Category Archives: Travel
From the Morris Dance to the Flamenco
My experiences of carnivals had been confined to the sort of thing one sees on a wet Saturday afternoon in England. I remember one such event in Suffolk where the parade consisted of one float advertising a local electrical retailer. The float's theme was lost in a mass of soggy crepe paper, bursting balloons and a general air of indifference. By the look of the Carnival Queen and her attendants the contest was based on personality alone. No attempt had been made to tailor the costumes which was unfortunate as last years incumbent was a rather stout girl. It all gave a fair impression of a perambulating laundry pile followed by a lorry delivering bulk paper mache and old inner-tubes. Those that lined the route were there by accident and paid little attention other than wondering who wanted so much paper mache.
The afternoon and evening events lasted two days, which was a bit of overkill considering the attractions on offer. The venue, a field had been carefully chosen for its mud content. A tent which had seen many better days housed what passed for a bar. This was an arrangement of what appeared to be three wallpaper tables placed end on end with crates of beer bottles stacked behind. It wasn't an inviting place. Drinking overpriced lukewarm beer in a draughty leaking tent erected in a muddy field. The drinkers consisted mainly of those who had lost the will to live after watching the Morris dancing. Food was catered for in the shape of a foul smelling hamburger van operated by an unshaven villainous individual. His appearance didn't reflect the affluence implied from his prices.
There were a couple of carnival rides of such diminutive size that they couldn't have raised the adrenaline levels of a two year old. Nearby a trick cyclist demonstrated his inability to ride a motorcycle. A dog handling display and a sullen troop of drum majorettes more or less completed the entertainment. The dogs at least did as they were instructed unlike the drum majorettes. One left the carnival with a mixture of emotions, a sense of complete deflation coupled with a strong feeling of being expertly mugged.
I don't believe this description to be too far from the collective truth associated with such events nationally. It is a sad fact that we only pay lip-service to such occasions and view them simply as charitable fund raising exercises. Consequently people feel obliged to attend and the extortionate prices are justified on humanitarian grounds. Enjoyment is secondary.
This is how I viewed all carnivals as I set out for southern Spain, the Costa del Sol and Fuengirola. I was to attend the October Feria.
I collected a map of the town and a timetable of events from the Tourist Office in the Paseo Jesus Santos Rein then headed for the nearest bar to study the itinerary. The first thing I noticed was that the Carnival was in fact a religious affair. At least it was in the honour of Nuestra Señora del Rosario, Our Lady of the Rosary. The main church, Parroquia de Ntra Sra del Rosario located at the northern end of the Plaza de la Constitución was the focal point of the Feria. Speeches in the Plaza began what turned out to be six days of extreme noise, tantalizing aromas and strength sapping fun. It was a feat of stamina as everything and everyone continued in the carnival's supercharged atmosphere until the early hours.
The young ladies of Fuengirola squeezed themselves into figure hugging flamenco dresses and paraded the streets and shopping centres. The massed effect was breathtaking as regiments of raven haired and impeccably made up señoritas wiggled and giggled their way through the streets. The young men dressed in short jackets and Sevilla Hats rode on horseback through the town with their resplendent ladies side saddled behind them. The more elderly opted for sedate carriages which were pulled by teams of well groomed horses and ponies. Just to be in Fuengirola is to be involved in the Feria.
The carnival ground itself is centred on the Plaza Hispanidad. As one approaches the first impressions are of dazzling light of an intensity which hurts the eyes while the volume of noise is so great that the generated percussion waves can be felt on the cheeks. Rides which could effectively be used for astronaut training fling, hurl and spin their screaming captives through the warm evening air.
Aromas from the eating venues can only be resisted by the well sated. Huge dishes of paella and slice potatoes slowly baking in olive oil tempt the would-be diner. The sticky desserts and sweets solved a question that had bothered me for some time. Why there are so many dental surgeries in Spanish towns. The sugar content of just one could keep the occupants of a good sized kindergarten hyperactive for days.
There were over thirty peñas at the carnival ground. These are club houses, motoring, hiking, football etc. Each has a bar long enough to do credit to a Workingman's Club in north eastern England. Each peña vies for drinkers by offering entertainment. The noise is incredible as popular music mingles with the hypnotic beat of flamenco. Male baritones compete with Latin American rhythm. The confluence of sounds was so disorientating I found it necessary to do something familiar to compensate. This usually involved visiting a bar and having a not too quiet drink. It was a good technique and became more effective as the evening went on.
The entertainment offered by the Peña Futbol Sala Los Beliches was of particular note. Here two girls and a lad, Tatiana, Estíbaliz and Angel entertained. The brunette Tatiana, took the lead, the blonde Estíbaliz supplied support and the eye-candy while Angel played the electronic organ and generally organised things. They started their turn at eight-thirty in the evening and continued through to the early hours. They covered most musical genres and sang along with the audience who copied their hand and body movements. The Ritmo Andaluz Show as they are known certainly earned their money and even found time to talk and pose for my photographs.
The noise was inversely proportional to the smallness of the hour and increased as dawn approached. As I was getting increasingly disorientated so my visits to the bar by necessity increased. This further increased my sense of bewilderment. I decided
enough was enough before I has to avail myself of the service offered by the resident paramedics. By some miracle I found my way safely to my bed.
This routine continued for five days by the sixth I was a complete wreck. Mentally and physically dissipated. As the sixth night was the last I got an early night falling easily into a dreamless sleep. Not for long however. There was the most tremendous din. I thought the Americans were recreating the Palomares Incident, this time with live devices. It was the closing firework display. I swear I could see the walls shaking and hear shrapnel hitting the roof, perhaps it wasn't really that dramatic but it certainly lit up the night sky. I was past caring and managed to sleep through the remainder of the pyrotechnic display.
As I sat wedged in the seat of my low-cost flight back to the UK I wondered at the sheer stamina of the average Spaniard. This was not an isolated Carnival, many more were planned over the coming months. I remembered that cold damp field in England with its miserable beer tent. I think I'll give the carnival in Suffolk a miss this year.
Doña Mencía is a sleepy town at the foot of the Sierra Subbética. Built on a small plain and bathed in the lucent Andalucían sun. Palm trees and cypresses are in abundance, but I was more interested in searching for my recently detached near-side wing mirror.
Not accustomed to driving on the right, I naturally kept too close to the near-side curb. My wing mirror had clipped the wing mirrors of cars parked on that side of the road. It was as if my car was shaking hands with them, like a dignitary greeting a line of footballers before a match.
With the mirror rattling around in the glove compartment I headed north-west towards Córdoba. The air-conditioning whirred quietly away maintaining a healthy temperature differential between me and the outside world.
Unlike cities in Britain, southerly Spanish cities have no suburbs, they simply 'start'. For someone as timid and insecure as me it is quite alarming. One moment I am driving along a near deserted N432. The next jostling for position on the Carretera Castro heading towards the Avenida de Granada and the most appalling confluence of roads, roundabouts and squares. I imagined driving in Spain to be easy. If it were difficult, surely no one would have rented a car to an idiot like me.
With La Plaza de Andalucía looming I lost my nerve and headed for the dirt verge. I pulled up next to a bright orange rubbish dumpster. Córdoba is a city known for its car crime. I took this to mean that every male from the age of 14 to 65 viewed it as a full-time occupation. It was with some apprehension that I shouldered my camera bag and headed off in the direction of the Roman bridge over Rio Guadalquivir.
The bridge looked impressive it was amazing how well it had lasted. Built in the first century, admittedly repaired and partially reconstructed over the years but it still reflected the craftsmanship of the Roman engineers. A shrine to San Rafael completed in 1651 is about halfway along the 16 arch structure. Candles and flowers are always present at the tabernacle, while older Córdobenians still doff their hats as they pass.
I was just changing film when I noticed a plaque ‘Puente San Rafael’. I felt such a fool, the wrong bridge. I reloaded my camera and rattled off another roll of Velvia. I was trying to appear competent for any onlookers. I then skulked up river in search of the Roman bridge.
At the western side of the Puente Romano stands the Gate del Puente, built in the sixteenth century by Philip II. This complements the Torre de la Calahorra at the eastern entrance to the bridge. The tower now houses the Museo Vivo de Al-Andalus, emphasizing the three cultures which are the very essence of Córdoba. A city that epitomizes diversity, religious tolerance and passion.
My trip to Córdoba was specifically to visit the Mezquita or rather the Holy Cathedral and former mosque of Córdoba, as described in official literature. It is very rare to find a religious site where evidence of previous doctrines remains. This may be more to do with the grandeur of the Great Mosque rather than any tolerance on the part of Ferdinand III.
In 785 Abd al-Rahman I initiated the first phase of construction on the site of a Visigoth basilica. Further expansions took place over the next 200 years by a succession of Emirs. With the coming of the Christian reconquest a cathedral was built within the fabric of the Mosque. The Muslim minaret replaced by the Christian Torre del Alminar.
The coolness of the interior was most striking, almost cold, the complex air-currents proving as efficient as any air-conditioner. The multitude of columns confuse the vision, the eyes have difficulty focusing while the sheer scale of the building is disorientating. I had the feeling I was inside an enormous and complex sculpture designed to comfort and calm.
The pillars support arches whose voussoirs alternate red and white, the whole effect of shape and colour is stunning. The structural and cosmetic makeup of the prayer hall is reminiscent of the Great Mosque of Damascus betraying the common Umayyad influence. The unprecedented decision to build the Christian Cathedral within the Mosque has led to startling incongruities. The Gothic church rises from the very heart of redundant Muslim prayer hall.
Mosque of Cordoba
The entrance to the mosque is via the Patio de los Naranjos although Olive trees and cypresses are more in abundance now. It was here that I emerged from the cool shaded pillared halls into an inferno. I do not know what demonic forces had been at work while I was in the Mosque. The morning now superheated and the sun’s glare so intense it stung the eyes.
My exertions, both this morning and at the bar last night had left me tired and dehydrated, I was not in tip-top condition. My lips chapped, my face red from the sun, I had a raging thirst and my vision became blurred. My camera bag felt as if it were full of bricks and my legs were going, I stumbled into a taberna.
I attracted an admiring crowd as I fell into the bar, “Agua, muy frío, por favor” I croaked. The mozo de la taberna looked at me in pity as I downed the cold liquid. With my thirst quenched I realized how hungry I was. I decided I needed some protein. A steak would be do the trick. I ordered a glass of fino to put an edge on my appetite and to sip while I studied the menu. The fino was superb; I have only tasted better at the hotel Alfar near Montilla. A hotel I can thoroughly recommend along with the excellent staff.
The bar had an English menu which was the stuff of Goon Show Scripts. What I took as grilled steak was described as 'Products of slaughter to the stone'. The translation,
possibly made using a Spanish to Polish and then a Polish to English phrase book. The translation may have been poor but the meal was first-rate. Tender rice with a crispy salad and succulent steak washed down with chilled fino. A simple meal perhaps, but the quality of the produce and the skill of preparation made it memorable.
I left the bar full of bonhomie and 'Products of slaughter to the stone'. I walked from the Avenida del Alcazar to the Puente San Rafael where I crossed and made my way to the car.
I am a bad driver, mainly because I lose concentration and let my mind go off in any tangent it chooses. Today was no exception. I was oblivious to the blaring horns and waving fists as I pulled away musing over the days events.
The journey to Córdoba was more or less obligatory. The Great Mosque is on everyone’s list of places to go when in the area. In Spain, if one expects the mundane it usually proves to be extraordinary. This is the nature of Spain. It is one of the reasons every trip surpasses the previous one. Why I, at least continue to return!
I furiously attacked the bedroom door. My Son had volunteered to drive me to Exeter Airport and his resistance to verticality was becoming disturbing. The early flight to Málaga was convenient in as much as you have almost a full day on arrival. The drawback is getting up early enough to catch the ruddy thing.
