Sunday, July 31, 2011

Going Solar

Back in London, at the Science Museum, we spotted little solar panels for 15 Euros each. At the time Courts said they wouldn’t be big enough to power anything, but once we left London we were on a constant search to find them again.

As far as hassles go, it’s not a bad one to have, but the biggest hassle of our nomadic existence is the battle for power supply. Campsites tend to either have easy, cheap wifi access or easy, cheap power supply. Never both, and occasionally neither. Wifi isn’t so much of an issue, it’s a nicety but not a necessity. It’s nice to check in with home, and of course set a few blog posts to publish. If it’s the right time of day we can call our parents although I still haven’t managed to talk to my Dad. Power is the biggie. We need a fully charged phone to use GPS and we’ve become experts at quickly scanning cafes and restaurants for power points before choosing a table.

When we reached Benicassim, we were stoked to find those little solar panels again. If it were me I would have just bought one as is, but because Courts has the gift of the gab, he ended up knowing the salesman’s life story and the salesman, Tim, knowing ours. All of the people there were lovely, running a family business and doing their first big festival – even the littlest kids were wearing company t-shirts and helping with errands.

Since Courts and Tim got chatting, we found out they had a limited supply of bigger solar panels and so began a daily routine of going back and forth between our tent and the stall, umming and aahing over the investment. While the little Pico solar panels were only 20 Euros, they would take 6 or so hours of full sunlight to charge and then only supply a boost of 75% battery to the phone, if that. But there were bigger, 80 Euro models with double the panel size and bigger batteries that would suit us much better. These ones came with caddies to charge camera batteries and would be suitable for charging everything except our laptop – phone, camera, headsets etc.

We went for it on the last day and got a really good deal on not only the Freeloader Pro we had been looking at, but on an even bigger panel that could strap onto the bike and rechargeable battery connections as well. We strapped it all on the bike when we set out for Barcelona and when we ran out of GPS battery 50km shy of our destination we were able to plug in and feed directly off the panel as we drove along.

Our little panel hasn’t been all smooth sailings though. We discovered when we got to Barcelona that the joins on the casing of the Freeloader aren’t stuck together in one place and part of the panel that should clip on in order to charge, unclips itself.

The first few times we used it, we would walk around town all day with the panel strapped to our day pack (the panel almost fully covers the backpack) only to get home and have it charge for 10 minutes and then die completely, empty. We knew there had been similar problems with the small Pico units and that fully charging them once via USB instead of sunlight seemed to fix the problem. Luckily reception took it overnight for us because at camp if we wanted to charge something we had to sit in the computer room with it the whole time and we wouldn’t have been able to fully charge it like we needed to.

Since then, it seems to have been alright. We strapped it to the bike when we left Barcelona and used it to power the GPS on the way. One of the biggest advantages of having it on the bike with us has been that we’re now able to take pictures and videos along the way with the phone, without worrying about using up the battery needed for GPS. With a pile of gear behind me, I have less need to hold on so tight, at least when we’re taking it easy, and can use one hand to film with the phone and then switch back to GPS.

We haven’t used the rechargeable battery connections yet. Well, we have, but we’ve been using them via the USB ports on my laptop, not the USB port on the panel. The solar panel may be handy but it definitely doesn’t hold enough charge to recharge the phone and batteries. We’re yet to have a day without either rain or it having to come indoors with us for other reasons, like if we’re in town and go into a restaurant, so it is rarely fully charged – in fact, I don’t think it’s been fully charged without the aid of USB since we got it 2 weeks ago.

Overall, it’s a cool little gadget to have. The biggest benefit for us is plugging in and feeding off it while we’re on the road, instead of finding an eatery to sit at for an hour like we used to. It’s definitely handy to give the phone a boost at night when we’re using it to read an ebook or listen to audio. The only recommendation I’d make is that you check the casing well before you buy it and that you test it out for a week at home first before you hit the road – a luxury we didn’t have.

*Note – While we did receive a great deal, it was not in exchange for this post. All views are my own and voluntarily published.

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Going Back in Time

Our ultimate destination post-Pyrenees was a night in Carcassonne. We had planned on Carcassonne being a lunchtime stopover in a one day trip but left Barcelona a day early to allow for more time to soak it all in.

Carcassonne is a medieval walled city that is still perfectly preserved and occupied. The modern town of Carcassonne sprawls out underneath, but there is no mistaking the city walls on the highest point and the turrets beyond them. I didn’t really expect the modern city to be there, having only seen photos from the ‘other’ side of La Cite (the walled city) where massive fields crawl gently towards the powerfully staunch walls. I was a little bit disappointed when I realized there was modern town as well, until I caught my first glimpse of La Cite itself.

