Extravagance, elegance and experience! From United Arab Emirates to France in March

This month, James travelled overseas alone to Abu Dhabi, where he had the perfect holiday. After months of daily _MG_4275 German courses, homework and study being fitted in around his other part time job, not to mention the short days and icy temperatures, he was well overdue for a break and what a place to spend it. James’ parents Michael and Jennene were in Abu Dhabi for a conference, and since it is only a 7 hour flight direct from Stuttgart (like flying Auckland to Perth), it was an opportunity not to be missed for James to catch up with his parents after nearly a year of being away from home._MG_4354

After the ancient cities of Europe, Abu Dhabi was like another world, one where the line between fantasy and reality is blurred and the level of opulence is realms beyond any other country we had ever visited. James was awestruck from the minute he landed, with the scale of the buildings, the brightness of the lights, the modernness of the interiors and the sheer luxury which was everywhere. The streets could have literally been lined with gold and noone would have blinked an eye.

All of this luxury comes at a price however – which James learnt on the first night after ordering a single glass of whiskey…and receiving a bill for 75 euros! The hotel where the Brosnahans were staying was directly over the famous Formula One track, and they breakfasted whilst watching Ferrari’s zoom around the track below them. James and his mum visited Ferrari world, riding the roller coaster and ogling the cars.

A highlight of the trip was a visit to the Sheikh Zayed mosque. The mosque itself covers an area of 12 square hectares, and was intended to be a symbol of unity, to represent_MG_4270 the cultural diversity in the UAE and the world. Materials and pieces of art from many different countries are included in the _MG_4197design, notabu dhabi james least the huge chandeliers made from Swarovski crystal, imported from Germany. The carpet in the main prayer hall is over 5,500 m squared and is one single piece woven from wool sourced partly from New Zealand.

Marble and precious stones abound inside the mosque, with inlays of pearl and gold everywhere. In order to enter the mosque tourists must respect the religious and cultural beliefs of the local community, therefore James was required to don a full length garment to hide his bare legs.

A day trip saw the family plus some friends from the conference, including a good friend Justin from New Zealand, visit nearby Dubai. Here the Mall of Dubai held hours worth of entertainment, with an aquarium (complete with sharks) in its midst. Other sights included the Gold markets, spice markets and a boat tour along the Dubai “creek”, as well as a view of the world’s tallest building towering above the other skyscrapers.

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At first distracted by the shining attractions, James later did notice that this sparkling oasis is still in the middle of a desert. We wonder what life would be like when the majority of daily life is conducted indoors, and main attractions include shopping (especially important since a lot of emphasis does seem to be placed on wealth and status in these cities). On the road between Abu Dhabi and Dubai, the unspoken seedier side of the UAE was evident, with poverty stricken immigrants lining the streets, on their way to 15 hour work days and certainly nowhere near the clean, beautiful streets of the main cities. _MG_4425_MG_4433

In general, 5 days in the sun and heat, relaxing by the pool and partaking in the extravagant lifestyle that is life in the UAE, were a complete delight for James. He returned home raving about Abu Dhabi and we can’t wait to go together one day! Seeing his parents after so long was also fantastic and he enjoyed every minute of his holiday.

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Although Abu Dhabi certainly counted as a country for our goal of visiting a different land each month…. I wasn’t there so we needed to get me across a border as well! In the last weekend of March we headed to Strassbourg in France. From Stuttgart, Strassbourg can be reached in just over an hour with the TGV however this convenience does not come cheap. We instead took advantage of the Baden Wurttemberg ticket which allows us both to travel on all commuter transport in the state for 24 hours, for just 28 euros. We set off from Tubingen at 7am and 3 hours later crossed the border into France (our ticket got us as far as Kehl, from where it is just 10 minutes to Strassbourg). It was a stunning sunny day, perfect for exploring the pretty Alsace town. Even the main train station was distinctly more French than German, however we were relieved to find that German and English are spoken widely. I have never met such friendly French people as I did in Strassbourg and was grateful for the hospitality of the cafe owners, shopkeepers and tourism operators .

