Magnificent Madrid

Madrid was included on our visit list this trip as a bit of a wild card, and we’re very glad that we included it. moonWe had great luck with our airbnb apartment which turned out to be a gorgeous two bedroom, two bathroom stylishly decorated apartment on the edge of Malasana, a very hip and happening part of town with oodles of both old world charm and up tempo modernity and ideas.

callelunaThe narrow streets are filled with small cafes and bars, quirky clothing shops and small local general stores.

After meeting our airbnb hosts and checking in to the apartment we headed to a nearby supermarket to get some supplies.  It hit home just how difficult it can be when trying to find simple things like vanilla yoghurt to have with breakfast when everything is, naturally enough, in Spanish. Luckily, beer is sold in easily identifiable packaging and, like England and France, it sells very cheaply in the supermarket.

Feeling a bit more organised we head out to have a look at our local neighbourhood and first stop is a craft beer cafe that Yelp has managed to find for us. craftbeer

The Fabrica Maravillas isn’t far away at all and turns out to be a fresh and lively bar with a small range of beers brewed in the microbrewery on site.


Young couples arrive and the young woman behind the bar is friendly and welcoming.

fabricamaravillasThe Malasana Ale, named for the local neighbourhood is a great drop and a welcome change after the commercial beers so far in Paris and Barcelona.

After enjoying a couple of the craft brews, we wander up the street and find a nice restaurant for dinner.  It’s a lovely meal and we are then able to wander home through Malasana after a nice day of travel and arrivals.




Before arriving in Madrid, we chose to sign up for a cycle tour and we were lucky to get a guide who was full of both personality and knowledge of history and ideas. He also introduced us to the Menu del Dia.

The cycle tour took in the major attractions in central Madrid with plenty of opportunity to get a feel for the streets and culture from the bike seat. From the narrow streets of Malasana, to the Grand Palace and Prado, we cycled around 15k with a mixed group from a number of European countries and a guide from Hungary. You can watch some of the sights below.


atleticoThen, our airbnb host arranged tickets for us to see Atletico Madrid beat Juventas 1-0 in the European Champions League game at the magnificent Calderon stadium: an amazing experience of passion and great crowd humour.

In the meantime, we’d had time for some shopping and some more wandering in the local Malasana neighbourhood.  bicyclecafe

We find the bicycle cafe; a cafe and co-working space with a friendly Englishman behind the bar.

Then, walking on a little further we come across a lovely lunchtime option with a great Menu del Dia and some interesting decorations and ideas.

liepoliticsThis one, on the wall, seemed particularly poignant.



We have a half day to fill before we fly back to London to stay overnight and decide to use the reinasofiaMetro to travel a few stops and head to the Reina Sofia Museum to have a look at some more art; especially Picasso, including the world famous Guernica.

The museum is an interesting outing, with lovely old buildings and new extensions.

MadridMuseumThe combination of colours and textures with this large installation is very vibrant.

A nearby cafe serves up another great Menu del Dia and, replete, we grab the Metro back to Grand Via station and return to the apartment to pack up and get ready to fly out.

Our airbnb host has offered to provide us with a transfer to the airport and we gratefully accept a ride as he hurtles through the streets of Madrid and gives us some background information on some of the financial pressures being felt in Spain currently.

Our flight takes around two hours and lands us at London City Airport where we’re able to catch the DLR and Tube to Paddington where we’ve booked in overnight before our flight home to Australia via Abu Dhabi.  It’s been a great few weeks with plenty of experiences and learnings.

Now, home to reality.

Even faster BFT

The Spaniards now have one of the best high speed rail networks in the world and we got to enjoy an example of it travelling on the AVE train from Barcelona to Madrid. The boarding process was not unlike an airline boarding with checkin staff at the barrier to scan tickets and an air of pride in their presentation and manner.

