Thursday, 2 June 2016

C'EST LA VIE! - Two weeks in Brittany, France

Because of budget airline, Ryanair, it was cheaper for us to fly back to UK from Porto, and then onto Dinard in Brittany rather than direct from Portugal to France, so we took a week to spend in Cambridge and catch our breaths. And what a week it was!! We felt like we had arrived in a different country to the one we had left two months previously. Gone was the cold, grey, drizzly weather.....the sun had come out brightly, people had stripped off to shorts and t shirts, and were lying around in parks in the sun, and we loved the explosion of blossoms and flowers, with green leaves everywhere. The sun streamed into our room every morning, and we even ate our dinner outside a couple of times, with the temperature hitting 26 degrees!! Two day trips- one to the historic town of Saffron Waldon past the gloriously yellow oil seed rape fields and quaint little villages, and the other walking and lunching at the Millpond area in Cambridge town were equally enjoyable, and so great to catch up with family again.

It was the tulip's turn to flower in May, Cambridge, UK

Tudor building in Saffron Waldon, UK

Pub in Cambridge, UK

Nesting swan, Cambridge, UK

We had a seen nine euro flights to Dinard from London, and couldn't pass them up (although these flights aren't as good a deal as they first seem, when they charge 25 pounds for one check-in bag!). We found a very convenient Air B and B host almost next to the seriously tiny airport, were picked up by a lovely, non English speaking couple (no handshakes or hugs now, we were in France- only kisses!!), and spent a night in their beautiful house. The added extra was breakfast which was spread out over a huge table, and included pastries, buns, crepes, fresh bread, loads of preserves, yogurt, fruit and coffee/tea/chocolate!!

Massive coffee cup at breakfast- we were a bit confused! Pleurtuit, France

 We then caught our first Bla Bla Car to Rennes, where our good friends for many years live. Having met them in 2004 in Laos, stayed with them eight years ago in France, and kept in contact through email, it was actually only the third time we had all met up! Chris picked us up and took us to Moigne, near Le Rheu where we met the rest of the family, including two lovely little boys that had been added since we last visited! They were the ultimate hosts, making us feel very comfortable in their home, and spoiling us with their generous hospitality. We're sure they rearranged their house to give us the grand room in the quietest spot at the top of the house, for which we were very grateful.

We were very lucky to have such friends who appreciate fine food and drink- Yann being an expert for many years about French wine especially. We, of course, are complete heathens when it comes to this field, but we surely loved tasting the amazing wines he produced from his garage every night and trying to educate ourselves!

Yann contemplating a nice red

Chris is a wonderful cook, whipping up delicacies every day for us and the family. French eating habits are quite far apart from British/Australian, and we liked the routine of a small breakfast of toast and coffee, usually a light lunch of starter, main and dessert (!!), and a dinner, again with starter, main and dessert. It sounds like a lot of food, but when the portions are modest, the quality good, and there's no snacking, it seemed the perfect balance. Yann, being a plumber, makes sure he has at least an hours break at lunch every day, and it always involves a main meal, dessert and coffee at a worker's restaurant (he skips the wine at lunch time!).
We tried many new dishes, as well as ones we loved from our last visit. Saturday was crepe day- a great day in our opinion, and after an outing to a fabulous market with food straight from the farm, we ate savory crepes with ham and cheese and sweet crepes with lemon and sugar- it's a specialty of Brittany. Another eating observation- the little boys mostly ate everything we did at meal times, including half a grapefruit each  for our first meal- very cute!
Other dishes we tried/retried (just to make sure!) were rabbit, pate, rillettes (similar to pate, but with only flesh and fat), far breton (a pudding specialty of the region) , ossau iraty (not from Brittany, but the most divinely smelly and tasty cheese), the best heavy sourdough bread, out-of-this-world cakes from the patisserie, and specially made for us by Yann was the French version of custard- what the French call "English cream", with rice pudding! Who would have expected that?



Sal's first taste of rabbit

Excited about the cakes!

Far Breton
Unusual cordial flavour

We enjoyed many outings, some with the family, some alone on bikes, and found the countryside around Le Rheu and Moigne to be flat, pastoral and attractive- full of oak trees (Rich's favourite), sweet chestnut and beech, and flowering azaleas and rhododendrons. Some of the villages and areas around lakes and rivers had short and long distance walking routes, the same as Britain, and filled out heads with future cycling/fishing trips here. Pleasant discoveries included a grand nearby chateau, old mills, picturesque cottages, forests, and random paths through farmland.

