Events, Travel

New Project – Rob On Holiday

Anybody who read this week’s Q & A on Curled up with a good book will have seen me talking about my love of family holidays. You may have also noticed my comment about us becoming well-known at a certain hotel in Spain for our comedy holiday videos where we rope in the entertainment team and generally act the goat for the camera.

All of this leads me nicely to announcing a small side-project that was actually my eldest daughter’s idea. Lauren suggested that we re-brand her YouTube channel as “Rob On Holiday”. In addition to the aforementioned comedy videos, we’ve also undertaken a few city breaks in the last 15 months and in each case, we’ve done a fair bit of filming. Generally, this is just to capture our visit for family videos but on a recent visit to Brussels, for the first time, we specifically did a few pieces to camera. Where possible, we’ll be doing a short 5-minute video showcasing what the city has to offer, and an additional video that gives a brief overview of the hotel at which we stayed. Combined with a lot of previous footage, including trips to Disney World, and a few more city breaks in the coming months, we think that we’ll have enough material to make an interesting video channel.

We’ve also created a web site where we’ll include the finer details of various elements shown in the video. This may be a detailed report on some attraction or a city’s transport network or simply a restaurant that we visited. I’m just the figurehead for this website – most of the content will be created by my daughters Lauren and Rachel. You can find the website here:-

https://robonholiday.home.blog/

Just to be clear, this is all for a bit of fun. We are not being paid for any of this, and all views are our own. Hopefully, in addition to making the videos entertaining, we aim to be informative as well. Before we go on any city break, we do our research and this includes watching videos on YouTube. We’ve noticed that many such videos are just raw footage, aren’t edited and don’t give you much on the type of details that you really need to know: e.g. how do I use the transport system.

So, without further ado, here is our first city break video: Brussels:-

 

Travel

Madrid

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A couple of weeks ago, we took a family trip to Madrid. Following our enjoyable trips to Seville and Bilbao last year, I was keen to see how Spain’s capital compared to two of its other major cities.

The flight time of around 2 hours and 10 minutes from Manchester is followed by one of the longest runway taxis that I’ve ever experienced: a whole fifteen minutes to get to the stand. This was followed by a twenty-minute walk to the metro station. I suppose this is par for the course for an airport the size of Adolfo Suárez Madrid-Barajas, which is one of Europe’s busiest. However, on the plus side, the onward journey from the metro station was a breeze. We used the ATMs to buy a three-day tourist ticket, at a cost of just over €18 each. This gives you unlimited use of Madrid’s metro, buses and overland railway in the central tourist zone. Note that it also includes the €3 Airport tax, which you would otherwise have to pay if buying individual metro tickets. You can ride pink line 8 all the way to Nuevos Ministerios in the centre of the city.

With a few trips to Spanish cities under our belts, it had become obvious that the major cities each have a fabulous transport network that is ideal for tourists. The metro system in Madrid is so good that we didn’t feel the need to use any other form of transport during our stay. Our hotel, the Claridge, is a two-minute walk from a metro station located on the grey circular line (6) so getting to the tourist hotspots was never an issue.

The Claridge itself is a four-star hotel with spacious rooms and a nice little bar. The beds are comfortable, the staff friendly and if we visit Madrid again, we won’t hesitate to stay at the same hotel. The hotel is also situated less than a mile from El Retiro Park (more on this later), although tired feet meant that we never actually walked!

First up on our trip was the Puerta del Sol with its famous statue of the bear and the strawberry tree (El Oso y el Madroño). A short walk away is the Plaza Mayor, a major meeting point sure to be crowded later in the day and evening, but virtually empty at this early hour.