I’d managed to get a special rate for “preferente” class so we found ourselves in nice sized seats, with plenty of legroom and a decent sized tray table. We also had power sockets for each seat. The only thing missing was onboard wifi. Luckily our 3G international SIMs were still doing a great job at roaming data and we stayed connected with Movistar for 99% of the trip; a distance equal to Sydney to Coffs Harbour in 2 hours 45 mins.

The infrastructure cost must clearly be enormous, but the benefit in travel options and a reduction on the emissions from air traffic must also be a significant benefit.

imageWe were curious to see just what speed was being achieved and downloaded a GPS speed logger as we travelled. When we compare this to our train journeys in Australia it’s easy to see that our huge distances, low population density and cultural/aspirational obsession with the car has meant that we’re well behind the eight ball when it comes to even beginning to imagine the task of providing similar services.

I must admit to being sceptical about some of the travel times quoted for potential high speed rail from Sydney to Melbourne with stop at Canberra but can now see that a link from Newcastle to Sydney and on to Canberra could actually create a link which would bring these centres together and deliver the potential for a ‘do-able’ accelerator. Imagine a route more westward than the current line, with appropriate protections through the sandstone country; crossing the river near Wisemans Ferry and having a main Sydney stop at Parramatta with an interchange for city services.

Even if we are stuck with the times and line that we have, then let’s look at differential pricing and services. For a premium rate, if there were more work oriented seats, with tables and onboard wifi as well as coffee availability then there would be many business customers who would pay the premium. I know that this smacks of a return to ‘classes’, but realistically, we’ve been accepting first and business on air transport for years.

As we raced through the very dry looking Spanish countryside, I could only think how pleased I  was that we’d abandoned the idea of driving: especially when they served the three course meal and beer!

It didn’t seem long at all and we were pulling into Madrid and it was time to enjoy discovering another new city.


Leaving Barcelona

Our last day in Barcelona was frustrated by a torrential downpour, which pretty much kept us indoors. When it seemed to clear a little we headed off to visit the Picasso Museum, giving the Metro another go.  From Jaume I, a metro stop, it should have only been a few minutes’ walk to the Museum.  As the heavens opened again, we realised that every other tourist in Barcelona had also decided to visit the Picasso Museum, and the narrow street and alleys were teeming with bedraggled and wet people.We took the next best option and holed up in a nearby tapas bar, where we we’re lucky that our table wasn’t the one under the leak which developed in the roof!

Eventually we decided one more attempt to reach the Museum was in order and we arrived there to find people packed in and sheltering from the rain, with a queue of at least an hour waiting in the rain.

In the end we had to admit defeat and rushed back to the Metro through a labyrinth of alley ways to find that the Metro station had closed our platform due to flooding, requiring us to travel in the opposite direction to be able to find a station at which we could change to our required line.

Back to the apartment to rest and then out to find a nearby restaurant which ended up being a great choice as we enjoyed some Catalan dishes and drinks before heading home to catch some sleep before an early morning start to get Courtney to the airport.

Our checkout went smoothly and it was off to Barcelona Sants to catch the AVE to Madrid.


It was interesting to travel between two countries in the EU and find that there were  no formal procedures to go through at all: no security scans or passport control. It was just a matter of lugging bags on board, finding our seats and enjoying the ride.

imageOn arrival at Barcelona Sants, once again, no procedures at all; just trundle our bags to the taxi rank and then off to our apartment for three nights in Calle Trafalgar, Urquinaona. This was a good location, with a Metro station at the corner and La Ramblas and the Place Catalunya a short walk away.

There’s a different feel to this city and we spend a bit  of time on the first night getting our bearings and trying some paella before settling in for the night, as we planned on being up early to watch the Swans take on Hawthorne in the AFL grand final at a bar not far away.

So, we are up early and off to the bar around seven to find that the bar wasn’t hosting the AFL broadcast this year.  A bit of quick googling and we’re in a cab to The Philharmonic: an Irish Pub offering Desayuna Inglesi; or English breakfast. We pass on the brekky, but are there to witness the sad fate of the Swans amongst a large,but very subdued crowd.

