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It’s a positive news day: we now have our Russian visas! We popped by Madrid a few days ago to pick them up at the visa office, at the exact date and hour they specified, of course. This means that I can now tell the visa story without jinxing things (though I suppose we still have to actually be let into the country – twice – which is not a given).
But first, some more contemporary updates. We have now officially ended the Spanish leg of our journey, as we crossed the border back into France yesterday afternoon. We’re now staying on the beach (again) near the Spanish border, and we’ll be spending the next week travelling across southern France.
Literally off the beaten track in Costa del Sol
We were warned not to go to Costa del Sol, which you’ve already heard me talk about a little (I wrote our last blog from there.) We were told it was a soulless, non-Spanish wasteland whose formal coastal beauty had been demolished to make way for high-rise apartment blocks to house Brits. Largely, we found this to be true, though we just couldn’t find it in our hearts to hate it. Whatever, if people want to hide away in dodgily built condos and eat fish and chips all summer, that’s their business. We did, however, try to avoid it. So, when we required groceries, we were not too excited to leave our campground oasis to go into town to get some.
We decided a bicycle ride would make the trip tolerable or even pleasant. We were told to go to out to the main road, cross it, and immediately turn right. We thought we did this. We did not. We cycled happily for ages (the shops were only supposed to be a couple kilometres away), on a dirt track, through banana groves and fields of recently cut sugar cane. We started to wonder where we were. Litter was strewn across the path and chain link fences guarded the few derelict properties we saw. A dog started barking menacingly, and my life flashed before my eyes. (Shut up, I’m dramatic, leave me alone.) It turned out to be a chihuahua, but there were others we could not see, so I’m sure my fear was totes justified. Also, a horse followed me along the path for a while, on the other side of its fence, which was friendly. We finally decided we were absolutely not headed towards the market, and veered off the path. And before you accuse me of being an irritating millennial who insists on misusing “literally”, as in the title above: we ended up on a track through a banana field that was not actually a track, but a bit of an irrigation ditch/trash collection point. We had to get off of our bikes and semi-run to avoid being eaten by the pack of rabid dogs in my head that were just trying to protect their property. Anyway, we eventually made it to the store and bought beans and carrots. The end.
Perhaps the lovely Nick and Louise invited us to visit them in southern Spain before they realised that we would be overstaying our welcome in Louth by at least thirteen days. Perhaps they are masochists, or maybe just love the thrill of a risk. Whatever the case may be, they welcomed us into their lovely holiday accommodation in the Sierra Nevadas for a night, and, no less, on their 15th wedding anniversary. This is fitting, I think, because my family and I also went on their honeymoon, so infringing on their personal moments seems to be our schtik. Anyhow,
we had a fun and pee-inducingly hilarious reunion in the small white village perched precariously on a hillside, a world away from the grossness of the coastal high rises. This village – Valor – can only be reached by terrifying mountain passes (more later), has the most fabulous little tapas bars, and, to top it off, has beautiful sparkling water just pouring out of a spigot down the hill from Nick and Louise’s house. It’s seriously fizzy like Perrier but far more delicious, and you just fill all of your bottles with it. Magic.s
During this visit, Luke was hanging out the laundry and decided to see what it would feel like to repeatedly brush up against a big ol’ cactus, because he’s a guy who’s open to new experiences. It was VERY FUN for me to pull the pricklies out of his arm with tweezers, once he realized his painful mistake. I even got to use duct tape to peel out the little suckers. So satisfying. Nick and Louise were disturbed by my joy.
But about those roads: I thought the Pyrenees road was scary. This one, this one. In places, it was one lane, with traffic going both ways. There was no shoulder- the road fell straight off an inch outside of the line, down a cliff on one side and into a huge ditch on the other. On the switchbacks, there were signs to honk your horn to tell invisible oncoming cars to slow down. This was not fun for me, but we were lucky. We saw few cars, and those that we did see were going slow, and happened to appear on segments wide enough to slip past each other. We live to tell the tale.
The beauty of Islam
Some of our dear readers may be aware that I’m a bit of a fangirl of Islamic architecture. The tile mosaics that are symmetrical on up to 8 axis, praising the perfection of God. The ornate plaster carvings with beautiful Arabic poetry. The white buildings that seem to float in air, the gardens that are a delight to the senses – smell, sound, touch, sight, and taste. Nowhere in the Western world is this stuff demonstrated better than the Alhambra (at least to my limited knowledge). The Alhambra, nestled in Granada, southern Spain, is a royal city that’s been constructed, added to, demolished, re-constructed, constructed differently, forgotten about, restored, and so forth for at least 1,000 years. It’s got palaces, theatres, churches, fortifications, houses, baths, monuments, and hordes of overheated American tourists. This particular overheated American tourist took ten million pictures and has included them below. I’ll skip the history lesson this time, but I will direct enquiring minds to the wikipedia article.
