Wednesday, 27 September 2017

An erotic discovery

Mother-in-law update: she is feeling fine this morning, sitting up in bad, and fancies some yoghurt and honey for breakfast.  Thank goodness Andrew did not rush to her bedside.  It would have been a blight on the end of this lovely trip.......


Leaving our excellent camping cabin this morning to drive to Bilbao - I just wanted to record the diligence of my husband (aka The Concierge) who noticed the strange plumbing addition to the loo. It is no ordinary loo but a combi-bidet, which I have heard about but never seen before and certainly never used.


As well as this tap arrangement beside the seat, there is a small spout which projects over the basin part, directed right where you want it.

I recommend it.

I am a keen fan of bidets, for two reasons.  One is of course their practicality for cleaning purposes (and I am learning that more and more people think like me that we could all be a bit cleaner in the botty area).

The second reason will appeal to ladies.

It turns out that there is a whole erotic area on the inside of a girl's legs, the upper inner thigh, which is best experienced when stimulated by a wash of warm water. It is literally sensational.

I look forward to seeing wash-lavs or whatever they are called installed in homes and hotels throughout the world.  And I urge anyone who has the chance to put a full bidet into their bathroom to do so and jolly well try it out.  Adds lots and lots to life......

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Hard facts

Today was the last full day of our amazing month in Spain.  As it happened, we heard that Andrew's mum - who had been rushed to hospital from her care home - was perhaps now dying. So what we had planned as a leisurely indulgent final part of our holiday was partially transformed into a series of phone calls, texts, anxieties, guesses.... helping ourselves and family members back at home deal with the possible crisis.  Life and death.

So, while we headed to the paleolithic cave and art of the Altamira Cave, driving past the astonishing mountains of the Picos de Europa, we were also thinking about whether we should cut our holiday short, put Andrew on a plane to get home to his mother... or whether she might just continue to be the tough old thing she is and get through it all.

We went to the museum - which, like the others I have recently written about for you, is an absolutely superb example of how to explain and manage a technical, academic and difficult subject for an adoring and paying public. In fact the whole world wants to see this cave and its paintings, and that is a lot of people.  Each person, each scrap of modern material introduced to the caves, brings a highly increased risk of contamination.  We saw how some panels of paintings were amended by people painting their initials over them. Pillars of wood which were put in to help prop the ceiling up brought fungus.

The answer, brilliantly managed, was to construct an entirely new, artificial replica of the whole thing. It is made of fibre-glass and polystyrene, and you go through in timed groups having previously wandered round the introductory galleries which explain the evolution of 'man' and how - at different periods relevant to the cave's history - mankind made all the necessary things for his survival - tools, clothes, weapons, etc.  It is absolutely amazing, how they have presented all this.  I don't necessarily agree with what they say, even though I am not an expert in any way whatsoever... but their gender bias, and general glossing over of some points which seem quite important to me.... well, maybe that is for another blog. 

The cave - the real one - seems to have been used by early mankind, and then by bears, and then (thousands of years later) by more people... and then there was a rockfall which sealed it all up.  In the 19th century, a local amateur (inspired by the great Paris exhibition) started to explore, and his little daughter aged 8 (or 9) went with him and she was the first to set eyes on the astonishing flat undulating ceiling covered in paintings. She took her papa to see them, and he started to publicise them, only to be villified and reviled as a fake.... Only after his death was it finally decided that these images were genuinely paleolithic. His great critic wrote a book, called 'Mea culpa...'   

Hordes of visitors proved to be too damaging, and so just a few years ago they decided to make a facsimile of the whole thing and that is what we saw today. It's good enough for me.

It woke up in me a great turmoil of thoughts from this trip. How I have been mesmerised by the mountains, the rocks. I have tried to paint them, and found it almost impossible.


I recall the prison at Broto in the Pyrenees - how the hapless prisoners scratched images into the blackened rock walls of their cell, and how luminous these images are. You, my faithful reader, will remember what I thought when I saw them - it was only 3 weeks ago.   

I am thinking of my attempts - yesterday! - to paint some of the huge rocks around here. I am thinking of our visit last year to the caves at Ribadesella, just 5 miles away, and how those caves are adorned with images of vaginas....   