I had called him three times but the first two brought no response. The third rewarded with a thumping on the floor. This was an old ploy, a diversion. I was to think he was out of bed and getting dressed. It was in fact a device to give himself a couple of extra minutes in that delightful semi-conscious state enjoyed in the early hours. Perseverance and nagging eventually paid-off and a bleary eyed scratching progeny emerged from the depth of his lair.
After some diligent loading, we headed off in my Son’s little green Peugeot. The route to the airport included country lanes and an old Roman road which appeared to be in its original condition. I wasn't going to get away unscathed after my beratings and early calls. He had me where he wanted me. Corners were taken on two wheels. Every pot-hole caused the suspension to buffet violently, my knuckles turned white as I gripped the safety strap.
The rapid changes of gear and acceleration should have had the Peugeot Company offering sponsorships. If it had not been for the fear of tetanus I would have kissed the ground as we pulled up at the terminal building. This was shabby, run down and in need of a face lift but from my point of view sanctuary.
The flight when viewed against my crazed ride to the airport was tranquil and uneventful apart from one startling fact. The aircraft I was travelling in was British, leather seats with plenty of leg-room it was really pleasant. A budget airline that doesn’t rely on 737s, that must be something of a novelty. Like all budget airlines food is not included in the ticket price. Not a problem on two hour flights, unless the people in front of you bring their own. Warm egg sandwiches given full reign in the recycled air of a small aircraft cabin brought back memories of the inside of my old school satchel. I would have preferred a more exotic aroma.
The Pyrenees slid past the port wing as Green Spain spread out below. At 500 knots it wasn’t long before the arid central regions gave way to the geometric olive groves of Andalucía. The aerial view of traffic on the wrong side of the road still filled me with dread. Although I have mastered the technique of driving on the right, the view from above is still somehow daunting.
I was still musing over this change as the courtesy-coach delivered me to the car hire compound. I always use the same hire company. They have never let me down and they are cheap, a wonderful combination. As I signed the necessary forms and flashed my driver’s license I became aware of a hammering in the compound. There in the far corner was the little silver Renault that I had rented last year undergoing some feverish and impromptu panel beating. It was pleasing to see it again, something familiar, a bond with my earlier visit.
As I dodged, swerved and cursed my way off the Málaga ring road and onto the N331 I asked myself “Why had I chosen Montilla this time” .
Was it because it was a small town away from the coast and from the tourist areas? Or perhaps because it is a place to meet the genuine Spaniard, in his own environment, with his everyday pressures and needs. Not a bit of it Montilla is slap bang in the middle of the N331. It meant I wouldn’t get lost.
Being perpetually mislaid was starting to wear thin. The hotel I had chosen was the Alfar, marked on Autoroute software and alongside the main road. I would have to excel myself to get lost this time. I should have used different criteria for planning the holiday, but any holiday is a gamble. My method must be as valid as any.
The Hotel is a rambling rectangular affair with its longest side parallel to the road. The 38 rooms are all on the first floor, mine being in the rear of the building overlooking the swimming pool. It was only early May, so the pool was still empty, about as inviting as a closed pub.
Two girls shared reception duties during the day, bright, bubbly and friendly individuals. One evening one of the girls excitedly dragged me from the bar. She kept saying Los Beeratalis, that had me stumped. I thought the Guardia Civil had caught up with me for ignoring the solid white line when I turned left. As I was led to reception the strains of 'Love Me Do' flowed from a small radio. The Beatles. The kind hearted recepcionista thought I would like to hear them. Why? I am not sure. Nostalgia? I appeared delighted and tapped along to the beat.
The rooms were large airy and comfortable. I looked for the flaw. Every hotel room I had stayed in had a flaw. At the Zuhayra in Zuheros, it was the bidet. Both tap and plug leaked, but the through flow of water kept my bottled beer cool. It didn’t take long to find it. The shower- head had broken away from its bracket, so I tied it on with a sock. It worked surprising well and it had the added advantage of giving the sock a wash. If anyone books into room 122, have a look for my sock its black, not that I want it back I would just like a sighting.
The food was Spanish and excellent. A bonus was the entertainment. This took the form of the 'English' menu. It provided hours of enjoyment. Messers Milligan, Sellers and Seacombe would have approved. The translation looks as if it was via Latin; it was a work of art. The most unfortunate entries were the meat dishes from the
Spanish carne via a Junior schools edition Latin Dictionary and into the English as slaughter.
The bar, where I spent most of my time, was a wonderful place. It wasn't just because of the never ending supply of alcohol and food, a consideration of course. It was mainly the ambiance of the place. Intricate tile-work depicting the pottery industry, the hanging hams and the big brass San Miguel pump all merged to produce a Spanish workaday atmosphere.
Bar at the Hotel Alfar
The two barmen were attentive rotund and jolly. One of them even learnt a few words of English to welcome me in the evening. Before dinner he would bring me samples of the main dishes so I could decide my meal. The revelation for me was the Fino, kept in a silver tea-pot and draped in wet tea-towels; it was superb. Delicate, dry and with an aroma which is the essence of Spain.
Now back in the UK I drink Fino rarely. This is partly due to the inferior quality and partly because of the vivid memories associated with the sherry. I do not want to degrade them with over use.
One of the bar duo
Málaga at Easter, I had a purpose to my trip this time, to photograph and document the Semana Santa processions beginning on Domingo de Ramos. There were eight processions on Palm Sunday the first starting at ten in the morning and the last finishing at one thirty the following morning. The number over the whole Easter period numbered 42. Needing stamina for the hectic day ahead, I set off in search of somewhere to eat. I had long since burnt up the calories from my FlyBe snack pack.
My hotel was in the Trinidad Grund next to the Plaza de la Marina, very central and one street away from the Alameda Principal. This and the Calle Marques de Larios were the common points for all the processions. I also wanted a central hotel as I didn’t want to hire a car, driving not being on my list of favourite pastimes. I am not a good driver. Whenever I hire a car I always make certain that they have a 24 hour drop off policy. I find it good practice to take them back under the cover of darkness. It makes my handiwork less obvious.
I would be seeing enough of these two locations in the coming days, so I headed for the playa. Although Easter 2008 was in March, people were swimming. Six days later an unseasonal temperature inversion in the stratosphere caused a bombardment of large hailstones over southern Spain. I found an inviting café where I seated myself at a table. El Gallo Rojo was the name above the menu, the Red Rooster. The proprietors had a slightly different translation, but as that sounded like a social disease I will stick to my construction. After an atún and pimiento baguette for my hunger, a cold beer for my thirst, and two glasses of wine for my soul I began to feel human again. I noticed that my skill in Spanish was proportional to my intake of alcohol. A secret I am considering sharing with Linguaphone, at a price of course.
Semana Santa Procession
Why do they make a bee-line for me?
I didn’t want Spanish café music; they ignored a couple holding hands and headed for me.
Don’t believe the films. These people aren’t interested in serenading courting couples, they’re heading for the cash. Unfortunately for them they made a mistake in my case, but this is their modus operandi. Either they belong to a large and closely related family of street musicians or this pair thought it their civic duty to ‘entertain’ me. To relieve me of my loose change every time I sat down to eat. They were omnipresent. I would hear the strains of some much altered flamenco piece and my unshaven duo would heave into view. They would greet me with twitching fingers and sickly anticipatory grins.
Back at the hotel, I charged my camera batteries, cleaned my lenses and studied the route for the first Palm Sunday procession the following morning. As I have no religion, I approached the whole observance with an open mind. The Spanish church doesn’t have the power perceived by us outsiders. Since it led the uprising against Napoleon in 1808 it had been in a general state of decline. However since the death of Franco it has been seen less of a tool of the rich and powerful. Though the people have always remained intensely religious, it was an interesting paradox.
The first procession was due to start at ten at the Casa Hermandad. There was no need to consult my map I just followed the crowds, the uniformed musicians and children carrying their ‘capirotes’. Women walking straight backed trying not to dislodge their high mantillas, the whole picturesque throng was as if heading for some mythical but elusive refuge. Then there was me, a puffing panting middle- aged wreck rattling alone with camera equipment stuffed into every pocket. I probably need go for a check-up. On my last visit for an insurance medical the doctor said, consulting his clipboard “Question one, do you suffer from blackouts..………question number 5”. He thought this was hilarious, it was only with great strength of character that I stopped myself from hitting him.
A mingling, relaxed but noisy throng gathered outside the Casa. There was no one in charge and no obvious organisation, typical Spanish anarchy. Suddenly, the amorphous mass of humanity acted as one and the procession started to move off. I swung into action, if swing is the right word to describe my lumberings. I went down onto one knee for a low angle shot. I shout “Your photograph please”. The use of English is different from the other photographers who are predominantly Spanish, so the subject naturally looks my way. In the UK I shout “Su fotografía, por favor”, it has the same effect.
Controlling the procession is a system of hand bells, allowing the costaleros carrying the ‘thrones’ to rest every 50 metres or so without any disruptions. Years of experience have made the whole exercise faultless. La compás, the beat rung out on dozens of drums, brings unity, making the whole parade move as one. The throne of María Santísima del Amparo brings the most reaction. This is the first procession and the first time the effigy of María Santísima has been seen this year. It first brings applause, then the more pious of the women folk shed tears. The spectacle is quite moving even to a heathen such as myself.
Boy in Semana Santa Procession
As the procession moves concerned mothers dash in from the sidelines to check on their precious off-springs. How they know which is which is beyond me. The hoods are all encompassing it must be in their shoes? Stalls selling toy drums and trumpets line the route, food vendors sell everything from grapefruit to cured hams. Others make the delicious almond toffee, fresh as you wait. As the procession approached the Alameda Principal the crowds become thicker. Pre-booked seating now lines the route and it becomes more difficult for reportage photography. I reluctantly put my lens cap on and head for a hostelry, to eat, have a drink and put my notes in order.
While enjoying a glass of chilled Fino in the Plaza del Obispo opposite Málaga Cathedral, I saw a British family. Tourists rather than residents over exposure to the sun testified to this, taking photographs of Málaga Cathedral. The patriarch placed his overweight sun blotched wife and his two reluctant offspring in front of the Cathedral before proceeding to take pictures. Now Málaga Cathedral for those who are unfamiliar with it is a wonderful example of 16th century baroque architecture. It has the classification of Málaga Baroque. Why this chap wanted to include his motley spouse and their hideous progenies in the shot is beyond me. The Cathedral’s guardians shouldn’t feel too hard done by. Tourists do the same with that Mughal wonder the Taj Mahal and even the Pyramids.
The next few days I repeated the procedure of first, locating, following and photographing the forty-two processions. It became harrowing. I was beginning to think that tap-dancing in boiling oil (olive of course) was a good alternative. I needed a diversion. I visited the English Cemetery the graveyard of St George’s Anglican Church to the east of the city. I wanted to see Gerald Brenan’s and Robert Boyd’s head stones; it was also the last place I expected to see a procession.
The English Cemetery Málaga
The caretaker John Halybone welcomed me, “Watch out for the processional caterpillars” he said, they are poisonous.
I had a choice, either damage myself or the car. The car was on hire and therefore my responsibility, whereas I had travel insurance. I avoided the potholes and drove on the compacted rocks which formed the road's centre. This set up a terrific vibration which loosened my dental fillings. I tried to check them in the rear-view-mirror which was oscillating through 360’. Catapulted Stones from the wheels of passing vehicles were modifying the car's body-work. I had a head-ache! I was sure the whole thing would disintegrate leaving me sat on the bare chassis grimly clutching the steering wheel.
Since leaving the Carretera a Palma Del Rio, the local roads were appalling. I had the impression that some belligerent howitzer battery had just shelled them.
