A journey BY TRAIN from MADRID

DECEMBER 29, 2011 -JANUARY 06, 2012 

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We've booked a tour of Spain, Portugal, and Morocco, which starts on January 6, 2012, and we have ten whole days up our sleeves to explore the parts of Spain not included in the tour. We  plan to start in Barcelona. We've booked a one-way train trip from Madrid and we have four-nights accommodation booked in Barcelona. The rest is up to us to decide when we get there.

Round Trip:  1800 kms by train


Four Points by Sheraton. Barcelona Diagonal 
Avenida Diagonal 161-163, Barcelona 8018 Spain


Hop-on-hop-off bus Barcelona

Tour to Montserrat

Tour to Figueres

Hop-on-hop-off bus Valencia




Highlights:  AVE High Speed train,

UNESCO World Heritage Site - Familia Sagrada

Hotel: Four Points by Sheraton. Barcelona Diagonal Avenida Diagonal 161-163, Barcelona 8018 Spain

We arrive at the Madrid Atocha railway station in plenty of time to catch our 8:30 AM train. Like an airport, security is tight and we are unable to board the train until gates open and our tickets are scanned. Madrid Atocha is an old railway station, but newer innovations to cater for the AVE fast trains are a good example of how to modernise and clean up existing stations. Our train from Madrid departs exactly on time and before long, we are reaching speeds that we've never experienced before on a train. The 500 kilometre journey takes just three-and-a-half hours, reaching Barcelona at midday.

Our hotel, the Four Seasons by Sheraton is not in the city centre, but is fairly central to many attractions by foot. The price difference between staying here and near Las Ramblas is significant.

Eager to stretch our legs after checking in to the hotel, we first had a bite to eat before setting off on foot to get our bearings. It's really important to me to explore a new city by foot. It not only enables me to familiarise myself with a city from the footpath, it is also where I may have opportunities to meet people and to find the little nooks and crannies that makes one city unique from another.

It doesn't take long to realise that the distinctive spires of La Familia Sagrada, which dominate the skyline, are not that far away. We gravitate towards the spires without maps, walking this way and that, through many narrow streets. I'm surprised at how empty the streets are; few people and fewer cars. I admire the Mediterranean-style buildings, ever watchful of the cathedral's wonky spires rising behind them. We turn a corner, and there, in front of us; white hoarding surrounds the perimeter of the building and a long line of people waiting to enter the famous church. From across the road, I can zoom into details of the various features of the spires until I realise that I could take a thousand photos, yet still not capture, nor understand the depth of perspective of this building. We join the queue. Each few steps forward provided a different view; a different scene.

La Sagrada Familia is Gaudi's most famous work in Barcelona. Started in 1882 under architect Francisco de Paula del Villar, Gaudí took over as chief architect, transforming the project with his architectural and engineering style, combining Gothic and curvilinear Art Nouveau forms. Gaudí devoted the remainder of his life to the project, and he is buried in the crypt. At the time of his death in 1926, less than a quarter of the project was complete (Source: Wikipedia, Sagrada Familia, last edited June 18 2020). Still incomplete, there are expectations that it may be finished by 2026.

Securing our tickets, we enter the Cathedral. A reverent hush envelopes the internal space. Perhaps it's because that from the first moment I step inside, all words are lost. Yes, it's modern, but the great height of the ceiling over the altar forces me to crane my neck, virtually looking up towards the heavens. The main inspiration of the design is of nature and the pillars that hold up that impossible ceiling are like the trunks of trees reaching to the sun. It's late afternoon and the light is fading, but not so much that we cannot appreciate the play of light through the coloured glass. It must be spectacular when the sun is higher in the sky and the full strength of the colours are absorbed into the interior. The plain beige colours obviously provide the backdrop for the multitude of colours that are ever-changing, therefore creating a unique and special place any time of the day that you visit. 

I am lost for words, for once. The plainness of the interior is a perfect compliment to the level of detail on the exterior of the cathedral. This is, without a doubt, one of the most unforgettable places I've ever visited and I'm now eager to explore more of Gaudi's architectural masterpieces during our stay in Barcelona. 




