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We had to fly via London for our connection onto Africa, and decided to spend a few short days in the UK. We packed them full of catching up with friends living far too far away.

After visiting a fantastic Nikon store in the centre of London, and walking away with a big and beautiful 300mm lens, we made our way to Chapaman, to meet up with Nick (and his fiancé Jacky)- one of Adam’s old friends. It was a grey day in London town, so we did as the Londoners do and made for the closest pub for an afternoon of beer drinking and rugby viewing. I was surrounded by three ardent fans, and tried my best to look enthusiastic at times! Nick took us to his local for another few rounds, then we spent the evening in Nick and Jackie’s little apartment, chatting over a lovely home cooked meal.

Lucy (an English friend I met in the Alps) was next on the list, and the following day we met her for lunch at the Belgium beer café for a hearty European meal with plenty of excellent beer. It was a quick catch up, before Adam and I had to race to the train station for our journey to Sheffield. Unfortunately, there was a fire in the tube, so we ended up running with our huge packs to the station in drizzling rain, full of beer and food, only to miss the train by a few minutes. We were promptly put on the next train, just an hour later, and were soon sharing another home cooked meal with my good friends Dave and Hayley. We were introduced to little Harry,  just a few months old, and had our bi-yearly catch up session. It was wonderful to see them doing so well. It was too short a visit, as the next morning we were back on the train to Heathrow, and then whisked into the next chapter of our adventures – Africa.


While Adam and Margaret were exploring the Gaudi laced Barcelona, I flew to Nice a few days earlier to spend some extra quality time with my lovely little brother and sister in-law. It was quiet a treat to be able to stay put for a week, to hear Chris and Laure’s travel stories through Asia and Europe, and catch up with Jean again (and even Ems on skype).

Our time in Nice will always be remembered foremost for the amazing array of extravagant meals we managed to squeeze into the week (Laure now refers to our visit as ‘Food Week’…see for more). Taking it in turns to walk to the boulangerie nearby, each morning the breakfast table was covered with fresh croissants, pan au chocolate, a warm baguette, a selection of cheeses and coffee. If we were in town exploring the old town we would have a coffee stop at Laure’s favourite café, ‘le pain a table’, with a delectable spread of tarts and pastries for our morning break. This eleven o’clock coffee stop would often flow into lunch –  perhaps a salade de chevre chaud or rich lamb shanks.  While Chris was in French class in the mornings Laure (when not working as an assistant chef in a cooking school) often acted as tour guide and led us through the streets of her home town. We poured over the shiny fresh produce at the daily market in the old city and bought some local sweets (candied fruit and chocolates), walked up to the lookout with views over the red tile roves and the pebbly beach, and past the port area in search of some funky bottles Margaret had spied in our regular cafe.

We were itching to make use of the array of produce so readily available, and created a feast each night- rabbit in a mustard brandy sauce and apple and almond tart; glazed duck breast with a green aniseed reduction and roasted figs followed by Laure’s rich chocolate tart; onion, eggplant and courgette facie (a specialty of Nice, made under Laure’s strict instructions). Laure’s uncle joined us for a simple but delicious dinner – wild mushroom fettuccine with plenty of good red wine, followed by goats cheese, fig paste and a desert wine from Malaga.

We also had a delectable meal out, in the old part of town. Laure took us to Birsto d’Antoine, a wonderful little restaurant that has earnt the reputation of being one of the best eating venues in Nice. We had a lovely evening, more dishes that only the French can produce (steak with foie gras, risotto with white truffle, duck breast, buddin noir, chevre chaud, beef capriccio, slow cooked lamb, crème brulee, chocoate mousse).

In between all the eating and drinking cheap but delicious French wine, we ventured to Grasse and Canes for day trips. Grasse, perched in the hills about an hour from Nice is known for it’s perfume factories, and lovely old centre. It was a Sunday, and the city was quiet, but we wandered the streets and managed to find a cute restaurant open for lunch. After a couple of bottles of rose, we made our way back to the train station via my favourite perfumery, Fragonard. We stocked up on some alluring fragrances, then having lingered a little too long over the perfume, ran to the train station only to miss the train by one minute!