Next up was the Reina Sofia Museum. This forms one-third of Madrid’s famous “Golden Triangle of Art”, the other museums being the Prado and the Thyssen-Bornemisza. With our visit lasting just under 48 hours, we decided to visit one museum and picked the Reina Sofia because it is home to perhaps Spain’s most famous work of art: Guernica by Pablo Picasso. Created in response to the fascist bombing of the town of Guernica in the Basque Country during the Spanish Civil War, the large canvas has become an iconic anti-war symbol known throughout the world. The mural-sized painting depicts a collage of unsettling images, amongst them a bull, screaming heads and dismembered body parts. Standing in silence in front of these powerful images with about thirty other people is a sombre experience. Elsewhere in the museum, I enjoyed some works by surrealist Salvador Dali. I was also fascinated by the architecture of the museum. Built around an 18th-century hospital building, an extension was opened in 2005. The way in which the glass and steel of the new building are fused with the original stonework makes for some interesting photos.

Leaving the Reina Sofia Museum and heading to El Retiro Park, it is worth passing the Caixa Forum building, which features a vertical garden on one of its walls.

As befits a major European capital, Madrid is full of grand buildings, statues and monuments. We decided to take the longer route to El Retiro Park so that we could take in a few of these famous sites. Walking up the Paseo del Prado, a beautiful tree-lined boulevard, and past the Prado Museum, the first of two majestic fountains is the Fuente de Neptuno. Then, on the right, is the Monumento a los Héroes del Dos de Mayo (Monument to the Heroes of the Second of May). Originally built in homage to those who died in the 2nd May uprising in 1808, since 1985, the monument has served as a memorial for all who have given their lives for Spain and features an eternal flame. Further up the road is the Fuente de Cibeles: like the previous fountain, this sits in a traffic island in the middle of a busy intersection, so a good zoom lens is the key to getting a shot.

P1050920In fact, this is a good spot to stop and get a few photos of the city. In addition to the fountain, there’s the Palacio de Cibeles, which is basically the town hall, but on a slightly grander scale than most town halls around the world. (In checking the names for this article, I discovered that the palace has a cultural centre and a viewing terrace that is accessible to the public! I wish I’d known when we were there as apparently, the views of the Gran Via are spectacular). Opposite the palace, if you look down the Calle de Alcalá, you can see the iconic black dome of the Metropolis building.

After snapping some photos, we turned right and headed towards the park. Just outside the gates is the Puerta de Alcalá, a triumphal arch that is similar in style to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, but this Spanish version predates its more famous cousin by more than twenty years.

When we finally reached El Retiro Park, we were not disappointed. This large open space is a public park and is, therefore, free to enter. We all agreed that walking around this wonderful green space was our favourite highlight of Madrid. Like the rest of the city, the theme of majestic monuments continues inside the park, none more so than the monument to King Alfonso XII, which overlooks the lake that dominates the park. Whilst the area around the lake was bustling with people when we visited on Saturday afternoon, most of the park was much quieter, and there are plenty of walkways where you can stroll peacefully, escaping the busy city.

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Other highlights that the park has to offer include the Paseo de la Argentina (a walkway with statues), the garden surrounding the Jacinto Benavente Monumento, the Fuente del Ángel Caído (Fountain of the Fallen Angel) and the magnificent Palacio de Cristal, a giant conservatory made almost entirely of iron and glass, set next to a picturesque lake. There are plenty of cafes dotted throughout the park, so you’ll never be far from a coffee or snack. We stopped twice for churros and also had a refreshing sangria near the crystal palace.

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After a short rest back at the hotel, it was time to see Madrid by night. Before our trip, I’d read that the Templo de Debod was a spot favoured by the locals to watch the sunset. The temple, an Egyptian original that was gifted to Spain by Egypt in thanks for its help in saving some of its notable sites, is set on a raised outcrop that overlooks the west of Madrid.

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I can confirm that the western sky, in all its brilliant colours, is indeed a spectacular sight.

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Heading back into the city, we stopped in the Plaza de España to see the Cervantes monument with the statues of the Spanish writer’s most famous characters, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. There were another two beautiful fountains here – we’ve noticed that Madrid does love a good fountain!

