Sunday, 28 June 2015

Churnet Valley Railway 'Anything Goes' weekend

What a great weekend at the Churnet Valley Railway! I was there as rostered signalman in Consall 'box, and visiting from the Foxfield Railway was 1874 Haydock Foundry 0-6-0 well tank 'Bellerophon', with two 4-wheel Knotty coaches, the ones we rode in at Foxfield Gala last year (see here).

It was my third session using the 'new' electric token system. Here's the token machine in Consall 'box.

Bellerophan with the Knotty train seen from Consall 'box steps 

Unusually for the CVR, Bellerophon was unloaded from the road trailer facing south. Here she approaches Consall from Froghall.

Bellerophan had a rest in the middle of the day while the green TKH tank took over the vintage train. In view of the age of the 4-wheel coaches, a 15 mph speed limit was imposed on the vintage train (it's usually 25 mph on heritage lines), which meant we ran a slightly more relaxed timetable than usual.

Belleropon waits for the road at Consall. She's held at my down starter signal awaiting the opposite direction train from Cheddleton. Once that's in the loop at Consall alongside Bellerophon, I can use the token that train is carrying to clear-down the section (prove to the signal box interlocking that the single track between Consall and Cheddleton is no longer occupied), change the road for the vintage train, and signal Bellerophon off on her way to Cheddleton.

The brake van also came from Foxfield and matches the vintage coaches well

Here's a video I took from the signalbox steps:

Bellerophon gets away from Consall this morning

Some trains ran until quite late. Here's a superb picture by Dave Gibson at Cheddleton as the 'right away' is given to one of the last trains of the day, comprising the vintage Knotty 4-wheel stock.

Saturday, 27 June 2015

The mighty Vulcan returns to Woodford, her birthplace

X-ray Hotel 558, the last flying Vulcan which has been giving flying displays since the RAF retired the magnificent cold war bomber a few decades ago, is to retire herself after this year's flying season. This weekend she is doing a 'farewell tour' of the UK, and today it included the birthplace of not only XH558, but that of every Vulcan ever built.

558 runs in from the south at Woodford today

Members of Avro Heritage gathered at our museum today to witness 558's approach to this historic airfield, and her fly byes and departure to the south. She came into the area from the north to pass over Barton airfield, then Manchester Airport, before visiting us at Woodford. She was bang on time with a '55' estimate for Barton (14:55) followed by a positioning by Manchester Air Traffic Control to a 4 mile final for runway 23R at EGCC. We saw her on that approach as she descended for her Airport flypast, then saw her pull up, and up, and up, into a wing-over that at the ballistic apex went to the inverted! 

Black plumes of exhaust from her tailpipes after recovery from that manouvre indicated that Martin Withers was piling on the power for a steep turn around Alderley Edge (that big delta wing generates a lot of induced drag in a tight turn) to align with Woodford's easterly approach despite being cleared by Machester ATC for a downwind lefthand positioning for Woodford's former runway 25. 

558 ran in from the south at about 500 feet, roared over us, and turned right over our museum, for a wide looping left turn back easterly onto a downwind heading for runway 25. 

Having attended almost all the Woodford airshows from the late 1960s to the last one, to see a steeply banked Vulcan in silhouette above the familiar hills of the Cheshire Peak brought back many memories.

She curved around towards us and appeared over the museum before departing south for Cosford, with a wing-rocking bye bye. 

No wing-over for us.  Mores the pity.

Bye bye Woodford (for now). Off to Cosford!

Here's the well-over-the -vertical wing over at EGCC that we didn't get at Woodford:

Vulcan wing over at Manchester today

And here's a video taken by Avro Heritage Trust member Terry of the Vulcan overflying our Museum:

Vulcan over AHT Museum

I was glad I'd ridden to Woodford on the little Honda Innova. If I'd come in the car I'd have been ages getting home as the traffic outside the Woodford gates was going nowhere. By riding on verges etc. I reached the Unicorn pub past standing traffic and cars parked on every available space, and from there the traffic was flowing OK.

