The train in Spain

This train in Spain stays mainly on the plain of España Verde (Green Spain) and “My Fair Lady”, Eliza Doolittle, would have felt right at home. The film, set in 1912 London could have easily taken place aboard the El Transcantabrico Gran Lujo that has four original Pullman cars, from the 1920s (dining car pictured here on the left) plus numerous newer cars “that exude the feeling of a bygone, elegant era, and of a more relaxed way to travel” as the brochure says. We’ve just returned from a week on the train that took us from Santiago de Compostela to San Sebastian with daily stops to tour historic towns, take in beautiful landscapes, visit the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, and relax in a thermal spa that’s been operating for hundreds of years.

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Santiago de Compostela in 1 day

For centuries pilgrims have been walking the “Way of St. James” route across Europe to arrive at the cathedral where it is said the remains of the saint are buried. From what I read, this city near the Atlantic coastline of northern Spain to which we took a 4-hour train ride from Madrid, was in the Middle Ages a pilgrimage site as important as Jerusalem and Rome. The purpose of our visit, however, was for different reasons: it was the starting point of a week-long train tour of the España Verde region of the country (next week’s blog post) and because the historic center of town has been selected as a UNESCO World Heritage site. 

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Madrid in 2 days

Whenever we have the option of taking just one train to our destination, that’s typically what we do because of the convenience and comfort. For example, settling into your reserved seat in Marseille just in time for a glass of champagne followed by dinner and then stepping off across the street from your London hotel before Big Ben sounds the 10 PM hour can’t be beat. Today’s train had that same Mediterranean origin point but this time we picked it up along the way in Narbonne as it headed south for Madrid where we arrived even before some restaurants had cleared away their lunch dishes. We had two days to explore this capital of Spain and its largest city so we had a very full itinerary. With several hours of daylight left in this “bonus time” on the first day of our stay, we set out to explore the neighborhood right outside the hotel including the renaissance square, Plaza Mayor from the 1600s and just one of the 3 chocolaterias that were within a couple of blocks of each other, yum!

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I “shutter” to think

The house that I grew up in had shutters on the windows. To be precise, these were wooden slatted frames screwed into the wall beside the windows and served simply as decoration. In fact, every house that Bill and I have lived in, both in the US and in France, has had them as well but with one major difference: here the shutters open and close so you get window protection as well as ornamentation. And it doesn’t stop there since the hot summer sun is prevented from streaming into your home, meaning that in many situations there’s no need for air conditioning to be comfortable. For the two of us who came from Atlanta where it seemed that we were in cooled air buildings 24/7, that’s been a pleasant change.

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House buying fees

As you would expect, the location of a property that you want to buy has a great impact on the selling price. That 100 square meter (1076 square feet) apartment in Paris with a minimum selling price of 1 to 2 million euros would probably cost you one tenth that price in one of the most affordable places to buy in France, Saint-Étienne, about an hour outside of Lyon. The newspaper Le Figaro has compiled a list (pdf link at the bottom of this post) of cities with a population of at least 50,000 people that they have called, “The cities where the price of real estate is the most affordable.” While this chart will give you a good idea about the sales price of the home itself, it doesn’t include any of the accompanying fees, most of which fall under a category called frais de notaire that will easily be thousands of euros. So, how do you estimate that and are there other costs too?

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Narrow dog to Carcassonne

Walking along the canal in Carcassonne

A few years ago when we were playing the Who-What-Where-When-Why retirement game, I thought that there was only one of those Ws unanswered. After all, it was just us making the decisions and we already had a timeline so the one thing left to do was to finalize the location of our next house. By that point we were pretty sure that we wanted to live in Carcassonne so we started reading everything that we could find about this medieval city. There were travel guides, history books, bicycle routes, photo pictorials, and a best-selling historical thriller trilogy by Kate Mosse. Then at the library I saw the book Narrow Dog to Carcassonne by Terry Darlington with the tagline, “Two Foolish People, One Odd Dog, an English Canal Boat..and the Adventure of a Lifetime.” Hmm, that kind of fit our situation since we were two people and one dog about to move to another country 4000 miles away. All that we were missing was that canal boat so it was time to investigate what life onboard might be like.

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Two castles and an aqueduct

Since Nîmes is less than a 2-hour train ride from Carcassonne, we’d been there on a day trip and now we were staying a few nights to explore some of the surrounding sites. On previous rail journeys through the area we had spotted two castles across from each other on the Rhône river in the towns of Beaucaire and Tarascon so we wanted to see those up close. Before that, however, was a visit to the  UNESCO World Heritage site connected to last week’s blog post about Uzès. The word “connected” is especially fitting since it’s the 2000-year-old Pont du Gard aqueduct that formed part of the link that brought water from its source in Uzès to Nîmes, 50 kilometers (31 miles) away.

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