Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Real values

We've often remarked amongst ourselves how similar the rural architecture is between Ireland and France, and Wales has to come into it and Scotland too but I have not been there for a while.   We could probably include Cornwall, and the Isle of Man.  It's absolutely not the same as English rural architecture. The placement of buildings inside their plots, the shapes and exterior surfaces, the details of doors and windows - these have an insistent Celtic quality to them which is absolutely unfamiliar to a southern Englishwoman. But it never dawned on me till this Christmas weekend in Tipperary what this is about.
The significant thing is that none of these cultures are English. They have - for various reasons - eschewed some of the dominant stylistic choices of the English, and so what we see in the Celtic regions is what we ourselves might have had if it had not been for the successfully long reigns of some British Queens. In particular we can think of Elizabeth I, Victoria and (to some extent) Elizabeth II.
The English have been utterly mesmerised for centuries by a dream of greatness, reflected in architecture by a consistent return to the styles of Tudor domestic - black-and-white, gable-fronted, modest homes with leaded windows (very often with diamond panes), and with any luck, roses round the door.  We had a wonderful romance (wrong word!) with Georgian classicism in the 18th and early 19th centuries, but couldn't help ourselves and rolled back to ornamental brickwork and then into Tudorbethan suburban expansion, millions of small homes built in long rows, some as solos and some semidetached or even terraced.
This was all coinciding with our nation's extraordinary (and in many ways repulsive) empire-building outreach and the industrial revolution which stole and created so much wealth, and has been almost universally regarded as brilliantly successful.
Even in the decades since WW2, when we have seen a further massive expansion of housing provision across England, we have favoured a particular kind of twiddle, the 'Englishman's home is his castle' kind of propriety, with front walls in particular being more often than not adorned with false fronts - white-painted wood, and latterly plastic planking, or vertical tiling being popular (and cheap).
However, our neighbours did not necessarily take the same view of all this activity or style.  They did not generate quite the same jingoistic view of the explosion of capitalist activity, although of course they provided huge amounts of the necessary labour and raw materials - the coal, iron, plate, chains, rails, engines etc.
And, because they did not produce such a massive number of new industrial cities with all the attendant social relocatoin, they had nothing like the same disruption to their peasant heritage... so the dreams from the ancient days remained more intact.  The idea would be that - one day, if all went well - you'd be able to afford a new house (no rats, no silverfish, no cockroaches, no mud, proper drains, separate bedrooms, etc etc) sitting plum in the middle of your own terrain, something to be proud of, a shining homestead for the family to call home. The whole slant was different.
They did not need the beguiling details of tiling or gables or black-and-white or leaded windows to demonstrate the success of the family's endeavours - the house itself is enough.
So when you stroll down a quiet lane, or drive around any of the Irish or French or Welsh towns, you will see proud newish houses, very clean, usually bang in the middle of the ground, with distinct boundary walls and gates, and a driveway, and sometimes it's a bit naff or blingy, but it's unmistakable - the shining demonstration of a family's achievement.
In England, by contrast, we have tightly-huddled clusters of new homes far too small, with a lot of attention paid to exterior styling and none at all to layout and purpose - the the needs of families - garden space, laundry space, shed space, privacy, community.  They are shockingly, achingly overpriced. We have by far the smallest square footage per new dwelling in the whole of Europe.
These minute new homes are also quite often built using timber-framing and infill - but priced as if they were made of brick and mortar. And they are not as fireproof as you'd like either - the fire which ripped through the top floors of the ludicrous new Lego-style apartments at the Tannery roundabout in Canterbury a couple of years ago showed that the industry has now adopted the American style of residential building. They may look safe and sound, but they are not.  Why do you think the firemen are regarded as such heroes in the USA? Because they are. They have to be. The number of fires and the speed at which they rip through buildings in the States is shocking to a European.  If you walk through any American city on any day, you will see the glorious fire-engines out at work - or patrolling and reminding people they're there: that just doesn't happen in Europe, not on any average day.
I have nothing against firemen, of course. But I think this is another example of how (in England) the standards have been allowed or encouraged to slip.... the residential property development industry could make more money with shoddy techniques during the last 50 years property-boom, and so they did.
So you get a very distinct cultural difference. And it's not them who are abnormal - it's us.
It's not all bad of course. Out of the weird mix of character which is called 'typically English' with its absurd class-structure and casual violence, we also shaped a whole new world during these centuries. And we did it with very small tools.....  First, our visionaries (monarchs, soldiers, capitalists) looked to the nearest sources of raw wealth - Wales, Ireland, Scotland, Cornwall, etc.   And because in some ways not very much has happened to change things in those areas, it's easy to find and marvel at the railway engineering, the mines, mills, bridges, canals, wharves and warehouses which are still there. The extraordinary thing about the canals is how tiny they were and are.  Some are barely ten feet wide. Yet it was on these tiny threads of access that the whole international business was constructed. They are capillary-small. It's almost inconceivable to a modern eye.
Walking along the rural Irish lanes, you can see the modern revolutions happening in front of your eyes.   The proud new family homes are built along the lanes which have had almost nothing happening in them otherwise for 1000 years.  You must have a car to live there now, and you can be in the beautiful countryside with your land about you and feel satisfied. Down the road, are some tiny stone cottages falling into complete decay, and the occasional small family farm built of stone with mud and cows and gates held shut with string.
Occasionally, near the ports or or business parks, these old functional buildings are converted to huge brand new steel-and-concrete hotels and conference centres (we stayed last night at one near Rosslare, called The Farmers Kitchen, a massive depressing plastique place). But the name gives away the nostalgic and powerful marketing tool.... There was a woman once called Irene Scallan, whose kitchen was a bit of a bar, and then it all grew from there.  The receptionist said some of the old buildings are still there, out back.  You can visit once-thriving market-towns like Thurles or Bunclody which have wonderful family names (such as Stakelums) adorning the buildings once dedicated to pharmacy or butchery or alcohol or clothing, but the centres are now mostly used as carparks.  All through France this summer, we found the old family restaurants shut down, and new American-style diners operating in the new shopping parks in their place (food handed over on plastic or paper sheets or cups). We live in an age of transition. People gratefully walk away from the rotten old stuff, and have to choose what they like from the future.
In the Celtic lands, their choices look more sound, for the most part. In England, we're still transfixed by the facade, what things look like rather than what they do.  The great Abstract Expressionist artist Rothko called his paintings facades. It's a word with a double meaning. Is what you see the real thing, or is something being hidden?
However small the 18th century canals were, they weren't hiding anything. They didn't pretend. Our modern life is mostly about pretence. Going to an empty rural country like Ireland reminds you of real values.

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Royal Disdain

Like all robust communities, Llanberis has several interesting historic occasions to refer to. For instance, twice in its history, despite an energetic entrepreneurial spirit shown by the community over centuries, introducing slate-mining, railways, new roads, mountain-climbing, tourism, etc etc etc, English Royals have snubbed it. Meanies.

The Royal Victoria Hotel at Llanberis has only a tenuous claim to the name because of an irritating no-show by HRH.  On a grand day in August 1832 when HRH Princess Victoria was due to visit, arriving with a huge entourage of courtiers and nobles, and with the whole town turned out to meet her, the Princess was indisposed and did not appear. Her huge party of celebrants and grandees came along, and it took the assembled townsfolk (and hoteliers) a while to realise that their patroness (and in the case of the hotel, their namesake) was not there. The party had to go on without her. She was too ill.  The hotel's written history says 'considerable disappointment was felt when it became known that the young princess, or as the quarry-men called her 'Frenhines fach' was not in the party.'

Her mother, the Duchess of Kent and the others all went on a day trip around about, on the lake and to the ruined castle of Dolbardarn, and the royal banner was displayed opposite the hill of the council where the barons of Snowdon encamped when they made a treaty with Edward which united Wales and England.  But, somehow, it doesn't quite work.  They called this huge hotel Royal Victoria, but she never turned up.