I’m pretty sure that Madrid is always busy on a Saturday night, but given that this was a few hours after the Real-Atlético Madrid derby, plus the fact that political demonstrators were mobilising ahead of a rally the next day, tonight seemed particularly vibrant and colourful.

Sunday kicked off with a visit to the Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas, Madrid’s bullring. This is an impressive building with some nice statues on the outside. However, I have to say that overall, we were disappointed with our visit. When we arrived, we were told that there were renovations in progress and that we wouldn’t be able to walk out into the centre of the ring. This had been one of our favourite elements of our visit to Seville’s bullring, and to see the centre covered in a large plastic greenhouse-type cover detracted from the views of this famous arena. I accept that maintenance has to be performed at some stage, but given that we’d pre-booked online, there should have been a warning on the website – if there was, I didn’t see it. As an interesting side note, I see that the bullring has hosted some major music concerts including one by The Beatles in 1965.

Later in the day, we visited the Palacio Real de Madrid. Whilst still the official residence of the Spanish royal family, the palace is now only used for official state occasions. This is good news for the tourist because it means that the general public can get a look around the inside of this impressive building. There’s a small but beautiful garden in the walk up to the palace (Plaza de Oriente) and a whole host of street performers, many of whom form some impressive living statues, having covered their bodies in a substance that makes them look like stone statues come to life when they do eventually move. It’s interesting to see how close the local apartments and houses are to the palace, which has no wall on the east side. If you lived in one of these buildings, you could at one point in history have legitimately claimed that the King of Spain was your next-door-neighbour!

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Once again, we’d pre-booked online, and this was useful given that there were two queues waiting to go in – the general admission queue was pretty long, snaking across the Plaza de la Armería that the palace shares with the adjacent Almudena cathedral – but we were able to head straight in.

Inside, you can wander around the large courtyard, snapping some impressive photos of the façade and the cathedral across the plaza. Inside, you wander around a pre-defined tour route that takes the visitor through more than twenty rooms. Some of the frescos and artistic ceilings in the palace are a sight to behold. I caught myself admiring the incredible detail on the ceiling of one of the rooms, only to look down and see a note that said this was simply the anteroom for a more impressive space next door! You can also view the Spanish throne and crown – the equivalent of the crown jewels in England.

Our final stop was the Jardines de Sabatini, which is situated immediately north of the palace. This is a beautifully kept public gardens with an ornamental pond, some walkways and yet more statues. Standing at the edge of the pond, you can get a lovely photo of the garden with the palace in the background.

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There’s so much to do in Madrid that it was difficult to choose what to do and what to leave out. Having three non-football fans in the family, I was out-voted when I suggested Real Madrid’s world-famous Bernabéu Stadium. Then there’s Madrid Río Park and the cable car. I haven’t specifically mentioned the food because we’re a conservative family when it comes to dining, but there is an abundance of places to eat, with plenty of tapas bars and other Spanish-flavoured eateries. Madrid is a colourful and vibrant city, full of magnificent buildings and monuments, and I’d heartily recommend adding it to your list of city breaks. I have a feeling that we’re not done with the city yet, and I look forward to our next visit.

Rob Campbell is the author of “Monkey Arkwright” and “Black Hearts Rising”, part of a mystery series that will appeal to fans of 80s films such as “Stand By Me” and “The Goonies”, where people stumble across strange things in the woods or uncover dark secrets hidden in the abandoned places around a small town.

 

 

Travel

Bilbao

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In September, we took a family trip to Bilbao, in Spain’s Basque County.

Best known as being home of the World-famous Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao is the fifth-largest urban area in Spain and has plenty to offer tourists. With a flight time of just over 90 minutes from Manchester, it’s a great choice for a weekend break. We travelled on EasyJet, who fly six days a week from Manchester, and as our plane came in to land, we were treated to our first views of the Basque Country with its rugged, green hills. Bilbao has a small but futuristic-looking airport situated a mere 9 km north of the city, so you can be at your hotel in the city centre with a €25 taxi ride.