Highlights:  Hop-on-Hop-Off bus,

UNESCO World Heritage Site - Park Guell (free admission), La Pedrera & Casa Mila

Hotel: Four Points by Sheraton. Barcelona Diagonal Avenida Diagonal 161-163, Barcelona 8018 Spain

Yesterday's exploration by foot led us to one of Barcelona's most famous sites, but something (my lonely-planet book) tells me that the city has much more to offer the casual tourist. One of the best ways of seeing the major sites of a city is by the hop-on-hop-off bus. Although our hotel is in the 'Diagonal' part of the city, the bus stop is a short walk away. We complete a full circuit of the bus route before deciding to concentrate on the Gaudi sites. Our first stop is Park Guell, which is a public park composed of gardens and architectural features located on the north face of Carmel Hill. From its elevated setting, we have an unobstructed view of the Mediterranean Sea. The cloudless blue sky provides the perfect background for photos. 

The park is named after Eusebi Guell, a Spanish entrepreneur who profited from the industrial revolution in the late 19th century. After purchasing the land, Guell assigned the design of the park to Gaudi. Originally, the concept was for an urban development of sixty triangular-shaped housing blocks within the park boundaries. However, only two houses were built, neither of which was designed by Gaudi, although he did live in one from 1906.

In the design of Park Güell, Gaudí unleashed all his architectonic genius and put to practice much of his innovative structural solutions that would become the symbol of his organic style and that would culminate in the creation of the Sagrada Familia (Source: Wikipedia, Park Guell, last edited, June 20,2020).

Like fairytale buildings from Disney's Toon Town, the entrance to the park is as fanciful as anyone's imagination could be, except that Gaudi's imaginary designs are very much reality here. We climb a sweeping tile staircase to a courtyard; it's balustrades like the spines of a fanciful sea-serpent. We enter a hypostyle hall; its doric-style columns not exactly straight, but not unexpected here. Two classical guitarists play; the acoustics are perfect. Every detail, from the fern patterns on the fences to the curved arches of the walkway add to the sense of being immersed into something quite unreal.

Resuming our bus ride, our next stop is La Pedrera, in which Casa Mila is located. Built between 1906 and 1912, La Pedrera is an apartment block designed by Gaudi. It is characterised by its self-supporting stone facade, which means that it is free of load-bearing walls. The facade connects to the internal structure of each floor by means of curved iron beams surrounding the perimeter of each floor. This construction system allows, on one hand, large openings in the facade which give light to the homes, and on the other, free structuring of the different levels, so that internal walls can be added and demolished without affecting the stability of the building. This allows the owners to change their minds at will and to modify, without problems, the interior layout of the homes. (Source: Wikipedia, La Pedrera, last updated June 14, 2020).  The courtyard roof is like a hobbit-land, chimneys stand like sentinels on the undulating roof. Downstairs is the apartment owned by the Mila family, and now functions as a museum. There is not one straight wall in the apartment; the custom-built furniture and architectural features are all ergonomically designed and fit within the fluid, organic space. 

Wearily we make our way back to our hotel, discussing the possibility of staying a few more days. We've not scratched the surface here in Barcelona and there are a couple of day tours we wish to take as well. 




Highlights: Montserrat monastery, Pares Balta winery

Tour: Explore Catalunya Tour to Montserrat

Link to Montserrat day trip

Hotel: Four Points by Sheraton. Barcelona Diagonal Avenida Diagonal 161-163, Barcelona 8018 Spain

We'd had a few issues booking a tour for today. I'd left my details with Explore Catalunya tours online and didn't really expect to hear from them. So, as we plan for our day over breakfast, my phone rings and we are offered a tour to Montserrat, but only if we can get to the Hard Rock Cafe in a very short time.

We arrive at the starting point a few minutes late, but our tour guide is expecting us and within minutes, we are on our way out of the city of Barcelona.

