Friday, 26 September 2014

Grand trees...

Among the millions of trees we see as we sweep through France, some remain in the memory because they are so special. For instance, when we stopped for lunch on Wednesday in the charming little bistro called le Roquetin at Laroque Timbaut, there were behind the church two huge and expansive black cedars about 200 yards apart. They must have been at least 150 years old, and probably planted at around the same time and maybe by the same person.  Planting them was certainly a grand gesture. These had no practical purpose. Whoever did it would have been very unlikely to have seen these trees more than 20 or 30 feet high.  Now they add grandeur and delight to an otherwise typical village.

It is also clear that some small districts were also inspired to plant specimen trees - for instance, the Hospital at Flers has two enormous creatures - Giant Redwood? Sequoia? Swamp Cedar? I am not very good at identifying these magnificent things but I love them. Their great height and commanding presence dominates their surroundings, but without any aggression or bullying.   One imagines that sometime, somewhere, a single individual who knows about trees and also supplies seedlings can inspire a whole neighbourhood to do something - maybe the local landlord or rich man takes an interest - and there you are. A hundred or so years later, we get a spread of utter magic - great living artworks.  I read some years ago that the arrival of the blue Atlantic cedar was the end of the traditional black cedar beloved of English landscapers, and that these older darker trees cannot now be found in any nursery. That may no longer be true, but whereas I see quite a few of the glaucas in small and medium size, I cannot think of a single young Cedar of Lebanon anywhere in England or Ireland.   We saw none in France either. 

I will have to take back some of my rude remarks about Flers, or at least I should bolster up my enthusiasm, because this morning on our way out of town we diverted to see the chateau, which was a miraculous survivor of the 1944 bombardments.   It is not huge, and is made in an L-shape, but it is very pretty and sits surrounded by water - lakes, moat, etc.   The reflections are gorgeous. The whole chateau, with its park and watergardens was presented to the town by the mayor at the end of the 19th century and now houses the Mairie, the Museum and the Tourist Office.  We saw it in bright sunshine, with small groups of very small children being shown round the grounds by their teachers.  A lot of careful attention was paid to some of the artworks installed for the summer as part of a fête. They were asked to observe colour, subject, form and scale and seemed to be paying careful attention. The behaviour of French children is also remarkable from an English point of view, as described in that famous book 'Bringing up Bébé', otherwise known as 'French children don't throw food'). 

At this moment we are on the ferry back to England - amid cloud, drizzle, darkness and damp. We are looking at our suntanned arms in amazement. The mood is sombre - the party is over.  But - I will just mention one of our discoveries today - a café-bar called Le Frescot at St Romain de Collbosc, which is a small vill just 3km south of the motorway near le Havre. Vaut le detour for the whole experience - free parking in the street, convivial, bustling atmosphere, firm handshake from the proprietor (M Pascal Ledoult) after we had sat down, about thirty local working people very enthusiastically having their lunch there - presumably they go there every day - and a delicious four course lunch for just €12.95.   That meant fresh local produce, freshly cooked by Madame (signed outside as 'cuisinier professionel' and we would expect no less), and included bread, wine and water. Coffee would have been an extra €1.50.  So, suck that, Thatched Inn, Hassocks, West Sussex.

We are bringing home some fancy secateurs, red peppers, wine of course, cheese, olive oil, rice, dried beans to cook and to sow in the allotment next year, honey, bread, black pudding, Iberian ham packed under vacuum, sweet Spanish onions, and sweet red pimiento pepper.  This is of course, an attempt to prolong the fabulous culinary experience which has been at the heart of our trip.  We've driven just short of three thousand miles. We've had loads of fun and sought out some very memorable places to visit. My eyeballs are almost scorched with plain old looking.  Tonight we'll be home. I can hardly believe it.   

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Les flics

Just wandered into Flers for supper. It's a complete contrast to la Rochelle - lots of ethnic bars which mostly feed the owners' families, I suspect: Turkish, Italian, Vietnamese. The whole place is a bit stark - but - it is genuine. It has a sort of grubby pride in itself, and real people doing real things.  We actually chose a little hotel in one of the squares, Saint Germain, which turned out to be Turkish, with an owner/waiter of great charm and friendliness (not at all French), whose name was Genghis.  Nice light supper, all good.

He did not have on the menu the local speciality - Flers Beak and Duck Pie.   Thank God.

Now, while we wandered around looking for which place to go to, we passed a group of cops on the pavement.  There were seven or eight of them, young, fit, serious.   This is the second such group we have seen in France.  All gathered, ready for a swoop.  This time, in their clutches, was a guy blowing into a big breathalyser machine. He was calm, dark, looking a bit pissed off. His car - a Porsche - was black and shiny and about 30 years old, maybe more. Classy.  He must have failed to appease them because shortly afterwards we saw a little cortege going past - a cop car with several of them inside, and then the Porsche, driven by a cop and with the man in the passenger seat.

Earlier today, we saw a headline in a newspaper clipboard: Les gendarmes cherchent une arme dans l'étang    Cops search the lake for a gun. 

You don't often see British police gathered in public for a sting or whatever they call it. We saw about eight local French police two days ago doing that when we went for lunch with my sister at Valence d'Agen - there the group of cops had with them an electrical engineer and we speculated they were going after someone doing meter-fraud. Who knows? The days of Dixon of Dock Green or Maigret are long gone. Bonjour, bonjour, bonjour...... I don't think so.

Beautiful places but a collapsing economy and a bad smell, apparently

As we left the wide Garonne countryside where my lovely sister lives with her husband in an old Gers farmhouse, we headed into a complex hilly country where the layers of civilization are stacked one over another, and the place-names reflect the passing ages.  We pulled up into a bastide town called Puymirol which is pretty astonishing in appearance - it has a five-star hotel, arcaded place, swimming pool, and stunning views all around.  The steep road up to the top  reminded me of Winchelsea near Rye, if that helps to visualize it - but of course here things burn hotter and it's all less green.   