I am thinking of the hard facts of my relationship with my mother-in-law, sleeping peacefully tonight I hope, in her care-home in England - how men love her, but women find her very difficult.  She is 97 years old.  The lifespan of the people - quite possibly female - who made the astonishing images on the low ceiling of the cave at what is now called Altamira, was probably barely more than 30 years.  That is not much time to pass on skills, knowledge, family stories, tribal messages.  They would not have thought it possible to live to 97.    The texts in the museum have the grace to put the word 'marriage' into inverted commas - but the truth is, it was the capacity of females to have babies and get them to survive those harsh and wonderful times, which eventually led to our modern world.  Sex, life and death, in a landscape of rocks and mountains, was the whole thing.  How and why they decided to paint those magnificent animals, in charcoal and ochre, on the low ceiling of their cave is really a mystery.  The whole thing is about the size of a tennis court. It was about five feet or so up from the floor beneath it. There is little or no lamp smoke to obscure the images.  It is one of the wonders of the world.  

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Obliteration, rediscovery

Things which live, and have a full life, can completely disappear. Even the enthusiastic sexlife of Tyrannosaurus Rex could not prevent its obliteration, but as we shall see, these things can be coaxed back into life.

Remarkably, for a period of about 300 years or more, the community of Gijón completely disappeared. What is now a sizeable seaport and capital for the region of Asturia, with population of around quarter of a million people and a history of mining and heavy industry, was wiped off the map. It had had mixed fortunes before that - Roman baths, church building, Moorish occupation, feudal development, the odd fire... but between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries - nothing.  Eventually, someone thought it might make a good harbour and things started up again.... Now, like all the cities we have seen it has acres of apartment blocks, all the rules and regs which make up modern Spanish life, and a tiny 'old town'.

The Roman baths are rather fun, all underground now, very reminiscent of the Roman bit of Canterbury, and with lots of excellent diagrams showing how it all worked, scattered round a jumble of old brickwork and holes.  The money spent on the excavation, investigation, presentation and management of this once-thriving spa is hard to imagine, but I would say no expense was spared. Like all the Spanish interiors we have visited, it's all very clean and smart, dimly lit, and done in the best possible taste.

It's another mystery quite why and how the Spanish choose to live in such darkness. Shops, bars, public spaces are all lit with electricity - but only just. It's as if light itself was a precious commodity inside, to be doled out.  Many times we have walked or driven past a shop because it looks closed, only to realise that it is open and ready for business, but in a troglodyte sort of way, shady and murkish.  Anyone wanting to start a new fashion in Spain only has to bring a lorry-load of modern light fittings across and switch them on.

We went back into Gijón today to visit the Railway Museum - best in Spain, so they say, and it is indeed a splendid place. Asturia never really had a rail network, only an enthusiastic industry of coal mining which required the stuff to be brought to the coast - and several gauges and machines and systems were installed over the 19th and 20th centuries. Passengers were an add-on, and did get their three-class system in due course. The story of gauges is quite interesting in itself - the Spanish deliberately chose a wide gauge to stop any French ambitions of invasion by train.  If you go (as we did a year or so ago) by train from Paris into Spain, there's a railyard where they have to physically change the distance of the running wheels....      The selection of engines and equipment which survives in this excellent and very well-presented museum is impressive and rather gorgeous, not least because they have not stinted in the way it's all set out, and the social history is woven into the whole story. The building itself is also very beautiful with wonderful granite paving on the old platforms.  Luckily it was a bright day today so the dim lighting did not cause too much of a problem.

Our last few days have been spent staying in a campsite at a place called Playa de Vega, in the Ribadisella district. It's at the beach end of a quiet old valley, no sound of anything but the waves about half a mile away.  We are in a wooden cabin with 2 bedrooms which is spacious and comfortable and even has the heating on for mornings and evenings.  60€ a night.  At night, there are owls calling all around - at least six or seven of them. During the day there are dozens of German surfers down in the water.