But this wasn't the first royal snub. The hotel is not far from the site of the town's ancient castle, a seat of resistance and national Welsh pride, built by Llywelyn Fawr who died in 1240. When the English King Edward took over, he decided that Dolpadarn was NBG for his purposes and Caernarfon would be a better place and he proceeded to partly dismantle Dolpadarn and use the timbers in his other pad.

Local bitterness was perhaps assuaged by Prime Minister William Gladstone who - in 1892 at the age of 84 - arrived in Llanberis and gave a truly stirring speech about (of all things!) the the freedom of small states, and he did this up on the slopes of Mount Snowdon, attended by a huge crowd. He was there to celebrate the opening of a footpath, because by that time, the wars of the past had faded away, the slate quarries were in fine fettle, a railway had connected the area to the outer world for tourism and freight, and a new road had been constructed down the terrifying Llanberis Pass, making access so much easier. Walking (or taking the train) up Snowdon became a national obsession. In fact, in the 1960s, I remember a weekend at my granny's house in Hampstead when some of the uncles arrived in jubilant mood having gone to climb Snowdon (there and back) between Friday and Sunday. They missed lunch when they got back, but were given sandwiches and cheers by the family. None of the uncles had anything special in the way of clothing or footwear... tweed jackets, twill trousers, brogue shoes.  They did it on a whim.

The hotel is rather grand where it can be. The breakfast buffet is offered at the entry of the large dining room (though your seating is quite a long way away in a glazed balcony). No trays are available so you have to go back and forth for each orange juice, cereal, toast, or whatever, wending your way between the tables in the main area... It dawned on us that one of their main preoccupations is petty larceny. Everything is arranged so you can't nick anything. It must be a big problem for them, with hordes arriving in summertime for walking and mountaineering. The books lining the wall are fake - a kind of wallpaper. On the buffet, the only fresh fruit is a slice of water melon (no apples to sneak into your lunch picnic). The yoghurt is served in a huge porringer. The butter comes in little open rolls all ready at your table (you have to take some with you back to the toaster if you want to put an egg on your DIY toast back at the far end of the dining room). Actually, once you get the hang of it, it's all fine - the choice is superb and everything is delicious.  But the night before, the head barman was really refusing to let me take a glass of wine to my room, although I was in my bedroom slippers, because I did not have the little slip of white paper which came with the room key.... And a whole picture had been stolen from the wall, leaving four patches of velcro where it had once been.  Stealing stuff from hotels is not a joke. And royal no-shows are not a joke either.  

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

We've just checked into the Royal Victoria Hotel in Llanberis, having driven all day across England to get here. Tomorrow we'll do the last 30 miles to Holyhead to catch the fast midday ferry to Dublin.

We don't do all that much driving on motorways in England. Things change, subtly all the time. There is a distinct hitch-up in the aggression rate. People drive fast all  the time, so as they leave a motorway and get to a roundabout they're still on high adrenalin and swerving round as if it's a racetrack. That makes anyone going at a more suburban rate, maybe unfamiliar with the route or struggling to see the signage, vulnerable. There's a lot of horn-work, aggression.  More than, say, five years ago. Perhaps we should impose lower speed limits on all roundabouts, so they just slow down before they join in with less speedy traffic.

It's also interesting to see how all the big heavy vehicles are evolving. Whereas HGVs used to be fairly standardised, they are now getting more specialised. There are so many different kinds of trailer, grab, tipper, crane, low-bed, car-carrier etc now.  They seem much heftier, chunky. Whoever makes and sells these things must have upped their game, designing and marketing very highly specialised vehicles in much greater numbers.  No idea if these are British or not, though.

We had an impressively unimpeded journey round the M25 (N), then up the M1 as far as about Daventry, and then hopping off onto the A5, thus avoiding some sort of vile hold-up on the M6. Hoorah.  It's such a relief getting off the motorways... the kind of concentration and manoeuvres you have to make on an A road are just more stimulating. I was wondering if there would be any special reason evident to a passer-by to explain why the A5 (Roman Watling Street) has a distinct change of direction at one point - now a six-wents, and it turns out that was where it crossed the Fosse Way. Wikipedia has a good page describing the A5, concentrating on the engineer Telford who did a lot of work on it.

We stopped for lunch at a random cafe which turned out to be the works canteen of the wonderful British haulage firm of Eddie Stobart. It is smallish but clean and gets good marks from reviewers on Trip Advisor (we only read those after we sat down).  It is deeply reminiscent of motorway service stations in the early 70s. The food is ok, hot, reasonable choice, brought to your table by willing waitresses...  but, I feel sorry for anyone eating in such places every day.  The French established les Routiers, which had culinary standards....  This stuff is done to a price and even the salad was tasteless.... though we were grateful for it.  The chips were ok, but cooked in the dullest oil. The peas were copious and bright green, but could have been made of soya.... no flavour, and I guess little nutritional benefit.

Once again we observe how the great choice of roadside pubs has diminished - many are now Chinese or Indian restaurants, or closed down altogether, or for sale.  England is changing.

Getting into Wales made a great difference - suddenly everything looked beautiful. Dusk was falling (a bit later than in Kent, of course), and the Dee valley was lovely.  By the time we got to the Llanberis Pass which I would have liked to see, everything was dark, and rain had started, so it was more an imagination-road than eyeball-socking Gothic.  But the hotel is brightly lit, over-heated, with cheerful reception staff, and a stormy wind blowing outside so we feel snug.

Ireland tomorrow.

Saturday, 24 September 2016

High Life and Low, at Laon and Arques

We just got on the ferry home. It’s warm, mildly sunny. We have driven 2,500 miles. Naturally we have been thinking about our grand tour, summing things up: what was best, what was worst, what we’d do again, etc.

One heart-stopping moment was as we drove away from the quaint hotel in Troyes yesterday morning. In a split second, we had a flat tyre, on the front nearside wheel. Of course the spare was stashed deep, deep in the boot, under all the stuff – tent, clothes, picnic kit, bags, boxes of this and that. But my dh, aka the concierge sorted it in about 20 minutes, though I noticed he did blush, or flush red, just for a short while. This was in the very heart of the town, on cobbles with narrow enfilades for the traffic, and lots of cautious drivers edging past – thankfully not offering to stop and help. My part was to find and erect the legally-required red danger triangle and place it some yards behind the car. I felt that was a truly important contribution to the exercise. Kept us safe, etc. I also helped unpack and then repack the boot with all that stuff. One day, I will really trust my experience and stop taking so much with us. Trouble is, you never know in advance what you are going to want, and sometimes, having ‘just the right thing’ saves the day. Sigh.

We had taken an hour or so after breakfast to saunter back into the town to see the cathedral which was shut the night before. We called into the might church built by Pope Urban IV right on the spot where he grew up in his father’s cobblers shop. So, dad had a smelly old leather workshop, and Urban had a colossal, stunning, huge church, right there, on the very same place. What do you think?

The church is remarkable (has a lot of really beautiful old statues, which are well labelled), but the cathedral which is a few hundred yards away is just amazing. It is HUGE. They only managed to build one of the two planned towers, and the columns which support this gleaming and highly decorated edifice are, at the base, more than 15’ across. Of course it’s been enlarged and beautified at various stages over the centuries but most of it is pre-16th century and with its masses of stained glass and quiet aisles, it is one of the most beautiful places I can remember ever having been in. Superb.

You may wonder why a low atheist like me finds churches so interesting. First of all they are major artistic and cultural artifacts which have survived from way back in our history. Real people made them. Real people defaced them from time to time, too. They have a secret language too, can be compared to the inner space of the female body, or expressed in musical similes. It’s interesting to go and look at neolithic tombs with their dark portals, and then stand looking east inside churches. They are enclosed, they are aristocratic, or even royal, spaces which offer a springboard into eternity and the mysteries of ‘god’ and the universe. You really don’t have to be a religious person to learn from them, and like them. I am very proud of many old English churches, love them even, but it’s salutory to go and see what was happening in Europe while our own religious houses were being built. However glorious our churches are, they do (sometimes) pale into insignificance next to what the great orders were arranging in France, or Spain, or Italy, or Germany…..