So, game over, up early and what to do?

After a quick breakfast at another cafe, we decide to really get our tourist thang on and buy day passes for the hop on/hop off bus, to get an overview of Barcelona.

After standing in a queue for quite some time, we ended up ‘hopping on’ but didn’t get round to ‘hopping off’ until the end.

imageit was good to see some of the beach areas of Barcelona and to get a look at the infrastructure where combined light rail, cycle way and roads interact well.

imageThe bus does the round of all of the attractions, all swarming with tourists making the most of the warm sunshine and Autumn weather.

imageThere are someimage beautiful building here, and we get the chance to have a good look as we hop off near :the end of the loop and wander down one of the main streets taking in some of the architecture and the nice shops and cafés, before having some lunch at one of the many places that line the streets. We also take the chance to pick out a spot to return to for dinner on Saturday after Courtney flies in to join us.

imageWe download a Barcelona Metro app and set out to wrangle tickets from the ticket machine and get ourselves out to the airport via train to meet Courtney. After making a change from the Metro to the overground Renfe service, we arrive at the airport and are then whisked away on a shuttle bus for what seems like a tour of the immediate environs before getting to Terminal 2.

imageThen it’s back into town and out for some looking around and dinner. It’s a very lively place at night and the warm evening is nice for wandering about and soaking up the atmosphere before dinner at a spot we’d chosen before.

We’re all fairly worn out by now after some time travelling and a late dinner.  Time for some ZZZZZZs before seeing what Sunday brings.

BFT – Bloody fast train

We were up early to leave Paris on Friday.

Our airbnb host had booked a cab for us and it turned up on the dot of 6am to take us to Gare de Lyon to catch the TGV to Barcelona.

imageI was feeling fairly pleased with myself when I was able to successfully order two croissants and a black and whimageite coffee all in French! ( well, whatever the Aussie accented version of French sounds like)

The train was amazing, reaching speeds well over 300 kph.  By the time the sun was up, we were well South of Paris and it made us realise yet again how effective something like this would be as an option in Australia.  The drawback would clearly be cost vs potential return within a less dense population, but it was a massive improvement on the crawl that we experience on the Newcastle – Sydney run.

It doesn’t seem to be long before we can see the Mediterranean out the left hand windows as the train turns Westward to run along the coast toward the border with Spain.

imageAlong the way we’re able to see some fabulous scenery and sometimes are able to grab some lovely shots like this one as we cruise through Bezieres.

So, with a travel time of around 6 and a half hours, we’ve made it to Barcelona Sants. Hola Barcelona!


Last day in Paris

Our day began with some exploring via velib a little further up along the Canal Saint Martin. This is an area we can heartily recommend for staying in Paris.  Out of the really tourist areas, but lots of wonderful bars and restaurants and a great ambience of creative energy.

canal1The canal looks magnificent today as we ride along.






Further up the canal, it’s bordered by hire boat wharfs and a range of cafes and other bars and eateries.

We need to get to Rue des Pyramides to join our tour to Giverny, so we find a bike dock using the City Bikes app, and the nearest Metro station before a trip down to Pyramides metro station and a light lunch before a trip of about ninety minutes west of Paris to Vernon and the village of Giverny.

It is absolutely amazing to see and experience the gardens and the water lily pond.  We find that it is well worth the trip, and hopefully the slideshow below can share some of the beautiful images. Tomorrow we’re on our way to Spain!

Trocadero, Tower, Velibs, Seine, d’Orsay, Louvre ..

Our Wednesday in Paris started slowly as we booked a tour online for a Thursday afternoon trip to Monet’s Gardens at Giverny and then wandered down toward the Republique Metro to go across town to Trocadero where we knew that there would be a good view back across the river to the Eiffel Tower.