We strolled about, admired the stone buildings, and had a coffee. Monsieur told us the sad story.  He's pleased to have sold up - signed his restaurant away last week. The town's economy - like the whole of France he said - has collapsed. The nearby camping has closed. Whereas last year, the town's famous medieval pageant attracted 3,000 people in one day - with its Templars, knights, jousts, feasts, etc. - this year there was no pageant.  Every business has slumped.  The place is - for now - effectively dead.  He said, this is happening throughout the country. People have no money, so it is a vicious cycle.  He went to get his iPad - started reading out the exchange rate of the euro against the pound, against the dollar.  He was nearly crying.   We did not stay to see the town's necropolis, though perhaps we should have done.

Another astonishing thing about France - from an English point of view - is how unrelentingly uniform it is. That was very striking the moment we came through the tunnel from Spain, but on this journey we have been very aware of how each town, village, restaurant, hotel, crossroads, factory-zone - all of them, conform to their own sector's official way of doing things. You could be plumped down anywhere and find exactly the same thing: signage, schedules, menus, facial expressions, expectations…. This is quite remarkable, considering how huge it is and when you see how tremendously varied the landscape is, and the great variety of all the kinds of farming and industry which are going on. It implies a total obedience or acceptance.  Even local pride is manifest in a nationally equal way. 

We loved the drive up to la Rochelle yesterday - over those great marshes. In the south, there is an emphasis on the cultivation of oysters, with nice shambly shacks in the watery mess, but for a great part of the expanse it appears to be just rough grazing and wild birds.  The sky is huge. The light, bouncing in from the Atlantic, is scintillating, magic.  We doodled about on the coast for a while - exploring the clean, plush seas-side towns reminiscent of M Hulot, and at Rochefort we gawked at the marvellous transporter bridge high over the Charente (ceased working in 1967,  refurbished 1994 and now an historic monument open to foot passengers and bikes during the summer time. 160' high!).

When you get into la Rochelle itself - so historic and enchanting - you realise how well it has promoted itself for tourists.  The huge basin is - as I gasped at you last night - furnished with more restaurants than you can imagine. They push out onto the broad pavements at the back of the wide quays, and through the back streets too, with impressive awnings and sidescreens, and that is not unusual of course, but it's the fact that there are so many of them.  The menus are almost indistinguishable from each other. One had a live piano show going on.  One specialised in ice-cream. But otherwise, there must be more fish soup and moules-frites on offer per kilometre than most other places on earth.  Tiens!  Actually we had a very acceptable formule meal, with just a tinge of aggro underneath... were they waiting to close up? were they going to pounce on us and cook us for the next day's menu?

Today we zooped along northwards to this resting place in Normandy, ready for Calais and the ferry home tomorrow.  We are in Flers, which is not particularly distinguished as far as I can see, but we had a superb lunch right on the banks of one of the Loire River's mighty streams at Chalonne-sur-Loire, and have been enjoying the golden light on the rich farmlands - maize, some grapes, woodlands, more and more pasture, happy cows eating grass (ahhhh!).    Wikipedia says they are not sure what the name of the town means - possibly wetness, or grotty land, or bad smell.  Hmmmn.  The Ibis (cheapo, natch) has the address Grandes Champs, which implies agriculture and open space, but is in fact at the top of a wrinkly-tin-shed area: factories, retail outlets and the like. Luckily we are too tired to take much notice and will stroll down into the town for a light supper.  Meanwhile we commend to you the Bistrot des Quais at Chalonne if you are planning to cross the Loire. It has a fine position, a fine chef, and a fine view of the bridge which was rebuilt after being bombed to bits in 1944.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Eating yourself stupid

Getting to la Rochelle by car, from the Bordeaux direction, is a very pleasant experience if you avoid the various rush-hour congestions - which we did, by the way. The road takes you across the most wonderful huge marais or salt-marsh, which is used for the cultivation of oysters and grazing cattle.  The sky is huge and soft, but filled with light reflected from the great ocean just a mile or so away.

The town is well served by information-boards, car-parks, walkways etc., and has a great many smart shopping streets. It also has gangs of ruffians with dogs, whose work preying on tourists is sufficiently effective for the authorities to post up warnings: SWINDEL in German, for instance.

We are tired now, after the drive from Caumont, and have eaten a pleasant and perfectly acceptable meal under an awning (avoiding starling-poo). Sadly, I am really not able to write about the last few days, which had been my plan. But I do want to say something about eating.

Anyone interested in eating - especially fish - will already know about la Rochelle, on the French west coast. If you have not considered it before, then you have a lot to learn. Around this ancient port (which has a working lighthouse about half a mile inland in the main boulevard at the back of the port, between a couple of boutiques), there are about 25 million restaurants, all serving variations on the same excellent menu of fish, fish and fish.

It is not difficult in France to eat yourself into a state of extreme discomfort. You long for oblivion, swear you will never eat again - and then the waiter says.... 'Et pour le dessert?....'   Each time, I think 'Next time I will just order salad.....' but my resolve crumples when I see these local specialities: eel, brandade de morue.....   Sometimes I manage to stick to plan A. Ha!

Suffice to say, France is very different from Spain, and has formal pleasures around every corner of the Tarn-et-Garonne: beautiful medieval market towns, bosky valleys, impressive harvesting operations for the corn and sunflowers, seductive weekly markets selling everything from top-grade wild smoked salmon to second-hand trousers, and wide open spaces and stonking great rivers where the water is a surprising range of colours.

So - more will follow. Thanks for reading and please do comment if you can.