Anyway, I need to report that we fitted two splendid excursions into the last few hours. One was a trip into the citadel at Laon, and the other was to see the most important bit of industrial archaeology in northern France.

At Laon, we checked into the Hotel des Arts which is near the railway station and probably not one we’d recommend to friends. It was built in the early 50s, and the service is very friendly but it’s all too flimsy and in need of an overhaul, and there is not much to stop you hearing what people are saying in the adjoining rooms and balconies (till 1.30am!).

The town has spread out on the plain around the massive rock which has attracted the attention of the high and mighty for centuries, arguably millennia. That is where all the ancient and rich buildings are, with the rif-raf spread out on the low ground all round it. We went up into the citadel, where we had been before a few years ago, and it has been improved a lot. There are a goodly selection of cafes and restaurants and useful information panels….and the abbey is just jaw-dropping to look at. But there are loads and loads of empty shops, to let or for sale, and they have just – just a month ago! - closed down the funicular railway which for a few short years carried tourists (or commuters? or shoppers?) up from the lower regions into the historic centre. All very sad. A wonderfully dikey and grumpy woman served me a glass of delicious wine while I sat and tried to draw the front of the abbey… Later she melted and showed me the label, saying lots of people ask what it is: Colombelle, l’original 2015, from Gascony.

And this is just part of it... the towers at the east end are equally amazing

Sometimes the lowly lot got the upper hand.  They massacred the bishop up there even though he was hiding inside a barrel.  But the main theme was that they only really wanted aristos in the centre (dirty tradesmen had to stay in the bourg and had their own door in the city walls). The lords and ladies and bishops etc liked looking at the amazing the views from the ramparts, where you can see for 20 or 30 miles even in the dusk. It’s terrific.

Anyway, after a poor night’s sleep in the Hotel des Arts at Laon we made our way towards Dunkirk, stopping for lunch in Arques… That proved hard to find till we did the obvious and looked around near the Mairie/Hotel de Ville. But then we went to the Ascenseur at Fontinettes.    What they had there was a problem – a difference in levels between the R Lys and the R Aa (which is, incidentally, one of my favourite names for a river, being the oldest word associated with rivers in Europe). The difference was 13m, but as the French industrial revolution unfolded they needed to connect these two waterways up.    At first, they had a series of locks, five of them. But that was very slow - ninety minutes at the very fastest, but the boats had to wait to get through and that sometimes took a week or more and some cargoes were destroyed as a result (food going bad). So, they set some men to work, and filthy hard dirty work it was. A clever engineer supervised the installation of a lifting canal system, based on what had been working very well at Manchester (Anderton Boat Lift). In 1888 they installed two huge iron basins, balanced against each other and each big enough to take one of the mighty barges, and barges could then move from one river to the other with their vital cargoes and that took much less time - less than half an hour - but they still had to queue up to get in and out. Amazingly it kept working till 1967 – but of course even these lifting locks really were too slow, so then they put in a massive huge lock and that is what is used today, to get the barges from one river to the other. Up and down.

The lifting basins are still there, sort of, rusty and roped off, and their waiting basin is grassed over, with quaint little moorings all around…. it’s all very poignant and interesting, with a band of volunteers who have amassed some marvellous old maps and photographs and made us watch a shaky old video ‘een Eenglish’ which tried to explain it all. Another place worth a visit.

I am really tired. Outside, the sea is flat calm with an impending sunset and soft sky. There is a horrid list of chores to be attended to when we get home, let alone re-acclimatising ourselves to England and its ways. Commitments, invitations, the allotment, the garden, the laundry, meetings, the clearing-up admin associated with this wonderful trip. The concierge and I have had a lovely time, seen some of the true wonders of the world, learned that we still get along quite well, and can even manage our occasional bad temper with a laugh.

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Old France, new France and how I miss Miss Baxter

In the 1970s I used to stay at a hotel in Paris called the Britanique, near Chatelet. It was owned and run by the slightly terrifying Miss Baxter, who had inherited it from her Scottish father. She spoke little English but demanded her British title and was fiercely proud of the whole establishment. It had been commandeered by the Germans during the war, and when they left, they tried to burn all their paperwork in the beautiful stone fireplaces - which cracked under the heat.   On our first visit, the toilets etc were down the corridor. Then she installed basins and bidets in each room, behind a little screen. Later, she cornered off small sections to make bathrooms inside each of the rooms....   Now, the whole thing is owned and managed by a large company and way out of our price range and I see that on their website they are not sure if the name has one 'n' or two.  But this story is all about how individual ownership and pride is slipping away, to the great loss and detriment of France's spirit.

In Lyon, on Tuesday night/two nights ago, we were staying in a 19th century chateau now closely surrounded by apartment blocks and suburbia. Its balconies and cellar-fronts were held up with acrow-props and scaffolding. The door was shy and hidden.  The owner was charming and determined. The decor was quirky (selling point). The woodwork had all been tanked so there was a strong smell of recently-stripped pine.    To get in and out you had to unlock and then relock three doors.  To get from the bed to the toilet was quite a long walk, despite being en suite.  The bathroom washbasin was set on top of an old cupboard and was about 18" too high, and too far back to lean over. At breakfast,  everything was set up in readiness for us, long, long before we got to the table. The croissants had been heated under the grill and were burned on top.  But - it was shining with pride and individuality. Someone, madame, cared.

Coming north - of course, I will report that it gets more 'English' the further we come along, that is to say, we now see oak trees and beech trees, in the tracts where vines and sunflowers give way.  We have come up past such veritable names - Cremant de Bourgogne (which marries the expertise of Champagne to the wines of Burgundy), Nuits St Georges, Gevrey-Chambertin, and so on, and sped past. This is not a wine-tasting trip. Here we are, after hurtling a long way, in Troyes.

I had no idea, not an inkling, what an amazing place this is. Blissfully untouched by either of the World Wars its historic centre is an astonishing collection of 15th and 16th century houses made of wood and three or four stories high, laid out on a medieval pattern and still served by churches of such flamboyance and staggering beauty that it takes your breath away. Money has poured in for restoration and modernisation, so there are squares and flowery plantings and fountains.

They call it France's hidden secret treasure, and apparently very few people come here. We have ourselves driven past it on numerous occasions and never known what we were missing. For anyone who likes history, or architecture, this has to be on your list.

The story-board by the cathedral is simmering with rage that in 1420, France's shameful treaty signing the whole country over to Henry V, was carried out in the building. (I say, well, just roll back 5 years, mateys.....).

A highlight was wandering into a litle tabac for a pre-dinner drink. There the owner was smoking like the old days, and had a remarkable display of forms of tobacco behind the bar.  At least eight shelves with at least 32 different brands of ciggies on each, and then further rows of pipe tobacco and loose packs for roll-ups. The Alsatian wine he poured for me into a small elegant green-stemmed glass was utterly delicious, and that plus a glass of eau gazeuze for Andrew came to €3.80.  A drunk was propped up by the bar. One or two older but very pretty ladies came in, kissed everyone though not us. Lights flashed. It was lovely.

And when we sat to eat last night, we got into conversation with a young couple on the adjoining table, and within less than a minute I happened to mention the whale-watching we'd enjoyed on the ferry from Portsmouth to Bilbao, and they said they OWN a whale-watching company in Canada! It's called   So we had a very jolly conversation and once again we agreed that it's these little meetings and interludes which make travelling so interesting. I do so very much like North Americans who venture out of their huge continent.

Anyway, back to my theme.  Troyes is magic, but you know, for some reason, the cafe district is just a bit less than...... There are masses of choices for where to go, but something horribly samey about them all.  We chose one because...?  The service was skimpy and very very slow. They brought the wrong order - that is to say, andouilettes for both of us, which was not ok. My pork, when it finally arrived, had a very nice winey sauce but the meat was dry and really not worth the death of the poor piggie. The chips were inedible though I know that's standard now in France, as it is in English cafes and restaurants. I thought longingly of the outstanding chips cooked in goose-fat which we ate at lunch with my sister overlooking the River Tarn, down in the south, just a week or so ago, the best part of that meal.  The staff were young and looked overworked to me. We had to go and find someone to give our money to when we wanted to leave and then found ourselves pursued because someone else thought we hadn't paid. Just, bleh.  No-one really in charge, no-one really cares.