Although the Hotel Gran Bilbao is just outside the city centre, Bilbao’s world-class transport system meant that this was never an issue. In fact, it only added to the enjoyment, as I’ll explain later. The hotel is spotlessly clean, and our family suite was huge – a corridor leading to the two bedrooms and a sumptuous bathroom. The buffet breakfasts, available for an extra fee, were excellent and featured a good selection of hot and cold food.

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Hotel Gran Bilbao

Although Bilbao is not a huge city, and you could walk everywhere if you are that way inclined, it’s worth buying a Bilbao Bizkaia Card. Available in 24, 48 or 72-hour versions (cost is €10, €15 or €20 respectively), this card gives you access to the aforementioned transport system: city buses (Bilbobus), metro, Euskotren (tram) and a real bonus, the Artxanda funicular. They can also be used on the Bizkaibus coach, but we didn’t use this form of transport.

Remember to validate your ticket for each journey – at the machine on the bus, on the platform for the tram and like London, at the gates on entry to and exit from the metro. It’s all very easy and once you’ve picked up your card from the helpful and friendly staff at the Plaza Circular in the centre of town, you’ll really feel like you’re getting your money’s worth from this seamlessly integrated transport system.

I particularly enjoyed the Euskotren. This is the green tram that runs from the Axturi station (that just happens to be a leisurely 10-minute walk downhill from the Gran Bilbao), along the river, past the Guggenheim and all the way to Las Casilla. At each station, there’s a machine where you can validate your ticket and a display that tells you how long until the next tram (and it’s never very long). For getting back to the hotel, the number 77 bus runs through the city centre and stops a 2-minute walk from the hotel. Like the tram, even the bus stops have digital displays allowing you to work out when the next one is due. It never bothered us, but a word of caution — I would advise you to check the time of your last bus because buses and trams stop running well before midnight.

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Euskotren

The world-famous Guggenheim Museum is the big attraction in Bilbao. I’ll be honest, I’m not a big fan of modern art, and although I enjoyed some of the exhibits, the museum has far more going for it on the outside. There’s the sweeping bridge that curves around the foot of the building next to the river. When we approached in the morning, there was a mist, which I assume was artificial, rising out of the pool between the building and the river. Walk to the end of the bridge and you’ll find Maman, the 9-metre spider. On the other side of the museum, near the front entrance, is the 12-metre Puppy, a sculpture in the shape of a West Highland Terrier and covered in flowers. Then there’s the building itself. Designed by Frank Gehry, it is considered one of the world’s most spectacular buildings and when you get the chance to walk around it, it’s hard to argue. Constructed in a combination of limestone and glass, clad in curved titanium plates, it is absolutely stunning to behold, and you’ll find yourself snapping phots from all angles. For some good views of the building, I crossed to the other side of the river and climbed the pedestrian steps on La Salve Bridge. I won’t attempt to describe the building in words – my photos say it better than I ever could.

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Guggenheim Museum, as seen from La Salve Bridge

There’s a great little café on the terrace outside the museum and a lovely walk along the river Nervión, complete with some nice landscaping.

With a wife and two daughters who have zero interest in football, I wasn’t able to persuade them that we should book a tour of the fabulous San Mamés Stadium. Home of Athletic Bilbao, this wonderous new cathedral of football was opened in 2013, replacing the old stadium that stood on the same site. I did persuade them that we should take a walk up to the stadium as I knew, thanks to a tip from a friend, that there was a bar where you could have a drink overlooking the pitch. So, I was able to grab some photos both inside and outside the stadium.

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Me, outside the San Mamés Stadium
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Inside the Stadium

Heading back from San Mamés, we took a walk around Doña Casilda Iturrizar Park. This is a nice green space in the centre of the city, and in addition to an English-style garden with curved walkways featuring pagodas covered in vines, there’s a duck pond and some picturesque stone-lined water channels that cut through the lawn areas.