So, October... the very last Vulcan flight. Rumour has it 558 will be back to her birthplace one last time. I'll be there!

Here's three more pictures, taken by other Avro Heritage Trust members:

 XH558 over our own XM603 parked next to the Museum. Inside the Museum we have the nose and cockpit section of Vulcan XM602 in which our visitors will be able to sit in the captain's seat and pretend to be Martin Withers.

The aforesaid Mr. Withers brings 558 round the Woodford overhead 

558 over our Museum

This superb video from Andrea Maley on Facebook shows that Martin had a bit of a play in the Lake District on his way down to Manchester:

Vulcan over Kendal

You can hear the 'rutting dinosaur' Vulcan howl as
She climbs away...



Saturday, 20 June 2015

Andalucian Explorer; another Great Rail holiday

Two years ago Chris and I enjoyed a 'Great Rail Journeys' holiday in Austria and Northern Italy (see HERE ). 'Great Rail' specialise in luxury holidays travelling by first class high speed rail (where available) and staying in four star hotels, with a tour manager accompanying the guests to lead the tour and deal with any issues that might arise.

This year we decided on Great Rail's 'Andalucian Explorer' tour, the 'Explorer' in the title referring to the discovery of 'real Spain' as opposed to the well known Mediterranean resorts. On my motorcycle adventure of ten years ago when I rode from home to the Sahara and back I rode down through the length of Spain and back up through the country on the way to and from Morocco. I stayed one night at Salamanca and Seville on the way south, Granada and Segovia on the return journey, and saw much of unspoiled inland Spain in between.

I had a desire to revisit inland Spain, and Chris had never done so apart from a brief business visit many years ago, hence my booking this holiday.

Most 'Great Rail' holidays start at the superbly reconstructed London St Pancras station for the Eurostar service to Paris, and this tour was no exception. We were scheduled to meet our tour guide at 07:00 on Friday 5th June, so travelled down to London on Thursday 4th and stayed in a Kings Cross hotel that night. We spent Thursday afternoon having a look at the Cutty Sark tea clipper at Greenwich - recommended!

Please click on any picture for a larger image.

Cutty Sark at Greenwich

After meeting our guide, Ian, we checked in for our Eurostar train to Paris. High speed rail travel is far more relaxed than flying, though with passport checks and luggage x-raying UK authorities seem to be trying to apply some of the hell of airport security to this civilised form of travel. One remaining advantage, however, is that you can keep your luggage in view at all times - lost suitcases isn't something you are likely to suffer.

At 186 mph (although just 100 mph though the Channel Tunnel) and having enjoyed an at-seat breakfast in our first class Eurostar coach (travelling Leisure Select class), we were soon at Paris Gare Du Nord station.

Chris and some others in our tour group on arrival at Paris Gare Du Nord next to our Eurostar train. Ian, our tour leader can be seen behind Chris, in the red tie.

A private coach whisked us across the city (well, not quite 'whisked', as those who know Paris traffic will appreciate) to Paris Gare Montparnasse which is an even more architecturally brutal railway station than Birmingham New Street. Thankfully we weren't there too long, just long enough for a snack lunch, before boarding a TGV train for Bierritz. 

By early evening a first class journey by French single deck TGV high speed train had us in the Basque city of Biarritz. Only the first section of the route was at high speed, as the remainder of the line is in the process of being replaced by a high speed route which is not yet completed. This existence of large mileages of high speed rail, much of which has been in place for decades, and the ongoing building of yet more in mainland Europe, is in sharp contrast to UK's short term-ism, where we are arguing the case for a couple of hundred miles of high speed rail in maybe 20 years time! A railway without high speed arteries is like a road system without motorways; why can't we see that in UK? It is of course more difficult to build new railways in our crowded island than in much of the rest of Europe, but it's quite possible to do, we are decades behind, and we should get on with it!