Even from a distance, it’s breathtaking, and we managed to find a campsite only a 2 minute ride from the base of the walls. We set up camp around 6pm and walked into the town. There are only a few ways in, one on the ‘other’ side via roads and a drawbridge, and all others via rickety old stone steps climbing up the hillside.

Inside, I almost felt like I was pretending. The village, while obviously a tourist drawcard, still runs like normal while the modern city moves forward in time below. It seemed naïve at first to let La Cite draw me into its dress-up games and falsities but you can’t hold back. Soon the cobbled streets and medieval restaurants have you wrapped up in their alleys and dimly lit walkways. We wandered the shops and the city walls and went to a restaurant serving traditional medieval fare for dinner. There is a castle and an abbey you can visit but we couldn’t after hours, so instead we made the most of the tourist trap shops, dawdling through medieval themed stores selling clothing and weaponry, goblets and jewellery.

Carcassonne doesn’t feel like a tourist trap even though it’s obvious tourism is it’s main income. It feels genuine and quaint, even after we discovered the concert noise we could hear was within the city walls and coming from Ben Harper. Not having planned this stopover I hadn’t realized he was playing and I was a bit gutted because I love him, but Squish and I have seen him before so that’s OK. Courts and I had talked long before the music started about how awesome it would be to have a concert inside La Cite, I think Ben Harper was a bit spoiled playing essentially inside a castle.

Walking back to camp the shadows in the streets became all the more daunting in moonlight, especially when we passed a bizarre shop with mannequins staring at us from dressed upstairs windows. The whole adventure was worth it though when we got far enough away from La Cite to turn back and see it lit up in the dark. If you ever visit, stay the night just so you can see the lights.

We could have spent a couple of days there but we are essentially enroute to Wacken now, Courtney’s first metal festival of the trip. The time between FiberFIB and Wacken has limited us a little bit, because although there are2 and a half weeks between them, there are at least 6 weeks worth of things we wish we could do. We’re making the most of our time though and Carcassonne has definitely left it’s impression on our favourite places list.

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Saturday, July 30, 2011

Riding Through the Pyrenees

We decided to leave Barcelona a day early because we have learnt over the weeks of our trip that Google Maps and Via Michelin either give very ambitious directions or our GPS gives very scenic directions. Based on fiddling with some GPS settings it’s very possibly a combination of the two. Either way our trips are taking longer than planned and while we don’t usually mind, we had a lot planned for this leg.

We had a slow start to the day, not leaving Barcelona until lunchtime, and made our way through the highways until we reached the breathing point of our journey – the point at which the GPS tells us our next turn is 40, 90 or 150km away instead of 3 or 5. I don’t know if this was the GPS being funny or if it really was the only way through, but the breathing point of this journey happened to be the start of the Pyrenees Alps.

The next few hours were one of the best and worst rides of our trip. One of the microphones in our helmets is broken so I can give Courtney directions but I can’t hear when he talks back. We only use the headsets half the time anyway thanks to our never ending battle for power supply so we have a good hand signal system going and between one mic and one set of hand signals we figured it all out. Either way, with a microphone at my disposal Courtney knew just how freezing I was, because that is one thing we will never forget about the Pyrenees Mountains – they are freaking cold.

We reached higher altitudes than ever before and discovered they’re in metres, not feet as we previously guessed. So, many many metres in the sky, we discovered that summer isn’t always warm in Europe. Of course our linings and warm weather gear is in New Zealand so we battled it out, Courtney relishing the cold after weeks of warmth and me counting the kilometres until we made it out alive.

Aside from the temperature, the views were stunning. I don’t know how the crazy people that live in the villages of eternal winter do it, but I know why – for miles around they see valleys and lakes and mountains and cliffs and bushland. We drove through all of the above, including a gorge that reminded us of Karangahape at home, with rushing white water alongside the road and intensely green bush overhanging the cliff sides. We drove under overhanging rocks and through villages and eventually, as the GPS promised, we made it through the other side.

It’s far too difficult to take photos on a bike, but the beauty of having GPS on my phone means I do have access to the camera on it, and when it’s too bumpy to take photos, I can take bumpy videos instead, to remind us in years to come that we rode through the Pyrenees Alps. At least the videos will allow memories of the temperature to conveniently erode over time.

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Missing My Furs

I am very much an animal person. Courts is too, but being without them definitely affects me more. I’ve been away from Toby for a month before, when I went through the States, but it’s been 7 weeks now and I miss his fur. We saw a Border Collie the other day and even though it looked more like my old dog Holly than it did Toby, it made me wish he was here.

A lot of people travel with their dogs here too. At home there are no dogs allowed at campsites, ever. Either finding a place that will allow dogs or, easier, finding someone to look after him while we’re away, is a strong factor in any holiday we take. I’d much rather have him with us because he loves being on holiday with us, and here it’s so possible. I thought it was a novelty to see a blog before we left about people travelling long term with their dogs but if we stayed in Europe we could do it easily.