Monday, 22 September 2014

Personality shines through

Ainsa has a useful split personality - the medieval pleasures of narrow alleys and stonework up on the bastide, and access to roads, banks, shops, etc down by the rivers. That includes a brilliant little bookshop where we bought one of those 3-D maps of the Pyrenees - a semi-scientific dolls' house version of the 'real' world, or this bit of it, where you can, like God, look down on the land and see everything laid out before you like a toy. I know that my house is full of clutter and junk, but on the other hand, I really like things like this and do not own one. So, I bought it, and my pretext is that I can offer it to my brother in law, who is interested in Geology, in case he would like it more than I do.
We also went back into a tiny Fortnum and Mason type of shop which sells every kind of delectable food you can think of (including a few pots of jam made in Tiptree, Essex). Most of the stuff is local of course - huge radiant tomatoes and peaches, packed black pudding, variety packs of epicurean olive oil, various local cheeses made of sheep's milk or goat's milk, some wet, some dry.  The hams, whole legs of the poor piggies, are hanging in array up by the ceiling. Some are €50 or €60, which is about twice the supermarket price, but some, near the door, are €200 or even €300. These will have been fed on the best chestnuts or acorns, hand-reared, cossetted, before their final terrible day of reckoning. This is the kind of ham which is sliced quite thinly and costs £1 a slice, and tastes like every wonderful memory you ever had….
Loaded with tins of oil and packs of cheese, we set off north, up the valley of the Rio Cisca, under the big sign which assured us the Bielsa tunnel into France is open 24 hours a day.
Here we were getting up into the real mountains, where the great molars of limestone with their seductive stripes and weathered cliffs rear up as implacable reminders of man's puny condition. We live on a planet made of rock. We live in the stone age. In the end, gravity and time will pull us down - and these mountains too, to crumble into dust and pebbles.  In the old meaning of the word, these great mountains are awful - nowadays, people say 'awesome'.  We get a Gothick thrill at how big they are and how small we are.  No matter that we have split the atom or gone to the moon - we are still just tender animals, and these ranges were here long before we were ever thought of, and will be here long after every mammal has been scorched off the planet.
We saw no mammals, just a couple of buzzards and a kite.
Bielsa is Ainsa's little brother up the road - a skinny village with more and very attractive architectural treasures, and more contamination from a Spanish cultural point of view. That is to say, being so close to France, they actually offer lunch about 1pm.  We had been up a side road - 10km of glory - to see the base of Monte Perdido ('the largest block of limestone in Europe') - and decided to make this our last Spanish meal.  At a café, where some tables were set for lunch, a lady was sitting at a long table, and I picked up a menu to see what was on offer.
She snarled at me in French: 'C'est prie!' ('It's taken!') meaning that she was guarding every seat and I should not approach her. It was shocking, how rude she was. I said politely 'C'est pour voir' meaning I was just looking at the menu.   I was thinking, no Spanish person would have been so hostile.   Andrew said to me, I should have said, 'Madame, you flatter yourself. Why would I want to sit with you….?'   I wish I had said it. Actually, come to think of it, she did actually look like a frog.
The tunnel of Bielsa actually takes you through from Spain to France and of course, although the climate must be different on the north-facing side, it doesn't properly explain the profound, shocking difference when you get through. The mountain side in France is absolutely bare (rain shadow?), and cropped by sheep which are themselves shorn to within an inch of their lives. The road signage is IN YOUR FACE - in control, in charge. They do things THE FRENCH WAY in France, and no-one is going to make any mistake about where you are. This is France!  This is THIS village, this is THAT village. Do this. Do that.  A distinct cultural difference.
The roads stayed empty for us, though there were a few scary moments around about 5pm when the Sunday lunch-hour ended and tous le monde was heading home. Aaaaagh! Jean-Pierre and his family all warm and glowing, overtaking a slow-moving farm machine, and thus on the wrong side of the road at top speed heading straight for us….. Neeeeeeowwwwwww!
Satnav guided us faithfully across the tiny roads and rivers to Sheila and Chris's house… we suddenly recognized landmarks and then here we were. 
It was about six o'clock, hot, the pool was waiting. Kersplash!
Now for a few days doing not much. Unwind.
I am mourning Spain. We've had a marvellous 3 weeks there. I started to read a bit of the great Bill Bryson while we were on the road, and see that he is quite a role-model for this writing, and produces in me moments of helpless weeping laughter as he describes what he really thinks as he meets various people on his travels. Such a personality could never have been kept in Ohio.
I think I need more laughs in this.  Am I brave enough?

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Tired, but reporting on the stupendous landscape

It is hard to describe the quality of what we have seen today. There are not enough superlatives. The scale of the landscape is colossal. We drove from the outskirts of Bilbao into the central part of the Spanish Pyreneean approaches, where there was a dramatic change in the look of the whole land. Not only is it empty of people for the most part, but suddenly it changes from green and woody to barren and dry, burned brown and empty.  

At the point of change we saw a huge flock of birds wheeling overhead… I really wish I knew for certain what they were. I see that choughs flock, but they are maritime, and this was inland. They seemed huge - but then again, the air was very clear and had a magnifying quality. Were they buzzards? (In such numbers? No). There were about fifty of them, wheeling and calling - a sort of kyak sound.  This was in a valley-pass.

We have driven for hours (about 250 miles) today - both very tired but relaxed.  We headed for Sos de Rey Catolico - a hillfort in the middle of the plains - something like Rye, but bigger, or Gerberoy in Picardy which has similar aristocratic concentration.  We loved it… the medieval alleys, the stonework, the battlements, the cobbled streets. Lunch was ace - in a café called Mayor25 - totally recommended for the quality of the food and the kindness of the waitress. I particularly liked something called salmorejo which is is a pounded soup of tomatoes, garlic, oil, eggs and then topped with chopped hardboiled eggs and tiny scraps of bacon (like so many Spanish dishes, the bacon is there to prove that the household is not Jewish, a legacy if you can call it that from the days of the Inquisition).  

It was quite hot today - nearly 30 - and we were glad of the aircon, but struggled with the contrary information coming from the satnav (our fault for not updating). There is often an irritating conflict of data between the roadmap, the satnav and the roadsigns.   However, nothing could take away from the majesty of the mountains as we headed east.  The hills  - mere hills! - are very high. They are clothed in unadulterated dark green forests (unlike the acne of eucalyptus we have seen all along the road till now).  The angles of erosion are steep - with perfect triangles formed by the valleys, and deep ravines, and gorges and canyons as the great rivers begin to eat away at the rocks. The roads are fabulously engineered, with viaducts, tunnels, sweeping curves, balletic cambers and lots of space.  And all the time, spiking up in the distance to the north are the great peaks and ridges of the real Pyrenees. Some catch the light. Some are shrouded in cloud. Some are fabulously spiky, some are more like greeters, waiting to usher in someone taller and bigger than themselves.   It is glorious, dramatic.