We had an outing yesterday to yet another museum - the Jurassic Dinosaur Park a few miles up the road.  There is no doubt about it, Spanish Museums are plain terrific.  This one, seated in the centre of a geological serendipity from the dinosaur point of view, is outstanding. The carpark leads up to a huge garden, filled with full-scale models of all the dinosaurs you want to see - diplodocus, tyrannosaurus rex, stegosaurus, etc.   Free entry.  Children of all ages are delighted, including me.  Roar!!!! Agghhh!!!!!!!!   There are also very convincing full-scale replicas of footprints and of spinal bones found in the sand.  The building, shaped like a huge footprint blown into zeppelin proportions, leads you through millions of years of evolution and discovery and has a fair-to-middling service for non-Spanish speakers in terms of labelling and the audio guide.   It also boasts the only TRex mating model in Europe. Roar!!!!! This is a wonderful place, for fun and for academia. The chances which led to so many massive fossil discoveries in this area are slim, but they have exploited it all with flair and brilliance and it would be worth coming to Asturia just for this experience alone. 

One small complaint is that in the list of illustrious explorers and excavators who invented modern fossil-hunting, no mention is made of Mary Anning of Lyme Regis, who was not only an outstanding scientist and pioneer, but also female - but who nonetheless helped to start this fascinating area of study.  The line of pious portraits is all male.


The life and existence of these huge and diverse creatures, along with all the other plants, insects, invertebrates and other things is - frankly - almost completely unimaginable, but to see everything explained and sequenced and illustrated and modelled so comprehensively does help a lot.

A little detour on the way home, to a viewpoint or mirador called el Fito is just icing on the cake.

Thursday, 21 September 2017

The castle mentality

We live in an age of mad alpha-male despots. Maybe we always did, but at the moment among others we think of the North Korean weird man, and the American President with his instinct for smashing through the values which people around him have come to value.... respect, conservation of resources, sensitivity, community.  Trump in particular reminds me very strongly of King Henry VIII, another one who was willing to tear down the old certainties in pursuit of a vision which benefitted him above anyone else.  I even detect a sort of facial or expressional resemblance among these three men - a flat-faced, blank stare, belligerent. They are cruel, sadistic, frightening.

They are all human but very different from me and I find it hard to imagine what it must be like to 'be' like one of them.   Walking round inside a castle is the nearest thing I can think of to experience the sort of mindset they probably have - hard, defensive, perhaps paranoid, aggressive.

Castles are very strange things. They stayed in fashion among the warrior classes of Europe for a long time, and there were hundreds if not thousands of them. They were built strongly of course which is why a lot of them survive, and they've been altered and knocked about a lot too, but they do give us an insight into how people thought about the world in the early to middle medieval ages. 

For a start, castles were usually built on hill tops. That's ok for defence (and we have already considered the benefits of high vantage points), but you always have the problem of getting up there (lugging all that stone if you need more to build the walls etc), and the problem of enough water for your fighting men to drink if you are under siege.   Castle wells are always interesting. The well at Bamburgh in Northumberland is memorable - somehow they excavated down to fresh water, hundreds of feet through solid rock, right beside the sea. 

And castles were hard, awkward places - steep stairs, draughty, military. OK for stomping about in your armour and keeping watch, but not so good for domestic matters - the work and experience of women and children and cooks and and gardeners etc was the last thing on the list. 

Without looking anything up, it strikes me that there was a huge splurge of stone castle-building (and cathedral-building) right across Europe in the second half of the 1100s, and that was presumably based on some sort of economic surplus which released the labour force to be available for stone-work, and that was presumably based on an improvement in the climatic conditions - fine weather, warmer years, more harvests, less sickness and starvation, stronger bigger peasants, etc. 

Our travels in Spain have taken us to city after city with these massive installations - castles, forts, cathedrals, basilicas.... and we find them of course in France and England and Italy.....

Ponferrada, sitting as it does in the centre of a huge basin surrounded by mountain ranges is an attractive place and perfect for a castle, right beside the river Sil. The present edifice is gorgeous to look at with castellations, towers, drawbridges, turrets, flags etc, and a great tourist attraction. It covers a vast area with a very large open courtyard. It was owned and embellished by successive kings and warlords, held by the Templars long enough for it to qualify now as a research institution into Templar history, and to attract a lot of funding for rebuilding and so on... The area known as the Old Palace is now a modern wooden thing, not at all medieval-looking, but useful for practical purposes.  The signage is adequate but intermittent. The viewpoints from various walls are marvellous. It was interesting to see that the famous battlements - the castellations - were perhaps not left naked as we usually see them today, but held roofwork - either individually or all along, and there are photos from many other castles to prove it. This reminded me of a book owned by Norma Pleasance which shows how the Coliseum in Rome was not a bare open cylinder as we see it today, but held a huge canvas tent above it, to shade the crowd.  Nice.