Our second outing was to an Island just off Cannes. We took a picnic lunch and walked around the island, exploring the old fort and tried to walk off a few kilos that we’d all put on in the week.

On our final night in town Adam made up some Caipirinha’s with the cachaca we’d brought from Paraty in Brazil while we cooked up the final meal. Just to top off the week of indulging in the richest foods of France, we decided on the classic raclette – sliced meats, boiled potatoes smothered with decadent melted cheese. Chris, Laure Adam and I chatted in to the evening, then Adam and I finally packed, ready for an early departure.

Madrid/ Toledo

It was fabulous to arrive in Madrid and catch up with Mamita in the centre of town.  We spent a few days in Madrid visiting famous museums (Museo del Prado, Reina Sofia), wandering through beautiful parks and narrow tapas filled lanes and drinking coffee/wine in the cities’ plazas. The perfect way to catch up with mum and swap travel stories over the past 8 months or so.

It was, as always, great to view some of the world’s most famous art with Jacinta – partly because she knows plenty about art history and the careers of the artists whose work we were viewing, and partly because she could (patiently) answer my stream of religious questions that inevitably flowed from the disproportionate amount of biblical scenes adorning the walls. Goya (who I knew little of previously) was a favourite of mine, especially his latter day material of dark, warped and haunting portraiture.

Madrid turned out to be every bit as seductive as I had been led to believe. The pickled anchovies alone would have had me in raptures- but added to the warm, unpretentious people, the picturesque lanes and plazas, the art scene and of course all the other delectable dishes (and decent wine everywhere for 1.80 Euro a glass!) this city was hard to beat.

After 3 days of fun, we hired a car to do a tour of southern Spain. Jacinta managed to get pulled over by the police after taking an illegal left turn immediately upon leaving the car-hire parking lot! The police were a bit serious and after I had got out of the car and argued the age-old defence of ignorance for a while, they demanded I return to the vehicle. They ended up letting us free without a ticket and with a small lesson on the Spanish road signs. (even though we knew full well that the turn was illegal at the time!).

We made it to the small, medieval town of Toledo for lunch without further incident (I had taken over the driving, hehe). The old section of this town was a maze of cobble stone streets and high stone buildings and we staggered around admiring the majesty for a while. The highlight was the Toledo Cathedral, a monumental… errrr… monument, with stunning interiors, numerous chapels lining the sides and even its own gallery within. We finally found our way out of the old town just before sundown and headed to Cordoba.

Three gems in the South

After some quick research, we found a place smack in the centre of the old town in Cordoba, opposite the city’s main attraction -the “Mezquina” or Mosque.  This ranked among the most phenomenal pieces of architecture I had ever seen. I think I might let the photos give you an idea rather than provide a dewy-eyed, rambling tribute. Unfortunately, there had been a cathedral built in the middle of the building that detracted significantly from the spacious elegance of the Islamic design. Apparently the Mosque had originally been built on the site of a cathedral. A clear case of … our god is better than your god, no, our god is better, no our god is better…BLOODY CHILDREN. Why can’t we just respect everyone’s god.. huh, huh??

We also visited a synagogue with a lovely ornate simplicity (errr .. I think that makes sense) and an exhibition house depicting a typical Moorish home.  Jacinta and I promptly decided that if we ever own a house it will have interior balconies, lots of small hand painted tiles and a stone courtyard with a simple water feature and an orange tree (take note Erin/Chris/Laure/Emma). Actually, make that a lime tree- thai food and cocktails trump fresh orange juice. Anyway, Cordoba was a charming city (yep more stunning food, cheap wine, narrow streets and alluring plazas) which we enjoyed for a short time before heading on to Seville.

We navigated into the centre once more, following the ingenious blue dot along the blue line on mum’s ipad. (She might be significantly older than us but she managed to teach us both a thing or two about the uses of technology more than once on this trip!)  Highlights of Seville included the Cathedral (only slightly less impressive than Toledo’s version), the Alcazar and its beautiful gardens and the Plaza Espana. Jacinta and I also wandered past Seville’s famous Plaza del Toros (or Bull Ring) but bull-fighting season had finished a fortnight before our arrival.  I had never intended to see a bull fight, but I had begun to think that it would be something I’d like to experience once, especially given the setting in Seville. Alas, it wasn’t to be.