We had the road almost to ourselves, sometimes a new stretch of motorway, sometimes an old bumpy track - but inexorably we pushed on. At last we reached Ainsa.  Oh, why has no-one ever told me about this place? It's the last place where Christianity held out against the Moors. It's a medieval city between two huge rivers, and (yet another) fortified medieval hill-top city. It was prosperous in the time of Henry VIII, and then went into decline - its very poverty has kept it almost intact, and now with modern tourism to bring admirers, and all the benefits of new roads a mile or so away, it can flourish as a relic of a lost age - church tower, cloister, castle, steep streets, vaulted cellars, lots of steps, city walls, stone stone stone…. Legends, bars, cafes, families, children, blissful.

I know I am waxing lyrical, but I want you to understand that there are some places which have just got it right. They can be old and new at the same time, faraway and accessible. Inspirational and salutary.   And above all, beautiful and ordinary.  The Spaniards may have their problems but they know how to be themselves…. They visit their lovely places, take their children, everyone is ok and happy, the food and drink are wonderful and affordable, there is no aggro.   And I keep thinking of those birds, wheeling over the valleys. The huge landscape. 

Friday, 19 September 2014

Painful music

I like Ibis hotels - plain and simple, great value and restorative when you've been bucketing about on the road.  This one is in Arrigorriara, which may once have been a real place but is now a rather amazing St John's Wood lookalike with smart apartment blocks clustered together between a river, a big road and a mountain which happened to be alight last night. 
They know how to live here. We had asked where we could go for supper. The girl said to walk into the town… and crossing over the footbridge we found - yes! - dozens of bars, full to the brim, with people of all ages drinking and talking and playing cards and playing dolls and explaining things to each other. It was one huge street party.  Presumably every Friday night is the same.
The bar we chose - Coyote - was giving free cocktails to anyone who wanted one. The young man decided I should have a gin and tonic. The tonic was a new sort, flavoured with ginger and cardamom, and was carefully prepared with masses of ice. He called the spirit Ply-Mouth Gin.
Obviously, no-one running a bar, cafeteria or restaurant wanted to cook or serve an actual meal while all this shouting and laughing was going on, so we just had a few pinchos from the bar - olives with quails egg, anchovies with hot peppers, tostadas with aubergine and anchovy, smoked salmon on more smoked salmon….. and that was our supper.  We had had two small bottles of water and one glass of wine, and with the free G&T the whole bill for supper and fun came to under €10.
This morning's delight has been to listen to the radio - the Spanish 'classical' channel. Each hour is devoted to a particular type of music, and from 7-8 this morning we had local brass bands.  This is the kind of thing which may have inspired Bizet. It certainly sounded early nineteenth century. The band was more-or-less in tune, but playing very nervously - that is to say, very very slowly. 
A high-school music teacher might be proud enough to arrange a recording of the little darlings' end of year concert, and might even try to flog a few copies to the stunned parents, but for someone to schedule on national radio a full hour of the sounds these musicians made is frankly incredible. Andrew wanted to turn it off but I had to listen to it all, soaking up the sound in a masochistic spirit of research.  Pass the earplugs!
Now - having had an excellent breakfast - we are off to Sos Rei Catolica and then Ainsa (both recommended by Antonio from the Palacio), and then into the Pyrenees. 
I think our local mountain fire was extinguished in the night. No smoke out there this morning.

A truly disgusting smell

--> Antonio (owner of the Palacio de Prelo) it turns out, is a master story-teller. How he found and bought the Palacio, and all the attendant tales, would fill a book - and we were only there for one evening.

He is, for a start, the professor of economic history at the university of Madrid - tall, bespectacled, alert, quiet, funny, Anglophile.  He has visited and lived in England many times… did his PhD at Oxford.  He said, he was looking for a cottage in Asturia  -  this was about 15 years ago. A friend told him about the palacio - he saw the view and was smitten. The house was totally ruinous. It took him years to buy it and a further nearly five years to get it done up (and how).

He told us that one of the reasons - a secret, he said - one of the reasons he wanted to make the palacio into an hotel was that he always wanted to be Basil Fawlty. He has failed.

When he first saw it, it housed the remnants of a family, three people. They were not the ancestral owners. They had real problems of their own. The oldest was a woman of nearly 70 called Gertrude, with no brain ('like a lamp, or a chair'), and she was looked after by her niece and a sister-in-law. However, these two and other siblings also had progeny with rights of ownership, and trying to track them all down took years.  The old lady, who was sometimes in a primitive wheelchair, was, he said,  completely brain-less. However, she did respond if someone rubbed their fingers - indicating money -  to her.  When they told her that someone wanted to buy the house, and they rubbed their fingers to her, she cackled and cackled with glee.  That was after the sister-in-law had fallen through the rotten floorboards and into the stables beneath. The stables is now a fine library.

The family used to lie Gertrude down in a sunny spot in the house, and give her a needle and some thread. It would take her all day to get one needle threaded, which pleased everyone.  They regularly took her to the annual village fete. They would leave in her wheelchair in a field while they gallivanted. This was fine until one day some youngsters kicked away the stone which held her chair safely parked, and she started to roll away.   (What happened? I don't know).   

Her father had left a stipulation in his will that whoever looked after her should be her next-of-kin, and that was deemed to be her niece.  They knew the house did have value, even if it was totally dilapidated.  

When the old lady died, the notary rang Antonio to say 'Disaster'! Now we must start with getting permissions all over again.'   The whole situation had changed with her death.

So, eventually, he bought the house and started to bring it back to life. Everything had to be done - new roof, new windows, walls, doors, floors, stairs....  There is a range of opinion on its age - but certainly some parts are late-medieval, and some are 18th century. In the chapel he found the two altarpieces I described before. The figures (the Holy Family, St Benedict of Palermo, and the lesser saints) were all stored inside the house itself. How and why the decrepit family had not sold them to give themselves and their tragically handicapped aunt/sister-in-law some sort of life is a miracle in itself. He has created new rooms, floors, roofwork, new roofs, the tower, the chapel, all inserted and looking both antique and modern. It is all fully furnished and gleaming.

