Friday, 22 December 2017

How welcome do you feel?

As an addendum to yesterday's report....

To get to the famous Cliffs of Moher, which are hard to see because of their remoteness, you do have to drive really quite a long way, through the Burren landscape which is pretty empty. On a drear day, with clouds barely higher than the stunted trees, and with rain pelting at your windscreen, and a winter solstice gloom cloaking round you as you press on into the bogs, it's a mournful ride.

But the enticement, the excitement is, that you will at last see these famous cliffs - a massive dark barricade which rises up to face the unrelenting battering of the Atlantic. It's odd to think that (as far as we know) people have only been to see such awe-inspiring places for pleasure since the 18th century. The Romantics who trekked up to Scotland and the Lake District, or into Germany, were deeply moved by the silent and dramatic power of the mountains and chasms, and their enthusiasm helped spark off the whole of modern tourism. People - peasants and their landlords - who had previously lived in blissful unawareness of the rich opportunities locked up in the rockfaces, came to realise they could get money out of other people's pockets in return for lodgings, food, and a nice place to stand and look.

Thus it was that our long drive out to the Cliffs of Moher, through lonely hills and winding lanes, between endless stone walls, past ancient farmsteads and ruins, splashing mud as we went, silent as we progressed towards one of Nature's great marvels, ended with a truly horrible experience.

We could - just - see the Cliffs as we wound our way along the coast road.....

Double yellow lines appeared on either side of the empty road - for a long way.   In the distance, we saw a set of barricades and a huge carpark - once a whole green field - with huts, fencing, lines marked out, ominous signs and control barriers, some sort of traffic light system on the pedestrian crossing.   There were about five men, maybe six, wearing high-viz jackets which shone out of the gloom like traffic lights. It looked like the entrance of a concentration camp, or a toxic industrial plant.   It is quite clear. If you want to see the Cliffs of Moher (from the top) you have not only to brave the elements in the middle of nowhere - the blistering wind, the soaking rain, the mud on the path - but you also have to park in this place which represents the worst possible aspects of human life. Greed, control, power, concrete everywhere, domination. Here, where Nature has mutely offered up one of the wonders of the world - a spiritual place, historic, inspiring, memorable - Clare County Council has stepped in with its jackboots on. The cost is €6 per person, from which, we learned, they derive €7m a year.  Good for them.

I cannot believe this is the way to do it. Having been through the whole of France, the Pyrenees and Northern Spain earlier this year, where there are similar landscape marvels to see, somehow the authorities have devised ways of accessing these places without this brutal harrumph, this handbagging.  It's almost unbelievable. It's the most inhospitable thing I've seen in Ireland.

We didn't get out of the car.  We certainly did not go into their brutal naked horrible carpark. It made me think of gas-chambers to be honest.  The weather didn't help, and yes, I know it's the darkest time of year - but surely, this can be managed better.   The Clare Museum in Ennis (by contrast) is welcoming and fully textured with great displays and good information. And the shops are marvellous.

Thursday, 21 December 2017

Will you be my mum?

One of the reasons for traipsing about the way we do is that it chips away at the arrogance and ignorance which props up our daily lives, quite inadvertently. There are all these amazing places, which we've never heard of, and which are filled with wonders and wisdom - ways of living, truths, scars, whatever.... Only by wandering about can we actually see for ourselves and take in some of the reasons and truths.  These journeys are a form of pilgrimage, paying respect to people and places by just turning up, and looking and listening.

For instance, leaving Dublin yesterday and heading west towards the little medieval market town of Ennis (chosen more or less at random) for a couple of nights stay, we stopped for lunch at a place called Maynooth. Now, it's quite a place, with an ancient ecclesiastical foundation and a large university, and (as we found out) a great selection of cafes and restaurants supplying lunch in a pretty and buzzing high street. But we had never heard of it, till we got there. Silly us.  It's definitely worth exploring and we were lucky to get a table in the pre-Christmas rush at a Spanish bar/restaurant called Picaderos which supplied us with stonkingly good food in a fabulous atmosphere.  Memorable.