About one hour out of the city, the sawtooth mountain range appears on the horizon. The peculiar rock formations, which gives the mountains its name, really do look like a serrated edge from a distance. We turn off the main road and enter a driveway lined with ancient olive trees, their trunks gnarled and twisted. We are stopping at the Pares Balta Winery for a tour and a short break before reaching our destination.This vineyard stands out amongst others as it is 100% organic, and has been so since 1790, when the vineyard was first established. We wander along the neatly-pruned vines as the varietal growing, picking, and pruning processes are discussed. Although it's Winter, it's not very cold and it's nice to be outside and breathing in the fresh country air. We are taken into the winery, where the tour takes us through the processes for producing the different wines. The highlight for me is the visit down to the caves, where the temperature is naturally maintained at around 12 degrees Celsius. This is the optimum temperature for the fermentation process for cava, Spanish champagne. Although cava is produced in exactly the same way as champagne, copyright laws prohibit the word 'champagne' being used for any wines not produced in the Champagne region of France. Almost 95% of all cava is produced in this region of Spain. We enjoy a tasting of a number of wines, but my firm favourite is the bubbly.

Not used to drinking in the middle of the day, I'm almost tipsy as we return to the minibus to complete our journey to Montserrat, but I soon sober up as the bus climbs up into the mountains, stopping an hour later outside the Santa Maria de Montserrat Abbey. Nestled between the jagged mountains, is the monastery, which was founded in the 11th century. The buildings that are standing today had been built between the 19th and 20th centuries and the abbey is home to approximately eighty monks. A funicular transports pilgrims and visitors to the abbey from Santa Cova, a village down the mountain. Another funicular connects with the upper slopes and is popular with hikers and those who simply want to look at the vista from that vantage point. Our guide takes us through part of the abbey grounds and fills us in with some history about the various buildings that have stood on this site over the centuries. During the War of Independence with France in 1811, the monastery was destroyed. Rebuilt in 1844, it became a focal point for the Catalan people, particularly during the brutal Franco regime, when it was considered a sanctuary for scholars, artists, politicians, and students. 

Squashed between two buildings, the facade of the Basilica features statues of Jesus and the twelve apostles. Inside, the single nave points to the elaborate altar. Up a few dark, narrow stairs, above the main altar, is a small room in which the black virgin statue is located. The legendary black virgin was allegedly made by Luke and brought to this area by St Peter in 50 AD. However, it is dated much later than that and the first records of its appearance are around 880. We file past the modest statue, which is encased in glass. One hand, holding a golden orb extends through a hole in the glass case. For the faithful, rubbing the hand may provide good luck. I'm not going to miss out on my share of luck, and extend my hand to grasp the statue before moving on. We leave the church, and with some time to spare before our bus takes us back to Barcelona, we take the funicular to the top of the mountain.

The clear blue skies provide a perfect backdrop for the magnificent view over the Catalan region. Meanwhile, the rocks in front of us show the caves and hollows that have provided primitive shelter for monks for centuries. We reach the peak and enjoy the view as far as the eye can see; the Mediterranean sea glows in the distance as the sun starts its descent on this winter's day.

Today's excursion with Explore Catalunya has been excellent and I would highly recommend this full-day tour. 




Highlights: Las Ramblas

Hotel: Four Points by Sheraton. Barcelona Diagonal Avenida Diagonal 161-163, Barcelona 8018 Spain

Pretty much everything is closed today in Barcelona as it's New Year's Day. We tried gazpacho last night, and although it was tasty, I did think that I was going to have to insult the chef by asking someone to heat it up for Tom. We had been each given a small bag containing twelve grapes. For each stroke of midnight, a grape must be eaten to ensure that we enjoy good luck for the year ahead. Not to be one to laugh at superstitions, we joined in with our fellow-diners and welcomed the new year with Spanish gusto.

We decide to extend our stay here in Barcelona for an additional two nights as a tour we'd like to take has been confirmed for Tuesday morning. I'm quite excited about that.

After a relaxing morning, we take the bus the five kilometres from our hotel to La Rambla, the tree-lined pedestrian street that stretches 1.2 kilometres from Plaça de Catalunya in the city centre to the Christopher Columbus statue at Port Vell, Colourful and lively, the tourist street is filled with restaurants, cafes, and other interesting places. A side street leads to Royal Square a plaza filled with palm trees and Gaudi-designed lamp posts.