Jesus hiding in the woods, around Le Rheu, Brittany, France
Old farmhouse, around Le Rheu, Brittany, France

Perusing the menu at grand chateau, around Le Rheu, Brittany, France

Millhouse, around Le Rheu, Brittany, France

Miniature yacht enthusiasts on lake, around Le Rheu, Brittany, France
Cottage made from typical Brittany stone, around Le Rheu, Brittany, France

Beautiful forests, Le Rheu, Brittany, France
Walking through the trees, Le Rheu, Brittany, France

Other days we spend hanging out in the beautiful, big backyard, playing with the kids, and chatting about life. No lawnmowers are allowed in France on Sundays, and as we had the best weather one Sunday, we appreciated the peace and quiet. Unfortunately, the weather wasn't the best for most of our stay, with a couple of full days of rain, and the rest a bit cloudy and cool, but luckily the day we decided on Dinard beach as a day trip, the sun eventually came out, and we enjoyed a lovely day warm day with a picnic on the beach, over looking the splendid view of St Malo in the distance.

Some ritzy old buildings in the wealthy town of Dinard, France

Beautiful sand, but too early for swimming yet! Dinard, France

Our last weekend, we all piled in two cars and made our way south to Nantes, a bigger town than Rennes, and one where Chris's brother's family lived and had kindly offered to host us all for the weekend. We first stopped at Les Machines de l'île, a former industrial site, that had been transformed into a unique and whimsical experience, based on local lad Jules Verne's literature. It was quite an amazing place, with giant fantastical mechanical creatures walking around the site, old style carousels, and in old atmospheric buildings workshops had been set up with new, experimental machines. We learnt a new word for this style-Steampunk, or science fiction designs inspired by 19th century technology. It reminded me in atmosphere of the film Hugo, and Chris of Tim Burton's films. Quite charming.

Amazing mechanical elephant wandering the site, Nantes, France

Eccentric carousel, Nantes, France
Loved the poster art around the place, Nantes, France
More carousel, Nantes, France

Slightly freaky mechanical spider in the works, Nantes, France

More funky posters, Nantes, France

That night included much happy chatter (luckily for us everyone spoke some English!), along with a BBQ including merguez, a spicy Arabic sausage made of lamb and beef, and sausages with white wine, and the next day a family walk alongside a railway track and the Loire River.

Old industrial site, Nantes

Old style fishing boat, Nantes

On the way back to Rennes, the heavens opened, but we still had time for a stop at Chris' aunt's house- a wonderfully atmospheric old farm house from the 1600s. We loved the heavy beamed house, sweet garden, menagerie of rescued animals, and a special walk to see the baby donkey that had been born a few days before.
Garden at Chris' aunt's, Brittany, France

Baby donkey, Brittany, France

On our last day we had our all time favorite meal in France- confit de canard. Who knew duck in a can could taste so deliriously amazing??!! Apparently, the duck fat is a "good" kind of fat, and not to be felt guilty about, so we took this on board, and scoffed the duck, and the potatoes cooked with the fat to make them taste SO delicious.
Melt that duck fat......
.....cook the potatoes in it......

.....Take the duck out of the oven.....and eat!!

As our departure date grew near, we were quite worried about getting out of the country, as France's famous strikes, combined with some violence in places and a shortage of fuel, meant potential delays and cancellations for buses and public transport, but with a lift to Rennes in Yann's truck, a bus to Pleurtuit, a charming walk through the forest to Dinard airport (with a trolley borrowed from the supermarket!), a train to Cambridge and a bus to Rich's sister's, we finally made it back! The week after we returned to the UK, the news was full of dire news for Brits holidaying to France, with even some ferry routes closed- we made it out just in time!
Taking the easy way for the one hour walk to Dinard airport from Pleurtuit!

Flying back over the UK, we caught the breathtaking sight of all the blackthorn bushes in the hedgerows out in white flower, looking as though the countryside was covered in snow. Although the temperature wasn't as high as our previous visit, and there was some heavy rain, we still loved the ever greening landscape. A outdoor family BBQ made the most of one of the best warm and sunny afternoons, while a morning helping with the massive bank holiday car boot sale in Fulbourne was freezing and windy, but lots of fun. A trip to the seaside town Felixstowe, was grey and breezy, but so lovely to see the decrepit and run down old market, seafront rides, colourful beach shacks and tatty old shops. The coming injection of funds to renovate the place, will surely change the atmosphere. Old Felixstowe was particularly quaint, with small wooden fishing huts and little boats moored in the inlet. We had to escape the wind inside a cozy cafe to warm up!
Beautiful flowering blackthorn bush
And the pink version

Our usual route to the supermarket in Fulbourne in full bloom
Art Deco design at Felixstowe
Beach shacks, Felixstowe
British fish and chips at the seaside

Creels, Felixstowe

Fishing hut, Old Felixstowe
Felixstowe pier- soon to be restored

Friday, 27 May 2016

TILE WONDERLAND- Azulejos in Portugal

Sal's slight obsession with the wonderful tiles seen everywhere on buildings in Portugal has come to a head right here!!! Hope you enjoy as much as she did!

