South France and Spain Trip

Part 1 : Marseille

The starting point of my short France-Spain trip. Marseille was excellent, friendly people and astonishing infrastructure, its history was also amazing.

Part 2: Montpellier

A short excursion from Marseille and into the vibrant city of Montpellier

Part 3: Barcelona

Crossed the border to Spain using the Renfre train, a quick transit in Barcelona for my train to Pamplona. Stayed in the station due to the time, but will be back at the end of the holiday.

Part 4 Leg: Pamplona

The main place I intended to go, a beautiful small city that has got a well preserved Spanish culture.

***San Fermin Festival***

The famous and controversial San Fermin festival. It was more than just the running of the bulls and had everything from music in each corner, kids activities and a 7 day 24hour party.

Part 5: Zaragoza

After the party of San Fermin it was time to head to Zaragoza which was quiet in comparison, plenty of museums and religious buildings.

Finale: Barcelona

I have been Barcelona before so this was just a quick visit, using a one day travel card I visited many of the cities main attraction.

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Zaragoza (Spain)

Type : City Break
Best Date : ?

Expense :
Cheap
Things to do
Visit Museums, Cathedral
Points of Interest: Plaza del pillar square, Nuestra Señora del Pilar Basilica, Aljaferia Palace, Zaragoza market, Goya Museum, Caesar Agustas Museum.

Brief

The city of Zaragoza is the capital of ‘Aragon’ a region on the north east of Spain. Zaragoza is a growing city with a population of over 600,000 people, the city is well known for being a place for pilgrimage.

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The Place

Zaragoza for me was a quick visit, and I don’t think you can stay longer than 2 nights without roaming the city over and over again, resulting in boredom. One thing is clear and that  it is a place for many museum exhibition, whether cultural, historic, religious and arts.

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The cover attraction of Zaragoza is the ‘Nuestra Señora del Pilar Basilica’ which towers high in the main square of Zaragoza the ‘Plaza del Pillar Square’. The Basilica which is a Roman Catholic church, dedicated to the virgin Mary under her title lady Pillar which Pope John Paul praised as the mother of the Hispanic people. Situated at the centre of Zaragoza, the basilica is visited by many tourists for its beauty, overlooking the Ebro river there are many angles for a terrific photograph. However the Lady Pillar basilica is a operating church and going inside strict rules are applied, firstly you wont be able to enter if you have a vest or unappropriate clothing and at many areas of the church, picture or video taking is not allowed.

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Surrounding the basilica there are many other different monuments, museums and churches  for visitors. Many museums are free however some such as the ‘Goya Museum’ have an entrance fee. Surrounding ‘Plaza del Pilar Square’ there is an arcade full of shops, many retails shops and some antique and older boutiques. A great aspect of Zaragoza are the free walking tours the Zaragoza has to promote the city you could see many different groups and with all different languages.

Overall Zaragoza is a well thought out medium city, which visibly wants its tourist industry to grow. For me Zaragoza was amazing, but could have done with more people (tourists) around to liven up the city as it was very empty, however the hotel did tell me that it was the wrong time (July) for tourists. Nonetheless I can see the city has its strong aim to promote tourism in their city and I can see the future is very bright for them.

 

 

Marseille/Provence (France)

Type : City Break, Beach
Best Date :  April- August
Expense :  Fair
Things to do : city tours, cruises, shopping, dining
Points of Interest: Vieux Port, Notre Dam de la Garde, Palais Longchamp, Marseille Cathedral, Calanque National Park, Pointe Rouge ect

Brief

Provence is a region in south east of France, which includes cities such as Montpellier, Avignon and Cannes. The Romans made this region into their first settlement which they called ‘Provincia Romana’ which has since evolved through the years. The largest city in Provence is ‘Marseille’ a port city used for cruise, freight and commerce ships. Marseille is and has been the main port of trade throughout the years, being the main entry point of France from Africa. Today tourism has taken heights with Marseille being a huge layover for many cruise ships, here tourists have the chance to enjoy Marseille’s architecture, culture, natural beauty and history dating back to the ancient Greeks.