And when we finally clawed our way through the fog and dark wetness of an Irish December, and found ourselves in Ennis itself, we could hardly contain our pleasure and excitement. True, the hotel had a style of decor which can only be described as ambitious, but once outside and pushing into the town centre we found ourselves in a magic place: small medieval streets with a wide variety of pretty and old buildings, all lit with dazzling Christmas lights which were reflected on the wet pavements to create a kind of fairyland.  Up at the top of the hill is a splendid monument to that great Irish patriot and pacifist Daniel O'Connell - standing on his column and surveying the whole area.  The shops are just plain gorgeous - stylish, inviting, varied, cosmopolitan, artistic, thriving. The main streets are crossed with small alleys which lead through into a variety of marketplaces and squares. The town is girdled by the River Fergus - a great character in its own right - powerful, embanked, pushing along relentlessly at about 5 or 6 miles an hour - really fast.  We found the remnants of a series of mills whose origins go back a thousand years or more, most recently 19th century, and with a bewildering array of races and sluices, leats, bridges and stonework, watched over by a regal heron who stands by the fish-ladder waiting for his dinner to arrive.

Walking round again this morning, a group of lads called out to me.  One said, 'Will you be my mum?' He was serious. We chatted, and he said he came partly from Ennis, partly from London. Only he doesn't have a mum and wants one.  I said no, but he asked me again. One of his friends said 'He's seriously mental....'  He asked what I do - and I said I make things. He said, 'Can you make snow? Can you make it snow?'  I had to say no again. He was beguiling, and needy. I hope he finds a mother. But it won't be me.

We love Ennis. It has such a buoyant nature, pride in its past, and it's set on the edge of the enticing west coast region called The Burren which we went to see this afternoon, despite the dreadful dark wet weather.  We will have to come back when it's lighter... what a lovely place. Small hills and woods, interspersed with plateaux and bogs, with some of the hedges bent over into haggard crone-shapes in the wind.  Some of the cottages are thatched.  Cattle and sheep look muddy but robust. The colours of the land - even in the dull light of the solstice day - are rich and glowing - reds, purples, greys, blacks and blues.  A huge quarry is carving its way back into a mountain ridge and is filled with huge crushing systems so that the piles - slagheaps - of rock are graded for road-making or other construction work - all a dark slatey grey.   

A land like this, with the sea not far away, and a complex history, and solid land-based economy of small farmers and resourcefulness, is very attractive. I guess most Britons have no idea of the history of what 'we' did in Ireland. The stories are deep-rooted and powerful.  The injustice and cruelty and greed were relentless.    But I have to confess, reading about one battle - maybe the decisive moment when the Jacobins (Catholics, of course) had to give up... that did make me laugh. It's the Battle of Aughrim.  A very grand French general came to command the Irish, and the final confrontation was to be where the R Shannon was understood to create a workable boundary.  He was called Charles Chalmont, Marquis de Saint-Ruhe, generally referred to as Saint Ruth who assumed the post of Marshal-General of Ireland, in May 1691.   One of his main assets was an unassailable belief in his own powers - he urged his men to fight because he was leading them, and bolstered their morale by telling them that he was marvellous.  Not all his officers agreed with him, but enough stayed around to get the battle going. 

The story of this great face-off between the Irish Catholics and the English-sponsored Protestants in the form of a Dutch army led by a man called Godard de Ginkel, is available in huge detail at     

But the fact is, from an Irish point of view, that two dreadful things happened on that day. After a confusing day, Saint Ruhe's head was knocked off by a cannonball.  This fact was concealed from his troops for a while, enough for them to fight on.   But they were losing it. The skirmishes between cavalry and infantry, the taking and losing of high ground, the battle itself was slipping out of their control. They lost their cannons, and had to resort to small arms.  For that, they needed more ammunition and tore open the boxes which their glorious French commander had brought with him.  Then, the ghastly truth came out. He had brought French shot. It was the wrong size for the Irish (English) guns.  For all his planning and swaggering and grandeur, he had no idea that there was any difference.  The soldiers had to use the buttons off their clothes, small pebbles from the ground, and the wood ramrods which they used to charge their guns.... But, of course, it was hopeless.  