Despite the holiday, the street is filled with tourists like us, and as we start our walk from the city centre, we use our guidebook to locate the various places of interest. I'm especially anxious to locate the mosaic by Joan Miro.

We start our sightseeing at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross and Saint Eulalia, also known as Barcelona Cathedra. The Gothic architecture is typical of cathedrals built between the 13th and 15th centuries. We are unable to enter it today as it is currently being renovated. Buskers, playing classical Spanish guitar, provide some entertainment whilst we look at the amazing exterior stonework, marvelling at its age. Being in a country where old is actually older than any building in Australia always brings out a sense of wonder in me.

Joining the crowds walking along La Rambla, we recognise the plane trees, which were planted here around 1859. They were not the first species to be planted here, but they probably are the most robust, since they not only are drought-proof, but also great pollution-absorbers. They are almost bare at the moment, but I can imagine how much shade they would offer in the hot summer time. We find the entrance to La Boqueria, the market. Closed today, it may be worth another look if we decide to remain in Barcelona a few more days. The buildings themselves are adorned with interesting decorations; an Asian-style dragon heralds the entrance to La Boqueria, whilst umbrellas and fans are arranged in a design on the facade of the same building.

Whilst looking for the Miro mosaic, I notice that the pavers are arranged in waves, probably to represent the ocean, which isn't too far away from here. We spend some time exploring the beautiful Royal Square and gradually make our way to the end of the street to admire the statue of Christopher Columbus pointing out to sea.

Slowly we make our way back along the street, stopping and relaxing over a well-deserved coffee. At approximately 18 degrees Celsius, we are very happy that the weather is so fine and hope that it remains the same for the next couple of days.




Highlights: La Ramblas, Casa Batllo

Hotel: Four Points by Sheraton. Barcelona Diagonal Avenida Diagonal 161-163, Barcelona 8018 Spain

The beauty of exploring a new city is that we are more likely to attempt to make an effort to use public transport. Today, we explore the Metro; Barcelona's underground railway system, as we need to purchase our railway tickets for our next destination in two days time. After much hand waving and plucking words from a English-Spanish dictionary, I finally secure tickets to Valencia and I also decided to book our journey back to Madrid from Valencia on January 6. I also manage to finalise our tour for tomorrow. 

Housekeeping completed, we have the rest of the day ahead of us to finish exploring this beautiful city.

We decide to return to La Rambla to enjoy coffee and to 'people-watch' whilst we decide on our next course of action. It's nice to be able to take our time today; wandering and looking and simply absorbing the vibrant atmosphere of the city. Today however, is grey, drab and a lot cooler than the last few days. We watch the street performers for a while; someone has wheeled a piano out on the street and together with a guitarist and a trumpeter, produce some really good music.

And then I see it! Right there! in front of me! The Miro mosaic, which we searched for yesterday and couldn't see is on the ground just under my foot. It's not only huge, but the large blocks of primary colours make it very obvious. I cannot believe that we had been standing on this same spot yesterday, but couldn't see it. That's embarrassing!


Some of Barcelona's most important families moved into Pasio de Gracia from 1860. Number forty-three, built in 1877 by Emilio Sala Cortes, was purchased by Josep Batllo y Casanovas in 1903. Earmarked for demolition, Batllo engaged Gaudi to design a new family home. Rather than demolish the building though, Gaudi set about changing the facade, redistributing the partitioning, expanding the patios, and converting the interior into a work of art.

We wait for an English-speaking guide then follow her as she points out the various points of interest inside the building. You cannot help but recognise that a building is designed by Gaudi because of his use of materials and other organic features. 

Natural light flows into every part of the building through the clever use of a main skylight and the central patio decorated in tiles; shades of blue are darkest at the top of the building, gradually becoming lighter towards the bottom level. The windows also increase in size as we descend. At first I think it's an optical illusion, but it's not.