There is plenty of choice when it comes to food and drink in Bilbao, including pintxos, the Basque country’s version of tapas. None of us is a big fish lover, and I have to admit that before we went, I was having nightmares involving counter tops laden with row after row of seafood. But I was pleasantly surprised with what was on offer – mainly combinations of hams and cheese-based snacks, Spanish omelettes and a fair number of dessert options too. There are plenty of little bars around both the old town and the city centre, in addition to a good selection of restaurants.

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Typical Pintxos

Azkuna Zentroa is a cultural and leisure centre situated in an old corn exchange building. This is worth a visit for two architectural oddities: the 43 brightly coloured and quirkily decorated columns that support the main part of the building, and the roof-top swimming pool that you can walk underneath and view from the ground floor!

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One of 43 supporting columns, Azkuna Zentroa
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Underneath the swimming pool, Azkuna Zentroa

Casco Viejo, the old town, is full of historic buildings, including Bilbao Catherdral. Plaza Nueva is the main gathering place in the old town, and when evening comes around, the square is packed with locals and tourists alike. It’s a nice place to sit and have a coffee (which, admittedly, we did in the morning when it was less crowded!)

For a great set of photos, take a walk up the Mallona Steps (Calzada de Mallona). This wonderfully gothic set of steps, running alongside a cobbled street, start in a square in the old town, before rising way above the buildings and taking you to Etxebarria Park.

Note – this walk is not for the faint-hearted, or those with health problems! But those wishing to see the park can easily get here by taking the lift from the Casa Viejo metro station – this must be the world’s longest lift ride to/from a metro station, because it takes you from a spot high above the city, to the station deep within the bowels of the old town!

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Top of the Mallona Steps, leading to Etxebarria Park

Created in the 1980s in the grounds where a steel mill once stood, Etxebarria Park still features a brick chimney in homage to its industrial past. We took a walk around the edges of the football pitches for some spectacular views over the city. On the edge of the park is a curious-looking building that looks like some relic from Soviet-era Russia. Covered in graffiti, and visible from the walkway by the river where it towers above more classical buildings, it took some research on my return home to discover that it is actually an abandoned lift that was once used to reach the park (and I suppose the Steel Mill). I’m guessing that the ease of access provided by the metro lift led to its demise, but it has a haunting beauty and looks incongruous amongst the other buildings nearby.

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Abandoned lift, Etxebarria Park

The bus and Euskotren service was so good that we only made a couple of trips on the metro system, but as noted above, it can be a good way to access Etxebarria Park. Bilbao’s metro system is so futuristic and clean, and at some points, I felt like I was wandering around the set of the new Star Trek series.

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Bilbao’s world-class transport system includes a clean & efficient metro

I’ve saved what may be my favourite memory from our trip to Bilbao until last – the Artxanda funicular. Unlimited rides on this grand old mode of transport are included on the Bilbao Bizkaia Card, and the best way to reach the station is to cross the Zubizuri bridge and follow the signs. The trip up the hillside is brief but once there, you are treated to stunning views of the city. The best way that I can describe the view is to compare it to all those films you’ve seen where the protagonists look out over Los Angeles, spread out below them. We took a second trip up the funicular on our last night and hung around for an hour or so at dusk. Watching the sunset over the hills and seeing the city lights gradually turn on was the perfect end to our stay in Bilbao.

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View of Bilbao after taking a trip on the Artxanda Funicular

I was genuinely surprised by how much I enjoyed my time in Bilbao. It has so much more to offer than the Guggenheim. It’s location in a river valley makes for some spectacular views that are within easy reach of the visitor and given the ease of travel, I can highly recommend it as an alternative to the more popular city destinations in Spain.

Rob Campbell is the author of “Monkey Arkwright”, a mystery that will appeal to fans of 80s films such as “Stand By Me” and “The Goonies”, where people stumble across strange things in the woods or uncover dark secrets hidden in the abandoned places around a small town.