We did some shopping and visited Mum’s favourite Spanish store, Massimo Dutti (many times), among others. And of course, we thoroughly explored the restaurants and tapas bars in the central part of town. Overall, I was left with a very pleasant feeling from Seville. In seemed to have a great student life and plenty of parks and I couldn’t help but think of Melbourne (minus the cold weather).

We made a relaxed departure and navigated our way through many more kilometres of picturesque olive groves to Granada, stopping in a beautiful old town for lunch on the way. Even the blue dot was powerless to combat the maze of cobble stone streets and pedestrian boulevards in the city’s centre- thus navigating our way to a good parking lot proved a lengthy challenge which was finally successful.

That evening we set about securing tickets to the Alhambra. We were a little distressed to find that they were all sold out every day for the following two weeks. Happily, further inquiries revealed this information (asserted by the vending machine, who was the only “person” to sell tickets in town) to be merely a befuddling piece of deceptive bullshit. It seems that you need to speak to someone in the know: they will then tell you that you can acquire tickets at the gate everyday if you get there at dawn and wait in line for 1-2 hours. If you don’t speak to someone in the know, you leave the city disillusioned without seeing its main attraction. Luckily, after asking the same question four different ways, we drew this knowledge out of the receptionist at our hotel. Relieved and excited, we hit the tapas bars again with vigour.

Granada is one of the few places left in Spain where each bar takes pride in providing a complementary tapas dish with the first drink that is ordered. Thus, if one were a desperate backpacker, one could do a pub crawl of the town (remember wine is only 1.80 Euro a glass!!), get nicely toasted and receive a sumptious free dinner to boot; a trick that one Jacinta van Lint had employed a couple of years beforehand.

We endured the 1.5 hour pre-dawn vigil (with coffee and croissants to lighten the mood) and entered the grounds of the Alhambra triumphant. That was until we realised how we’d conspired to bring three excellent cameras and no spare batteries. We ended up juggling two between the three of us and salvaged the situation with some selective photography amidst much gaping at the beauty of the architecture, the grounds and the setting atop the city.  Magnificent? Majestic? Miraculous? Marvellous? Mind-blowing? Ok, I need a better vocabulary, have never been a fan of alliterations and stopped being serious a few crap superlatives back but it was probably all of them.

The following day we went on a drive to three small towns set in the hills around Granada- Pampaneira, Bubion, and Trevelez. The first two were mainly defined by their berber architecture, white-washed buildings with flat roves and rounded chimneys,and their narrow streets with lovely views. Trevelez was solely defined by its Jamon. We felt like we were on a pilgrimage of sorts as we drove along the windy mountain roads to reach this, the furthest of the three. As it happened, the holy grail, viewed in one of those gorgeous little delis (hanging from each available inch of ceiling space), and sampled in a nearby restaurant with a view of the valley, was everything the scriptures (ipad) had promised.

The Mediterranean coast

After more excellent food in Granada, a spot of shopping and a night photography class in the old town (thanks for the patience Jacinta and mum!), we drove south-east. We followed the coast along to the most south-easterly point – San Jose- of the Iberian peninsula, stopping for a lovely seafood lunch by the water on the way.  San Jose was a sleepy little bay that seemed to consist mainly of holiday homes that were deserted at this time of year. Still it provided an agreeable and scenic stopover en route to Valencia.

The highlight of Valencia was definitely the old buildings, parks and food in the cities’ centre and not the beachfront area which consists of a long strip of sand and cement with little shade and less atmosphere. The city was pleasant enough, but was probably our least favourite of the large cities we’d visited in Spain thus far (though to be fair, it had pretty stiff competition).  We tried to order the famous Valencian Paella (with rabbit!), only to be told it had to be pre-ordered. I am sure I saw tears well up in Jacinta’s eyes at that point but this was probably because she was shortly to leave us, bound for Nice.

After seeing her off at the train station, mum and I headed to Barcelona. A late lunch in full view of the Sagrada Familia was the perfect introduction to the city. The following three days were crammed full of highlights. The Picasso Museum was one of my favourites – I love his work and it was all beautifully presented, tracking his various artistic phases. A special exhibition Degas antes de Picasso was also on show at the time which placed many famous works from both artists side by side to illustrate how Picasso may have been influenced and inspired by Degas. This exhibition was nearly as good as the Picasso Museum itself.  We also went to the Miro museum and his brilliance was sadly lost on me.