The men who built and lived in and used and fought for these castles had a very odd view of the world, according to me.  They worried about being safe enough. They spent huge amounts of money etc on their own defence and possessions. They cut themselves off from most of the people around them - being in command, killing, thinking a lot about death and heredity. They walked round those battlements and stared out. They risked falling down the hard stone stairs. They all died.

Right beside the castle, which by the way, has free entry on Wednesdays, is a little Baroque house which now houses Spain's finest Radio Museum. This mostly consists of a marvellous collection of 'wireless' receivers from the 20s through to the 70s and into the digital age. There are one or two mixer desks, some microphones, a couple of tape recorders including a Uher just like the one which I myself lugged around as a radio reporter in the 1970s.  It's a lovely collection and worth a visit for the sheer design qualities which were lavished on the great twentieth century technology.  The radios channelled the words and actions of despots - and 'news' was a broadcast thing, the changes in war technology and battles, all talked about and heard in homes across the land.   But radios also brought music and laughter and people sat around together listening, sharing. 

Quite different things. 

Galician hospitality

Just packing up to leave this lovely apartment in Ponferrada. We have loved it here.
During the night, I realised there are lots of things I have failed to record - the fantastic hospitality of our friends in Pontedeume, including their wide circle of friends, who seem to eat and make music as often as they breathe.
In particular we had one marvellous lunch by the sea, at a restaurant in Ares opened by Miguel Ezquerro and his wife/chef Conchita. It was by chance a reunion of the wonderful Galician folk band Iriadona which - since the dreadful train accident of lead singer Lidia Sanmartin at Santiago a few years ago - has not really played together since about 5 years.  They came twice to perform at Faversham and since her remarkable recovery, Lidia herself has become an international star, performing in Brussels and Glasgow most recently.

After our amazing meal, they gradually produced their instruments and then they played - for two or three hours, a spontaneous concert-rehearsal, changing instruments, watching each other, getting into it. The sun was shining on the promenade, we sat under our terrace roof and melted into the sounds.
To hear them is to be carried into Celtic lands - it could be being made in Ireland or Scotland, the same kinds of melody, the same harmonies.  Their instruments are partly familiar, partly new to me - the pandeireta (a square double-covered hand-drum), the mandola, plus of course guitar, flutes of various kinds, and bodhran....
The next day, some of us met up again, at the house of Carola and Santi - for an evening meal in the open (under one of the sensible covered terrace roofs). She produced peaches stuffed with an egg and vegetable salad, a fine cheese which we didn't even touch!, turnip tops with cream and egg, then a massive paella cooked in front of us, and then postres - a kind of apple flan with a filling of compote.... this was delicious but the cook and her husband were disappointed with it because the pastry lining did not hold together properly. They are real gourmets... as indeed the whole Galician people seem to be.  The main idea of a lunch taken mid-afternoon, and then a drink + pincho (usually given as a freebie from a small choice of menu at most bars) is all you need for supper.
During Carola's supper, the assembled party sang me a Galician 'happy birthday' song... never heard it before.
The next day some of the gang met up again - Monday this time - at a bar on the mountain - in a garden, under cover.... This was a strange place, beautiful, an old boatyard of all things, with the dock still visible in the contours of what is now a carefully managed garden. Two rivers met here, though the water levels are different now, so no boats have been built since 1880. The only surviving record at the place is a set of photos of the boats - lovely elegant skiffs, perfect for fishing on the Eume estuary.
Robins and sparrow flitted about. One robin was very hunchbacked. Never seen that before either.
Had we known it, this little party was a prelude to the next day's exploration of the old Roman goldmines - the industrial archeology just sitting silently in the landscape.
I will try to add photos to this a little later.  For now, I wanted to record our deep pleasure in the festivities and hospitality and kindness and cooking of the Galician crowd. We are about to set off on the next stage of our Spanish adventure - to go up to Gijon on the north coast. Rain is forecast.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Romans. what they found and what they did

Travelling makes you very conscious of how rocky our planet is. The mountains are just huge. Wide. Tall. Deep. Hard. Difficult. And slowly moving all the time.

