Just Me Travel

Just Me Travel

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Author: Joanna Rath

SIMIEN MOUNTAINS ETHIOPIA: When “Plastic Card” Means Warmth (Not what you think!) (2024 Updated)

Lost in Translation! Discover How a ‘Plastic Card’ Becomes a Hot Water Bottle in Ethiopia’s Simien Mountains     Dear Pip, Having travelled as much as I have, I should…

Lost in Translation! Discover How a ‘Plastic Card’ Becomes a Hot Water Bottle in Ethiopia’s Simien Mountains

 

The sun set behind the mountain with several round huts used for accommodation.

Simien Lodge – sunset over the Simien Mountains

 

Dear Pip,

Having travelled as much as I have, I should no longer be surprised by how easily things can get lost in translation. But on this occasion, my physical comfort, or more precisely, my physical discomfort, enabled me to create my own meaning to communication.

I have arrived at the Simien Lodge in the Simien Mountains National Park. The Lodge is on an escarpment, and the mountain landscape is stunning. However, it was cold, and I needed to find my jacket from the bottom of my bag. This was the first time I needed my jacket since arriving in Ethiopia. It could have something to do with the Simien Lodge being 3,260 metres above sea level – the highest lodge in Africa.

The rooms in the Simien Lodge are spacious, with a good-sized bathroom, including a shower that I was actually able to turn around in (an issue in Ethiopian hotels). But the room was cold, and after a thorough search, I couldn’t find any means of heating it.

Due to arriving at the Simien Lodge after a very long drive (getting anywhere in Ethiopia involves a long drive), I decided a nap was in order. I would worry about the heating when I went down for dinner. Given the altitude and my hut being on top of a hill, I wasn’t going to walk up and down unless I absolutely had to.

Grabbing the blankets and quilts from the spare bed onto mine, I climbed into bed, thinking that at least I would be warm while I slept. How wrong could I be! I was still cold, even with an extra layer of clothes and my jacket. Needless to say, I went down for dinner as soon as the restaurant opened.

My first stop was at reception, where I asked how to heat my room. I was advised that the staff would provide me with “a plastic card for the bed” after dinner. I assumed this would be like a hotel room key card that you slot into a device to activate the room lights; I would slot this card somewhere in the room that I hadn’t yet located, and it would activate an electric blanket. An electric blanket would be most suitable. That it would be an electric blanket I hadn’t seen yet did not register. I should have known – don’t ever assume! The ‘plastic card for the bed’ was a hot water bottle. That I was disheartened by this method of heating my room was an understatement. How was I going to be warm? However, the hot water bottle worked a treat. I was snug in bed all night and had a great night’s sleep. That the room itself was cold mattered not one bit.

Tomorrow, I leave for Gondar, where, I am assured, it will be warmer.

Love,

Joanna

A view of a mountain range with green, brown, blue, and pink colours.

Simien Mountains National Park

 

Editor’s Note: I originally published this blog post in April 2019 and have updated it for accuracy and comprehensiveness.

 

Disclaimer: This post contains no affiliate links. All views and opinions are my own and non-sponsored. All photos are my own and remain the copyright of Just Me Travel.

© Just Me Travel 2018-2024. All rights reserved.

 

Please share your ‘lost in translation’ experience in the comments below. I love hearing from you and look forward to reading and responding to your comments.

 

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A round stone hut with a straw thatched roof set in the mountains.

Several round accommodation huts set in a dip in the hill.

 

Author’s Note: Please check the latest travel restrictions before planning any trip and follow government advice.

 

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5 FABULOUS DAY TRIPS FROM BARCELONA SPAIN: Your Reliable Guide

Mountains, Museums, and Medieval Magic: Catalonia Unveiled Through Unforgettable Day Trips for Every Traveller.   Welcome to my travel blog, where I am excited to share with you exceptional day…

Mountains, Museums, and Medieval Magic: Catalonia Unveiled Through Unforgettable Day Trips for Every Traveller.

 

Welcome to my travel blog, where I am excited to share with you exceptional day trips beyond the streets of Barcelona. Join me as I recount my unforgettable experiences on five diverse and awe-inspiring tours from Barcelona. From towering mountains to rugged coastlines, from quaint medieval villages frozen in time to the birthplace of Surrealism, these five exceptional tours take you to another world of Catalonian beauty and wonder.

Catalonia’s diverse landscapes offer a diversity of experiences. Embarking on day trips from Barcelona opens up a world of exploration, where each destination promises its unique blend of history, culture, and natural beauty. Whether you’re drawn to the spiritual heights of Montserrat, the sun-kissed shores of Costa Brava, the timeless charm of medieval villages, the rugged grandeur of the Pyrenees, or the artistic legacy of Salvador Dali, there’s a world of exploration waiting to be uncovered. Catalonia’s day trips have something for everyone!

 

The 5 Day Trips

 

Day Trip from Barcelona to Montserrat

Tour: Montserrat Visit with Ascent by Cogwheel Train

Tour Operator: Julia Travel

Duration: Full day – 11.5 hours

Cost: AUD140.00

I booked this tour from Australia before leaving for Spain.

Julia Travel promotes this small group trip as discovering “one of the most mystic Catalan wonders”.

Montserrat Monastery is an 11th-century Benedictine monastery on Montserrat Mountain (meaning ‘serrated mountain’), 60 kilometres northwest of Barcelona. The monastery hangs onto the side of the mountain 725 metres above sea level.

About 80 monks reside at the monastery, which is famous for the Black Madonna statue in the basilica and one of the oldest boys’ choirs in Europe.

View across the valley of a monastery on the side of a mountain.

Montserrat Monastery perched on the side of the mountain.

 

I took this photo of Montserrat Monastery across the valley at the Cross of St Michael.

The tour as I experienced it:

There were five of us on the Montserrat full-day tour, plus the guide. We travelled on the bus from Barcelona to Montserrat with the morning-only tour participants, separating into two groups (morning-only group and full-day group) on arrival at Montserrat Abbey.

An hour after leaving Barcelona, we arrived at the rack railway (also referred to as the Cremallera) at the bottom of Montserrat Mountain in the small town of Monistrol de Montserrat for the cogwheel train ride up the mountain to the centre of the Monserrat Monastery complex. The five-kilometre, 15-minute ride provided fantastic views of this unusual mountain. As you leave the train, pause to take in the views of the mountain that towers above the monastery and basilica and the deep valley below.

The morning was spent with our tour guide, learning about the monastery, visiting the basilica and Black Madonna, and watching a short documentary about the monastery’s world-famous Boys’ Choir (L’Escolania).

We could not see the Boys’ Choir perform in person as the boys were on school holidays.

A tilted courtyard leads to the carved front entrance of a church.

The Atrium (open courtyard) in front of the Basilica and front facade of the Basilica.

 

A black madonna with baby Jesus sitting on her lap. She is holding a marble ball that people can rub. The figures are behind glass.

The Black Madonna inside Montserrat Basilica.

 

The famous Black Madonna wooden statue sits behind glass at the back of the church above the high altar. We joined the queue of pilgrims and tourists to file past the Black Madonna, where many stopped to touch her hand through a cut in the glass.

According to our guide, the Madonna’s face is black due to a botched restoration in about the 12th century when the wrong varnish was used, turning her face black. It was decided to leave her face black, with locals saying that maybe the Madonna wanted a black face. However, historical descriptions of the Madonna say she has simply darkened over time. This latter theory makes more sense, given that the face of the baby Jesus sitting on Madonna’s lap also appears black.

The guided morning tour ended at 12.10 pm, and we were free to spend the rest of the day as we pleased, meeting again at 6.15 pm for the bus trip back to Barcelona.

With the afternoon free, I was eager to take a walk on Montserrat Mountain, starting at the top and walking down. To do this, I rode the Funicular de Sant Joan from Montserrat Monastery to the summit of Montserrat Mountain, about 300 metres above the monastery. I took the path to the left of the Funicular station that wound around and down the mountain to the Cross of Saint Michael (Sant Miquel)) and back down to the monastery.

The signpost at the beginning of the path indicated it was a 40-minute walk to the Cross of Saint Michael. The Cross was about one and a half hours into my very steep descent down Montserrat Mountain, and I still had about 20 minutes to go before I arrived back at the monastery. But I was in no hurry as I took in the spectacular views of Montserrat Mountain’s unique geological (‘serrated’) formation and the valleys and river below.

A serrated mountain top with a view of farm lands and towns in the valley below.

View from Montserrat (‘serrated’) Mountain.

 

A tall cross monument forms a lookout point for the Vally below.

Cross of Saint Michael and the valley below

 

While the walk down the mountain was not technically demanding (it’s a paved path nearly all the way), I did find the steep descent challenging. There were times when the decline was so steep my back was almost vertical to the path. The heat was another challenging factor. I’m sure I was on that mountain on its hottest day ever recorded!

Back at Montserrat Monastery, I had a late lunch at the cafeteria – a buffet that cost €19,50 and was not worth the money.

My tour review / final thoughts:

According to their website, Julia Travel no longer offers the full-day Montserrat tour from Barcelona that I did. Instead, they offer a morning (5.5 hours) and afternoon (4.5 hours) tour with the cogwheel train at €59 and €51, respectively.

Having done both the morning and full-day tours a few weeks apart, I believe a half-day tour does not allow time to immerse yourself in the beauty of the mountains where the monastery sits. While visiting the abbey and basilica and learning their history was interesting, the highlight for me was the walk on Montserrat Mountain. It would be a shame to miss out on one of the several walks you can take around Montserrat.

People walking on a path around around the top of a mountain.

The Sant Jeroni walking trail on Montserrat Mountain

 

There was a communication issue with Julia Travel on this tour. Arriving in Montserrat, the guide sent us to grab a coffee as she was trying to contact Julia Travel to organise our entrance tickets into the basilica and the Black Madonna, delaying the start of the tour by half an hour. Then, when it came to leaving Montserrat, Julia Travel forgot there were five of us doing the full-day tour and supposedly leaving on the same bus as the afternoon tour. However, 50 people were on the afternoon tour, and it was a 50-seater bus. Consequently, we (the five full-day tour group) were taken off the bus and had to wait for another bus from Barcelona to come and get us. So, instead of leaving Montserrat at 6.15 pm, we left an hour later, arriving back in Barcelona at 8.10 pm. Luckily, it wasn’t dark as I had a 35-minute walk back to the hotel, and people were only starting to come out for dinner in restaurants then.

I found Julia Travel’s communication a repetitive problem. I had booked another tour with Julie Travel to Salvador Dali’s Theatre-Museum and Villages – a tour I was particularly keen on taking. However, arriving at 8.00 am at Julia Travel’s office on the day of the tour, I learned it had been cancelled. I received an apology for not being informed and a refund. However, this was not good enough and amounted to unacceptable customer service.

The setting alone makes Montserrat Monastery worth a visit. But it was the mountain walk that made this tour memorable for me.

View of a valley below Monterrat Mountain in Spain.

Llobregat Valley and River taken from Montserrat Mountain

 

Day Trip from Barcelona to Figueres

Tour: Salvador Dali Museum, Figueres and Cadaques Small Group Trip from Barcelona

Tour Operator: Explore Catalunya

Duration: Full day – 11 hours

Cost: €99,00

Explore Catalunya promotes this small group trip as the “Best tour for Dali enthusiasts, and you’ll see hidden treasures off the beaten path”.

The summer schedule for this day trip (1st July – 14th September) does not include the coastal village of Cadaques, which is included in the winter tour schedule. Instead, the summer schedule takes you to Gala Dali’s Castle in Pubol. I was on the summer schedule day trip.

Near the border with France and about 136 kilometres north of Barcelona, Figueres is famous for being the birthplace of the artist Salvador Dali, an artist I have been a fan of for many decades. It is also home to his world-famous Theatre and Museum.

The Dali Theatre-Museum is a museum dedicated solely to the Spanish artist Salvador Dali, a genius of Surrealism. Built by Dali, it is considered the world’s largest surrealist object and is crowded with his artworks – paintings, sculptures, photographs, and jewellery.

Dali is buried in a crypt beneath the dome of his Theatre-Museum.

The tour as I experienced it:

On arrival in Figueres, we headed to the world-famous Dali Theatre-Museum for a half-hour guided tour with our Explore Catalunya guide. Following the guided tour, we had one and a half hours of free time to explore the three floors of the Theatre-Museum for ourselves.

After leaving Figueres at 12.45 pm, we drove a short half-hour to the pretty, seaside medieval village of Sant Marti d’Empuries on the Costa Brava. Here, we were given two hours of free time for lunch, to explore, or to take a dip in the Mediterranean Sea.

I had a delicious salad at L’Escalapi Restaurant and Pizzeria – a Goat’s Cheese Salad with lettuce, tomatoes, goat’s cheese, walnuts, pine nuts, sultanas, and mustard and honey dressing. Spain does salads so well! I followed up my salad with Sugar and Lemon Crepes. The total cost for lunch was €20 (AU$33).

I walked off lunch by wandering around Sant Marti d’Empuries, admiring its medieval buildings and checking out the beach – a lovely spot to stay a while.

Our last stop for the day was Gala Dali’s Castle in the tiny village of Pubol. The castle is the house Salvador Dali bought for his wife. Salvador didn’t live here until after Gala’s death and had to be invited by Gala to visit.

We were given a half-hour guided tour inside the castle and half an hour of free time to explore its gardens. According to our guide, Gala wanted to design the interior herself, but there is substantial Salvador Dali influence (artworks) inside the castle and its grounds. I particularly loved the Dali sculptures of long-legged elephants in the gardens.

A sculpture of an elephant with very long legs and an eagle on top sits in a garden of green plants.

There’s an elephant in the garden!

 

Gala is buried in the crypt designed by her husband in the castle’s basement.

Leaving Pubol at 5.00 pm, we arrived in Barcelona at 6.45 pm.

My tour review / final thoughts:

I have been a fan of Salvador Dali for many decades, and visiting his Theatre Museum was on my bucket list as soon as I started planning my trip to Spain. And I wasn’t disappointed! As I viewed his works over three floors, I got a glimpse into his unique world and learned so much about the evolution of his artistic styles.

My only criticism of the two hours allocated in the Dali Theatre-Museum is that it wasn’t long enough. Viewing artworks should be a relaxed experience, but I felt rushed as I wanted to take in as much as possible. It also didn’t give me time to view the jewellery Dali designed for his wife or to visit the museum shop, where I had hoped to buy a book on Salvador Dali.

Here’s some trivia: Dali designed the Spanish lollipop Chupa Chups logo. I never knew Chupa Chups were Spanish! Perhaps I need to attend more trivia nights because the question of who created the Chupa Chups logo is, apparently, frequently asked.

Explore Catalunya must ensure the full tour description reflects the actual tour itinerary. Their detailed summer schedule full tour description maintains that Platge de Castell would be our last stop after Gala Dali’s Castle before returning to Barcelona. However, we never visited Platge de Castell, “one of those rare hidden corners you can still find on the Costa Brava”. Instead, we visited Sant Marti d’Empuries on the Mediterranean coast before heading to Gala’s Castle. I can’t say I was disappointed as I knew nothing about Platge de Castell, and Sant Marti d’Empuries was an enchanting village that I thoroughly enjoyed exploring.

I booked this tour because I wanted to see as much as possible about Salvador Dali that was available at the time. As such, I was pleased Explore Catalunya included Gala Dali’s Castle in the tour. I must admit, I found Gala’s home uninteresting but did enjoy wandering through the castle’s grounds. The hour at Gala Dali’s Castle was more than sufficient time to see everything there was.

 

Day Trip from Barcelona to Costa Brava

Tour: Costa Brava Small Group Tour from Barcelona

Tour Operator: Explore Catalunya

Duration: Full day – 10 hours

Cost: €105,00

Explore Catalunya promotes this small group trip as being transported “to one of the most breathtakingly beautiful stretches of coastline in the whole of Europe – the Costa Brava”.

The Costa Brava is a coastal region of Catalonia on the Mediterranean Sea in northeastern Spain. It stretches from Blanes, a city 60 kilometres northeast of Barcelona, to the French border.

The tour as I experienced it:

About an hour’s drive from Barcelona, we arrived in Blanes – the gateway to Costa Brava. We didn’t stop in Blanes (a city of nearly 50,000 people) but drove straight to Cala Sant Francesc – a picturesque small cove with yellow sand and turquoise waters.

Alighting from the bus on the hill above Cala Sant Francesc, our guide gave us the option to spend our two hours’ free time at the beach or walking around the nearby Marimurtra Botanical Garden. I chose the Botanical Garden, described as one of the most beautiful gardens on the Mediterranean.

A dark pink flower with irregular petals

Marimurtra Botanical Garden

 

Marimurtra Botanical Garden is situated on the top of a cliff, providing stunning views of the picturesque Costa Brava with its white sand coves, crystal clear turquoise and aqua waters, and rugged coastline.

Leaving Cala Sant Francesc at 12.30 pm, we headed for lunch at a family-owned typical Mediterranean restaurant outside of Blanes. Our set menu consisted of a selection of traditional local dishes for starters with a glass of Sangria, a choice of several main courses, and a choice of Mel i Moto (a traditional Catalan dessert) or ice cream.