Looking out from our hotel to the Bay of Biscay, Biarritz, Saturday morning looking a bit dull. Once we set off south through Spain, however, the sun shone as it did every day for the next two weeks.

We stayed just one night in our Biarritz four star hotel (as were all the hotels on the tour) and enjoyed a superb meal in a restaurant overlooking the Bay of Biscay getting to know the rest of our group of 28 fellow tourists. Next morning (Saturday) we had a short coach transfer to Irun in Spain where we joined a Spanish Railways (RENFE) high speed train for Madrid.

Chris enjoys the luxury of the reclining first class seats in the spacious carriages afforded by the high speed rail loading gauge as we speed from Irun to Madrid. My seat is behind the one occupied by Chris

A High Speed train similar to the one we are travelling on. Ours is running on the classic line initially as the high speed line for most of this journey is still under construction.

Typical scene from the train window in Northern Spain. Lots of empty space!

Approaching Valladolid the under-construction new high speed line came into view. Our train will join this line at Valladolid for the rest of the journey to Madrid, as that section has been completed. 

Spain's classic lines were built to a rail gauge (distance between each rail of a running line) of just over 5 feet 2 inches rather than the 'standard gauge' of  4 feet 8 and a half inches of most of Europe (including UK) and all European high speed lines. This broader gauge was chosen by Spain in the 19th century when the classic lines were built, to make it difficult for the French to invade by rail.

Today the non-standard rail gauge adds complexity as the trains have to change wheel gauge from the broad classic gauge to the slightly narrower gauge of the High Speed lines and vice versa when changing from one to the other. This is achieved without the train needing to stop; it merely slows to about 10mph through a 'gauge change' track section where the axles are lifted a few mm so the wheels are no longer carrying the train's weight, the wheels unlocked on the axles, re-positioned for the new gauge, and re-locked onto the axles at the new gauge, before being lowered back onto the rail. At the same time the overhead line which supplies power to the trains (they are all electric) changes from 3,000 volts DC of the classic lines to the High Speed standard of 25Kv AC.  

Running at about 300 kph (180 mph) on the high speed line, our train passes Segovia which had been an overnight stop for me on the way back from Morocco on the bike ten years ago - long before this line was built. Our train stopped at Segovia's new High Speed line station which is some miles from the town as is often the case as high speed lines skirt around towns and cities.

Between Segovia and Madrid is this range of mountains. The High Speed line simply burrows beneath them in over 17 miles of twin-bore tunnel. Plenty of investment in infrastructure going on in Spain - a similar tunnel in UK could be built to link, say, Manchester and Leeds through the Pennines for the talked-about HS3 but it's unlikely to happen here. Talking about it is almost certainly as far as it will get!

Tour leader Ian, with Chris and Margaret by our train on arrival at Madrid

While Ian went off to locate the coach that would take us to our Madrid hotel, I took a picture of our train from the station's restaurant

A tour of Madrid was scheduled for the next day, so for now Chris and I had a stroll around the old town, stopping at a pavement cafe for a drink

Chris posing in front of a tea house!

Some street art seen on the way back to the hotel

These mobile pedal-powered bars tour the streets of Madrid. The customers pedal as they drink and quite high speeds can be reached, especially downhill!

It was certainly hot in Madrid, but we suspect this display on a bus shelter, showing 43 degrees C, was exaggerating a bit.

Sunday morning brought a tour of Madrid led by a local guide, initially by coach and then some walking. Here's Chris outside the bull ring, built in 1931. Catalonia has banned bullfighting but it is still legal, if controversial, in the rest of Spain.

This statue commemorates the death of a bullfighter, killed in the bull ring

This unusual sculpture shows a Toreador paying homage to Alexander Fleming, the discoverer of penicillin. Penicillin saved the lives of many injured in the ring whose wounds by bull's horn would have been heavily infected. 