Of course that would entail spending thousands of dollars getting Toby onto the continent but for those that are already here, all you need is roughly 2 Euro extra a night and a way of securing the dog to your pitch or on a lead.

I’m yet to see a travelling cat but I’ve known of them at home. At our last house Izzy taught himself to open the bathroom window and escaped within 2 days of us moving there. But he was there, waiting outside when we got home and we didn’t have a problem afterwards. It would probably be different at Monty and Nurse B’s house where he has Jimmy to keep an eye out for but I’d like to think he could be a travelling cat.

Alas, with 8 more weeks (of Summer!) to go, at least our furs are safe with wonderful people who treat them very well and post lots of photos of them being ridiculously cute on Facebook. I do have two extremely cute furs if I do say so myself, very photogenic.

In the meantime, every animal anywhere near us gets fussed over. Whether we are riding past cattle or horses, or if we spot fish or turtles in rivers, if we’re at the zoo or the aquarium, if the next door tent has a puppy (even one that looks like a grizzly and barks like it wants to attack) or the campsite has a stray cat, we have animal radars imprinted in our brains that immediately go “LOOK! CUTE!” when we pass. We’ve even become nerdy avid bird watchers and feeders and if a squirrel were to find it’s way near us again it would probably find itself becoming a travelling squirrel.

None of these animals make up for fur cuddles though. I love the way my boys smell, their fur and their wet noses, Izzy’s whiskers and Toby’s annoyingly never-still tail. I miss a proper cuddle with one of them on my knee, or Izzy under the covers with me.

What part do animals play in your life? Would you miss them if you travelled long term?

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Friday, July 29, 2011

What to See and Do in Barcelona

What to See and Do

Start in Placa Catalunya – Our bus conveniently dropped us off here but it was a really good way to keep bearings. Las Ramblas is downhill (west), Parc Guell is uphill and everything else is inbetween.

Las Ramblas – Best street ever. As long as you hold on tight to your bag and look anyone dodgy in the eye (apparently they won’t try anything then), you’ll be fine. We made it through with all our belongings and money intact so if you’re smart about it you’re safe. Las Ramblas has everything – Placa Catalunya at the top, the Colum and wharf at the bottom. A massive path running down the middle with market stalls, street performers, restaurants and souvenirs, and markets, more shops and restaurants and access to all the little alleys down the side.

La Bocqueria – A market at 89 Las Ramblas, which deserves it’s own mention. It’s huge and varied, ranging from the disgusting (completely intact but furless dead rabbits, staring at you with bigger than normal eyes) to the delicious (candied fruits, home made chocolate fudge, fresh fruit salad).

Sagrada Familia – We got told not to go inside because it’s basically a construction zone. So we didn’t, we marveled from the outside, and spent the money at Patisserias instead.

Parc Guell – Very very cool. Take a picnic lunch with you and don’t stop climbing until you get to the top, the view is better than the Viewing Platform. The café is crazy expensive and you will want a drink after that climb, but take a drink with you and spend the money with the crazy illegal street vendors instead. Go to the ones inside the caves rather than the ones in the open because you’ll have more time to choose before they have to run from the cops.

Barri Gotic Cathedral – Keep going to the right of it, past the weird old-meets-modern building next door and turn left, parallel to the right hand side of the cathedral. The alley leads into a really cool little plaza and towards the old town. The cathedral itself is really stunning too, and the inside looks enticing in pictures but we couldn’t be bothered going inside at the time.

Get lost in the alleys – Definitely the highlight of Barcelona for us. They’re not hard to find, just turn off Las Ramblas at any point. We spent most of our time north and north-west of Las Ramblas. Don’t be scared of the seedy looking streets, it’s there we found a whole row of shops that had shoes and clothes for 3 and 5 Euros. I didn’t buy a thing, only because it wouldn’t have fit on the bike. Aside from the shopping, the best Patisserias in the world are in these alleys we swear.

Santa Caterina Markets – These markets are more the sort where you would actually do you weekly shopping than browse and get lunch, but they’re still very cool, they’re only slightly set back from the little alleys and there’s a tapas bar inside too.

Los Tarantos Flamenco – Instead of paying 40 or 50 Euros for dinner and a show, pay 8 Euros, get a half hour taster and then find dinner elsewhere. The show was awesome, the Sangria was good, we saved heaps and still had a good time. Los Tarantos is in Placa Reial and you can turn up at the door from 6pm.

Stay at Camping Tres Estrellas – massive pool, basketball and soccer fields, petanque areas, a playground, shops, a restaurant, shaded campsites, private access to the beach, hot showers that work, laundry services. Only negatives were crazy expensive wifi and the ‘half hour’ bus to the city that was closer to an hour. We got told to choose any site we wanted on the right hand side of the map at reception but when we asked which area was the quietest we got told to choose anywhere on the left hand side. It pays to ask because with motorbike gear and metal t-shirts we got lumped in with the young party side of camp when we really just wanted a few days surrounded by kids that go to bed at 10pm.