I was to spend the night in a house a few kilometres west of Córdoba. To say it was a hovel is perhaps unfair but it certainly came close. I must stop being so trusting when I book accommodation. Mosquitoes fed on my bodily fluids and howling dogs deprived me of my much needed slumber. The gas cylinder looked to be in a bad state so like a fool I turned it off. As I gave up smoking ten years ago I had no way of lighting it in the morning. I had a cold shower, no coffee and left the house in a foul mood.
The purpose of my enterprise was to follow the Route of the Caliphs, from Córdoba to Granada. I was to start my expedition at Madinat al-Zahra, built on El Cerro de la Novia, The Bride’s Hill. Abd al-Rahman III founded the immense complex in AD936. Moorish Spain's infrastructure, its organization and control came from here. I hope their highways department was more efficient than their successors.
I felt at ease amongst the ruins. It wasn’t that I wanted to move through the once wonderful buildings in long flowing robes like some moronic Lawrence of Arabia. I had studied archaeology at the University of Exeter and have spent many happy hours on digs. I find I can associate with the ancients, picturing their shadowy figures flitting through their world of long ago. It could have of course be a ploy to forget the present and the reality it represents.
Only a small area of the complex has undergone excavation revealing fine stucco work and the remains of marble columns. Madinat al-Zahra is on three terraces with the highest accommodating the administrative zone. The middle terrace had the gardens, orchards and the all important pools. This area would have been a haven of serenity with water flowing in convoluted channels to irrigate, cool and soothe. The lowest platform housed the military and the general mosque.
Driving through Córdoba in the rush-hour is not a pleasant experience. If the Caliph had to do it, I am sure he would have found an alternative route. It was horrendous! I finally found the N432 and headed east toward the Sierra Subbètica and the Hotel Zuhayra in Zuheros. This would locate me roughly halfway between Córdoba and Granada.
My hire-car was in a bit of a state. Freshly dented from the airborne rocks of yesterday. I wondered what unseen damage had been done.
My understanding of mechanics is something akin to Albert Einstein’s practical experience of surfing. I once had an old Fiesta which was always failing to start. A friend of mine said the fault was with the distributor. I was all for going around to the Ford dealership and demanding to know why they had sabotaged my car.
The Route of the Caliphs follows the line of fortified towns from the Guadlaquivir Valley towards the fertile plains east of Granada. These citadels formed the first phase of a ninth century defence in depth strategy. Zuheros is a prime example of one of these towns. It clings to the side of the Sierra Subbètica, the castle dominating the town. Erected from within the natural contours of the surrounding rock giving the appearance of complete assimilation with it.
I arrived in Zuheros in the mid-afternoon. It had been three years since I was last here and I felt as if I were coming home. Nothing appeared to have changed, it was very reassuring. The Hotel Zuhayra had the same relaxed cool atmosphere and the attentive staff were familiar faces. I was soon relaxing in a hot bath, soothed by the sounds from the village. People were just emerging from the heat of the afternoon.
I took dinner in the comedor of the Bar Los Palancos. A revuelto de colleja, lamb’s lettuce cooked with scrambled egg ham and prawns, washed down with the opaque fino en rama. The meal was delicious. I slept soundly with a full stomach, a glow from the fino and no voracious mosquitoes or vocal dogs to bother me. Tomorrow I was back on the N432 to Granada and the Alhambra.
I left the hotel just before dawn, my entry time for the Nasrid Palaces was 11 to 11:30. The distance was 114 kilometres. I had built in enough time to cater for any eventuality. Getting lost, changing a wheel, abduction by badly informed guerrillas or for any other turn of events that appealed to my tiny mind. As it turned out the road was good, the signposts informative and I reached Granada with time to spare.
The Alhambra complex sits on the Sabika Hill overlooking Granada with the snow covered peaks of the Sierra Nevada behind. A convoluted site consisting of three distinct areas, the Alcazaba, the Nasrid Palaces and the Generalife all arranged with military precision. The Alhambra, we recognise today started with Al-Ahmar the founder of the Nasrid dynasty. Later he moved his affairs from the fortress at Albayzín some time after 1232. It was the last stronghold of the Muslims in Spain falling to the Christian forces on the 2nd of January 1492. As the Moorish King Boabdil left the city his Mother reputedly said “You cry like a woman for the kingdom that you could not defend like a man”. The lady wasn't happy.
Was I impressed by the Alhambra? Certainly the very clever use of flowing water in the Generalife, cools and animates the gardens enhancing their inherent intimacy. The
Nasrid Palaces has some intricate carpentry, tile and stucco work while the immense towers of the Alcazaba offer spectacular views of Granada.
The Alhambra with birds
My most enduring memory of Alhambra wasn’t its architecture or the immensity of its scale, but the birds, small birds that have adopted the place. Swallows and sparrows, circling the courtyards and towers bring the whole site to life. It is almost as if they were willing participants in the spectacle which is the Alhambra.
I once more found myself in the familiar surroundings of the Hotel Zuhayra reflecting on my day in Granada. Tomorrow it is back to Málaga, the airport and Bristol. I had visited other villages along the Route of the Caliphs, Priego de Córdoba, Lucena, Luque, Iznája and others. These white walled villages are the essence of southern Spain. They show there is another way of life, a quieter, slower, more understanding way.
The drive to Málaga will be the longest of the trip, I dare not look back.
Ramsgate: Costa del Histoplasmosis?’Ice-cream, candyfloss, jellied eels and a stick of rock, Pepsi Cola’
'Ice-cream, candyfloss, jellied eels and a stick of rock,
Pepsi Cola, shrimps and whelks and cans of lager'
Paraphrasing Jeremy Taylor perhaps, but a good summary of what is expected to be on offer from at a British seaside resort.
I spend a great deal of time in Spain, Andalucía in particular, where I blunder around in my own bizarre fashion, taking photographs and gathering copy for my writing. My method of travel is so haphazard that I end up in some unusual situations mostly humorous, sometimes pleasurable but always interesting. Recently however I needed a break, but due to logistical and various other considerations I was restricted to the UK, having a keen interest in archaeology I decided to visit Richborough, where the history of Britain began.
It was obvious that I would need somewhere to stay as left to my own devices I would wither away in no time at all, even in well-found hotels I find looking after myself a struggle. What really annoys me is that group of individuals who can turn up at a hotel with a small overnight bag, yet every time one sees them they are well dressed in clean crisp clothes looking as if they have just tap-danced their way from a Burton's window. I am always close too or over my baggage allowance, struggling with a gigantic wheeled sarcophagus, puffing and panting my way through airport terminals and ramming into hotel doors. Even with my myriad array of clothing I always look like some dishevelled bag of miscellaneous vegetables loosely tied in the middle.
As one who detests not only the taste of fish-and-chips but their very smell, my choice of Ramsgate may seem odd, at least it did to me which was why I chose it, I really must seek professional advice. Ramsgate struck me as the typical English resort, jellied eels, handkerchiefs on the head in fact the complete montage of what I perceived to be bad about British seaside holiday venues. I wanted to discover the worst example possible and as I was born in Redcar: Ramsgate was up against some pretty tough competition.
The hotel was, according to my self imposed 'brief' low cost and my room a 'standard', I can only assume that the hotel's 'superior' rooms had champagne running from the gold plated taps, while teams of seductive chamber-maids anticipate your every need. I must add I am not that familiar with rooms at the higher end of the price range, I am therefore only guessing.
All I needed to do now was to load the car and head south from the Norfolk/Suffolk border to the Isle of Thanet. My driving ability may not be the worst in the country but I could probably make the short list, my competence at the wheel is so bad that I fit seamlessly onto Spanish roads and feel comfortably at home. The journey was on the whole unremarkable apart from almost stopping to call the police as the sun made an un-seasonal summer appearance.
While approaching Ramsgate I began to wonder whether this east coast town was in fact the birth place of the roundabout, if not, then they have taken the circular obstacle to their hearts and use it in abundance, though most are of the 'mini' variety and they only really serve as road decoration. The A253 took me through the periphery of Ramsgate, a typical English town, dingy terracotta brick and grimy grey paving-slabs, net-curtained windows and aerial clustered chimneys: I was beginning to regret holidaying in the UK.
The hotel was in Victoria Parade, which is on the East Cliff overlooking the beach and the harbour, it was really quite a pleasant location. I wondered if I had been too hasty in my initial assessment of the town. The sun came out and my spirits rose in proportion to the temperature.
The Hotel San Clu knows its place and seems comfortable with it, a tourist venue with an interesting past, amongst other things the front bedrooms were once wrecked by a rampaging rock group in the eighties. There is no pretence about the establishment whatsoever something I found unusual in a British hotel. Normally hotels in the UK are hyped to the eyeballs but the reality is something quite different.
Tied up at Ramsgate
The Hotel staff had their numbers bolstered by eastern Europeans mainly Polish. One such individual was the barman with whom I chatted in the evening. "I like whisky" he said brightly "but I try not to drink to much of it", "That's strange " I said ironically "I like vodka" "I know" he said darkly "I have been serving you all night".
With a camera bag over my shoulder and a notebook jutting from my top pocket I set off on foot for the town, my first visit to a British seaside holiday resort since I left Redcar. The sun surpassed itself warming my back as I thumped my way flat-footedly towards the harbour. The climb from East Cliff to the town below was considerable so the sight of the public lift was very welcome, however it only operates at weekends and public holidays, it was the Kentish Passage steps for me.
Ramsgate harbour could be described as intimate; it nestles in a hollow with cliffs rising on both coastal sides. The Ostend ferries perform an apparently never ending shuttle service, entering through the breakwater they then execute a 180 degree manoeuvre to dock stern first, disgorging their cargo of cars and lorries.
The inner marina is populated by some alarmingly expensive boats, while the old steam tug Cervia sits incongruously amongst them waiting patiently for her restoration work to begin. This certainly isn't what I expected, even the sun's heat wasn't anticipated its intensity driving me to seek liquid refreshment. I forwent the pubs, with their tiny windows and gloomy interiors and seated myself at a pavement café where I drank a cold Peroni and munched on a bowl of pitted olives.
I speculated on the differences between where I was now and a Mediterranean location, perhaps on the Bay of Naples or a Spanish Costa. Three things immediately sprung to mind, architecture, seagulls and women.
Most of the local architecture was pseudo gothic, imposing, intimidating not in the least friendly, a relic from our Victorian past when seaside enjoyment was not meant for the vast majority of the masses.
Why are we overrun with seagulls? It doesn't occur to this extent on the Spanish coast, the Adriatic Islands are free of them, they simply fly over at medium altitude patrolling the sea for food. Are the British variety to lazy to fend for themselves, perhaps a physical fitness programme should be initiated for them?
The women: The Spanish 'paseo' where the young women parade before the eligible men folk may have its roots in an extremely complex and puritanical courting ceremony, but it has become one of the most memorable customs of Spain. If you look closely however it is difficult to find an exceptionally 'pretty' girl amongst the throng. The Spanish female features are so strong, large doe eyes, raven hair, the ramrod straight composure; it is the combined effect that is so striking. Perhaps our British women shouldn't feel too badly done by, after all if you are required to wear woollies, raincoats and thick leg warmers for eight months of the year, it takes a bit of time to thaw out.
After a few house reds, a mozzarella and baked chilli panini sandwich, I attempted to scale the heights of East Cliff back to the hotel. I have a digital camera, but it seems that the more pictures I took the heavier the Nikon became, silly I know, but I found the climb tough, I don't suppose being middle-aged, overweight and unfit had anything to do with it though.
I arrived at the hotel red faced and sweating, I really was in a terrible state and the receptionist looked at me as if I was on fire. I think she was weighing up whether or not to call an ambulance. "Beer" I managed to mutter and was duly shepherded into the bar. I slept soundly that night.
In the morning I packed and presented myself at reception to checkout, I was handed my bar bill which unfolded majestically bouncing on the plush pile of the carpet. I didn't know whether to feel ashamed or have the thing framed.