As a soft-fleshed and lazy person I view them partly with admiration and wonder, and partly with fear and horror. It is an unimaginably long time since they arrived. Some are obviously made of layer upon layer of sediment, once presumably quite level and soft, but then hardened and later bent up into tormented and tortuous folds and bends - the seabed literally lifted to the heavens, to be worn down again and the tiny gritty particles of dust to settle once again on a sea bed somewhere... The process begins again. Some of these rocks look as soft as butter. Then you touch them, and find they are the hardest substance you have ever touched. The volcanic 'toffee' in the huge crater of Mount Teide in Tenerife is like that.

It is in these uplifts that people have searched for and found things of value. For instance, they have found distance - the chance of seeing a very long way, which might give them warning of the approach of an enemy, or the sense of ownership of the territory spread out below them, or an understanding of how the land lies, or maybe the chance to connect with the Great Powers of the Universe - the starry skies, the blue heaven, storms.

Having bid farewell to Galicia yesterday morning, we headed east and into these mountains - and eventually to the extraordinary sky-village now called O Cebreira. It is not well signposted, and it is very very high up. It was settled well over two thousand years ago, with round stone houses, thatched and snug, and in use till a few years ago. Then as decline and modern ways set in (just as in Perithia, in Corfu, where we were just a few weeks ago), the houses were in danger of being lost completely, and it was the parish priest who organised to save them. Nine survive, four still inhabited, the rest in use as museums or storage spaces.

Actually the locals seem to like round things, as the church gate posts are round, the buttresses on various walls are round, door-jambs are round, even a cupboard carved from one solid tree has a round interior though the back and sides are squared off.  There is said to be a Holy Grail in the little church (sadly not a round building, and locked when we were there).  The place is thronged with pilgrims and tourists and is - well, exciting. The views all around are stupendous. A magic place, lived in since long before the Romans arrived. Round houses are associated with matriarchy, and quite right too.

But of course, it is not only distance which people value in the mountains.  They have also found metals - copper, lead, silver, gold....  And a little further on, in a golden land of vineyards and quaint crooked villages with massive jettied balconies, we came across the biggest ancient goldmine of antiquity.  Asturia is where the Romans got all their gold.  Since 80% of all gold now in use has been mined in the last 200 years, there was clearly much less around two thousand years ago, and its value was commensurately higher.  It was fantastically difficult to get.  Even for the Romans, the journey to be made from Rome to this distant edge of Iberia was a long one, and presumably the engineers, miners, soldiers, directors, financiers and so on all had to get to it.  The place is now called Las Meduras, and it's truly weird.

 What they had to do was to get down more than 100m into the rock to find the layers with traces of gold in them. They knew it was there because the locals had been panning it in the rivers for generations, but that wasn't enough for the Romans. So they decided to remove the top layers of rock.  They used water, and channelled it into cracks. They used the water to make 'explosive' air pressure further down. They used fire to heat the rocks and then cold water to create steam. They dug tunnels and pits and deep trenches, and basically they removed whole mountains. The peaks left behind are a bright burning red colour - again hard enough to touch - and these stand out like ridiculously pointy needles and slabs. There are massive cliffs where their operations ceased, but which give testimony to how much spoil was removed.   This process was called 'ruining mountains' - ruina monteum.   Pliny the Elder wrote about it in 77BC, mentioning how dangerous it was.  The labour force - so they say - was of free men, not slaves. 60,000 of them.  But how do we know?   Some of them lived down in the tunnels for months, never seeing daylight. They had to be fed, watered. And the area of operations is massive - really spreading for miles around.  They carried on doing this for 250 years and although it is debatable, Pliny said 20,000 Roman pounds of gold were extracted each year.  (A Roman pound is aproximately 11-12 oz).  Another estimate is that 1,650,000 kilograms of gold was taken.   Astonishing.   The resulting landscape is just breath-taking - red, torn, secret, difficult, silent.