After a leisurely lunch, we drove for about half an hour to Tossa de Mar – a resort town home to the last preserved fortified town on the Costa Brava coast. Upon arrival, our guide took us on an orientation walk through the town and then given over an hour of free time.

I didn’t go for a swim in the waters of the very crowded beach or seek a coffee in the many cafes and restaurants packed with people. I opted instead to walk up the hill to the lighthouse and fortifications on the town’s highest point.

From the lighthouse and fortifications, I could see over the town, the many boats moored in Tossa de Mar’s bay, and a panoramic view of the Mediterranean Sea with its blue waters and rugged coastline.

Medieval fortifications provide a foreground for a crowded beach lined with multistoried hotels.

Tossa de Mar – town, beach and fortifications

 

Tossa de Mar was our last stop for the day. An hour and a half drive saw us back in Barcelona.

My tour review / final thoughts:

According to Explore Catalunya, the picturesque Cala Sant Francesc is “one of the few remaining coves on the coast that have avoided the crowds of tourists and big commercial developments and are known only to locals”. All I can say is there must be a lot of locals because the cove’s beach was crowded. Explore Catalunya goes on to say we would have the beach to ourselves. I think they need to rewrite their tour description!

A beach of a small cove is crowded with people and beach umbrellas.

“Uncrowded” Cala Sant Francesc

 

I enjoyed wandering around the Marimurtra Botanical Garden and admiring its more than four thousand plant species. However, my highlight of the day trip was the hilltop Garden’s coastal views. The Garden provides the most spectacular views of Costa Brava’s beautiful small coves, crystal clear waters, and the rugged coastline of the Mediterranean Sea.

Pink flowers, green plants, and trees Fram rocks in the sea.

The Mediterranean Sea framed by Marimurtra Botanical Garden

 

Explore Catalunya’s detailed description for The Costa Brava tour states: “After leaving the beach and gardens, we will continue up to the old castle ruins for another amazing view of the coast.” Unfortunately, this did not occur, leaving me disappointed, as I would have loved to see more of Costa Brava’s coastline.

Lunch was delicious. I had a great salad with lettuce, brie cheese, walnuts, and fruits for my mains. Since I am not fond of ice cream, I had the Mel i Moto – a traditional Catalan dessert of Catalan cheese with honey. It was an interesting dessert but not unpleasant, and I could have had another bowl with more honey. Since arriving home, I have tried making this dessert with ricotta cheese, but it doesn’t taste the same (not as good).

My impression of Tossa de Mar is that of a very crowded tourist town, one I would typically avoid. However, I did enjoy the views from the lighthouse and fortifications of Costa Brava’s dramatic coastline.

The Mediterranean Sea crashed against the cliffs of Costa Brava's coastline.

Costa Brava’s rugged coastline at Tessa de Mar

 

Overall, the day trip to Costa Brava was long but enjoyable, and I recommend it.

 

Day Trip from Barcelona to Medieval Villages

Tour: Small Group Medieval Villages Day Trip from Barcelona

Tour Operator: Explore Catalunya

Duration: Full day – 11 hours

Cost: €95,00

Explore Catalunya promotes this day trip as a journey back to the medieval age, visiting the beautifully preserved villages of Besalu and Tavertet and enjoying free time in Rupit village.

The tour as I experienced it:

Leaving Barcelona at 8.30 am, we arrived in Besalu, our first medieval village, at about 10.00 am. Upon arrival, we (there were five guests on the tour) were given 20 minutes for a coffee and a bite to eat. We then headed across Besalu’s most significant feature – its 12th-century Romanesque bridge over the Fluvia River with its seven arches and a fortified gateway at its midpoint. Having crossed the bridge, we immediately entered Besalu’s medieval old town, where our Explore Catalunya driver-guide provided a 20-minute guided familiarisation walking tour around the Old Town.

A view of a town made of stone buildings and a stone bridge built in medieval times.

The medieval town of Besalu and its Romanesque bridge.

 

After the guided walking tour, we had one hour to explore Besalu independently.

Founded in 878 AD, Besalu is an enchanting medieval town in the foothills of the southeastern section of the Pyrenees. It is one of Spain’s most beautiful and best-preserved medieval towns and was declared a historic and artistic site of national importance in 1966.

Today, Besalu has a population of 2,512 (2023) living there permanently.

Besalu is home to an 11th-century church and hospital, a 12th-century monastery, the remains of a medieval castle, and an ancient Jewish Quarter, where you will find the ruins of a medieval synagogue and a 12th-century Mikvka (Jewish ritual bathhouse).

Besalu’s old town is built entirely from sandstone, giving the village a golden, warm hue. Cafes fill the pretty squares, and narrow cobblestone streets wind through the village. As to be expected, souvenir shops line the streets. However, glancing into shops as I walked past them made me think they were of a better quality than most you see.

Besalu’s main square, Placa de la Llibertat, is in the centre of the old town and a great place to sit with a drink or ice cream and people-watch.

A tiled square in a medieval village lined with cafes and restaurants. There are people sitting in the cafes.

Cafes and restaurants line Besalu’s main square

 

I found the wooden chairs attached to the Old Town’s stone walls a thought-provoking addition to Besalu’s medieval architecture. However, I never got an answer about the reason for this art installation.

After about an hour’s drive from Besalu and up narrow, winding roads into the Pyrenees, we arrived at the medieval village of Rupit. A river, forest, waterfalls, and caves surround the village, which is 822 metres above sea level in a valley adjacent to the Garrotxa Volcanic Zone Natural Park.

Rupit was in stark contrast to Besalu. Instead of the pale stone buildings that give Besalu an air of warmth, all the houses in Rupit are built with basalt stone, giving the village a dark, forbidding appearance.

A cluster of basalt stone houses are surrounded by green shrubs and trees.

The medieval village of Rupert, with houses built in basalt

 

Rupit is smaller than Besalu, with about 160 permanent residents and just two main streets. The United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) has described it as “one of the jewels of Catalonia in Spain.”

Rupit has received two awards in recent years:

  • UNWTO named it ‘Best Tourism Villages 2022’ for its “development of sustainable and responsible tourism.”
  • It has been awarded ‘European Charming Villages’ by the COSME Initiative of the European Union.

Before arriving in Rupit, our driver-guide gave us the option of free time to explore the village or to join him at a local restaurant for a set menu Catalonian lunch. I opted for lunch with three other guests and our driver-guide – a big mistake! Don’t get me wrong, the three-course lunch was delicious and a leisurely affair, but it took all our allocated two hours of free time in Rupit.

Two hours for lunch in Spain is the norm, but we had no time to explore the village. After several guests voiced their disappointment, our driver-guide gave us ten minutes to explore Rupit.

Our final stop before heading back to Barcelona was at a clifftop lookout in the tiny village of Tavertet, overlooking the valley below and the Guilleries mountain range. From this viewpoint, we could see the large Sau Reservoir, villages, and the odd lone house in the valley below.

A valley view in a Spanish mountain range with a large reservoir.

View of the valley and mountain range from Tavertet lookout

 

My tour review / final thoughts:

Besalu:

Grabbing a takeaway coffee instead of sitting down for 20 minutes would have been a better option, allowing more time for the guided walk around Besalu.

I would have liked more time to explore Besalu at a relaxed pace rather than rushing from street to street to see as much as possible and take as many photos as possible.

According to the detailed description on Explore Catalunya’s website, the Medieval Villages tour includes “visit a restored mikveh (an old Jewish bath from the 12th century), and see the remains of a medieval synagogue”. Neither of these happened.

We were discouraged from seeing the old Jewish bath with an explanation that to do so was too hard. We would have to walk back over the bridge (at this point, we were inside the walled town) to the tourist office, get the key for the bath, and then take the key back to the tourist office once having seen the bath. There was also an admission fee involved.

I got the distinct impression that our guide just couldn’t be bothered taking us to visit the restored mikvah and ruins of the medieval synagogue. I found this extremely disappointing as I have a strong interest in Jewish history.

Castellfollit de la Roca:

On the drive to Rupit, our driver-guide pointed to Castellfollit de la Roca village, perched on the edge of a basalt precipice. I have seen several photos of Castellfollit de la Roca on Instagram and have always been in awe of its precarious location. I was okay with not exploring the village but felt incredibly disappointed that we drove straight past and didn’t pull off the road for a photo stop.

Rupit:

Opting to have lunch in a restaurant in Rupit was a missed opportunity to explore the village. It was a shame that our driver-guide failed to advise us that lunch in the restaurant would take up all our free time in Rupit. Had he done so, I would have grabbed something to eat at the bakery and used the two hours to explore the village and walk along the river to discover its pools and waterfalls.

Tavertet:

Explore Catalunya’s detailed description for this tour states that a visit is made to Tavertet village. “With your guide, visit this charming village, which was declared a National Property of Cultural Interest due to its 48 preserved houses from the 17th and 18th centuries. Learn interesting facts about this village as you admire the houses and the 11th-century Romanesque Church of Sant Cristofol.” However, we did not visit Tavertet; we merely drove straight through to the viewpoint on the cliff edge of the village for a panoramic view of the valley below. It was a shame we did not go into Tavertet, as I was looking forward to seeing the houses.

Explore Catalunya advertises that The Small Group Medieval Villages Day Trip from Barcelona lasts 11 hours. However, on this day, it was only ten hours. The additional hour would have allowed the advertised visit to Tavertet village or more time in Besalu.

Final thoughts:

Besalu is a delightful village worth visiting. However, I would have found a full day in Besalu to explore all its nooks and crannies of more value.

Ten minutes to explore Rupit and a short walk along one street to the restaurant was not enough time to make an informed comment on Rupit. However, what I did see had me wanting more.

I cannot comment on Tavertet, as we only drove quickly through the village to the lookout.

I enjoyed the Medieval Villages Day Trip, but I suspect the enjoyment was more about getting out of Barcelona for the day than the trip itself. In truth, I ended the day feeling disappointed and cheated.

 

Day Trip from Barcelona to the Pyrenees

Tour: Pyrenees Mountains Small Group Day trip from Barcelona

Tour Operator: Explore Catalunya

Duration: Full day – 11 hours

Cost: €109,00

Explore Catalunya promotes this day trip as “The only day tour from Barcelona that takes groups into the Pyrenees Mountains”.

There were five guests on this day trip (including myself) and our driver-guide, Steven. The tour’s destination was Vall de Nuria (Nuria’s Valley) in the Pyrenees via Vic and Queralbs.

The tour as I experienced it:

Our departure from Barcelona at 8.30 am had us arriving in Vic (pronounced Bic) about an hour later.

Vic is about 69 kilometres north of Barcelona on the Meder River. It is an ancient city, dating back to the Ausetan Iberians before Roman occupation in the 1st century AD, with an interesting and picturesque medieval Old Town.

On a 20-minute guided walking tour around the Old Town, we passed through several small pretty squares with cafes preparing for the day.

The guided walking tour ended in Cathedral Square at the Roman Catholic cathedral, Catedral de Sant Pere Apostol (Cathedral of Saint Peter the Apostle).

I found the interior of Vic’s Sant Pere Cathedral to be unlike anything I had seen previously. Huge, almost monochromatic canvases painted by Joseph Maria Sert representing the mystery of redemption cover the walls, making the interior dark and gloomy – an unexpected contrast to the cathedral’s light-coloured stone exterior. It wasn’t a place I wanted to linger! However, your reaction may be very different.

Explore Catalunya’s visits to Vic coincide with traditional market days, which take place on Tuesdays and Saturdays in the arched main square (one of the biggest in Spain). Stalls of every sort filled the square.

Our half-hour of free time had me scouring the market stalls and nearby shops for something suitable for a takeaway lunch. Steven advised us that the food at Vall de Nuria’s café was not the best and recommended that we buy lunch in Vic.

From Vic, we drove up into the Pyrenees to the small village of Queralbs, which sits at an altitude of 1,236 metres. It is the last vehicle-accessible village on the way up to Vall de Nuria (Nuria’s Valley), a beautiful valley in the eastern Pyrenees. The final six kilometres from Queralbs to Vall de Nuria must be travelled by rack railway – a 20-minute journey to an altitude of 1,964 metres. But first, there was a guided walking tour through Queralbs.

Queralbs is an ancient village dating back to 833 AD. With its traditionally built stone houses perched on the side of the mountain, “this impossibly quaint, picture postcard beautiful hamlet is one of the most memorable parts of the day” (Explore Catalunya). I couldn’t agree more! The village was picture-perfect.

The walking tour ended at the Romanesque Esglesia de Sant Jaume (Church of Saint James) – one of Spain’s oldest surviving Romanesque churches.

A stone church with an arched portico and three bells in the bell tower. Green shrubs are behind the church.

Queralbs’ Romanesque St James Church.

 

Time to catch the rack railway train to Vall de Nuria!

Vall de Nuria is a glacial valley in the eastern Pyrenees, 120 kilometres from Barcelona, 1,964 metres above sea level, and surrounded by mountains nearly 3,000 metres high. It is remote and only accessible by rack railway. The ski resort and Nuria Lake dominate the valley, offering spectacular mountain landscapes, winter skiing, and summer hiking trails.

With two hours to explore the valley before catching the train back down the mountain, I decided to hike one of the many trails in the hills around the valley. These trails range from easy to challenging.

Given my limited time, I chose an easy trail, the Way of the Crosses. I was told it would take 50 minutes to walk, but I knew it would take longer as I would keep stopping to take photos and admire the breathtaking views. The trail gets its name from the Christian Way of the Cross tradition, with twelve crosses along the way. I made the hike easier on myself by walking down the mountain rather than up. I did this by taking the cable car to the summit, bringing me to an altitude of 2,170 metres. Consequently, I passed the crosses in reverse – from twelve to one.

We missed our scheduled train back down the mountain to Queralbs because one couple failed to turn up at the meeting point even though Steven’s instructions were clear. No one knew where they were. I could tell Steven was worried, but he handled it calmly. Eventually, Steven decided we would catch the next train and leave the unreliable couple to fend for themselves. Surprise, surprise! When we arrived back at Queralbs Rack Railway Station (45 minutes late), our errant couple were waiting for us. They had decided to forego the meeting point and catch the train on their own.

From about halfway down the Stations of the Cross trail, the sky was getting blacker and blacker. By the time I reached the bottom, thunder was rolling around the mountains.

A valley in the Pyrenees is shrouded in black clouds.

Vall de Nuria – a storm rolls inover the Pyrenees

 

Just as we were about to board our train back down the mountain, the heavens opened, and heavy rain and hail bucketed down. As we travelled the six kilometres from Vall de Nuria to Queralbs, the rain got heavier and heavier. Running from the train to the station building had us soaked to the skin, and I mean soaked. Water was pouring off me, off my hair and my clothes.

Our misfortunes did not end with a missing couple and soaking rain. Shortly after leaving Queralbs for our drive down the mountain, we came to a grinding halt. Traffic wasn’t going anywhere! The river beside the road was a raging torrent, so I thought maybe the road was flooded. After about 20-30 minutes, the male of our errant couple went to investigate what was happening up ahead – to make up for their “misunderstanding” about the meeting point. He told us there was a mudslide with rocks over the road and water pouring down the mountain. People were staring at this catastrophe, immobile. But our errant male (sorry, I will always think of him as such) started moving the rocks, and others helped. We were moving again! Meanwhile, it was sunny and 30 degrees Celsius in Barcelona!

My tour review / final thoughts:

In Vic, I struggled, wasting a lot of time trying to find suitable food for a takeaway lunch. I couldn’t even find a small supermarket in the streets around the main square. I found a bakery that looked promising, but the queue was too long to wait for service. I was conscious about arriving back at the meeting place on time. Had I known in advance about the recommendation to purchase a takeaway lunch, I would have brought food with me. In hindsight, I am sorry I didn’t risk the cafe at Vall de Nuria because the lentil salad I bought in Vic for lunch was pretty ordinary.

Explore Catalunya advertises the tour as 11 hours in duration. However, the tour was 11 hours only because we were late leaving Vall de Nuria back to Queralbs and encountered a mudslide driving down the mountain. I felt cheated because I would have loved more time on the mountain. The additional hour would have allowed me time to walk around the lake, visit the sanctuary, or have a cup of coffee.

I thoroughly enjoyed this day trip to the Pyrenees Mountains. What an adventure!

Don’t get me wrong; I have enjoyed all my day trips with Explore Catalunya, but this one seemed a bit more special. Perhaps it was the breathtaking landscape of the Pyrenees or just being in the mountains? Perhaps it was the enchanting village of Queralbs or the experience of the Rack Railway? Perhaps it was the adventure of getting soaking wet from a massive storm or driving through a mudslide over the road? Even though all the tours were very different and memorable, this day trip to the Pyrenees was special. It was not your ‘usual’ sightseeing tour and, for the most part, was the more relaxed.