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The Place

Marseille was a pleasure to visit, it was warm and sunny (beginning of july) with many friendly and lively people. Firstly Marseille is a relatively huge city and unlike many other places in the world where the attractions are close and a walk away from each other, Marseille has nearly all of their touristic areas far apart, which either means lots of walking or lots of transports. However there is many ways in order to make visiting all areas easier with minimal walking and using different of different transport and that is by using their hop on hop off bus tours which has 12 stops to all Marseille has to offer.

There are also many different points of interest to go and visit in Marseille, main one (in my opinion) being the Notre Dam de la Garde, which towers over Marseille just like ‘Christ the Redeemer’ in Rio de Janiero  Brazil. However the Notre Dam de la Garde is more than a statue but a church/ basilica which was built for the virgin Mary said to watch over the sailors. Underneath  the basilica is a crypt also available to be visited without any tickets. Another place to visit is Marseille Cathedral which like many cathedrals around the world have a special roman structures. About a 20minute walk away from the cathedral is the Museum of European and Mediterranean civilization, which is a very nice building but to be honest I have got no idea what it is inside. Connected to this with a newly built bridge is Fort St Jean which is a nicely preserved.

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As Marseille is a port city, it is only right that there would be boat cruises to nearby attractions. There are many different companies offering tours to many different places, there are tours just across the beach to Chateu D’If , some cruises to other ports of Provence and some across the Calanques National Park. Many cruise tours stop over places for people to get off and have a swim and others are solemnly just a ride around.

Marseille has plenty different activities which visitors can do, and if you are adventurous, strolling and even biking around Calanques national park is a popular feature. Water Sports and activities are also huge in Marseille with scuba diving, snorkelling, kayaking , paddle boarding, are just some of the many activities done in Marseille waters. Adrenaline seekers will also find Marseille pleasing as there are now many companies offering canyoning or an orienteering race.

If a stroll is more like your holiday Marseille has plenty of places to do so, Vieux Port which every morning has a fisherman’s market selling the daily catch is a brilliant area to have a walk. Another place I heard was a nice place to have a walkathon is the ‘National Park’ just 30 minutes outside of Marseille.

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Overall I fully enjoyed Marseille and all it had to offer, it is a city full of tourists whether a stopover on their cruise ships, or purposely visiting the city. There are many different hotels and restaurants at different budgets for everybody and many of their attractions are free.

Transport

Getting there

Marseille is a very popular destination in the south of France, and it attracts scores of people throughout the year. There are plenty modes of transport that can be taken to go to Marseille from around the world.

Firstly by train, Marseille has many domestic and international rail journeys to St Charles train station. SNCF is the main company which connects Marseille, however SNCF-Renfre partnership also has journeys coming from Spain.

There are also many airline carriers that operate in Marseille Provence Airport. Only British Airways is the only notable direct flight from LHR and only 1 of 3 from London. Other airlines flying from London to Marseille are ‘Easy jet’ which flies from Gatwick and ‘Ryan air’ which flies from Stanstead. Other airlines including ‘Air France’ have a stop over so it will not be too convenient as the 3 direct flights.

In Marseille

Getting to Marseille from the airport is a bit more difficult than other cities. There is no subway system and the nearest train station is a 15minute walk. The best way to travel is by the  airport-city coach which takes you straight from the airport and into St Charles train station which is central to the city.

Once in Marseille there are various modes of transport you can take buses, metro subway, tram and even by boat.

The metro (subway) in Marseille consists of only 2 lines identified a simple metro ‘1’and ‘2’. Metro 2 journeys north to south, whilst  Metro 1 is a U shaped starting from ‘La Rose’ which goes inwards to ‘Vieux Port’ the outwards to ‘La Fourragere. Both lines interlinks at St Charles which is the main train station of Marseille and Castellene.

I was very impressed with the tram system in Marseille, it was new, modern, very easy to use and spacious. You can see that Marseille has put a lot of thought to their trams and the carriages were designed with a futuristic modern appearance, inside the tram was air-conditioned and had lots of space, very comfortable. There is 3 lines to the Marseille tram system, T1,T2 and T3.

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There were many different bus journeys available in Marseille, however their intervals can be far apart, which means longer waits and fuller buses. I took 3 buses on my time in Marseille and they were all alike. The buses were very comfortable, air-conditioned and had fast journeys, I didn’t have any problem with them apart from the long waits and packed buses.