What not to do

Let go of your bag – Pickpockets are everywhere. They have knives to slice the bottom of your bag open and catch whatever falls out (they won’t use them on you). You won’t feel them reach into your pocket and you won’t know your money is gone until it’s too late. We’ve heard from quite a few people who have been robbed but just as many who haven’t. Don’t accept vouchers from anyone, don’t spologise to people that bump into you, don’t pick up anything you didn’t drop yourself. If you’re watching a street performer keep your bag in front of you and don’t stand close to anyone, including children.

Go to El Encants Vells Market in the late afternoon – we lost track of time and got there as it closed but the market looked awesome and while it’s a bit out of the way from the central city, I’d make the effort again.

Make a special effort for Basilica Santa Maria del Mar – other than the fact our search led us through awesome streets, it wasn’t as cool as expected and we couldn’t get inside to have a look.

Make a special effort for Arc de Triomf – We did because someone we met mentioned it, and it was cool, but only go if it’s on your way somewhere else or you have an afternoon to sit in the nearby park.

Walk to Parc Guell – The park is awesome, but it’s a long walk there and when you get there you still have to walk to the summit. Not so bad in the cooler months but don’t do it in Summer.

What I’d do differently –

Explore the Costa Brava - We rode through and stopped for photos but the small coastal towns around Barcelona are apparently well worth a few day trips and we didn’t have the energy.

Go to the Castle – From the bus between camp and town, we could see a castle on top of a mountain. In the dark, lit up, it looked like it were floating in the sky. No idea what it was or how to get there, but I’d hunt it down.

Go turtle hunting – What I really craved was just more downtime to recollect post-banicassim. It’s funny because we had so much downtime in Benicassim that we got bored and I really looked forward to exploring a city again but after a couple days exploring I would have a loved a few extra nothing days. So anyway, on the short walk from camp to the bus stop, we passed two roadkill turtles. We don’t have wild turtles in New Zealand but we’ve both had them as pets so it’s really weird to see them as roadkill. An estuary runs through camp and if we had a spare few hours we would have gone exploring to see if we could spot a live one.

All in all we only had three full days in the city and we could have spent many more in those little streets but I think three days was enough to see the sights and get a good feel for Barcelona. We didn’t feel rushed at any point I just think we could have done with an even slower pace.

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Narrow Alleys

It may have taken me half an hour to get in but I did take advantage of the massive pool at camp. We also took advantage of the beach on the other side of camp which, although not as nice as San Sebastian or Benicassim, did have a bar set up in the sand. After a day of doing nothing (and paying 10 Euro for 24 hours of wifi), we ventured back into the city.

As I’ve said, one of the Golden Rules we’ve been taught is to never have a map out in front of people, because you look like a naïve tourist, ripe for the robbing. What we usually do is roughly memorise the route, and if signs pointing the way don’t eventually appear, duck into a shop and check the map again after awhile. In Barcelona this is even more important because it’s a huge market for pickpockets, one of the worst cities in Europe for it.

Navigating this way isn’t always easy because street signs are less than obviously placed in Europe. They’re stuck to the corners of buildings and are of varying height, size, and behind-a-tree-ness. Sometimes they’re just not there. In Spain, tiny alleyways are also often old roads that are still marked as such but only for foot and motorbike traffic.

Enter the Navman. With our constant battle for power we haven’t been able to use the Navman in cities before but we have a new toy that I’ll tell you about later and we are now able to be a bit more lenient. The best thing about using the Navman is that if you select the ‘quickest’ route in Barcelona, it doesn’t take you easy way. Instead, it takes you into a tangled web of ancient old-city streets that in all honesty totally made our trip.

We probably would never have wandered off the main streets if we were navigating the usual way because it’s easier to stay straight for as long as possible and do as few turns as possible. Navman had us turning every few metres but it was awesome because we got to know a totally different Barcelona. Most of the old town streets aren’t wide enough for cars so other than the occasional moto, you have the freedom to wander as you please.

Despite the very cool little shops that dot almost every street, there aren’t many tourists either. Some of the streets that lead into the old town areas do look a bit seedy, but you usually only have to turn one, maybe two corners to find charming cobbled alleys. A Frenchman who owned a quiet little café we found told us he was wary of the alleys when he first arrived in Barcelona because in France it would be dangerous to go down them. Not so in Spain – he said there are always pickpockets no matter what but in terms of dangerous crimes you can feel safe.

So feel safe we did, and we let the Navman take us down any alley it wanted. There were a few things we wanted to check out in Barcelona and at that stage we hadn’t decided if we would still be in the city the next day (we weren’t) so we put them all into the Navman, hit ‘optimise stops’ so it would put them in a realistic order, and let it take us where it wanted.