On the way, we noticed that our street was full of shiny black cars and cabs, and, just around the corner there was a large crowd of very trendily dressed people emerging from the Espace Modem, a design space in this neighbourhood which is full of high end boutiques and fashion stores. bowhatmodelWe snapped a few people who looked interesting and it turns out that they were all attending a showing of 2015 Spring Summer fashions for Cedric Charlier.gracesimmons






In the midst of all of the hurly burly, in what seemed to typify the ‘Paris style,’ a nicely dressed young woman rode calmly down the street on her bike; bag over one shoulder and hair flowing. As the street gradually cleared, we walked the remaining hundred metres to the Metro and clattered through the tunnels to emerge at Trocadero, on the Western bank of the Seine and with the promised great view of the Tower, despite the haze.

fromtrocaderoAfter taking a few obligatory shots, and a coffee stop, it was time to pick up a couple of velibs from a nearby rack and find our way down to the bridge across the Seine and to the very base of the Eiffel Tower.  There seemed to be a heightened sense of security there as a few soldiers in red berets walked about with automatic weapons in the port position, and a large number of security men were evident.

eiffelvelibIt was fun to ride our velibs down under the base of the Tower and to then head across to some quieter streets for a bit of a look around.

We docked our bikes and waited the obligatory five minutes before releasing two more bikes and riding back around the cycleway which follows the Seine.  We were able to cross and head down a ramp to ride along the river’s edge, past cruise boats and pop up activities taking place.

seineshoreFollowing the river, we ended up, at the end of the next 30 minutes, docking our bikes and finding that we were only a hundred metres from the Musee d’Orsay.

What better time for a visit than the present?

There were no queues to speak of and we were then able to spend some time seeing some great paintings and sculptures as well as feeling the scale of the building which was previously a railway station.

sacrecoeurThe views across Paris to the North, with Sacre Coeur on top of Montmartre, Tuileries and the city in the foreground, and the sense of looking out from behind the giant clock was very moving.





It was especially magnificent to see the colour and glow which is still there in Van Gogh’s work and the wonderful colours of Monet and Sisley, along with Pissarro a other Impressionists.

It was interesting that over the last decade we have also seen a good selection of these works in various travelling exhibitions in Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne and Brisbane.

We ran into another couple that we know from Sydney while admiring the view and then headed back downstairs and across the road to find another couple of bikes to ride across the Seine and into the square surrounded by the Louvre. There’s a short look at Lynette and the Louvre below.

Once again, the bikes proved what a great option they are as we cruised past crowds and then along to Les Halles and through the bright and lively gardens which have been dedicated to Nelson Mandela.

ruemontagueilWe found ourselves in a lively shopping precinct and stopped for a beer in one of the many bars where the chairs are arranged so the the casual drinker can watch the passing parade on the street.

It was then a slow wander home through the city streets before a sudden burst of rain compelled us to seek shelter at a restaurant and have some dinner at the same time.

Dinner finished, and rain cleared, we walked home to find another fashion opening event taking place in the small boutique next to our front door.

frontdoorMove along please: nothing to see here..we made it upstairs and enjoyed the opportunity to relax and reflect on another good day in Paris.

Thursday will be our last day here before getting the TGV to Barcelona with an early start at 7.15am from Gare de Lyon. We’ll be on a bus to Giverny on Thursday afternoon and a look at Monet’s home and gardens.

Catching up and quirky parts of Paris

Before leaving Newcastle, we’d made arrangements with friends to catch up when they arrive in Paris while we’re here. So, we’re up a bit earlier and off to find Gare Saint-Lazare, which is easy enough via the Metro.  The interesting bit then becomes finding a rendezvous point that I’d suggested with no real knowledge of the station or its layout and just the info on Maps to assist.  We still manage to find each other and spend a couple of lovely hours just chatting and sharing experiences.  It’s interesting how nice it is to have another couple to chat with idiomatically after a few weeks of being within your own cocoon of existence within different places.

paulaandleonWe had fun catching up and Leon had fun trying out his new panorama app on the iPad.