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

PORTY MCPORTFACE- Coimbra and Porto, Portugal

We had realized a couple of things by this stage of our travels. 1. Our idea about traveling into Andalusia, Spain was not going to happen at the moment, due to us being unable to find affordable accommodation, and 2. Our time was running out.....In our constantly traveling life style, we always have departure dates for  countries hanging over our heads due to visas, but Europe was a different challenge. Sally, having an Aussie passport, is subject to the visa rules of the Schengen convention. Many people have no idea what we are talking about when we mention this, so take a look at the link, which explains it in detail-  Basically, Sal has 90 days out of 180 days to spend in the Schengen countries. After these 90 days, she must leave for another 90 days before she can return. Confusing? Yes. Stupid? Definitely. Three months is way too limiting to do what we want to do in Europe!! So anyway, we decided we should get a move on in Portugal to leave more time for other places we want to travel. 

So, we left the big city of Lisbon for the smaller, university town of Coimbra. The train ride showed a changing climate and environment as we heading further north, with pine trees now coming into the picture, and what we thought was a glimpse of rice fields (??). We had an Air B and B host lined up, who again picked us up at the train station (we could get used to this!!). Although the host was lovely, and there were a lot of positive things about the self contained unit we had booked, the barking dogs in the area (Rich's pet hate!) drove us to despair during our six days in Coimbra.

The half hour walk to town was flat (yay!), and we spent our time in the area slowly exploring the old part of town (back to the hills, churches and narrow lane ways similar to Lisbon, but not as charming), antique market, busy town squares, sunning by the river, trying to avoid the hideous accordion players, sitting in the sun with a wine and a book, walking in the nearby forest park and exploring old cemeteries (the Portuguese go all out for their dead).

Streets of Coimbra, Portugal

Clever graffiti, Coimbra, Portugal

Ornate tomb, Coimbra, Portugal

After only a few cool, rainy days in Lisbon, we were happy the weather had changed back to blue skies and lovely 25 degree days. The breeze in Portugal can be fresh at this time of year, but in Coimbra we were far enough inland not to be bothered.

Market in Coimbra, Portugal

Who's coming down the road? Coimbra, Portugal

To be honest, we wished we hadn't allowed quite so many days in Coimbra due to it's similarity to Lisbon in many ways, our average accommodation and the expense. We were, by now, very fed up with the constant charging for everything in Portugal. Maybe it happens in other countries we visit, and we don't notice as it's so cheap, but 3 euros here, 5 euros here start to add up when we wanted very much to see certain things. The historic university was the biggest rip off at a whopping 20 euros entrance per person. Needless to say, we didn't enter. We even asked the tourist office if there was anything free to see around town, and she just laughed, said "Some churches", and tried to sell us a Hop on Hop off tourist bus ticket!

Lovely doorway, Coimbra, Portugal

Catholic church, Coimbra, Portugal

Coimbra streets

The last church photo, we promise! Coimbra, Portugal

Despite developing bad colds during our stay in Coimbra, we made ourselves get up and out on the day we had decided to visit Lousa. We didn't have many day trips in Portugal, due to the expense of the buses, and spent more time exploring towns by foot. But Lousa was one place we'd made an exception for- we felt the need to get out in the countryside and see some nature! We were so glad we did, as we had the best day of all our time in Portugal. We stepped off the bus looking lost, and a friendly local man with no English walked us with his bicycle to show us where the beginning of the walk to the castle and further away villages were. Lousa is a mountainous district covered with ancient villages in the hills that were depopulated in the 1960's due to urban migration. My 20 year old guidebook suggested they were still abandoned, but apparently people are now moving back, doing up some of the old stone cottages and renting them out for holiday makers.We preferred not to see that side of things, so enjoyed the gorgeous and challenging walk through heavily forested hills to the old decrepit parts of Talasnal village, having a picnic in the ruins and enjoying the sunshine. Apart from a few other hikers, the walk was peaceful and scenic, helped us feel better, and we were glad we had made the effort to come. It made us wish we had of chosen a few more natural places to visit in Portugal, can't see it all!!