 

A word on booking tours with Explore Catalunya:

I booked all my tours with Explore Catalunya in person, visiting their office in Barcelona at Carrer Palau de la Musica, 1. When booking in person, I received a €10,00 senior discount on each tour. However, when visiting Explore Catalunya’s website, I found nowhere that a senior discount can be applied when booking a tour.

 

As we conclude our journey through these five memorable day trips from Barcelona, I hope the experiences I shared have inspired you to venture beyond the city’s boundaries and explore the wonders just a short distance away.

Barcelona is a gateway to extraordinary adventures, allowing you to immerse yourself in captivating landscapes, delve into rich history, and be inspired by world-renowned art. The day trips I took from Barcelona left me with a lifetime of memories.

So, if you find yourself in Barcelona, let these day trips be your guide to exploring the richness that lies beyond the city’s borders, for Catalonia is a region of endless discovery. Allow yourself to be swept away by the allure of Montserrat, the coastal beauty of Costa Brava, the timeless appeal of medieval villages, the majesty of the Pyrenees, and the surreal world of Salvador Dali.

Thank you for joining me on this unforgettable journey through Catalonia’s diverse landscapes and cultural treasures. Until next time, here’s to the endless horizons of discovery and the timeless magic of travel!

 

Disclaimer: This post contains no affiliate links. All views and opinions are my own and non-sponsored. All photos are my own and remain the copyright of Just Me Travel.

© Just Me Travel 2018-2024. All rights reserved.

 

Have you found this review of day trip tours from Barcelona a helpful resource? Which would be a day trip not to be missed? I love hearing from you. Please leave a comment below.

I look forward to reading and responding to your comments on which day trips from Barcelona you might include on your next holiday to Spain that this post has inspired.

 

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A medieval village with an arched Roman Bridge and a small sandy cove invite you discover the hidden gems of Catalonia, Spain at justme dot travel.

Stone houses in a medieval village and a valley in the Pyrenees invite you to explore Catalonia at justme dot travel.

 

Author’s Note: Please check the latest travel restrictions before planning any trip and follow government advice.

 

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A collage of photos showing Islamic architecture, a beach, an ancient Roman theatre, and a modern glass and silver tiled building.SPAIN BUCKET LIST: The 47 Incredible Things You Should Not Miss. From historic landmarks to cultural marvels, my Spain Bucket List is your go-to resource for planning the trip of a lifetime. Start planning your Spain itinerary now!

 

 

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UNVEILING THE ETHIOPIAN COFFEE CEREMONY: Experiencing a Perfect Cultural Delight (2024 Updated)

Ethiopia’s Coffee Ceremony is Deeply Rooted in Tradition and Social Significance.   Journey to the birthplace of coffee itself – Ethiopia – where coffee isn’t just a drink but a…

Ethiopia’s Coffee Ceremony is Deeply Rooted in Tradition and Social Significance.

 

Journey to the birthplace of coffee itself – Ethiopia – where coffee isn’t just a drink but a ritual steeped in tradition and social significance. This is the Ethiopian coffee ceremony, where time stands still to honour hospitality and respect, strengthen bonds, and foster conversations.

This post illustrates this timeless ritual, from the meticulous preparation of the coffee to the communal enjoyment that follows. Get ready to be immersed into the heart and soul of Ethiopian culture through its world-renowned coffee ceremony. It is a truly wonderful and unique experience!

 

I love coffee. I have drunk it in many countries with varying degrees of appreciation. Well, now I have found coffee heaven. It’s in Ethiopia, and there is a whole ceremony surrounding its making and drinking.

Ethiopia is the home of coffee. The coffee plant originated in Ethiopia, with the beans first brewed in the 11th century. So, Ethiopians have had a lot of practice doing stuff with coffee, to the point where a whole ceremony developed around brewing and drinking coffee. The coffee ceremony is an integral part of Ethiopian culture and hospitality. It is a significant social occasion.

Ethiopians have a delightful story around the discovery of the benefits of coffee. A goat herder noticed his goats acting excitedly and ‘dancing’ on their hind legs after eating the bright red berries from a particular tree. When he tried the berries himself, he felt energised. He grabbed some berries and rushed home to tell his wife, who told him he must share these “heaven-sent” berries with the monks in the nearby monastery. The monks did not share the goat herder’s elation, believing the berries to be sinful and the work of the Devil. They tossed the coffee berries into the fire. However, the smell of the roasting coffee beans made the monks rethink their view of this sinful drug, and they removed the coffee beans from the fire. They crushed the coffee beans to extinguish the glowing embers and covered them with hot water to preserve them. The aroma of the coffee made all the monks want to try it. After this, they vowed to drink coffee every day because they found the coffee’s uplifting effects helped keep them awake during their holy devotions. And so, Ethiopia’s coffee tradition and culture were created.

I loved the ceremony as much as the coffee itself. Unlike Italy, where coffee is drunk quickly whilst standing, preparing and drinking coffee in Ethiopia is not to be rushed as the hostess must not miss any step.

Wherever I travelled in Ethiopia, the coffee ceremony was always the same. There was something reassuring in this familiarity of freshly roasting coffee beans and the smell of fresh-cut grasses that were invariably laid on the ground. The laying of cut grasses on the floor sets the scene for the coffee ceremony.

When ordering coffee in a Western-style restaurant in Ethiopia, the coffee is brewed following the established ritual in a reserved area of the restaurant and served on a tray lined with fresh-cut grasses.

A tray sprinkled with green grasses and laid with coffee, a coffee pot, a sugar bowl, and hot coals.

Coffee is served on a tray with fresh-cut grasses.

 

Ethiopian coffee ceremony: the traditional steps

A tree branch with green coffee berries growing on it.

Coffee berries growing on the tree.

 

First, the raw coffee beans are rubbed together in water in a pan to remove the skins on the beans. Then, they are roasted over a charcoal brazier, releasing the aromatic oils from the beans. The hostess – I never saw this ceremony conducted by a man – brings the pan of smoking, roasted beans around for you to waft the smoke towards you, to draw in the aroma of the roasted beans.

A woman in a white dress pours water from a pot over coffee beans to remove the shells.

Washing the raw coffee beans.

 

Once roasted, the beans are ground with a mortar and pestle. Traditionally, the mortar and pestle are made of wood.

A woman in a white dress uses a pestle and mortar to grind coffee beans in and Ethiopian coffee ceremony.

Grinding the roasted coffee beans.

 

While grinding the beans, the hostess is boiling water in a terracotta “jebena” over an open fire. A jebena is a traditional Ethiopian clay coffee pot with a bulbous, round bottom, a long, narrow neck topped with a wooden or straw stopper, and a handle.

A traditional Ethiopian coffee pot with its round body and long neck.

The jebena I bought in a local market in Bahir Dar.

 

Once the coffee beans are ground, the resultant powder is added to the boiling water in the jebena. The combined water and ground beans are boiled for a couple of minutes and then rested to allow the coffee powder to sink to the bottom of the pot.

By this stage, if you are a coffee lover like me, the smell of freshly brewed coffee will have your mouth watering in anticipation of what will come.

Finally, the coffee is poured into small, handleless porcelain cups (similar to Chinese tea cups). The pouring is done from as high as possible above the cups – about a foot above the cups. The hostess will usually serve coffee with popcorn or peanuts.

Ethiopian coffee ceremony: a social event

Coffee isn’t just a drink in Ethiopia. It is an essential component of Ethiopian culture and society. Being invited to coffee in Ethiopia is considered a sign of friendship and respect. It is a time to extend the hand of hospitality, promote social relations, and catch up on neighbourhood news.

Ethiopian coffee is drunk sweet, and black. In fact, very sweet – 2 to 3 teaspoons of sugar. Mind you, the teaspoons are minuscule. I learnt to enjoy black coffee. However, by the time I left Ethiopia, I was drinking my coffee with a lot less sugar.

When drinking coffee in Ethiopia, etiquette requires you to have three cups of coffee. The first cup is to welcome you, the second is about friendship, and the third is to say goodbye. Denying coffee at any of the three servings is considered rude. Remember, these are tiny cups, so having three is less in quantity than a mug of coffee.

Ethiopian coffee is the best I have ever tasted. The two women I was travelling through Ethiopia with told me I said, “Oh, that’s good coffee”, every time I had a cup of coffee. This must have driven them mad because we had lots (and I mean lots) of cups of coffee. Finally, one of my travel companions told our diver-guide that Ethiopia needs to change its tourism slogan from “13 Months of Sunshine” to “Oh, That’s Good Coffee”. He just laughed.

So, if you ever find yourself in Ethiopia, immerse yourself in the magical and captivating experience of the coffee ceremony. You won’t be disappointed!

To learn about Ethiopia’s coffee ceremony’s cultural and social history, visit the Institute of Ethiopian Studies Ethnological Museum in Addis Ababa. This well-organised, delightful museum on Addis Ababa University’s main campus is dedicated to preserving, studying, and presenting Ethiopia’s rich cultural heritage.

The Ethnological Museum is open daily, excluding public holidays, with entrance fees charged at different rates for adults, students, and those wanting to take photographs. Engage one of the available guides who provide valuable information and insights about the museum’s collections.

A panel of text telling the story of Ethiopian coffee culture.

The Coffee Story, Ethnological Museum.

 

From the first crackle of roasting beans to the three rounds of shared cups, the Ethiopian coffee ceremony is more than a mere caffeine fix. It is a ritual filled with tradition, hospitality, shared moments, and a deep appreciation for the humble coffee bean. 

The ceremony unfolds in deliberate steps: roasting beans over coals, grinding them by hand, and brewing them in a traditional pot. Each step contributes to the welcoming atmosphere and deep-rooted traditions that define the Ethiopian coffee ceremony. 

Whether you have experienced it firsthand or are curious about it from afar, the Ethiopian coffee ceremony stands as a testament to the beauty of cultural rituals and the power of a shared cup of coffee to bring people together, wherever they may be.

 

Editor’s Note: I originally published this blog post in March 2019 and have updated it for accuracy and comprehensiveness.

 

Disclaimer: This post contains no affiliate links. All views and opinions are my own and non-sponsored. All photos are my own and remain the copyright of Just Me Travel.

© Just Me Travel 2018-2024.

 

Where have you had the best cup of coffee? What made it so great?

I love hearing from you. Join the conversation and leave a comment below.

 

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A woman washing coffee beans with water from a jug and green coffee berries growing on a branch.

A poster with text telling the story of Ethiopian coffee culture and a woman using a mortar and pestle.

 

Author’s Note: Please check the latest travel restrictions before planning any trip and follow government advice.

 

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Stone huts with thatched roofs in a mountainous landscape.
SIMIEN MOUNTAINS ETHIOPIA: When “Plastic Card” Means Warmth (Not what you think!) (2024 Updated)

International travel will inevitably lead to translation challenges. Read about my communication issue in Ethiopia’s Simien Mountains, which I can laugh about now but, at the time, impacted my physical comfort.

 

 

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SPAIN BUCKET LIST: The 47 Incredible Things You Should Not Miss

Postcards From Spain: Your Ultimate Iberian Bucket List for Creating Unforgettable Memories in Spain.   Are you travelling to Spain? Are you looking for things to do, places to visit,…

Postcards From Spain: Your Ultimate Iberian Bucket List for Creating Unforgettable Memories in Spain.

 

Are you travelling to Spain? Are you looking for things to do, places to visit, sites to see in Spain? This post covers an extensive list of top places of interest and things to do in Spain to ensure your Spain bucket list is complete. 

The post is not an exhaustive list of the incredible things you should not miss while in Spain. For example, the theatre, amphitheatre, and bridge are not the only Roman sites Merida has to interest the visitor. And there is a fabulous archaeological museum worth visiting.

I have presented my Spain bucket list as postcards (often multiple postcards per destination), with each postcard an authentic personal experience. From historic landmarks and hidden gems to cultural marvels and breathtaking landscapes, my Spain Bucket List of 47 Incredible Things You Should Not Miss is designed to be your go-to resource for planning the journey of a lifetime.

 

About My Spain Bucket List

I have compiled my Spain bucket list from my personal experiences of spending almost three consecutive months in Spain.

Before arriving in Spain, I spent one week in France on a barge cruise travelling on the Canal du Midi.

My first 18 days in Spain were on the Spanish Heritage Tour with Insight Vacations. This tour almost internally circumnavigated Spain, helping me to familiarise myself with the country, the people, and the culture.

For the remainder of my time in Spain, I travelled solo, basing myself in Seville (three weeks), Merida (one week), Barcelona (four weeks), and Girona (one week). North, south, east, and west, I covered much of Spain in almost three months while allowing time and space to immerse myself.

When I travel, I send digital postcards of the highlights of my travel experiences to family and friends, sharing what I have seen and done. Each entry in this post includes those postcard-worthy moments that vividly capture the essence of each unmissable experience.

Spain has many UNESCO World Heritage Sites, 49 to be precise. It wasn’t until I wrote this post that I realised how many of those sites I visited.

How This Post is Structured

Welcome to Spain, a land of rich history, diverse cultures, and stunning landscapes. Planning a trip to this captivating country can be overwhelming, given its wealth of experiences. Fear not, for I present you with the ultimate trip-planning resource – a comprehensive list of 47 unmissable things to see and do in Spain.

The links immediately below take you to many cities, towns, and villages (in alphabetical order) I visited in Spain. I have then made suggestions, based on my personal experience, of things to see and do within those cities, towns, and villages.

Join me as we travel through my Spain Bucket List postcard series.

BARCELONA

  • Basilica de la Sagrada Familia
  • Casa Batlo
  • Casa Mila
  • Ciutadella Park
  • Palau de la Musica Catalana
  • Palau Guell
  • Park Guell

BESALU – Medieval Town on the Fluvia River

BILBAO – The Many Faces of the Guggenheim Museum

CANGAS DE ONIS – Roman Bridge of Cangas de Onis

CORDOBA

  • Roman Bridge of Cordoba
  • Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba (Mezquita-Catedral of Cordoba)

COSTA BRAVA – Catalonia’s Coastline

FIGUERES – Dali Theatre-Museum

GIRONA

  • Jewish Girona
  • Medieval Girona
  • Painted Girona

GRANADA

  • The Albaicin
  • The Alhambra

MADRID – Madrid Architecture

MERIDA

  • A Modern Play in an Ancient Setting
  • Roman Bridge of Merida
  • Roman Merida

MONTSERRAT MONASTERY – Monastery and Hiking Experience

PAMPLONA

  • A Monument to Culture
  • Ernest Hemingway in Pamplona

PUBOL – Gala Dali Castle

QUERALBS – Ancient Village in the Pyrenees

RONDA – New Bridge

SAN SEBASTIAN – Swim, Eat, Repeat

SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA – Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela

SEGOVIA

  • Alcazar of Segovia
  • Cathedral of Segovia
  • Roman Aqueduct

SEVILLE

  • Jardines de Murillo
  • Plaza de Espana
  • Real Alcazar (Royal Palace of Seville)
  • Seville Cathedral – The Tomb of the Great Navigator
  • Triana

TOLEDO

  • The Mirador del Valle Lookout
  • Toledo Cathedral

VALENCIA

  • Futuristic Valencia
  • Valencia’s Old Town

VALL DE NURIA – A Beautiful Valley in the Pyrenees Mountains

VIC – The Old Town

WHITE VILLAGES OF ANDALUSIA

  • Grazalema
  • Zahara de la Sierra

My Spain Bucket List isn’t just a checklist but an invitation to plan what to do and see during your visit to Spain to make the best of your trip. So, join me as I unveil the 47 incredible things that make Spain a destination like no other. Let’s go!

 

BARCELONA

Barcelona is on the Mediterranean coast in the northeast of Spain and is the capital of Spain’s Catalonia region. It is known for its art and legendary architecture.

Basilica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Familia

Otherwise known as Sagrada Familia.

Barcelona and the Sagrada Familia are synonymous – you can’t have one without the other. It is the most-visited monument in Spain and is the only temple in the world still under construction. The Sagrada Familia has been under construction since 1882 and is estimated to be completed in 2026. However, according to my guide, this completion date is not likely to be met because of COVID-19. The building of Sagrada Familia relies heavily on tourist dollars, and none came in while the basilica was closed during the pandemic.

While I failed to see the beauty in the basilica’s exterior, Antoni Gaudi, the Sagrada Familia’s famous architect, has excelled himself with its breathtakingly beautiful interior. See my photo gallery.

A note on Antoni Gaudi (because his architecture appears multiple times on this bucket list): Antoni Gaudi is Barcelona’s most famous architect and led the way for the Modernista movement, which is best known for its architectural style. UNESCO recognised Gaudi’s exceptional creativity and contribution to architecture development by placing seven properties he built on the World Heritage List in 1984. UNESCO has collectively listed these seven properties as the “Works of Gaudi”.

In 2003, Gaudi was on the path to sainthood when the Vatican opened the beautification process for him, the first step towards declaring his sainthood. It is now 2023, and Gaudi still needs to become a saint. The Catholic Church does not rush the beautification process. And there is a question mark over what miracle Gaudi caused!

Casa Batllo

The facade of multistory house with triangle-shaped balconies and painted with flowers in pastel colours.