Inside the apartment, our attention is drawn to decorative vents, which can be manually operated to ensure the best flow of air throughout the rooms. The manual control of airflow through vents, and the design of the central patios combined helps to maintain the heat in winter and ventilate in summer. This is an innovative method of achieving energy efficiency within the building.

Several of the architectural features of Casa Batllo were inspired by the sea and the marine world. The wavy surface, the colours of the recycled materials used in the mosaics and the glass used in the floor landings gives the visitor a sense of observing life under the sea. Or it does to me. When I look through the landing glass, a distorted view of the internal patio is revealed; just like opening your eyes under the water of a swimming pool. Moving this way and that provides a sensation of swimming through crystal clear water. After wandering through the open space of the apartments, oohing and ahhing over the air vents, the wavy walls, the coloured glass that allows light to seep into every nook and cranny, and even the ergonomic-shaped window latches, I'm not prepared for the roof balcony. Like La Pedrera, fanciful chimneys stand like sentinels. The roof facade, however, is shaped like a dragon; ceramic tiles in varying colours represent the scales. My guide reveals that the roof is related to the tale of St. George and the Dragon; St. George being the patron saint of Barcelona.

If that's not enough to take in, the banister of the central staircase is modelled on the backbone of a whale, whilst the attic takes the nautical theme to the ultimate as the parabolic arches represent the ribcage of the same whale. This is the last of the UNESCO World Heritage sites that single out the works of Gaudi here in Barcelona, and I'm very happy we've been able to visit each of the properties to observe for a short time, the brilliance of Gaudi. 

As we leave the museum I am grateful that we had not planned these days prior to our major tour, but that we've had not only the opportunity to visit these sites, but to take plenty of time to immerse ourselves into the strange, but incredibly uplifting architectural wonders of Gaudi's work. My recommendation to a visitor to Barcelona is to spend plenty of time here, but more importantly, take the time to visit these wonderful sites.




Highlights: Figueres, Port Lligat, Cadaques

Tour:  Explore Catalunya Tour to Figueres.

Link to: Figueres day trip

Hotel: Four Points by Sheraton. Barcelona Diagonal Avenida Diagonal 161-163, Barcelona 8018 Spain

The reason we decide to stick around Barcelona for the extra two days is so that we can take a tour to the town of Figueres. When I first discussed our intentions to tour Spain with one of my work colleagues, he mentioned that it was worth taking the time to visit the town of Figueres and to see the Dali Museum.

For us, the day tour is the most efficient way of seeing 'out-of-the-way' places as transportation and the tour guide are all included. The minibus tour with just six passengers is highly recommended because there is plenty of time to interact and to ask all the questions we need to ask during the course of the day.

We've used the same tour company as we did when we went to Montserrat, Explore Catalunya, to book today's excursion. Our guide meets us at the Hard Rock Cafe, and introduces herself. She is an art historian and an expert of the life and work of Salvador Dali.

During the 141-kilometre drive from Barcelona, we learn about Dali's early life, his family, and childhood. Our guide, with her vivid and animated descriptions brings to life a young boy whose tenacious attention to detail and extraordinary creativity were very much encouraged by his mother.

As we arrive in Figueres, we pass the home in which Dali was born, then the church of Sant Pere, in which he was baptised, received First Communion, and where his funeral had been held. Next door to the Church is the Dali Theatre and Museum, which houses much of Dali's work. Our guide takes us into the museum, provides some basic information before enabling us to explore the space on our own. The museum itself is an old theatre, which had been burnt down during the Spanish Civil War. Dali and the mayor of Figueres embarked upon a construction project to provide a space for Dali to exhibit his extensive artwork. The facade of the museum features eggs and bread-sticks, two symbols that Dali used throughout his work. 

The museum is unique. Dali had wanted his visitors to see his massive collection as his whole work. For this reason, there are no catalogues and the artwork is not placed in chronological or subject order. In addition to the paintings, there are sculptures, three-dimensional collages, interactive exhibits, and other spectacular artwork. We are surprised to see the original works of lithographs that belong to my brother-in-law, In fact, we call him and talk to him about the trilogy of paintings as we view them. Optical illusions, such as the massive collage, which, once the camera is brought to the eye, reveals a portrait of Abraham Lincoln. These works cannot be described by any other words than 'pure genius'. 