On the drive north I mused on how wrong I was about Ramsgate and how out of touch I am about British resorts, I haven't been to Redcar in 25 years perhaps I should go back for another look. But the thought of that north-easterly wind blowing in from the Artic put things back into perspective; I'll play it safe and head for the Med.
The dust thrown up by the ageing Toma Vinkovi? tractor stung Zoran's eyes as he strained to see the devastation caused by the ploughing. Three-quarters of his precious vines ploughed under. The plants which produced the grapes for the family's wine destroyed. With so few vines remaining, there will be no surplus to exchange for little luxuries this year.
His son had instigated the ploughing. Zoran hoped his logic was sound.
The tourist philosophy adopted by the various organisations and individuals concerned with Istria involved much debate. With argued agreement the Croatian Peninsula geared itself for the high end of the market. The wine makers took advice and reluctantly destroyed the bulk of the vines. This allowed the remaining plants to luxuriate, soaking up the nutrients once shared with so many.The olive oil producers opted for low quantity, high quality products and the hospitality industry geared itself for the affluent.
Zoran's faith in his son's decision eventually paid dividends, with high quality wine fetching commensurate prices on the domestic and international markets. Whether he publicly acknowledged the wisdom of his son's decision is not on record, but one hopes he paid due tribute.
Istrian produce for sale at a local market
My first experience of this revolution in tourism was in the coastal town of Pore?, where I stayed at the Hotel Palazzo, 74 rooms including four presidential suits. I felt out-of-place, this was not the budget establishment I normally frequented. My room was palatial with a large bathroom which boasted underfloor heating. Control of the room's electrical systems is from strategically placed and complicated 'touch pads'. So complicated that the hotel manager was at loss to explain one particular pad. I left it alone in case it activated some 'self-destruct' mechanism so often seen in 'Bond' films.
Hotels of this calibre exist in most of the larger coastal towns of the Istrian Peninsular. I however felt more at home in the Casa Romantica La Parenzana at Volpia. An inland rustic hotel, Intimate and secluded. While the coastal areas obviously excel in seafood cuisine, the Casa Romantica produced a superb meat dish cooked in a ?ripnja. This is a cast iron pot with a cast iron lid. Chunks of chicken and pork with potatoes coated in olive oil were place inside and the lid fitted. Then completely burying the ?ripnja in burning cinders and allowing the contents to cook slowly. The result was wonderful, succulent meat and I have never tasted better potatoes.
Food is obviously very important to any tourist industry and Istria boasts many fine restaurants. There are many seafood restaurants such as the Sveti Nikola in Pore?, while inland establishments such as the Restaurant Zigante provide for those who prefer their food to have legs rather than fins. Common to all hotels and restaurants is the truffle, the jewel in the culinary crown of Croatian Istria. It comes in two varieties, the more expensive white truffle and the more abundant black. It is eaten with almost everything. Grated onto a scrambled egg and asparagus dish or minced and added to soups and goulashes. They are even used to flavour the local spirit Grappa and I hesitate to say it, also ice cream. Being one of the worlds most expensive foods it is however ubiquitous in Istria. I won't even try to go into the supposed aphrodisiacal qualities of the fungus.
The Peninsula has had a turbulent past with many nationalities leaving their mark. The Italian language and its culture both past and present is much in evidence. Pula, Istria's largest city has some of the finest examples of Roman architecture outside of Rome itself. The amphitheatre in Pula is the only one in existence today to have the four side towers and with all three Roman architectural orders entirely preserved. While Rovinj, further north is the Venice of Istria. Pleasure craft of all descriptions bob about in the gentle swell of the harbour. They intermingle with the many Batanas, these are the traditional fishing boats of the area, under power and not sail these days but still retaining the same ancient hull design. An inland town, that of Grožnjan has a unique story. At one time almost deserted, then in 1965 it was 're-invented' as the e Town of Arts. Some of the housing was given to artists from Croatia, Slovenia and Vojvodina, and some to the International Music Youth Federation in 1969. It has a wonderful ambiance and is also the only town in Croatian Istria to have a majority of Italian speakers.
My main impression of the coastal towns was one of tiny streets where smoothed cobbles, worn over the centuries, lead in apparently random directions. Confusing for the senses but so charming. It was pleasant to wander the narrow thoroughfares and look in wonder at the houses which stand on the very water's edge. The diminutive waves of the crystal clear Adriatic lap below their very windows.
Topography and culture may be some of the tangible assets of a country, but it is the people who define it. Off the coast from the town of Fažana are the Brijuni Islands, former home to Yugoslavia's wartime leader Tito. He led his people against Hitler and also defied Stalin, making the Yugoslav people independent, self reliant and a proud nation. The Islands are now an integral part of the tourist industry and also a place of pilgrimage. The people who are helping to mould the tourist industry are following in this tradition of self reliance, with family businesses growing and adapting through the years. Peter Poletti, for example is the latest in line of wine producers who started in 1842 with a capital of only 113 florins. The family firm is now one of the important wine makers in Istria. It is known not only for the excellence of the wines but also for total commitment to the Peninsular.
The Ipša family produce top quality olive oil from their plantation in North-western Istria. The lush vegetation offers the optimum conditions for the trees. This family not only take pride in their produce but also their hospitality. Sitting in a rustic low beamed room with an open fire blazing in the corner, we informally discussed the olive making process and the finer points of oil tasting. On a rough-cut Holm Oak table a traditional meal lay before us. Istrian cheese, scrambled egg and asparagus with grated truffles, slices of pork cooked in the traditional method and a succulent salad.
I certainly shall not forget the hospitality of the many people I met in the region nor the excellent cuisine. Whether the hotels are 'top end' boasting presidential suits and saunas or more rustic, beamed and basic, they were all welcoming. The warmth of greeting and the attentiveness of the staff was exceptional. As a tourist destination it is unique, small industries producing high quality produce by committed individuals.
It was one of those English spring mornings that poets and politicians wax lyrical about, but rarely put in an appearance. An English spring is usually much like an English winter, it is only the temperature of the rain which differs.
The Devon countryside, quite and still in the morning sun slid passed as I sped northward on the M5. My destination was Bristol airport and a flight to Málaga to begin what I had dubbed my 'Spanish Odyssey'. I had decided to spend ten days in the village of Zuheros, 75 miles or so east of Córdoba.
Zuheros was chosen by using the tried and trusted method which involves closed eyes, a pin and a map of Europe. The first attempt had me floundering in the Mediterranean while the second landed in the middle of a civil war zone, not recommended for a quiet holiday. The third placed the pin firmly in Spain and the village of Zuheros in the Sierra Subbètica.
I am an antisocial person at the best of times, so I introduced certain conditions on my little jaunt. The main one being that all the necessary arrangements, parking, flight, hotel, car etc. were to be made on line without consulting a human being. Childish I know but it avoided the sharp intake of breath one gets from travel professionals when they become acquainted with both ones' requirements and ones' budget.
Booking a low cost flight on-line is a roller-coaster of emotions. Ecstasy when the cost of the flight first appears on the screen. Then the spirits sink as the extras get loaded on. According to the airlines such things as taking ones' luggage and the simple and necessary act of checking-in are extras. The final plunge into the depth of despair comes when they charge for using your card. Paying for the service is considered as an extra to that service one has just paid for. That is a good one, a Catch-22 if ever there was one, Joseph Heller would have approved. But it was done and I duly printed out the reference number, no tickets just a magic number, all a bit worrying.
The car hire was simple, companies by the score around Málaga and no compulsory extras. I am not a good driver and was concerned about Spanish roads surely if it was difficult they wouldn't have hired a car to an idiot like me. I now had my second piece of paper, a voucher promising a hire car on my arrival in Spain.
Bristol airport isn't big but modern and friendly, it is void of the mass of humanity one finds at London Airports. I hurried to the check-in desk scattering would be passengers with my suitcase. It was one of those with wheels like a perambulating sarcophagus, it made a rumbling noise out of all proportion to its size and cut a swath through the waiting crowd. I puffed and panted my way to the front of the queue and tentatively proffered piece of paper number one. I half expected it to be refused , turned down with a superior smirk, a snigger at my gullibility at being conned by a transparent internet scam. But it worked.
I received a boarding card and watched as my sarcophagus trundled along the conveyor belt and out of sight behind a plastic curtain. I had a knotted feeling in my stomach, I felt sure I wouldn't see my case again, a fleeting image crossed my tiny mind, of all the cases dropping off the end of the conveyor belt into a vast land fill site adjacent to the terminal building. My paranoia was starting to show.
I headed through passport control and the departure lounge. The lounge is a large glass fronted affair, shops on the ground floor and restaurants on the mezzanine, it was clean, relatively comfortable and offered a good view of the aircraft as they arrived and left. Bristol Airport can be described as essentially a holiday airport, there are always tour groups passing through, and today was no exception. Despite still being only nine o'clock in the morning, one group, predominantly men, were consuming lager at an alarming rate, their chatter had reached crescendo level. It appeared to revolve around one of the group to whom the rest were relating every aircraft disaster since Orville Wright made his now famous heavy landing in 1903, he was obviously afraid of flying and had stupidly told one of his 'friends'. Still it all added to the atmosphere of the place; I opted for a coffee, and sat down to wait for my flight being called.
'Flight 6057 to Málaga is now boarding at gate 10' at least I think that was the announcement, the PA operator, judging by her volume and pitch, wanted to keep all aircraft movements a secret, perhaps it was part of the tighter security now in force. She was however foiled by the monitor above the gate, which boldly declared the imminent departure of the flight. I had my boarding pass and passport checked by a gaggle of chirpy airline staff, and proceeded to the aircraft, a 737 which looked as if had seen better days, in the 1970s perhaps. As long as it had been well maintained and the crew sober, all should be well. The window seat that I settled into overlooked the port wing, the window itself appeared sound and devoid of cracks, so I tried to make myself comfortable. It was then I noticed a rather unusual sight. A group of young ladies were getting themselves seated and sorted out further down the aircraft, judging by their 'T' shirt legends it was ' Sara's hen outing', but what was unusual was their choice of head gear. They all had those head bands which have springs, with comic eyes attached; these bounce about as the wearer walks. These resourceful young ladies had modified this arrangement in as much as they had removed the eyes and replaced them with replicas of the male genitalia, very detailed, but blue in colour, which I found a little disturbing. They made a hypnotic sight, twenty four phalli, in pairs, shaking and gyrating in sympathy with the movement of the aircraft, a visual indication of the pilot's ability to fly straight and level.
We left the ground with the usual roar of engines, followed by the other mysterious clicking, humming and clankings that are associated with take-offs. A slight turn to port and we headed south, with the green fields of England slipping away below us.
The journey took just over two hours and was relatively uneventful. I partook of coffee and pâté with crackers, not cheap, but I could hardly shop elsewhere. Our imminent arrival was heralded by the changing scenery; widely spaced rows of olive trees dominated the landscape, looking like small green puffs of smoke, the rows appeared endless, as we lost height and closed with Malaga Airport.
The parade of phalli rocked in unison as the plane trundled its way across the airport tarmac. We made several seemingly pointless turns before coming to a stop by the terminal building; then the usual free for all broke out. Why people fight tooth and nail to get off the aircraft first is beyond me, people pushed jabbed and shoved, in order to be among the first off.
I waited with a smug grin for the cabin to clear and then made my way into the terminal and the luggage carousel.
Was my suitcase, which disappeared behind the plastic curtain at Bristol, really going to reappear from behind the equivalent curtain in Malaga?
What happens if it completes more than one circumnavigation of the conveyor belt without being collected?
Will I collect someone else's case by mistake and spend the next ten days in drag?
Would I even find the baggage claim area?
The airport appeared to go on forever. From one of the carousels I can see the welcome sight of two dozen dancing phalli; a monitor confirms that it is the baggage claim for flight 6057.
With my suitcase safely in tow I made my way into the arrivals lounge.