There is some doubt about many Irishmen and how many Protestants died that day. Thousands.  The only ones to survive were those who fled the field.  The Jacobites left Ireland altogether and mustered on the continent ready for another battle another day - the planned invasion of England accompanied by rebellion.... the whole romance of Bonny Prince Charlie....   

This glorious, or inglorious bit of the Irish resistance story has faded from view in the light of more recent rebellions and wars, but you can't overlook it. Every church, every village, every high street in the land reflects it, in the proud names on the shopfronts and on the stunning marble and limestone gravestones and monument. This is Ireland. It's just a bit like England, in some ways, but it absolutely is not at all like England. It's a parallel universe. And it's still 'in Europe' which Britain may not be for much longer.  History has weird ways of changing things.  I think of England as my mother-country, but I feel more at home in Ireland in so many ways. I wonder if I will be asking Ireland if she will 'be my mum', one day. 

Friday, 15 December 2017

Private View

Private View

We were invited to a private view in a pub along the road. Two artists were collaborating - a sculptor and a street artist. Olivier Duhec creates metal pieces which may be lamps or (very loosely) ornaments, themed on space fiction or animals,  or animated TV characters. Mygalo's paintings are similarly rather steampunk, some themed on skulls, some more brutal and explicitly sexual. It makes for an exciting show.
Nathalie and I walked down together, admiring the work of another local artist - the wind - whose powers had swept a chair from her balcony the night before, and, we now saw, had totally trashed a building-site hoarding along the road, leaving the mud and excavations open to passers-by, like a mute invitation to get into trouble.
The pub was an interesting place to have an art show. The owners are already committed to Mexican death-cult art, so the bar is decorated with a series of brightly coloured skulls.
But the expo on the other side of the room basically consisted of Mygalo's paintings behind a long table set out with Duhec's sculptures. During the evening one of the paintings sold at €2000 which cheered everyone up.  'Everyone' consisted of a couple of dozen mecs and some very pretty ladies of various ages.
Gradually, the secrets of the works revealed themselves. There were some bunches of metal roses with glossy petals and sharp thorns - only the black ones contained tiny skulls in their centres. A shining cubic metal lamp (containing a sphere which very slightly emerged from its vertical constraints) could in fact be opened up so that the light shone upwards as well as forwards. A glass and steel table was supported by a complex and polished animation of Atlas, who practically groaned under the weight of the top, like the obedient servant of an unseen dominatrix.  Some stickers on a side table featuring details of Mygalo's slave-girl nude were free to pick up - one disguises her face but shows her arse and vagina, another closes in on this sensitive area but as she pees, her thumb (or someone else's) is penetrating her arse.  Another sticker shows a coy skeletal couple who've been together for 357 years. These tiny giveaways are both cheerful and disturbing, and free art at an PV is a new one on me.

There were an array of glittering model machines - tiny motorbikes deconstructed and then put back together like calligraphic scrolls, deeply desirable.

The star sculpture was hanging in the air above us, a model of a popular French TV spaceship from the 1960s - Albator - a fabulous complexity of guns, decks, thrusters, portholes, welding, ports, and more. This model itself weighs over 100 kilos, and anyone who knows the US Starship Enterprise will understand how childhood hero-worship for an animated fantasy spaceship can translate into a lifelong obsession and desire.
Outside France, you may not have heard of Albator, or Duhec or Mygalos. But this show has an electric streak of recognition all through it. The stickers and death's head paintings are workings on an eternal theme - like Holbein's Ambassadors with its skull at the foot, or Titian's nudes laid out for consumption and trashing. And the sculptures are all about light and dark, and how heroes fight against evil. Rembrandt would have recognised all of it. I loved it, and came away with some stickers, a tiny motorbikey thing, and a red rose (without a skull).