'I want my museum to be a single block, a labyrinth, a great surrealist object. It will be a totally theatrical museum. The people who come to see it will leave with the sensation of having had a theatrical dream.'  -  Salvador Dalí

It's lunchtime when we leave the museum and return to the bus. Our heads are buzzing with questions, which our guide patiently answers. In the beautiful coastal village of Cadaques, where we have lunch inside a rustic restaurant near the lighthouse, Dali's story continues. As soon as our stomachs are satisfied, we travel in our minibus along the coastline to the tiny village of PortLligat. Next to a tiny bay, where fishing boats have been pulled up onto the beach above the high tide mark, there is a whitewashed building. Once an old fishing hut, which has had many extensions over the years, is where Dali sought peace and quiet and the setting had provided inspiration for much of his work. The studio still contains his furniture. Outside, his unique artwork extends into the terraces and the garden; even into an old olive grove, where, from a vantage point, a pile of old architectural remnants and a rotted rowing boat suddenly form yet another sculptural artwork. There is no limit to Dali's imagination and execution of the images he had seen in his head. 

We leave Port Lligat just as the sun starts to dip in the crystal blue sky. As the shadows lengthen slightly, we are whisked off to nearby Cap de Creus, the most easterly point of mainland Spain and one of the most beautiful coastal landscapes in the country. We have just a few minutes to explore the waterfront and to take advantage of the perfectly-framed views. By the time we pack ourselves back inside the minivan for our return journey to Barcelona, it is almost dark. 

During the two-hour return journey, I reflect on the both Dali and Gaudi. What is it, in this part of Spain, that allows creative people to not only explore the extent of their creativity, but to be accepted for all their eccentricities and to be celebrated for them during their lifetimes.

Today, would we be so open to such individualism or would we try to smother creativity to conform to what is perceived to be 'normal'. After our visit to Barcelona, I wonder whether we encourage creativity as much as we should. Food for thought.




Highlights: Valencia City Centre walking tour

UNESCO World Heritage Site: La Lonja de la Seda

Hotel: Hotel Zenit Valencia. Carrer de Bailèn, 8, 46007 València, Valencia, Spain

We take the 8:30 am train from Barcelona Sants station to Valencia; a journey of over 300 kilometres. There is no fast train to Valencia, so we enjoy the three-and-a-half hour trip by watching the world pass by through the window of the train. Arriving at Estacio del Nord, the North station, we simply need to walk across the road to Hotel Zenit, where we are staying for the next two nights.

As much as we have enjoyed our stay in Barcelona, we are looking forward to exploring Valencia. Extending our stay in Barcelona also means that we cannot go any further south because or time restrictions. I would have liked to visit Benidorm, where I had stayed in 1977 with my family. 

After settling into our hotel room, which overlooks the station, we set our onto the streets to explore the city of Valencia. Conscious that our time here is very short, we walk towards the Cathedral and queued up to see La Luz del Belen, the Nativity Scene. I think it's nice to wander through the narrow streets, just because we can! But if we are to learn a little about the history of Valencia, we need to see if there is an available walking tour with an English guide.

We make our way to La Lonja de la Seda, the 15th century Gothic mercantile exchange to meet our guide. We are delighted to find that we are the only two people on the tour. Starting in this magnificent building, we learn about the first stock exchange in Europe. Situated in the centre of the city and opposite the Central Market. At the end of the 13th century, and due to Valencia's prosperity, a new Exchange was planned to replace the old oil exchange.

There are three main parts to La Lonja; the Contract Hall, the large open hall supported by twisted columns, which was the financial centre of the building. Merchants would formulate formal contracts here. The side wing is the Pavilion of the Consulate, and was the seat of the first marine tribunal to be formed in Spain. The third part of the building is the tower, in which merchants who didn't pay their debt were imprisoned. Although named the Silk Exchange, it was used to trade all commodities and the name is a remnant from the original Exchange building. Interestingly, the inscription around the main hall declares that La Lonja is a commercial place for everyone, regardless of religious or ethnic background. This is a beautiful building and the orange tree patio outside is a lovely place to sit - in fine weather.