Most of the larger car rental companies have a kiosk at the airport, located down a ramp, but the company I used obviously couldn't afford this luxury. I had to use the courtesy bus to get to their offices, perhaps half a mile from the terminal. Time for grubby paper number two, again it worked, they were expecting me and the car was ready, a few details, my credit card number, and off I trotted to my vehicle. The car, diminutive to say the least, was cleaned all fuelled up and ready to go. My suitcase was however too big for the car's boot, and my boot was too big for the car's foot pedals. With my suitcase on the back seat along with my boots I drove tentatively from the parking area.
Now! In England I have a four wheel drive vehicle, quite a heavy car, with the steering wheel firmly attached to the right hand side. Saturday nights excluded, it is driven on the left hand side of the road. This configuration is, as the history books tell us, to free the pistol hand in order to deal with the attentions of belligerent highwaymen; I am now in a little French perambulating sardine tin. The steering wheel is in the front passenger seat, and I am driving on the same side of the road as I would have expected the on-coming traffic to be. That I could have handled, but the first thing I saw when I left the hire car compound is the biggest roundabout in Christendom. The entire population of Malaga appeared to be circumnavigating it in the wrong direction, but at least there wasn't a highwayman in sight.
The traffic was continual! Blaring horns and screeching tyres! A never ending procession around the traffic island, I had to do something, I waited for a reasonable gap, closed my eyes and put my foot down, a few waved fists, and I was on my way.
It appeared as if the whole of Spain was on the move, all lanes were jam-packed with sweating, swearing, and frustrated drivers. They performed all sorts of suicidal manoeuvres, just for the sake of getting past the car ahead. I had to perform a few of my own in order to follow my route, but somehow I managed to find myself on the N331, on course and heading north. The traffic thinned and my blind panic subsided. I began to take notice of mundane details again, the road surface, the countryside and how to work the bloody air-conditioning. I even eased my grip on the steering wheel and allowed the blood to flow back into my knuckles once more. The roads were in very good condition and in general the Spanish drivers were courteous and observed lane discipline. These weren't the manic drivers I had met around Málaga; crowds in whatever context always bring out the worst in people.
Driving became pleasurable once more; I had discovered the secret of the air-conditioning, and my navigation appeared to be spot on, from the N331 a right turn and I was on the A316 for the final leg of my journey.
The landscape consisted of rolling hills with the ever present olive trees, seemingly taking no notice of boundaries or topography, but disappearing into the far distance. Occasionally a sheer crag would appear as if by magic; giving an enhanced three dimension effect, almost surreal!
I began to recognise place names from the maps I had studied prior to departure, Lucena! Getting close, Cabra! be there soon! Left to Doña Mencía, and right to Zuheros, on to a local road, a few pot holes and tight bends but nothing too testing!
Zuheros is situated in the Parque Natural Sierra Subbètica, an area of some 159,000ha and fourteen towns. Zuheros is one of these fourteen, with a population of about eight hundred. It sits, perched on the top of a cliff, with its castle hanging on by its eyelashes to a precarious position above a sheer drop.
The Castle of Zuheros
I entered the pueblo along its narrow winding streets, the houses immaculate in whitewash and flowers. Two ancient sun wrinkled women, each sitting on their own doorsteps and diametrically opposed, each in imminent danger of having their toes crushed, however, being a caring person I stopped. "¿Dónde está El Hotel Zuhayra, por favor?" I asked and received an appalling load of gibberish in return. It would seem that the local accent was going to be as hard for me to understand as a Geordie would be for the average citizen of Madrid. I got the impression they didn't know, I thanked them and drove on, not for long however as the hotel was only fifty yards further down the road. The two ancients obviously didn't get out much. The Hotel was virtually indistinguishable from the surrounding houses, whether by original design or modification it was impossible to tell. A now very grubby piece of paper number three is proffered at the reception desk, and like its two predecessors it worked, my room was ready for me. Passport and credit card details noted I headed for my room.
After a wash and general tidy up, a feeling of overwhelming achievement came over me, I decided to reward myself with a glass of wine at the bar.
"Un vaso de vino tinto, por favor", I said to the 'camarero'
"Lo mismo", in this context it means 'same again' and saves a great deal of time when you are thirsty. The 'lo mismos' kept coming and I chatted to the barman in his native tongue, after an hour or so I noted a very peculiar phenomenon. My ability to speak Spanish was proportional to my alcohol intake, the more I drank the better my Spanish. I also noted that my ability to speak English was, however, inversely proportional to my alcohol intake. I wondered what would happen first, either complete fluency in Castilian or total unconsciousness. It was at this point that the bar staff changed shifts! The new incumbent was a 'camarera', raven haired, olive skinned, with expressive almond eyes, a mischievous smile and a voice that would melt a polar ice cap. I lost the ability to speak both my native and adopted tongues, fresh air seemed the solution. I headed rather unsteadily for the village square, which being at the cliff edge offered an excellent vantage point. The late evening sun cast its long shadows as the intoxicating aroma from the olive groves below was carried up on the evening breeze. I was engulfed by the warm night, heady from the wine and the day's events; I felt that I had found my 'sitio perfecto'
From Beccles to Reedham: A journey down tranquil waterways. Boating about in the muck of the River Waveney
Why I chose to take a boat on the Broads is a complete mystery, I have absolutely no idea why I hired the ruddy thing, although I did need some photographs of drainage mills for a project I was undertaking. It was a 24 foot, two birth river cruiser from a local boatyard in Beccles.
My experiences on the water have been limited mainly to P&O, Shaw Savill and the New Zealand Shipping Company, the smallest craft I have taken passage on was the Harwich to the Hook of Holland ferry. Even on the ferry the bar service was reasonable, but here I was not only serving my own drinks but driving the thing as well.
I had made certain that the boatyard knew that I had no experience with small boats, I was reassured by a female voice on the other end of the phone "You will be fully coached, we will not let you leave the boatyard until you can handle the craft" This made me feel better, after all if it was difficult they wouldn't rent one to an idiot like me.
I had researched boating on various internet sites but they seemed to be mainly concerned with taking in a reef during a force ten. Firstly I didn't know was a reef was and secondly any sign of a force ten and I was making for the nearest pub. So it was that I, a nautical virgin drove into the boatyard on an overcast and drizzling spring morning.
I recognised the boat from it's' picture in the brochure, a big blue thing, bigger than I imagined and with visibility from the driving seat horrifyingly restricted. If I am not the worst car driver in the country I am certainly on the short list, whether my inability to propel my automobile in a controlled straight line was an advantage in steering a boat the next couple of hours will show. I was told to stow my gear aboard, this nautical idiom indicated that I was now an old sea dog and could legally catch scurvy or wear one of these yellow water-proof hats. The main cabin had ample head-room, with several small and cunningly hidden wardrobes and cupboards where one can stow one's gear, however I kept my valuable items, cameras and laptop, on a shelf near the door leading to the cockpit, just in case I did manage to excel myself and sink the thing, how I was going to keep them dry in the hypothetical abandonment of the boat I never quite worked out. Off the main cabin was a small closet some two feet by two which contained a remarkably efficient shower a small sink and a revolting contraption which passed as a toilet, I vowed to stick to a fibre free diet.
Waiting for the boatyard assistant to turn up and show me how to drive the craft, I wondered just how many boats they did lose and whether or not there was a tried and tested procedure for such an event.
At two or should I say 1400 hours a tall lively individual put in an appearance, it was his job to turn me from a middle-aged Potamophobe into a matelot in the space of 20 minutes. I was given a tour of the cabin and shown how to perform the engine checks.
The engine lurked under a hatch in the cockpit, painted a metallic green with several covers in red, these were the levels I had to check every morning, water, oil and remove weed from the filter. It was all straight forward enough, but for one who habitually sheers bleed-nuts on radiators, I wondered just how comprehensive the obligatory insurance was. With the motor throbbing away we pulled out of the boat yard's cut and into the river where I was instructed in the art of turning through 360 degrees, mooring alongside and mooring stern-on. It all seemed very easy, but beware these manoeuvres were performed on the Waveney between Beccles Old Bridge and Beccles New Bridge, it was like a mill-pond and I was duly lulled into dangerous self-confidence.
My tutor jumped ashore, an inspired decision for one so young. I was on my own, I put the throttle forward until the tachometer showed 1200 revs, this being equal to 4 miles per hours while 1400 equates to six, if however there is a tide running at six mph against you you are dead in the water, so these guidelines are completely meaningless as there is always a tide of one sort or another running. I motored upriver towards Somerleyton where I intended to spend the night. Somerleyton has a swing bridge which carries rail traffic, the bridge will open for boats if the operator sees you, the technique for being noticed is to sail in circles until either the bridge opens or you get dizzy and nauseous. A board which shows the maximum headroom under the bridge was indicating 8 feet; my boat was 6ft 8inches above the water line with the awning and windscreen dropped and just over 9 with the superstructure in place. I decided to drop the awning and windscreen rather than suffer the indignity of revolving in circle after circle making myself light-headed.
I put the throttle to neutral and clambered around the side to undo the studs which secured the various pieces together, I managed to drop the windscreen but the awning remain fixed, it seem to defy the laws of gravity. It was then that I noticed we were beam-on to the bridge and drifting towards it at an alarming rate, I kick the wretched thing in the hope of persuading it to collapse, which it did just as we drifted under the flat underside of the bridge, it fell away as if pushed by an invisible hand from the bridge, we were that close. As we drifted out of the other side I remembered that I had to sound my horn. 'Toot, toot' I found my hip flask took a long swig of whisky and motored away from the bridge. I moored at the free mooring near the Duke's Head pub which I immediately headed for, I needed a meal a drink and to make amends for the inadequate plumbing aboard the boat.
I slept soundly that night only awoken by dreams of my ingenious mooring knots coming undone and waking up on some foreign shore where I was made to test bridge heights by standing on the bows of vessels wishing to pass through. I awoke with a headache from overindulgence however.
I cast off pushed the throttle ahead and set off for St. Olaves where I had to negotiate the road bridge, this time I moored at the Bell Inn, the pub was shut, dropped the superstructure motored through, tied-up at the free moorings had an early lunch before putting the boat back together. I must be getting old. The stretch of water from St Olaves to Burgh Castle passes a number of windmills that I wanted to photograph, the plan was to spend the day oscillating between the two getting my pictures.
Now if I had been an experienced boat-man, I would have sniffed the air and said something like. 'The old River she bee playing up She bee in a bad mood She bee, I wouldn't shove off for all the beer in Yarmouth' or some such gibberish. But I wasn't
a boat-man and I did shove off, the difficulty of getting her bow pointed in the right direction should have given me a clue, but I just couldn't join the dots. With the Waveney's muddy water rushing past I pitched and rolled my way upstream. The sky was overcast with a typically British drizzle making the proceeding a measurable affair. I had my camera and tripod set up in the stern, when we past a mill I would rush back take a picture and then try and catch the helm before the boat ran aground in the reeds, the whole operation was fraught and I was in constant danger of losing my equipment overboard, the camera and tripod probably worth more than the boat. After spending several hours engaged on this operation it was with some relief that I motored towards the moorings at Burg Castle, they were deserted, I still couldn't join the dots.
My approach to the quay was text book, but the vicious tide soon had her moving ahead banging against the mooring pilings, it was a struggle to make her fast, scrambling on my knees and just managing to take several turns around the mooring post before she headed off upriver unmanned like a latter-day Marie Celeste. It was an overcast grey day, the river was running very fast and the boat was at least three feet below the level of the bank. The length of pilings indicated a considerable rise and fall in the tide. It just did not seem right, no other boat was moving and my craft bobbed and pitched liked a cork. I made the decision to head for Reedham, a decision which possibly saved me and the boat; I was to find out later that the tide fell some six feet and flowed with a force which would have put fear into Hemingway's Santiago himself.