And here we are in an hotel called Brit Comte de Champagne (and that word 'Brit' seems to attract English-speakers), inside a little run of those astonishing jettied wooden  buildings, and how I wish we had been here ten or twenty years ago.  It's been 'done up' and the prices raised accordingly. The ancient wooden beams have all been painted, there's something corporate about the common parts, grand glass doors, shiny stuff.  It's true that up here in the bedroom the 'bathroom' has been squeezed into the corner just like Miss Baxter did in her rooms in Paris forty years ago, with flimsy walls and the floor sloping to accommodate the shower waste-pipe. And the bathroom is TINY. You have to move the little rubbish bin outside if you want to sit on the loo.  There's only room for one bedside table. The wardrobe is grandly described as un placard but is really just a tiny space with a sliding door, which is itself rather grandly panelled and wallpapered and has two handles though you can only reach one of them. The very few electric sockets in the room are arranged in various inaccessible places - near the ceiling in the bathroom, behind the headboard of the bed (which is luckily loose so you can reach it by rearranging the whole bed).... The wifi is intermittent.  The floorboards in the corridors squeak, which used to be the sign of a good hotel.  So, it has all the wondrous trappings of old France, but I fear it's now owned and managed as part of new France.  What we like about this hotel is all the quaintness.... Somehow, the awkwardness of the old ways is ok, while the slapdash money-grabbing of the new ways is not.  (Though I have to concede it's great having the car tucked into the garage downstairs, included in the price).

Still I will leave you with this pretty picture which I snapped while we wandered around... There are three huge fountains in what must once have been a barge basin down by the river and canals. Just look how pretty it is.....

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

International whirlpool

In Arles I noticed that if I saw someone consulting a tourist map, I thought (somehow) that was an intelligent and purposeful thing to do... but every time I had to stop and consult a map myself, I must look like a dumb tourist. Note to self, stop thinking everything you do is pathetic.

One of the first bits of French I ever learned was that song: Sewer le pong, Davinyong....' and it's been a life's ambition to go and dance on the bridge at Avignon, so we went to do that yesterday. The flat sandy white muddy powdery land gradually makes space for a few trees as you head north, and some of these trees do very delightfully enter into a visual duet with the shape of the church towers - something we've noticed through all our travels on this trip.

I had this sad feeling - that old France has almost completely disappeared. New France (shopping precincts, MacDs, fast food in general, roundabouts, etc etc etc) has swept in very swiftly and vigorously and there are the empty relics of the lovely old ways all along the old roads.... Buildings which were once family-run restaurants all shuttered up, little garages with deco writing now derelict. All the money, the care and maintenance, has gone and that way of life looks dusty and worthless.

At Avignon, there are a number of new bridges over the Rhone now of course and I had a nagging feeling the old one may have disappeared altogether through bombing or other mishap... We scared ourselves down through narrow passageways and enfilades into an underground parking - Hades has levels (niveaux) and we were 4 down, well inside the astonishing city walls, as it turned out. We had a coffee overlooking the river at a very nice quayside bar and then walked along to 'the' bridge. It's still there - or most of it, and that broken appearance is the whole cause of the song, the story, the romance ...

Whatever myths were spun about a man from the north challenging the bishop and picking up a huge stone to prove that God had indeed sent him to build a bridge at Avignon, they seem to have got their act together in that remarkable age - the end of the twelfth century, getting part of the way at any rate and incorporating a chapel of sorts into their structure. Looking at the river now, it's wide and powerful but not particularly difficult-looking from an engineering point of view (she says grandly). The problems come with the floods. Getting the bridge to span the whole width and stay there, even with islands to help, proved over the centuries to be impossible. They were using wood and stone, as archaeology has now revealed. Kings and princes (and more bishops, and even popes) came to get it going - but in the end it was the mini-Ice Age which did for it - bringing great chunks of ice to smash it at surface level, and scouring waters to wash away the footings.  Eventually Louis XIV came to look and they all danced about a bit (not for the first time, hence the song) and decided to stop trying. So the beautiful bridge goes about two-thirds over the river and then stops.    Traffic to and from the north could continue with its sails and oars and horses and men to pull, but traffic east-west was back at a trickle. Salt smuggling was a big-time thing.  The museum/information in and around the bridge is absolutely terrific, it's worth every penny of the €4 to get in, compared with the very poor value (€3) for entry to Constantine's Thermal Baths at Arles.    We spent a goodly while there, and, yes, we did dance on the bridge......

Bashing up the motorway to Lyon was hard work, and there was a noticeable change in the weather and (somehow) the whole culture (landscape, architecture, light, industry....) as we crossed a high pass of about 300m somewhere 30 miles short of our destination. The heat of summer fled. Suddenly we were in an international traffic flow - lorries from Hungary, Spain (olá!), Finland, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Lithuania, Croatia, Italy... None from England.

We were in a traffic jam - the first on this whole holiday! Our hotel for the night is called Une nuit au chateau, and is in a leafy uphill suburb of the city. It's slightly like my granny's house in London - a touch of Gothic, but propped up with scaffolding here and there. Hard to see where the entrance is... the sign turned out to be less than half an inch high by a bell by a garden gate. We rang. Madame appeared, unlocking everything in true concierge style, and brought us into the house. It is painted in lots of weird colours and furnished with various bizarre arty objects (her son went to art college).  The tiny breakfast room is brilliant vivid green.  Our suite was miniscule and the lavvy down the corridor - she assured me it was only shared with herself.   She showed us another suite available - for 95€ instead of €75 - a vast salon, painted cocoa brown and rather pretty, with an ensuite bathroom featuring a ladder and a second-hand whirlpool bath (not to be used after 9.30pm because of the noise).  We took it.

To get into Lyon, we caught a bus to another suburb and then found the 'funiculaire' which (on the same ticket) swept us down two stops to the old city. The cathedral is adorned with quite a few (many) beggars and homeless people who could comfortably be given space inside, but on the other hand is of free entry and clean and wondrous inside. The glory is really the medieval stained glass, and the modern windows too.  I liked very much the one telling the story of the life of John the Baptist, where Salome is shown dancing in front of King Herod and Herodias, and she's doing a sort of limb-dance, bent right over backwards.  She must have been quite a gymnast.

Across one river (Saone) we strolled and found a vast square, the Place de Bellcourt, big enough for a military parade ground which is what it may once have been of course, since it was Napoleon who built that particular bridge.  Cafe life, students, bars, evangelists, cyclists, children, all good things were going on.  We went to the other river (Rhone) and admired that too. Eventually we found somewhere to sit and have a drink, and then strolled back towards the cathedral for supper. There are still a few, very few, bits of old France left preserved as glittering tourist attractions - tiny dark brown home-like cafes, and more sophisticated mirror-clad gilded places which Toulouse-Lautrec would have recognised... these are survivors only because romantic tourists come to use them and marvel. The change in cuisine was striking - here the offerings are based on les abats or what we would call offal: liver, kidneys, brains, tripe, sausages, etc., all very rich and with a powerful tradition of sauces and presentation. However, we chose our restaurant not only for its menu but because it had wifi. That has been a theme throughout the holiday.  In fact we moved from one room/table to another because the promised signal was too weak.

We were joined on a neighbouring table by a delightful American couple from Reno, Nevada, who are keen travellers in Europe and actually thinking of buying a house of their own at Beaune, their favourite place.  This is their third trip and they were hoping their flight home to the States from Heathrow might be delayed so they could spend some time in London.  Karen and Tony - hi! Welcome to the blog.

We made it back to the chateau via funicular and bus, so many people around, more like Spain than France.

It's nearly time for breakfast now. I have just had, for the first time in my life, a dip in a whirlpool bath...... All I can say is, my bidet at home is more satisfactory.