The beautiful facade of Casa Batllo.

 

The building, now known as Casa Batllo, was constructed in 1877. When Joseph Batllo purchased it in 1903, he gave Antoni Gaudi total creative freedom to complete the entire remodelling of the house, which was completed in 1906.

The interior of this UNESCO World Heritage Site is a vision of wrought iron, wood, stained glass, ceramic tiles, and stone ornaments. The building is energy efficient with extensive use of natural light. Casa Batllo’s exterior was given a unique façade by Gaudi, where stone, glass, and ceramics form waves that mirror a calm sea, and the balconies are shell-shaped.

Located at number 43 on Passeig de Gracia, allow at least 1.5 hours to explore the house.

Casa Mila

Located at number 92 on Passeig de Gracia, Casa Mila was an apartment block completed in 1912, and Antoni Gaudi was the architect. It is popularly known as La Pedrera, meaning “stone quarry” in Catalan, because stone was the primary building material for the façade and balconies. A visit to Casa Mila includes (at additional cost) the apartment where the Mila family lived, still intact with antique furniture. The rooftop provides excellent views over Barcelona.

Casa Mila has two intriguing features:

  1. There is barely a straight wall in the building, and
  2. The rooftop is a sculpture park of chimneys that looks like something out of Star Wars. The Spanish poet Pere Gimferrer called it The Garden of Warriors.
Multiple rooftop chimneys have been designed to look like warriors.

“Warriors” march across Casa Mila’s rooftop.

 

Ciutadella Park

Go people-watching in Ciutadella Park, Barcelona’s largest landscaped park on Passeig de Picasso.

A man walks a tight rope slung between two trees while drumers play and people watch.

There is much to see and do in Ciutadella Park.

 

Ciutadella Park is the place to see and be seen, particularly on Sunday afternoons when people gather to play instruments, relax, take a punt on the boating lake, view the extravagant Cascada Monumental, a cascading waterfall fountain topped by a chariot-rider flanked by gryphons which Gaudi helped design, admire the sculptures scattered around the park, or visit the zoo.

Palau de la Musica Catalana

Palau de la Musica Catalana (Palace of Catalan Music) is a concert hall in the Sant Pere district of Barcelona, built between 1905 and 1908. The modernist architect Lluis Domenech i Montaner constructed Musica Catalana as a home for the Catalan Choral Society.

I went to see the Palau de la Musica Catalana because it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (1997), and I had seen some photos and thought, That’s pretty. “That’s pretty” was an understatement! I was in awe; it was breathtaking! Could there be anything this beautiful? The stained-glass skylight and windows flood the Concert Hall with natural light, the majestic organ has 3,700 pipes, and the 18 muses surrounding the stage, with 18 instruments from different parts of the world, represent music without frontiers.

Palau de la Musica Catalana’s main auditorium seats 1,970, with a further capacity of 600 seats in the Petit Palau (chamber music hall). Discover the secrets of this hidden gem with an in-house guided tour, which includes hearing a short piece played on the organ. Magical!

Check out my photos to see why you should visit this unique Concert Hall.

The architect was Antoni Gaudi’s teacher. I can see the influence on Gaudi.

There is a good café (Palau Café) in the Palau de la Musica Catalana foyer where you can eat inside or under the umbrellas outside.

Palau Guell (Guell Palace)

Palau Guell is a luxury mansion on Carrer Nou de la Rambla in the El Raval district of Barcelona. The famous architect Antoni Gaudi designed the palace’s seven floors for the industrial tycoon and Gaudi’s patron, Eusebi Guell, which he completed in 1890. All the palace rooms open onto the spectacular central hall, like an internal courtyard.

The building’s exterior is rather unremarkable, so the interior was a complete surprise. It was spectacular and certainly worth a visit! See for yourself.

Palau Guell was Gaudi’s first actual commission in Barcelona and has been on UNESCO’s World Heritage List since 1984.

The lobby’s beautiful staircase with its stained-glass window (also designed by Gaudi) leads up to the luxurious central hall that also serves as a source of light for the rooms leading off it over several floors. Gaudi liked to incorporate wood in his designs, and the wooden ceilings in Palau Guell are works of art.

Gaudi installed his signature chimneys on the roof in 1895. There are 20 chimneys in all, which also ventilate the house.

Cone-shaped chimneys covered in mosaics.

Antoni Gaudi’s signature chimneys on the roof of Palau Guell.

 

The audio guide was descriptive, informative, and easy to follow.

UNESCO placed Palau Guell on the World Heritage List in 1984. A definite must-see!

Park Guell

A guided tour of Park Guell, designed by the famous Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi, was an optional excursion in Barcelona offered by Insight Vacations on my recent tour with them – and one I couldn’t miss.

Visiting Park Guell was on my bucket list in Barcelona, and it didn’t disappoint. Gaudi’s distinctive, imaginative, and nonconforming architectural style fascinates me and appeals to my photographic eye. Gaudi decorated most of his structures with mosaics made from broken, colourful ceramic and glass pieces.

I didn’t know about Park Guell’s original intention as a luxury residential complex (gated community), but this plan was abandoned in 1914 as it was financially unsuccessful. It was opened to the public as a municipal park in 1926.

At more than 17 hectares, the park is one of the largest green spaces in Barcelona.

The Spanish Government declared Park Guell a Monument of Cultural Interest in 1969 in recognition of its historical, architectural, and artistic uniqueness. It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984 and a Catalan National Cultural Interest site in 1993.

I finally learned how to pronounce ‘Guell’ – ‘Gway’, with the ‘G’ pronounced like the ‘g’ in ‘girl’.

Fun Facts:

  • Gaudi had a workman drop his pants and sit in the soft plaster for a perfect anatomical curve to ensure the stone bench was comfortable.
  • The former guard’s residence and sales office have been dubbed the Hansel and Gretel gingerbread houses by the children of Barcelona.

BESALU – Medieval Town on the Fluvia River

Founded in 878 AD, Besalu is an enchanting medieval town in the southeastern section of the Pyrenees. It is one of Spain’s best-preserved medieval towns and was declared a historic and artistic site of national importance in 1966.

Besalu is home to an 11th-century church and hospital, a 12th-century monastery, the remains of a medieval castle, and an ancient Jewish Quarter, where you will find the ruins of a medieval synagogue and a 12th-century Mikvka (Jewish ritual bathhouse). However, its most significant feature is its 12th-century Romanesque bridge over the Fluvia River with a gateway at its midpoint.

A view of a town made of stone buildings and a stone bridge built in medieval times.

The medieval town of Besalu and its Romanesque bridge.

 

Keep an eye out for sculptures of chairs scattered around the old town.

BILBAO – The Many Faces of the Guggenheim Museum

Bilbao is an industrial port city in northern Spain and the biggest city in Basque Country. The opening of the Guggenheim Museum in 1997 saw the revitalisation of Bilbao as it transformed from a nondescript town to one of Spain’s bucket list destinations.

The Guggenheim Bilbao is a modern and contemporary art museum in Northern Spain’s Basque Country. But before the art, it is, first and foremost, the most fantastic piece of architecture. Wow-factor architecture! Do you agree?

The best views of the Guggenheim are from Salve Bridge, from where I took the above photos. The Salve Bridge is informally known as the Guggenheim Bridge because it merges into the Guggenheim Museum. I particularly liked the spider sculpture in front of the museum.

Take the funicular to the top of Mount Artxanda for great views of Bilbao and the Guggenheim Museum.

CANGAS DE ONIS – Roman Bridge of Cangas de Onis

Cangas de Onis is a picturesque town in Spain’s northwest province of Asturias.

The five-arched Roman Bridge of Cangas de Onis spanning the Sella River is not Roman. In fact, it is medieval, possibly dating from the late 13th century.

An arched stone bridge with a metal and jewelled cross hanging from the middle arch spans a river.

Roman Bridge of Cangas de Onis.

 

Roman or medieval, it still makes for an interesting bridge in a picturesque landscape. It is a graceful humpback bridge with a large, pointed central arch and is one of the best-known symbols of the Principality of Asturias.

From the centre of the arch hangs a reproduction of the famous Victory Cross – the symbol of the re-conquest of Spain from the Moors. The original Victory Cross is a work of precious metal dating to the start of the 10th century. You will find the Cross in Oviedo Cathedral.

CORDOBA

About 130 kilometres northeast of Seville, Cordoba was an important Roman city and a major Islamic centre in the Middle Ages. In Cordoba, three different cultures peacefully coexisted: Jews, Muslims, and Christians.

Roman Bridge of Cordoba

A multi-arched stone bridge with buttresses spans a river and leads to a medieval city.

Cordoba’s Roman Bridge.

 

The stunning Roman Bridge of Cordoba was built across the Guadalquivir River in the first century BC. It has 16 arches supported by robust spurs with semi-cylindrical buttresses and is 247 metres long. It has undergone several reconstructions over the centuries, and today, only the 14th and 15th arches at the northern end are originally Roman. However, it remains a beautiful historical bridge. Since 2004, it has been a pedestrian-only bridge.

For those familiar with the TV series “Game of Thrones”, the Roman Bridge of Cordoba doubled as the Long Bridge of Volantis spanning the Rhoyne River in Season 5.

The Roman Bridge is part of the historic centre of Cordoba, which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984.

Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba (Mezquita-Catedral of Cordoba)

It is also known as the Great Mosque of Cordoba.

Walking into the mosque stopped me dead in my tracks. It was one of those “Oh my goodness” moments. The main hall is a forest of pillars supporting over 850 double-arched columns – a spectacular sight that is breathtakingly beautiful and unforgettable.

Check out my photo gallery of the eclectic interior of Cordoba’s Mosque-Cathedral:

The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba is steeped in history and is a unique blend of cultures and architectural styles – Islam and Christianity.

Building commenced on the mosque in 785 and took over two centuries to complete. It was once one of the most important mosques in the Islamic Kingdom. When the Great Mosque was converted into a Christian Cathedral in 1236 after the conquest of Cordoba by Ferdinand III, he never demolished the mosque. The cathedral was built in the centre of the mosque.

The Mezquita was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984.

The Mosque-Cathedral is the Cathedral of Cordoba, and Muslim prayer is prohibited. However, historical beginnings linger. My guide told me that Catholic couples say they are marrying in the mosque, not the cathedral.

The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba is one of the most unique buildings in the world, an absolute must-see when in Spain. It is easy to see why the people of Spain voted the Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba number one in their list of The Twelve Treasures of Spain.

COSTA BRAVA – Catalonia’s Coastline

The Costa Brava is a coastal region of Catalonia in northeastern Spain, stretching from the town of Blanes, 60 kilometres northeast of Barcelona, to the French border.

On a day trip from Barcelona, the picturesque Costa Brava was stunningly beautiful with its white sand coves, turquoise waters, and rugged coastline.

I took the above photos of the Costa Brava from the cliff-top Marimurtra Botanical Garden near Blanes.

FIGUERES – Dali Theatre-Museum

Near the border with France and about 136 kilometres north of Barcelona, Figueres is famous for being the birthplace of the artist Salvador Dali.

The Dali Theatre-Museum in Figueres, Catalana, is a museum solely dedicated to the Spanish artist Salvador Dali – a genius of Surrealism. The museum, built by Dali, is considered the largest surrealist object in the world and is crowded with his artworks – paintings, sculptures, photographs, and jewellery.

I have been a fan of Salvador Dali for many decades, and visiting his theatre-museum was on my bucket list as soon as I started planning my trip to Spain. And I wasn’t disappointed! Over several hours wandering through the theatre-museum, I got a glimpse into his unique world.

Dali is buried in a crypt beneath the dome of his Figueres Theatre-Museum.

Here’s some trivia for you: Dali designed the Spanish lollipop Chupa Chups logo. I never knew Chupa Chups were Spanish! I may need to attend more trivia nights because who created the Chupa Chups logo is, apparently, a frequently asked trivia question.

GIRONA

Girona is a city located between the Pyrenees and Costa Brava – just a short train ride from Barcelona and about 60 kilometres south of the French border. Girona is famous for preserving the medieval old city, located at the confluence of the Ter, Onyar, Galligants, and Guell rivers.

For Game of Thrones fans, you can take a tour of all the filming locations in Girona.

Jewish Girona

A Jewish Star of David i n tiles is incorporated in a tiles courtyard. Two people sit on a bench in the courtyard. There are flowers and shrubs at the end of the courtyard.

Courtyard with the Star of David in the Museum of Jewish History.

 

Girona has a long history of Jewish habitation, dating back to at least the 9th century AD and is one of the best-preserved Jewish Quarters in Europe. A guided walking tour of Girona’s Jewish Quarter in the old town, known as El Call, takes you on a fabulous history and architectural trip as you make your way through a labyrinth of narrow streets.

The walking tour I joined concluded with a guided tour through the Museum of Jewish History.

Girona’s last remaining synagogue is home to the Museum of Jewish History. The synagogue was in use until 1492 when the Jews were expelled from Spain. The museum aims to preserve and spread the history of the Jewish life that developed in Spain and Girona.

Medieval Girona

A walk along Girona’s three kilometres of medieval walls is a walk along the path of history and provides fantastic panoramic views of Girona and the Old Town.

View of the roof tops of an Old Town with a church and a cathedral dominating the skyline.

View of Girona’s Old Town from the medieval wall.

 

Initially built by the Romans, Girona’s medieval walls were rebuilt and extended in the Middle Ages. The walls surround the historic city centre and are some of the most complete walls in Spain. There are four access points to the walls, but I recommend waking the entire length for the ever-evolving views of this beautiful city. I accessed the wall at Placa Catalunya (Catalonia Square) and walked its length to the Jardins de la Francesa (French Gardens).

People walk along the stone walls with towers that surround a city.

Girona’s medieval walls.

 

Painted Girona

Girona is a city in Spain’s northeastern Catalonia region, at the confluence of the Onyar, Ter, Galligants, and Guell Rivers. It’s known for its medieval architecture, walled Old Quarter, Barri Vell), Jewish Quarter (Call), and the Roman remains of the Forca Vella fortress.

The colourful houses on the banks of the Onyar River are perhaps the most recognised and photographed landmark of Girona.

Multi-coloured houses line a river and are reflected in the waters of the river.

The coloured houses of Girona reflected in the Onyar River.

 

In the late 20th century, a small group of artists and architects chose the colour palette for the houses’ facades. The best way to see them is from one of the bridges spanning the Onyar River. I took the photo above from Pont de Sant Agusti, my favourite reflection spot.

Initially built by the Romans, Girona’s medieval walls were rebuilt and extended in the Middle Ages. The walls surround the historic city centre and are some of the most complete walls in Spain. There are four access points to the walls, but I recommend waking the entire length for the ever-evolving views of this beautiful city. I accessed the wall at Placa Catalunya (Catalonia Square) and walked its length to the Jardins de la Francesa (French Gardens).

GRANADA

In the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in southern Spain’s Andalusia region, Granada is a culturally rich city with 800 years of history as a Muslim Kingdom. Granada’s architecture strongly reflects its Muslim heritage.

The Albaicin

A stepped street with Moorish architecture (building on the left) and an Andalusian styled building on the right. A lady with a blue umbrella is walking up the stone steps.

Moorish and Andalusian architecture coexist in World Heritage Albaicin.

 

Walk through Granada’s ancient Arab Quarter that retains its medieval Moorish origins. Get lost in the Albaicin’s maze of narrow cobbled streets and small squares washed in white. Situated on the hill across from the Alhambra, Granada was founded in the Albaicin and was the capital of the Nasrid Kingdom in the 15th century.

The Albaicin was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its eclectic but harmonious mix of Moorish and traditional Andalusian architecture.

The Alhambra

The Alhambra is a massive palace and fortress complex located in Granada. Built by the Nasrid Dynasty – the last Muslims to rule in Spain – and commencing in 1238, the Alhambra is a beautiful testament to Islamic architecture and Moorish culture. The complex includes the Alcazaba, palaces, the Medina, gardens, cemetery, workshops, baths, etc. and is enclosed by a massive, fortified wall with towers.

The Alhambra is just one of ten UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Andalusia. However, many believe it to be the most spectacular.

Often referred to as the 8th wonder of the world, the Alhambra was on my must-see list of places to visit in Spain, and I wasn’t disappointed. I had a three-hour guided tour around Alhambra, but you could easily spend all day in the complex.

I crossed this one off my bucket list!

MADRID – Madrid Architecture

Madrid is the capital of Spain and sits almost exactly in the middle of the country. Most famous for the Prado Museum, it was Madrid’s eclectic architectural styles that endeared the city to me.

A large white gothis style building.

Cibeles Palace (Madrid’s City Hall)

 

Madrid has some of the most beautiful architecture in Spain, and Cibeles Palace (the former headquarters for the Spanish Post Office) deserves all the photographic and film attention it gets.

Now Madrid’s City Hall, the post office, I discovered when I had to post a parcel to Australia, can still be found in the building through a side entrance.

The best way to appreciate Madrid’s architecture is to walk the city.

