Tuesday, 26 December 2017

St Jean d’Aulps & Portes du Soleil – Days 61 to 69

Ski stats: 237km ski distance, 367km total incl ski lifts, top speed: 88.4km/hr (55mph)
Christmas day skiing
The journey wasn't too bad getting here, setting off in the dark did enable us to see a final shooting star. We had all gone out on Tuesday night to see if we could see anything of the meteor shower. We did, all seeing four or five, the sort of thing you always plan to look at, only to forget or find it cloudy!

Skiing above Avoriaz (the resort in the distance)

Bit grey and miserable on Monday, but hey, we've got jobs to do, so we unpacked, finding all sorts of things we'd forgotten about since October, went to Morzine to try and buy our lift pass, only to be refused, try in Saint Jean. We'd driven past the office, but assumed it was shut as the lift wasn't running. We'll try that, after shopping, only to find the supermarket shut for it's two hour lunch break. Talk about bad planning, oh well, up the hill, lift pass, back down the hill, food. May have overdone it slightly as the new fridge is smaller than the average, and the old one. 
Empty lifts and deep snow in the Lindarets bowl
We did bump into Cassie in the supermarket, looking slightly frazzled, they had two guests in, and Judith, Si's mum, should have been good practice for Si's niece and boyfriend who are actually catering in the chalet this year. Cassie had worked out and shopped for her gluten free menu plan, only for a second email, saying that the guest also didn't eat dairy! On arrival as the canapés were being served 'you do know I don't eat meat? Well only chicken!'
Animal footprints in the snow
Everyone can be catered for, but communication is better than telepathy! Not the easy training week for Gabby, particularly as boyfriend went back to the UK for his graduation ceremony! We popped in to see Judith who was only out till Thursday, and had a horrible chest infection, so hadn't been out skiing, and wasn't staying in her new apartment. Her new apartment, that today (Boxing day) Si, Cassie, Lynx and Sox are moving into, so leaving the chalet in the capable hands of Gabby and boyfriend (whose name I have forgotten), so they can focus a little more on transfer driving. This week will have been really good experience for them, the guests have been Gabby's parents and sister. If you can cater Christmas dinner for mum and dad I reckon you can do anything.

Empty lifts in the centre of Les Crosets a normally very busy area. Jackie (in pink trousers) is just beyond the gate by the lift, an area normally full of queuing, pushing people. I'll try and get a busy photo from the same place later
On the notorious 'Swiss Wall' an off piste black with no-one else
Tuesday, clear and sunny, so skiing. Chatel was beautiful, as was Morzine, Avoriaz, Switzerland, and our resort in following days. Even better than the weather and the snow though was the lack of people. Until Sunday we virtually had the slopes to ourselves. Amazing. Brian's spreadsheet this year is all distances, so he'll fill in the stats!

Snowy mountains with low cloud in the distant valley. It'll be dull and grey down there, but bright and sunny up here!
Fireworks outside our apartment
Christmas Eve, we were meant to be going to the village for a carol or two and mince pies and mulled wine, but we left a little late and drove straight into crowds and fireworks at our local area. Deciding we'd probably missed any chance of getting a seat in the bar, we drove round the block, parked up, and walked up the hill. Lovely.

Christmas Day we skied a circuit of the Terche, our 'local' before coming home for fizz and the whole roast experience. Only a chicken, but stuffing, bread sauce, pigs in blankets, roasties and five veg. Yum. Not being traditional Christmas pudding fans we had branched out into spiced, caramelised pineapple with rum sauce and a mascarpone cream. No calories there then!