Monday, 19 September 2016

The attraction of marshes

Marshes are pretty addictive places, if you are at all claustrophobic. The skies are more or less infinite. If the marsh is big enough, you can even detect the curvature of the earth on the horizon, as you can at sea.
The Camargue is one of the most famous marshes on the planet. That is surprising given that it is not really all that big. Compared to the rest of France, it's just a postage stamp. But it has a magic pull. It produces rice, and white horses, and little black bulls, and shimmering images which are exploited by the tourist boards and poets, and it had Vincent van Gogh along to paint a picture of a bridge, which all helps.
The remarkable thing is that it was a drink manufacturer who seems to have both helped to preserve it and to promote it. One Paul Ricard who was successful enough with his pastis to buy a great chunk of it, and then fling money at it and figure out how to make it work. So at Méjane, in the middle of the marsh, he set up a domaine and that's where you can go and ride on the white horses with their sweet expressive faces and long tails, or go on a little train ride for a safari to see the flamingos, or you can just walk on a trail of a mile or so, all for free, and see for yourself how they flood the land to grow the famous riz de Camargue, or see the great Etang de Vaccares where the sea has taken so much of the land back, and where the flamingos pad about in the distance. It is brilliant.

If you head on further south, to Saintes Maries de la Mer, you can see where thousands of French folk come for their summer holidays every August in low-lying modern holiday villages, the beach divided into small paddocks, and a wide variety of ice-cream on sale along the coast road just behind a great sea wall.
In Arles, the Roman city built where the Rhone splits into two, you can luxuriate in a mass of tiny medieval alleys and lanes, with gorgeous little piazzas, and stupendous antiquities up at the top of the hill. In the evening, as when we arrived, it's quaint and charming. In the morning, as we returned, it's awash with coach parties and tour groups being harangued in French, German, English, Scottish, American, god knows what.  A lot rests on Vincent's shoulders - for instance, what else are they going to say about the hospital where he was sent by the Mayor after he'd cut off part of his ear? It's a nice cloistered building, with a dazzling flower display in the middle, some tat shops, some students trying to get past the tourists, and - well - Vincent.

Actually, they do have, on the wall in the entrance of the hospital a lovely plaque commemorating a man who really did spend his life trying to improve things for people.....

The Thermal Baths of Constantine are quite fun. A very good place to understand how hypercausts work, and with a story reminiscent of the fate of Diocletian's Palace at Split. That is to say, once the Romans had gorn, ordinary folk moved in. Turned the buildings into tenements and lived there in non-Roman merriment for a thousand years or so until some antiquarians came along and said, 'Lumme! Look here at this marble column, this bit of vaulting...' or whatever. With some diligent clearing away (too diligent, in some cases) they were able to reveal a large part of the once-thronging hot baths of the Romans.  It is pretty amazing to think that in a place where, for hundreds of years, loads of people came to bathe, sweat, laugh, flirt, wash, play, chat, whatever, for all that time, they probably thought it would go on forever! But now the place stands stripped apart, naked, dry and dusty, with no hint of water anywhere, let alone nice warm pools or slaves to scrub you down, or sweetmeats to nibble, or bottles of oil to coat your body with.  Just a few gaunt brick walls, a bit of a dome, some boilers and underfloor stuff, and some modern steel gantry walkways for idle tourists to clamber around. The info said, entry was free or very cheap when the baths were in use. Not any more.  €3, no concessions, no guidebook.

Nearby is a church built in the early 1200s for or by the Frères Pecheurs - the fishermen. It too disappeared into a domestic use for centuries, its cloister carved up into apartments, and now standing empty and unadorned, used for theatrical and arts events. We snuck in to admire its cracks and dirt, its oldness.  A de-rig team was clearing a lot of stuff out after a Tango Festival.   

Arles has also been celebrating its Rice Festival and a Photographic Festival and is about to have a Book Festival. They work hard at extending the season and making things interesting, though we met at least two other couples who (like us) were sad that the Vincent van Gogh Exhibition (his influence on other artists) had closed, with no notice of future Vincent events.   

There is so much more here to see. Various friends have (via Facebook) said how much they love it, and we'll have to come back. We have enjoyed staying in a little hotel on the other side of the river, the 'Mestre' of Arles if you like, so we have to walk across the river to get to the cafes and the rest of the historic centre. But the whole town has a real dignity and integrity... real people living and working here, and not just a picture-perfect tourist trap.

Sunday, 18 September 2016


We have spent the last few days at my sister's house near Moissac, and today we are moving on, booked into an hotel at Arles. I know almost nothing of Provence and it's our plan to drive up the Rhone valley and into Germany... If time allows we will go to Wuppertal to see the suspended railway, one of Andrew's ambitions.
Here at Panel there have been quite a few changes in the two years since we were last here. All the houses have been given numbers - to help the sapeurs-pompiers, or the ambulances, in case of emergency. The old ways - where everyone just 'knows' where everyone else lives - are not fit for purpose. So this little house, whose address is just 'Panel', the name of the hamlet, will now be known with a number and street name.
The landscape has had me enthralled, with its small valleys and fields, little woods, rolling shapes and winding roads. I have tried to paint it, draw it, but not very successfully. One problem is that everyone else's timetable has to be fitted in - driving here, driving there, visitors coming, going to the market, booking in for lunch.  This is part of my pilgrimage experience - how to adapt to the moment and yet allow myself to be or see or have what I feel I need.
As we drove up from the Pyrenees, which I have not really recorded for you, we were following the Garonne which in Spain was left with visible bed-boulders and low water, which instantly, at the French border became a deep, calm, watery river (completely different management objectives, I suppose). Very near here it blends with the Tarn, presenting a magnificent huge wide calm open space with impressive bridges.
We passed various small towns - one in particularly dragged us in by waving a fortified church at us over the horizon. That was Simorre, with a 12th Benedictine glory in a small place, and I loved a tiny house (one of many for sale - petit prix).  Eventually I spoke to the vendor, English, Geoffrey - who said 'In its present state, I'm asking €60,000....'  I would offer 25, but I don't really want a house, however tempting, in the Gers.  So sweet.
On Thursday, we went for lunch to the Uvarium, a splendid little Deco pavilion in Moissac, right on the banks of the river - very very beautiful place.  It was originally built by the commune as a spa when the local mills closed, but its been through many uses and is now a fancy-pants diner. How they manage to produce so many meals from a portacabin in the gardens is a mystery.  Later we went on a mini-cruise in a little pleasure boat. €9 each for an hour, with a detailed commentary in French, for up to 12 people.  I could understand some of what the lady said, and it was really amazing what she found to say about just a mile or so of river - the history (Napoleon, the mills, the Uvarium, the wildlife, the camping, the railway bridge, the canal-viaduct going over the river, the blend of Tarn et Garonne, the Canal-Deux-Mers, the local sports, etc etc....   A lovely interlude. My sister recently went with some friends on this same boat as a booze-cruise. They had it to themselves and brought champagne with them....
Today in the pretty field across the valley a man is standing stock-still, wearing orange neon gilet, and I guess part of the chasse. Here they hunt wild boar, deer, pheasants, anything that moves.  My sister had told them she didn't want la chasse on her land, and they have been courteous about it - once bringing her a huge plastic bag of bloodied parts after they had - with her permission - come onto the field in front of her house. This was too much for her - the blood, the skin and bone and hair, so it was given to friends who reported how delicious it all was.
Now the croissants have arrived, time for breakfast, and then we're off.  We have a day's schlep ahead of us.

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Slate roofs

Not much time to write this morning but here are some scribbled points…

Leaving Barbastro to the NE bring you to quite different countryside – a charming, semi-green undulating landscape, which sets up a good mood. We were heading for the sierra and it surprised me how much I was pleased to see the hills getting higher. Why should that be? No doubt it would have been different if I was walking or biking but the car did all the work. What it culminated in was a sort of silent but powerful announcement by the rocks which said … ‘ You think you know about mountains? Well, just get this! What you saw before was nothing. I! I! am a mountain!!’ because as we headed towards the French border, at the end of each successive distant gorge we could see something even higher, and higher, and higher…..