MERIDA

A visit to Merida in Spain’s Extremadura region in southwest Spain is like a trip back to the Roman Empire. Founded in 25 BC (Colony of Augusta Emerita), this UNESCO World Heritage City is one of the best-preserved Roman sites in the world. The Roman theatre, amphitheatre, and bridge are unmissable stops along any tour of the ancient Roman city of Merida, and all within an easy walk of each other.

A Modern Play in an Ancient Setting

The ruins of an ancient Roman theatre with stone and modern seating.

Merida’s Roman Theatre.

 

The Roman Theatre, with a seating capacity of about 5,000 spectators, was built from 16 to 15 BC and is Merida’s most spectacular Roman monument. I liked that, centuries later, it is still being used for its intended purpose.

I saw a musical play in the Roman Theatre on my second night in Merida. The play, which didn’t start until 11 pm because of the heat, was entirely in Spanish. I didn’t understand a word, but seeing the play in that ancient setting was one of those once-in-lifetime experiences and was magical.

People standing and clapping the actors on the stage of a Roman theatre. The photo is taken at night with the stage lit up.

A standing ovation for the actors of the play in Merida’s Roman Theatre.

 

Roman Bridge of Merida

A stone arch bridge built by the ancient Romans is reflected in the river it spans.

Roman Bridge, Merida

 

Merida’s Roman Bridge over the Guadiana River was built in the first century BC. At a length of 792 metres and with 60 arches, it is one of the longest bridges in Spain and the longest surviving bridge from ancient times. Carrying road traffic for most of its life, it became a pedestrian-only bridge in 1991.

The Roman Bridge requires two visits – one during the daylight hours and the other at night after sunset. Why? At night, the bridge is lit in multiple colours and is best viewed from the path bordering the Guadiana River.

A stone bridge built by the ancient Romans is lit with blue, pink, and yellow lights which are reflected in the river.

The Roman bridge lit up at night.

 

Roman Merida

The ruins of an ancient Roman arena where gladiator games were held.

Roman amphitheatre, Merida.

 

Opened in 8 BC, Merida’s Roman amphitheatre was the setting for popular gladiatorial contests and beast hunts. It has been determined that the arena could seat between 15,000 and 16,000 spectators from all social standings.

Roman Merida is much more than the amphitheatre, bridge, and theatre. Don’t miss the Temple of Diana, Triumphal Arch, Roman Forum, La Cassa del Mitreon, and the Archeological area of Moreria.

MONTSERRAT MONASTERY – Monastery and Hiking Experience

Montserrat Monastery is an 11th-century Benedictine monastery on Montserrat Mountain (meaning ‘serrated mountain’), 60 kilometres northwest of Barcelona. The monastery hangs onto the side of the mountain 725 metres above sea level.

View across the valley of a monastery on the side of a mountain.

Montserrat Monastery is perched on the side of the mountain.

 

I took this photo of Montserrat Monastery across the valley at the Cross of St Michael. This lookout was about one and a half hours into my very steep descent down Montserrat Mountain, and I still had about 20 minutes to go before I arrived back at the monastery.

To start my hike from the top of Montserrat Mountain, I rode the Funicular de Sant Joan from the monastery to the summit, about 300 metres above the monastery. I took the path to the left of the Funicular station that wound around and down the mountain, taking in spectacular views.

A serrated mountain top with a view of farm lands and towns in the valley below.

View from Montserrat (‘serrated’) Mountain.

 

While the hike down the mountain was not technically demanding (it’s a paved path nearly all the way), I did find the steep descent challenging. There were times when the decline was so steep my back was almost vertical to the path. The heat was another challenging factor. I’m sure I was on that mountain on its hottest day ever recorded!

A trip to Montserrat Monastery is about more than just a starting point for hiking around the mountain (and there are several you can do). The monastery is famous for the statue of the Black Madonna housed in the basilica and for one of the oldest boys’ choirs in Europe.

A black madonna with baby Jesus sitting on her lap. She is holding a marble ball that people can rub. The figures are behind glass.

The Black Madonna inside Montserrat Basilica.

 

The setting alone makes Montserrat Monastery worth a visit. The hike added value!

PAMPLONA

Pamplona is best known for its legendary multiday festival, the Running of the Bulls (Feast of San Femin) in July.

A Monument to Culture

Agree with it or not, the annual running of the bulls is an integral part of Pamplona’s culture. The city even has a monument (Monumento al Encierro) dedicated to the traditional bull-running, freezing a moment in time of the race.

A metal monument of men running and lying on the ground with several bulls behind them.

Pamplona’s monument to the running of the bulls.

 

For those who don’t know, the running of the bulls occurs during the festivities of San Fermin, where thousands of people try to outrun stampeding fighting bulls through the streets of Pamplona.

Ernest Hemingway in Pamplona

A bronze statue of the writer Ernest Hemingway leaning against a bar, with his right arm on the bar.

Statue of Ernest Hemingway in Cafe Irina.

 

Ernest Hemingway props up the bar in his favourite café in Pamplona – Café Iruna on Plaza del Castillo.

Hemingway had a love affair with Pamplona, visiting the city nine times, each time for the Festival of San Fermin and the running of the bulls.

Hemingway’s first novel, “The Sun Also Rises” (1926), is set in Spain, with Pamplona and Café Iruna heavily featured. The novel portrays American and British expats who travel along the Camino de Santiago from Paris to the Festival of San Fermin in Pamplona and watch the running of the bulls and the bullfights.

PUBOL – Gala Dali Castle

Pubol is a small village where Salvador Dali bought a castle for Gala, his wife. Her castle is now a museum. I recommend taking a guided tour.

A metal statue of a long legged elephant with an eagle on its back is in a garden surrounded by green shrubs and trees.

There’s an elephant in the garden.

 

You will find four elephant sculptures by Salvador Dali in Gala Dali’s castle garden. The castle features other artworks by Salvador Dali, and Gala’s crypt is there.

I knew Dali was a painter but was unaware his artistic talents extended to sculpturing.

Interesting fact: Dali needed Gala’s written permission to visit her at the castle.

QUERALBS – Ancient Village in the Pyrenees

Queralbs is a small village in the Pyrenees with a population of about 80. It sits at an elevation of 1,236 metres above sea level. It is the last vehicle-accessible village on the way up to Vall de Nuria (Nuria’s Valley), a beautiful valley in the eastern Pyrenees. The final six kilometres from Queralbes to Vall de Nuria must be travelled by rack railway – a 20-minute journey to an altitude of 1,964 metres. But first, there was a guided walking tour through Queralbs.

Queralbs is an ancient village dating back to 833 AD. With its traditionally built stone houses perched on the side of the mountain, it is a lovely, picture-perfect village.

The walking tour ended at the Romanesque Church of Sant Jaume (Saint James).

A stone church with an arched portico and three bells in the bell tower. Green shrubs are behind the church.

Queralbs’ Romanesque St James Church.

 

Time to catch the rack railway train to Vall de Nuria!

RONDA – New Bridge

Ronda is a hilltop city in the Andalusian Province of Malaga. It sits dramatically above a deep gorge that separates the city in two. It is the home of modern bullfighting, but that wasn’t why I was there. I was in Ronda to see the New Bridge.

A stone bridge spans a deep gorge.

Ronda’s New Bridge spans El Tajo Gorge.

 

I have seen many photos of Ronda’s New Bridge on Instagram, been amazed, and wanted to see it myself. It was on my bucket list of sites to visit when in Spain.

The New Bridge (Puente Nuevo) spans the 98-metre-deep El Tajo Gorge, separating Ronda’s old town from its new town. The New Bridge is not new; it was completed in 1793 after 40 years of construction and with the loss of 50 lives.

It wasn’t easy to get photos of the bridge from the top. Unfortunately, my visit did not take me to the valley below New Bridge, where I would have been able to view the entire bridge.

SAN SEBASTIAN – Swim, Eat, Repeat

San Sebastian (called Donostia in Basque) is a resort town on the Bay of Biscay in northern Spain’s Basque Country.

There are no Roman ruins or Moorish architecture in San Sebastian, but you will find urban beaches, eclectic architecture, and a food lover’s paradise. San Sebastian has the second most Michelin stars per capita in the world.

San Sebastian’s famous La Concha Beach is said to be the most beautiful urban beach in Europe. The beach can be busy, but it offers magnificent views of the city and Old Town. Of San Sebastian’s two other main beaches, Ondarreta Beach is a family favourite, while Zurriota Beach is popular with young people and surfers.

People relax and swim on a city beach with lifeguards keeping an eye on everyone's safety.

San Sebastian’s La Concha Beach with city views.

 

Strolling along the city’s promenade is a must to admire the beaches and mansions that line this iconic walk.

Conde Nast Traveller’s 2023 Readers’ Choice Award voted San Sebastian the best city to visit in Europe.

SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA – Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela

Santiago de Compostela is the capital of Galacia, in the far northwest of Spain.

Arriving in Santiago de Compostela with Insight Vacations, I joined a small group on a guided walk through the city’s parks and old town, ending at the cathedral in Plaza del Obradoiro.

View of a cathedral that dominates the skyline, with green shrubs in the foreground.

View of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela from Alameda Park.

 

The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela is the reputed burial place of Saint James the Great, one of the apostles of Jesus Christ. The cathedral fronts Plaza del Obradoiro and is the destination for pilgrims walking or cycling the Camino de Santiago (the Way of St James).

Four young people with backpacks on their backs and walking poles in their hands walk away from the camera on a cobblestoned street.

Pilgrims arrive in Plaza del Obradoiro after completing the Camino.

 

The Cathedral and the Camino are UNESCO World Heritage-listed – 1985 and 1993, respectively.

SEGOVIA

Segovia is in central Spain, about 90 kilometres north of Madrid. It is famous for its historic buildings and a great city to visit.

Alcazar of Segovia

A castle with multiple turrets with tourists waiting to enter.

The fairy tale Segovia Alcazar.

 

Continuing a UNESCO World Heritage theme in Segovia, the Alcazar of Segovia (Fortress of Segovia) is a medieval castle that was home to 22 kings.

Its exterior looks like something out of a fairy story. Some say the castle inspired the design of Cinderella’s Castle at Walt Disney World. Can you see the similarity?

Of all the Alcazars I visited in Spain, the Alcazar of Segovia was my favourite. The decorated ceilings were beautiful, and I loved the stained-glass windows.

Cathedral of Segovia

A yellow-stoned gothic cathedral.

Segovia Cathedral.

 

UNESCO World Heritage-listed in 1985, Segovia Cathedral was the last Gothic cathedral built in Spain.

Construction on the cathedral began in 1525, but it wasn’t consecrated until 1768. Sitting on Segovia’s highest point in Plaza Major (the city’s main square), the Cathedral of Segovia is an imposing building.

I couldn’t enter the cathedral because the Corpus Christi service was underway.

Roman Aqueduct

People are in a square that is dominated by a multi-arched, two-tiered stone aqueduct built by the ancient Romans.

Segovia Roman Aqueduct.

 

The Aqueduct of Segovia is a Roman aqueduct built around the first century AD to channel water from springs in the mountains 17 kilometres away to the city’s fountains, public baths, and private houses. Said to be the world’s best-preserved Roman aqueduct, it was in use until 1973.

Twenty thousand four hundred stone blocks were used to construct Segovia’s Aqueduct with no mortar or cement between them. The highest point of the aqueduct is on Plaza del Azoguejo, which stands over 28 metres high, with a total of 167 arches.

This masterpiece of engineering was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985.

SEVILLE

Seville is the capital of Andalusia and the former capital of Muslim Spain. It is a charming city that lacks the crowds of Barcelona and Madrid. Seville is a city of large open spaces, beautiful architecture, and Moorish influences. It is home to the biggest Gothic cathedral in the world, has the largest historic centre in Europe, and is famous for its flamenco dancing. It is hard not to fall in love with Seville when its people evidently take so much pride in their city.

Jardines de Murillo

Exploring the old Jewish Quarter on my own in Seville’s Old Town, I came across the pretty, landscaped, well-maintained urban Jardines de Murillo (Murillo Gardens). Its ceramic tile-covered benches provide welcome spots to relax from the heat under the shade of enormous fig trees.

The gardens border the external walls of the Real Alcazar. The gardens are filled with fountains, children’s play equipment, and a monument to Christopher Columbus.

Jardines de Murillo was my favourite garden in Seville. Its intimate atmosphere saw me returning several times. Never crowded, I would take a book to read while eating a sandwich or sit to gather my energy to continue exploring Seville.

Plaza de Espana

A circular building with towers and arched porticos. A bridge crosses a canal in front of the building.

Iconic Plaza de Espana, Seville

 

The semicircular Plaza de Espana (Spain Square) in Maria Luisa Park blends Renaissance and Moorish-inspired architectural styles. It was built specifically for the 1929 Ibero-American Expo, which aimed to improve Spain’s relations with its former Latin American colonies and make symbolic peace.

Plaza de Espana is a cultural icon, Instagramable, and touted by all the guidebooks as a must-see. So early one morning, on a cooler day in Seville (only 39 degrees Celsius), I played tourist and walked to the plaza.

Along the base of the building, there are 48 benches representing each of Spain’s provinces decorated with colourful ceramic tiles depicting significant historical events. Expect to find visitors and nationals alike taking photos of themselves sitting on the bench of their province or the province of their heritage. Not being of Spanish parentage, I took photos of the benches of the places I had visited.

A multi-coloured three-sided tiled bench with a tiles mural against a brick wall.

Plaza de Espana – The tiled bench representing Barcelona.

 

There are four bridges over the mini canal in front of the plaza. These represent the ancient kingdoms of Spain: Castile, Leon, Navarre, and Aragon.

I enjoyed my few hours at Plaza de Espana and even saw an impromptu flamenco show on the building steps.

Don’t leave Maria Luisa Park without a stroll through its tropical gardens.

A park planted with palms and green ground cover. a path leads to a multi-coloured tiled bench.

Maria Luisa Park.

 

Real Alcazar (Royal Alcazar of Seville)

The Alcazar of Seville is a thousand years of art and history, combining five periods: Muslim, Gothic, Mudejar, Renaissance, and Romantic.

The Moors greatly influenced southern Spain, and Real Alcazar is another example of beautiful Islamic architecture. Built in the tenth century as government premises, it became a Royal Residence in 1248 when Ferdinand lll moved into it. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Real Alcazar is the oldest Royal Palace still in use today and is used by the King of Spain and his family when in Seville.

The Alcazar’s formal gardens are worth a wander through but don’t eat at the café (unappetising fast food).

A fountain enclosed by bushes with red flowers with a tiles path leading away from the fountain. Green bushes and tress line the path.

One of the many fountains in the Alcazar’s historic gardens.

 

Seville’s Real Alcazar featured as a location in the Game of Thrones television series.

Seville Cathedral – The Tomb of the Great Navigator

Four knights hold aloft a casket said to contain the remains of the navigator, Christopher Columbus.

The tomb of Christopher Columbus in Seville Cathedral.

 

Although probably Italian by birth, Christopher Columbus (known in Spain as Cristobal Colon) completed four voyages across the Atlantic Ocean sponsored by the Spanish monarchy.

His tomb in the Cathedral of Seville is held aloft by four figures representing the four kingdoms of Spain during Columbus’s life: Castile, Aragon, Navarre, and Leon.

Columbus’ body has been moved several times, and the remains in Seville Cathedral are in doubt. DNA testing in 2006 confirmed the body in Seville was either Christopher Columbus or his brother.

Seville Cathedral was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.

Triana

Triana is a charming working-class neighbourhood in Seville on the west bank of the Guadalquivir River. Puente de Isabel ll (often called Triana Bridge) is the gateway to Triana from the city. Don’t expect spectacular sights but an authentic quarter with surprisingly few tourists.

A stone and metal bridge spans a river.

Isabel ll Bridge viewed from Triana.

 

Traina is especially famous for:

  • The Azulejo tiles you see throughout Spain.
  • Being the birthplace of flamenco.

Azulejos are terracotta tiles covered with opaque glazing. They have been used in Spain since around the 13th century. You will see them everywhere, decorating walls (internal and external), fountains, pavements, and much more. Triana has some lovely shops where you can buy good quality Azulejo products to take home.

See an authentic flamenco show at Almoraima (Calle Pages del Corro, 70) – an intimate venue where the passion of the dance is tangible and visible.

Mercado de Triana (on your right as you leave the bridge) is a lively indoor market with fresh fruits, vegetables, meat (especially Iberian ham), herbs, and fish. You can grab lunch while in the Mercado.

Calle de San Jacinto is Trian’s pedestrian-only street. With its plethora of cafes, bars, and restaurants, you are spoilt for choices of somewhere to eat and people-watch.

People walk along a pedestrian-only street lined with small tress and buildings on both sides.

Head to Calle de San Jacinto for lunch or dinner.

 

TOLEDO

While travelling with Insight Vacations through Spain, I opted for a day trip to Toledo, about 70 kilometres south of Madrid, the former capital of Spain.

The Mirador del Valle Lookout

A view of an old town on the banks of a river.

Toledo panorama.