The hot and dry climate of Madrid probably contributes to the building's still looking new, by discouraging the growth of lichens and mosses on the brickwork

I've no idea what sort of tree this is, but it makes a pretty picture!

Christopher Columbus is celebrated in many Spanish cities. On the walking part of our tour we came across this monument to him.

In the Plaza D'Espana is a statue dedicated to the novelist Miguel de Cervantes 

In front of the monument is a sculpture of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Don complete with lance (for tilting at windmills, no doubt).

This is a monument to the Spanish Civil War

In the Parc Del Oeste is this Egyptian temple of Debod relocated from the site of the reservoir behind the Aswan High Dam. It was gifted to the city in return for Spain's help with the project.

Looking from the Parc Del Oeste one gets a good view of the Royal Palace

Our coach dropped us off at the Royal Palace so we could have a walk around it

We had lunch at a typical restaurant on Madrid's Plaza Mayor. Here Ian explains the finer points of the menu to some of our party.

Near our hotel was this unusual 'vertical garden'

On our many walk-abouts in the hot cities on this tour Chris and I settled on something refreshing at pavement cafes. Sangria and cold beer filled the bill! A small 'tapas' was usually also provided with any ordered drinks, in this case olives. 

Monday morning saw us early at Madrid's Atocha railway station for another high speed train, this one to Seville. This is the old part of the station with it's St Pancras - like train shed roof. Unfortunately this lovely train shed is now used as an indoor garden while the trains use a modern annex. What a waste of a good station! 

Here's the modern bit of the station; not quite so stylish as the old part. That's our train at the platform as we wait to board after enjoying the RENFE first class lounge. 

One advantage of Spanish (RENFE) high speed trains over French (SNCF) ones is that the Spanish offer an at-seat meal service in first class. Here's breakfast about to be enjoyed at 180 mph.

Our group tucking into brekfast

Here's our group after breakfast, enjoying the reclining leather armchair seats and airy comfort of the train. Note how the larger loading gauge of continental trains allows much more internal space than on UK trains. If we ever build HS2, we will be able to enjoy such comforts at home!

The Ciudad Real province, south of Madrid, has many coal mines. This is a historic pit head gear preserved to mark coal mining history in this area.

Our train (on the right) on arrival in Seville, with our group gathering on the right of the picture

After a coach transfer to our hotel we met our local guide for a walking tour of the old part of Seville 

Seville is further south than Madrid and was noticeably warmer, though it had been pretty hot in Madrid! Here a carriage horse is water-cooled with a hose pipe by its driver. 

Here's the tower of the Gothic cathedral in Seville. Orange trees grow throughout the city.

The fabulously rich alter screen in the cathedral, the lifetime work of artist Pierre Dancart

Looking back down the nave

In the baptistery chapel of St Anthony is this painting, 'The Vision of St Anthony' by Murillo. In 1874 the section depicting St Anthony was torn out of the painting by a thief and sold to a dealer in New York, who returned it to Seville where the painting was restored. 

Looking up into the central dome

The cathedral from the outside

Our walk continued through the narrow streets of the medieval part of the city

Oranges on an orange tree in a Seville square

After the walk we relaxed in a cafe near the cathedral. It was hot, and a feature of these pavement terraces outside the bars are water sprays which emit a fine spray every few seconds to keep the customers (and staff!) cool.

One way of seeing the city is by horse drawn carriage. Here one such makes its way down from the cathedral area past our cafe. 

We enjoyed a tapas meal with the rest of the group on Monday evening.

On Tuesday morning we travelled by coach to Jerez (pronounced 'Hereth'), famous for its Sherry, the word 'sherry' being a corruption of 'Jerez'. Here Chris admires a water feature using fountain heads in the shape of sherry scoops. 

After a morning coffee in the sunshine at a cafe, our coach took us to the Royal Andalucian School of Equestrian Art to watch an amazing show by the expert riders on Jerez stallions. This is the museum beside the display arena. 