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After strolling through the old town and stopping off at the numerous chocolate shops, we stopped at a cafe, where we enjoyed a coffee and a spot of people watching in the sunshine. Having stimulated our appetites we proceeded directly to lunch – at a creperie of course! Being able to enjoy both a savoury and a sweet crepe was as always a treat for me since the French make their ‘Galettes’ with gluten free buckwheat flour. Afterwards we made our way to the Cathedral… but not before picking up some macarons from a very sweet and elegant patisserie.

The Strassbourg Cathedral is a magnificent site, and was the world’s tallest building until 1874. Its gothic architecture is so intricate, and thousands of carved figures adorn its sandstone outer walls. Inside the wonderment continues, with high curved ceilings, stained glass windows and an astronomical clock.

In complete contrast to this building from the middle ages is Strassbourg’s more modern claim to fame – the headquarters of the European Union and Parliament.

We took the quintessential covered boat tour, which cruised along Strassbourg’s canals and took us past these sights. The Parliament building holds an amphitheater with 750 seats, and is surrounded by gardens which create a wall of green. The court of human rights of the EU is also here, and is a symbol of conciliation and peace. We floated past the Rhine Palace, Fisherman’s Quay and half timbered houses – which used to be like furniture; non-permanent fixtures to be moved around at will. Many of the buildings along the canals have a rich history, having over the years housed hospitals, then convents, then schools, then prisons. The four canals along which we rode are on two levels, and we had to go through Locks where 360,000 litres of water flows in to raise the water level 1.8 metres, allowing boats to access the next level of canals. We passed under many covered bridges where gunners took their positions during battles throughout time – the bridges were covered not to protect the gunners from the elements however, rather the gunpowder!_MG_4591 _MG_4594 _MG_4597

The waterways have many stories associated with them and form part of Strassbourg’s identity. One such example is that the washing of the rich was done upstream of the poor, but if something from the rich escaped the washerwomen and floated downstream, they had to pay the poorer women to get it back! The old tanneries next to the water which are now closed in, used to have open roofs to dry the skins, and criminals were tortured in cages hung from the bridges around the city. The contrast of medieval history, centuries old buildings and churches (with tombs dating back to 1180) with the modern concept of the European Parliament mean that Strassbourg has an interesting and ecclectic collection of sites. Combined with its German influences and French culture, mixture of locals and tourists and of course the crepes and macarons, this gem in the Alsace is certainly a place we will visit again.

Making the most of our travel ticket, we crossed the border again and headed slightly south back into the Black Forest, to stay the night in Freiburg. We didn’t check out too many sights in this attractive student town, but I ran in my first European race which was a real experience! I have never run in an event with so many participants, where for the first few kilometers it was impossible to find elbow room and where I was never wanting for company.

_MG_4626_MG_4661This March update has been somewhat delayed… thanks to the adventure that has been moving house! That story deserves a blog post in itself, but suffice to say we have been kept extremely busy and are looking forward to our next mini-break overseas.

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Sunshine in the south of France

_MG_2468For the past two weeks, we have been taking a breather in France. Spending 5 days in one place felt amazing, and where better to kick back and relax than Provence? Getting there wasn’t easy – somehow our short flight to Clermond-Ferrand followed by a train ride to Aix en Provence turned into a 12 hour ordeal… a theme which did continue somewhat for our time in France. Absolutely nothing was on time, shops didn’t open at their advertised hours, trains and buses ran on different “special” timetables which were only advised on the day… it seemed as though a lot of France was enjoying their summer holidays as well, so we just had to go with the flow.

As a result, we spent more time sunbathing on our apartment terrasse, meandering through the local markets and lingering over crepes at photo (12)lunch than we did on day trips and sightseeing. This turned out to be perfect, and allowed us to soak up the charm of Aix en Provence. We were staying right near the famous Cours de Mirabeau with its spectacular fountain and line of lively cafes. Aix is nicknamed the “City of a Thousand Fountains” and although the exact number (60? 100?) can’t be agreed upon, they sure are everywhere. We stumbled upon many of them in tiny squares or small streets, as well as the larger more well taken care of features in the centre of town. We walked up a hill to Cezanne’s studio, where the famous artist painted so many of his masterpieces, and tasted olives, sundried tomatoes, cheeses and fruits in the morning markets.