Two years ago we made our crossing from Spain to France having stayed in Ainsa, and then taken the Bielsa tunnel which straddles the border, so you go in in Spain and come out in France and it was quite a striking change – road-signage, tone, culture. This time, the main tunnel is fully inside Spain and the border will be on the road. Vielha is our stopping point and we knew nothing of it, except that our hotel claimed to be giving us a cabin on a boat which seemed extremely unlikely – reminiscent of Mount Ararat and Senor Noah.

As you get up into the mountains – certainly at this time of year – you start to get far more colours – the blues of the sky, the brushes of gold and bronze on the trees, the rocks themselves which are crazy mad for colour – greys and whites, blacks, reds, oranges, greens, in streaks and swirls. Sometimes the strata in the rocks are unsullied, still horizontal. Sometimes everything’s been squished into folds and bends. Some areas look as they are completely composed of pebbly detritus. And there are lakes up here, some apparently natural, left over from the ice age, and some are reservoirs. We stopped to look at one of these and found a sweet old Spanish couple poring over a mass of maps spread out on the bonnet of their car (the maps, not the people). They were almost in tears, spoke no English, but wanted to know how to get to Ainsa… We showed them the way, using our own maps and they noted everything down and followed us for a while….They were heading for the Parador up in that valley and assuming they made it, they will have had a beautiful drive.

We stopped at Graus (even the name looks Austrian) for coffee – again, a small river which must once have been the life-life of the pueblo now runs along the backs of the newer houses. A side-street goes to the school and traffic is barred because it’s a road for scholars. The bridge is high up over the water – we see rocks, swirls, eddies, some landscaping along the banks to create a patch of slower water. The loo in the cafe (like all we have seen in Spain) is a work of art. You get there by way of gleaming marble steps down in the basement, with ankle-level lighting, and that comes on without you having to touch a switch. You get into the ladies, and as the door swings open, once again the lights come on. In my cubicle, the lavatory flushed (with joy?) the moment I stepped inside. However it was more reluctant to perform when I wanted it to….. The funny thing is that the top of the stairwell, in the cafe itself, is guarded by thick dado-height marble walls, and these start very very close to the main wall of the room so you have to sidle, twiddle quite sideways to actually get onto the stairs. If you were disabled in any way, or had a child or used a stick, it would be awkward and quite impossible if you were in a wheelchair. You have to go and pee by the river I suppose.

The entry to Veilha is through a spectacular gorge (name to be supplied when I see the map again), absolutely thrilling stuff… Not unlike the journey we made on foot in the Roman goldmine a week or so ago but this time on a colossal scale – between parallel cliffs of dark and looming rock, with a rushing river on one side and barely room for the traffic on the heroic road engineered beneath the towering sides of the valley. It’s really dark down there, because it’s so deep.

Vielha is a shock – totally different from anything else we’ve seen – slate roofs, tall apartment blocks with wide eaves, really very Alpine in appearance. It has several rivers in the town, very little signage about which hotels are where, and some of the streets in different parts of town have the same name which is a bit confusing. We did spend a long time trying to find Calle Major, which is in any case spelled differently on the various satnav map databases… The Tourist Information is also in a pedestrian area of the town so not visible from the road, and it’s all very silly. The room in our hotel ( had been on a special offer but that did not explain the consequence – the view from the window was of the arse-end of next door, a shed mounted on a wall, filled with old junk and plastic cleaning stuff. Horrible and not ok for our last night…. ‘We didn’t come all this way…...’ etc. The girl on reception was very kind and took pity on us, gave us a more expensive room for the same price, with a balcony. The whole hotel (Riu Nere) is modernised with amazing wooden cladding and huge numbers, but doesn’t have a boat or a cabin as the website promised.

The town has a good and complicated history, centred in the Val de Aran, which has over the centuries belonged to (or paid tax to) Spain, France, Aragon, and is now Catalonian. The languages are unbelievably complicated – Basque, Spanish, Catalan, Aranese, Aragonese, Occitan….. One useful starting point is that ‘eth’ means ‘the’. And ‘aran’ means ‘valley’ in Basque. But it’s very hard to understand anything which is said. There was no direct road to Spain till 1924, and the first tunnel wasn’t made till 1948. They had to use mule trains for most their history – carting stuff out and bringing food back – they never grew enough to feed themselves and the population has been small and vulnerable till the last 30 or so years when skiing has been promoted and then less seasonal activities – walking, gourmet visits, nature, hiking, biking, etc. It is now pretty well a pure tourist-trap.  It is popular with Israelis, who perhaps remember that the locals here did them good service rescuing Jewish families during the Holocaust.  

The church is gorgeous – lavishly restored – with a 12th century nave and 16th century domes – very small and sweet. The army had its ski-training base here – the site of the barracks is now a huge carpark. It was embarrassing when the generals tried to take over the government – the locals had to tell the army they weren’t wanted…… The rivers head off in various directions – two to the Med, but the Garona goes north, into France where it becomes the Garonne, and we will follow it today to my sister’s house north of Toulouse.

Last night (boo hoo) we met a cheerful group of English people – he and she have been coming here for 35 years. He is in television…. They love skiing. Her sister and bro-in-law were here for their first visit in 16 years, and they were on the town’s pub crawl which is called Pintxo Pote, organised by the civic authorities.

The war that disappeared

As my friend Stewart Ross points out, we are used to dramatic changes in scenery in England but nothing compares to the same phenomenon in Spain. The scale is so different for a start. I believe my own sense of size in the universe is rather pathetically stuck at an infant stage. I am deeply, almost horribly impressed by engineering projects which most grown-ups barely seem to notice. Diggers and combine harvesters and things like that look huge to me. So when we look at rivers, or mountains or cliffs or landscapes in general, I feel absolutely tiny and almost want to faint thinking about the size of the cosmos. These mountains are just minute in comparison to the country, or the continent, or… the planet, and I know Earth is just a tiny dot of nothing inside our own solar system which is itself very very small….. But if I stand beside a clump of rock, consider its hardness, its colour, its provenance, I am struck dumb. I get the same sort of mental blow if I pick up a pebble, or look at a tree…. It’s deep.

Anyway, here in Aragon, the land is wide and hot and looks dry. Driving on the old roads away from Zaragoza we left the suburbs (some of which are much more depressed than the booming centre of the city), and we started to cross what is clearly a profitably-run agricultural zone. As mentioned before, there are for the most part few houses. But the farms are closely packed, and seem to be totally mechanical and automated. They consist of some sheds or barns plus silos. So presumably they house thousands of beasts – pigs? chickens? calves? - which are fed by gravity and computer, and get checked on once or twice a day, and then hauled off for slaughter. The light and uplifting landscape is also a sort of vast animal prison - an unmentioned schizophrenia. (But, I have to confess, I have eaten meat here - difficult not to - and it’s absolutely delicious and tender and so on, so I have my own mostly unspoken dichotomies).

The little towns on the plain have a different kind of split personality.   The road leads you through the old sectors, where maybe one or two very old-looking people are sitting companionably enough on a bench in the shade, but all the houses are shuttered up against the sun and the heat, and the community presents a deeply defended, hostile appearance. No-one moves. It’s like something out of a Mexican cowboy film.   If you try to find the centro urbano, you get lost in a maze of tiny criss-cross streets, and perhaps you see some laundry drying, and some parked cars. It looks dead.   But suddenly, round a corner, in an unexpected sector, you find a new street, with cafes and terraces and trees and pharmacies and a little supermarket, and young people and chatter …. Hence we had a very nice orange juice and olives and tortilla in Sariñena …

Crossing a small range of hills (look, I said ‘small’!) called the Sierra de Alcubierra, we saw a sign saying Ruta Orwell, which prompted me to look him up. A website called is very helpful. It’s quite true, the Spanish Civil War is mentioned nowhere.  This really is an unspoken thing.  Considering how painful and even apocalyptic it was, it’s a strange lacuna, in everyone’s narrative. George Orwell wanted to see action, was disappointed to be posted to this quiet area, but recorded his own experiences – the frustration, boredom, the cold, the squalor, and the hopelessness of it. His book ‘Homage to Catalonia’ is powerful and was widely read in the world, and so the authorities have responded by creating (not really re-creating) a dugout in the area he was based.  As Kevin Doyle says, you really do have to look to find it - it was pure chance we saw it.  It seems to be just about the only monument to those terrible times. Yet here in Barbastro in August 1936, the Popular Front (ie the communists) herded up the local monks, the Clarets, and shot 51 of them, sparing only two who happened to be Argentinian. These men were beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1992. There are branch of the Clarets in England, by the way.  I am just left wondering why exactly that war, of the many vile wars which have figured in the last 150 years, has been so quietly forgotten. Maybe it's still going on, though not here at the moment. Think of Syria.