 

The panoramic view of Toledo from the Mirador del Valle Lookout was breathtaking and a great introduction to this ancient city that owes its rich heritage to the Jews, Muslims, and Christians who lived there in harmony. A city of three cultures, Toledo is a melting pot of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam with impressive monuments. The two large buildings on the city horizon in the photo above are the Cathedral of Toledo on the left and the Alcazar Fortress on the right.

Toledo’s historic centre was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986 as an outstanding museum city.

Toledo Cathedral

The facade of a gothic cathedral with white and purple flowers on a pole in front of the cathedral.

Toledo Cathedral’s main facade from the Plaza del Ayuntamiento.

 

The magnificent Toledo Cathedral was built on the site of a former mosque and took more than 250 years to complete. It is one of Spain’s most famous and important cathedrals, with several monarchs buried in it. The cathedral is dedicated to Saint Mary and features Mudejar architecture (pointed horseshoe arches and ribbed vaults). It is considered one of Spain’s best examples of High Gothic architecture.

The famous “Transparente”, the cathedral’s altarpiece, is seen by many as Spain’s most important Baroque masterpiece. Created in 1732 by the sculptor Narciso Tome and his four sons, the altarpiece is several stories high, with fantastic figures done in marble, bronze castings, stucco, and painting.

Toledo Cathedral is a veritable art gallery with paintings by notable artists: El Greco, Caravaggio, Van Dick, Goya, and Bellini, to name a few. The Sacristy is a small art gallery with a beautiful ceiling fresco painted by Luca Giordana and El Greco’s “The Disrobing of Christ” (“El Expolio”, 1579), taking centre stage on the high altar. Don’t miss the portraits of the 12 apostles painted by El Greco in the cathedral’s Sacristy.

Religious paintings line the walls of a room that has a fresco painted on the ceiling.

The beautiful ceiling fresco and El Greco’s painting “The Disrobing of Christ”.

 

The Cathedral of Toledo is home to more than 100 relics, including fragments of the crown of thorns and the breast milk of the Virgin Mary. None are on public view!

My visit to Toledo was memorable, but the city deserved longer than a day trip.

VALENCIA

Valencia is a hidden gem often overlooked by tourists. It is a city that embraces its past while acknowledging the future. It is also the home of paella (a rice dish originally from Valencia). Contrary to common belief, traditional paella is not made with seafood but is made with chicken or rabbit.

My tour with Insight Vacations included a paella cooking demonstration and tasting at la Cigrona in Valencia’s Old Town.

Futuristic Valencia

The City of Arts and Sciences (La Ciudad de y las Artes las Ciencias) is a leisure and cultural complex with its architecture taking Valencia into the 21st century. The complex includes the Science Museum, an IMAX Cinema and Planetarium, Europe’s largest aquarium, and the Palace of Arts.

Valencia’s Old Town

Founded in 130 BC, Valencia has been home to Romans, Visigoths, and Muslims, giving it a rich history. Its Old Town is one of the largest in Europe and the heart of the city.

Walking around the Old Town is like travelling back to the Middle Ages. La Plaza del Ayuntamiento is the main square and the hub of activity. It is enclosed by beautiful historic buildings featuring Gothic architecture.

I particularly enjoyed escaping the crowds and walking around the Old Town’s residential streets.

Coloured buildings with cast iron balconies front a narrow cobbled street.

A residential street in Valencia’s Old Town.

 

A half day exploring Valencia’s Old Town with Insight Vacations was not long enough. I want to explore more! Valencia, I will be back!

VALL DE NURIA – A Beautiful Valley in the Pyrenees Mountains

Taking the rack railway from Queralbs, travel the six kilometres to the resort in Vall de Nuria (Nuria Valley). The journey took 20 minutes, climbing from an altitude of 1,236 metres at Queralbs to 1,964 metres at Vall de Nuria.

Vall de Nuria is a valley in the eastern Pyrenees offering spectacular mountain landscapes, winter skiing, and summer hiking trails.

With two hours to explore the valley before catching the train back down the mountain, I decided to hike one of the many trails in the hills around the valley. These trails range from easy to challenging.

Given my limited time, I chose an easy trail, the Way of the Crosses. I was told it would take 50 minutes to walk, but I knew it would take longer as I would constantly stop to take photos. The trail gets its name from the Christian Way of the Cross tradition, with twelve crosses along the way. I made the hike easier on myself by walking down the mountain rather than up. I did this by taking the cable car to the summit, bringing me to an altitude of 2,170 metres. Consequently, I passed the crosses in reverse – from twelve to one.

I journeyed to Vall De Nuria on a day trip with Explore Catalunya.

VIC – The Old Town

The city of Vic (pronounced Bic) is about 69 kilometres north of Barcelona on the Meder River. It is an ancient city, dating back to the Ausetan Iberians before Roman occupation in the 1st century AD, with an interesting and picturesque Old Town.

On a guided walking tour around the Old Town, we passed through several small pretty squares with cafes preparing for the day.

I found the interior of Vic’s Sant Pere Cathedral to be unlike anything I had seen previously. Huge, almost monochromatic canvases painted by Joseph Maria Sert cover the walls, making the interior dark and gloomy – an unexpected contrast to the cathedral’s exterior. It wasn’t a place I wanted to linger! However, your reaction may be very different.

Time your visit for market day, which takes place on Tuesdays and Saturdays, with stalls filling the main square.

WHITE VILLAGES OF ANDALUSIA

The name White Village comes from the uniform white colour of the village houses and buildings, covered in lime to keep them cool in the hottest months as the white reflects the sun’s rays.

I visited two White Villages in the province of Cadiz – Grazalema and Zahara de la Sierra.

Grazalema

Houses in a mountain valley are all painted white with terracotta tiled roofs.

Grazalema, White Village of Andalusia.

 

Grazalema, located in Sierra de Grazalema National Park, receives the highest rainfall of the entire Iberian Peninsula. However, on the day of my visit, the skies were clear blue. I had a delicious salad for lunch in Grazalema at Restaurant Cadiz el Chico – Ensalada Caprichosa (lettuce, cheese, nuts, mustard and quince jelly, yoghurt, and red berry coulis) (€12 / AU$19.74).

Grazalema is an attractive village with the tiny porches of its whitewashed houses spilling over with potted flowers.

Zahara de la Sierra

Houses on the slope of a hill are all pointed white with terracotta tiled roofs.

Zahara de la Sierra, White Village in Andalusia.

 

Zahara de la Sierra is also located in Sierra de Grazalema National Park and has been declared a Historic Site. Being situated on the slopes of the Sierra del Jaral forces the streets to be staggered at different levels. Luckily, the guided walking tour through the village started at the top of the village, and we walked down.

Grazalema and Zahara de la Sierra have been chosen by the Association of the Most Beautiful Villages in Spain as two of the four most beautiful villages in Cadiz Province.

Adios Espana.

 

THE TWELVE TREASURES OF SPAIN

The Twelve Treasures of Spain lists twelve sites of great historical and cultural value to the Kingdom of Spain. The sites were chosen via a poll by two Spanish broadcasting stations, and the results were announced on 31 December 2007.

  1. Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba
  2. Cave of Altamira (Cantabria)
  3. Seville Cathedral
  4. Alhambra (Granada)
  5. Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar (Zaragoza)
  6. Teide National Park (Tenerife, Canary Islands)
  7. Roman Theatre (Merida)
  8. Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela
  9. Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias (City of Arts and Sciences, Valencia)
  10. Sagrada Familia (Barcelona)
  11. Beach of la Concha (San Sebastian)
  12. Guggenheim Museum Bilbao

 

Spain is a country that seamlessly weaves together a rich history, vibrant culture, breathtaking landscapes, and unforgettable experiences. In wrapping up this extensive guide to the ultimate Spain bucket list, I hope to have ignited your wanderlust and provided invaluable insights to help you plan an unforgettable trip to Spain.

From the architectural masterpieces of Antoni Gaudi in Barcelona and the ancient wonders of the Alhambra and Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba to the natural beauty of the Pyrenees and the hidden gems tucked away in charming villages, this bucket list is not just a checklist but intended as a practical guide for planning your itinerary, offering something for every visitor. My 47 memorable postcards spanning the length and breadth of Spain are just a glimpse into the diverse and incredible things not to be missed when visiting the Iberian Peninsula. 

Happy planning and even happier travels!

 

Disclaimer: This post contains no affiliate links. All views and opinions are my own and non-sponsored. All photos are my own and remain the copyright of Just Me Travel.

© Just Me Travel 2018-2024.

 

Have you been able to find this Spain Bucket List a helpful resource? I love hearing from you. Please feel free to leave a comment below.

I look forward to reading and responding to your comments on where and what you might include on your trip to Spain that this post has inspired.

 

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15 PHOTOS TO INSPIRE YOU TO VISIT THE UNIQUE SASSI MATERA, ITALY (2024 Updated)

Sassi di Matera: The Stone City of Italy and a UNESCO World Heritage Site Steeped in History and Charm.   Welcome to the mesmerising world of Sassi di Matera, a…

Sassi di Matera: The Stone City of Italy and a UNESCO World Heritage Site Steeped in History and Charm.

 

Welcome to the mesmerising world of Sassi di Matera, a unique and ancient destination. Matera, a city in Italy’s southern region of Basilicata, is renowned for its extraordinary cave dwellings and rock-cut architecture, collectively known as the Sassi. These ancient settlements, carved into limestone cliffs, have earned the Sassi di Matera a place on UNESCO’s World Heritage List and have captivated visitors with their rich history, unique charm, and breathtaking landscapes.

In this travel blog post, I’ll take you on a visual journey through 15 stunning photos that capture the essence and allure of the Sassi di Matera. Each image tells a story, inviting you into a world where cave dwellings, narrow winding streets and alleyways, and rock-cut architecture create an otherworldly landscape.

Whether you’re a history buff, a culture enthusiast, or simply seeking a destination off the beaten path, Sassi di Matera offers an unforgettable experience. Let these photos inspire you to pack your bags and immerse yourself in the wonders of this timeless Italian gem.

 

Situated in the “instep” of Italy’s “boot”, Sassi di Matera (literal translation from Italian, “Stones of Matera”) were declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1993, while Matera was awarded the 2019 European Capital of Culture. However, Matera, particularly the Sassi, did not always deserve these honours. Not so many decades ago, Matera’s Sassi was a place of national humiliation dubbed the “Shame of Italy”.

The Sassi di Matera has two districts – Sasso Caveoso and Sasso Barisano. They are ancient! – prehistoric troglodyte settlements where people have lived in cave dwellings since 7000 BC.

The Sassi have a colourful history that has seen them go from the earliest inhabited city in Italy to a place of national humiliation to Italy’s pride. This history, which is still visible today, makes Sassi di Matera a matchless tourist destination.

 

A brief history – from shame to honour

In his book Christ Stopped at Eboli (published in 1945), Carlo Levi put Sassi di Matera on the world map when he highlighted the poor living conditions. He painted a picture of abject poverty. Malaria, cholera and typhoid were rampant in the Sassi. Families and their animals were living together under the same roof in dwellings with no natural light or ventilation, no electricity, water or sewers, and there was a high rate of infant mortality.

The Sassi became an embarrassment to the Italian Government. So much so that in 1950, the Prime Minister declared a state of emergency and put plans in place to move the Sassi’s inhabitants out. By 1952, the Sassi were empty – abandoned through forced removal.

After sitting dormant for a few decades, the Sassi began to transform, starting in the 1970s with artists and hippies rediscovering Matera’s Sassi. This urban renewal and a younger generation expressing their desire to bring the caves back to life led the Italian Government to pass a law in 1986 to repopulate the Sassi, connecting water and electricity and subsidising restoration work to encourage the Sassi’s revival.

And the people did come – restoring caves as homes, hotels, restaurants and bars. But many are still uninhabitable.

Cave houses, many of which are abandoned, in a troglodyte settlement in Italy.

Abandoned cave dwellings in Matera’s Sassi.

 

Cave houses in a troglodyte settlement. Some are obviously uninhabited.

Not all the cave dwellings in the Sassi are inhabited.

 

Sassi di Matera’s revival was further cemented in 1993 when UNESCO listed it as a World Heritage Site for being “the most outstanding, intact example of a troglodyte settlement in the Mediterranean region” and being named 2019 European Capital of Culture.

Matera has reclaimed its dignity and credibility in the eyes of Italy and the world.

 

Discover Sassi di Matera

I travelled to Matera on a 17-day small group tour with Albatross Tours on their Italy, the Deep South & Sicily tour, staying two nights in the Sassi.

The Sassi are carved into the limestone cliffs of a deep ravine gouged out by the Gravina River. First viewed from across the ravine, the Sassi di Matera were like nothing I had seen before. I have visited Troglodyte caves in France and spent time in Cappadocia in Turkey. But the Sassi di Matera, with caves stacked on each other while clinging to the steep slope, was a stand-alone matchless sight. Then, creating a unique juxtaposition, the modern city of Matera overlooks the Sassi from its height at the top of the hill.

A mass of cave houses on a hill are viewed from across a ravine. There is a stone church bell tower on top of the hill.

Sassi di Matera viewed from across the ravine.

 

An abandoned troglodyte settlement (cave dwellings) sits below a modern city on the side of a hill.

The modern city of Matera sits on top of the ancient Sassi.

 

My first ‘taste’ of Sassi di Matera and what it must be like to live in the Sassi was my accommodation for two nights in the luxury Le Grotte della Civita – a cave hotel on the edge of the ravine in the most ancient Sassi area.

A hotel room in a cave, with a double bed, bath, and table and chairs. the cave room is lit by candles.

My hotel room – a restored cave in Le Grotte della Civita.

 

Le Grotte della Civita consists of 18 large ‘rooms’ with ensuites. All the rooms are individual caves that have been beautifully restored whilst retaining their original features. The furnishings were simple but tasteful, with much of the lighting provided by candles. The breakfast was served in a reclaimed cave that was once a church and was typical of southern Italy – consisting of various breads, cakes, pastries, meats, jams and cheeses. My stay at Le Grotte della Civita was truly memorable.

After a very comfortable night’s sleep and a delicious breakfast, I joined the walking tour in the morning with a local guide. Walking tours are a great way to get acquainted with a city and learn its history. The walking tour of Sassi di Matera was a fascinating history lesson while being introduced to significant sites. The tour included visiting a cave dwelling to see how families lived in their stone houses and viewing one of the ancient Rupestrian Churches with its biblical frescoes on the cave walls dating back to the Middle Ages.

By the end of the tour, I felt prepared to spend the afternoon and evening on my own, exploring and discovering the labyrinth that is Sassi di Matera. I was in my element, walking around the narrow streets and alleyways, talking to the locals, checking out their cafes, and having all the time I wanted to take photos. A word of advice: you will need comfortable shoes to walk around the Sassi as there are many steep steps to negotiate, given the Sassi are built on the side of a ravine.

An elderly lady dressed in black walks up stone steps that are under a stone arch.

There are lots of steps in Sassi di Matera.

 

Matera has 180 churches, 40 of which are in the Sassi, including the Cathedral and the rock-cut Church of Santa Maria di Idris.

A rock-cut church on top of a green hill with cave dwellings below it.

The Church of Santa di Idris.

 

My favourite church was the Church of Purgatory, constructed as a place for people to pray for the souls trapped in limbo between heaven and hell. Completed in 1747, its recurring and only theme is that of death. The baroque façade of the church and its doors are covered with carvings of skulls, skeletons, crossbones, and other death-related decor. While a church focusing on death might seem a bit Grim Reaper-ish, it was fashionable at the time of construction, as death was not seen as the end but as the beginning of a new life.

A skull and two skeletons carved into stone. One skeleton is holding an hourglass, and the other skeleton is holding a scythe.

Skulls and skeletons on the facade of the Church of Purgatory.

 

A wooden door carved with square panels of skulls and cross bones.

The Church go Purgatory’s carved wooden door.

 

Exploring the Sassi di Matera

While the Sassi may look like masses of houses, the house-like facades are only that, as the ‘houses’ are dug well into the rock, forming the cave dwellings Matera is famous for.

A photo of stone houses that are actually caves.

In the Sassi di Matera, caves look like houses.

 

A settlement of cave houses surrounded by purple flowers and green shrubs.

Sassi di Matera – a mass of cave dwellings that look like houses.

 

Houses in the Sassi are built on top of other houses, where many of the streets are built on the roofs of houses, and floors are ceilings of houses below.

Cave homes sit on top of each other, where you have roads forming roofs and floors, and the ceiling of the house below.

Sassi di Matera – roofs are streets, and floors are ceilings.

 

You would be forgiven for thinking the Sassi are a place of shadow and crampedness. But not so. The squares in the Sassi are sun-drenched open spaces flanked by cafes, shops, churches, and restaurants – great for people-watching.

A troglodyte settlement of cave houses built into the side of a hill.

Wander the Sassi di Matera.

 

Cave houses are viewed through a doorway.

View of the Sassi through a doorway.

 

Cave houses are built on top of each other on the side of a hill.

World Heritage Listed Sassi di Matera.

Historical and Cultural Timeline:

2019: Matera is the European Capital of Culture.