 

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We did stray a little further afield, when we made a trip to Avignon. This medieval city is beautiful, still surrounded by its old town walls and with an incredible cathedral in its midst. A short bus ride away was the magnificent Pont Du Gard. _MG_2496This bridge which is part of the Nimes aqueduct, is a remnant of ancient Roman times and is in fact the highest of all aqueduct bridges. Despite being built over 2000 years ago, it still towers above the Gardon river and is a World Heritage sight. As we rounded a corner, we were struck by this 3-leveled structure with its arches; an amazing feat of masonry and engineering especially considering the time in which it was built. The Romans used stone blocks carved in quarries, then attached to rope and pulley systems to construct the bridge – no mortar was used so they have held fast and not shifted in all these years. The aqueduct itself used to supply water to the whole region, with wealthy households having running water, pools and water features and the towns having a constant supply of water via fountains which also overflowed to clean the gutters and streets. A strictly monitored water usage system was in place to avoid corruption and it is estimated that each household in the area used around 1000 litres of water a day. Today that volume is more like 400.

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After walking across the bridge, we had the opportunity to swim underneath it! The popular swimming spot was teeming with families, and despite not having much time I couldn’t resist a quick dip. Swimming in clear cool water and looking up to see this ancient structure above me was surreal.

In front of the Pont du Gard

In front of the Pont du Gard

Testing the water

Testing the water

The summer is well and truly in swing in France, so after our stay in Provence we packed up again and headed in search of the ocean. As our bus drove along the Promenade in Nice, we gazed at the bluest sparkling water we had ever seen. The Mediterranean is something else – so clear you can nearly see the bottom, so blue it looks like a postcard, the perfect temperature for cooling off without freezing and so salty you can float with no effort. We enjoyed a couple of lazy afternoons alternating between soaking up rays on the beach and jumping into the sea. Although there are plenty of sections of the beach owned by restaurants which rent out sun loungers and prime spots, we toughed it out with our towels in the free areas.

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From Nice, it is not far to the principality of Monaco – just a 20 minute train ride. Looking for something different, we hired bicycles and rode there ourselves! And what a wonderful decision that turned out to be. There are three roads between Nice and Monaco – the Grande Corniche, the Moyenne Corniche and the Basse Corniche. As their names suggest, they are the high, middle and low roads. The Grande Corniche is apparently a hairy clifftop road, where Grace Kelly and Cary Grant drove along in “To Catch a Theif”. Grace Kelly (Princess Grace of Monaco) was also killed in a car crash near here, and there are roads and monuments dedicated to her all along the way to Monaco, as well as in the country itself. The Moyenne Corniche still involved some steep climbs, and we opted for the Basse.

_MG_2596_MG_2597 _MG_2603Having cycled in Auckland, I have a fear of all vehicles with a motor anywhere near me whilst I’m on a bike, but here I had no reason to worry. The drivers were so considerate, waiting patiently behind us on narrow sections, driving slowly around us with a wide berth, and doing it all with a smile – not the slightest hint of irritation, rude words or gestures. Even the Basse had a few hills, but it was still a pleasant ride with the most spectacular views. As the sun shone down on us, we breathed in the fresh sea air and made plenty of stops to savour the views of gorgeous coastline, shimmering ocean and colourful villages.


When we arrived in Monaco, we all of a sudden found ourselves in an underground network of tunnels and roundabouts, from which we emerged in the middle of Monte Carlo. Since Monaco is such a small piece of land, they have to make the most of their space! We immediately felt under dressed and out of place as we realised we were right outside the casino and near the main shopping streets with their designer offerings. People were dressed as though they were attending functions, looking composed, glamorous and expensive as they wined and dined, took photos and shopped. We were sweaty, in shorts and t-shirts and wheeling bright orange hire bikes. We high-tailed it down the hill to the beach where we managed to find some (just!) affordable fast food, and did a bit of exploring before putting our bikes on the train to go back to Nice.

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Our time in France has been a mixture of old-world charm, modern elegance, delicious food and wine, slow paced and full of sun. Now we head further south, to Greece!