There are some striking agricultural monuments as you cross the landscape – huge deco silo buildings, and these are adorned with massive storks’ nests, great car-sized tangles of branches and twigs. There are also some nests on the cathedral tower in Barbastro, so the birds do venture into the settled areas.

At one point, the road - which was pretty well world-class in terms of surface, signage, quietness, etc - suddenly switched into work-in-progress mode. We had about 5k of stones to drive along, and were glad that the very few other vehicles which passed us did so quite slowly and at a distance, as there were plenty of pebbles flying about. I wouldn't really want to break down in such hot, dry and lonely conditions.

Barbastro itself is a working town, not particularly glamorous, and with a heavily engineered river bed designed on two levels – the inner channel maintaining a deepish flow of water even in summer (say 18 - 24”, I suppose), but with a much bigger channel around that, with space for a huge torrent in the spring with water from the visible Pyrenees gushing down each year. (See, I am always on about size).

We arrived during the time of siesta, met a chirpy Lancashireman who was taking his mum out for lunch and wondering what might amuse her, and touting his rental property at Ainsa (90 minutes away). The town was dead. But a couple of hours later it had sprung into life – elegant shops open, children everywhere, people strolling about, having a soda and a snack in the boulevards under the trees, everyone enjoying themselves. We bought a fantastic local tomato, some figs, some goat’s cheese from the mountains, and some very local olive oil (having had a tasting and a lesson in how to choose oil). 

I made a watercolour, we wandered back to the hotel, which is owned by a very nice lady who took it on from her dad. It is pretty huge – a large dusty carpark at the back, great spacious dining rooms, long corridors (yes, with a flight of stairs up and then down in the middle), all decorated in the 1970s and not touched since. It’s a big banged about, a bit dark, a bit scuffed – but so hospitable and comfortable. At breakfast just now, the owner was sitting having her own breakfast on the next table, which was very homely and gentle (instead of being served by harried waiting staff). She showed us her grandmother’s kitchen table, made of painted iron and marble, 200 years old, her pride and joy. 

She likes September as she has time to meet her guests and chat. Her next booking is 20 Italian wine-students coming for 50 days to study the methods used in viticulture here.

We are off into the mountains today, to Vielha, and then into France again. We are reluctant to leave Spain. It’s so – well, so laid-back, and civilised.

Sunday, 11 September 2016

Peripatetic courtyards

The purpose of this bulletin is to contemplate the rigors and benefits of travel, both for humans and for buildings. In fact, we will be discussing peripatetic courtyards, but that is later on.

Those who slog it out on the real camino will laugh at this, but I am thinking about this adventure through northern Spain as being somewhat like a pilgrimage…. It’s all about contemplating your inner voices, immersing yourself in the landscape, adapting to challenges, making note of what appeals or appalls. We certainly faced a few challenges when we decided to camp – it coincided with a 2-3 day episode of cold wet weather, and our airbed proved to be less than supportive. Not sleeping, or sleeping badly, is a big difficulty. It’s hard to stay good-humoured when your bones ache from biffing on the uneven ground, and you didn’t get enough unconsciousness. Oddly, as we struck camp at Igeldo, the sun peeped out, the air warmed up, and we heard a siren voice --- ‘spend your money in hotels, not campsites….’

Once again we experienced the remarkable switch of landscape and thought as we went south through the mountains out of San Sebastian. We were now travelling through a dried, harvested, yellow-brown infinity, the trees tapering out, windfarms and solar farms cropping up, and barely a homestead to be seen.

(Without looking anything up, or having any evidence except what I see with my own eyes) I think something remarkable has happened to Spain in the last 80 or 100 years, equivalent to the period in English history in the 18th century when the industrial revolution sucked the population out of the countryside and into the new cities – Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham, London….. And something like that must have happened in the 20th century in Spain. Because hardly anyone at all lives in the countryside.   On the other hand, the towns and the cities are absolutely crammed full with apartment blocks, five, six, seven, eight stories high, and well supplied at street level with trees, plazas, cafes, bread-shops, fruit-shops, bus stops, etc. The inner landscape is completely empty.  You can go for miles and miles and miles and not see a single sign of habitation.  It must once (150 years ago) have been chocked with villages, hamlets etc, to supply the labour force and look after the animals they needed to manage the land. Even today, new motorways have marvellous no-entry signs which include a graphic showing people on a little pony-trap, and that is a vivid example of the clash of the old and new ways of doing things. A slightly more modern version shows a man on a tractor barred from using the motorway, but still.

Anyway, the result is that the towns, even quite small ones, are completely buzzing. People just get together in tight clusters – in church, in bars, in cafes, in bread shops, in parks, in florists. It’s as if there’s a collective wish never to be lonely or separated ever again.

And whereas now in post-Brexit and post-Thatcher England there is a palpable feeling of collapse, despair, end-of-the-empire, broken, spoiled systems, potholes, waiting lists, all that, in Spain, however serious their unemployment situation and economics, the ‘feeling’ in each of these towns and cities is still completely plump. The roads are good. The museums are open, and free on Sundays. There are beautifully dressed children everywhere. People’s dogs are kempt and cared-for. The fountains are clean. The streets sparkle. The public lavatories are fragrant and clean. The buses and trams are running on time for long hours every day. The civic sense is alive and well. Each place has adapted its ancient medieval origins to a modern purpose, so the streets have shared space for cars and people, the lighting is excellent, the new and the old are intermingled and spacious and everything works. It is so uplifting. In England, we have almost completely forgotten all this.

We meet the very occasional English couple dotting about as we are doing. One pair from Bristol were marvelling about this very thing.   Another inside the Aljaferia in Zaragoza this morning, filled with excitement, said ‘Have you been to the Basilica yet? It’s just amazing – this place is almost disappointing in comparison…...’. And an older couple (from the Lake District) yesterday afternoon in Pamplona were talking about their son walking the camino, and how they wanted to find typical local bars and avoid the tourist routes… they were loving it all.

We couldn’t get a room in Pamplona yesterday but we stopped there for lunch. Surrounded by its suburban high-rise new town, the centre is of course ancient and beautifully presented, and as a bonus we discovered they had a special Pamplona festival going on, celebrating the fact that in 1380 or something, on 8th September, King Carlos III? had unified the city from its ancient three-way split, so the streets were full of food stalls and dancers, and children, and craft displays, and music and local produce – on and on and on…. No wonder we couldn’t get a room! A lot of people were in medieval costume. The pride in local food and products – ham, vegetables, ceramics, ironwork, woodwork, wool, leather, etc – was absolutely bursting out. Lunch in Pamplona is apparently taken by the locals in pinchos or small tapas, often standing up. However we found a small quiet place away from the markets with no English spoken and a simple menu – salad, then squid for Andrew and veal for me…. So perfectly cooked. It is one of the perils of not speaking Spanish, and going into local bistros which have menus which do not appear in any dictionary , is that you end up eating things you might not eat at home – veal for me, and tripe, maybe. Andrew has had the tripe stuff twice now and loves it. But the way they serve meat in Spain is extraordinary. I don’t know how they treat the animals but the meat is superb.

Down the broad, hot valley of the River Ebro we went, through the heat of the afternoon with the aircon keeping us cool and calm… hardly any traffic on the road, which had expensive tolls (about 25€ altogether), but the light and the landscape were mesmerising. Into Zaragoza, and then a chicane of zigzags through fantastically narrow streets and alleys, left, left, right, left, right, left, right…… and to our hotel. 


They had a ground-level parking space for us in a garage off reception. We walked out into the city. (700,000 people).