Today we've had a lie in and watched rain fall outside. Never fear though it's snow a little higher up. I think a day off every eight days is probably acceptable!
The apartment is just as we remember it, like coming home really. It's the only place the food box actually gets unpacked after all. Slight modifications this year are a newer, quieter, but smaller fridge. A new neater, much more modern TV. The heater has been moved after I commented last time that all the heat just went into the new cupboard above it, BUT we haven't had the heater on yet, better insulation has gone on the doors, the previous tenant took out, and put tape over the vents over the windows, and the extractor fans can actually be turned off! Amazing really

Click here to see a video of Jackie skiing part of the St Jean 10km circuit (the red run 'Grand Souvroz')

Santa arrives at St Jean d'Aulps on Christmas Eve
Carrying lots of presents

Our 'present and card corner' in our apartment

Christmas day bubbles are open after our ski. Yes, that is Delia open on the table as well!

Christmas Day dinner

Jackie and me on  a button, or drag lift (there were two parallel drags, I was on one Jackie on the other). Concentration from me to avoid dropping the phone, poles or falling off halfway up!

Monday, 18 December 2017

Granada, Sierra Nevada, Altea and off to the snow in the Alps – Days 55 to 60

Happy Christmas from Elizabeth and Jackie!
Having finally warmed up, after the Alhambra with a mulled wine made of very cheap red wine with an Aldi Christmas teabag dipped in it, we felt ready to go outside again. The same restaurant, or group of restaurants, we had eaten in in our first night also did a plate of mixed fish, equivalent to the plate of mixed meat, which Brian really fancied. On looking on Tripadvisor however, it appeared we were lucky to live through the first meal, so tempting fate with a second, hmmm. I found a tapas bar (yes another one) that appeared to specialise in fried fish, which sounded great, decided we'd go and find it even though Tripadvisor said it should be shut. 
Brief visit to the snow in Sierra Nevada
This coincided with a message from Sue and Mike saying that they had read good things about it and every time they had walked past it had been rammed. They had eaten at lunch time as four hours of studying had made them ravenous, but they would meet us for a drink when they had finished their homework as long as we didn't expect intelligent conversation as they we frazzled!

Brian changing a bolt in very cold water
This turned out to be one of the traditional tapas bars, where you order a drink, which is accompanied with a tapa, and they were big portions and very yummy. Having had a plate of some sort of pink fried fish, and one of deep fried prawns we ordered a half portion of mixed fish. It was great. Sue and Mike joined us, so we ordered another beer and got a plate of small clams in olive oil and garlic, at which point we had to stop drinking as we couldn't eat anymore food! We had a lovely evening though, and finally said goodbye to Sue and Mike, really hope we get to catch up somewhere in the future.

Spot the difference
As we'd decided against removing the car from the car park we hadn't been into the Sierra Nevada as planned, so thought we'd do it on the way home. All the rain the previous day had obviously fallen as snow in the mountains which looked lovely. We got as far as the ski resort, which was as far as we could go without snow chains. We did have them, but didn't want to use them for the sake of it so we headed back to Granada and then on to the Costa Blanca arriving back at the house at 16.30. Elizabeth was at home preparing a fabulous salmon en croute while dad was at bridge, so we filled her in on our travels, before repeating some of it when dad got home.

Elizabeth posing by the pool (look at those earrings!)
Thurday night was a girls night out for Elizabeth and I with Carolyn, quite restrained, but thoroughly enjoyable, fortunately we were just about ready to leave when the two reserved long tables were filled by about 40 men, and one woman (who knows what was going on) and the ambient noise level rose dramatically. We called John and left while we could still be heard over the telephone. We got home where we still couldn't make ourselves heard as dad and Brian had had a boys night in of Iceland (the shop) curries, beer and an action movie, oh, and the box of licorice allsorts!

All looking good....smile!
Friday night was an evening of steamed mussels and prawns a la plancha, the final instalment of our fish preloading! There is a fish counter in the Carrefour at the ski resort, but the produce always looks a bit sad and the prices are all crazy, so we'll get home in May ready for curry and fish.