As Marseille is mainly a port city, it was just right that boat transport would be available. Between many of the different boat ports such as ‘Port Rouge’ were I scuba dived, and ‘Vieux Port’ there are now boat journeys. I didn’t try them so I cant really write about it.

Transport in Marseille is very easy and straight forward, so even the most amateur of travellers shouldn’t get lost.

Click for Marseille Gallery

Pamplona (Spain)

 

Type : Provincial
Best Date : 
July
Expense :
Cheap normally, Expensive when San Fermin Festival is on
Things to do :  
Cultural, Watch Bull fight, San Fermin Festival
Points of Interest: Pamplona Cathedral, San Nicolas, Plaza del Castillo, Museum of Navarre, Palacio de Navarre, Pamplona Park ect

Brief

Pamplona or Iruna is the largest and most prolific city of the Spanish province of Navarre. Most noted for being the host of the ‘San Fermin’ festival (famous for the Encierro, bull run) which is said to be the most exciting cultural event with huge turnouts each year. Apart from the San Fermin there is plenty of other reasons people visit the city, having a huge religious and historic up bringing, many pilgrims visit the city all year round.

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The Place

Once you arrive in Pamplona ( I arrived through Pamplona/ Iruna train station) you can feel the difference, the age and strong preserved culture of this city. Pamplona is small and it is possible to walk around the city and getaway without using public transport, as I didn’t need one at all. However I do want to stress one thing and that is the approachability of many locals is very bad, helping is not something they are familiar with and it seems they are just fed up of tourists, that’s my experience anyway but I do not believe all Pamplona residents are like that.  Apart from its people Pamplona as a city is superb and although difficult to find your way around, all points of interest is very close to each other.20170713_103939

Pamplona’s old town is a spectacle in itself, the bricked floor and concrete layout is something special and people who visit always love it. One thing that is definitely popular in the city is balconies, and it seems that every household has one. The city can be best described as a gothic medieval town with roman influence.

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If you like visiting religious buildings, Pamplona has plenty of them. Firstly the city is heavily catholic as of most of Spain and its patron saint is ‘Saint Fermin’ who the main festival here is named after. Pamplona Cathedral, San Nicolas, Church of San Saturnino, Iglesia de San Lorenzo and many other churches cover the city  and has many history towards them. The city is a huge haven for many pilgrimage hence the large turnout throughout the year.

Other touristic places to visit in Pamplona are those heavily linked to the Bull fighting, the ‘running of the bulls monument’ is situated just outside of the old town and in the more modern high street. This monument is a sight to see and there are plenty of tourists who flock this monument to take pictures. ‘Plaza de Toros de Pamplona’ which is the bull ring, is not too visually pleasing from the outside but is a spectacle to see on the inside, the ring which is still active, welcomes many visitors e20170713_130456ach year.

Beautiful parks are also available throughout Pamplona one of which the river Argo runs through making excellent scenery with the surrounding nature.

Overall Pamplona is a pleasure to visit, the town and buildings are just one of a kind and every step is a photo opportunity. The only huge downer is many (but not all) of its people as they can be aggressive, arrogant and very unhelpful towards tourists. However although my experiences with people haven’t been positive, not all were bad and there are some that are friendly. When the San Fermin festival is on the city can get very expensive and crowded, and at any other time of the year is a bit more laid back. Pamplona is for everyone with families of all ages visit here. If you love a little walkathon through a city full of history then Pamplona is for you.

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San Fermin Festival

“Why San Fermin has grown to be the Festival it is today? Why its still growing and even with the negative media why it is a festival for the whole family?”

About the Festival.

The San Fermin Festival, is a world famous event situated in Pamplona Spain. It is a cultural festival primarily for religious purposes however it has since been overtaken by other practices, most notable the ‘Encierro’ or the running of the bulls. Although the running of the bulls has been the front face of the ‘San Fermin’ it is by no means the only interesting aspect. The festival lasts for 7 days starting on the 7th of July all through to the 14th of July yearly and lasts 24 hours non-stop.

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  • 6th July Chupinazo
  • 6th July Riau-Riau
  • 7th July Saint Fermin Procession
  • Different single day Struendo
  • 14th July Pobre de mi

Daily Events:

  • 08:00  Bull Running ‘Encierro’
  • 11:00   Giants and Big Heads Parade
  • 16:00  Traditional Sports
  • 18:30  Bull Fights
  • 23:00  Fireworks
My Experience with the Festival.