A horse and rider in the outdoor practice ring. Note the nesting storks on poles.

Tradition meets the present day as a rider talks on his phone outside the arena

Photography is not allowed in the arena while the show is in progress, so I took this before the show started. Below are a couple of pictures of the show I found on the internet.

Here is a video from YouTube of part of the show: Andalucian Horse show

After the horse show we enjoyed an excellent group lunch at a local restaurant by the bull ring. The restaurant is owned by a retired bullfighter. 

A closer view of our end of the table

After the meal our group emerge from the restaurant to re-join our coach. The bull ring is on the left, by the coach.

Next port of call was the sherry winery. Above, tour leader Ian consults with our guide who will show us around the winery.

Our guide explained in perfect English the process of producing sherry, which is basically a fortified wine. The wine is fortified by alcohol spirit distilled from some of the wine; some of that spirit is itself sold as brandy.  

Our guide explains how the sherry starts in the upper level of barrels, and as it ages it is moved down a layer. The finest sherry is in the bottom layer.

We did not see the actual production of sherry, only the storage and aging facility, and the museum. Production is on an adjacent site not open to visitors. The site has lovely wide 'boulevards' like this one.

Some famous visitors sign the barrels....

....And here's one such of special interest to me. We were not invited to do the same.

In the museum is this small Moto Guzzi 2-stroke motorcycle, which was owned by Jose Ignatio Domecq, a former owner of the winery

Ignatio rode his motorcycle to the winery each day with his dog in the small 'kennel' on the rear carrier

In the museum are many artifacts from the history of sherry production, including these bent-nail boots for trampling the grapes

Of course, the product had to be sampled! But there is only so much dry sherry and Bristol Cream one can drink!

Chris took the opportunity to order her years supply. Here she is with the consignment. 

The coach took us back to Seville, passing fields of sunflowers on the way. They turn to face the sun, so depending on where you view them from you will either see a field of vibrant yellow or a dull green panorama.

Here's our hotel in Seville - 4 star as they all were

On Wednesday 10th we had a free morning, so Chris and I took a stroll out from the hotel. Here is the interior of a church we popped into.

The trams in Seville use a novel traction system. There are no overhead wires, the trams being battery driven with the batteries getting topped up with electricity at each stop. Here is the tram at a stop; the pantograph only raises at stops, where it contacts an overhead power rail to pick up power to charge the batteries. The pantograph retracts before the tram moves off.

A square in Seville. Chris sits in the far distance, on the right, writing post cards we purchased at an adjacent kiosk.

We were scheduled to travel to Granada today (Wednesday) by train, but the railway line is closed all summer while it is upgraded to high speed standard (yet more of that infrastructure investment we lack in UK). So this journey was by road instead; Peter (above) rejoins our coach after our comfort stop on the road to Granada.

Here's the reason for this 'bustitution'; the high speed line between Seville and Granada under construction on its viaduct cutting straight across the valley, seen from our coach. That evening we enjoyed yet another tapas meal out as a group.

On Thursday morning our coach took us up to the Alhambra, the Moorish stronghold overlooking the city. A local guide had joined us at the hotel, and on arrival at the Alhambra he conducted a walking tour around it.

A water course in the Alhambra

Looking out over the city from the Alhambra. The old city wall of Granada can be seen climbing the hill opposite.

More water features

Looking over the Alhambra rooftops to the city below

This is a Parador (Spanish state hotel) within the walls of the Alhambra

Moorish arches

'Modern' Christian castellated tower above the original Moorish architecture

Intricate decoration on walls and ceiling

Courtyard with lions, beyond the pillars....

....And looking up at the detail in the lantern

Chris with the lions. Each is spouting a jet of water from its mouth, though they are not in contact with the water-filled bowl above them. All the water features in the Alhambra are powered by gravity, being fed from reservoirs above the complex.

A couple of views of Granada. On Friday evening we would dine at a terrace restaurant on the hillside opposite affording us a splendid view of the floodlit Alhambra.