We continue our walk through the old city; first to stables, where the watermarks from the 1957 floods are still visible. The nearby Central Market, although built between 1914 and 1928 is one of the largest markets in Europe and is of the Valencian Art Nouveau style

 Its unusual roof comprises original domes and sloping sections at different heights, while the interior seems to be lined in a range of materials such as iron, wood, ceramics and polychromed tiles. The beauty of the building stands out especially on account of the light that enters through the roof at various points, and through coloured window panels. (Wikipedia Mercado Centra, Valencia. Last updated May 20, 2020)

It really is a beautifully-designed market; it's timeless design will cater for the needs of the locals and tourists for many years to come.

Through narrow, winding, and cobbled streets, we walk. We pass the Cathedral in which we have already visited, past the Basilica and and finally enter a small museum, which is an actual archaeological site, where Roman remains are currently being uncovered. 

Valencia was settled by Roman soldiers in around 135 BCE, but the settlement had been destroyed and rebuilt by Roman Imperialists. Here, we can walk amongst the remains of Roman occupation; roads, baths, granaries. What we see here are the layers of civilizations as one is built upon the next and so on. These remains had been found during excavation work for a new modern building. As with many uncovered remains, it is unfathomable what is really below the surface of the city, but buildings that are still standing, like the Cathedral and the Basilica cannot be demolished to uncover Roman antiquities. Archaeology includes a lot of guesswork, and I guess it's lucky that this much has been uncovered, providing a glimpse into a long forgotten part of the city. I am fascinated by the whole idea of whole civilizations being preserved in layers under our feet. Our own two-century history since settlement isn't too far below our feet, and although we may have a 60,000 year history, and may find middens and signs of short-term habitation, we will never find cities below our surface in Australia.

I'm very glad we did this walking tour, as our time in Valencia is very short.




Highlights: Hop-on-hop-off bus - Maritime route

Hotel: Hotel Zenit Valencia. Carrer de Bailèn, 8, 46007 València, Valencia, Spain

Breakfast isn't included with our accommodation here in Valencia, so we walk along the streets in search of a cafe. The street trees are fully laden with oranges and are a beautiful sight with their bright green leaves and oranges nestled in between. We turn into a mall where workers are trimming the trees; many oranges are lying on the ground, waiting for someone to collect them. Bending down, Tom picks one up and asks whether he can have it. Its a perfect orb, unblemished and bright orange in colour, unlike the Valencia oranges of Australia. A cafe nearby offers a nice range of breakfast dishes and we order before deciding which route of the hop-on-hop-off bus we will take. Since we had a good overview of the historical centre of Valencia, we opt for the Maritime route. Breakfast eaten, Tom cuts into the skin of the orange, neatly producing almost perfect quarters. Sinking his fangs into one of the quarters, tears come to his eyes and he shudders at the very bitterness of the fruit. All this is witnessed by the cafe staff who, because we are the only diners this morning, have taken much interest in the antics of the tourists - us. I hear titters from behind me as the owner comes to collect our plates. Tom passes a comment that they are not very nice-tasting. Laughingly, she explains that they are street trees, so the bitter fruit is collected for marmalade. I suppose that if they were sweet, people would collect them and maybe damage the trees. 