Getting onto the RER into Paris, a young woman bounced past us and laid a carefully printed card on the seat facing us. It said she was unemployed, had two young children etc etc and she was asking us to pay her something......
Later, near the Notre Dame, we saw a huge old man bundled up, not begging but just sitting there, and with two puppies snuggled into his jacket.
Nearby, an old woman sat patiently on the pavement with her back to the parapet of the bridge, not begging, sharing her little mat with a rabbit. The rabbit wore a smart red jacket and was nibbling some biscuits. The woman had a bunch of grass and herbs beside her, ready to give to the rabbit later on.
These last two people were the classic clochards of the Paris streets, honourable, resourceful, calm. The girl on the train was part of a huge international network of 'workers', slaves maybe, possibly trafficked, whose gatherings are paid to the organisers.  I last reported on this phenomenon when we were in Albania in the summer - at Durres, where the girl begging had a drugged baby on her shoulder, and a very sinister man was not far away, sitting on the pavement in the happy evening crowds, hitting another baby on the ground in front of him. This is a new industry - the pitiful pitch, the tug at the heart strings, the use of children in 3D or in reported form ('I have two children....'). I saw this typical family at Gare du Nord on Saturday.  Nathalie says their 'nationality' changes according to what wars are in the news.

On Facebook, I had posted a video clip showing the beam of laser light swinging round in the darkness, filmed from the kitchen window of this apartment about 8km away... And a friend riposted that this was the same beam of light searching out the homeless so they can be swept from the streets: she hates Macron and his policies.   But I think it's more complicated than she suggests.   Of course there are desperate people whose only resource is the pavement and a bit of cardboard and their numbers are growing, but they are not all the same.
I am reminded of a trip I made to Dublin in the 1970s and seeing barefoot children begging on the Halfpenny Bridge in the bitter cold. I had never seen anything like that in England, so sheltered was I from poverty in those days.    Ireland was all too familiar with it, the hedge schools, the outcasts and denial.  It's all crept nearer now.
How do people or things survive?
We went for a hot chocolate, and the couple sitting behind me were deep in conversation in English. He was a smart young lawyer, French, briefing his client on what was likely to happen.  He said, they were lucky to have been allocated to a certain judge who was known to deal swiftly with cases. He thought the hearing would be deferred to June. He thought she was likely to get a prison sentence, maybe 7 or 8 years, but it was her first offence, so it was likely to be suspended and so as long as she kept out of trouble, she would not actually go to jail.   She was youngish, had bare ankles (that is the fashion at the moment).  Andrew thought she was Russian. They were speaking in English as a shared or common language......
We went towards Notre Dame, intending to go in but diverted into the Archaeology Crypt instead. This area was destined to become a carpark in 1965, but the architect, one M Fleury, realised the importance of what they found when they started digging and the area eventually became a fascinating and compact underground museum describing the ancient history of the city, and the carpark was built slightly further to the south, towards the present bank of the river.   The jumble of stones, walls, ditches, doorways, steps, benches, slabs and pavements is almost impossible to interpret as you look at it now, but has had decades of interpretation and analysis , and the presentations and explanations are very clear. From the Romans onwards, this tiny bit of the Ile de la Cité has been valued for its location and everything and everyone has been here.  By the 17thC there were so many babies being abandoned that the authorities realised they had a problem, and by the 18th there was a positive torrent of newborns being left in doorways (too young to beg for themselves).  A special hospital was set up and at first these children were well cared-for, but it rapidly deteriorated into squalor and agony (not least because pigs and chickens were reared in the same premises, so disease spread very rapidly).

I liked very much three delicate wooden spoons dug up from the mud, with tiny little finials, and these elegant practical little things were 800 years old.

Who, and what, survives?