We saw the markets we wanted, even if El Encants Vells was closed when we got there (it looked massive though, you should go) and Santa Caterina Markets didn’t live up to La Bocqueria on Las Ramblas. We saw another basilica, Santa Maria del Mar, and Barcelona’s Arc de Triomf – a smaller red brick version of Paris’ monument. More importantly, we found another spectacular Patisseria and ate more of the best food of our lives.

We finished the day at Placa Reial, just off Las Ramblas, paying 8 Euro for a half hour Flamenco show. I’ve always loved the drama of Flamenco and Courts was up for a taste test so we sat front row of a dark little bar called Los Tarantos with our Sangria and let it draw us in. It was so different in real like than anything we expected, far far more intense. The half hour passed quickly and it was back into the sunshine to find dinner (at a buffet for 11 Euro with all you can drink beer and almost-like-at-home food) and take the hour long bus home.

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Thursday, July 28, 2011

Hunting for Lizards

Despite in hindsight remembering that I knew Parc Guell had awesome views of Barcelona, I failed to remember at the time it was up a massive hill. Not so steep, but the climb went forever.

We had already walked around Barcelona a bit that morning. We caught the bus to Placa Catalunya and went to Hard Rock Café. I went to every Hard Rock Café I was near in the USA and we’re doing the same here, this time getting a pin from each one. Afterwards we made our way to Sagrada Familia, a cathedral designed by Gaudi and still unfinished. Courts was saying before we got there that maybe if they buckled down and just did the work it would be done by now instead of forecast to take many more years to complete. When you see the level of detail though, you can see why it might take awhile.

We spent a few minutes taking photos and holding on tightly to our bag and then we started the 2 or 3 km walk to Parc Guell. Like I said, it turned out to be a massive hill, but it was worth it at the top. Oddly enough we ran into a Kiwi guy, Tom, who we had met in the madness of Benicassim. 40,000 people there and god knows how many in Barcelona and there he is, calling out to us. It was Tom that first introduced us to the activities of the street vendors at Parc Guell.

In every city we’ve visited there have been huge numbers of street vendors, pestering us to buy this that and the other. They get in your face, won’t leave you alone and generally make a nuisance of themselves. In Barcelona they wait for you to come to them, while their friend picks your pocket to get the real income of the day. In Parc Guell it’s a bit different, because they’re not allowed to be there. All their stock is laid out on sheets and when they hear a whistle, it all gets thrown into the middle of the sheet - no matter how breakable it is – the corners of the sheet are pulled together and the vendors are off running.

The whistle is from a lookout, letting them know when the cops are coming. Cops are everywhere too, because they know the street vendors are there. They’re constantly patrolling the park, whistles are constantly sounding and vendors are constantly running. When we were walking down from the summit of the hill we saw 6 or 7 of them running through the bushes, their white sheets slung over their shoulders.

I don’t see the point, surely they don’t make that much money from it that it’s worth the rigmarole of running, setting up, running, setting up. One of them told us if they get caught the cops take all their stock, all their money and fine them. If they’re caught multiple times they can be arrested. But still they do it and other than the incredible view and weird mosaics, they kind of make the character of Parc Guell.

The park isn’t as chock full of mosaics as we thought it would be from the photos but it’s very cool. Paths wind up several levels of the hill and there are look outs across all of Barcelona. The mosaics that do adorn the park are really cool, even if it took us noobs a good couple of hours to find the famous lizard that marks the gate. In our defense, we didn’t know how close he was to the gate and he is up a hill behind two other mosaics.

All in all the climb was worth it, and on the bright side, the way home was all down hill!

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Vlogging and Conquering Barcelona

Barcelona is awesome. We didn’t have big plans for Barcelona when we researched the trip, but several people who had been there all said we would love it, and they were right. It’s really spread out, all the cool things are miles from each other, but it’s easy to get around on foot – unless you decide to walk to Parc Guell, which is at the top of a massive hill. There are millions of tours – hop on hop off, cycling, walking – we have done none of them.

Our favourite part of Barcelona is Las Ramblas, a street with more character than really fits in it. If Barcelona is a town of pickpockets, Las Ramblas is the centre but so far we’ve been fine. Our backpack has a sneaky pocket in the back between the straps so that’s where our money goes. If they knife the bottom of the bag (as they apparently do), all they’re getting is our lunch.

Las Ramblas has footpaths either side but also a massive median strip down the centre. The street performers are like no other. We thought the statue in Dublin did a good job but in Barcelona they go to a whole other level. A photo with Alien, anyone? There are heaps of performers other than Alien – a dragon with massive wings who will scare the pants off you as the photo is taken, Victorian ladies all in bronze – of course they all work with partners. Their income is not from the coins you throw at their feet before you take your photo, it’s from the wallets of the crowd that surround them, stolen by their partners in (literal) crime. As long as you hold on tight to your bag though, it’s well worth the show.

