queue that seemed to stretch for kilometers and which included almost all the school children from at least three countries

Europe - A fortnight on the continent


The Palace of Versailles, was the centre of political power in France from 1682, when Louis XIV moved from Paris, until the royal family was forced to return to the capital in October 1789 after the beginning of the French Revolution. The opulence of the “chateau� and gardens is truly amazing. From the gilded dormers to the manicured lawns and water features with their ornate fountains, the palace is a reminder of the lifestyle of the kings and queens of old France.

A fortnight isn’t enough time to fully explore the places we visited, from the coasts of Portugal to the chaos of Tangiers and the pure French-ness of Paris, we came away with fond and lasting memories of the people and their lands.

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Copyright 2013 - J Nicklin Europe - A fortnight on the continent

Europe  

A fortnight exploring western Europe.