2014: Tourism starts to take off. This was most likely due to Matera being named the 2019 European Capital of Culture, and Matera began preparations for a year of events highlighting culture and the arts.

1993: UNESCO lists Sassi di Matera as a World Heritage Site.

1986: Italian law changes and people are encouraged to return to the Sassi.

1952: Abandonment of the Sassi through the Italian Government’s forced removal of its inhabitants.

Prehistory: (approximately 9,000 years ago) People first inhabited the Sassi.

Fun facts

Several Directors have used Sassi di Matera as a film location for their movies:

  • Mel Gibson’s controversial movie, The Passion of the Christ, 2004;
  • Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St Matthew, 1964; and
  • King David was directed by Bruce Beresford and starred Richard Gere in 1985.

It would seem Matera’s Sassi makes for a great ancient Jerusalem.

The 2021 James Bond movie No Time to Die also used Sassi di Matera as a film location.

 

Sassi di Matera is not just a destination; it’s an immersive journey through time, offering a unique blend of history, culture, and natural beauty that promises to leave a lasting impression on anyone fortunate enough to explore its enchanting streets.

The Sassi beckons, inviting you to witness a living backdrop as you explore a world where tradition meets innovation. The 15 photos you’ve seen here in my blog post are mere snapshots of the unforgettable travel experience that awaits you in person. Dare to wander off the beaten path!

 

Editor’s Note: I originally published this blog post in March 2019 and have updated it for accuracy and comprehensiveness.

 

Disclaimer: This post contains no affiliate links. All views and opinions are my own and non-sponsored. All photos are my own and remain the copyright of Just Me Travel.

© Just Me Travel 2018-2024.

 

Have I aroused your curiosity about Sassi di Matera? Are you inspired to visit Italy’s unique Stone City, a valuable UNESCO World Heritage Site? I love hearing from you. Join the conversation and leave a comment below.

 

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The image has two photos. One photo is of an old lady walking up a flight of stone steps. The second photo shows a settlement of stone houses.

 

The image has two photos that show a troglodyte settlement. One photo is bathed in sunlight with purple flowers and green shrubs. The second photo shows abandoned cave homes below a modern city. The image invites you to visit Italy's Sassi di Matera.

 

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MONGOLIAN CULTURAL NORMS AND TRADITIONS – HOW TO PREVENT CULTURAL ERRORS (2023 Updated)

Unlocking the Secrets: Successfully Navigating Mongolian Beliefs, Customs, and Values.   A journey to Mongolia is about more than crossing vast landscapes and nomadic lands. It is also a deep…

Unlocking the Secrets: Successfully Navigating Mongolian Beliefs, Customs, and Values.

 

A journey to Mongolia is about more than crossing vast landscapes and nomadic lands. It is also a deep dive into diverse cultural norms and traditions shaped by Buddhism, Shamanism, and Animism. 

Navigating foreign customs can be challenging, especially in a country like Mongolia. In this travel blog post, I’ll guide you through the challenges, providing invaluable tips and practical advice on navigating Mongolia’s cultural environment without stumbling into unintentional faux pas. 

Please read the post to make sure your journey to Mongolia is filled with breathtaking landscapes and enriched by a profound understanding of the cultural norms and traditions that make Mongolia uniquely remarkable.

 

Cultural insensitivity is a sign of profound disrespect. I learned this the hard way in Varanasi (India) when I took a photo of the cremation pyres on the banks of the Ganges River. It took my guide a lot of talking, much apologising, and payment of money to appease the men who supplied wood for the pyres. In my defence (but no excuse), I had not been informed not to take photos of the cremations.

My wrongdoing mortified me. Even though this occurred many years ago, I still beat myself up about it. I have travelled extensively and would describe myself as culturally sensitive. To this day, I cannot explain what made me think it was okay to take such a photo.

So, when our guide in Mongolia advised us about local customs before our two-night stay with a nomadic family, I felt a deep appreciation and relief that I would not commit any social or cultural faux pas through ignorance. I firmly believe that knowledge is power, and I was about to meet this family in a “powerful” (culturally knowledgeable) position.

So, what lessons did I learn from my Mongolian guide?

First, our guide requested we wait to take photos of the family but get to know them a little first. This was a more than reasonable request and one I knew I would have no trouble complying with because I often feel uncomfortable photographing people. However, given this was a photography tour I was on, the family expected photos to be taken of them as they knew this was a part of our learning.

We were advised to ask whatever questions we wanted, with the guide translating for us as the family doesn’t speak English. I suspect this also allowed the guide to ‘censor’ inappropriate questions – a sound filtering system.

Our guide continued her invaluable insights on Mongolian cultural norms and traditions:

  • When you enter a ger, you must always go to the left. Don’t circle the interior of the ger. If you need to go to the right once inside the ger, return to the door and then to the right.
  • Don’t step on the threshold of the ger. You must always step over it.
  • In a group setting, always say hello to the oldest or most important person first.
  • Do not touch a person’s head or shoulder; doing so is taking that person’s luck away.
  • Touching a person’s feet (with your feet) signifies you want to challenge that person to a fight. If you unintentionally touch a person’s feet, shake hands with that person or touch their arm. By doing this, you are saying, “I didn’t mean that” (to challenge to a fight); it removes the challenge.
  • Do not throw tissues in the fire. The fire is a holy thing, and throwing tissues into the fire is contaminating the fire. It was essential to know this custom as, one by one, we were coming down with colds.
  • When Mongolians offer you food and drinks, you must accept it with your right hand, and you must taste whatever is offered or, at least, pretend to taste it by putting the food or drink to your lips. There is another alternative if offered a glass of vodka. You can dip your ring finger in the vodka, remove your finger from the vodka and flick your ring finger into the air, thereby flicking drops of vodka in the air.
  • When offered something, touch it with your right hand before taking it while supporting the elbow with the left hand. This custom is also followed when giving something. The exception to this is when offered a meal or providing a meal.
  • When exiting religious buildings, e.g. temples, step out backwards so that you do not show your back to the interior. To show your back is to show disrespect to the gods.
A brass bowl in a person's hands is presented.

Accept and taste all food and drinks that are offered.

 

Children in Mongolia don’t get their hair cut until they are between 2 and 5 years of age. For girls, this is usually between 2 and 4 years old. Conversely, boys will have their first haircut at 3 to 5 years of age. The reason for leaving the first cutting of children’s hair until this age is because Mongolians believe children are born with their mother’s hair. The cutting (more like shaving) of the hair signifies the child becoming their own person and is celebrated with a hair-cutting ceremony.

The khadag is a long piece of silk cloth (like a scarf). It comes in 5 different colours – blue, white, yellow, green and red – with each colour having its unique significance:

  • Blue is the most sacred colour in Mongolian culture, representing Mongolia’s eternal blue sky. The blue khadag is the most common and can be given to anyone, regardless of age, to show respect.
  • White represents milk and is the symbol of purity. It is often given to mothers.
  • Yellow represents the sun and is the symbol of wisdom. The yellow khadag is given when you greet monks.
  • Green represents the earth, being in tune with nature. It is the colour of inner peace and is only used in religious rituals.
  • Red represents fire and blood (as in circulation). It is the colour of life, of prosperity. As with the green khadag, it is not used to greet people but only in religious ceremonies.

To give or offer a khadag to someone or something is to show respect, the ultimate offering. To present a blue khadag to a person or animal is the highest form of respect. Driving through Mongolia, I often saw sheep and horses with blue khadags tied around their neck. Our guide explained that this shows respect for the animal, which can’t be killed/eaten.

A pile of rocks and stones with a pole in the middle of the mound covered in blue scarfs. Animal skulls are placed in front of the mound.

Mongolia’s cairns (shrines) are mounds of rocks and stones for offerings.

 

Mongolia’s cairns (stone shrines known as ovoos) are adorned with khadags, primarily blue ones. Most Mongolians are Buddhist, but Shamanism is integral to Mongolian life. Locals and travellers erect the cairns to provide offerings to the local spirits, thus showing their respect and honouring the spirits of the surrounding land. When you come across a cairn, you should always stop and show your respect by making an offering. The ritual entails walking around the cairn three times in a clockwise direction. As you do so, you make an offering while making a prayer or wish. This might be for a safe journey, good health, good fortune, or much-needed rain. The offering can be a khadag, food, money, vodka, or a small stone. If you are in a hurry and don’t have time to stop at a cairn, the driver will honk the horn three times. At one cairn, our driver offered a blue khadag. We settled for a small stone each time we stopped at a cairn – and there were many.

 

Unlocking the secrets of Mongolia’s rich cultural environment requires more than just travelling through its breathtaking landscapes. Understanding and respecting this remarkable country’s cultural norms and traditions is the key to a truly immersive and rewarding travel experience. Avoiding cultural errors is not just about being polite; it’s about creating authentic connections with Mongolia’s warm and hospitable people.

Start your Mongolian adventure with cultural sensitivity, and let the vibrant traditions of this enchanting land enrich your travel story.

And my final piece of practical advice – know before you go!

 

Editor’s Note: I originally published this blog post in February 2019 and have updated it for accuracy and comprehensiveness.

 

Disclaimer: This post contains no affiliate links. All views and opinions are my own and non-sponsored. All photos are my own and remain the copyright of Just Me Travel.

© Just Me Travel 2018-2023.

 

Have you travelled to Mongolia? What other cultural insights would you offer readers for Mongolia? I love hearing from you. Join the conversation and leave a comment below.

 

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A Mongolian nomadic man in tradition garb walks in front of a ger. There is a second ger behind the first and a mountain in the background.

A large pile of rocks and stones with animal skulls in front of the mound. a pole is in the middle of the mound with blue scarfs hanging from the pole.

 

Author’s Note: Please check the latest travel restrictions before planning any trip and follow government advice.

 

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The Flaming Cliffs are famous for discovering dinosaur eggs in 1923 and is one of the world’s greatest dinosaur fossil sites. Go fossicking!

 

 

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DINOSAUR FOSSIL HUNTING IN MONGOLIA’S GOBI DESERT AT THE FLAMING CLIFFS (2023 Updated)

  Fossick for Dinosaur Bones at Mongolia’s Flaming Cliffs – One of the World’s Greatest Dinosaur Fossil Sites.     Dear Pip, Deep in the heart of Mongolia’s Gobi Desert…

 

Fossick for Dinosaur Bones at Mongolia’s Flaming Cliffs – One of the World’s Greatest Dinosaur Fossil Sites.

 

A person stands on the top of a cliff that is part of red sandstone cliff formations known as the Flaming Cliffs. Flat plains surround the cliffs.

Mongolia’s Flaming Cliffs are in the heart of the Gobi Desert.

 

Dear Pip,

Deep in the heart of Mongolia’s Gobi Desert are the Flaming Cliffs. They are utterly remote at approximately 100 kms northwest of Dalanzadgad and nine hours from Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar, in the Gobi Gurvan Saikhan National Park.

I don’t know how our driver found his way through the desert because there were no signs or landmarks I could discern to guide the way. When I asked (as translated by our guide) how he knows the way, he shrugged his shoulders, saying (as translated) he just knows. Beats me! However, find the way he did.

The Flaming Cliffs, so named because of their ochre and red-coloured sandstone cliffs and canyons, are an ancient formation of 71 to 75 million years old. They are famous for the first discovery of dinosaur eggs by the American palaeontologist Roy Chapman Andrews in 1923. According to our guide, the eggs were discovered when one of Andrews’ crew fell down the cliff into a nest full of dinosaur eggs.

The Flaming Cliffs are known as one of the world’s greatest dinosaur fossil sites, with more and more bones exposed through erosion. The first dinosaur fossil, a Protoceratops, was discovered in 1922, and in the 1970s, a fossil was unearthed of two dinosaurs locked in a fight. Being a well-known site for dinosaur fossil hunters excited Meg, who scrambled over the cliffs (in thongs!), fossicking for dinosaur bones.

Nearing the end of our cliff walk and exploration, we came across an object sticking out of the cliff face that could be a large bone – possibly a dinosaur thigh bone. Our guide suggested licking the ‘bone’ to test if it is bone or stone. Because bones are more porous than stones, your tongue sticks to it when you lick bone, but it won’t stick to stone. Of course, Meg had to have a lick. Her tongue stuck to it – bone!

A bit of trivia for you:

Roy Chapman Andrews was a bit of a daredevil, a swashbuckler, and he was the inspiration behind the Indiana Jones film character.

Love,

Joanna

A woman licks a dinosaur bone sticking out of a cliff face.

Bone or stone? The lick test!

 

Editor’s Note: I originally published this blog post in February 2019 and have updated it for accuracy and comprehensiveness.

 

Disclaimer: This post contains no affiliate links. All views and opinions are my own and non-sponsored. All photos are my own and remain the copyright of Just Me Travel.

© Just Me Travel 2018-2023.

 

Would you seek out this type of experience when travelling? I love hearing from you. Leave a comment below.

 

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A woman fossicks for dinosaur fossils on red sandstone cliffs. The cliffs are the Flaming Cliffs in Mongolia's Gobi Desert.

 

 

A woman stands on top of a cliff in Mongolia's Gobi Desert looking out to the flat plain in the distance.

 

Author’s Note: Please check the latest travel restrictions before planning any trip and follow government advice.

 

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HOW TO LAND ON A GLACIER IN NEW ZEALAND’S STUNNING SOUTHERN ALPS

Experience Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier on a Helicopter Flight – The Most Accessible Rivers of Ice in the World.   New Zealand’s Southern Alps are breathtaking and home…

Experience Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier on a Helicopter Flight – The Most Accessible Rivers of Ice in the World.

 

New Zealand’s Southern Alps are breathtaking and home to several glaciers. Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier are the most accessible. And what better way to experience their natural beauty than with a helicopter flight over the glaciers and landing on the top of one for a walk around? 

When touring New Zealand’s South Island, I climbed aboard a helicopter for a scenic flight and snow landing. I have mixed feelings about this flight, which become evident in my review below.

 

I was so excited about taking a helicopter flight with Glacier Helicopters over New Zealand’s Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers – an optional extra with Grand Pacific Tours and my New Year present to myself. I will always jump at the option of a helicopter or small plane scenic flight and have taken several now around the world. They provide a unique perspective of an area or site you visit, and I feel a sense of adventure with helicopter flights.

Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers are in New Zealand’s Southern Alps on the South Island’s west coast, in Glacier Country. They are temperate maritime glaciers that extend well below the snow line. Franz Josef Glacier’s terminal face is 500 metres above sea level, while Fox Glacier terminates at 250 metres above sea level. Though still flowing, both glaciers, unfortunately, are retreating, with Franz Josef vanishing at a phenomenal rate.

Franz Josef Glacier is 12 kilometres long and lies 20 kilometres south of Fox Glacier. Franz Josef Glacier was named after the Austrian emperor but is better known by its Māori name, Kā Roimata o Hine Hukatere. The glacier is five kilometres from the town of the same name.

At 13 kilometres long, Fox Glacier (Te Moeka o Tuawe) is longer and faster moving than Franz Josef Glacier and is New Zealand’s longest glacier. Fox Glacier is just five kilometres from the village of the same name. I stayed in Fox Glacier village.

View of a glacier wedged between two mountains. An open plain with several trees is in the foreground of the photo.

View of Fox Glacier taken from State Highway 6 near Fox Glacier village.

 

Grand Pacific Tours had organised the 40-minute ‘Mountain Scenic Spectacular’ helicopter flight with Helicopter Line in Franz Josef village. However, when we arrived, Helicopter Line advised us to fly the next morning because of the current poor visibility. For some reason I never understood, we booked in the following day with Glacier Helicopters for our scenic flight over Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers, with a snow landing on Franz Josef Glacier and departing from Fox Glacier village. Unfortunately, because of a strong wind, we couldn’t fly around Mount Cook (Aoraki), New Zealand’s highest mountain (3,724 metres), as per the scheduled flight path. Consequently, Glacier Helicopters reduced our helicopter flight plus snow landing to 30 minutes, and we did receive a small discount.

A snow capped mountain rises above a mountain range devoid of snow.

Mount Cook dominates New Zealand’s Southern Alps.

 

I was disappointed with Glacier Helicopter’s scenic flight. The cabin was cramped inside, and the other passengers obstructed my view. There were three of us in the back, two in the front, and the pilot. Sitting in the middle of the back seat, I found the cramped conditions restricted my arm movements, making taking photos while flying difficult.

I could tolerate being sandwiched between two passengers, but having my views of the landscape we were passing over severely obstructed was upsetting. While flying, the passengers on either side of me continually blocked my sight as they leaned into their respective windows to see the landscape below and take photos. Looking out the front of the helicopter was no better as the heads of the two front passengers were prominent in many of my photos.

These circumstances negatively impacted my overall experience. As a travel blogger and photographer (I rarely disclose my tradecraft), getting good photographs is crucial for my posts. I understand weight distribution is imperative for helicopter flights, but is there no way to guarantee a window seat?

Had I not been seated in the back row’s middle seat, I believe my helicopter flight experience would have been very different – far more positive.