We had not booked supper. He offered quiche and salad, and with wine and delicious bread, and fresh fruits, this cost us €7.50 each + €10 for the wine, served in a splendid baronial-style dining room which used to be part of the stables.   

In the morning, he took us on a little tour, got the spring/fountain to work, showed off the amazing huge stone heraldic shield which decorates the doorway, talked about his visits to England, how he wanted to be English, helped us plan our route, explained lots of local history, and so much more. He says he was the first man in Europe to send back the grant (€125,000) which he was entitled to for restoring this historic building, because the various layers of local government were so demanding and expected to control exactly how all the money was spent (fair enough) but also how all his own money (four times more than the grant) was spent….   This act of rebellion and refusal aroused the interest of the TV companies and they came to interview him, and Brussels took a view, and said the local authorities had exceeded their rights…..   So he proceeded with his passionate, detailed scholarly restoration and the Palacio de Prelo is the result.

He is a delightful, clever, funny, self-deprecating, focussed man. He has lavished time and money and thought on the building. He has five rooms or suites, all immaculately furnished and shining.  The place is absolutely silent and quiet.  The views are superb. He is hoping to lure the King and Queen of Spain for tea next month when they come to present a prize to Boal for being the best Asturian village….   Go there, as soon as you can, before anyone hears about it. 


Today we had breakfast, and more talk, and took photos. We set off to see the local waterfall, wandered about in the mountains, and finally got on track for the east of northern Spain. It has been a long day in the car, passing mountainous marvels all the way.

One point of interest down towards the coast was the regional paper plant, where all the now-local and ubiquitous eucalyptus trees are mashed up to make Hola! magazine, or Vogue, or the Sun newspaper. The stink is COLOSSAL, a vile stench which spreads for miles, reminiscent of methane, poo, slurry and sulphur.   (Antonio had told us, an Australian professor of botany had been visiting…. had said, 'You know, cobber, there are 700 varieties of eucalyptus and you have got the worst one…..').

We had lunch on a remote beach - gleefully served and expensive but still atmospheric. We gawked at the colossal rock-faces all around - granite, sandstone, marble, all awesome. 

We explored Castro-Urdialis (looking for an hotel for tonight) but there was NOWHERE to park and so despite the very attractive castle+cathedral duo on the cliff top (very reminiscent of Rochester in Kent, to be honest, and probably of the same vintage), we went on.

The tunnels which bring you into Basque country are stupendous and very cheap, but what you first see when you get here (apart from hilarious undecipherable road signs) is an impressive and depressing range of stinking, extensive chemical and petroleum plants. Whereas a few miles to the west, the valleys are beautiful, green, cultivated and picturesque, here they are like some vision from hell. What on earth has happened? Did someone offer 'jobs' to the Basquais in return for no more bombs? Or was it 'fine large commodious tunnels'?

We needed somewhere to sleep.  We searched around.  Finally we decided on the Ibis Budget hotel south of Bilbao, mercifully got a room, are doing nothing. Above us, the mountain is on fire.  A few flickering fire-engine lights show that someone is struggling up there to extinguish the flames. I don't think we are in any danger, but it seems fitting somehow that this tortuous peaky landscape is able to set itself ablaze, to remind us of its ancient igneous past... fire and rock, wind and sea... all elemental.  The eucalyptus trees are invaders and unwelcome, and they are very flammable which is risky all round, however profitable they may be for the corporates who have brought them here.   

Today we learned that yesterday the Scots voted by 56% not to seek independence. Antonio told us this at breakfast and was glad, as we were. We have enough problems on this planet. Splitting into fewer and fewer groups won't help. We need to gang up a bit. 

Thursday, 18 September 2014

A private palace with a black saint

--> This is  the most amazing house I think I have ever stayed in.  We have checked into a little palacio in Asturia. It has taken all the afternoon to get here, winding through precipitous mountain passes and wondrous forests, passing river gorges and old iron mines, with a greyish rainy day for company and hardly another car on the road all the time.

Boal is nominally the name of the place. But the palacio is further on, winding, hidden, private…. In fact it's in Prelo, another valley, all quiet and soft. The place was more or less ruined, and took 4 and a half years for Antonio to do up… it has a tower, and a chapel, and every single inch is old and polished and filled with art and books and objets…..

The chapel has a small gallery at the back, and two altarpieces. One has the Holy Family looking very Spanish with an 8-year old Jesus about to hold hands with his parents. On one pinnacle above them is Sta Lucia (healer of eyesight), and on another is St Blast who is saint of the larynx. But the other altarpiece, facing the door which the villagers would have used, features a stunning beautiful St Benedict of Palermo - a black saint, son of slaves, who went to South America in the sixteenth century and worked miracles (including being white during the daytime and only reverting to negro at night). He is the patron saint of slaves, and stands here in northern Spain very mysteriously indeed, as he is barely known in the north, and only appears in about five other places in very small form. Here he is fully mansized. So what is he doing here? No-one knows.
Antonio is an historian, has lavished god-knows-how-much on the building which is just totally exquisitely perfect and very nice indeed.  Antonio - tall, academic, clever - suggests that we might like to stay another night.

We are here because we met and briefly conversed with a charming Dubliner while we were queueing for the ferry at Portsmouth… he said he had found it by chance and recommended it. Antonio remembers  him, says he owns most of Howth including a castle and a golfcourse. I would not be at all surprised. 

When I booked in, the website said there was just one room free. Now we are here, we find we are the only guests. 