We visited many of Gaudi’s famous architectural works around the city, all of which were very impressive and fun to try and capture with a camera. The exterior and interior of the Sagrada Familia was impossible to beat, though the Pedrera (stone apartment building) was also a highlight.  Just to top it off, we also went to an excellent Catalonian guitar concert in the Palau de la Musica Catalana and I went to dinner with an old friend who I had lived with in Montreal when I was 22.  Both nights were fantastic.

I had always wanted to visit Barcelona and now I know what all the fuss is about. The city has a magic combination of old world ambience and vibrant modernity. It is beautiful and cosmopolitan, the Catalonian culture gives it a unique character, the art scene is one of the best in the world and apparently the nightlife is second to none (easy to believe).  I always thought a city that combined Sydney and Melbourne’s best qualities would be hard to beat. Barcelona manages this (in a very rough sense) with much more on the side.

We returned to Madrid and spent two nights staying with my ex-girlfriend, Amelie. It was great to see her again and both nights involved drinking/talking until 4, in true Spanish style. Unfortunately I had an early morning flight to Nice after the second of these nights and arrived in a rather poor condition.

We had pre-bought bus tickets to the Falls, from Sao Paulo, but the bus from Paratay to Sao Paulo was scheduled to arrive with just 20mins to spare. After sweating out the 7 hour journey, we arrived perfectly on time, very thankful to be on the 15 hour bus to one of the most spectacular natural sights on the continent.

Adam had seen the falls on his last visit to South America, but I was absolutely amazed by the power and energy of the huge expanse of water. Apparently it was a particularly good time to see the falls, with a massive amount of water tumbling over the broad cliff faces. Initially we had plans to get to both the Brazilian and the Argentinian, but in the end we viewed and photographed all the angles of the Argentinean side, enjoyed a beer at our favourite viewing point, and then rushed back for our return overnight bus to Sao Paulo, and finally (sleep deprived, but satisfied) fell onto our flight to Europe.

We decided that we needed a few days of Brazilian beach time, and Ilha Grande was our choice. A small island just off the coast, renowned for its long beautiful fair sanded beach, and lovely little coves. We camped at the main town area for 2 nights, and had a lovely few days exploring and relaxing.

After finding the buses were full in the direction to Iguasu falls, where I was planning to spend two nights while Adam explored the costal area more, Adam- being such a lovely boyfriend- decided to join me for the epic journey after a night in Paratay.

Paraty is a lovely old town, with white wash buildings, cobbled stoned streets, and some pleasant beaches nearby. We wandered the streets, marvelling at the sweet carts on every second corner, and indulged in caipirinhas on the water’s edge. It is famous for its cachaca so we were forced to invest in a bottle, to share later in our travels with Laure and Chris in Nice.

Our flight landed bright and early in Rio, and even though it was overcast, I could see that this was a beautifully situated city, lying in and around green hills, with the ocean lapping at one edge. We checked into our outrageously priced hostel, near Ipanema beach and went for a stroll to explore the upper class area and the neighbouring beach of Copacobana.

Last time Adam was in town he had eaten at Porcau, (an all you can eat style restaurant Brazilian style) and had raved about it so much that he had to take me to experience this meat eating extravaganza. Waiters roamed the restaurant floor with huge skewers of succulent cuts of beef, and would cut a piece to your liking. There were a few other types of meat floating around (chorizos, pork ribs, and whole salmon) but the beef was the star. They also had an extensive salad bar, complete with seafood, sushi and a cheese platter. We left with our stomachs achingly full of excellent food.

The next morning the weather had cleared, so we made our way up to the Jesus statue towering over the city. We went via the suburb of Santa Teresa, a lovely hilltop area with small mansions, leafy streets and little cafes. There was also a little walk way that had been covered with tiles from around the world by an eccentric Chilean artist, which was a nice detour in our wanderings.

After having our fill of city gazing at the massive statue we made back down the mountain to grab our bags and continue a few hours down the coast to the departure point to the island of Ilha Grande.