Summer Solstice at the Stonehenge

Recently it was the time of the summer solstice and it brought back a personal memory from quite a few years ago.

In my native Estonia, the lightest night of the year is celebrated with large bonfires all over the country. In the UK there is not such a custom. However, some people celebrate the Summer Solstice at an ancient place, thought to be highly energetic – the Stonehenge. The prehistoric monument of Wiltshire dates back 4000-5000 years and is referred to as one of the wonders of the world and the best-known prehistoric monument in Europe.

During normal visiting hours, the stones can only be observed from afar. However, once a year (and perhaps on some other special occasions) the access is open for the public to practically climb on to the stones while waiting for the sunrise.

Nine years ago I had the chance to visit the location and celebrate the summer solstice in the manner of old Celtic Pagans –  a “time of plenty and celebration”.
It was a rather cold and rainy evening when we got there. Nevertheless, it seemed like thousands of people were making their way across the field towards the ancient statues. For the protection of the monument, visitors were prohibited from making loud sounds (no roaring music allowed), bringing along their pets, sleeping bags or duvets, barbeques and camping equipment, or alcohol, for that matter. People were left to take care of their own entertainment on how to spend the cold and wet night – some broke into song and there were a few groups making quiet sounds – all kinds of music style were accepted, from drum circles and beatboxing to improvised poetry and chanting.

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The rather annoying phenomenon of that night was the ongoing showering rain, which lasted all night long from dusk till dawn. There weren´t any tents to cover from the rain so the poor visitors had to wrap up in plastic bags, dance around with chanting Hare Krishnas to get warm or stands next to a tiny fireplace surrounded by a metal grid for safety.

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Six hours of dark and wet time had to be passed somehow – there was no escape if you didn´t have a car. The only way out would have been in an ambulance, which there were a few of. Nevertheless, the whole event was in good spirits and it was kinda cool to jam with thousands of hippies among the old ruins, despite the cold and rain.

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Just after the expected sunshine, around quarter to five (which was just formal, as no sun could be seen through the clouds) the majority of people were ready to rush off. The first bus set off at five to take the brave revellers back to town.

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A quick search shows that the summer solstice celebrations were carried on this year as well, according to the BBC News, on 21st of June. This year being blessed with a heatwave, I bet it was far more enjoyable to celebrate the Midsummer Night.

Image by BBC News
Image by BBC News

Surprise trip to Rochester

A great destination for a day trip getaway from London is Rochester –
a small picturesque town on the river Medway, just 50km from London.
I was taken there for my surprise birthday trip this year.

My favourite birthday present is an experience of some kind – better even an exploration trip to somewhere new. So, already for a few years, I have been getting little hedonistic adventures as birthday presents. Last year ending up in the lovely seaside town of Whitstable and this year, the surprise destination turned out to be Rochester!

The excitement was high, as I got taken on the train at the busy Victoria train station, desperately trying to ignore any kind of hints and announcements as of where the train would be heading, not to spoil the surprise for myself. An hour or so of secretly guessing, it was time to get off the train, discovering ourselves in the marvel of Kent.
Being blessed with the first Summery weather of the year, the sun was shining brightly, making everything look even better, as it does.

RochesterThe high street of this cute little town is something to see – lined with small boutiques and cafés with the abundance of antique and charity shops. Wish we had time to search for the hidden treasures!

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Our first stop happened to be at Fieldstaff Antiques – the lovely little boutique filled with wonders of the bygone days, which I left with a few pairs of beautiful vintage gloves.

The historic town has over time been occupied by Celts, Romans, Jutes and Saxons, bearing quite an important role from early times.

As the main points of interest, I would name the gorgeous architectural masterpiece of Rochester Cathedral and the ruins of Rochester Castle.

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The Cathedral originates from AD 604, the current architectural shape was finished in 1343. The gorgeous Cathedral is a masterpiece from inside and out.

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Rochester Castle, with the 12th-century keep, served as a strategically important royal castle in the medieval times. It saw action in the siege in 1264 and has been in ruins ever since. Currently, the castle grounds are open to the public as a park and it is possible to climb up the ruins for a great view of the Cathedral and the riverside. Just remember to wear comfy shoes!

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For the dinner we were recommended to check out Topes restaurant, just next to the castle – the atmosphere looked lovely and relaxed, but unfortunately, many people thought the same – if you want to get a place there, have to book a few weeks in advance!
Instead, we ended up at Elizabeth´s Restaurant at the other end of the High Street.  Although a bit too fancy at the first glimpse with its pristine white tablecloth, the fresh seafood menu, accompanied by the crisp white wine, really indulged our taste buds.