Yesterday was most memorable for : lunch to celebrate my birthday, at la Solana restaurant at Cabañas; for a much-welcomed 90 minutes sitting in the sun on the beach afterwards at Argentina Bar catching some sun; and lastly for finally making it up to the tower of Andreda de Boo. This local lord made it big time during the time of the Black Death in Europe - built the tower in the middle of Pontedeume, but also constructed this craggy look-out on the hill right above the town. The view from the top is utterly stupendous - you can clearly see the Tower of Hercules (Roman lighthouse) at A Coruña,  and the modern lights and headlands at Cabo Prioriño and Prior where we went the day before, and you can see the rias of Miño and all the places we have been exploring and driving around.  It is breath-taking. My bloody sodding camera was playing tricks and so most of my shots would not load, but I will do my best to get something to you in due course.  It cost a euro to go in. There was a solitary woman in the kiosk and her duty was to stay there till 8.30 at night, middle of nowhere. She said 22 people had been there during the day, though it would be over a hundred in summertime.  The tower is a square, with a polygonal courtyard at the base, the whole thing built on a pretty impressive outcrop, and rising up about 30m from the ground.  Started in 1369, so just about one generation after the plague.

There are so many things I wanted to write about - the way the old houses here are usually built on a plan of three - symmetrical with one window on each side of the door. How there are so many beautiful ruined or sagging stone houses everywhere, some past repair but some just crying for some love and attention. How so much of modern Spain - here at any rate - is just horrible soul-less concrete and ugly, ugly, ugly.  Some houses are painted up with bright modern colours - scorching in some cases, but those are the exception and rather exciting.   

We have been trying to photograph the tiny little 'granaries' which are typical of Galicia - they are called 'horreos' and are built on stilts or slabs of stone or concrete, some actually on staddle stones, to keep rats out. In these ventilated tiny houses, the maize crop is stored. They are made to look like chapels, sometimes with a cross on them or other decorative finials, and they are always prominent and visible.  Given the absence of churches in general, I wondered if they had some sort of holy function too, but it seems not.  Antonio has a whole book about them. The Galician ones are rectangular. We saw some square ones as we came east - those are more typical of Asturia, where they are called 'panadeia' (I think).

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Pace and safety

I realise I feel at home here because the strolling pace of Galicians is pretty slow… maybe this is the acquired pace because of the intense heat. But old and young, solo or couples, they have a leisurely elegant walk which calms everything down. I think at home, everyone is in a rush, looks stressed, pressured.


We have had two days exploring bits of the west coast - the beautiful and famous rias where the sea pushes into the old river valleys to make craggy cliff-bound triangular bays - some are miles long. But they also have glorious stretches of fine sandy beaches, and to walk or drive into these areas is uplifting and inspiring. Even when one of the enormous cloudbursts overtakes you, there are stupendous skies with towering cloud masses, vast veils of rain or mist, dramas played out for nobody's benefit but worth trying to capture in words or photos.  There is hardly anyone about at this time of year, so we have had the cliff-tops and strand walks to ourselves, more or less.  On one beach we watched surfers working their way out and back, and encouraging their children to be brave in the beautiful rolling surf. Further along, a mass of perhaps a thousand gulls of various kinds liked to patrol a central piece of the beach. As we walked towards them, a few hundred rose up and wheeled round us to land just behind us, and then another mass did the same, so that our quiet walk moved them all about 100 yards further along the sand.

We tried to get down into one very new port but were turned back by two handsome young policemen. Security.  Later we looked at the whole place from above, and there appeared to be nothing more deadly or secret than a huge pile of asphalt and some logs. Our viewing place (Cabo Prioriño) is mostly an abandoned military facility, with rows of empty low buildings now covered with graffiti, and surrounded by gorse and these amazing views. At the far end of the headland, there is a smart bird-hide and some information boards, a radar-station made of two counter-balanced portacabin-shaped modules made from brilliant rusty steel, and a lighthouse which is exactly that - a normal-looking house with the maritime light in the top middle bedroom space.  We could see it flashing and dimming from the landward side too.  A free telescope was enticing, but the glass is all bloomed and dim. NBG.

The next headland - Cabo Prior - has a more ordinary-shaped lighthouse, and some spectacular cliffs.

The next day we explored inland a little - the 'green' road was beautiful but unchanging, and the inland towns mostly rather dull from my point of view, though the church at Cambre is very old and lovely - 12th century, and with lots of different fonts, piscinas, stoups etc., and some weathered mouldings on the round arches and capitals. In the absence of good scale maps we rely a lot on the satnav - but it's not always quick enough and doesn’t always marry up with the real roads. We fiddled about trying to get to various bits of the Rio Tambre, and eventually decided on lunch at Negreira, a camino town which offered us a little lunch beside a stream, and some real pilgrims (from Dublin, the US and I think the English Midlands) for company. A little café earlier on in the day, in a hamlet in the middle of nowhere, had nine people in it including a fine baby.

The afternoon took us over to some more cliffs and high moorland tops - absolutely studded with windmills - their triple blades swooshing and shuffling as they swung round in the great wind. There were hundreds of them, in lines, great and small, eating the weather and creating electricity for Spain. Hardly anyone has any kind of solar kit on their houses.  As we marvelled at the windmills, and indeed the rushing wind, we watched another of the great Atlantic rainstorms come sweeping in, a little to the south of us. Down in the fishing port of Muros, which cannot really have changed very much since the Romans were there, all was dry and we strolled around admiring the smart yachts and the traditional wooden fishingboats. As we headed back to Pontedeume, the rains descended on us, smashing onto the roof of the car and the windscreen. Yet the road surface stayed dry and free of spray. We could do with that in England. 

Back at the house, we were treated to yet another monster feast by John, whose delight is to create banquets for guests. We sat in the open, under a tiled roof, watching the darkness come down onto the valley, and the lights of the houses on the other side come on. Dogs bark. We are laughing. Then we have a monster pile of washing up do to do, and I head for my bed. My last night as a 65-year old. He's planning a lunch out tomorrow - more food.  

Monday, 15 September 2014

Deep and steep

(Posting this from a slow wifi cafe in Ferrol which is a great little city.... access to email, internet and wifi is really not easy where we are.... But the scenery is amazing. JWTurner would have loved the whole atmosphere).
We're staying up on the hillside above Pontedeume now, PG to the Finnises who have rented a bare stone house with a view over the valley, and a primal hush apart from about one car an hour going past. Last night we watched someone's wedding-party fireworks down on the edge of the town. The little dawg was frightened, trembling. Only a hour or so before, the thunder and lightning had bashed down around us, in another of the torrential rains which keep this district so green, and give life to the mossy, ferny Fraga (Atlantic rain forest).