The land around is now used for growing sweet chestnuts, and these trees are themselves described as centurions, being massive and ancient. They have been pollarded over and over again, and their trunks are huge and contorted. They all have wildly expressive markings on them - like some silent opera.  There are signs up everywhere warning you not to steal the chestnuts.  The walks around the area are open and free and well maintained.  On a late summer afternoon, you almost have the place to yourself.


Sunday, 17 September 2017

To be a pilgrim

The pilgrimage business in Spain has boomed. When we first came exploring these northern districts a few years ago there were - to be sure - a lot of people trudging their way along the dusty paths and through the beautiful cool woods, but there are far more of them these days. And now there are pilgrimage path signs all over the place, as communities enthusiastically welcome these visitors. There are even motorways designated as part of the camino, which is illuminating.

In the middle ages, when most people went on most of their journeys by foot, the idea of walking to a famous and holy place did not perhaps carry the same sub-messages as it does today. It would be interesting to know how people financed their pilgrimages in the 15th century, for instance. Surely they did not carry bags of gold or silver with them? Did they work their way along, to earn the money they needed? The houses and chapels which accommodated them must surely have taken coins from them in return for bed and board - they and their parishes could not have sustained a constant stream of freeloaders.  

In Ponferrada, besides the river, there is a huge castle which was handed to the Templars so they could protect the pilgrims on their way to Santiago. Protect from whom?  It sounds more mafia-like to me… the king was paying off this mighty fighting force by giving them a castle and a ‘job’ to do. They didn’t get to keep their castle for very long, because their whole order was closed down and disbanded only about 20 years after they took over the ancient and impressive fortress, and it became a sort of convenient quarry for hewn rocks. It is still a marvellous and picturesque edifice, which we enjoyed looking at from the other bank while we had an excellent picnic lunch.

Not being religious myself, I don’t know what the ‘official’ guidelines are for being a pilgrim. I imagine there is a kind of meditational, solitary, contemplative purpose, and a way of learning how to overcome physical (worldy) difficulties and mishaps. So it boosts resourcefulness and ingenuity, and helps put someone into a new kind of perspective of the world - the huge distances to be covered, the height and beauty of the mountains, the different ways in which people do things.  So, deeply informative and maybe transformational. To walk to Santiago (or Walsingham, or Canterbury, or Jerusalem, or Rome) and back again would be a really remarkable achievement even in the age of walking.   On this ‘holiday’ of ours, planned to last the whole of September, in the comfort of a car with hotel stops and a well-equipped tent for camping, we are hardly facing the same hardships and deprivations which a ‘real’ pilgrim would face, even today. But I have felt that this is a pilgrimage of sorts.  

We are disconnected. Don’t laugh - but we go for hours, days, without access to wifi - and thus I find I am brought up hard against my addictive nature, my dependance on things, my fear of isolation.  Is that the same as the fear of death?  I realise how I like to have things arranged the way I like them - how controlling that can be. I see how quickly I deteriorate into grumpiness if things go wrong, and I get tired. It’s not that I didn’t know about these shortcomings beforehand, but it’s impossible to avoid seeing them on a journey like this. Lots of room for improvement and change.  On the other hand, it’s been interesting to see how much I live in my eyes - how I look at things, almost strenuously. It’s very tiring - that was the clue. I am really exhausted when we arrive somewhere because I have been LOOKING at everything.  Most days I have been able to draw or paint, and I have found it very calming and meditational to do this work - moving into a new frame of mind, and being calm, almost as if I am finding my true nature. My paintings themselves have become clearer and more transparent, less muddy. I take these things to be part of my pilgrimage. I see too that I gain great benefits from talking with people - even tiny snippets of conversation with someone in a shop or along the road - from these I take whole worlds, fantasies of how they live, who they are. It feels loving, to me, but of course it’s a novelist’s habit and not necessarily sane.  

At this moment, in the tiny apartment belonging to our friends, I am alone with the washing machine, with one painting done and drying on the balcony, and with everyone out for a coffee. Time for me to join them.