Castle near Lousa, Portugal

Ruined buildings, near Tasanal, Lousa, Portugal

Rich in the country side around Tasanal, Lousa, Portugal

Lovely stone work, Tasanal, Lousa, Portugal

Large farm gate at start of walk, near Lousa, Portugal

Nature taking over, near Tasanal, Lousa, Portugal

Beautiful day, beautiful countryside, near Tasanal, Lousa, Portugal

It's been a while since people lived here, near Tasanal, Lousa, Portugal

Getting knackered towards the walk's end, near Tasanal, Lousa, Portugal

It was another pleasant train journey from Coimbra to Porto- a town long on Sal's lists of destinations to see (that is a very long list!). Scenery included lengthy beaches, small villages and the ever present eucalyptus plantations, giving us flashbacks to the Aussie bush. Once we located our young Air B and B host, we were whisked away to his apartment in a great location and had a bit of chat with the 20 year old student. He had a lot of advice and maps for his city, and we were easily able to walk into interesting areas and the city center from his place. Although the daylight hours in Portugal were now about 6am until 9pm, we stayed in our rather strange habit of getting up around 9am and going to bed at around 9pm!

Anyone home? Porto, Portugal

Rich in the shadows, Porto, Portugal

Porto lived up to it's reputation as a cool, diverse, colorful and very pretty city, with a definite retro feel. It certainly had a different feeling to Lisbon, mainly as it lacked the ethnic minorities of Indians, Nepalese, and North Africans, but we loved it for it's different styles of buildings all jumbled together, and the focus for us, for once, was not on churches and winding backstreets in the old town (although we did explore that too), but the stunning river area with it's views, lovely historic bridges and walks. We came across a run down, poor looking area near the river, that in most other cities, including Lisbon, would have been developed due to it's proximity to the river and views, and it's funky character. 

Porto through the Louis Pont bridge

The classic Porto view

Washing day in the riverside streets, Porto, Portugal

Glimpses everywhere of the river, Porto, Portugal

The old streets were a mix up of trendy bars, empty derelict buildings and old fashioned shops. We did pop into a few churches, and were freaked out in the Carmelite one, where several huge mannequin style Jesus had been placed around the room, each one more gory and tortured than the last.

Left to decay, Porto, Portugal

More hills through the streets of Porto, Portugal

Pretty window boxes, Porto, Portugal

Traditional tiles, Porto, Portugal

Freaky Carmelite church, Porto, Portugal

The different styles of buildings in Porto included some Art Noveau and Art Deco lovelies (including a famous Art Noveau bookshops charging 3 euro entrance!), and we were surprised to see corrugated iron being a common siding for many old buildings, giving a ramshackle and strangely "outback" look. 

Pleasingly designed tobacco shop, Porto, Portugal

Art Noveau beauty, Porto, Portugal

What a waste of a gorgeous building, Porto, Portugal

Art Deco "Sell you cheaper", Porto, Portugal

Not sure what you'd call this design- definitely Moorish influenced! Porto, Portugal

Another Art Deco beauty, Porto, Portugal

Of course, we had our usual coffee and cake breaks around town, and wine stops. We had to try port while in Porto, so headed to the famous area across the river, Vila Nova de Gaia. We had heard (admittedly from our 20 year old guidebook), that most of the many port producers over there have free tastings. Well, that ship had sailed long ago, and most places were charging at least 15 euros. We weren't having any of that, and found a basic bar with less than clean glasses, and a view of the picturesque Louis Pont Bridge and colorful tall buildings by the river, with port (red and white) by the glass for a euro, where we sat and watched the bus loads of tourists and enjoyed the view!

Our little port bar, Porto, Portugal

At the riverside after a few wines! Porto, Portugal

Other interesting sights in Porto, were the "trying to be brave" young boys jumping the long way down to the river from the large bridge, students running around town in their black gowns and top hats celebrating end of exams and the many buskers that especially came out on sunny weekends.

Pretty students in their formal gowns, Porto, Portugal

Busker in the sunshine, Porto, Portugal

Beautifully decorated Sao Bento train station, Porto, Portugal

Looking down at Porto from the Louis Pont bridge

Sal discovered  two new Portuguese treats whilst in Porto- one was Portuguese hot chocolate, a thick creamy decadence, and the other was the beloved (by Portuguese) franceschina, an artery clogging Welsh rarebit gone mad, including bread, various smoked meats and masses of melted cheese in a tomato sauce! Rich stuck to his firm favourite of pork steak sandwich (bifana), or sometimes beef steak with egg and salad (bife).