I made the decision to go to Pamplona for the ‘San Fermin Festival’ as little detour on my France-Spain trip, and it all started as a little joke to run the bulls, little did I know the joke would be a reality and it would be one of the best trips I’ve done yet. I initially thought this Festival will be more for the younger generation and  mostly locals as it was within an unknown region of Spain, I was totally wrong and it was as diverse as any Festival can be. People from all corners of the world were there, large and small groups, seniors and even toddlers, families, solo travellers and groups of friends. I also thought the festival will just be a drinking fest, and whilst that was largely true, it wasn’t the only aspect of the event. Like I said earlier the San Fermin attracted all sorts of people, the younger generation and the party goers would usually be out late night within the many bars and pubs, families would still be up but around the park to watch the fireworks at 23:00. The elderly would usually be dining or at one of the many make shift stages, however I have also seen many elderly partying the night away. In the morning when the partygoers fall asleep, many of the bull runners and spectators wake up early, this includes lots of foreigners and locals of all different ages however children are usually still asleep, but I did see some. Midday everybody seems to be up and out, divided within many of the stages, whether in the park, the old town or the square everybody seems to be out. Children enjoy the giant and big head parade which was fantastic culturally and also fun for the children as the they get hit by the big heads with sponges.  The city also have different shows, whilst I have seen heavy metal music, salsa, pop, and culture, the diversity this festival attracts is huge.

First impressions of Pamplona the city itself was that the locals were not friendly at all, getting lost in Pamplona is not a good idea as nobody will be willing to help at all, maybe they are just fed up of tourists, they are actually the worst unhelpful people at a place I have visited. However once you get into the festival itself everything changes and everybody is around to have a good time. You may come across some aggressive people but as long as you mind yourself everything will be ok, as the saying goes in various cities “if you want trouble, you’ll find trouble”.  There are many drunk people throughout the day some drunker than others, but they are just there to enjoy. Safety is also high at the festival and there are plenty of medical staff and police present.

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The Encierro ‘Bull Run’

I both watched and ran the ‘Encierro’ in 2 different days, even after all the warnings I got. However I always opted to stay as safe as possible and doing extensive homework before doing my run.

The night before I planned to run, I slept early, waking up at an early 05:30am that morning getting ready and heading out just after 06:00am. Arriving at the Pamplona City council at about 07:00am, there were already many people whether spectators or runners. Before the start there was plenty of marching bands that entertain the crowds, there is also many prayers. At this point the barriers are already up with police and ambulances ready and on standby. Before the run all runners gather for a small prayer to the San Fermin across the course.  There is no special entrance for runners and anybody can really jump or crawl under the many barriers across the route. 5 minutes till the run there were still many tourist runners still choosing a good starting point, however I could also still see many children and families still on the route of the bull run, which was a bit worrying. The good thing though was that the runners was diverse, there was old and young, men and even many women. Minutes before the run I was very nervous, many things was going through my mind.

The run starts with a single firework being set off,  at this point runners start jogging, I decided to stay on the left side staying clear of the huge crowds. There was definatly no way for me to turn my head back and see if the bulls were near, you only rely on the shouting and the bells placed on the bulls neck. It was the movement of other runners, the louder shouting and the bells which made me just climb the nearest barrier (wooden fence) and onto what I thought was safe enough. There were plenty of us runners at the top of the barrier at this point with local police and ambulance personnel holding us up and advising to climb over and even stay put (although in Spanish).  At top of the barriers I looked over and saw a group of bulls charging through the street, It was all too quick to count or even have a good look at the bulls. After that all I could see was everyone coming going down with spectators even going through the barriers against the police’s advice. I started to take my phone out for quick snaps until I heard more shouting, I step aside still inside the running route and seconds after I see 3 more bulls charging down the street. Close one!

The next day, I managed to watch another run just before leaving for Zaragoza, purpose was to just enjoy the run as a spectator. Just like running there are still huge excitement. Even though you wake up early find a good spot about 2 hours before just to see the run pass you in just 10 seconds.