Getting off the mooring was difficult I had to push the bow clear using my feet, rush back put the throttle full ahead and make for the centre of the River. It took five attempts during which time I probably broke every boating rule in the book, using reverse and forward throttle as if I was parking a car at the local supermarket, but it finally got me clear and in mid-stream heading for the confluence of the Rivers Waveney and Yare.
The Waveney joins the Yare with Breydon Water and Great Yarmouth to the right and upstream to Reedham to the left. The mudflats stretch for miles in all directions, poles mark the navigable channel a more desolate place on an overcast drizzling late afternoon I couldn't imagine. It is a place of depression and despair. I saw no other craft that evening I felt completely alone, if I had felt the necessity for solitude in order to find myself then I had the spot. But all I wanted was a brightly lit pub a strong drink and a chirpy barmaid, I pushed the throttle forward exceeding the six miles an hour speed limit; I wanted to be out of that melancholy place.
Taking the left channel I headed for Reedham, the River became less threatening, I cheered myself with doses of whisky from my flask, soon relaxing, I even indulged in a couple of sea shanty's.
I approached the Reedham quay at about 1000 revs, as I came alongside I put the engine into reverse, the boat came to a gentle stop adjacent to the mooring post, perfect. I jumped ashore with the stern mooring rope.
The engine was still going astern.
I tried pulling against the boat, useless, all that happened was the loss of several layers of skin from my hands. I managed to jump aboard just as she went the wrong way up a small slip way.
I put the throttle full forward.
We shot off into the centre of the Yare; turning towards the quay once more I decided I needed a breather.
I put the throttle into neutral.
With the throttle in this position the boat still had headway, but there was no water being pushed over the rudder by the propeller, in other words I couldn't steer. I was approaching a moored motor cruiser, my bow heading for the cruiser amidships. My bow loomed over the moored craft like a frigate preparing to ram a U-boat.
I put the throttle full ahead.
With the engine racing away I put the wheel hard over and missed the cruiser by what seemed a couple of inches. I had a fleeting glimpse of a rather stout gentleman cupping a mug of some hot beverage, he was wide eyed as I sheered off just missing his craft, he mouthed something the last word was definitely me, the first may have been dear, but I believe it had a more nautical flavour. But by pure luck I was parallel to the quay.
I put the throttle into reverse, the boat stopped and I put her into neutral and jumped ashore with the mooring line.
A middle aged lady from one of the boats already moored was watching with admiration, she took the bow line and made it fast. "We had trouble earlier" she said "The tide here is treacherous" I thanked her but somehow forgot to make her fully aware of the circumstances.
The swing bridge at Reedham
Sitting in the Lord Nelson over a whisky, the room gently swaying I decided I wouldn't make a boat-man whether it was the diabolical toilet facilities on board, the unpredictable tidal flow at Burg Castle or the almost disastrous mooring at Reedham it is difficult to tell. I decided to take the New Cut back to Beccles load my photographic equipment in my car and remain firmly on dry land.
Parc Güell, Barcelona
Barcelona in July
The low cost flight from Bristol to Barcelona's El Prat Airport was the usual cramped affair but it was punctual and bearable for the two hour flight. An untroubled taxi journey took me to my hotel. True to the eccentricity of Barcelona it was next to a hospital of Art Nouveau design.
The Hotel occupied very little ground space being square and tall with the rooms arranged around a central lift-shaft. My room was tiny and basic, more like a third-class cabin on a tramp steamer. The bath was small. My arms and legs which stuck out like an assortment of celery sticks jammed into a small jar. There was no natural light in the room. What passed for a window was the size of a bathroom cupboard and opened into was I took to be a ventilation shaft.
The hotel owners went to extremes to conserve electrical power, whether from a green conscience or to maximise profits I never discovered. The task of gaining entry into the room was fraught with problems because of this. As one leaves the lift one activates a light switch in the hall which is on a timer. One then uses a conventional key to open the room door which has a very strong closing mechanism an important point.
Now the cunning part of the arrangement, the door key also switches on the room electrics and hence the lights via a separate key mechanism. To insert the key into this mechanism requires one to relinquish one's grip on the door. This closes with the ferocity of a bear trap plunging the room into a velvet blackness. It is impossible to find the tiny keyhole in the dark so one if forced to open the door again. Now the final genius of the design. The timer on the hall lights expires plunging the whole floor into darkness. I spent a great deal of time in Barcelona simply trying to get to my bed.
The small bar on the ground floor appeared to be no more than a wardrobe with a few optics bolted to the wall and a Cruzcampo pump. It dispensed beer however which was all that really mattered. On entering I noticed the barman talking too a customer in Spanish. I actually understood what was being said. I was relieved as on my trips to Andalucía my inability to understand the local dialects had shaken my confidence. However when I asked for a beer in my best Castilian, he answered Catalan. He also changed Catalan in his conversion to the other customer. I have noticed this phenomenon in Wales when I enter a pub and speak English. Not that the Welsh speak Catalan rather that they change to Welsh.
Barcelona has a history of anarchy and revolt. At the start of the Civil War the Anarchist organisation the CNT, Confederación Nacional del Trabajo, pushed the Nationalists out of Barcelona in 1936. They then promptly tried to start a social revolution against the Republican government. There has been so much civil strife over the years that manning the barricades became as well practised as fire drill. It is said that if you take up a cobblestone from any street in Barcelona it has two numbers on it. One is for its position in the barricade and the other for its position back in the road.
The architect Antoni Gaudí symbolises Barcelona and the Catalan people. His Art Nouveau buildings are truly unique in concept and realisation. The undulating façade of Casa Milá and the sea shelled Casa Batlló are among the best examples of his work. The sheer intricacy of the Cathedral La Sagrada Família is bewildering while the architectural elements in Park Güell spring surprise after surprise. I doubt he would have been granted planning permission if he had tried to build them in London.
Barcelona's most famous thoroughfare, Las Ramblas has unfortunately been completely hijacked by the tourist industry. It is pleasant enough however to wander through the crowd past the stall selling wild birds and confectionery. The smell of freshly made coffee and toast appears to be everywhere and draws one into some café or other out of the heat of the day. The Catalan cuisine is wonderful. Fresh Mediterranean vegetables, pastas and seafood are combined in the most delicious ways. Meat dishes particularly lamb and the Vic Sausage are a tempting alternative to seafood.
It was while enjoying some of these delicacies that I noticed the cars parked by the roadside. There appeared to be only an inch or so between each bumper. I marvelled at the skill needed to park in this fashion. I have been known to go home rather than attempt to parallel park in a busy street. I am a terrible driver and people only drive with me out of necessity some even weep as I negotiate traffic.
I was lucky enough to see one of the car's owners return to his vehicle and soon realised my praise regarding the driving prowess of Barcelonés was misplaced. He simply shunted forward and back denting bumpers until there was sufficient room to extricate his car. I was told that Spanish cars are delivered from the showrooms with dents. I have since learned that it is not true, the art of denting a car is an integral part of the driving test.
My journey back to the airport was further testament to the anarchic qualities of Barcelona and its ability to surprise. I hailed a taxi. The cabs in Barcelona are yellow and black and a green light on the roof indicates that they are free so this didn't present a problem. One of the vehicles duly stopped. Stopped doesn't quite describe what happened. On seeing me the taxi driver switched off his green light, slammed on his breaks and swerved to the curb. There was an awful squeal of brakes as he left rubber marks on the road. I soon found out my assumption that it was a male driver was wrong.
The cabby turned out to be a slightly built greying lady of about fifty-five dressed in a knitted grey two piece suit. She was the image of my maiden Aunt. We wrestled with my case for a bit but I maintained my male dignity and put the case in the boot myself. Then we were off. She threw the car around like a rally driver, ducking in and out of traffic. With her window wound down she gave universal hand gestures to objecting road users. Her shouted profanities were obvious even to me with my
limited knowledge of the Catalan language. During the twelve kilometre drive she broke every rule of the road and even invented a few of her own. I was relieved when we arrived at El Prat Airport and I gratefully hauled my bag from the boot.
I was only in Barcelona for short time but I became completely captivated with the city. An individual and idiosyncratic town, singular in all respects. I made a mental note to return.
(Written in 2007)
The tight security at London's Stansted Airport was causing significant delays, queues formed to join queues and my usual generous time allocation was being dangerously eroded. Ryanair is not known for its tolerance regarding late arrivals, closing the check-in precisely 40 minutes before the stated departure time. My perspiration appeared to be inversely proportional to the time remaining as I huffed and puffed my way to the boarding gate scattering the old and infirm in my haste.
Ryanair fly the ubiquitous 737 and in particular the 800 variant allowing Boeing's maximum seating configuration of 189 souls shoe-horned into its cabin. The leg room is restricted whilst the seat itself does a fair impersonation of an iron maiden; in order to remove anything from ones pocket requires the agility of a limbo dancer and the dexterity of a Dickensian pickpocket. One's nose is all but an inch away from the headrest in front. I felt if I were to sneeze my head would hit the seat in front causing that seat's occupant to bang his head and so on in a comical chain reaction up the length of the fuselage culminating in the pilot smacking his face on the cockpit's windscreen. But you get what you pay for! Will I ever learn?
I always worry in case budget airlines have budget pilots, ones who are not fully committed, but then we don't expect bus drivers to be in love with their buses so why should we expect pilots to be romantically attached to their aircraft.
I was on one of my usual shoestring excursions, flying a budget airline and using a low cost hotel, a mode of travel I had become used to over the years affording me some interesting anecdotes. You don't get collapsing beds, leaking bidets and shower heads that become autonomous spinning wildly whist soaking the whole bathroom and a good proportion of the bedroom at a Hilton or a Marriott. My destination this time was Rome's Ciampino Airport, a small facility catering for both military and commercial aviation some 18 miles south of the city centre. The scene on my arrival couldn't be any different from the sombre atmosphere at Stansted, at Ciampino if chaos didn't reign it certainly had a working majority, it was anarchy by comparison. People and cars, confusion and smiling faces, blue sky and Latin passion it was a different world, I was warming to Italy already.
My hotel was in the Monti area of Rome, located on the highest of the seven hills the Esquiline. During the days of empire this was an exclusive area patrician villas dominated whilst fruit orchards, olive groves and temples dotted the district. The ever increasing barbarian raids forced the inhabitants to move closer to the Tiber for safety in what is now the Centro Storico district leaving Monti virtually uninhabited until it became a battle ground for rival clans in the Middle Ages. It is now a multicultural area and home to most of Rome's budget hotels including mine the Hotel Giubileo in the Via Carlo Alberta.
Only about 100 yards from the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore the Giubileo lurked almost apologetically between a barber's shop and, a couple doors away the four star Mecenate Palace Hotel. My room is on the fourth floor and there is no lift. At this point let me recap. I am overweight, middle aged, unfit and I have a weak ankle a result of an army injury. I have booked a hotel on a hill the Cispius
a sub peak of the highest hill in Rome the Esquiline, the area is the Monti (mountain in Italian) and I am on the fourth floor. I am really excelling myself this time.
I had read through the comments left by ex-clients of the Giubileo on the web site I booked through. They hadn't rated the place very highly; noisy and small rooms appeared to be the main concern. The hotel's web site itself was full of dead links and the photographs bore no resemblance to the hotel I stayed at, only the addresses matched. In the lounge for want of a better word there was a small wooden post box mounted on one wall, it was marked Complain, in the singular, perhaps wishful thinking rather than badly construed English. It did however seem rather full.
My fourth floor room was therefore a bit of a surprise it was quite large with a five wide bed and a adequate clean bathroom with all the necessary fixtures and fittings. Air-conditioning whirred away whilst a window looked out from the back of the building onto backs of the buildings opposite. The furniture was utilitarian but serviceable, footmarks above the bed-head did worry me a bit but when in Rome.