The best thing about Las Ramblas isn’t the street itself, it’s the alleys off the street. There’s even a massive market with every food you can imagine at number 89. Filled up on 1 Euro fruit salad and 50 cent fudge, we left Las Ramblas searching for the Barri Gotic cathedral. Smartphones are a godsend when you can pretend to text, all the while looking at GPS instead of holding out a Look-I’m-a-Tourist map. We wound through tiny carless alleys, crazy shops and the most amazing patisserias you can imagine. Since we don’t know what everything is, we’ve taken to asking shopkeepers for the best they’ve got, and through this method Courtney had ‘the best dessert of his life’ – a cake-meets-crème-brulee type deal that was amazing.

As we turned a corner and Barri Gotic unwittingly jumped out at us, we were thinking how the still photos of attractions really don’t put the surrounding areas into context. And so we vlogged for you. A video-blog. The battery goes flat at the end of the video so we didn’t mean to cut it off and not say goodbye, but that’s how it goes.

Not what you expected? Us neither. But it’s still beautiful.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Five Weeks Down

5 Weeks down, 10 to go – we are a third of the way through our trip. I’m happy with that because it’s not half way which means the majority is still to come. Everyone said it would go really fast but honestly it hasn’t. Every day is filled with so much to see and do. And we’re never rushed, it’s just that we’re generally up and about by 10 at the latest and often not home again until 10pm. Although we miss TV and books and it’s a constant battle between wifi and power supply, these things mean we have no choice but to explore and experience.

I keep a very tidy house because if I didn’t, tent life would become unbearable. I need to at least know where to find everything. But it takes me two minutes to clean my whole house and it takes Courtney (in all honesty it’s usually him) 2 minutes to rinse the dishes.

I do the majority of the tent putting up and taking down. It’s only fair, because Courts does all the riding, but in keeping with the honesty thing it’s also just because I’m faster at it and anyone who knows Courts knows how easily he gets distracted. I’d put money on the fact I could have the tent down and bike packed in the time it takes him to get dressed and brush his hair. Actually, that would be an unfair bet because I’ve done it before. Bless him.

In the tent, everything has it’s place. Kind of. Food goes in one corner, our sleeping mats go side by side lengthways along the door, and the back wall is lined with 4 of our 5 bags/cases – a pannier full of clothes, a bag that fits our two toilet bags and the first aid kit, the tank bag that contains all our valuables and a second pannier that contains everything else. Our helmets sit on top somewhere and the rest of our gear lives in the awning of the tent. None of our clothes get folded and nothing has an exact home. But the organized chaos is our little piece of the world – other than the suitcase that marks our place in Monty and Nurse B’s spare room, it’s the only home we have, our little tent.

I was thinking the other day how nice it will be the next time we go camping post-Europe. Despite looking forward to the luxuries of home, it would be nice to be back in our little tent temporarily. But then I remember the panniers and bags belong to the bike hire people and our little (big) bike isn’t really ours. At least the tent is.

Courts favourite stop so far has been Galway, mine San Sebastian. We both loved Beauvoir and wish we had time to explore Bordeaux. France is awesome. We both think London was the best city, although Barcelona is coming up close behind and I did really like Dublin. As much as I looked forward to Paris, we both thought it was overrated, although I think it would grow on me if I had more time there.

If I did the trip again, I’d go back to all the same places, except I’d swap Benicassim and FiberFIB for Madrid and Sonisphere. I wish I’d had longer in Beauvoir, we both do, and in Sant Mateu. If we weren’t pinned down by the time between San Fermin and Wacken, I’d spent more time in Spain.

The small towns we stop in during long rides are the best parts of the trip. San Fermin was definitely the craziest fun. BioParc was probably the best attraction, although Courts would probably challenge it with the Guiness factory. Eddie Rockets still holds the crown for best food. Courts is yet to find a paella that’s better than the one he had at home. We love Sangria. The Squirrels in Hyde Park would be the best free thing we’ve done, if you don’t count to 2 pounds we paid for peanuts to feed them.

We’re heading back into France next so we’ll have to swap our Si’s for Oui’s and our Gracias’ for Merci’s. Courts is very excited about Amsterdam and then of course Wacken which is only a week and a half away now. I’m unsure if we’ll make it to the Pont du Gard which will suck if we don’t, and I’m thinking our trip to Prague will be more adventurous than planned (or unplanned as the case may be). The thing I’m most looking forward to now is the Amalfi Coast and Tuscany, when we get to Italy. But that’s ages away, we’re onto a very Courtney leg of the trip now, it’s going to be a goodun.