Brian joins the girls for a drink at the beach bar
Yesterday's eating extravaganza was a roast leg of lamb from the village, you order in advance, in this case for four, even though there were to be six of us eating, and collect an amazingly tender roast garlic lamb and almond mashed potatoes. We actually ate round at Jane and Michael's as Michael is struggling with painful legs and with the cold. We arrived singing carols and wearing Santa hats bearing crackers, so we could have a group Christmas meal. It was a lovely afternoon, Michael was on good form, no one had had to cook, except Brian who had suddenly been told he was making his fatless sponge, raspberry roulade again, while he was cleaning his teeth that morning. So he couldn't argue! And, because we ate in the afternoon we could go home to watch the Strictly Come Dancing final!

Elizabeth, Richard, Jane, Jackie and Michael
Apart from eating we've washed and shopped in preparation for moving north and chilled before packing yesterday so we could be up at 05.00 this morning with the aim of getting to the ski resort by 19.00 this evening. We are making good progress so far, though there is more traffic than I expected on a Sunday, but obviously the tricky bit, if there is one, will be as we approach St Jean in the dark and maybe the snow! As much as we are thrilled there is good snow for skiing we don't actually want it inconveniencing us as we drive in!

Jane and Elizabeth (with an annoying wasp just to the right!)
The only other bit of excitement? Brian had to go in the pool! Of the four screws despatched with the new handrail, only one had arrived, and the three replacements bought by father, it turns out weren't galvanised. It's amazing how quickly rust can develop and how far it can spread! Not a difficult job in itself, but it's jolly cold, and he got chilled to the core. Elizabeth and I got back from shopping to find him missing, the only thing he could think to do to warm up was walk, fast, uphill. That had sorted him out! He'd tried to sneak off to do the job unobserved, but sadly for him. We noticed, and there are pictures!

The very tasty garlic lamb brought in from the village
Just swapped back from driving, to finish this, looked up and it's actually snowing, hmmmm. Gone through a tunnel, and come out to light fluffy cloud and blue sky! Better go and put the last two episodes of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Thanks. Sarah, it's kept us occupied.

This is the view from Jane and Michaels balcony. R&E's house is in the centre, although its just hidden in this photo
It was a lovely day, but slightly cold

Christmas photo number 1. Elizabeth

Christmas photo number 2. Richard (Jackies dad)

Christmas photo number 3. Herself!

Christmas photo number 4. Brian

Last view from the Bernia mountains, looking down towards Altea, Benidorm and the mountains beyond. We'll miss that view!

The view from our window this morning in our snowy apartment in St Jean d'Aulps in the French Alps. It's -7C outside and snowing. Time to unpack, get out and buy our lift passes and start skiing!!!

Monday, 11 December 2017

Granada, Spain – Days 52 to 54

La Alhambra, Granada, early evening from the Sacromonte hill
The 182km journey from Ronda to Granada should have taken us 2 ¼ hours which, with a coffee stop and a relaxed cruise, it did to the outskirts of the city, then it all went very stressful! It was the Saturday lunchtime of a long weekend festival in Spain with heavy traffic and a sat-nav that for the second time wanted to take us along roads we shouldn’t be on. It may have been the most direct route through the centre of the old town but the no entry sign except for taxis and authorised vehicles, camera controlled, meant that we had to find another way.
Eco-friendly kids roundabout, he pedals, it turns!
Lots of cars, people and traffic lights and randomly turning down very narrow cobbled streets with Doris the sat-nav obviously trying to redirect us back onto the banned streets meant we were driving blind. After driving back out of the city and circling round the sat-nav eventually found us a route we could take and after a few further turn-offs to avoid police closed roads we eventually found our way to the square we were to meet our Airbnb host, some 20 minutes after our arranged time.
Cave houses on Sacromonte hill
She was still there waiting, jumped in the car and directed us along further narrow streets, some with ‘no-entry’ signs which she assured us was OK and eventually to the underground car park, directing us round sharp tight bends and to the most inaccessible parking space we have ever seen. Careful manoeuvrings past cars and pillars we were in (and decided to we would leave it there until we leave, abandoning plans to drive up to the ski area in the Sierra Nevada mountains until after we leave!). The apartment is very nice and very central so we’re very happy with our three nights here.