We left Paula and Leon to catch their train to Normandy as we headed back down into the metro for the trip back across town to Bastille and our anticipated look at the Promenade Plantee, a wonderful adaptive reuse of an elevated railway that served as an inspiration for the famed Highline in New York.

accessAfter an overly expensive coffee at Bastille, we grab a couple of Velibs and ride east to where we can access the Promenade Plantee via some steps where Avenue Daumesnil enters Rue de Lyon.  The first section of the Promenade is pedestrian only, but a lovely walk, up amongst the trees and greenery.

It’s a beautiful day and it’s a great experience to take part in enjoying the creativity and lateral thinking of the people who thought to transform an unused piece of infrastructure in such a beautiful way. (Click the thumbnails to see larger versions of the pics.)

promenade1promenade2 promenade3




viaducdesartsFor part of the Promenade, we need to return to street level, but enjoy the walk along the Viaduc des arts where a variety of design shops create beautiful objects to suit a range of uses.

It’s around lunchtime by this stage and it’s nice to see the people from the various businesses bringing their tables and chairs out into the sunshine to enjoy their break together.  We walk on to find the next access point to get back up onto the Promenade.

apartmentsAt one point, the Promenade has had apartment blocks built on either side of the pathway and we marvel at the way that the whole project has integrated the renewed and the new.  signpost




It’s not far now and we can access 2 more Velibs and ride the Promenade off to the East. There’s a small selection of some of the ‘feel’ of the cycleway as we ride to the end.

It really is fabulous to see the way that this path is so well used and should validate the vision of those who championed the creation of the Fernleigh Track in Newcastle.  It’s sometimes difficult to adequately assess value in simple dollars and cents; but the value to communities and our experience as humans is enormous.

export lines wood





As often happens, there can be serendipitous outcomes in interesting ways and our trip along the Promenade was no different, as we found a Turkish restaurant for lunch and had some fantastic food and a chance to unwind and enjoy the sunshine before riding on back into more central Paris.

After cycling back to Bastille and then along the cycleway westward, we decide that it’s time to head back to our ‘home’ for the week, and dock our bikes at a Metro station before wandering home via Republique station.

penforthThere’s time for a few hours of relaxing before a quiet drink at our adopted ‘local:’ Chez Prune, before having an excellent late dinner at La Patache..a hundred metres or so from our base.  Excellent lentils and pork for Lynette and a great dish of ribs that fell off the bone for me, washed down with Rose and Pelforth Brune. Very local and authentic food.

All in all, a very nice day, with friends, sunshine and a lovely walk and cycle, topped off by excellent food and a drink or two.



Useful travel stuff

travelA few weeks of travel have shown up just what apps have been invaluable on the iPad mini.  Here’s a view of the ones that we have used extensively.

At top left, it may seem strange, but it’s been useful to have a compass within easy reach on many occasions.  In a city like London, Paris, New York or anywhere with a subway system, by the time you follow the twists and turns of the access to the platform and then exit the station it’s often hard to know which way you are facing when returning to street level. Couple this with the fact that the intuitive sense of direction which comes from generally having the sun to the North as it traverses the sky, at home in Australia, having it to the South in the Northern Hemisphere can play havoc with intuitive navigation.

The Maps app is essential, especially as it will geo-locate and enable searching etc. This one doesn’t have as many whistles and bells as Google Maps, but I find it has a smoother load time and doesn’t hang as much.

Yelp has proved invaluable on many occasions when you need, for example, to find ‘great coffee’ near current location. Once again, its map function is great for finding all kinds of stuff.

On the second row, Tripit has been fabulous for saving all booking confirmations and keeping our itinerary in order.  It’s also good for adding planned activities and a host of other benefits. Being able to email plans to [email protected] and also having the inbox scan function enabled makes planning much easier.

The colourful app in the middle is a Paris Metro app which has been great for navigating around the Metro system in Paris.  It also has a journey planner.

To its right is the XE currency conversion app which helps the decision about whether something is cheap or expensive when you want to go a bit more specific then the ‘rule of thumb approaches to estimating the damage in AUD. It has a plethora of currencies available.