The beauty of Catholicism
I saw La Sagrada Familia while travelling with my friend Mikaela over 10 years ago. We didn’t go inside, maybe because we were poor student types or maybe disorganised or maybe lazy? In any case, I was prepared to be blown away again by the outside of this church in Barcelona. It was designed by Gaudi, the Spanish architect famous for being the most austere Christian guy producing the most wacky of buildings. It’s been under construction for about a century and is still a long way off from completion – at least another 10 years – but it is already mind-boggling. It’s got completely different architecture on the outside for the stages of Christ’s life, especially contrasting for his birth (organic shapes, animals, plants, realistic people) and his crucification (hard, scary lines and almost cubist people).
But the inside I was not prepared for. The light and the feeling are totally unlike any other church I’ve been in, and I’ve been in a few. It made me cry a little. Also, it made the goth couple at the entrance make out really intensely while blocking everyone’s paths into the church. Actually I won’t do any guesswork as to the inspiration for their extreme version of PDA, but it was definitely inappropriate (maybe their goal?). In any case, I won’t try to describe the church, I’ll leave it to the photos below.
Gaudi’s architecture is dotted throughout Barcelona. He has about 16 works in the city, ranging from sets of lampposts, to a failed housing estate-turned-public park (Parc Guell), to La Sagrada Familia. We did a very long touristing day, all on foot, to an apartment complex, office building, La Sagrada Familia, and Parc Guell. Luke was extremely impressed with Gaudi, which was a relief for me, having planned a whole day of the architect. He loved how the buildings lead your eye from one place to the next, and lack reference points as we normally know them (corners, sharp edges, defined points of view, etc.). Every element – down to individual columns or windows – is unique, and are often arranged asymmetrically. He also commented that Gaudi is one of the only architects he’s seen who produces not only beautiful, but highly practical and excellent feeling spaces. The architecture works with light and air beautifully, it’s very holistic. I’m sure Gaudi would be happy to know he has Luke’s approval.
OK, finally the Russian visa story.
In order to help you properly understand our pain in this situation, I require that each of you, prior to reading further, must list, in the comments, places and dates for everywhere you’ve been in the last 10 years, the full names of your parents, any organisations you’ve ever been affiliated with, the technical specifications of the cars you own and the names and contact numbers of every boss you’ve had.
We actually had to tell Russia all of this. We spent a day preparing the information. We went to the visa centre, me with my overachieving student posture fully deployed (back straight, chin up, neatly organised folder of paperwork clasped in my arms, judging gaze towards others who look less prepared). It did not go as expected, because I did not understand Russia. I’ll do this in bullet form:
- Wait. Reach the desk, only to be told by the frenetic Russian gatekeeper, in Spanish, repeatedly, that it was 100% impossible to get a visa in Madrid, or Spain, or anywhere in Europe, in all cases, because we are Australian. There was absolutely no way, ever, to get a visa, other than actually flying to Sydney. So I cried. She called the embassy, and voila, she was telling us to take a number and sit down.
- Wait. Reach the paperwork-taking desk, where we were told we had the wrong visa invitation. There was no way they would accept it, lo siento. Of course, we were supposed to have read the Russian letter and seen that it said “tourism” rather than the required “auto tourism.” We retreated to the car park, where we arranged for a new invitation online. Wait.
- Wait. Arrive at desk again, where we were told the car paperwork was all wrong, all wrong, there is no way they could accept it. Go gather this long list of paperwork, lo siento, we cannot accept this. We retreat to gather the paperwork.
- Come the next day, wait. When the frenetic front desk lady sees us, she tells us we must leave. Turn around. They are closed, no longer seeing customers. Today is Friday, she tells us to return Tuesday, maybe Wednesday. Lo siento, she is sorry, we must leave, no choice, goodbye. I cried. This is where our English-speaking angel stepped in to translate for us, and we were told to sit down and wait. We waited there until after closing, until they called us to the front desk. They looked at our paperwork briefly. They handed back almost all of it to us, without recording any information or taking copies. They took an enormous chunk of money out of our bank account and told us they would submit the visa to the embassy, no promises. We left, our spirits broken despite our half-hearted victory.
- Despite all this, I’m still quite excited to go to Russia.
That’s all for now, folks. We love you all!
Granada (including the Alhambra)
Valor and the Spanish countryside in/near the Sierra Nevada mountains
In and around Barcelona