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Saturday, July 23, 2011

Ecstasy and Lightening

The ride to Barcelona wasn’t particularly interesting. Maybe I couldn’t see the wood for the trees because I was quite stressed out but I don’t think there was much to look at until we got within 30km of our destination and the highway began winding over the mountains and unveiling cliff side beaches, picturesque marinas and small seaside towns.

I was grumpy because of how excited Courtney was to leave Benicassim. Neither of us had liked it but at the end of the day I chose it and I dealt with it and I did enjoy the music. For the most part Courts had been very good about the whole thing, tolerating most of the insanity and coming to see the few bands I saw. When we left though, he was ecstatic, yahooing and grinning ear to ear. I was glad to leave but his response just made me feel guilty for having chosen such a destination in the first place. As soon as he was free of camp, he declared he was never ever going back to a non-metal festival again, which again just made me feel guilty and a bit like I’d ruined my only chance at including him in things I like by starting off with a bad example.

Once we were on the road, Courtney’s good mood turned into happy riding – which means fast riding. It’s the norm here to go well above the speed limit and we’ve heard that in some places you can actually get a ticket for not speeding at the same speed as everyone else because you’re holding up traffic. Speed cameras are preceded by a massive sign warning you they’re coming up so everyone goes nuts until they see one and then goes nuts again as soon as they pass it. In this case though, I was having trouble holding onto and seeing the phone, which we use for GPS, and a couple of times I could only just figure out where we were supposed to go as we passed the turn off.

In hindsight, Courtney was happy, we weren’t riding dangerously, everything was fine – we’ve done a million wrong turns before – but because I was struggling and already grumpy, it was extremely stressful.

I also knew we needed to stop at an ATM but we never really managed it until it was too late. When you’re already stressed to the max, being yelled at by an angry Spanish toll booth operator is not fun. Eventually his colleague told him to waive the 4ish Euros and let us through for free, but a couple of minutes later we were met with another toll booth. This one was only a few cents and the operators were much more tolerant of idiot tourists and waived us through, telling us which road to take to avoid more (which thankfully was the road we wanted anyway).

Some toll roads, such as the first, you take a ticket, ride the distance, and pay when you exit - every exit has a booth. You pay depending on the distance you travelled and what vehicle you drove. Others, like the second, are just one offs, you pay as you go through and they’re usually cheaper. The problem with the first is that when you come across one, it’s already too late. You can’t turn around, and you can’t exit the road once you’re through without paying. They have gas stations but the gas stations don’t have ATMs like they do at home. So you’re screwed and we’re yet to find out if they have some sort of massive fine for going through without paying or something nasty like that.

We made it through, of course, and the views of the coast were amazing. The campsite is too, with a massive pool on one side, the beach on the other, and a supermarket, creperie and restaurant in between. It didn’t even bother us when, the very first night, there was an extremely loud thunder storm. Once we secured everything, it was kind of amusing – kind of – because we were floating. The ground was so dry that water was taking forever to soak in and the parts of the tent that didn’t have anything heavy were literally floating an inch or more off the ground. It was like sleeping on a water bed and despite a few very minor wet patches, we discovered just how waterproof our tent is, with no major leaks.

I guess Mother Nature had just as bad a day as I did.

Penelope_nz's Barcelona, Spain photoset Penelope_nz's Barcelona, Spain photoset

Friday, July 22, 2011

What to See and Do in Benicassim

What to See

The Beach – It’s awesome. It’s huge so you can usually find a spot that suits you. It’s varied too – there are areas of white sand, areas of pebbles, rougher water, calmer water, and manmade lines of rocks that jut out every few hundred metres that you can fish off. There are awesome facilities – you can hire cushioned beach chairs and permanent shade stands, 2 chairs and a stand for 12 Euro a day – an entire day. You can hire paddle boats that have water slides on them for 15 Euro an hour and there is no shortage of beachside shops to sell you inflatables and beach wear at crazy cheap prices (Lilos 4 Euro, towels 4 Euro, Boardshorts 7 Euro). There are heaps of food outlets overlooking the beach and even more across the road, everything from 3 Euro hamburgers and hotdogs to expensive restaurant meals. There’s also a supermarket across the road.

Valencia – It’s an hour away but if you’re that close, it’s worth a visit. We got combo tickets for the Hop-on Hop-off tour which is normally 15 Euro each and BioParc which is normally around 21 Euro each and paid a grand total of 52 Euro for the both of us. Considering the discount, I’d say both are definitely worth the money. We went back to Valencia for Oceanographique, the Aquarium, and already knew where it was and what was there thanks to the tour, so over the 2 days we spent there, we saw a decent amount of the city and got to see two awesome attractions, both of which were the best of their kind we had ever been to.

What not to see

I’m pretty sure by now you know my opinion on FiberFIB and whether it’s the sort of thing you would enjoy or not. So in other news –

Nothing. If you have a hotel room and a good book, all you need is the beach. We got bored because we didn’t have books or music or anything to do when we got out of the water, but it still took us 4 days to get bored.