We then walked to the Tour de Jean sans Peur, a remarkable medieval structure (c1409) which was a triumphalist gesture made by an ambitious aristocrat known as Jean sans Peur (Fearless John) who wanted to sneer at his rival the Duc of Burgundy. He built it as part of his palace on the edge of Paris as it was then, part of the city wall.... Later, the palace disappeared, the estate was chopped up, new boundaries appeared nearby, and slums grew up all around it. The tower was used for lodgings, warehousing, a dumping ground. Probably a brothel.  Not till the mid-19thC, when a new road was being pushed through the slums, and the surrounding buildings were demolished, did anyone realise it was there. It's five storeys high, and is more or less just a staircase with a couple of small rooms leading off at the top, and with an astonishing tree carved of stone on the fourth floor. The tree is the newel post for the stair, and has branches spreading right across the little vaulted ceiling. The branches are covered in stone leaves of three varieties - oak, hawthorn and hops, which each refer to the John's family origins.

It's definitely worth a visit next time you come to Paris, and you'll find it at 20 rue Etienne-Marcel, just north of les Halles.   It removes that fascinating Parisian veneer of uniform pretty buildings and straight avenues, and shows you the old history underneath. It's a true survivor.

Thursday, 14 December 2017

Repairing to the fasts

Two words have drifted past me with slightly unexpected meanings.  At the top of Sceaux's high street (rue Houdan), among many other delicatessens, is a wine shop called le Repaire de Bacchus. I have not seen the word 'repair' used in this sense as a noun in English, but only a verb.... 'let us repair to the garden....', with the idea that repairing means to go to somewhere safe, quiet, delightful.  That is in addition to the usual meaning of mending, where of course we can have 'a repair'.  The second word is 'fast', which again has many meanings in English - but here in French it is used in the plural (les fastes) to mean 'luxury, extravagance, richness', quite the opposite of  'going without', or 'fasting' as in 'the Lenten fast'.  I have seen 'le faste' twice now, once at the chateau of Sceaux, and once in a rather enticing book about places to visit in Paris. The book is called Metronome illustré, and is based round various underground stations to give you a detailed guide to the history of the capital. My only criticism is that it's too darn big to lug around with you, but we'll take some notes and see what we can find.

It's somehow surprising to find a chateau so close to the centre of Paris, still sitting in its huge park complete with avenues, canals, lakes, forests, vistas and so on. Everyone has heard of Versailles, and this is smaller but very lovely and thought provoking. It has a newish area of topiary laid out, which is interesting to see because of course while we are used to seeing topiary gardens in their maturity grandeur, the people who commissioned these palaces and gardens would have seen their topiary in its hilarious infancy with tiny little twigs being trained into cones and baubles.

The chateau houses the museum of the Ile-de-France and so has a regional responsibility for cultural displays for the whole of Paris. The ceramic displays are fascinating - covering the many potteries which produced fine and domestic wares in the Paris locality and - my goodness! - some of it is utterly wonderful, with sculptures, figures, ornaments, services, and decorated china of great beauty. There is also a set of more domestic plates with printed illustrations worthy of Punch magazine, extolling the royal virtues of various vegetables, which are elevated onto comic characters parading around in amusing activities. That is a permanent exhibition.

The temporary exhibition at the moment is of works by Picasso - drawings and paintings and some assemblages from the 30s, many never exhibited before. The theme is 'nature' and includes some amusing cartoons of animals, some 'sur l'herbe' studies (musicians, naked women), a very nice little mountain landscape, studies around the theme of a woman at a table with a vase of flowers, and a few  roofscapes.  It's a charming show, well curated with extensive notes and a fine book to accompany the show.  It's interesting to see how he understood the construction of things - partly through his ways of disassembling them in the drawings. There are some oils paintings, and several mixed media works - crayon, aquatint, linocuts, etc.  I particularly liked a couple of assemblages made on framed canvases, with collages of objects which he then covered with stained sand. One of these was made on the back of a framed canvas so that the frame has become a kind of container. It has a tiny figure of a woman sitting on a bench in one corner. I have never seen anything quite like this before, with this scratchy tarry-looking moonscapey surface. Very interesting.