All in all  it was a good experience, Police and Ambulance had every corner covered. Drunk people were prevented from running and cameras were not allowed whilst running, the police are ever vigilant at that and could confiscate. Take note although the event is well cared for, it was very dangerous and I probably wouldn’t do It again. Many do get hurt and about 15 people have been killed doing it. The bulls are one dangerous aspect but many get hurt by fellow runners.

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The Big Head and Giant Parade

Something that I knew about but took me by surprise whilst I was walking around the street. I never really planned to go and see it but it seems like I was just at the correct place and at the correct time. The Giants (made from wood) are 150 years old by a local painter, tower about 4 metres high  and represent  pairs of Kings and queens from the 4 different continents Asia, Europe, Africa and the Americas. The giants are also escorted by instrument players and also Bigheads and people in horsemen in costumes which chases children and hits them with foam truncheon. This parade goes around the old city making various stops along the way, I guess to rest the dancers carrying the giants. This part of the event gets a good reception for families and children.

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Pamplona City Council

The Fireworks

It is always a good way to end a day with some fireworks. The San Fermin Festival fireworks happen 23:00 every night during the event, it has some great aspects but nothing to compete with other pyrotechnics. It is a large display and you can watch the fireworks from many different places in the city, but most notable area to watch the fireworks is at the park.

Renfre Train

Brief

Renfre is a Spanish railway company based in Madrid which operates both passengers and freight services. It is a fairly new company only being founded in 2005 by the government of Spain, it is stately owned and the only company of its type within the country.

Cost

If you are planning to travel regionally within Spain or even across to a neighbouring country Renfre would most probably serve those routes and serve them cheaper than any air carrier.

Experience

I took this train a lot in my “France-Spain travels 2017” for many different destinations. Firstly my Marseille to Barcelona train was an SNCF-Renfre cooperation, then it was Renfre train for all my Barcelona to Pamplona, Pamplona to Zaragoza and Zaragoza to Barcelona trips.

Booking for these trains is simple, just like anywher20170712_144449.jpge in the world just go to either their webpage or a third party websites such as trainline.eu and others alike. Renfre has plenty of destinations and plenty of journeys within the day to choose from, so timing your trip isn’t too difficult. Once you have chosen your journey you will also be able to choose your preferred seat, there are forward facing, rearward facing, window and aisle seats to choose from with no extra charge. Tickets are instantly available, you can print them after check out or even print them out in the many ticket machines available at the stations.

 

At the stations all procedures were the same, and weren’t much different than if you were to go on your local train. As long as you have your ticket come at the correct time (advised 2 minutes before departure) to get on your train, as simple as that. However there is a small ticket inspection, before being allowed onto the platform which is usually open only 5-10 minutes before departure. There is no point arriving one hour or half an hour early as boarding only happens a short while before departure time. No special checks are performed and no extra documents needed, even on my Marseille to Barcelona train there was no additional checks and no immigration control needed.

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All of the trains I took were similar, the arrangements, seating’s and services whether out of the country or regional journeys. There were plenty of leg room and  space to move around, huge tables (larger than aircraft tables) are also available in front of every seat here your laptop can fit with many more room available for drinks ect. Every seat also have sockets for laptops or phones which is a big plus in my opinion, there is just many amenities on the seats which add to the comfort of passengers. Away from the seats there is a café/bar where you can buy food and drinks, on my Marseille to Barcelona journey the café was huge in a modern carriage however in the regional journeys it looks as if it was just vending machines. All food was very expensive with coke costing 2.80 euros and sandwiches costing 5 euros.  Huge luggage storage space near the doors were available and there is a place for smaller bags above your seats. There was also many toilets available some carriages have one and others may have two. Toilets were relatively clean, and didn’t smell as bad as I thought it would. The carriages itself were more or less new, it was well illuminated and had large windows to enjoy the nice landscapes. Renfre was good in punctuality and only got delays once in while but not too much to affect any plans maybe 10 minute happen but not frequently.

Overall I enjoyed my journeys with Renfre, the ease of bookings, the comfort of their trains and the punctuality were of high standards. The scenic views of France and Spain were huge plus marks and something you are unable to see on an airline. Renfre trains are longer than taking flights, however much cheaper. Trains are also more frequent than flights so planning journeys are easier, journeys also go direct to the centre of cities whereas airports are outskirts where you would need to travel in to reach central.