Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Travels in Old Europe

We spent nearly seven weeks in Spain during May and June followed by 11 days in France. Highlights included week-long walks in the Alpujarras and the Pyrenees but more of that in other posts.

Old Europe battling recession

Spain seems to spending a lot of Euros on public works in response to the recession and high unemployment. The whole country is a construction site, with many new buildings under way as well as restorations of older ones. They might even finish Gaudi’s Barcelona temple this century. The roof is on at last!

The remaining single-lane highways are being replaced by major expressways. Most of these are toll roads that the truckies avoid, taking the slower free ones. Cost rather than time pressure seems to be the priority after the financial downturn.

Spanish drivers are among the most considerate we’ve come across. They stop for pedestrians at crossings and rarely use their horns. The exception was Barcelona where gridlock is the order of the peak hour and locals drive their scooters recklessly. Expect at least one to run every red light a couple of seconds late. We were rear-ended whilst stationary by a Land Rover driver suffering a touch of road rage. He seemed to deliberately nudge us, perhaps a bit harder than intended. He jumped out of the car looking for an argument but was disappointed when I said I didn’t speak Spanish. The car in front of us was double parked not us. Anyway it was the only bump in 3000 kilometres around Spain.

Tour de ...

In Spain tourism appeared to be mostly locals, with few places overcrowded. There were plenty of buskers and street performance artists but not as many beggars as we found in Paris. The Metro buskers are likely to be the unemployed rather than the real thing we’ve experienced on past visits.

France had lots more overseas tourists. Being later in the season, cheap airfares and the decline in swine flu hysteria may have accounted for this. Two new museums were highlights in Paris. Firstly, the Musée Quai Branly, the new museum near the Eiffel Tower, specialises in indigenous art, cultures and civilizations from Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas. It also features Australian indigenous artists, whose work decorates the administration building.

Le Musée de la Cinémathèque française, located in a Frank Geary designed building, is a must for cinema lovers.

Sacred sights

The Sacré-Coeur Basilica and the surrounding Montmartre area were not just extremely crowded. We were disgusted by the hordes of visitors partying on the steps and lawns. Early morning is the best time to visit the church if you can put up with the rubbish, broken bottles and smell of urine.

Speaking of sacred places, we visited Jim Morrison’s grave at Père Lachaise Cemetery again after a sixteen year gap. There is still a gendarme on duty but the monument is looking tacky, though much of the graffiti on other graves has been removed. I was more interested in seeing Oscar’s Wilde’s. Sadly the new tomb by sculptor Jacob Epstein is defaced with lipstick kisses and graffiti. There is no guard, despite the fact that it has been declared a French National Monument.

As Wilde said, “There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” I’m sure they’ll be talking about him long after the Doors are less than a footnote on the 20th Century.

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