The staffing levels of the chateau are slightly eye-boggling especially considering the punitive laws for employment in France. In effect no-one can ever be sacked.  Whole businesses go under because the owners can't rationalise their staffing levels.   But (as we saw in Greece a few years ago) museums are very highly staffed.  I don't know how many staff we counted in what is really a small area - no more than eight or so public rooms. A man to check your bags by the door. A man in the left luggage. A man to sell tickets. Three ladies in the shop. About five guys patrolling the exhibits.  And outside (staff or contractors, I have no idea) a large gang of guys trimming the older sweeps of topiary - at least a dozen of them.  The ladies in the shop were very helpful and kind. The guys sitting and standing in the rooms (all black, by the way) looked bored out of their heads.  Outside, it was very cold dark wet and windy.  We came home to Nathalie's flat with a copy of the Picasso book, some postcards and bits.

The rue de Houdan was glorious with its food shops and Christmas window displays, many with animated animals nodding and waving to catch your attention.  We did a little shopping, had fruit tea (and an iceream to the astonishment of the waiter), and then came back to eat a superb cold seafood supper bought earlier in the day.

Wednesday, 13 December 2017


We are spending a few days in Paris as the guests of Nathalie Banaigs who lives half the time in Faversham and half the time in Sceaux, where she grew up in the southern outskirts of the French capital. We were driven to Ashford International Station by our friend Debbie Lawther who does a very useful taxi service in return for use the car during the owner's absence. Saves the car parking fees.   The day was superbly bright and clear. The landscape was shining and radiant with a pearly dusty quality, absolutely mesmerising.  The Eurostar was late in arriving, and the train itself so shabby, rusty-looking and worn out.  We remember how marvellous it all was just a few years ago when it started. Like the whole European project, we are disillusioned now. It no longer looks so attractive and the experience of travel to the continent is all a bit squalid. We learned that the new trains which are available cannot use Ashford Station, only Ebbsfleet. These trains have wifi and gloss, but we will have to wait a year or so till we can access them at Ashford.
Nonetheless, the seats are quite comfortable. The ride is quiet. You can - just - see daylight out of the filthy windows, and so we caught snatches of the magnificent sky, and then we plunged into the tunnel. A baby nearby was howling with tiredness, and it was half an hour before he settled down to sleep.  We emerged in France as the dusk cloaked everything in darkness.
There was - not surprisingly - some sort of strike on the metro in Paris, so at the Gare du Nord we plunged into the crowds expecting chaos and trouble, but it was remarkably good tempered. It was noticeable that people look somehow less stressed than their counterparts in London. Down and down we went, tracking our way to the RER deep level platforms. Everything was brightly lit. The adverts show impossibly beautiful seminaked women, with the text extolling their spiritual qualities, while they model the tiny necklace or vest or invisible perfume, and the people rush past muffled up in their puffer jackets, scarves, hats, gloves....
On the platform we were in a remarkable tumult of confusion.  Apparently far fewer trains were running but those which were flashed up onto the signboards but with unreliable information - the platform, the destination, the times....    A young official was helping to push commuters into the carriages as they do in Japan, and he was hurling information out as a kind of waterfall of speech, while simultaneously covering the little loudspeaker on his chest which was sending him the information he needed to direct people to the right platform. Thank god we had Nathalie with us. It was practically impossible to find out what was going on. She could see the trains were on the wrong platforms, going in the wrong directions, with wrong stops advertised on their itineraries. We went back up a level to try another platform, but then returned to our original spot.  A train was waiting, destination Robinson!  That was our train, rapidly filling up.
As we got on, a man sprang from his seat and insisted I take it. I am OLD!  Later, someone gave his place to Andrew, for he too is OLD.   The train took us out through the centre of Paris - Chatelet, St Michel, southwards and out to Sceaux.
We emerged into a quiet, elegant residential area which reminded me of Swiss Cottage in the old days. We dragged our cases and bags through the streets, past the old walls and gardens of the 19th century villas, and then up into the centre.   We got some cash, some milk, and then came up into this tiny apartment in its tidy block.  There's a large terrace, two rooms, k, b and loo.  Dumping everything, we went for crepes... I was given colouring pencils to complete a printed image on the menu paper, and the food was simple and welcome - ending with a pretty spectacular flambé for my dessert.
We walked on to a friend's house - artist Sophie Tandel - and were enchanted by her gallery/home filled with works - a paper hippopotamus, a 60's TV converted into a tableau of Star Trek, many African masks and carvings, ceramics, model ships, paintings, jewellery, feathers......   She lent us a heater and we set off home again.  An old woman lurched towards us, swathed in rags and cloaks, entirely bent over so her torso is parallel to the ground, and carrying many bags and bundles. She looked like something from a Victor Hugo novel, ancient and powerful, a lost person who has seen everything. I wished he 'good night' but I doubt she heard me.
We slept peacefully, and overnight the clear air was changed into a rainstorm. The sky was low and dark, the rain sleety and hard, the wind gusting. We went out this morning to find breakfast - hot chocolate and baguettes. Sceaux has some of the most enticing food shops I have ever seen. We will come back.