The only real problem was the four floor climb which made it imperative to keep water, beer or preferably oxygen handy. My initial climb with bags and camera had me running for the 'mini bar' as soon as I could persuade to door to open but to my surprise it was empty. The room description should have read 'with mini fridge' which I soon stocked. The Hotel boasts 38 rooms, most of which are embedded in the private flats surrounding the main entrance, a strange setup. But the staff were helpful and friendly replacing my faulty telephone within five minutes, they seem to be making the best of what they have.
I have several passions in my life and high on the list is my digestive system, so it was with some purpose that I set out to find restaurants within easy walking distance of the Hotel. La Vecchia ConcaAntico Caffè Santa Maria, whose waiter offered interesting snippets of information concerning the architectural merits of the Santa Maria Maggiore and the undoubted charms of Rome's young ladies, offered superb lunch time salads.
provided my evening meal and the
An after lunch stroll down the Via Carlo Alberta brought me to the Piazza Vittoria Emanuele II, two large screens had been erected for the Notti di Cinema showing American and Spanish films from nine in the evening until the early hours. But perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the square was the remains of Villa Palombara, built by the Marquis Massimiliano Palombara. Integral within its structure was the Alchemist's or Magic Door. The story revolves around one Francesco Giustiniani Bono who found grass straws capable of turning to gold in the garden of the Villa. The following day he was unfortunate enough to disappear through the door leaving behind gilded straws. The remains of the Villa are now home to a colony of feral cats who parade and preen themselves in the sunlit garden.
Magic Gate and al fresco cats' home
Although the Hotel had it shortcomings, it was a low cost establishment and convenient for the attractions of central Rome. For a short stay such as mine or a weekend break perhaps the Giubileo was perfectly adequate, before complaining one should remind oneself of the cost of staying there, 'cheap and cheerful' is the term which suits the Hotel. I would certainly stay there again but would try to avoid the fourth floor, mountaineering not being a strong point of mine.
Guido, the volcano and me. Stranded in Treviso Italy by an Irish low cost airline who didn’t care if I lived or died
I stood in the sunshine of northern Italy, stretching and generally trying to convince my limbs that the convoluted mass they now found themselves in was not the norm, after sharing a 737 cabin with 188 other souls the simple process of standing upright was a serious physiotherapic feat. I was beginning a four day press trip to Croatia, flying into Venice Treviso airport where I was to be collected by the Croatian Tourist Board and driven to the Istrian Peninsula. I was then to be shown the best in wine, olive oil and hopefully hospitality. Hospitality was something I had long associated with Italy and the Italian people, but the contempt shown by one individual towards the Croatian minibus or rather its numberplate took me aback. Whether this was an isolated incident or indicative of a general feeling I was to find out later.
After a gruelling lighting tour of Istria from Pula to the Motovun Forest I was once more delivered to Venice Treviso Airport, weighed down with brochures, olive oil samples and luggage I watched as the minibus and its Croatian driver made a hasty retreat. Being a little concerned about a volcano called Eyjafjallajökull I inquired about my flight.
Treviso Airport Arrivals
What to do? The low cost airline washed their hands of me, they didn’t care if I starved to death in a gutter something which at that moment seemed a distinct possibility. When I travel I am always up to or near my baggage allowance, I pack a spare of everything it is a manifestation of my paranoia. The physical effect was the dragging of a 15 kilogram wheeled suitcase resembling a perambulating coffin and the wearing of a ten kilogram camera backpack while trying to find somewhere to stay near the airport which appeared to be an industrial zone populated with automobile franchises. After walking in circle after endless circle, puffing under the weight of the backpack and panting from the effort of towing my wheeled sarcophagus I found a likely looking establishment, only 300 metres from the airport terminal.
It was an agricultural smallholding, incongruous amidst the industrial units, set back from the road offering peace and tranquillity in the heart of this bustling Treviso suburb. I checked in, then made for the airport and its shop to replenish my supply of toiletries which I had abandoned in Croatia in order to reduce the weight of my luggage. On my return I couldn’t find my room, according to the key-fob it was number ten, but number ten didn’t exist. I thought I may have crossed into a parallel universe, a universe where hotels only ever had nine rooms but I soon discounted this theory and decided on practical action. I simply tried the key in all of the doors in the central section of the first floor. I heard a few hurried scuffles from the odd room as I tried the key, I didn’t try and contemplate why, my persistence was soon rewarded and a door yielded or rather slid open. On the door was stencilled Privato either the proprietor had opened up some staff rooms in response to the crisis or it was a subterfuge to confuse the tax man, I never found out which.
The owner was one Guido Tavaro a seventy-three year old Greco-Roman wrestler who had represented Italy in the Rome and Tokyo Olympics of 1960 and 1964. His certificates and photographs festoon the wall of the breakfast room. He however couldn’t speak English and I hadn’t any Italian but I do speak Spanish with which we managed to communicate. Our conversations proved interesting and bystanders even joined in offering their interpretations of our bilingual interchange. It was interesting asking for butter at the breakfast table, the Spanish is mantequilla which meant nothing to Guido while the Italian is burro this however means donkey in Spanish. The whole episode was surreal but very enjoyable.
Guido and his wife lived at the guest house while his three daughters appeared twice a day to make beds, dust and polish. I spent my seven day exile shuttling to and fro the airport rebooking cancelled flights or enjoying the sun on Guido’s veranda. He was remarkably light footed for such a big man, the first I would know of his presence was a forceful slap on the back usually accompanied with the words. “Tu no Inglese, bronzo tu Italiano” which he thought was hilarious, he meant of course I was sun tanned like an Italian or at least I think that is what he meant. The popping of a cork signalled the opening of a bottle of wine and an hour or so of discussion carried out in our unique method of communication. We managed to discuss the weather and politics including the Italian claim on Croatian Istria which explained the unpleasantness at the airport on my arrival. He certainly felt very strongly about it. I flatter myself that I was able to understand his meaning, or I think I understood it, he may have been talking about his broken down vacuum cleaner for all I knew. I soon became familiar with this ritual and we drank many bottles of wine together including his home-made variety which while being a bit on the fizzy side was quite pleasant.
After our chats he would head rather unsteadily off towards the barn and appear again on a bright red tractor towing some over complicated piece of machinery with which he would perform some mysterious but essential task in one of his three fields. Irrigating his land simply involved opening a valve on a number of water risers which were positioned rather conveniently over his fields. There were also two fountains which constantly fed water into a couple of troughs where bundles of white asparagus floated for whatever reason. These were fed, as Guido had told me from a subterranean Alpine spring, I drank regularly from them with no ill effect. I secretly think he had tapped into the water main, he seemed a resourceful sort of person.
Feeding myself didn’t present a problem there was a small restaurant at the airport and two trattorias some one hundred metres from the guest house. The first one specialised in fish which I couldn’t face after my four days in Croatia where they fed it to me at every opportunity. I had the things with heads on and without, cooked, raw, filleted or with a profusion of bones, I swear that after my visit to Croatia I could stay under water for tens minutes without undue discomfort. I am a fan of Italian food and I wasn’t disappointed it was superb. With a glass of house red at 80 cents my exile was proving an enjoyable experience. I noticed pictures of a memorial to Mussolini on the wall of the trattoria along with a calendar showing him in all his fascist regalia, this disturbed me and I took the matter up with Guido that evening. I expected his response to be horror and outrage but he simply left the table and returned with his photographs of the man. They revered Mussolini for giving them back their self respect after the loss of the remains of the Italian empire. I explained how my father who was on Malta during the siege was bombed seven times a day for over 140 days by the Italian and German air forces. He explained to me that as a child he was bombed by the British and American air forces when he lived in Treviso town. I steered the conversation away from controversial issues, I liked Guido and I think he enjoyed my company, I didn’t want to spoil our relationship as this was to be my last night in Italy. The all clear had been given for flights to resume and I was heading back to the airport in the morning.
Saying goodbye to Guido was difficult, he seemed rather emotional and embarrassed by it, we gripped hands and looked each other in the eye before I trundled my way towards the airport, the weight of my baggage and the roar of traffic soon occupying my thoughts.
He made me promise to return and I could stay at the guest house free of charge, I of course said I would. Will I return? It may be a mistake, the house will be the same but we will be older and all the leaves on the trees will be different. It was an unexpected but magical interlude, one which I will always look back on with affection. Guido’s zest for life and his uncompromising hospitality was an inspiration. I was sad to leave but very very glad I had come even if by misfortune.
When I was asked if I wanted to take part in a press trip to Rab I was somewhat perplexed, firstly where, who or what is a Rab? The name didn’t offer any clues, it wasn’t Arabic, Spanish or of a Caribbean nature. Research was obviously required so I set to work interrogating the internet; the first results were rather discouraging.
Goli Otok, or naked island lies to the north of Rab, not a venue for naturists as the name suggests but a barren place where only inquisitive tourists visit. It was the most infamous political prison in Yugosalvia, built in 1948 after Tito’s break with the Soviet Union, it housed supporters of the Stalinist regime. Also adjacent to Rab is the Island of Sveti Grgur (St. Gregory) an infamous women’s prison. But to really jolly things along, the town of Kampur on the Island of Rab proper was host to a concentration camp during the Second World War. I thought long and hard about the invitation.
I soon discovered that Rab is an Island of the Kvarner Group in the northern Adriatic and forms part of the Republic of Croatia. It is 22km long and 11km wide at its extremes with the main town of Rab itself accounting for half of the Island’s population of almost 10,000 souls. The principle industry is tourism, in fact apart from a few fishermen and the odd goat herd it is the only industry.
The airports of Rijeka, Zadar and Pula are serviced by airlines from the UK but are lengthy drives from the ferry port of Jablanac the main crossing point, Rijeka the closest is 102km away. A state run catamaran service also runs form Rijeka, but there is only one sailing a day and it is at the mercy of sea conditions. In my opinion the prospects of Rab taking off as a tourist Mecca were diminishing the more I researched. I decided to stop surfing and sent off an email accepting the offer.
Rijeka Airport is on the Island of Krk and is a left over from Croatia’s austere communist days. It is nothing more than a hollow concrete block with a few windows, a cold structure with all the joy of a closed pub. The Airbus I arrived in was the only serviceable aircraft at the airport, there was however a rather sorry looking F-84 Thunderjet and a t-33 Shooting Star both well into terminal decay. The United States supplied 219 Thunderjets to the Yugoslav Air Force in the early 1950’s, a controversial decision at the time.
The airport shuttle bus shook and rattled its way southward along the coastal road with the Dalmation Islands to the right and the rock strewn hinterland to the left.
A winding decent took the bus into the town of Jablanac, a pretty little harbour with stone red-roofed buildings and crystal clear water. It was in marked contrast to the desolate spectacle of Rab a short twelve minute ferry ride away, its low lying hills were virtually devoid of vegetation, the white stone reflecting a fierce sun more like a Saharan landscape than the Adriatic. The north wind or Bora lays up salt deposits on this side of the Island preventing the growth of all but the hardiest and dowdiest of plants.
The ferry Sv. Grgur ploughed its way across Velebitski Kanal towards Mišnjak, Rab’s southern most port. The barren landscape continued subduing the spirits of the occupants of the mini-bus, glum faces peered through the dusty windows as we drove down the small exit ramp and onto the Island.
First impressions of Rab
As the towns of Barbat and Banjol sped past so the vegetation became greener, holm oaks, century cacti and palm trees covered the landscape. The sigh of relief amongst the passengers was audible. As we approached the town of Rab the changing landscape became more luxuriant and complex. Some flora reflected the exuberance of the Mediterranean while other the olive drab of northern Europe, all things to all Europeans.
The main town on the Island is Rab itself, a town of two halves with modern residential Rab an efficient dormitory town for the tourist industry, but it is the old town which is the jewel in this Adriatic crown. Built over Roman remains and on the western side of the harbour the Old Town is a separate entity with its unique skyline of four bell towers all struggling for prominence. To the east is the holm oak forested Komr?ar Park which acts as a buffer, keeping modern Rab at arms length.