Cave house living hippies making music and singing
The hill of cave houses
So Granada is the ancient capital of the Nasrid kingdom, the last Muslim rulers of Spain. The Muslims invaded Spain in 711AD, filling the power vacuum following the withdrawal of the Romans and, within 3 years occupied all but the top part of the peninsular. Gradually Spain and Portugal fought back, until only the Nasrid Muslims remained in the area between Granada and Gibraltar, with La Alhambra fortress on the hill overlooking Granada as their power base.
A typical street in Granada
After a two year siege the Nasrid’s eventually handed over the keys to La Alhambra on condition the Spanish respected the buildings and Muslim people. The Spanish mainly did, leaving many buildings, but of course converting them to Catholic churches (except the central mosque which was demolished and replaced with Granada Cathedral). The people could stay providing they converted to Catholicism, any who didn’t were allowed to leave (this was before the start of the Inquisition).
Statue of Columbus appealing to Queen Isabella
The date of the final take-over of this last bastion of Islam in Spain was in early 1492, a year etched into the minds of Spanish and Americans alike as, the final ownership of all of Spain meant that Christopher Columbus finally managed to convince Queen Isabella (were they having an ‘affair’?) and King Ferdinand to fund a voyage to find a westerly passage to India, bumping into America on the way and starting the conquest of the New World.

Churros and hot gloopy chocolate
Granada Cathedral is an immense building, but suffers from a common problem in Spain, lack of money which meant that corners were cut. The left tower was built on the cheap and started to crumble as height was added, meaning the materials intended for the top were re-used for reinforcement, there was little money left for the right tower so a tiny one was built and they called it complete at that. Despite these problems it’s still very impressive and sent a strong message to the Muslims recently evicted from Spain. The giant fortress of La Alhambra on the hill was modified and added to by the Catholics, but many of the original intricate carvings and ceramics of the Moors still remain. A new huge building was erected for Charles V on the site next to the beautiful Nasrid Palaces, but suffered again through lack of funding, the roof not being finished until 1960!

The gateway to La Alhambra in the rain
So after our arrival on Friday we went for a walk through the city, ending up of the Plaza Nuevo just as a free walking tour was due to start at 4:00pm. We joined and hiked up the hill behind the city to Sacromonte, a hill containing cave houses originally occupied by Gypsies, but now joined by hippies and others looking for an alternative way of life. Some have buildings on the front and some are large underground complexes containing a number of bedrooms. It’s a curious way of life but one thing is for sure, they have an excellent view of La Alhambra and Granada from up there.
Arriving at the entrance to La Alhambra
There were 15 or so other people on the trek and we met Mike and Sue from Yorkshire who are about our age, enjoy travelling and have been to many places we have, so we were able to have a good chat, arranging to meet up for a drink and tapas for the following (Saturday) night. The difference between them and us is that their travelling is on touring bikes with panniers containing tent and food and they have travelled through SE Asia and India (to name but two) in that way. They claim not to be too serious cyclists, only doing around 30 miles per day, but they will do that for sometimes 100 day trips – amazing! Their next trip is a 30 day cycle across Cuba in January.

Partial view of the Cathedral (cannot get a view of the whole)
On Saturday, after abandoning plans to get the car out and drive into the mountains, we joined another free walking tour at 11:00am through the old town, this time an historical tour. Our guide was a local man who was born and still lives in the Sacromonte area, still living in a cave house and his historical knowledge was outstanding. So enthusiastic was he that he talked at high speed and non-stop as though the 2 ½ hours of the tour was not long enough to impart all the information he wanted to give. A really nice guy, the tour was really interesting (some of what he said included in the above), but there was just too much information and required more background knowledge of Islam and Christianity than I had, so much was going over my head, but his enthusiasm was infectious and I loved it.
Inside the Charles V palace. It was pouring down and cold!
We carried on walking round the city after the tour, stopping for a beer and tapas on the hill overlooking La Alhambra at a bar he recommended, then had a Schwarma for late lunch, finally stopping at the churroteria and café Alhambra. A churro is like a long thin doughnut, the portion for one person we ordered was about 5 x 150mm long lengths of about 20mm diameter doughnuts and two cups of very thick chocolate. You break off a length of churro, dunk it in the chocolate and enjoy, what’s not to like? All that came to €5.70 and it was in very pleasant surroundings (Jackie still thinks we were charged wrong).