Rochester is especially known for the historic May Day dancing chimney sweeps tradition with the famous parade going down the High Street. Should remember to check it out next year!

Medieval towns of Pals and Peratallada

Having the scooter allowed us to discover Llafranc neighborhood even further, so we headed inland from Aiguablava beach, to see the medieval towns.
First view spot was outside the little town of Begur, with its 16th century castle. This time we just had a look at the town´s scenery from afar.

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While the road along the coast, travelling from one beach to another was rather hilly, but quiet, then going slightly inland it turned rather highway-like and less scooter-friendly. Away from the coast the typical Spanish dryness had settled in, turning most of the nature desertly yellow.

Our first destination was Pals. Its medievalness dates back quite a few centuries, namely to 11th century, with its town walls and four square towers dating back even further, to the 4th century. During our visit on the Sunday morning, the town seemed to be abandoned ghost town. Everything was well in tact, but very few people were wandering along the cobbled streets of the medieval quarters.
My favourite spot in town was a small boutique/café Bazara, that combined casual boho clothing and accessories shop with stylish coffee corner. Just for this shop I´d like to live there, or maybe rather “transport” the same kind of boutique to my neighborhood. 🙂

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About 10km from Pals there is another medieval town, Peratallada – famous for its Medieval festival in October. Most of the buildings in Peratallada are built from stone carved from the moat which still encircles parts of the small fortified medieval town. The castle from 11th century, in the middle of the town has been turned into luxury hotel. Its beautiful stone buildings, narrow passages and cobbled streets were very charming indeed.

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Spanish nature is just so unbelievable and totally different from the rest of Europe! The air changes as soon as you cross the border at the Pyrenees. The ground is desert-like yellowish, rather than black, the plants are different, with large selection of cacti, and of course the heat. I just love it!

Cruising North from Llafranc, Tamariu and Aiguablava beaches

If you have some time to spend at Llafranc and are not up for spending your full day on the beach(at least not on the same one), it is a great idea to rent a scooter and visit some nearby beaches. We headed off discovering Northwards.

Scooter really is a great way to travel in the neighborhood and still be able to enjoy the nature(more than inside a car), provided you have a good driver. The road gets much hillier to the North from Llafranc, going by foot it is quite a hike. On a scooter, however it was a very picturesque experience with pine smell and smooth sea breeze, looking down at the green forests and gorgeous sea-scenery, following the steep winding road up and down the hill.

First stop up the hill was Sant Sebastià lighthouse, built in the 19th century. There is also a lovely outdoor restaurant to enjoy the view with some music.
The scenery from the viewpoint is just unbelievable! I could have just stayed there for ages!(I think I did spend at least half an hour taking in the view). A real “happy place”.

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Driving on, we took a turn at a mysterious little sign of “Cala de Cau”(that is not even on the Google map). We were looking for little creeks off the tourist trail. Following the path, it lead through the forest, climbing steeply down the rocky hill. Quite a climb, without really knowing where we´re going. However, at the bottom there was a tiny little windowless shedon the small stony beach. Very secretive and exclusive, nice private discovery.

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Driving on, up and down the hills, the road lead to Tamariu beach. A former small fishing village, as they all tend to be. Despite the crowds, the beach has managed to retain its amazingly clear water.

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Further on North, we got to Aiguablava beach down the steep descent. The rather small beach is surrounded by  high wall of rocks and cliffs that most probably move a bit during the stormy season. Before heading downhill, we were welcomed by again a magnificent scenery from the top of the hill.

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There are many more little coves and beaches, worth your discovery!

Hike to Cap Roig botanic gardens

Southwards from Llafranc goes is a picturesque hiking trail. The aromatic pine trees surround the walking trail going along the coast, built on the side of the rocks. Just about a quarter of an hour walk away is the neighbor town of Calella de Palafrugell (that of course if you dare to rush past the charming scenery and sights of the most beautiful neon and teal blue water, otherwise it will take longer).

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Calella de Palafrugell is known for its July music festival – The Cap Roig Garden Festival that has been featuring really big names, for such a small relaxed spot.