That is where we went today - nosing through the prosperous suburbs and little farms, and then up the side of the mountain, snaking along beside the river which dropped down below us, dark and green, with great boulders interrupting the silky smooth surface.  We were heading for the other monastery (having seen Monfero the other day). Here you can approach only on foot, or by bus - but they are not clever at telling you you must have a ticket to board the bus until you have driven a mile or so past the ticket office.  The ticket is free, but obligatory.  We shuttled back down to get our tickets, and scramble onto the half-empty charabanc which proceeded back up the narrow river-side road, forcing hardy pedestrians onto the precipitous verges, or to squeeze into the rockface on the upper side.  Disgorging, we cross the river far beneath, and breathe in the delicious fragrant forest air. All around are ferns and mosses of every colour and size. 

The path up to the monastery (Caaveiro) is quite steep, about a kilometer according to me, and made of lovely end-on slate slabs. We are the only English around, and most other people seem to be Galician rather than Spanish. The monastery was built and rebuilt during various ages on a promontory between the Eume and a smaller river, all this way high up, with waterfalls and cliffs all around. That geeky urgent pious urge to hermitise in groups pushed them to attempt the almost-impossible. It reminds me of photos of Chinese monasteries. A series of sturdy stone halls and accommodations are linked with steep steps and tiny courtyards. The chapel is pleasingly simple. Modern intrusions of gantries and stairwells are made of iron or steel, and clang and ping as you clamber up or down.  A few books and faded display cases reveal remarkably little.   On a side 'road', down the other side, is the remnant edifice of a watermill which must have been very exciting when it worked - grinding chestnuts perhaps, or the faces of the poor.

We ordered a little bocadillo and glass of water, stomped back down to the bus which was jam packed this time, and rocked back to the carpark. The forests are so steep, and human activity so tightly confined to the road, that any wild animals (reputedly boar, stags, wildcats etc) must feel pretty much free to do what they want as long as they stay away from the road, and don’t mind standing at an extreme angle on the ground.  

Back to town - a trip to Mr Wong's amazing supermarket to buy a couple of extra pillows, and some nails - and then a snack lunch at Zas - berberechos, anchovies in vinegar and zorza y patates. Madame makes a kiss to us all with her fingertips because we all three have blue eyes ('ochos azul'). 

Friday, 12 September 2014

Getting into hot water

--> Lucie wanted to try out the thermal springs which grace the city of Ourense on the wonderful river Miño - far south of here - it forms the border between Galicia and Portugal. Of course the Romans were great enthusiasts for the thermals, but the various hot waters and springs have been developed and promoted ever since…  It's a long way to get there from here - 2 hours by car, and longer if you go the scenic route, which is really beautiful. …. hills and valleys, dale and field and all the craggy mountains yield…. (however that goes).
No wonder people have enjoyed coming here on pilgrimages. It is all just goddam lovely.
We slipped from the maize-growing area into a more viniferous district, where the plants all look more Mediterranean, hot. But of course everything is green because of the rains….
In Ourense, the signage for cars to get you to the springs is a bit thin - we found the way to As Burgas in the city centre, which is supposed to have a good tourist information place, but that had long since closed down. Instead we wandered round the pretty, shaded, hillside market area and found our first hot spring - 67 degrees!!! Jolly hot! A man was drinking the water very decorously.  We didn't see the little bathing area behind the wall - not signposted, though not really hard to find. 
We went back up to find lunch - chose a café right next to the underground car-park and the excellent Turkish style loos, and had a really grand little lunch.  Asking the man for directions on how to get to one of the bigger, paying thermal springs, he said it was easy for him to tell us but difficult for us to understand, so he would pilot us there on his motorbike, which he duly did. Thank you!

We were looking for the springs at Chavasqueira, but in fact the ones he led us to are called Termas de Outariz, which are free, open-air and right beside the river which flows fast and dark at the bottom of its steep canyon. 

You park, walk down a sandy lane, across a modernish bridge and down into the grassy complex. There are various suites of pools, lined with boulders and with handrails on the steps and seats around the edge.  All this was designed and laid out by a Japanese architect a few years ago. You change into your togs in a simple hut, have a shower (warm or cold is your choice) right beside the springs. The temperature in each pool is slightly different, and you sit about getting drowsier and more relaxed by the minute. The water is at most 70cm deep, and completely clean. You are not supposed to get in if you are contagious.  We were among a lot of very tranquil older people, all unselfconscious, chatting away. You can get a coffee or a bocadillo, or ice-cream. The whole thing is very relaxing, said to be best by starlight. The source of the heat is some sort of geological fault far beneath, so that rainwater, percolating into the rock, is heated by the fiery ovens beneath the local granite, and trickles up for human delight. 

Heading home, we saw beautiful vineyards between the road and the river. These grapes make the local wines - Ribeira, Albariño which are not known much in England but worth seeking out.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Stunned into silence

The river Eume arises inside a colossal steep-sided gorge up in the mountains which is clothed with Atlantic forest - oak, aspen, birch, elm, hazel and the strawberry tree. The info says you might see eagle owls, otters, peregrine falcons, wild cats, and various rare ferns, slugs and so on.  Not long ago, the gorge area was designated as a special landscape and preserved - although the now-ubiquitous eucalyptus groves do sneak in.  There's an air of depopulation about the place - abandoned farmsteads, miles of empty roads, the settlements more scattered as you approach.  And despite enthusiastic signage it's not actually all that easy to get into the Fraga. As you drive through the varied woodland and along the steep winding lanes, you make false turns, have to reverse, try a different branch of this minute crossroad or that, and you cannot rely on the satnav which just gives up in the lee of the hills.
But, it's worth pressing on. It's a weird characteristic that although you are in a well-mapped area, with civilization all around (electricity, bus stops), you can still feel like an adventurer.  In this landscape you are very quickly up against a lot of unknowns - your whereabouts, the language, the attitude of the locals, twists and turns of direction….  
We followed signs for something called Kayak - a sporting centre on the water - but failed to reach it, spotting one lone green plastic boat far below us on the dark shoreline. A heron was standing guard. 