Bam!!!! Buildings to blow your eyeballs out. That basilica! A modern water-sculpture with waterfall and reflective pond, towers like minarets, Roman walls, narrow alleys, smart shops, arcades, decorated facades, weddings, slick hotels (recovered from ETA attacks and fires decades ago), companionable bars full of old ladies and gentlemen having beers or coffees and little snack of something….. and dark narrow tourist bars full of young locals, chatting and laughing, and we have never seen so many happy people.


This is Aragon, which sent its princess Katherine to wed the Prince of Wales, but he died, so she married his brother Henry and lived with him for 20 years but only had a daughter…. So he divorced her and split the kingdom of England into Catholics and Protestants and a religious war which lasted 140 years. What on earth she thought when she left her native land with its vast plains and tremendous mountains, the heat and civilisation and horses and armories and heraldry and history…. And found herself in the Thames valley with – ok, all that greenery, but…. She had Eltham, and Hampton Court and Nonsuch… how small and miserable that must have looked to her, a bit of a ghastly spooky story, which is how her life turned out in the end. A lot of the buildings here today in Aragon are later than the 16th century but some are earlier (especially the great Moorish fortifications), and in any case there is no mistaking the scale and power of the grand architecture. Moslem or Christian, Catholic or Protestant, God has supplied fantastic buildings for all these beliefs …

The Aljaferia which we saw today was a Moorish military stronghold, then a palace, then a Christian royal palace, then a barracks, then restored, and now a museum, and home for the Aragon parliament. Its tower is the celebrated tower in Verdi’s ‘Il Trovatore’ or The Troubador, a romance entirely concocted in the 19th century.


One last thing to report from Zaragoza… There is a 16th century ‘patio’, or court, built by a Jewish magnate and banker called Gabriel Zaporta as a present to his bride Sabina Santangel – but she died, and then he died, and then their son took it over, and eventually it was sold off and became apartments, and then it was sold off and sent to Paris where it became an antique shop, much admired (and coveted by Goering), and only latterly bought back by Ibercaja, a local bank with social responsibilities….. So it sits inside a modern social and banking building, a lovely square stone two-story conservatory or courtyard, with fabulous decorations and carvings all around. It is very like the durbar in Hastings Museum, built of wood in the 19th c by the almost totally unknown railway magnate Brassey who had it made for his house in Park Lane, and then it was shipped to his house in Hastings, and then eventually moved to the local museum. There is something marvellous about these peripatetic courtyards, don’t you think?

It’s been a long read to get to the end, but we’ve managed it. 

Friday, 9 September 2016

The rain in Spain......

I do apologise for any overlaps or repeats with this blog. Getting a good space of time to think about it and then write it is not always easy or plannable... Ideas come to mine and I just hope I can get them down. But I know it's all a bit rough! Anyway... here goes with the next bulletin.

It’s not all that far, but the journey from San Sebastian down to Vitoria takes you into a completely different world. In the north near the coast are steep v-shaped valleys, with forests and greenery, and ingeniously constructed roads curving through the hills and tunnels.  And being in the Basque country, there are masses and masses and masses of apartment blocks as soon as you get to any sort of community. I mean, thousands.   However, once you get through the mountains (and a wonderful long tunnel) you emerge into a hot flat dry parched-looking plain. Sand coloured. Hardly any dwellings, at all, anywhere. Distant vistas. No rain.

Vitoria Gasteiz is where Wellington helped beat the French out of the Peninsula, and the locals showed their gratitude by making a truly splendid statue in his honour, in the middle of the square, the Iron Duke on a fine horse, and abject locals almost genuflecting in his direction. This war, which was in 1813, by the way, has had other repercussions. If you go by train from, say, Paris into Spain, at some point near the border, they have to change the wheels to a special Spanish gauge. They've made this awkward arrangement to prevent the French coming back to try again, sweeping into Spain by Interrail, and it gives you an interesting experience in the middle of the night if you have paid for a bunk on the sleeper service.

One of our reasons for coming here was to visit yet another weird-and-wonderful place, the Museo Fournier Naipes – or Playing Card Museum. We had brought with us the two sets of the Hand of Artists playing cards, a marvellous project which was created by Kent artist Duncan Grant last year. It started as one set of cards, and rapidly developed into two sets – each card designed by a different artist, and each artist randomly allocated a card to design. The mix of styles, subjects, materials, colours, messages and gravity was tremendous. There were shows of the completed originals, and sales of the two packs, and then sales of the original art works. Once costs were covered, all profits went to a charity for children. Most if not all the artists were from Kent, but the idea took hold and has been replicated elsewhere in the world. There is a Facebook page about it all. Anyway, we wanted to give to the Museum a pair of sets, one blue and one red, which we did.

It was a shame that the director was not working that afternoon, but the staff on the reception desk seemed utterly enthralled with the whole idea. They looked at the cards, took details, posed for a photo, and gave us free entry to the museum. Although I had no expectations of the museum itself, I was then enthralled myself
with the exhibits. Going back to Italy in the 14 th century, the designs and printing methods for various kinds of playing cards give a fantastic insight into life both at court and in the taverns. Some cards on display – hundreds of years old – show how much they were used, others are hand-coloured, some still in sheets before being cut. The designers drew on royalty, dance, animals, maps, different races of the world, satire, low life, theatre, botany, puzzles and more, and you can see how the different parts of Europe developed their own styles. There are also some early printing presses on display, which are themselves very varied and interesting. And the building itself is stunning – a medieval palace with highly decorated stone balconies one above another, once left in decay and near-ruin, but now rescued and readapted to its new purpose, with beautifully inserted wooden floors and glass walls, modern lift, walkways, signage and lighting. It is exemplary, and leads through to the local archaeology museum which is also a temple of modern design. How much money has been spent on all this is anyone’s business, but the investment in pure culture is stunning.


Driving back north over that parched plain we could see tumultous clouds and curtains of mist and moisture draping the mountains ahead of us. And indeed, coming back to our drenched campsite, with so much of our stuff really wet, we decided to rearrange everything to bring it away from the walls, and see how much we could dry out even in the damp air.  We reinflated the airbed. Everything was damp. And slowly, during the night, the airbed went to nothing. We did not have to endure the loud Spanish dad on the neighbouring pitch as he had gone, gone, gone… but by morning, our bottoms were on the ground.

Abandoning plans to get into San Sebastian by bus (the stop is right outside the gates of the campsite) we drove down, armed with a list of camping supply shops. Eventually we found the Tourist Information office, took a ticket, queued up to be told a) the rain is finished, sun only from now on, and b) as it’s a bank holiday (feria) in the whole of the San Sebastian region, no shops at all are open. We had a coffee, tried and failed to log onto the attractive sounding free wifi-for-five-days app, got some cash, decided to go back and pack up and find a hotel further east. Then – bingo! - a little Chinese supermarket gleamed at us with – guess what? An airbed in the window! €25. Seemed ok. We thought maybe we’d give it a try…… and as we left, with our new bed, the drops of rain started to plummet down. By the time we were in the car and heading back to the camp, the heavens had opened again in a true deluge…. 

Vast puddles across the road, rivers running down the gutters, not a soul to be seen but all sheltering under anything they could find, even standing on the seats in bus shelters to make more room for the crowds. We thought of all our towels and bedding, left to dry this morning. We thought of the lady in the Tourist Office, blithely reassuring us about the sun, and how it was impossible to buy an airbed (or anything) today.

None of this really matters. But (as if we were pilgrims) we are asked every day to consider our reactions to all these events, good news and bad, luck or misfortune, wet or dry, planned or spontaneous. So far, we seem to be facing it all with a certain amount of merriment (and occasional harrumphs). Camping means setting out with a much smaller ‘batterie de vie’ than you have aggregated at home. If the towels are wet, how will you get dry? If you have a scarf, will that be ok. You slowly reduce the number of ‘things’ you need, and of course all the time you remember there are refugees living with bugger all in horrible camps dotted around the place….. This game we are playing, with the landscape, the weather, with history and with ourselves, is really nothing more than a game. How very very lucky we are. Wet or not.