I may have only spent two days in the Austrian capital, but it was enough to be swept away by its magic. This winter, myself, my husband and my colleague/sister were graciously invited by Palais Hansen Kempinski to experience their incredible facilities and explore the city, and both exceeded our expectations.
In the north of Spain, wedged in a narrow Pyrenean valley and bordering France, you can find the Val d’Aran. An area that allies both history and nature in its most beautiful state, the Val d’Aran is very dear to my heart: part of my family originates from there and we still have relations living in the same village, even the same house dating back to the 17th century.
A narrow valley, it is famed for its ski slopes and hiking trails, dotted with chalets and flagstone houses, charming first-time tourists and recurring visitors alike. The last time I was there was May this year. My family and I travelled to Toulouse before driving the few hours necessary to the small village of Escunhau. Once there, we paid a visit to the small Romanesque church, Sant Pèir d’Escunhau, which is situated at one of the highest points of the village, facing the mountains and showcases traditional Romanesque sculptures and arches. Following that, we met up with our family and proceeded to drive to a mountain chalet for lunch, along a popular hiking spot: the valley of Era Artiga de Lin. Val d’Aran is a dream come true for outdoor sports fans, providing activities for everyone in all seasons: hiking, rafting, skiing, etc. And when the time has come to fuel up for more activities, Aranese cuisine is exactly what’s needed.
Whenever we visit, we always go for the same things: pan con tomate, the traditional Catalan bread rubbed with garlic, tomato, olive oil and a pinch of salt; fuet, a thin, cured pork sausage; as well as local lamb chops and blood sausage accompanied by potatoes. Hearty would be the best way to describe Aranese food. What I love about this area is the pride that people feel in their culture, which is firmly Spanish, but with plenty of French influences, as well as a strong historical anchor, particularly Medieval. Take their language, Aranese, which is still widely spoken and taught at school: it is derived from Occitan and an official language in Catalonia, as opposed to simply a dialect.
Our family there all speak it and switch very easily between Spanish, Catalan and Aranese. I can understand it quite well as there are a lot of similarities with French, but it’s equally as easy to get lost! After lunch all together, they took us to Uells deth Joèu, an impressive waterfall, with mountain water cascading over mossy boulders and into the river below. The scenery there is so removed from everyday city life and so peaceful, made even more beautiful by the fact that it is wild nature, complete with bears living in the forests, as opposed to neatly manicured man-made landscapes.
And despite what seems to be quite a remote location at first glance, it is actually within reasonable driving distance to more historic locations, including prehistoric caves in Ariège, holy sights in Lourdes and historic towns such as Carcassonne, making the Val d’Aran is a doorway to both Spanish and French history.
You can read about the rest of our travelling adventures on the La Fête blog.
You may have read last month, my Blog post about travelling to Moscow and St Petersburg over Christmas and the New Year with my family. Well the second leg of the trip, was in Uzbekistan, and it was magical!
To be honest with you, it was my Dad that had always dreamt of going to Uzbekistan, along the Silk Road to Bukhara and Samarkand. I had barely heard of these places until he mentioned that we were going there (I know, shame on me…). So, as a good little Globetrotter, I started reading up about this country that is lodged in the middle of Russia, Central Asia and the Middle East. By the time we arrived to Bukhara from St Petersburg, I was overly excited to discover this country that I had barely studied at school and that was such a melting pot of cultures.
Like many of you, I wasn’t sure what to expect in a –stan country, and I can assure you that I was so impressed by the open-mindedness, the kindness and generosity of the Uzbeks, that I now can’t wait to go back there and discover all the other countries in that area! Anyway, before I can visit all of those countries, let’s get back to Uzbekistan itself.
We arrived in Bukhara and started to explore this small city that was once the capital of one of the local tribes. A key stop for the Silk Road, the ancient architecture seemed to be frozen in time. Its massive turquoise domes towering over modern day life seemed to guard the locals and remind them constantly of the rich history of the city. Caravan courts (which are where the travelling caravans of camels charged with goods would stop to sell, exchange and rest) have been transformed into modern day mini shopping centres, still preserving their original look and feel. And the mosques are a testament to beauty, art and love of culture. Uzbeks are proud of their heritage and work daily to preserve it to share with future generations. This was also visible in the next city that we visited: Samarkand.
Samarkand was the capital of Timor the Great. He was, and to this day, still considered a unifying leader of the Uzbek people. Not only was he a skilled warrior but also a fair and just man. His capital, Samarkand was one of the most beautiful cities in the world in the 13th Century and he knew it! With some of the tallest buildings in the world for that time (mainly mosques), we were left flabbergasted by what we saw. The blue and turquoise domes were endless, the mosaic work was masterful and flawless. Oh, and the food! Kebabs, Samosas, Chiken Tikkah, all of these that you think are Indian or Turkish, well think again, they are all Uzbek originally! We were just as surprised as you to learn that a lot of cultural elements that we believed to stem from neighbouring countries are actually original to Uzbekistan. This is mainly because of the huge amount of travel that took place throughout Uzbekistan, making it and influencer for certain elements, just as much as an influencee.
Our time in Uzbekistan was short and sweet, 4 days spent wandering around some of the wonders of this world, but we all want to go back. It is an newly independent open-minded country where some socialist values still persist, mixed in with loving muslim ideas, and an incredible historical heritage. The country blends tradition and modernity in a way to protect what they have yet move forward not forgetting who they are. This is a country that took in orphans from eastern European countries in the thousands during WWII, and strives on diversity, and has done for centuries. I’m sure that we could learn a lesson or two from the Uzbeks.