After flying up the ice river that is Franz Josef Glacier, we landed on the top of the glacier to spend 15 wondrous minutes walking on the snow and ice, examining the ice architecture, enjoying the views, and taking photos. The adventure of a lifetime! The landing on Franz Josef Glacier was magical. Who needs a flight around a snow-capped mountain when you can walk on a glacier?

The ice river of the Franz Josef Glacier is view from a helicopter.

Franz Josef Glacier – climbing the ice river

 

New Zealand's Southern Alps at the top of Franz Josef Glacier, viewed from inside a helicopter.

Landing on Franz Josef Glacier.

 

While on Franz Josef Glacier, the pilot took photos of the passengers. He had a printer in the helicopter’s tail, and we could purchase a photograph after landing back at Fox Glacier Heliport.

A red and white helicopter sits on the snow with mountains behind it. The name, Glacier Helicopters is printer on the helicopter's tail. The pilot is looking into the helicopter through an open door in the tail section.

There’s a printer in the helicopter’s tail!

 

I would have loved more time on Franz Josef Glacier to walk further afield than just the top of the glacier, exploring its features in detail. But that’s what the Heli Hikes entail. Next time!

Being in the middle seat behind the pilot and two other passengers on Glacier Helicopter’s small, five-passenger helicopter was not value for money. I had no choice as to which company I took the helicopter flight with, as Grand Pacific Tours organised it. I recommend exploring other glacier helicopter flight companies to avoid disappointment.

 

My helicopter flight over New Zealand’s Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers was a mixed experience. The obstruction of my views during the flight by other passengers was undeniably disappointing. However, the magic truly began when we landed on Franz Josef Glacier. The opportunity to step out on this pristine glacier and explore its breathtaking beauty up close gave me a real sense of adventure. While the flight had drawbacks, the glacier landing left an indelible mark on my memory.

 

Snow covered mountains are viewed from inside a helicopter.

Fox Glacier – on top of the mountains.

 

Disclaimer: This post contains no affiliate links. All views and opinions are my own and non-sponsored. All photos are my own and remain the copyright of Just Me Travel.

© Just Me Travel 2018-2023.

 

My favourite helicopter flights are in small three-passenger helicopters with removed doors. I experienced three such helicopter flights when in The Kimberley, Western Australia. What has been your experience of scenic helicopter flights? I love hearing from you. Please leave a comment below.

 

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The image features two photos. One shows a red and white helicopter sitting on snow with mountains behind it. The other photo is a section of a snow covered mountain range.

 

The image features two photos: a glacier wedged between two mountains with a grass plain in the foreground, and a view of an ice river (glacier) running down a mountain crevice.

 

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A UNIQUE MONGOLIA HORSE FESTIVAL SHOWCASES IMPRESSIVE HORSE-RIDING TALENT (2023 Updated)

  No Trip to Mongolia is Complete Without Having Attended a Local Horse Festival and Witnessed Extraordinary Horseback Skills.   Dear Pip, Our trip to Mongolia is turning out to…

 

No Trip to Mongolia is Complete Without Having Attended a Local Horse Festival and Witnessed Extraordinary Horseback Skills.

Several me in colourful robes line up on their horses for the start of competition. They are carrying long poles with lassos on the end.

Mongolian nomads ready for competition with their uurgas (lasso poles) at a horse festival.

 

Dear Pip,

Our trip to Mongolia is turning out to be one unique cultural highlight after another. We spent the day sharing the excitement of a local horse festival in the Orkhon Valley, organised by Tsaidam Ger Camp, where we stayed for the night. The festival aims to preserve nomadic tradition and promote the talent and capabilities of Mongolia’s nomadic herders.

The Orkhon Valley is in Central Mongolia, about 360 kilometres southwest of Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar. The Orkhon Valley, a cultural landscape comprising 1,220 square kilometres, was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004.

Mongolia’s history, culture, and people are intimately linked with horses, with children learning to ride almost from the day they can walk. In a country with 13 times more horses than people, I can understand how Mongolia has become known as the land of horses. Throughout the day, I came to appreciate Mongolian nomads’ strong bond with their horses and to understand how Mongolians have long been considered some of the best horse riders in the world.

After Meg shared snuff with some local elders and our guide explained what the horse festival entailed, we found a spot amongst the locals to watch and photograph the men, dressed in traditional costume, compete in several events, including horse lassoing, grabbing a lasso pole from the ground, and riding a wild, bucking horse. These events are designed to show off the Mongolian nomads’ unique horsemanship skills and the strength of their horses.

I wasn’t sure how I felt about the lassoing of stampeding wild horses. However, I learned it is an essential skill as nomadic households have many horses ridden infrequently and need to be re-broken in because they have been left to roam at will, becoming semi-wild. I needed to remind myself that this is their way of life and culture.

Being able to ride a bucking horse is par for the course with breaking-in horses, and this competition elicited shouts of encouragement from the crowd and laughter when horse and rider parted ways. One man who managed to stay on his horse delighted the crowd as he and his horse disappeared into the distance.

I particularly enjoyed watching the men grabbing an uurga (long pole with a lasso on the end) off the ground from a galloping horse. I was left in awe as to how they stayed on their horse because they would be well down the side of the horse, around its fast-moving legs. Their core strength must be remarkable! With all the rider’s weight on one side, how did the horse not topple over?

Some of the younger men had a competition on the side, grabbing a cigarette lighter off the ground from their galloping horse – some more successful than others. The control these young men and all other competitors had over their horses was genuinely impressive.

It was a most enjoyable, exciting day; I will take home unforgettable memories.

Love,

Joanna

Riders on horses with lassos on long poles rope stampeding horses.

Lassoing wild, stampeding horses at the Mongolian Horse Festival.

 

People stand around in front of a tent while watching a man fall to the ground off a bucking horse.

I bet that hurt! A competitor falls off a bucking wild horse.

 

A man in a colourful robe hangs on the side of his galloping horse as he picks up a stick off the ground.

Picking up an uurga (lasso on a pole) off the ground from a galloping horse.

 

A young man hangs on the side of his galloping horse as he picks up a cigarette lighter off the ground.

A young man picks up a cigarette lighter off the ground from a galloping horse.

 

Editor’s Note: I originally published this blog post in February 2019 and have updated it for accuracy and comprehensiveness.

 

Disclaimer: This post contains no affiliate links. All views and opinions are my own and non-sponsored. All photos are my own and remain the copyright of Just Me Travel.

© Just Me Travel 2018-2023.

 

Would you seek out this type of experience when travelling? I love hearing from you. Leave a comment below.

 

Like this post? Save it for later!

Men in colourful robes sit on a fence railing with their saddled horses behind them.

 

A man dressed in a colourful robe hangs on the side of his galloping horse as he picks up a pole off the ground.

 

Author’s Note: Please check the latest travel restrictions before planning any trip and follow government advice.

 

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A person is fossicking for dinosaur fossils along an escarpment of the Flaming Cliffs in Mongolia's Gobi Desert.DINOSAUR FOSSIL HUNTING IN MONGOLIA’S GOBI DESERT AT THE FLAMING CLIFFS (2023 Updated)

The Flaming Cliffs are famous for the discovery of dinosaur eggs in 1923 and is one of the world’s greatest dinosaur fossil sites. Go fossicking!

 

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SEE 3 ASTOUNDING ENGINEERING MARVELS ON THE CANAL DU MIDI

Embark on an Unforgettable Journey on France’s Canal du Midi and Experience Extraordinary Engineering Feats That Are Works of Art.   What do you know about the Canal du Midi? …

Embark on an Unforgettable Journey on France’s Canal du Midi and Experience Extraordinary Engineering Feats That Are Works of Art.

 

What do you know about the Canal du Midi? 

Set against the picturesque landscape of southern France, the Canal du Midi is a serene waterway and a testament to human creativity and engineering brilliance. Prepare to be awe-struck by three engineering marvels that have stood the test of time and captivated all who encounter them.

In this travel blog post, I invite you to join me on a journey uncovering the stories behind the three remarkable wonders of human ingenuity I discovered when sailing from Marseillan to Salleles d’Aude on a hotel barge on the historic Canal du Midi: the masterfully constructed Orb Aqueduct that defies gravity, the intricately designed seven-step Fonserannes Locks that challenge navigation skills, and the mystical Malpas Tunnel that channels the canal through a hill.

I am not an engineering expert, but crossing the Orb Aqueduct, climbing the Fonserannes Locks, and traversing the Malpas Tunnel were extraordinary experiences and unforgettable highlights of my barge cruise on the Canal du Midi with European Waterways. They have left a lasting impression on me that I want to share with you, and I hope you get to experience them for yourself.

 

The Canal du Midi

A boat sails along a tree-lined canal.

Cruising the Canal du Midi

 

The Canal du Midi in southern France was constructed between 1666 and 1681 by the 17th-century canal engineer Pierre-Paul Riquet. It is considered one of the most significant construction works of the 17th century and is one of the oldest canals still in use in Europe. The Canal du Midi was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996.

The Canal du Midi runs for 240 kilometres from the Etang de Thau, a sheltered lagoon behind the Mediterranean port of Sete, to Toulouse, where it joins the Canal de Garonne – connecting the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. The Etang de Thau at Marseillan was the starting point for my barge cruise on the Canal du Midi with European Waterways.

I cruised the Canal du Midi on European Waterway’s first-class, eight-passenger hotel barge, the Adjodi. The section of the Canal du Midi we cruised included three impressive 17th-century engineering feats – the Orb Aqueduct, Fonserannes Locks, and Malpas Tunnel. But you don’t need to be an engineer to appreciate, enjoy, and be thrilled by these wonders of the Canal du Midi.

A sunset is reflected in the waters of a tree-lined canal.

The sun sets on another day on the Cana du Midi.

 

Orb Aqueduct

A boat sails through aqueduct - a water bridge.

Our barge navigates the Canal du Midi along the Orb Aqueduct at Beziers.

 

A photo of a barge navigating the Orb Aqueduct (Pont-Canal de l’Orbat) at Beziers in southern France has always been my ‘vision’ of the Canal du Midi and one of the reasons I wanted to do a barge cruise on the canal. No other image of the Canal du Midi was more iconic than the Orb Aqueduct.

The Orb Aqueduct is a one-lane bridge carrying the Canal du Midi over the Orb River. At 240 metres long, 28 metres wide, 12 metres high, and with seven arches, the Orb Aqueduct is one of the largest aqueducts in France and the largest on the Canal du Midi. Prior to the opening of the Orb Aqueduct in 1858, the Canal du Midi traversed a short, treacherous section of the Orb River that would sink boats or leave them stranded for weeks due to its unpredictable flow. Building the aqueduct allowed boats to bypass the dangerous Orb River safely.

The aqueduct carries the canal in a masonry trough sealed with a layer of concrete. The concrete seal was replaced in 1951; otherwise, the original structure still exists. You can walk the length of Orb Aqueduct as there is a towpath on both sides.

The Orb Aqueduct was classified as a National Historical Monument in 1962 and was listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1996.

A water bridge carrying the Canal du Midi over the river below.

Six of the Orb Aqueduct’s seven arches.

 

A bridge carrying water over a river below.

The Orb Aqueduct carries the Canal du Midi over the River Orb.

 

Fonserannes Locks

The image shows the mechanisms on top of seven lock gates that climb up a hill.

The seven-rise lock staircase or Fonserannes.

 

Locks are an integral part of any barge cruise, and on the Canal du Midi, I got my gratifying fill of them. However, none would raise my excitement or sense of adventure as much as the seven-rise lock staircase of Fonserannes (also known as the Fonserannes Locks or the Fonserannes Staircase) near the town of Beziers.

When the Canal du Midi was constructed in the 17th century, Pierre-Paul Riquet had to overcome the problem of crossing the Orb River, which was 48 metres higher than the natural course of the canal waterway. The answer was the Fonserannes Lock Staircase, a staggering feat of engineering and very impressive, even to my untrained eye. It is one of the features that led to the Canal du Midi being declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996.

Fonserannes Lock Staircase is a 312-metre-long water staircase, allowing boats and barges to negotiate a 25-metre gradient by passing through seven oval-shaped lock chambers and eight gates. There is an eighth chamber, but it is no longer in use. Boats are raised (or lowered) 21.5 metres over a distance of 300 metres, with the deepest rise (or drop) over six metres.

A boat is in a lock chamber on the Canal du Midi. This is a staircase lock system of which there are seven ovoid chambers and eight gates.

A boat climbs the Fonserannes Staircase Locks.

 

We approached the Fonserannes seven-rise lock staircase from the Orb Aqueduct and travelled up the lock staircase. Our barge captain took over 30 minutes to negotiate the boat’s climb through the seven chambers. The force and speed at which the water rushes into the chamber when a gate opens is astounding.

A boat moves into the rushing waters of a filling lock chamber.

Our barge navigates through Fonserannes Locks.

 

One lock chamber must have been particularly challenging because going under the bridge that spanned the gate dislodged the height indicator pole (a red flag on a pole on the boat’s bow). As I understand it, the lockkeeper allowed too much water to enter the lock, making the water in the chamber higher than it should have been. Our captain had to duck very low to ensure his head didn’t connect with the bridge.

A boat travels under a low bridge as it enters a lock chamber with water starting to rush through the opening gate into the next lock chamber.

A low bridge knocked over the red-flagged height indicator pole.

 

We stopped for the night at the top of Fonserannes Staircase Locks. So, I took the opportunity to walk the towpath back to the Orb Aqueduct, an easy, flat 20-minute walk.

Malpas Tunnel

A boat approaches a tunnel in a hill with the canal passing through the tunnel.

Our barge approaches the Malpas Tunnel on the Canal du Midi.

 

The Malpas Tunnel, between Bezier and Capstang on the Canal du Midi, was the first tunnel ever dug for a canal. The tunnel was excavated in 1679 in secret by the canal’s chief engineer, Pierre-Paul Riquet, as the Prime Minister had stopped the plan to dig a canal tunnel through Enserune Hill because initial excavations revealed the tunnel was liable to collapse due to the hill being brittle sandstone. Over 300 years later, the Malpas Tunnel is still navigable! And there is now even a railway tunnel ten metres below the canal tunnel, built nearly 200 years later!

Local folklore has it that after the completion of the Malpas Tunnel, one of the workers built a small nook inside the tunnel’s ceiling and lived there as a hermit. When barges passed through the tunnel, the crew threw bread into the opening for the hermit. Barge crews still sometimes throw a piece of bread into the opening of the nook as a “gift for the hermit”.

Our captain did not throw bread into the opening in the ceiling, but he did play the finale of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture (at least, I think that was what it was). I did not fathom the relevance of this, but the music sounded incredible and very dramatic as it echoed off the tunnel walls.

A boat exits a tunnel that carries the Canal du Midi through the hill. A man is steering the boat.

The hermit nook in the ceiling of Malpas Tunnel.

 

Canal de Jonction

I want to leave you with my favourite photo I took on the Canal du Midi barge cruise. It is not the Canal du Midi per se but taken when we stopped for the night at Salleles d’Aude on the Canal de Jonction. The Canal de Jonction is a shortcut from the Canal du Midi to the Canal de la Robine. It was early morning, the water was milk-pond still, and the reflections of our barge and the trees lining the canal created an unforgettable image.

A blue and white barge is tied up to the bank of a tree-lined canal. The barge and trees are reflected in the still waters of the canal. A lock can be seen in the distance.

The Adjodi reflected in the still waters at Salleles d’Aude on the Canal de Jonction.

 

Reflecting on my journey along the Canal du Midi, I am in awe of the ingenuity and determination that brought these three remarkable engineering marvels to life. The Orb Aqueduct is a testament to the courage of human vision, carrying the canal over the valley below. The Fonserannes Locks remind us of our ability to conquer and harness the raw forces of nature. And then there is the Malpas Tunnel, a hidden passage shrouded in history and mystery carved through solid rock.

As you traverse the tranquil waters of the Canal du Midi, it’s impossible not to be humbled by the visionaries who conceived these extraordinary structures. Their dedication to crafting a passage that conquered natural obstacles while blending with the landscape continues to inspire admiration centuries later.

Whether you’re a history buff, an engineering enthusiast, or a traveller searching for unique experiences, the Canal du Midi’s engineering marvels promise an unforgettable journey.

 

Disclaimer: This post contains no affiliate links. All views and opinions are my own and non-sponsored. All photos are my own and remain the copyright of Just Me Travel.

© Just Me Travel 2018-2023.

 

Leave a comment below. I look forward to reading and responding to your comments on the Canal du Midi and its engineering marvels.

 

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The image shows two photos. One photo is of a boat reflected in the waters of a tree-lined canal. The other photo is a boat sailing on an aqueduct (a water bridge). These are engineering marvels on the Canal du Midi.

The image is two photos - a boat entering the swirling waters of a lock chamber and the other is a boat, steered by a man, exiting a tunnel.

 

Author’s Note: Please check the latest travel restrictions before planning any trip and follow government advice.

 

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Carcassonne Citadel is a medieval treasure in Southern France. It is the most complete medieval town in existence today and is worth two to three days to explore.

 

 

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