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

An erotic discovery

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


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


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

I recommend it.

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

The second reason will appeal to ladies.

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

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

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Hard facts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Obliteration, rediscovery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Thursday, 21 September 2017

The castle mentality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quite different things. 

Galician hospitality

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

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

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Romans. what they found and what they did

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sunday, 17 September 2017

To be a pilgrim

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Being rich and pally with God for a long long time.....

Here in Burgos in northern Spain, for about nine hundred years, the super-rich (kings, queens, constables, bishops, priests etc) had access to more or less unlimited wealth which they took from the poor. They spent this money on creating a church for themselves where they could display their money, power, holiness and taste, and show off to their friends and relations.

It was not a small regional project.

They scoured Europe for the very best architects, designers, sculptors, painters, carvers-in-wood, gilders and so on, and set them to work. They started in about 1221 and seem to have had the greater part done by about 1450 - maybe 1500.  This was while we (in England) were still marvelling at the concept of making houses out of brick.

The staircase incorporates designs by Michelangelo and was the model for the stairs in the Paris Opera 400 years later.

Door to the cloister - added in 15th/16th century to a 13th century arch

The result is one of the most extraordinary buildings in the world. And saying that in Spain which is stuffed full of huge cathedrals really is an accolade.

Not only does it knock your socks off in every direction, it also sends a powerful message about how things have been in the world for all of modern times, and how (I fear) they will be again.   Churches are for rich people.

They are display cases for vanity and power.  They use the attractive idea of glorifying god as a channel to divert people's attention away from what is really going on.  It is where the pious and impious rich can arrange to have their bodies interred (viz every parish church in England).

Not one but two towers surmounted by vaulted glazed ceilings

Chapels made for queens, kings, bishops, their families, and friends... all with glorious ceilings and all very early
Burgos is a supreme example of how to do it. When you see the acres of exquisite carving, the lavish use of gold, the beauties of the design and the astonishing uplifting serenity and excitement of how it's all laid out, you also know that no peasant would really have been welcome in such a place. I really wonder if any ordinary outsiders were ever allowed in (until modern tourism sanctioned by UNESCO was invented. Thank you, that will be 6€ to come in).

So, it was a strolling ground for princesses and courtiers. It was a place where lords and kings plotted which aristocratic or royal female child would be sold off to which aggrandising aristo. It was where god slotted in nicely thank you, to keep it all going.

Just look at it.

As a matter of interest, the medieval lord known as El Cid is buried here, somewhere.

There are dozens and dozens of wonderful paintings now displayed in the Museum, where hoi polloi like me can wander round and look. The commentary on the headphones is not bad but enunciated in a ghastly pious sing-song voice by two presenters (m and f) who alternate. This undoubtedly pleased the patrons (clergy) who commissioned it all but left me feeling very squeamish. There are many beautiful madonna-with-child images, and I also liked the arrangement of all the legs in this rather violent painting. I feel the artist reckoned he could do a good leg and persuaded a patron to let him get on with it.