We find our bus stop and get onto the double-decker bus, settling on a seat upstairs. We decide to explore the City of Arts and Sciences Valencia, alighting at the closest stop to the precinct. Situated at the end of the former riverbed of the Turia River, which was drained and rerouted after a catastrophic flood in 1957, the old riverbed was turned into a picturesque sunken park. The architectural complex, so unique and unexpected in this otherwise ancient city, is one of the Twelve Treasures of Spain. The ultra-modern scientific and cultural complex is a group of six futuristic buildings, which includes an aquarium, the museum of sciences, an audio-visual space and planetarium, a multi-purpose covered event space, and an open-air event space. Walking along what was the river bank, the buildings look as through they are sinking into the water surrounding them. We walk the entire two-kilometre length of the installation, hoping to be able to capture all buildings in one shot, but abandon that idea because there are too many other things to look at, like the line of sculptures along the walkway; an incredible way to showcase some of the modern art of the city, and possibly of Spain. The concept is brilliant, and we spend a couple of hours exploring the exterior of the precinct. I realise that one-and-a-half-days isn't long enough to spend in Valencia, because I would love to visit Oceanografic, the largest aquarium in Europe, or watch an Imax movie in Hemisferic, the eyeball-shaped building sinking into the riverbed. Being further south than Barcelona, it is very much warmer and the brilliant blue skies present a nice day for us. In  fact, it is 25 degrees Celsius already.

Reboarding the bus and without getting off again, pass by the site of the America's Cup challenge, and some of the streets, which are used for the Valencia Grand Prix before returning to the final stop in the centre of the city, where we will pick up another bus to spend the afternoon exploring one of the other routes.

There is a lot of activity in the city; areas are being cordoned off and seats arranged along the footpaths. Curious, I ask someone what is happening and find out that there is a festival being held here tonight. Our bus arrives, passengers are disgorged, and the doors firmly closed. No more passengers today, as the conductor explains that it is now a public holiday for the remainder of the day.

In Spain, children receive most of their Christmas gifts from the Three Kings on the night of January 5, when the wise men parade through the streets delivering gifts. This is the day before the official King's Day holiday on January 6. 

There may be no more sightseeing for us today, but we can relax over coffee and something typically Spanish for the afternoon. 

At 4pm, the Three Kings, Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthasar arrive at the port of Valencia by boat. At 6pm, with the assistance of the locals, the Kings start their parade through the city streets, where they'll arrive at the Plaza Ayuntamiento by about 8:30, when the Kings address the children from the balcony of the town hall.

As the parade nears our hotel, we go down to join in on the festivities, floats and cars filled with waving people toss small gifts and lollies to the children waiting below.  We walk beside the parade as it reaches its ending location at the Plaza Ayuntamiento, which is decorated in lights. The atmosphere is joyful, filled with anticipation as families celebrate this feast day together. For us, it's like celebrating Christmas all over again, except that here, in Valencia, the whole city is joyfully celebrating it together as one. As families herd their children as begin to return to their homes, we explore the resplendent square, finding a restaurant to eat and prepare for our journey back to Madrid tomorrow.

The absolute advantage of travelling independently is the ability to be flexible and to take part in activities that we had not planned for and that find us. Tonight's parade is amazing. We had no idea that the Three Kings parade was going to happen, and although our day's plans had been derailed earlier, we have thoroughly enjoyed mingling with local families and immersing ourselves in the spirit of Christmas, Valencia-style. This is a perfect ending to our independent travel before joining the tour.




Highlights:  AVE High Speed train,

Having the railway station directly across the road from the hotel has its advantages. We are packed and ready to leave the hotel in plenty of time to catch our train to Madrid and wheel our cases over the road. Standing in front of the departure board, I'm unable to find our Madrid train, let alone the platform. I approach the information desk and show them my ticket, only to be told that we are at the incorrect station. Who would have thought? Perhaps I should have checked all of these finer points last night!

Quickly joining the queue at the taxi rank, we are on our way to Valencia Joaquín Sorolla station, which is more like an airport terminal than a railway station. We still have plenty of time, thank goodness, but it could have been quite a gross mistake if we were running late.

The high-speed train takes just over two hours to travel the 355 kilometre distance between the two cities. Although it reaches 300 kilometres-per-hour on a couple of occasions during the course of the journey, the average speed is around 250 km/h. It's a comfortable train, clean, and sleek and I wish we had some of these in Australia.

We arrive at the designated hotel from which we will meet our fellow travellers on the tour, which officially starts today. Natasha arrives from London early this afternoon and we want to do some sightseeing with her before the beginning of the tour.

Click here to read about the Treasures of Spain, Portugal, and Morocco tour.