After our Alhambra tour we retired to this terrace restaurant for lunch

Looking along our table

Great view of Granada from our tables

After lunch Chris and I took a tour around Granada on this 'road train', with an audio commentary (with an 'English' option). Half price for over 65s, so my ticket was cheaper than Chris's.

Looking up to the Alhambra from the road train

On Friday morning we enjoyed a walking tour of the old part of the city, followed by lunch (above) near the hotel. After lunch Chris and I had a walk out from the hotel.

Chris and I at the meal that night, overlooking the Alhambra

Granada cathedral charges an entry fee, but it is worth it

A typical square where we sat down to relax in the shade on this hot sunny day. On Friday night we enjoyed that meal in the terrace restaurant with the view of the floodlit Alhambra I referred to earlier.

On Saturday (13th) morning we departed by coach to Cordoba. Again, this should have been a rail journey but the high speed line works that affected our journey to Granada affected this journey in the same way. This is olive country, with thousands of olive groves as far as the eye can see.

Our comfort stop on this two and a half hour journey was, ironically, at the disused railway station at Luqua. The trackbed (to the left of the old waggons above) has been made into a cycle and walk way known as 'The Olive Trail'.

The last train through Luqua was on 23rd July 1963. Above is a picture of the last ever ticket issued at the station.

Chris by our coach at Luqua. The chap on the left is Jim, a retired rail engineer, one of our party of travellers.

There's a castle on the hill on the left, and olive trees on the lower ground. This is somewhere between Luqua and Cordoba.

The Roman Bridge at Cordoba, for centuries the only bridge over the river

we enjoyed pizza for lunch at a cafe near the river in Cordoba

The view from the Roman Bridge, which is now pedestrianised as two newer bridges carry road traffic these days. Just downstream are the remains of several corn mills and a ruined weir.

Cordoba from the Roman Bridge, with a long disused undershot water wheel of one of the mills, by the embankment

That afternoon Chris and I took a city tour in an open-sided and open-topped mini bus like this one

The Roman Bridge from the newer bridge downstream

These little buses can negotiate the narrow streets of the old part of the city

A church seen from the bus

Our bus ticket included a city tour on a full size open top double deck bus as well as the little bus. This double decker cannot go where the little bus can, but covered the wider streets further out from the old city. Here's the view from the top deck.

Our hotel was across the river from the city of Cordoba, and boasted a roof top bar. Here is the view of the Roman Bridge and the city from that bar.

It's that Christopher Columbus guy again, celebrated in Cordoba by this edifice. That evening we walked to a restaurant in the old part of the city for a group meal.

Next morning (Sunday 14th) a local guide met us at our hotel for what for me was a highlight of the trip; a walking tour of the cathedral (or perhaps Mosque would describe it better) and the old Jewish quarter. For all these walking tours the guides equipped us with small radios with an earphone so even if some distance from the guide, we could hear their descriptions. This worked very well, enabling one to wander some distance from the guide while still hearing what he / she was saying. The above picture shows the cathedral tower, which encloses the original Mosque minaret. 

The tour of the cathedral at Cordoba was one of the highlights of the holiday. It is an amazing Moorish building, a maze of pillared arches, with later Christian additions. Inside, it is a Mosque, and the floor would originally have been rammed earth covered in carpet.

The Mosque was built on the site of the Visigoth Church of St Vincente, a fragment of whose floor has been excavated and can be viewed through glass panels in the floor of the Mosque

One can imagine thousands of Muslims praying on the floor of the Mosque

Typical Moorish architecture in the Mosque / cathedral

Removal of a later altar screen during renovations revealed this Moorish detail

Looking up into the dome above the Moorish maqsura

In a side chapel is this monstrous Monstrance, used in Catholic processions around the city

The Muslim architecture in the Mosque has, in the centre of the building, been replaced....

.....By this! A Catholic cathedral built in traditional Christian style. A startling contrast to the Moorish architecture surrounding it. 