What I’d do Differently

In all seriousness, I would have gone to Madrid, which we cut out of our itinerary for more time in San Sebastian (which was worth it). Slash played there at the Sonisphere festival which had way better bands than FiberFIB, and we would have got to see the Capital City as well. I could have also happily spent the week in Valencia. But none of this happened so in terms of Benicassim –

Get a Hotel – When you spend all day at the beach, it’s really nice to go back to a real bed and some home comforts. If I did it all again, I’d save enough to splurge on a room.

Take a Book – We don’t have room to carry books around and never thought much about how badly we would want them until we were here. I have a few audiobooks I’m working my way through (they aren’t quite the same as lying down with a good book but they’re good enough) and Courtney is slowly and painfully trying to download and set up an EBook reader on the phone using what little wifi we can get our hands on.

Go to Aquarama – There’s a waterpark near the festival venue that we never got round to visiting, but we could see the massive hydroslides and hear the screams, so we’d give it a go.

Penelope_nz's Benicassim, Spain photoset Penelope_nz's Benicassim, Spain photoset

Aquariums, Portishead and Moving On

You can all breathe a sigh of relief and go back to looking forward to new posts, if that is what you used to do, because we have left Benicassim. The last couple of days were good enough. Mumford and Sons were amazing, but we were near the back of the crowd and I am not a girl that likes to stay at the back.

At New Zealand and Australian festivals I’ve been to before, you cannot hear other stages from the stage you’re at. When you are at a stage, you can be in the thick of it, or you can be near the back. If you so choose, most stages have enough room for you to sit and relax near the back while still being in ear shot and being able to look up at the screens every now and then. If you’re not interested in the music, there is room for you to stop and chill out without annoying the people who are interested in the music.

At Benicassim, if you’re not directly in front of the stage you can hear other stages over the top. Since they seem to have just sold way too many tickets to cope with, there is also nowhere for people to chill out. There are very tiny areas where you can sit on the ground, but you will be stood on, because they are the same areas people walk through. If you want to just talk, you generally have to be in the vicinity of a stage, and you’ll probably be at the back. Which means those of us that just wanted to chill out and listen to Mumford and Sons from the back, without fighting for prime position, couldn’t really do so because we were surrounded by people chattering and being idiots, people that weren’t interested in Mumford and Sons in the slightest.

We moved forward into the crush to get away from the banter and the noise of other stages, and we enjoyed Mumford and Sons, they were awesome. We didn’t bother staying for Arctic Monkeys though, we had enough.

The following day, our last full day in Benicassim, we again escaped to Valencia. We went to Oceanographique, the aquarium. If you are an animal lover or you have a family, Valencia is the best place ever (Haakuturi I spent half the day thinking how much you would love it there). Oceanographique is massive, with separate areas dedicated to the Mediterranean, Southern Seas, Antarctic, Arctic, Wetlands, Sharks and Dolphins. They have the only Beluga Whales in Europe and they have Walrus’!

We had never seen Walruses before and they held our attention for about half an hour. They are really just massive blobs of fat, one was basking in the sun and when he decided to go for a swim it took him 10 minutes to roll himself into the water. Not long after, the female decided to get out of the water but after one massive heave that got her half way and a couple of minutes attempting to get further, she gave up and went swimming again. Watching them together was awesome though, the talk to each other and play, and the male would occasionally look up and watch people on the bridge that crossed the enclosure.

Unlike at home where our Aquarium has one glass tunnel, Oceanographique has several, the longest 70m long, and one dedicated entirely to Sharks. The highlight of the day was the Dolphin show though. I’ve seen one before in Australia, but they don’t get old. Courts hadn’t seen one before and we ended up going back to see it a second time just before we left.

Despite getting a bit lost trying to get out of the city, we made it back to Benicassim in time to see Portishead. We were about 6 rows from the front, and despite having permission to leave at anytime, Courts lasted the whole show. Portishead is really more suited to a chilled out winery tour, something where you can sit back and relax and take it all in, but the crowd still loved them. The show was awesome, and being a more chilled set, there was no mad crush near the front. Courts got a bit bored because it was so chilled but I think the lack of crush is the only thing that stopped him leaving. The band left the stage 10 minutes early with no encore, which was a bit weird, but I’m really glad I saw them, they’re one of my favourite Sunday afternoon bands and my Uncle introduced me to them many years ago, before he passed away. Even though we didn’t stay to see Arcade Fire afterwards, Portishead was a good way to end the festival.

Almost better than seeing Portishead was that when we got up the next day, it was overcast and cool – perfect weather for packing up and carting all our stuff back to the bike. Barcelona here we come!

Penelope_nz's Benicassim, Spain photoset Penelope_nz's Benicassim, Spain photoset