We turned back….
One of our forays into the lanes brought us down through the small farms and pleasant prosperity to what was obviously going to be a dead end. This was in a scruffy little farmstead with a couple of scary looking dogs roaming around, and a distinctly hostile air. We needed to turn and we also wanted to find out which road to take when we got back up to the top, and so we needed to talk to someone.  All we could see were the dogs.

One by one they emerged, the farmer and his family. 

Somehow, maybe out of anxiety, I expected such people to be clad in muddy brown, rough working clothes, with rough gnarled hands and missing teeth. (Oh, I am sorry, I am sorry).
But five of them came to greet us, men and women, young and old, all immaculately dressed in bright clothing, smart shoes, and beaming smiles.  Everything was ironed, ready for the boulevards. They spoke no English, certainly, and very little Spanish. For us, Galician was a step too far, even with Snelling and Lulu with us, both of whom have a tolerable grasp of Castilian. But the family consulted and conferred with each other, and we waved a map at them, and they showed us eventually what our route should be…. And so we went on our way.

Then suddenly at a crossroads we found the massive, almost unbelievable old monastery of  la Verxe Sta. Maria at Monfero, about half as big as St Paul's Cathedral in London, and at this time of year (September) completely empty apart from a young woman acting as concierge who explains to us in almost recognisable English the basic history of the place. (Her English is considerably better than our Galician).  It was founded in the 9th century, built again on a grander scale in the 12th, and then again in the 16th, 17th and 18th under the patronage of various lords and archbishops, secularised in the 19th, and then reduced to a part ruin.  It must have been part of the network of caminos leading to Santiago.  The tower, nave, transepts, dome and their immediate curtilage is more-or-less intact. The surrounding monastery with its several cloisters is a shell, leaving only empty corridors, massive scrolled granite mouldings and ovula windows as testimony to the power and grandeur of its creators. 

The wall you first see when you come onto the place is - in one word - staggering. It faces south, has four huge bulbous Corinthian columns flanked with pilasters, and behind them a complex chequer-board of granite and slate, pierced with one huge false-perspective window-mount faking some sort of balcony, and then lesser windows with huge headings and chamfers, some with holy statues, some merely arched and barred.   I learned later that this chequer-board facade is typical of the camino...

The eaves (not the right word, but I've forgotten what you call the front edge of a classical parapet) is broken in and out with a frieze panels and markings, and the whole thing is sufficiently neglected and sad-looking to summon up a thousand possible film-scripts right there as you stand and look at it - before you've even gone inside.
The nave - with its huge barrel vault roof leads to the crossing and the massive dome - and all the interior is decorated with panels and coffers, though the nave wall panels are plain.
There are a few rudimentary relics of religious activity - a few madonnas, candles, votive spaces, but it is really mostly a great stone ghost. We walked around, through the mossy cloisters, into chambers with stunning views from their now empty windows, marvelled at everything.   Then we thanked the young lady for letting us into the monastic areas, and then came away, stupefied. 
It would be hard to beat that, but we had two more stunners waiting for us.  
It was getting into early afternoon - so we wanted lunch and struggled with the map and satnav to work out which way to go. Then along the road at a place called Pila de Lena, we happened on a small café-bar and enquired if we could get a meal. Yes, said the mama and the papa and the older son and the boy and the girl, and they graciously allowed us to stay on the terrace (view, sun, shade, sky) instead of going into their restaurant/dining room, and brought us a succession of freshly prepared dishes - the tapas of chorizo, sauce, bread and potatoes, then a glowing golden tortilla de patates, and then two salads of onion, tomato and lettuce, and then a platter of fried calamares and chips - everything perfect, everything delicious - and the bill (including two bottles of water, fantastic bread, four glasses of wine for Snelling and coffee for all four of us) came to €33.50 - which is not much more than a fiver a head.  The loos (in a separate little building) were immaculately clean. The local road-gang and some other workers clearly eat there every day at their canteen. There are buzzards flying overhead and butterflies dancing along the verge. The mountainous hill just across the fields plays host to passing thunderstorms, so that we had the sun caressing us under the awning, while rain from the edge of the passing storm plopped onto the canvas above our heads. 
(Just think on, owners of The Thatched Inn, Hassocks, Sussex).
We rolled away - would have been rolling even on foot, so tightly packed with food were we - and made our way back north towards the river gorge. The landscape is utterly breathtaking.  Steep, rocky, with the tiny road making barely a scratch on the business of tree-growing in Mother Nature's head, we went for miles, zig-zagging eventually down towards the river.
Back and forth the road seduces you, down and down. The greenery is all around you. It's like going down into a fairy tale. You dread meeting another vehicle coming up - how could you possibly pass? who would give way?
Then at last, you see buildings far below you - it's a bridge and the remains of an early hydro-electric system (now superseded by a more efficient one half a mile downstream). On the bridge, a middle-aged man was making very odd attempts to climb the granite cliff-face - wearing office clothes, brown shoes.  He propelled himself up a few feet, then came back down, tried another patch.  He seemed too bulky to be a climber, but would not look at us, kept trying, said nothing. Quite separately, we thought he might be planning a murder.
We left him to his slightly sinister dreams, and explored the ruins of the plant - the ugly concrete bridge, completely utilitarian, the deco concrete stairs and steps, the abandoned pressure valves looking like Daleks, the empty turbine house with its barred windows and tiled walls, the terrifying remains of a wire-rope bridge stretching out across the canyon, maybe sixty, seventy feet over the water.  Waterfalls cascaded on all sides, trees were reclaiming the whole site. Tiny ferns and lizards with brilliant blue tails begged attention. The sun was hot and the air sticky.
Again, it was hard to pull ourselves away - the place is so compelling to the imagination. We could easily set a James Bond episode in any of these places.  Or start a romance.
Then we set off again - to the apartment. Snelling is leaving tomorrow, and we are all exhausted after what we've seen and eaten.  At this moment, still sunny and warm at 8pm, Lucie is on the beach reading, Snelling has Saturday's paper to go through, Andrew has his Kindle and I am writing this blog.  
What will tomorrow bring?