View back down into Granada through the rain from the Alcazaba. The Cathedral is in the centre
The Alcabaza is the original and oldest fortress on the site
Met up with Mike and Sue in the evening for a beer and tapas and thoroughly enjoyed their company. They are an inspiration and we hope we inspired them too, recommending housesitting to them. Maybe we may meet up again, but at least we want to hear how their trip through Cuba on bikes goes!

Even the cats are cold and huddling together (there's 4 of them)
The Mexuar Palace with a few other people
Today was our pre-booked visit to La Alhambra. You have to book well in advance, we booked about three weeks ago and struggled to get in, we now know that’s because of the holidays here. It’s massively busy and you get a time slot to visit the Nasrid Palaces, the rest being at any time you like on the day you have booked, our time was 10:30 and we are told not to be late, otherwise you are not allowed in! We got up and the weather was as per the forecast – wet! Not just wet, but pouring down with rain, temperature dropping to between 2 and 5 degrees – nice!
The Hall of Ambassadors in Comares Palace. The Sultan sat in the centre arch
We braved it, putting on maximum layers and donning our waterproof coats, but our waterproof trousers are in France! We got wet and very cold, which took the edge off the visit, but it was still worth it. How much more we would have enjoyed it on a dry day we don’t know, but at least the Nasrid Palaces were mostly indoors even though we were thoroughly wet after the walk there and round the Alcazaba fortress that was mainly outdoors. A visit to the toilet and drinks machine area revealed a lot of miserable, wet people, the hand dryers in the toilets being used to warm people and I have never seen such a long queue to get a hot drink from a machine! Never mind, we’ve seen it and done that. It wasn’t far back to our apartment and at least there’s heating here and a washer/dryer, so we’ve got things dry and we’re now warm again!

The roof overhead in the Hall of Ambassadors
Intricate carvings all around the palaces
Tomorrow we leave here and head back to Jackie’s dad and Elizabeth in Altea on Costa Blanca, on the way we will drive up into the Sierra Nevada mountains to have a look at the ski area if the road up there is open. Our plan is to stay with them until next Sunday (17th) and then drive up to the ski resort in the French Alps and our ski apartment that we’ve hired for the ski season. The snow reports show superb cover up there and people skiing so, so far the forthcoming winter is looking really good for skiing. Sorry UK, we know you’ve got it bad at the moment, about 200mm of snow in Birmingham at the last count (we could have gone ski touring over the Malvern Hills again as we did a number of years back!).

Amazing ceiling detail - photos don't do it justice
P.S. Just finishing a glass of mulled wine made by heating red wine, adding 1 spoonful of sugar per glass and one spiced apple tea bag from Aldi!

The Comares Courtyard of the Myrtles. The book says "When a visitor crosses the main threshold he is confronted by a vast mirror of water reflecting the solid white bulk of the Comares tower. The slope of white marble floors allows water in the pool to reach right up to the plinths of the columns on the north side of the courtyard and so the whole palace, even the tower itself, seems to be floating on water". Well, not today it wasn't!

The courtyard of the lions. The 'forest of columns' is supposed to remind us of the palm trees surrounding an oasis. well, maybe!

This is up in the Generalife, a building built high on the hill over La Alhambra as a retreat for the sultan. Its still raining!
La Alhambra with snowy Sierra Nevada mountains behind.