The Old Town of Rab is spotless, as if purged by some huge nocturnal pressure washer. The standard of cleanliness is such that seagulls give the town a miss and head for less fastidious landfalls squawking their displeasure as they fly over at medium altitude. The three main thoroughfares are Donja Ulica, Srednja Ulica and Gornja Ullica, lower, middle and upper street. A confluence of tiny streets loosely aligned to these three main thoroughfares host many small shops, restaurants and bars, hand made jewellery is sold from stalls which spring up around Sv Kristofor (St. Christopher) Square at nightfall.
Croatia is rich in legend and Rab is no exception, a rather interesting fable concerns a youth named Kalifont who fell in love with the Shepherdess of Draga. Not the usual tale of unrequited love, it was most certainly requited so much so that the Gods banished Kalifont to the Oak forests which he was doomed to walk until he became assimilated with the trees. His forlorn arboreal likeness now sits in St. Christopher Square staring fixedly at a fountain bearing the resemblance of the amorous young Shepherdess, highly unlikely but great fun.
It is not necessary to speak Croatian on the Island but a working knowledge of German would be a distinct advantage. Figures supplied by Kristijana Ribari? President of the City of Rab Tourist Board show that German visitors form over 40% of all tourists, while guests from the British Isles were heaped into the 2% of also-rans, rather like our national sports teams.
Many restaurants cater for German tastes especially those situated around the main squares, this is a pity as the local cuisine is an integral part of the Rab experience. Seafood from the clear Adriatic, grilled meats with delicious piquant sources, the cured hams can rival any of the Iberian varieties while the Pag cheese complemented by fresh black olives is a superb way to round off any meal. So don’t settle on the more obvious eating houses, don walking boots and rummage through the small back streets, watch where the locals eat, you will receive wonderful food and a warm welcome.
While in the Old Town I had the immense pleasure of meeting Zoran Mar?i?, as a young man of 20 he fought alongside Tito’s partisans, taking up arms after his family was incarcerated in the Kampur Concentration Camp. One of his anecdotes centred around three British agents put ashore on Rab in 1943. They were closeted in the house of Sersic Ivan close to St. Christopher Square which the occupying Germans used as a parade ground. It was decided to move the agents, to this end they were dressed as abattoir workers with their radio hidden on a donkey, they were then marched passed the drilling soldiers and taken to the village of Palit and from there to safety.
One rather interesting association with the Island is the familiar St. Christopher, not only the patron saint of travellers but also the guardian of Rab, a busy chap. In the catacombs of St. Justine’s Church there is a small collection of interesting relics including the skull of our industrious saint. It appears that when the Island was under siege from the Normans St. Christopher turned the arrows of the invaders onto themselves and saved the Island. The skull has not been carbon dated the custodians do not believe it is necessary, why spoil a good story.
Away from the main town other resorts such as Banjol, Barbat and Lopar to the north offer a variety of activities including bathing (costumes optional) walking and cycling. The terrain ranges from the flat to the mountainous, so bicycle paths reflect this, from the easy going to just plain silly. Diving is well catered for as you would expect with the crystal clear waters, graceful schooners and barques of the diving schools are regular visitors to the Island.
The secluded bays with crystal clear water offer superb bathing and the Island has a long tradition of naturism. In 1936 when Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson visited they were reported to have indulged in the nude bathing at Kandarola Bay, however after an exhaustive search no photographic evidence could be found.
A small flotilla of craft offer boat trips around Rab and the adjacent Islands, these can be seen leaving each morning awash with waving arms and legs. The boats range from sleek modern floating gin palaces to old and listing derelicts chugging their way worryingly to the open waters of the Adriatic. However it was pleasant enough to walk by the harbour in the early evening, full of bonhomie, good food and wine reading the boat’s bill boards and selecting a trip for the next morning. It is advisable however not to have too much to drink as you could find yourself as a cabin boy on a tramp steamer headed for Montevideo.
Tourism is well established on the Island and the City of Rab Tourist Board is a professional and capable organisation which regards the industry with the utmost importance, not only because it is the mainstay of the Island but they also understand just how important the annual or biannual break is to the many individuals who holiday there. The entry of Croatia into the European Union in 2009 also commemorates the 120th year of tourism. It was in 1889 that the local council of Rab decided to gear up for touism and work began on the first hotels.
Modern Rab is undoubtedly a tourist destination; with a permanent population of 10,000 it has 30,000 tourist beds across all sectors. Many of the islanders work in the tourist industry from May until October, returning to secondary occupations in the winter or just idling, gathering their strength for the spring onslaught. Prices are very favourable compared with the UK, meals and drinks are perhaps 30% less. There is no mark-up during the tourist season nor is there a difference in prices from residential Rab to the touristic Old Town.
Rab from seaward at dusk
The northern Adriatic is a meeting of cultures. The exuberance and passion of the Mediterranean meets the methodical understated humour of northern Europe. Palm trees and holm oak grow side by side, while the Green Lizards scamper through the undergrowth, the only creatures I saw moving with any rapidity during my stay.
The 737-800 was doing a fair impersonation of an airborne sardine tin as it winged its way over the German hinterland. Low-cost air travel is a boon. It allows people across Europe to mix, exchange ideas and hopefully understand one another. Modern aircraft fly above the weather giving a smooth and reliable service although cramped. I was on one of my ‘keep-it-cheap’ trips. Airport taxes only on the flight out and less than £15.00 for the return leg. The hotel was just over £100.00 for seven days, cheap yes, cheerful I will have to see. I was making the journey in January. This is unusual for me as I tend to be sedentary in the winter months only surfacing with the warmer weather.
My destination was Kraków. Poland’s southerly second city. Serviced by Balice Airport which surprisingly handles only half the passengers as Bristol Airport. I didn't linger in the terminal and soon found a taxi. The temperature outside was -17’C and my legs became aware of it before the rest of my body. It was as if they were in a different time zone. A chill gripped them in an icy embrace and I fleetingly imagined they might become brittle and snap like sticks of frozen asparagus. I thought lovingly of the ‘long Johns’ in my luggage and gratefully settled myself in the nearest taxi.
My hotel was in the Ulica Malborska, to the south east of central kraków. A singular establishment with the most interesting plumbing I have ever come across and only one bottle of wine in the bar. I was soon in trouble with the language. I speak Spanish a bit of Italian and of course English. A lot of words share a common Latin base but Polish is alien in spelling pronunciation, and construction. They appear to abhor vowels and for some linguistic reason start from the back-end of the alphabet. Deciphering food and drink containers was a nightmare. I am certain I drank a bottle of window cleaner thinking it to be flavoured milk. I suffered no ill effects and my vision is crystal clear.
Polish food isn’t the revered and lovingly prepared repast that is enjoyed in Mediterranean countries. It serves two purposes, to increase body temperature and provide sufficient calories until the next intake. To that end it is served extremely hot and usually fried. I suffered as I dislike fried food. I found that the sautéed menu options were more agreeable than the other offerings. However, I ate heartily as tomorrow was going to be a long and difficult day.
The morning was cold. Snow lay thick and a fresh fall was under-way. Properly insulated against the weather and having checked my camera equipment I awaited the taxi I had ordered the previous evening. Today was the main reason for my visit. I was visiting the concentration camps some 60 kilometres to the west of kraków. Renamed by the Nazi regime as Auschwitz and encompassing the camps at O?wi?cim (Auschwitz I) and Birkenau (Auschwitz II). It was the latter that the majority of the crimes were carried out.
Auschwitz I houses exhibitions in the barrack blocks which trace the history of the camps and the inmates. Entrance is free and although there is a recommended route it is not obligatory. The Auschtwitz – Birkenau State Museum who maintain the sites welcome all who visit. Reverence for those who perished there is an obligation for all who visit.
For respect to those who were imprisoned and died at Birkenau there are no exhibitions just the buildings, railway line and the partially demolished gas chambers where the unimaginable horror took place. The camps are much as the Russian liberating forces found it in January 1945. The occasional flower or candle left by a relative for someone lost but still remembered through the fog of time.
Looking out of the taxi window as it sped back to the hotel I thought about my visit to the camps. It was a place of fundamental evil. Although my Father, Mother and Uncles fought against the vile Nazi regime, I still felt guilty. Guilt because of the crimes committed there perhaps. Is this why they are called crimes against humanity, because we all share the guilt. The innocent included. It was going to take time to come to terms with it all.
At the hotel in the evening I sampled their one and only bottle of wine, Gato Negro a Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon. I soon polished it off leaving the establishment a wine free zone.
I had been invited to visit the salt mine at Wieliczka about 10 Kilometres east of my hotel. Its dimensions are staggering, 327 metres deep with over 300km of traverses, galleries and tunnels linking over 3,000 chambers. Obviously only a small portion of these are open to the public. It is still a good 2km walk to cover the whole tourist route. The operators Kopalnia Soli Wieliczka supplied me with a guide one Dorota, a charming lady with excellent English and Croatian. We descended using the Dani?owicz Shaft in a lift which accelerated like an amusement park white-knuckle ride.
Of the 22 chambers open to the public the largest is the Warsaw Chamber. A conference centre and function room which amongst other events hosts a New Year Eve party. The logistics of getting several hundred intoxicated revellers the 123 metres to the surface must have required very careful planning. A brace of champion sheep dogs would also be a useful backup.
For those worse for wear the Weimar Chamber boasts a small lake and sanatorium. It is benificial for those suffering from respiratory aliments due to its micro climate rich in sodium, calcium and magnesium chloride.
And for those who seriously overindulged there are three subterranean chapels on the tourist route, but far the largest is St. Kinga’s used for weddings, christenings and all the usual religious observances all at 102 metres below ground level.
As always my stomach beckoned. The thought of sitting down to lunch 135 metres below ground level appealed to my tiny mind. I took advantage of the online service to preorder a meal. It was served in the Witold Budruk Chamber and surprised me on two counts. Firstly, it was a full dinner, I thought I had ordered a snack but battling manfully I saw off all four courses. Secondly, it was superb redeeming Polish cuisine in my eyes. I entered the lift to leave the mine a few kilos heavier than I arrived.
On my last full day in the country I walked the five kilometres to the Stare Miasto or old town of kraków. I took a stroll around Wawel Hill this is where the old Royal Palace and Wawel Cathedral are located. There are many museums and important art collections housed within the buildings on Wawel Hill. The Cathedral is an especially important monument being the scene of many historic events. Within its fabric are buried some of the most revered and eminent citizens. Due to neglect and fire, the buildings have been rebuilt over the years and display a miss-match of styles ranging from Romanesque Gothic to Baroque. The hill offers some wonderful views over the city and its River the Vistula.
I set off in the Rynek Glówny or grand square where I knew there would be restaurants. My stomach was once more being in control. My logic proved correct and establishments offering all sorts of recognisable cuisine presented themselves. Greek, Italian and Mediterranean, they were all there. I chose one belonging to a Polish Chain a Sphinx Restaurant and settled down for a light lunch. The food surprised me here as well. Geared for the western European tourists, it was excellent and well presented. After sating my hunger and thirst I mooched through the stalls, listened to the street musicians and bought some momentoes.
At the airport the next day I sifted through my first experience of Poland. My initial dislike of the mainly fried food, then its redemption by the excellent Wieliczka Mine lunch. The huge salt caverns and saline lakes 130 metres below ground level. The most pungent memory was of course Auschwitz. We all know that Auschwitz happened but to be there and confronted with its reality is staggering.
Before I went to my boarding gate, I thought I would have once last attempt at the language. So to that end I flicked through my phrase book checking wording and syntax alike. Equipped with this new linguistic gem I approached a food kiosk. I tried to order a cheese salad sandwich and an iced tea. The counter assistance stepped back in alarm. She looked at me as if I were on fire, so I just pointed.