The weather was truly glorious, with warm days, full sun, cooling light breeze, and everyone seemed to be in a good mood- the parks, cafes and public areas were full of happy people in summer clothing (including us!). We took advantage of this on our last day in Portugal with a trip to the seaside near Porto. Although it was a Monday, it was a great atmosphere, with all sorts mixed together on the course sand beach- elderly women, sexy young things, old fellas playing cards, posers, tourists, fat, thin .....and us! The beach itself was average, but the bright mood was infectious, and it was a wonderful way to spend our last day.

Rich on Foz beach, Porto Portugal

As a last thought......don't want to seem obsessed with bidets, but a friend sent us a hilarious website about how to use one, and since we've had a lot of feed back about them, we thought people might get a giggle out of this:


A note about expenses in Portugal:

Comparing Portugal costs to other Western European country's it seems to be very affordable. Of course, comparing it to Asia, it is not! We spent an average of 42 euros/AU$63 per day, and anyone who knows us, will realize that's huge for a couple of tight arses such as us! Lucky for our Indian Summers savings! About half of the daily budget was spent on accommodation.

Staying at Air B and B, and cheap hotels, we kept the accommodation costs down to an average of 20 euros/AU$30 a night. The accommodation was generally a very high standard compared to what we are used to, and one place also included a buffet breakfast. As we've previously said, we loved Air B and B for the feeling of a more personalized stay in someone's home. But the couple of dodgy hotels we stayed in were also fun, and we had more of a feeling of doing our own thing.

The transport was a bit of a killer for us. Trains were cheaper than buses, generally, and while not hugely expensive (compared to UK), because we were moving around a lot, the costs added up. The trains and buses were very comfortable, and usually perfectly on time. City public transport was great in Lisbon and Porto- we simply bought a card and loaded it with money for the 1.20 euro trips around the cities. Other, smaller places left a lot to be desired when it came to transport around those areas. The reason given was that they were economically deprived areas, but we weren't convinced about that. Some other travelers we met had cars, and this would make the remote places far more easy to see.

Food was cheap. We mostly stuck to supermarkets, of which there were plenty, and would spend between 5- 10 euros/AU$7.50-15 on food and wine a day, usually this lasted into other days. There were plenty of pleasant parks to enjoy a picnic, which we often did. Having use of a kitchen at most places we stayed helped keep the costs down, and it was great to be able to store food to use the next day. Coffee and cake would set us back roughly 5 euros/AU$7.70 at a cheap pastelaria or cafe, while a "snack" (usually enough to fill us up) would cost about 10 euros/AU$15. The odd occasion we had a full blown restaurant meal, it was about 20 euros/AU$30 for a several course meal and much wine! Drinking out was inexpensive, with a glass of wine or beer costing 85 euro cents/AU$1.30 at most establishments (or less than a euro for a bottle in the supermarket!), freshly squeezed OJ about 1.50 euros/AU$2.30, a bottle of water next to nothing, a coffee usually about .85 euro cents/AU$1.30, and a can of drink about 1 euro/AU$1.50 (more than the alcohol!). It's very "European" how alcohol is treated, with most people having a glass with meals in moderation, and seeing people drunk out of their minds in the street doesn't happen. Even McDonald's includes wine or beer with their meals!

As stated (several times, probably!!), we were quite annoyed at the entrance prices for almost everything of interest, mostly lesser sights were 3-5 euros, and major cathedral and historic sights could be as much as 15 euros. Sal was especially disappointed with this, as she loves historical buildings and design, but we soon realized that if we stuck to wandering around towns, soaking up the atmosphere of the everyday parts of town, with their many old buildings and scenic spots, and sought out the free art galleries, major churches and museums, combined with people watching and interacting in cafes and bars, we could experience a different, probably better side of Portuguese life.

Portuguese people are an interesting mix- mostly surprisingly small, with beautiful dark hair and eyes- apparently in the north there are fair people with blue eyes. They are a very tactile lot, and it was nice to see couples and families kissing and hugging freely. We also felt they were very soft hearted, with many people giving to beggars and expressing sympathy, although many of them seem to be struggling financially themselves. They were generally kind to us, and most of our meaningful encounters were with locals we met through Air B and B. As with most countries, they loved to hear us struggling with their language, and our attempts raised many a smile and laugh. Portuguese are quite laid back, and we were particularly amused, then frustrated by the check out lines in supermarkets, where the servers were amiable, but SO SLOW, chatting and mucking around, regardless of how many people were waiting in the line!

Overall, we very much enjoyed the new experience of traveling in Europe, and Portugal is unique and engaging. If we ever came back though, we would prefer to focus on the north, and get out into nature more, having seen quite a lot of the cities.

Enjoying a sunny day, Porto, Portugal