Calella with its several little coves and beach spots is a great place to stop over for a dip in the sea and also to stock up on water and snacks(or eat at one of their numerous restaurants). This is quite crucial, as moving on there won´t be options to get food along the way and even at the Cap Roig botanic gardens is just a lonely vending machine, in case you get hungry.

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However, moving on along the rocky sides of the coast, the hiking trail gets rather narrow and wild and oh so beautiful, with a few tunnels going straight through the rocks. Reminded me a little of Cinque Terre hiking trail in Italy.

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Cap Roig botanic gardens may take a few GPS skills to find(as it is situated not straight at the end of the hike), but are easily reachable by foot.

Cap Roig botanic garden is one of a kind along the Catalonian coast and holds nearly 1000 botanical species from all over the world and sculptures by renowned Spanish and international artists. It is here where the July Music Festival really takes place.
Back in 1927 the Russian colonel Nicolai Woevodski, lover of drawing and architecture, and his wife, English aristocrat and decorator Dorothy Webster started building their dream. The works continued up to 1974.  The castle and its gardens are today their legacy.

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All in all (together with swim breaks and snack stops) took us 8 hours to hike from Llafranc to Cap Roig and back. It takes about 1.5h to have a proper look around the botanic gardens.

Quietly picturesque Llafranc

Next stop after Figueres and our base-camp over the next few days was the picturesque little town of Llafranc. Early September when the kids had returned to school and most of the tourists finished their holidays, the season was winding down and coming to an end. This was a perfect opportunity to  avoid the crowds.

Llafranc is a small costal town on Costa Brava, adjacent to Girona that has managed to retain its cute low-rise 2-3 floor houses and avoid getting the high skyline, so sadly destroying the natural beauty of several Spanish resorts.

Frequented by film stars and artists of the 20th century, Dali himself used to stay often at the Hotel Llafranc. The artfulness of the town is reflected even on the meter boxes that sometimes appeared covered with paintings.

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Surrounded by the hilly coastline, the little cove offers calm getaway to kick back and unwind. With sweet pine smell in the air, combined with the sea breeze cooling your skin in the hot sunshine, this is a great place for relaxation.

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As gastronomy  makes up a great part of the holiday, from my experience I would recommend La Sirena restaurant for a dinner directly on the beach – great ambiance and good food. I am usually not big fan of calamari rings, as they often tend to taste like rubber bands. However the ones I had at La Sirena were really eye-opening for me, making me realise they can actually taste amazing, if cooked properly!

For the dessert the place to go is restaurant Jani, for the best coconut flan in the world!

However I would not recommend getting a paella at the Hotel Llafranc restaurant – my great hopes were bitterly(or should I say “saltily”) disappointed.

Dali Theatre Museum

Beginning of the month took me on a wonderful Catalonia mini break in Spain which I will talk about over next few travel posts.

One thing I most definitely wanted to do is visit the Dali museum. Turns out there are at least three of them in Catalonia! Salvador Dali was originally from that area, being born inland in a small town of Figueres, having his first studio in Cadaques and Gala´s Castle in Pubol.

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So from this Dali Triangle we picked to visit Dali Theatre Museum in Figueres.
Did not have time to look around properly in this little town, but down the street just outside the Catalonia Toy Museum, some quirky architecture could be spotted. What a surrealistic town!

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I am a huge fan of Dali´s works. A few fun facts about Salvador:

Salvador Domingo Felipe Jacinto Dalí i Domènech (that was his real name) work spans across several decades between 1922 till his death in 1989 and covers several art disciplines. Generally known as syrrealist painter, his atistic development can be seen in his huge Theatre Museum.

I think it is quite important curious fact of his life that Salvador Dali had a 3 years older brother, also named Salvador, who died 9 months before Salvadore Dali the younger was born. He was named after his brother and raised as an reincarnation of the deceased sibling. When Salvador was 5 years old, his parents took him to his brother´s grave and told him the story. Must have been kind of creepy living with this knowledge, but to me this explains a lot about the bizarreness of his character and the reason he might have wandered into surrealism (in addition to the sociopolitical influences of the time and other art movements). The images of his dead brother have appeared repeatedly in his works.

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Dali Theatre Museum in Figueres used to be a municipal theatre (hence the name), where in the vestibule Dali had his first exhibition back in a day. Now it is turned into the museum spanning several floors and a wonderful courtyard.

Fact that I did not know during my visit, Dali is buried in the museum´s crypt, so his presence is still there!

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Being so captivating we easily spent 4 hours in the museum.
Highly recommended!