The ceiling of the Christian architected part of the building

The Christian Choir, the life work of Duque, who died shortly before it was completed and is buried here

A Mosque with a Catholic Church in the middle - this aerial view shows how Christians demolished the centre of the Muslim Mosque and built their church there. The remote cathedral tower encloses the original Mosque minaret.

The tower seen from the narrow street known for its flowers

A typical house patio, or internal open space. This one is a state-owned example

As a fan of Michael Portillo, whose televised rail journeys inspire many holidays such as ours, I just had to include this picture (check out the street name above the doorway)

Early morning on Monday 15th saw us at Cordoba's rail station for our journey to Barcelona. Our RENFE  High Speed Train is pulling into the station as Chris keeps guard of our bags. Why does that train remind me of a duck-billed platypus?

Our group on board the RENFE High Speed  AVE Train to Barcelona. Much of this journey, once though the hills north of Cordoba, was at 300 kph (180 mph).

With this sort of landscape to cross, building new railways in Spain is going to be a lot cheaper than doing it in UK

Click on this picture to enlarge it and you'll see the magic '300 Km / H' on the information display

These overhead displays sometimes showed a film which could be listened to through earpieces provided by the train crew. At other times they showed progress of the train from its origin (Malaga) to its final destination (Barcelona), or cycled through a more detailed map view of progress since the last stop (in this case Zaragoza) to destination, or a very close map view of the immediate vicinity with lineside villages slipping past at 180 mph.

Not all of inland Spain is plain; there are plenty of ranges of hills and even mountains so the scenery out of the window was always changing and interesting to watch as it whizzed by.....

....Though some did prefer to read a book, or even catch up on some sleep as many morning starts were quite early

My afternoon beer to sip as I check the passing scenery against my Michelin map of Spain, a relic from that bike trip of 10 years ago.

Tour leader Ian checks everyone is on the coach for the transfer from Barcelona Sants station to our hotel. Note his bandaged wound; he had a nasty fall from the steps of the coach onto the pavement on arrival at our Cordoba hotel and spent a few hours in hospital as a result. Thankfully the damage was limited to cuts and bruises - and a broken pair of spectacles. 

As we drive away from Barcelona station we saw, for the first time this holiday, threatening skies. There was a bit of thunder that afternoon and a little rain, but nothing significant.

After checking into the hotel we went for a stroll around the local area. Here, Chris poses by the decorative arches at the entrance to the cruise ship terminal. The tower in the background supports the teleferique (cable car) system that carries passengers up to the Park Montjuic on high ground that overlooks the city. It dates from the 1930s and was installed by German engineers.

Next to our hotel were these three giant chimneys, a preserved relic of a power station that once stood on the site now occupied by the modern offices of the power company. That evening the group once again enjoyed a meal out together.

The last sightseeing tour of the holiday started early on Tuesday 16th again led by a local guide. We commenced with a coach ride up to the hill overlooking the city to Park Montjuic. Here, we look down on the cruise ship and ferry terminals.

Looking north along the coast; the teleferique tower we saw yesterday can be seen in the centre of the picture.

This picture shows how compact the city of Barcelona is. Hemmed in by the mountains it is one of the most densely populated cities in Europe. Gaudi's controversial cathedral can be seen rising above the surrounding buildings,and we will shortly be getting a closer view of that building.

The coach dropped us off for a walk around the old city. Above is a building celebrating the art of Picasso. 

The main tower of the cathedral from one of the cloisters

There are many valuable artifacts in the cathedral, so geese were kept as a burglar alarm, a tradition that continues to this day

One can get 'cathedralled out' on a tour like this, but Barcelona cathedral is worth a visit

There's a lot of walking involved on these tours, so every opportunity to have a sit down is taken! This is the cathedral nave.