At bottom left, the City Bikes app is amazing.  In settings, it is possible to select any city in the world which has a bike share system like Barclays in London, or Velib in Paris, Toronto in Canada or even Melbourne and Brisbane.  A live map then shows where the docks are, and in real time how many bikes are available at that time and then also maps your own position.  This can save a lot of walking on busy days when there may be a number of docks with no bikes available, but another around the corner which has plenty.  It also shows how many vacant spaces are available to return a bike.  We can’t speak highly enough of the bike share systems and, in Paris in particular, people from all generations and walks of life can be seen out and about; women in high heels, men in suits and anything else.

The London Tube app also has bus routes as well as a trip planner. The buses are excellent when you prefer to be able to relate to the sights you are passing.  Coupled with an Oyster Card preloaded with 7 days credit or whatever, it’s then simply a matter of tapping on and off in the Tube and DLR and tapping on to buses. The population density means that services are extremely well patronised and frequent even quite late at night.

The last app is the AirBnB app which is especially good for messaging hosts when arranging check-ins.

There are probably many more but these have proven their worth time and again. Please don’t hesitate to ask for more info if that would help. Or, why not share what you have found to be a ‘must have.’

In Paris this week, these two ticketing systems have been a staple and allowed us to cover a huge amount of territory.Scan 16 Sep 2014 7_15 pm-page3

At the top is a single Metro ticket which is inserted at the barrier for a single journey. The most economical way to buy these is by asking at a ticket window for a ‘carnet.’  This provides you with 10 tickets for a total of around 13 euro.  Or, you can buy them with cash or card at a ticket machine.  Just look for the language selection option if necessary.

The ticket at the bottom is a 7 day access pass for the Velib bike system.  It provides you with an 8 digit unique number on the reverse of the card and, when buying for the first time at one of the hundreds of Velib stations around the city you will also need to allocate a 4 digit pin.  You’ll find that one of the options on screen is a Language option so that you can choose English if need be.  Once you’ve got your 7 day card then each time you want to get a bike it’s a matter of entering your numbers and then choosing a bike number to remove. If you dock the bike at any Velib station within 30 minutes there is no further charge.  From experience in London and Toronto this seems to be a common formula, with slightly different ways of operating.


Monday Montmartre

The velib bike system in Paris seems to be a victim of its own popularity.  We’ve decided to cycle to a few destinations to get closer to Montmartre but find that all of the local velib stations either have no bikes available or only a couple of damaged ones. So, it’s down into the Metro again and a change of line before getting off the Metro at Anvers.

sacrecouerFor the next number of hours, we climb all over Montmartre. It’s up  the stairs and past the touts to the Basilica de Sacre Couer, and its view across Paris.

We spend some time picking out the line of Rue Magenta and the probable run of the Canal Saint Martin.


escargotThen, it’s a climb down more stairs on the Northern side of Sacre Couer to a cafe where Lynette tucks into an entree of escargots.

Through the twists and turns; up and down the slope, lies an atmosphere of creative endeavour.

It’s a good relaxed stop before we circumnavigate the hill itself, around to where the Moulin Rouge takes pride of place in what seems to be a bit of a tacky remnant of what must once have been.

We look up directions on the Maps on the iPad mini and begin the climb back toward the top to check out the Salvidor Dali exhibition before skirting the front of Montmartre and walking down the eastern side to catch a metro home from Chateau Rouge. With a change at Gare d’est we’re back ‘home’ at Jacque Bonsergent in no time.

Time to relax before we walk a few hundred metres to Auberge des Pyrenees Cevennes, one of Yelp’s top recommendations for a restaurant serving cassoulet, which turns out to be excellent.

So, not much of a bike ride, due to their popularity; but a very complete look at Montmatre and its maze of streets surrounding the central basilica which seems to stand guard on top of the hill.  Just around fifty metres to the West, a view opens up through the trees to the Eiffel Tower off in the distance.