Our last 'Great Rail' holiday included a visit to Venice, but this is Barcelona's very own 'Bridge of Sighs'

Barcelona cathedral - much more to my taste than Gaudi's Disnyesque 'wedding cake' we are about to visit

Here's a bit of Gaudi architecture glimpsed from the coach as it took us to the next part of Barcelona we were to explore. This is the 'Dragon House', with scaly roof and bony window frames.

A department store near the Gaudi cathedral displays a model of the finished building....

....But nothing prepares one for the real thing. Still far from completion it is, to my eye, way 'over the top'. Truly a Disneyesque wedding cake. 

Two bird sounds dominate Spanish cities, at least while we were there. One is the high pitched screech of darting swifts, and the other is the chirruping of these indigenous green parrots.

Our local guide led us to this small park, the best vantage point to photograph Gaudi's cathedral; to me, it still looks like something from a theme park

Time to relax with our favorite refreshing tipples - a beer and a sangria. In unusually large quantities in this instance, at a cafe on the leafy boulevard of Las Ramblas.

Guess who - yes, it's that Christopher Columbus guy again!

Wednesday the 17th was our last, and longest, day. It started with an early breakfast as soon as the hotel breakfast room opened, then a coach transfer to Barcelona station for out SNCF TGV train to Paris. This was a double-deck TGV and thankfully we had seats on the upper deck where the view is far superior to that from the lower deck. Here's the view from my seat as travel along the Spanish then French coasts past Perpignon and Narbonne where the railway is built on a causeway along the shore, enclosing many inshore lakes. Flamingos inhabit these lakes but we didn't see any.

A lone castle, one of our last views of Spain on this holiday

Snow on the southern slopes of the Pyrenees

Here we pass an example of the type of double deck TGV that we are travelling on

There's no at-seat service on these French high speed trains, but the buffet wasn't far away and that's where the wine (and our lunch) came from. The beer and the cake came gratis from the RENFE first class lounge at Barcelona that morning, which our tickets allowed us to use.

One of the inshore lakes in the Languedoc near Montpellier as we make our way along the causeway between it and the sea. 

You can tell you're in France by the graffiti! 

At Nimes we skirted west of Avignon to joint the high speed TGV line to Paris, crossing the Rhone (above) several times

Our TGV train was about half an hour late into Paris, arriving about 17:20, with no explanation as to why from SNCF. Our coach was waiting at Gare Du Lyon to transport us across the city to Gare Du Nord, where we would board the Eurostar for London St Pancras, and because we were late we ran into the beginning of the evening rush in Paris and got caught in traffic. However, we made it to Gare Du Nord in plenty of time for our 18:40 train. This was just as well because that train was due into St Pancras at 20:00, and the last direct train from London Euston to our home station of Wilmslow was at 20:40, so not much time to make that connection.

The time to board our Eurostar came and went, and a twenty minute delay due to to technical problems with the train was announced. That would have scuppered our chances of making the London connection, but the delay turned out to be only ten minutes by the time we departed, and this was reduced to a seven minute late arrival in St Pancras - close, but do-able!

We enjoyed our last meal of the holiday on the Eurostar home, and the cheerful staff were generous with the wine so we could purloin a few miniature bottles of red for the journey from Euston to Wilmslow. We said our goodbyes to the rest of the group, and to Ian our tour leader, positioned our bags next to the door for a quick exit, and as soon as the door opened we legged it for Euston, making that 20:40 train with just a few minutes to spare! We managed to find two unreserved forward facing seats aligned with a window (not all are on Pendolinos) and the wine purloined from Eurostar was enjoyed on the 1 hour 47 minute journey home as the familiar UK countryside passed at a sedate 125 mph.

Wow! Seven cities and six hotels in thirteen days. By the end it was all beginning to blend together and it took a while, looking back over the fortnight, to separate out out each hotel, each cathedral, even each city. But it had been a quite excellent holiday, if a little hectic. It was good to be home!

Well done Great Rail Journeys - again!

Here are two short videos of the holiday. Click on the links to view them: