Category Archives: Travel log

Cinco Villas

IMG_0253The quiet nature of the Cinco Villas (Five Towns) in the Zaragozan Pyrenees is a far cry from their turbulent pasts. Major battles were fought to remove the Moorish domination.

And when they weren’t fighting the Moors, they were fighting with neighbouring Navarre. To reach this area you have to be prepared to travel narrow country roads through a mountainous landscape.




The village of Biel sits in thick forest.  It was shrouded in rain and appeared deserted, except for two locals having a smoke outside a small taverna. Our cheerful ‘Hola!’ as we passed them received a grunted response.

The theme tune from ‘Deliverance’ started playing quietly in my head as I surveyed the timber walls covered with mounted horns, tusks and heads of various deer and wild boar, their lifelike glassy eyes staring steadily at the scene. The bar tender was as phlegmatic as locals, who had slipped into the taverna observe the excitement…two strangers in town. When we left, they went back outside to have another smoke.

IMG_0252We passed through Uncastillo, Sabada, Sos del Rey Catolico and Castiliscar. Each village was located on a hill, reflecting the turbulent times in which they were built (it has been calculated there was one for every 50 square kilometres).

Towers, fortified walls, narrow stone bridges and cobbled streets combine to create an atmosphere of the past living in the present.









Leon is a charming, mid-sized city with a strong Medieval history (and a Gaudi designed bank, one of only three buildings he did outside of his home province). The bank was sponsoring an exhibition of paintings of local landmarks – and our place featured frequently. It is not uncommon for banks to support art, and entry is free.

As it turned out, our beautifully refurbished, medieval era apartment in the old barrio on the Plaza Santa Maria is a popular subject for painting and photography. The cobbled plaza had several bars, two enormous trees and was a popular spot.  It turned into a party place in anticipation of a win against the Netherlands in the World Cup. The 5-1 defeat left a sense of mourning in the atmosphere as everyone evaporated into the night with the national colours. 



From one end to the other

Our travels have seen us cross the course of the longest river in the country several times, and taken us to the four furthermost points of the country.







The Rio Ebro rises in springs at Fontibre near Reinosa and empties into the Mediterranean over 900km away. A small monument to the Virgen del Pilar of Saragossa, including the shields of the provinces the river travels through, stands on natural stone in the water near the embankment from which the river emerges. Its rather special to drink from the source of a river. A lovely forest setting invites walking.






Tarifa in the south of Andalucia, is close enough to Africa for the Morrocan coastline to be visible as a the yellow haze on the horizon.

The Cap de Creus lighthouse in Catalonia is the easternmost point. It is reached by a narrow road that winds its way through a rocky landscape torn and battered by storms and waves. Little grows here. The environment is too harsh.


IMG_1704The lighthouse at Punta de la Estaca de Bares on a wild and mountainous coastline in Galicia, is the northernmost point. The swell of a deep blue sea surges up and boils over the rocky shore far below. There are no landing points for miles along this coastline – which also has southern Europe’s highest sea cliffs (600m) at the Garita de Herbeira. A stone chapel, surrounded by a low stone wall, shoulders itself against the winds which rip up the cliff face. Wild horses, each mare closely followed by her foal, warily crop the stony pasture surrounding the chapel.


The Cabo de Fisterra lighthouse, also in Galicia, is the westernmost point.  Fisterra is also the end point of one of the many caminos to Santiago de Compostela. IMG_1721A bronze boot, to mark the end of the journey, is cemented to the rock. There were two boots, but one was stolen. IMG_1727Unfortunately, the area is not treated with respect by travellers: abandoned walking poles and boots are stacked at the bottom of a crucifix; plastic water bottles, blowing litter and residue from fires lit among the rocks mar the landscape. The 7km round walk from the fishing village of Fisterra to the lighthouse was a great way to build up a pre-dinner appetite and to exchange words with pilgrims from across the world.



Magnificent caves are part of the long human history of Spain. Prehistoric man left amazing cave paintings in Altamira, Cantabria (which has 6500 caves in total). These caves are now closed to the public, because the works were being degraded by the change in humidity caused by the hordes of visitors. Reproductions of the caves have been created in several museums. Impressive.

The Cueva El Soplao in Cantabria is considered unique for the quality and quantity of geological formations in its 17 miles length, 6 of which have been open to the public since 2005. In its galleries are formations such as helíctites (eccentric stalactites defying gravity – they head off in all  directions); curtains (draperies, or sheets of calcite, sometimes translucent, hanging from the ceiling); flowstones, columns and cave pearls. Amber deposits dating back to the Lower Cretaceous period were found only as recently as 2008. An exhibition of fossilised microorganisms includes insects and other arthropods, spiders’ webs, leaves and pollen. Its extraordinary, quite unlike any cave I’ve visited before. IMG_1666







Quite different is Cueva Valporquero in Leon. At a height of 1308m, the cave is reached via a switchback road that ascends from a deep ravine in the Cantabrian Mountains. The cave is described as an underground cathedral with its stalagmites, stalactites, flowstone and columns. The Gran Via is 200m long and 30m high. The Great Rotonda has 100,000 sam of space. A river which flows through the cave, and slow drips of water forming on the stalactites continue the creation of this colossal underground space. Up until the mid 60s, the cave mouth was used to shelter sheep, until some speleologists started tootling around and found what was hidden within.

On foot …

To really appreciate Spain, I believe you need to spend time on foot – and not only gambolling  through Elysian fields. A camino is as much about the journey as it is about reaching the destination.

IMG_1628A few kilometres from Cabezon de la Sal in Cantabria, we enjoyed a rural mountain wander.  A 10km walk with a 620m ascent in the hills outside Renedo.  The area is criss-crossed with walks and generously populated with free-roaming cattle and horses, meaning that the walk required you to keep your eyes on the trail even more than the view. I am responsible for making the hills ring with the echoes of  “cooee”. Just to check how wide and deep the valleys were. and there was no-one else around.

By way of contrast, a 12km urban industrial trudge from Santurzi to Bilbao in the Basque country, following the Rio de Nervion o de Bilbao. It is warehousing and wharves the whole way. Piles of rope, chain, containers and crushed rock decorated the waterfront. Weeds press ed their way through cracks in the concrete. We followed the wharves as closely as possible, stopping for a snack in a couple of small bars where the bar tender knew everybody’s names except ours. Small apartment blocks interspersed among small factories and warehousing were embodiments of drear. Laundry sagged miserably on clothes lines attached below windows. The grey rain ensured nothing would be dry. I knew the ponchos that survived the Winter Solstice storm at Stonehenge would come into their own again! A delightful lunch in a great find restaurant: off the tourist track, full of Spaniards, are you willing to wait 20 minutes? sort of place. All these things are sure fire indicators of good food and good value. The bonus was a long conversation with a charming elderly Spanish couple at the table next to us.

And for something completely different – a walk to a shepherd’s cottage at the foot of a cliffIMG_1692 face which overshadows the tiny pueblo (yes, yet another one) of Cubillas de Arbas in Castilla y Leon.

Getting to the pueblo was an adventure in itself: snow depth poles (two metres) marked the entire distance of the single vehicle road that meandered across the landscape; one pueblo parks its snow plow in the middle of its only roundabout (how’s that for an installation?); everyone had to wait for a cow to get off the road in the middle of an even tinier pueblo on the way to Cubillas (just how close can you tailgate a swinging udder?); we had to hit the brakes when a large dog launched itself off an embankment into the middle of the road – then stopped and looked at us; and – finally -what about the flock of sheep (bells ringing) that tootled through?

IMG_1684Cubillas is so small none of the calles are named. Our hotel didn’t have an address.  Our conversation with a couple of elderly locals reached our host, who came and found us.

IMG_1696Yes – the place is that small. And the walk? After a hearty country lunch, climbing the church bell tower and ringing the bell – just a teeny dong (naughty me), the climb up and over ancient drystone walls and across several streams, the view across the river plain to the distant hills was spectacular.


On top of the world

IMG_1646Potes (yet another medieval village, population 1470) in southern Cantabria, sits in a verdant valley, straddling the Rio Deva and the Rio Quiviesa. In the heart of the town is a cluster of stone bridges, beautifully restored traditional slate homes and towers. You can walk around the entire town three times in an hour.  This we did (including walking along the Rio Deva passing under all the bridges), before choosing a small restaurant where we had a very hearty country meal. The plato por dos (plate for two) had enough cuts of meat  and assorted locally made sausages to satisfy four.

IMG_1650Fuente De, in the Picos de Europa mountain range, is a mere 25km from Potes. At an altitude already above 884m, the valley floor is verdant and the lower slopes of the mountains are covered with forest. A thick blanket of cloud obscured the view of the upper mountain slopes.

It is not until you take a cable car that pierces the clouds as it ascends 753m along a cable with a length of 1,640m do you get to appreciate the rugged mountain peaks. A waterfall cascades silently over a cliff face, dropping 200m before hitting rocks below.

IMG_1656Once you reach the Mirador del Cable (at 1926m) you enter a landscape of bare, broken shale, mountain pastures and scattered patches of snow. The brilliant blue sky contrasted hugely with the cloud-and-rain shrouded valley, invisible below. The area is cross-crossed with serious walks, and we followed one trail for about and hour and a half  (taking us away from tourists who tended not to venture more than 100m from the stepping off point) before turning back.







We were privileged to see rebeco (wild chamois), one sunning itself on a snowfield and another on a shelf just above us.  There is a 4WD track up to the mirador, but the surface is loose and the edge drops steeply away. Park rangers (all kitted out with abseiling equipment) drove very carefully.

Over and under and through the mountains

A wild and rugged mountain range stretches across northern central Spain. There are few north/south roads. Those that exist meander up and down steep slopes to traverse Los Puertos (high passes) that are cut by snow during the winter; follow the wild courses of rivers at the bottom of deep, narrow canyons;  or burrow several kilometres through the mountains. All are feats of engineering.

The Puerto de Piedrasluenga (1355m), Puerto del Ponton (1260m) and Puerto de San Isidro (1520m) each provided spectacular driving experiences. Furthermore, with the roads’ gradients ranging between 6% and 12%, patience was essential. If you’re stuck behind a truck – enjoy the view. If you have a truck on your tail, hope there’s a safe braking distance!

IMG_1662The road trips along the wild rivers required also required nerves of steel. Blocks of stone occasionally marked the edge between the narrow road and a many metre drop into the rivers tumbling over rocks. Quite a number of the blocks had gone over the side. Then there were the cliffs overhanging the road where it had to be cut into the rock face. A light truck could suffer roof damage. Where cliffs had to be cut into to make way for the road, steel netting was anchored into its face. Alternately, there are the signs warning drivers of falling rocks. Oh yeah – saw that one coming. There are no signs warning drivers about wandering wild goats.  Blaaaah!








Of special note was the drive along the Rio Gallego which cuts deep through ancient red rock, leaving towering murillos (walls). Riglos, a small pueblo sitting at the base of the rock wall, was dwarfed into insignificance, the looming rock pressing down upon it.

I found travelling through tunnels, which ranged from a few hundred metres to several kilometres, disconcerting. The thought of all that mountain above just didn’t work for me – exacerbated by the changing air pressure you can experience, particularly in the longer tunnels.



La Rioja

Logrono is the capital of the province of La Rioja…yes the place where all that marvellous red wine comes from…or rather the little that which is left over for export! Located in the north of the province, it is well placed for day trips through the countryside. And the countryside is magnificent.

IMG_1609But first – our apartment. Located in a new urbanisation of 4 to 5 storey apartment blocks on the edge of town, it meant the local supermercado was not close by. There was only one bar a couple of blocks away (not downstairs), and the view across the road included four cranes working on a new build. However, this ground level apartment had a courtyard garden … with two terrapins and a tortoise! And a herb and vegetable garden! Bliss…I could happily potter around, feed the beasties, and have fresh herbs to boot.

Our travels included in La rioja included a couple of villages and a drive through the Canyon Del Rio LezaSanto Domingo de la Calzada has a Medieval quarter, small town feel, Santiago-bound pilgrims and a live rooster and hen foraging in a glass fronted cage the crypt of the cathedral. Don’t ask. Zaldierna, normally has a population of 19, according to the owner of the sole taberna. However, come August, it fills when everyone comes home for the holiday season. It was a tiny little place, with an old stone bridge crossing a tiny stream. The ancient stone cottages were beautifully restored.

The Canyon Del Rio Leza was fabulous.  We travelled along quiet, winding country roads, alert to wandering livestock. Small herds of cattle graze in the high pastures – unfenced common land. Eagles, hawks and vultures soared overhead…and that’s when we came across a flock of vultures feeding on the carcass of a dead steer. Their pale grey feathers shivered in the breeze as they manoeuvred for best position. Although the road was about 30m from them, they abandoned the carcass, their feathers floating like pale capes as they half-hopped up the hill.  Several took off to silently soar in circles until we drove away.

Aragon and the Pyrenees

Huesca, in the foothills of the Aragonese Pyrenees, is our base for exploring the stone villages that populate a rugged landscape in which the highest mountains are permanently topped with snow.

IMG_0240Anso is a charming, grey stone medieval village. Located high in the foothills, it sits by a rushing river, surrounded by lush green forest and shrouded in misting rain. Each turn along the cobblestoned calles presented moss-covered archways or solid timber doors or small windows shuttered against the cold. Essentially deserted during our visit, the taciturn taverna owner grumbled that it gets overrun in the high season.

A trip along narrow, winding country roads led us to another gem: Alquezar. This medieval village is perched atop a high rocky outcrop around which a fast flowing river cuts its path. The face of the gorge is almost sheer to the river far below. Terraces dating back centuries cascade down steep hills, aged olive trees holding the drystone walls together. We decided to take advantage of one of the shorter walking trails (about 2km) which take you down to the valley floor.

IMG_1595The path was steep (note a theme here?), its eroded surface providing ample evidence that, in a rainstorm, runoff would become a torrent. The landscape flattened slightly when we reached an old stone bridge. It led to a path away from the river and provided a splendid view of a pebble-covered river bed. We wanted to get as close to the cliff base as possible, so decided to follow the river downstream. That’s when we discovered a number of stone cottages, still in use but not connected to IMG_1591power. Dense vegetation grew right down to the river’s edge, and several rock piles created small rapids. Eventually the rough path ran out, preventing us from reaching our desired walking point. And then there was the walk back – uphill.



Ainsa, a medieval fortress town, is located at the confluence of two rivers and is home toIMG_1603  Restaurant Callizo, renowned for its gastronomic innovation. The degustation ‘Earth Menu’  was a delicious theatrical experience, offering wonderful flavours, fabulous plating, good balance and a dash of humour in the titles (‘Nothing’, ‘Rockpool’, ‘You can even hear the sheep’s bells’).  The view of the mountains was pretty good too!

Pamplona via Lekunberri

IMG_1560Our journey to Pamplona (where the running of the bulls occurs) brought an isolated monastery at Lekunberri to our attention.

We found ourselves in a tiny hamlet at the end of a road and at a loss when one of the residents pulled in with her groceries. We explained our situation and she insisted on inviting us into her home to help us find our destination on Googlemaps. The farmhouse was some 300 years old, made of thick stone walls, with timber beams, low doorways and solid wooden furniture. It felt like you were stepping back in time. The kitchen was dominated by a canopied stone hearth, large enough to accommodate two chairs placed within it next to the open fire. On one of the chairs sat a tiny, spry woman of 92 anos (declared with pride). Whilst her granddaughter fiddled with the internet, the old woman told us a shortcut to the monastery. Local knowledge 1: Googlemaps 0. They decided “Australia es muy lecco” (very far).

Built of local grey stone, the monastery sits on an exposed and sparsely vegetated IMG_1555mountaintop. The view through misty rain of the valley and distant mountains was splendid. An icy wind swept over the landscape, penetrating every corner of the chapel, cafeteria and, I wouldn’t be surprised, the hostaleria used for retreats. The original well, located in a stone domed building beside the chapel, holds water.

IMG_0235A life-sized bronze installation of two runners being chased by a bull made sure we knew we were in Pamplona. Our hotel offered none of the privations of the monastery, I am pleased to say, and our room afforded us a fabulous view of a ferocious thunderstorm crackling and rumbling across the countryside.  We later entered the old town – more rampant bronze bulls – and visited the Museo de Navarra which has a magnificent collection of huge Roman mosaics. On one hand, it’s a shame they have been removed from their original setting, but on the other, it means they are preserved and kept safe from the picking fingers of trophy hunters.

Go slowly and experience more

You can speed around Spain at 120 kms an hour on the autovias. Splendid freeways with marvellously cambered spaghetti intersections that bypass every town along the way. Fly through tunnels cut deep into the living rock, skim across viaducts that gracefully swoop over valleys, the bright blue guardrails exactly at eye height ensuring you miss the magnificent view below.

Or you can choose to avoid main roads … and see rural Spain, wandering livestock (farms are rarely fenced – a single strip of white tape stretched between widely spaced sticks is about as far as it goes), small pueblos (villages), crumbling farmhouses, rolling fields of grain, industrial wastelands interspersed with urban developments and vegetable gardens, temperate forests, eucalyptus forests, pine forests,  following the contour lines of a wild and rugged mountain chain, hearing rushing rivers when you cross an old stone bridge or drive upstream in order to cross the mountains. These roads are narrow, often degraded, full of hairpin bends … and WOW! moments at 30 to 50kms an hour.

We chose the slow roads.



Road trip across the North – Day One

Many of the remote places we want to visit in the northern provinces of Spain are only accessible by car.  We booked a vehicle with Europcar and anticipated a smooth departure from San Sebastian.

Unfortunately the boot of our vehicle wasn’t big enough to contain our luggage. We had to put our day bags on the back passenger floor, an undesirable option. We spied another Europcar vehicle in their basement carpark, with a bigger boot, and decided to see if it was available for lease.  As we approached the customer service officer to inquire about making a swap, another customer arrived to collect it  – having just leased it. Was he willing to swap vehicles? As a solo traveller with a small backpack and only needing a vehicle for a few days Stuart was happy to accommodate us. The customer service officer nearly collapsed with anxiety at the thought of us swapping vehicles!  She seemed to think that we were just going to swap keys and head off! No! No! There is first the paperwork that has to be done all over again! We reassured her that we all understood the paperwork had to be done and yes, it would take time.

We removed our luggage from the original vehicle, ready to stuff it into the other. In the meantime Stewart, an American specialist in linguistics (he reads 10 languages) was thrilled to be speaking English and to share, with a new audience of two, the hypothesis that all languages come from a single original language, and that Finnish is the closest surviving language to the original. A pleasant half hour passed, paper work was completed, keys swapped, a Tomtom was issued and we bade farewell.

Given our unhappy experience with an outdated (by 27months) Tomtom on the previous road trip, we checked to see if the one we had been issued was current and operable. It wouldn’t even switch on. Less than happy, I returned up to the office and requested it be changed “No funcionar!”  The customer service officer tried (and failed) to convince me that it only needed charging. New Tomtom in hand I returned to the vehicle, plugged the thing in, punched in our next address and all was good. At which point I went to get travel sweets out of my cabin bag and realised it wasn’t where I thought it was. In fact, it wasn’t in the car at all! It was on the back floor of Stuart’s car, heading north. My heart sank – my documents wallet was in the bag!

Back up to the office I bolted, pallid and nauseous at the prospect of dealing with lost documents. I saw the customer service officer’s face fall as I entered. However, once I explained the ‘disastre’, she sprang into action. Stuart’s contact number was in the USA, so they rang that, received a mobile number, and contacted him. Half an hour later he was in the office with my bag – which he found under the passenger seat.

Back down to the basement carpark I go, wobbly with relief and departed San Sebastian without further drama.

The experience was a timely reminder about what can happen when you get distracted in transit with luggage.



The Wind Combs

IMG_1552Three massive rusting sculptures are located on the rocky foreshore of San Sebastian, at the foot of the cliffs of Monte Igeldo Mendia. Called the Wind Combs, they are intended to show the influence of the elements on the iron, as well as play with the wind, the waves and the sea spray in winter.

An area at the foot of the cliffs has been cleverly terraced to allow the sea to rush through the natural tumble of rocks under it. The result is that wind and sea spray can power through and up rows of carefully placed slits in the terracing. Not a place you’d want to be on a wild winter’s day. On the day of our visit it was a time to “tomar el sol” (take the sun).

A museum in every town

San Sebastian is well positioned for day trips to tiny towns, and it seems that every town has its very own museo dedicated to something special in their district .

IMG_0230 IMG_0229








Getaria, the birthplace of Valenciaga, a  trendsetter and perfectionist in the rarified realm of haute couture for over half a century, has an amazing modern building that was specially designed and built to display his influence on fashion. When you see the careful cut and drape of fabric to achieve a perfect fit, or to trick the eye into seeing the wearer’s neck as longer or her waist slimmer, exquisite fabrics and embellishments – requiring hours of painstaking stitches to create a unique garment –  you see the results of a master at work.

Ordizia has a gastronomy museum in a lovely old building. Our understanding of ‘gastronomy’ and the museum’s interpretation of ‘gastronomy’ differed. We had imagined ‘haute cuisine’ – or at least a history of regional foods and specialities.  If I had a primary to lower secondary school group I’d be taking them to a great little education centre for learning about food production, healthy eating and a healthy lifestyle.

IMG_1545Tolosa has two museums: one, ‘Topic’, is dedicated to puppetry from around the world, and it offers studies in the art of puppetry (printed information was available in Spanish and English); the other is dedicated to cakes, confectionary and candles (!!). The latter had an extraordinary collection of equipment, many pieces of which only made sense once the guide explained everything (in Spanish).

IMG_1532 IMG_1538Hondarrabia is a museum! This lovely little medieval town (ancient stone houses, narrow twisting lanes and geraniums on balconies) is a delight to amble through. It is separated from France (neat, white holiday homes and pleasure boats bobbing in the marina) by the narrow Rio Bidasoa. However, unless you can sail into Hondarrabia, which would be a very picturesque approach, you have to pass an ugly regional airport and a major railway terminus which includes a railway bridge to France. Such contrasts are common throughout Spain.

San Sebastian – a pretty city

San Sebastian is located on a beautiful bay IMG_1521
with about 4kms of high-walled seafront
promenade along the Playa de la Concha and the Playa de Ondaretta. The high-walled Rio Urumea makes for pleasant walking too. The walls make sense when the tide goes out – a daily tidal variation of some two metres. When the tide turns, the depth of the water changes very rapidly and most of the beach disappears.


The Isla de Santa Clara gets its own tiny beach when the tide is out.

Steep hills surround the bay, making for Monte Igueldo at 800m makes for a challenging walk if you don’t use the funicular. The views are superb!

The wealth of the city is reflected in stately buildings, tree-lined boulevards, manicured gardens, public sculpture and very few empty retail spaces. The financial crisis is not apparent here – very high end stores have substantial retail space. People are fashionably dressed (from elderly couples – the hombres always in a suit and tie, the senoras carefully coifed and suited up – through to  families with their children looking like they’re off to a fashion shoot); and the bars and restaurants are mostly filled with local families having a good time.

San Sebastian (Donostia) – the Basque country

People wax lyrical about the delights of this northern coastal town, a former holiday destination of Spanish royalty and now a popular holiday  destination for Spanish, French and German tourists. “You have to see the playas (beaches) and the pintxos (artistic mouthfuls of food, usually on top of a slice of crusty bread, which you have with drinks) are wonderful!”


The definition of a beach in Spain seems to be any patch of sand that appears at low tide and is a couple of metres in length. I mustn’t be unkind, but my experience of kilometres of untouched white or golden sand in Australia causes me to smile at how elastic a definition can be. In fact, the main beach at San Sebastian would not exist except for the massive dredge which pumps tonnes of grey sandy sludge from the bottom of the bay, spewing onto the shoreline so that bulldozers can spread it around in time for each summer season.

Donostia has a huge food culture.  The pintxos, a feast for the eyes and the palate,  looked interesting – and they had prices to match. It was a bit of a shock to the pocket, having coming from southern provinces where a tapa (pintxo) is served free with a drink. The other surprise was that all the platters of pintxos were on the bar, unrefrigerated (we’re talking about Russian salad, chicken, fish, prawns, scallops and octopus and everything else here), and therefore exposed to coughs and splutters and snorks. After our first encounter with pintxos we gave them a miss for the rest of our stay.

The Salvador Dali Triangle

You’ve heard of the Bermuda Triangle? I put to you that the Salvador Dali Triangle is way more weird than that!

IMG_1491The Triangle includes Figueres, Dali’s birthplace and the location of the Teatre-Museu Dali, a confounding building to move around – let alone understand many of the works within;





Portlligat, a tiny fishing village where he lived and painted for nearly 50 years (and boasted that he was the first person to see the dawn each day in Spain, without having to get out of bed – he used a carefully angled mirror);












and the Castell de Pubol, northeast of Girona, where IMG_1506his wife and muse Gala spent her last
years and now lies in a crypt surrounded by giraffe-legged elephants (as one does).


Goya – Zaragosan artist

Zaragosa, located on the Rio Ebro (Spain’s largest river), is the capital of Aragon.

The Aragonese government functions out of the Aljaferia Castle (on a hill, accessed by its original bridge, surrounded by a massive moat – the bottom of which is covered in neatly trimmed lawn). IMG_1519It is a former Moorish Palace built in the 11th century. Beautiful coffered ceilings, fine columns and delicate plasterwork surround a light-filled central courtyard. The modern seat of power located in a former seat of power.


At the other end of the construction spectrum, the narrowest build in town forms part of our apartment – and included a balcony! The orange facade is four storeys squeezed in between two apartment blocks.









We’re in this city for the art of Goya, the famous son of Zaragosa.

The Museo de Zaragosa has a superb of his paintings, of whose work I knew La maja vestida and La maja desnuda (the young lady dressed and the young lady undressed). Of his etchings I knew little, and this museo has a vast collection. The etchings capturing the horrors of war were particularly disturbing. The works are superbly curated.

The museum also has a superb collection of Roman mosaics. Whilst it may seem preferable that mosaics be left ‘in situ’, the reality is that protecting them from theft and the elements is very costly. Curating the mosaics in a museum means that more people can have access to appreciate them. Groups of all ages from cute little six year-olds in their coverall pinnies, dutifully holding hands, through to too-cool-to-be-interested teenagers, and groups of Spanish travellers, populate museums and art galleries across the country, hearing earnest presentations about artists and their works.

We were also fortunate to be able to view two temporary exhibitions: Origami and cartoons. It was the first time a number of the amazing origami pieces had left Japan in decades. The cartoon art – comic book style works – made scathing commentary on social issues. Trying to manage an adequate translation was often difficult, because idiomatic expressions tend to lose something in translation.




Cuenca – hanging off the cliffs

As you travel around Spain, you cannot fail but to appreciate how the landscape determined locations of towns and cities. IMG_1407IMG_1410Cuenca, in Castilla-La Mancha, is a medieval town located on the hill between two deep gorges of the Rios Jucar and Huecar that surround the town. Access to Cuenca was via a heavily defended bridge (dog-leg entry easily covered by archers) or through the castle wall (again a dog-leg entry) which stretched from river to river.


Ancient (14th century) houses still cling to the cliff walls, their timber balconies jutting out precariously over the steep defile. A wander through the narrow, winding streets transports you back in time.IMG_1408


Atop a high peak overlooking old and new Cuenca stands a statue of Christ, accessed by a steep pilgrim trail along which one may observe the Stations of the Cross. Those less personally committed to reaching the top can drive up a back road…but where’s the satisfaction in that?

There’s a serious food culture in Cuenca, and if you happen to be passing through, try Bien Porteno for its great food and staff.


Lleida surrounds the foot of an impressive defensive fortress-church built on the only hill on a plain covered by orchards. You can see the fortification from kilometres away, as would have the various armies which waged war in this part of Catalonia. (Unfortunately Lleida had the misfortune of backing the losing side in nearly every battle.)

IMG_1452The cathedral La Seu Vella was built on the site of a former mosque. As you look around you see  Romanesque pillars, Gothic vaults and Arabic elements, creating a space filled with space and light, and all of which remind remind you of its long and rich history.

Roman ruins and stunning street art

Cartagena, a port on the lower-eastern corner of Murcia, is renowned for its Roman and Carthaginian ruins. The irony is that the modern city itself in many ways is a ruin as well. Much of the old city has fallen into decay, literally, but the facades of many of the buildings remain – a city of bones. Some of the old buildings have been completely demolished, revealing monumental ruins of antiquity and keeping archaeologists very busy.











A 21st century twist to this ancient city is that street art is encouraged and widespread. You may take a  turn around any corner and be confronted by a four-storey high piece of street art.



A coastline wrapped in plastic!

No – it’s not refuse, but I wasn’t expecting to see plastic-covered hothouses covering scores of square kilometres of land stretching from the hills down to the coastline between Malaga and Cartagena. In some areas the plastic had totally degraded, resulting in great, long, ragged strips of the stuff fluttering like shrouds on the wood-framed skeletons of the hothouses.

We have a hire car for the next 10 days for our trip north. This means we can see places that are difficult to access by bus or train. Unfortunately the hire car did not come with integrated satellite navigation as requested and, by way of compensation, we were given an out-of-date Tomtom with no holding bracket, gratis. Free ticket to frustration!

We stopped off in Almeria, on the way to Cartagena. The Tomtom had a tendency to lag – telling us to turn just after we passed the required intersection. Spotting street names is often a challenge and, combining that difficulty with a lIMG_1376agging Tomtom, we circled the castle several times before we found the parking area.

The narrow calles (streets) of many Spanish towns means that many of them are one-way to deal with modern traffic. The consequence of this is that if you miss a turn, you often have to drive rift around the town again, in order to get back to the original turnoff that you require. Sigh – this was day one of the road trip!


Bullfight in Malaga

Bullfighting is synonymous with Spain. While it is not a nation-wide activity, and  it has declined in popularity in some regions and has been banned in others, it remains a significant cultural event in Andalusia. After much careful consideration, we bought tickets for the bullfight.  As it turned out, one of Spain’s leading matadors was in town for the event, along with lesser billed matadors. IMG_0219
A bullfight follows a particular sequence of events: the entrance of the bull, the picador, the banderilleros, and finally the matador (bullfighter). Many of the picadors’ horses were injured in the early days, so these heavy horses now wear protection. There is a distinct ritual to bullfighting, from preparing the arena, opening the event, releasing the animal, wearing it down by getting it to charge the cape again and again, and finally killing it.


Spectators applaud a swift kill and deride a messy kill. There was one messy kill and it was difficult to watch the animal initially collapse to the ground, then try to stagger back up on its legs, foam and blood pouring from its  mouth. The matador missed the vital strike point several times. He was booed for his shoddy efforts.IMG_1366

The program had six bulls, each animal presented being progressively heavier, their weights ranging from 450kg to 600kg. The first bull pretty much ignored all of the efforts to get it to move so, after a time, a small herd of Judas steers was released into the arena and the bull followed them back out into the holding pen. Its next stop would be the slaughterhouse.

The spectacle is impressive – particularly when a bull charges the cape closer and closer to the matador. Bulls only ever  face ‘the cape’ once. Security is maintained on the stud farms to ensure aspirant matadors do not practice the cape with a bull, and hence prepare the bull for the arena. The results for this event were: matadors 5, bulls 0.

Would I attend another bullfight? I really don’t know.

Semana Santa in Malaga

My first sight of a huge trono (‘throne’ or float) of a scene with a life-sized Christ carrying the Cross, borne on the shoulders of nearly 200 men, was breathtaking.

IMG_1275It had been preceded by two columns of hundreds of people wearing traditional penitential robes, pointed hoods covering the head except for the eyeholes, white gloves and carrying lit, metre-long, thick candles. Some chose to process barefoot. Then I heard the sound of a bell being struck and the trono  lurched into view around the corner, the men carrying it moving forward in unison – tightly pressed together, a support beam on one shoulder and the gloved hand of each man on the shoulder of the man in front. The strain of their burden showed plainly on their sweat-drenched faces, and they encouraged each other to keep moving, to keep their strength. Some wore blindfolds, meaning they could not see any progress (however small) in their journey.

IMG_1270Semana Santa (Holy Week) in Malaga was unlike anything I have experienced. Every day and night was different. Life in the city is utterly transformed to allow the processions of tronos to move around the city, preceded by long lines of penitents and accompanied by brass bands.   Occasionally an onlooker would break out into spontaneous saetas (flamenco verses in song) as a trono came near. Rose petals would shower down from balconies like red and pink clouds of butterfly wings. There was an air of gaiety and celebration, with special exuberance shown for favourite tronos


IMG_1339A complex timetable is published, collapsible seating lines the main streets (booked up months in advance), key streets are cordoned off, crowd barriers are erected and people start lining the streets hours before the processions start – and people whose apartments overlook a route have parties so their friends and family can have a wonderful view. There are 42 Confraternidades in Malaga, each of which has a throno of a scene from the Passion of Christ and a throno of Mary – always under a canopy. The processions begin at the home bases of each Confraternidad, (which may or may not be a church depending on the size of the church),  the consequence of which can mean the float bearers may carry their burden for up to 8 hours duration; no route was shorter than 6 hours duration; and up to three processions were moving around in the old city at any one time. 



Puig Galazo – Mallorca

Puig (Mount) Galazo, located on the west coast, is a challenging climb. The country lane leading to the beginning of the track is a challenge in itself!

IMG_0949 IMG_0953You turn off a small country road onto a narrow lane which initially traverses olive groves before entering forest and hugging steep slopes, bringing you to the car park at the foot of the climb. The lane has had little maintenance, is steep, and the further we travelled along it, the worse it became.  Loose stones, crumbled edges and potholes increased in frequency the further we drove – finally to be confronted by a massive, impassable washout in the middle of a really steep section just before the car park. There was absolutely no way forward and no space to turn around at that point.

Some 50 metres back down the lane there was a small section of solid level land that we hoped would afford us the opportunity to turn the car around – otherwise it would mean reversing an awfully long way. A hazard in itself. So – just how close to the edge of a drop do you risk going, when you hear the tyres scrabbling on loose stones trying to get purchase? Close enough! Breathe! Wait for pulses to return to normal!

The lower section of the climb wove steeply up through light forest which eventually opened out into low scrub. The higher we went, the more rocky the terrain, with the narrow dirt trails giving frequently way to paths of loose shattered stone and occasional rock clambers. If you don’t put your feet in the right place as you ascend you can get yourself stuck. We ascended one ridge line to enjoy a spectacular view of … fog. The entire island was shrouded in the stuff. The only visible sights were the ragged peaks of other mountains.  So we continued upwards anticipating that, as the day wore on, the fog would dissipate.

IMG_0951The trail continued to meander along the mountainside – rocks and shrubs on one side, precipitous drop on the other (why did I think doing this was a good idea I ask myself) for several hundred metres until we came to the rock slide. I’d been warned about this section but, until you see a 200 metre wide rock slide and know that you have no alternative but to cross it, you can’t really appreciate what you have to face.

The first thing you have to tell yourself is that the rock slide stopped moving a very long time ago. Just because it looks like its going to start moving down the hill again is irrational … until you step onto a large boulder, it wobbles and your heart leaps! Or your foot slips between rocks, throwing you off balance and making smaller rocks settle further down (back to heart leaping again).

Considerate hikers have placed small piles of stones on top of stationary boulders, marking out a crossing of sorts. So you leap and scrabble and wobble and keep moving and don’t think about the fact that you’re going to have to do it all again to return!

1638289_origIMG_0952And then you start going up again … rememberit’s all about the view … of more fog.

A bit about the Balearics

Mallorca, the largest of the Ballearic Islands, can be seen from one end to the other as the plane comes in to land. Rugged mountains fall away into the sea on the west coast, more mountains encircle two large bays to the north; a hill or two rise in the south east corner, and the rest of the island is a patchwork of tiny fields dotted with farmhouses, windmills and villages, all interlinked by a web of roads.


We’re here to catch up with friends, eat, drink and be merry! This requires tucking into a hearty slow roast shoulder of lamb (I went for rabbit) up in the hills outside of Soller, sharing paella on the waterfront at St Elm, arguing about the politics and crisis in Spain (the very busy high end stores IMG_0932suggest there’s money in Mallorca), driving to different spots on the island (what – you drove 50km today!) and climbing Puig Galazo.

The Ballearic Islands are a major holiday destination for Europeans seeking a week or two in the sun. English and German tourists predominate, and enjoy all-inclusive package deals provided by massive resorts that dot the coastline. They arrive in their thousands in August. In Mallorca Airport hundreds of check-in counters sit closed for now. Just like the resorts which shut down around the end of October and don’t reopen until Easter. The massive all-inclusive resorts which overwhelmed little fishing villages that once dotted the coastline are empty; and, just like the nearby restaurants and bars, everything is roller shuttered awaiting the next summer season.

Las Cuevas – cave dwellings

IMG_0926The hills of Granada, Guadix (a 45 minute bus ride away), and the surrounding country are peppered with man-made cave dwellings, hundreds of which are still inhabited.

Many cuevas in Granada are just outside outside the old wall to the east of the Albaicin. This was the area where the Gitanas (gypsies) lived; and many of their descendants still inhabit the area. The cuevas whitewashed exterior walls, sky blue doors and window shutters, and white ‘chimneys’  (necessary for ventilation) protruding from the ground, create a motley patchwork of shapes on the green hillside.

The Museo de la Mujer Gitana (Museum of the Gypsy Women) is a rambling former cave dwelling. Hand hewn from the sedimentary rock, its layout was designed to facilitate its purpose: i.e. sleeping areas deep inside, kitchen at the front where there is natural light. The exterior wall is plastered brick. The temperature of these homes is a steady 19 degrees C  year-round.  The cuevas in this area have had power and water laid in.

The forested mountain behind the Alhambra, we discovered when on a walk, is also peppered with cave dwellings. But these are small, crudely excavated, squalid places – and not readily visible unless you are close. The openings of some have been roughly bricked in, and small windows and doors installed; others have a piece of canvas to keep out the weather.

Water can be collected from any of several springs which gush from the rock face, then carried along very narrow tracks that meander across the mountainside. Slip, and it’s a long, steep tumble through open timber to the river far below. In wet weather the track would be treacherous. I don’t know who lives here, but I saw a group of people sitting around a smoky fire outside a cueva.

IMG_0928Guadix is famous for its cuevas. There are more than 2000 of them in the immediate vicinity of the town, still occupied by over 5000 people. The landscape looks bizarre – as though its covered by gigantic anthills. What is even more peculiar are the ‘hatted’ chimneys and TV aerials rising straight out of the ground. The houses are all curves and grassy slopes. It’s like visiting the Shire from The Hobbit ! It was a quiet day for the ticket seller at the Museo de las Cuevas, installed in a large cueva  above the town. She merrily chatted about life in the cuevas (but don’t call any cave dweller a troglodyte) and explained that life in these dwellings is difficult. The skills required to dig a cueva were shown in an excellent video presentation: the terrain has to be suitable for digging, not subject to flooding, ceilings have to have the right curvature (no beams are used).

The Alpujarra and three white villages

The Sierra Nevada mountains are filled with white villages.  Small, once remote settlements that now are working hard to survive by attracting ecotourists, hikers, people who want to get away to quieter places. Capileira, Bunol and Pampanera are three such villages dating back to pre-Moorish times.

IMG_0903The bus trip is not for the faint-hearted or those prone to travel sickness. Once the road starts the climb from the valley floor, it  becomes a narrow cut into the face of a very steep mountain: all hairpin bends, precipitous drops, sheer rock face and occasional signs advising drivers that the next 5km are subject to falling rocks. Fallen rock is scattered across the road’s surface. There is little or no shoulder, so when a truck approaches from the opposite direction, it means someone has to back up to enable safe passing. The vehicle on the straight part of the road does the reversing … disconcerting if your window seat happens to be on the side of the bus providing a magnificent view of the drop to the foot of the mountain. But there’s more! Leaving those considerations aside, it seems that nearly everyone on the bus knows the driver … and so sit at the front to have a running conversation with him! Aaagh

These three tiny villages tightly hug the steep slopes on which they are built – accessible via a very narrow trail – making them highly defensible. The calles (streets), most too narrow for vehicles, are steep and often feature flights of stairs. Bright planter pots contrast with the harsh countryside.IMG_0910








The ground seems to grow rock, and eaking out an existence would have been hard.  Kilometres of terraces, built for wheat production, surround the villages.  Winnowing was done on circular paved platforms built over rocky terrain. No arable land was wasted.The snow covered heights of nearby mountains remind you to just how cold and isolated these places would have been in winter, and the smell of woodsmoke drifted on the chill breeze.IMG_0908 

It’s 13km by road from Pampanera (already half way up the mountain), through Bunol to Capileira (near the top at 1200m). A series of tight corners  – negotiated with oncoming traffic – finally ends in a small plaza. We wanted to walk between the three villages, so asked at a bar (filled with German motorcyclists) and were told how to find the old pilgrim trail, only 4km long, that winds its way down the mountainside. It was a wonderful downhill ramble along a narrow, muddy trail that brought us into a sun filled plaza – a clever cat knew where to avoid the icy wind!


Los Cahorros – a walk in the mountains

Granada’s location in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountain range puts plenty of day hikes a bus ride away.

Monachil, a small village at the end of the line where the bus driver executes a very neat about-face in the tiny plaza, is the gateway to Los Cahorros, a narrow chasm through which a fast flowing river cuts its path. The main road through the town, and to the beginning of the trail, was covered with small pellets.








Cable and timber plank suspension bridges (no more than four persons at a time), sway perilously high above the torrent as you make your way to the serious beginning of the trail. The odd missing plank adds to the sense of adventure. Part of the trail is atop a water pipe which supplies Granada; much of the trail is bordered by massive blackberry bushes which scratch and hook into your clothing; some of it is narrow goat track; and other parts require a firm grip of D-handles fixed into the rock face as one edges along a narrow ledge a few meters above the rocky water course.

The trouble with this sort of hiking is that you get to a point where going back isn’t really an option. You know you’ve done some challenging parts and so trust that you’ve got it in you to overcome the next challenge … even if it is under a rock overhang, along a narrow ledge, on your hands and knees!

Choosing to do a round trip means your return journey is across very steep, dry, hill country covered with gnarled olive trees. By way of contrast, tiny spring wildflowers
provided patches of colour in grassy vales.

An apiarist had placed some twenty beehives in one such vale. He was suitably covered,  smoking his hives and gathering honey. The hives were not too close to the rough road, but close enough for a few bees to be buzzing around. One flew into my hair. I wasn’t impressed and neither was the bee. The sound of an agitated bee, caught in your hair, buzzing angrily near your ear is very disconcerting. After seemingly interminable seconds it flew out … then did a u-turn, flew back into my hair and stung me on the top of my head! Well … now I knew where it was! I’d never been stung by a bee and was worried at how severe a reaction I might have to the sting. Although we managed to rapidly remove the barb, I had visions of a huge lump manifesting itself on top of my head. With no antihistamines, the only thing to do was to keep walking back to Monachil, some 3 kms away.

IMG_0885A small taverna by the roadside seemed like a sensible place to stop, check the sting and have una copa y tapas. So there we are, chatting to the barman when we hear the clank of dozens of bells. The next minute a herd of perhaps 60 goats is blaahing past – many of which have to step up the step into the bar for a look, before skittering back  to the herd. The barman was quite nonchalant – the goats pass by with their goatherd every day.

Mystery of the unidentified pellets solved.

The Alhambra

La Alhambra is an extraordinary collection of buildings begun in the 9th century. it was added to and embellished over the next six centuries. Sheer red walls rise from woods of cypress and elm. Strung along a ridge line, it dominates the region.

The entry, reached after a long, steady uphill walk, is located on the upper ridge, but the entry is not at the highest area of La Alhambra.

That privilege goes to the Generalife IMG_0511_2gardens, accessed by a steady walk even further uphill (as noted earlier, getting fit in Granada is unavoidable). The Generalife is a maze of terraces covered with cypress pines, carefully tended flower beds and shrubbery which lead to a small summer palace. And – everywhere – pools, fountains, formal streams fed by springs which originate from yet further uphill. The splash and burble of water is most soothing, cooling the shaded walkways and patios from the fierce Andalusian summer. IMG_0543_2



Located half way down the ridge, the Palacio de Nazaries is truly an extraordinary building. Plaster lacework lavishly covers the walls, delicate traceries of timber lattices shade windows, fine marble columns support graceful archways. Craftsmen’s personal marks are still visible. At the height of its opulence, palace walls which were not covered in the plaster lacework (now white, but originally brilliantly painted) were once hung with sumptuous silk banners. Entry to the Nazaries is timed and limits the numbers who an enter, enabling visitors to step back and really appreciate the space. IMG_0544_2

The Alcazaba, the original citadel, is located at the tip of the bottom end of the ridge. The Torre de la Vela provides outstanding views across the plains and to distant mountains, once you ascend numerous flights of stairs to reach the tower, before clambering up the winding staircase in the tower. 


Get fit in Granada

The taxi driver gave us a running commentary about the best places to visit, drink and eat. He dropped us in Plaza Nueva outside Los Diamantes, the current hip place to be seen in Granada, to meet our host. The prices reflected its hipness.


White-washed walls, old timber doors, wrought iron bars, shuttered windows and terracotta tiled roofs rise into the distance. The piso is located in the Albaicin district, the labyrinthine ancient arab quarter built on the side of a very steep hill. Accessible only through narrow cobbled streets.  And up steps – several hundred of them (I know – I counted). Followed by further flights of stairs to the second floor of the building.

IMG_0490_2And then the view of La Alhambra, stretching along the ridge opposite, only 250m away as the crow flies – but at least three times as far to get in, depending on which part you wish to visit. The sun rises at one end and sets at the other, providing an ever changing picture of this fortress-come-palace. In the further distance, the snow covered Sierra Nevada mountains stand sharply against the sky. The location of the piso is fine!


Little alimentacions (corner stores) are dotted around the Albaicin, as are bars and restaurants. But they’re either up hill – or downhill. The nearest supermercado is a good kilometre away, downhill. Which means its a tougher kilometre back, carrying groceries uphill.

Fortunately, the Bar Minotauro is halfway between the piso and the supermercado.

Apart from thousands of tourists, the Albaicin area also attracts assorted ‘alternative lifestyle seekers’ who pester passers-by to sell them leather wrist bands, baubles and beads. Mostly in their 20s, they sport dreadlocks and nose rings, wear baggy, faux middle-eastern style clothing, and have large dogs after whom they do not clean up.  As much as one would like to be free to gaze at the old buildings, peek through gates into verdant courtyards, and spy glimpses of interesting things as one walks down a cobbled way – one is not. One has to keep a constant eye out for dog droppings. The newer parts of town, where the locals live, don’t have this problem.


Party time in Cordoba

We invited our Cordoban hosts, Viviana and Andres, out por una copa (for a drink) and the opportunity to practice Spanish. Little did we know what we were letting ourselves in for!   As a couple with four children under the age of ten, they don’t get the opportunity to go out very often, so we provided them with a  excuse to go out for the evening – starting at 9.00pm (very very early by Spanish standards).

IMG_0431_2Andres navigated us around the old town of Cordoba introduce us to some of the more interesting places. It seems that everyone knew him – he is a comedian.

We first went into a pena (a social club for flamenco aficionados – down the lane, around the corner, under the archway, past the well, through the door on the left, no tourists) but were a bit early for anything to be happening. Canas (beers) all round with tapas thrown in.

In this pena, a Jack Russell ruled the bar! It bounced up and down to bar height – checking out  customers as they entered – after which it sat on the bartender’s feet because apparently it didn’t like sitting on cold tiles. As a private club, smoking was permitted inside  and the fug was about a meter and a half from the floor.


Then we went to another bar because it was on the way to yet another bar. More canas and tapas (toast with a tomatoey topping). The Mercado Victoria, an old market we had passed through several times during daylight hours and wondered how the businesses located there survived, was heaving – at 11.00pm! All the bars were packed, and to get una copa de vino tinto required concerted elbowing and hollering to the bartender ponga me tres vinos tintos... It also took half an hour to get from the bar to the ladies and back again – because Viviana had to say hello to all her friends and relatives – and introduce me as the ‘exotic’ from Australia …es muy lecho! (a long way!) Meanwhile Andres was discussing business opportunities with advertising agents. But of course.

Dos copas  de vino tinto later there’s a birthday party to which we’ve been invited…at yet another bar! Are you sure? Si! Porque no? More vinos tintos (red wines) y rum y coca cola later, plus lots of dancing – flamenco inspired of course!

At two thirty in the morning – three bars and a birthday party bar more than we had expected – did we want to go salsa dancing? With the greatest of reluctance we tore ourselves away from the party animals and staggered the two kms back to our piso.

Cordoba: monuments and ruins

IMG_0412_2 IMG_0415_2 IMG_0456_2 IMG_0418_2Cordoba, as with so many Spanish cities whose roots go back a couple of thousand years, was a city of strategic importance to a succession of invaders, commencing with the Romans who made it the capital of Baetica province, followed by the Moors who made it the Islamic capital of the Iberian peninsular.

The consequence of this means ruins…lots of ruins…and not terribly far below the surface… which means potential problems if one wants to develop a site.  Several proposed building works in the city were on hold because the demolition of an old building, exposed even older foundations, that then have to be carefully excavated and assessed for significance.

Additionally, the passage of time saw extensive recycling of building materials into new structures. Roman columns were recycled into Moorish buildings. Moorish stone blocks found their way into Medieval walls.

The Medina Azahara – a fabulous city built by a caliph to impress emissaries from across Europe. Less than 12% of the site has been excavated, according to a range of modern techniques i.e. aerial photography, geophysical resonance, infrared, used to identify where best to spend the archaeological euro. Artefacts telling the story of the Azahara are displayed in an ultramodern museum on the site, built so that it disappears into the landscape. 

The Archaeology Museum is actually built over the top of part of a Roman Theatre – the rest of the theatre is under the plaza outside the Museum … which means buildings surrounding the plaza also stand on important archaeology. The large, regional railway station is built over ancient Roman ruins. Resolving the tension between excavating the past, maintaining excavated ruins, and continuing modern life and development in cities which have been inhabited for millennia, is a continuing struggle.


The Mezquita


The Mezqita is a curious building…a mosque built on the foundations of a Visigoth church; the mosque was enlarged over the next 450 years and, following the reconquista (reconquering of the Iberia Peninsular from the Moors), saw a gothic church planted in its middle and a bell tower – the Torre del Alminar – was built over the minaret.

One enters through the Patio de los Naranjos (Patio of Orange Trees) a shady courtyard that was the former ablutions area. Entering the mosque, a forest of delicate columns and arabic arches extends in all directions, as far as the eye can see.


The church looks incongruous – its gothic columns appear brutal in the midst of the delicacy of the surrounding space – has itself seen renovations and additions over the centuries. The 18th century choir of carved mahogany stalls stands as testimony to craftsmanship rarely seen today, but the massive Capilla Mayor, installed in the 16th century, couldn’t be viewed owing to conservation works.



Apparently the Mequita is the third largest mosque in the world, but Muslims are not permitted to worship in it .

Charming Cordoba

Following the unpleasantness by which the Paris trip ended, our arrival in Cordoba was a delight!


The piso (apartment) was located in the Juderia, the old Jewish quarter, and it was less than 100m from the Mezquita – the huge mosque with a gothic church planted in its middle.

The narrow calle (street) on which the piso was located was typical of the labyrinth of the Juderia (Jewish Quarter), filled with small shops, bars and restaurants. A black wrought iron gate located between ‘tourist stuff shops’ heralded the entry through an arched passageway to a verdant garden and patio, and several flights of stairs to the top floor.   The piso overlooked the garden and, being on the top floor, meant plenty of sunlight.

IMG_0445 IMG_0446_2The Torre del Alminar (bell tower) loomed over the rooftop terrace.  The bells kept time on the quarter hour from 8.00am to 11.00pm…one chime at 15 past, two chimes at half past, three chimes at quarter to, then four chimes on the hour – followed by a different set of chimes to mark the hour. One got used to the chiming after a time – to the point that on the day the bells were being serviced, and so did not peal, the silence was noticeable.

Some things to be aware of in Paris

I don’t enjoy big cities.  A city of 12 million people is too big by my measure. The larger a city grows, the greater the pressures on people, amenity, services, liveability. If you’re part of the wealthy elite, life is pretty comfortable when lived in secure, elegant, clean streets with manicured gardens and parks. At the other end of the scale, in the 10th arrondissement, prostitutes from North Africa are lining up against the walls in the restaurant district from around 7pm.

Public security appears to be low. Other than a black clad SWAT team who piled out of a van into the police station next to the restaurant where I was dining, three armed soldiers near the Louvre and three near the Science Park,

IMG_0404_2I saw no police – no officers on the beat, no cars, no motorbikes. Totally unlike Spain, where safety is a priority, streets are well lit, the police are visible and petty crime has been considerably reduced.

Pick pockets are everywhere, especially in the Metro: warning signs about pickpockets are in French and English all over the Metro, and in the Louvre in several other languages as well! I mean, do these people take out a yearly membership to prey upon gawping gormless tourists? Other threats include gold ring scams (“Is this your ring? I saw you drop it. Please take it …”), “Please sign this petition”, or “Do you speak English?” all of which are designed to distract you and get close into your personal space for the sting. Then there are beggars, strung along the Champs Elysees, with their pile of worldly possessions and a cute puppy or tatty mutt – the money is to feed the dog you know. A sharp contrast with the exclusive stores that line this street. And street performers, whose assistants thread their light-fingered way through unsuspecting observers.

All this I traversed unscathed until my dawn departure through Metro station Ponte Maillot where my iPhone was stolen.  I travel with a compact, hard leather, heavily zipped compartment handbag, worn across the front of the body. It has served me well for years…until distraction by one person, action by another, and the iPhone was gone in seconds – from the one compartment that has a snap closure. I didn’t realise it had happened until after they had disappeared.  This station is a labyrinth of passageways and stairs (escalators only go down, no lifts), no visible security cameras or personnel. It’s the Metro which connects travellers with the bus station for Beauvais and Charles de Gaulle Airports, and it is a pickpocket’s paradise for hitting travellers with luggage. Where are the police?

The police at the Beauvais were most accommodating – writing a report, nodding sagely at the mention of Ponte Maillot, and forming the view from my description of the thieves that they were Romany.

Some small blessings for me: the phone was shut down for the flight; I have a pay-as-you-go plan, and I was able to retrieve my data  and to have the sim deactivated.  The incident left me feeling very flat.


I’d rather not wear the sauce monsieur…

What could be more delightful than celebrating one’s birthday at a restaurant in Paris? My French neighbour in Valencia had recommended Brasserie Julien, in the 10th arrondissement. She said it had lovely food, beautiful ambience, pleasant staff and was reasonably priced. (One can pay the equivalent of a deposit for a small car for a meal at some of the Parisienne fine dining establishments!)


A short trip on the Metro brings you to the top of the street in this restaurant district – and straight into the middle of the early evening-shift prostitutes lining up against the walls. Wade through that crowd to get to the brasserie, where a hatted doorman welcomes you into a vestibule and hands you on to a charming maitre d’. It was as though you have stepped back into La Belle Epoque. 

The waiter was pleasant and attentive, spoke English, took our order … a glass of champagne to begin.  The foie gras was a perfect entree: velvety smooth texture, tiny toast triangles, fig jam. When the plates were whisked away I thought he moved a tad fast. No matter, the red wine and conversation were lovely. Next, chateaubriande, placed onto the table so rapidly that the little dish of sauce slid off one of the plates onto the pristine white tablecloth! Mortified apologies, a hasty clean up and a replacement of sauce. (The chateaubriande was cooked perfectly – but we thought pommes frites an unusual accompaniment.)


After which things started really going downhill. The waiter nearly collided with a colleague carrying five plates (no tray). The plate bearer did an amazing move, nothing was dropped or spilt, and he sashayed along to his table. The waiter then dived into the pathway of another colleague, equally laden, who did an equally skilful  manoeuvre, and cursed at him in French.

The maitre d’ began circling.

When the waiter collected our plates, he managed to tilt them so that the cutlery and a sauce dish slid onto the table, stopping just before dropping into my lap. His mortification was rising, and we weren’t feeling too happy either.  The guests at the next table, observing what was happening at our table, cleared space in the middle of theirs and leaned well back when he served their soupe a l’onion (in mini-tureens placed on small plates). The maitre d’ was firing off hissed words.

Crepes suzette – batter, brandy, flames (plenty of theatre here) is normally prepared by the waiter. The maitre d’ obviously decided this waiter shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near any of those ingredients until they were cooked, folded and slid onto the plate – action that was not going to occur at our table. You should be able to reasonably anticipate that delivering two plates, one in each hand, to a table wouldn’t be too difficult. But it was. We even cleared space on the table and leaned back.  As he placed my plate in front of me, he was unaware that he was tilting the other, pouring brandy sauce all over the spare chair. We and our neighbouring guests all cried out in alarm at this fiasco. There was still some sauce on the plate and at least the crepe didn’t disappear onto the floor.

No, merci, no cafe. 

And no tip.


A week in Paris

The view from the tiny attic apartment in the 19th arrondissement was picturesque.  A sea of assorted little chimney pots in lines intersecting the ridge lines of wave after wave of roofs, all embellished with tiny dormer windows or petite balconies. The attic was chosen because there was lift access to the seventh floor (not to be assumed in these old apartments) and the price – although still more expensive than anywhere in Spain so far -and it was only a half hour ride in the Metro to get to the art museums district.

Unlike in Spain, no-one hangs washing outside windows, nor are balconies enclosed. Prices are high. A jacket in Valencia costs 50% more in its Paris branch. Coffee costs twice as much. A small glass of wine in a brasserie (standing up), cost the same as a bottle of decent Rioja from a Spanish supermercado.

IMG_0387_2Small restaurants close around nine pm – the time they start to open in Spain. My rusty high school French covered the basics – which I would pepper with Spanish or Italian words. Fortunately most people I met had a basic level of English and were happy to use it, so that was helpful.

Four galleries in four days was a marathon – but what a way to melt the senses! ‘Warm up’ day was at the Museo D’Orsay – Impressionists mostly. Of particular interest was a collection of early 20th Century furniture – very much in the style of Gaudi – organic functional forms for chairs, tables, cabinetry and wall panels in beautiful timbers.

This was followed by a marathon of a day at the LouvreIMG_0384_2I had forgotten just how massive it is – did the obligatory pass-by of the Mona Lisa and some other works by Da Vinci, but was especially pleased to come across three works by Caravaggio (currently my favourite artist). IMG_0379_2 IMG_0378_2Napoleon Bonaparte’s apartment was extraordinarily opulent. The best way to enjoy the Louvre has to be with a year’s membership so you can select a gallery to enjoy every week or so.

The Musee de L’Orangerie provided calm relief –  two huge oval shaped rooms contain panoramas by Monet, especially created to be enjoyed ‘in the round’. It is not a huge collection, and is therefore able to be enjoyed at leisure. The Museo D’Lorange is located at one end of the Champs-Elysees, the Arc de Triomphe is at the other end, a two km walk which takes you along some of the most expensive real estate in the world past dozens of high-end stores.

To bring the marathon to the last lap, the 21st Century, a visit to the Pompidou Centre was necessary. It is a singularly ugly,IMG_0407_2 industrial style building, where all of the essential services (ducts, lift wells and delivery cages, piping) are exposed on the exterior of the building. Most of the services are painted in various primary colours, in sore need of maintenance, or left with a raw finish. The building was controversial when it was built, and is discordant with the surrounding elegant structures. The collection focusses on late 20th Century art (1950s onwards), some  very political, a lot very obscure, some bizarre, from around the world.


Las Fallas – creativity consumed by fire

Las Fallas is a traditional Valencian celebration held in commemoration of St Joseph. The term Fallas refers to both the celebration and the monuments created during the celebration. Each neighbourhood of the city has an organized group of people, the Casal faller, that works all year long holding fundraising parties and dinners to pay for the faller.


Each casal faller produces a construction known as a falla which is eventually burnt. Its a serious competition, and mind boggling that all these extraordinary structures – bar two chosen by popular vote – are consumed in the flames. The Las Fallas museum has an element from each of the winners over the past 75 years. It was filled with people checking out past winners, all life sized figures.
















Next stop a visit to the Exposicion del Ninot, the display of  year’s Fallas, so people can vote for the two to be saved from the flames. Political figures were satirised, with no holds barred, social commentary was made and artistic heritage celebrated.




Furthermore, daily at noon, fireworks are discharged in the plaza next to the exposicion (they’re warming up for the real deal later in March). Its at least a kilometre from the apartment and I never fail to jump every time they go off. Closer, it would be ear splitting! These explosions will increase in frequency all over the city until the big night when there’s a massive explosive discharge in the heart of the city. The city is also shut down to vehicular traffic, because all of the monuments are brought into the major intersections for viewing before being ignited. They can be several storeys tall. I understand the fire brigade is on standby but, given there are several hundred of these fires, thousands of spectators and a closed city, perhaps St Joseph watches over things!

Three Castles – Three Towns

The province of Valencia has been inhabited for millennia and has had a turbulent past. It is located on the Mediterranean coast, experiencing a mild climate and with fertile lands. Rivers which flow from the mountainous central highlands were the main routes for travel. Strategically located rocky hills near where rivers meet the plains were chosen as sites for fortification – first by the Romans, then the Moors, then the Spanish – and to control the surrounding countryside.  Each castle experienced sieges at some time.  The introduction of cannon ultimately rendered them useless.

Requena – west of Valancia. The next door neighbour, spoke about the Annual copia_de_cartel_embutido_2014Sausage Fiesta held here every February. It was an hour’s bus ride up through a mountain pass. The bus was  filled with Valencianos prepared to enjoy food and buy wine and … sausages.


Being a Saturday, the main avenue, 2 km long (the town is too small to get lost in) was filled with stalls selling all manner of goods. At one end of the avenue stand the remnants of a tower and medieval town, at the other end the Fiesta.


The audio-visual display in the torre was superb, with figures from different eras projected onto the walls, recreating events which occurred in the tower and the town. The English subtitles were most welcome. Also visited a silk merchant’s residence, dating back several centuries (mind your head under the doorframe) and again with an excellent video (although in Spanish) about the traditional methods for the production of silk: from picking the mulberry leaves through to final product. Raw silk, looms and framed fabric samples were on display. The medieval town contained within the walls was labyrinthine. An icy wind ripped down from the hills, whipping up dust as it tore through the narrow streets. In winter 30cm of snow is not unusual.

personas-XXI-Feria-Embutido-Requena_TINIMA20140209_0520_5The Fiesta, with a fun fair and giant outdoor BBQ, was heaving. At one end of the exhibition centre, traditional folk dancing was underway…although to get to it one had to squeeze through dozens of queues at the food stalls because people queued at right angles to the store fronts.

Decided the wait for food was way too long, so returned to the centre of town and had three types of salchichas con insalada, patatas y un cerveza.

The train ride back was a hoot – struck up a conversation with a Spanish couple and ended being joined by a Canadian couple of yachties and all drinking red wine. The Canadians were older students in a language school on a day trip – all the rest were 20-somethings from around the world who behaved themselves. The conductor didn’t bat an eyelid at us!

Xativa – south of Valencia. Another train journey, this time to the ancient town of Xativa, located at the foot of a mountain massive, and with archaeological remains dating back 30,000 years. The town sits at the foot of a sharp ridge across which the castillo (fortress), dating from 5th century BC, stands. A little tourist ‘train’ bumps along narrow streets, stopping at all points of interest, zigzagging up the ridge face and finishing at the castillo.










IMG_0315_2There was only an hour for exploring, if a ride back down the hill was desired. That meant a dash to the peak at one end of the fortress, which included a challenging stair climb to the top of the wall – and no handrails anywhere … ramparts have crumbled and tumbled down the cliff face! The view across the region was superb – no possibility of sneak attacks. Almost made it to the other peak for the view at the other end of the fortress (because it was there), but had insufficient time to reach it and get back for the ‘train’.

Sagunto – north of Valencia. The Casa dels Peixos in Sagunto is an archaeological heritage site, opened in 2013, located in the ground floor of a modern apartment block. The Roman ruins were found when the foundations were being excavated for a new apartment block.

IMG_0320The find was so exciting, a deal was struck for the ruins to be exhibited: the building was allowed to go to seven stories rather than five, allowing for the car park move to the first and second floors. Residents walk through a glass walled corridor suspended across the ancient foundations.

imagesThe kilometre long fortress on top of the mountain overlooking the town has evidence of Iberian, Roman, medieval and more recent remains. Some sections were inaccessible; but again, no fencing on the edge of cliff faces where walls have collapsed over the cliff face.IMG_0323


A museum in a 15th century building, still with some original wall decorations, had lovely collection of small bronze figurines collected from digs around the town.

Just down from the fortress, a Roman theatre is carved into the side of the mountain. Unfortunately the theatre has been over-restored and in an unsympathetic manner (I’m a bit of a purist when it comes to restoration work and this is really ugly). The theatre is used for plays and other performances, but when I consider amazing architecture in Spain, I believe a far superior result could have been achieved.



The light-filled, modern penthouse apartment in the suburbs of Valencia (cost of living drops considerably the further south you travel) has been the ideal place to convalesce with a dreadful cold (el gripe y un tos). The decision to live here for a month has therefore been well-timed. The apartment is located about 4 km out from the city centre and it is well served by public transport. The housing stock is generally 6-8 story apartment blocks, mostly built in the last 40 years. The streets are wide, lined with palms and orange trees (a riot of fruit at the moment) and deciduous trees.

There’s a great cafe and bakery, and a farmacia, across the road; a Consum supermercado a little further down; and a fresh produce market around the corner and along a bit. This is the city that invented paella, of which there are at least a dozen variations (rice is grown just south of here), along with the famous arroz negro (black rice, using squid ink). When my head clears, I have every intention of tasting new foods!


Park Guell: another Gaudi creation

Gaudi was commissioned to create a gated community for wealthy Barcelonans on a hill overlooking the city. It turned out to be too impractical to access, and the building restrictions were prohibitive.

IMG_0277_2Today it is accessed by several escalators (you can use steps if you feel energetic). As things turned out, it was turned into a park, filled with follies (see the Wave walkway below – a broken stone covered way, with a very organic look and feel to it; the columns look like tree trunks) and others examples of Gaudi’s designs. Two buildings (Dr Seus would be at home, the walls curve and flow) and this fantastic palm frond iron fence.

Mosaic finishes cover the surfaces of most of the structures. Ceramic tiles were carefully selected, broken and installed, creating quite extraordinary mosaics (see the octopus below). There’s a primary school located in the lower levels of the park. It is an uninspired lump of a building, but has great views of sculptures and trees.



Basilicas old and new

Barcelona’s skyline is punctuated with church spires. Each barrio (suburb) has at least one, if not more, churches. Some have been turned into museums or art galleries, others into bookshops or integrated into a modern structure.

All of the still functioning churches have gypsy beggars locating themselves in the doorways so that you have to step around them to enter. Each has his or her regular ‘patch’. Plaintive wails assault the ears; and deformed or amputated limbs, horrific scars or massive disfiguring birthmarks are exposed to passers by. It is confronting, but you have to walk on by, because the act of tossing some coins into their paper cup can result in you being pick-pocketed.

Two churches in particular stand out: the basilica containing a famous Black Madonna in the Benedictine Monastery of Monserrat (located on a mountain where visions of Our Lady were seen in 880 and lasted about a month), and La Sagrada Familia, designed by Gaudi and commenced in 1882 (anticipated finish within another 30 years).

Monserrat is about an hour’s train ride out of Barcelona, after which you can take a small cable car  up from the valley floor (good head for heights essential), or a funicular which zigzags up the mountain side (look at the rock face if the precipitous drop disturbs you) and you emerge at the monastery. Unfortunately the cable car was closed for maintenance, as was the cable car which takes you to the summit. That was disappointing, but did not have time to do the ascent by foot from the monastery as it is a two hour walk one way. The weak sunshine did little to mitigate against a chill wind which whipped across the plaza, a wind which was bitingly cold in the shade of the mountain.

The basilica is an impressive gothic structure, its huge headlight windows each contain a scene from the Nativity story. It also contains a Black Madonna (dated to the 12th century), to which many pilgrims flock.


IMG_0131The wooden sculpture is located high in the apse, overlooking the altar, surrounded by gold and silver. Being the off season, the queue to see the Madonna was in the scores, as opposed to in the hundreds.

There is also an art museum containing a collection of Catalan art, most of which has been donated by from private collections. A wonderful surprise was Caravaggio’s St Jerome, a masterpiece that made nearby works pale by comparison.

Moving forward several hundred years: In April 2012, the last time I saw La Sagrada Familia, it was inundated by thousands of tourists, surrounded by massive cranes, covered in scaffolding and safety webbing, and clouded in swirling dust. I didn’t bother to try to go in. This time, in the winter chill of January, there were few tourists, the scaffolding and webbing were contained to two areas and the previously covered work was now revealed. Wow! I really don’t know where to begin! It’s an extraordinary, organic, light-filled creation. Stone has been selected and located according to its load bearing capacity. I’ll let these photos give a small hint about how diverse a building it is.IMG_0126 IMG_0125 IMG_0124 IMG_0123 IMG_0122 IMG_0121 IMG_0120

Catalan snails and weeds

One of the particularly exciting aspects of travel is being adventurous and trying out local food specialities. Having relatives in Barcelona means one can eat in places not on the tourist circuit…which means the menus are in Catalan, with the Castilian (spanish version)  in very tiny print below the Catalan description, and no English translation.

El Caracol (The Snail) – specialises in snails. By the panload. Seven different ways. They even have cartoons of the little critters smiling at you from the walls.  We ordered just one serving of snails in garlic. More than enough and nothing like their French cousins … in fact they reminded me of the snails that used to slide across early morning  dew-laden buffalo grass in the backyard of my childhood home. Same size – a large grape – and same shell pattern – brown stripes. Armed with skewers we dug the curly little, dark grey, chewy, garlic flavoured critters out of their shells. They are really quite more-ish, washed down with red wine and crusty bread. But 20 to 30 each were more than sufficient. The restaurant also does a mean slow roast shoulder of lamb that falls off the bone. That we enjoyed for mains. Followed by a Catalan baked custard for postres (dessert). Followed by herbas (a shot of an aniseed based liquor) ‘for the digestion’.

Can Marti – accessed by a Metro ride, followed by a funicular ride, followed by a half-kilometre uphill walk, which concludes with a long stair climb of a street and a right turn into a front yard, unremarkable except for the small faded sign on a rough wooden post. Then you realise that the front yard has a huge open, wood fire oven in which pieces of lamb are being roasted. Walk past that and down the side of the house and you come to an open kitchen area which has its own massive wood oven from which further fragrant smells, together with wood smoke create an atmosphere of anticipation. An extension to the house is one dining area; a free-standing extension – which has undergone several ‘phases of growth’ provides a spectacular view of Barcelona.  The place is very busy, filled with locals, and the menu is only in Catalan.IMG_0250_2

Can Marti does a special seasonal dish which, at first glance, seems to be a pile of grassy weeds still with the dirt on them. I thought the elderly man taking four bundles of them to a table, then handing out plastic bags, was giving the guests some gigantic spring onions from his garden to take home.

Turns out the plastic bags contain a big bib, plastic gloves, an extra serviette and a refresher towel – all necessary to deal with the ‘calcots’. They are charred on the open fire, then served on a curved roof tile, accompanied with a tomato and garlic sauce, and aioli, for dipping. This I know because we ordered a single serve for the three of us, bibbed up and dived in: hold a calcot by its green top leaves; slide the other hand down the plant to slough off the burnt outer leaves and reveal the creamy textured inner heart; swirl it around in the sauce of your choice; then tilt your head back and lower it into your mouth to bite off the heart which is about 10 cms long, hoping not to wipe sauce all over your face or drip it onto your clothes. Don’t feel embarrassed! That’s why you wear a bib!  Nearly every table ordered a serve per person, and piles of the burnt or inedible leaves stacked up. These were followed by fire roasted carxofes (artichokes), patatas (potatoes) local sausages and lamb. And vino Del Vero.

It truly seemed fitting, not only to eat snails, but to also eat what they eat!



Yes! Sunshine again and clear skies. 10 degrees warmer than London, the atmosphere is dry, it only rains at night (whoever organised that deserves a medal) and the apartment has views of the monument of Christopher Columbus (high profile figure in many places, given his discovery of the Americas launched Spain into a period of enormous wealth), El Puerto y El Mediterraneo! Plus, the owner of the apartment (a very intense mid-thirty Catelan film maker) provided a welcomIng bottle of cava – and glasses – because the previous tenants had broken the lot.

Pleased as I am to be back in Espana, my one frustration is that Castellano (Spanish to the rest of the world) is the second language here. Catalan is the first language, and whilst everyone speaks Castellano – signs, menus, information – are primarily in Catalan. So my ability to use Spanish (the rest of the world version) is challenged: tomaquetas  instead of tomates; rebaixes instead of rebajas (sales); sisplau instead of por favour (please); and let’s not go anywhere near the days of the week!

Furthermore, this year is the 300th anniversary of the fall of Barcelona – an impressive archaeological dig under a 19th century former wholesale market building contains the story. d a small, vocal proportion of the local population would like to secede from the rest of Spain, so as the anniversary date draws nearer there will be plenty of memorial  activities.

Again have an apartment located in an immigrant area (origins Pakistan and Bangladesh), economic migrants making a living running small businesses such as fruit and vegetables, mixed businesses specialising in goods from their home country (care for a kilo of paprika anyone?) or eateries. The locale is also near the bottom end of Las Ramblas, the main tourist drag, lined with lots of restaurants doing the ‘menu del dia’ for 8 euros. The food is pretty ordinary and the serves never seem to be as big as the photos indicate – but there is a busy tourist trade. Souvenir shops abound. It’s an area where it’s wise to keep your wits about you, your shoulder bag across your body in front of you, and to be alert to people moving into your personal space. The host of the apartment did issue a caution about pick-pockets.


Art Treasures

London’s museums contain some of the most exquisite treasures and antiquities imaginable. Some have been acquired from private donations or bequests, others gifted by various non-English royal persons or donated in lieu of tax debts.

The V&A (Victoria and Albert) Museum  is an imposing, vast building. Mosaic  tiling covers the floors and stairs, reflecting the wealth of the Empire at the time the building was created. With a collection of this scale, it is necessary to be selective and focus on one or two areas. Of particular interest were the jewelry and high fashion from the mid eighteenth century to today displays.

The jewelry is superbly displayed in two black walled rooms in which thick glass cases contain breathtakingly stunning pieces … Scores of diamonds, perfect pearls, finely wrought gold … All of which had been owned by persons of high social status, making certain the beholder would be aware of their personal wealth.

The fashion had much more of an accompanying story,  with the significance of individual pieces being linked to the growth of trade with the Far East (silks from China), and the movement from handmade (every seam hand stitched, lace trimmings painstakingly created) to machine made and the introduction of synthetic fabrics.

A former power station is the home of The Tate Modern. Vast, hard spaces, polished concrete floors contain a diverse range of works – a number of which are too obscure for your writer to understand, even with the accompanying wall notes. Sculptural pieces had been created from traditional materials such as wood, steel or glass; and less traditional materials such as hundreds of steel fibre pot scourers (weird), or thousands of triangular pieces of polystyrene wrapped in paper and tied with string then fitted together inside a massive frame (interesting).

The National Gallery, holding a vast collection of paintings, has works dating back to the 12th century. The religious art of many churches (altar pieces, triptyches, diptyches and paintings) fills room after room. Of  note  was a collection of six works by Van Gogh – a chair, sunflowers, butterflies in grass, two cypress trees, two red crabs and an unfinished work of a village. You walk into the room, and there they are, surrounded by works of his contemporaries and overpowering those other works by the sheer force of the application of colour. Equally exciting was the discovery of two works by Caravaggio –  again surrounded by works of his contemporaries, and outshining those works by his capacity to capture light on different surfaces.

The Royal Naval Museum, in Greenwich, had a special exhibition of Turner’s works bringing together pieces from galleries around the world and including some works from private collections. The place was packed! To see each piece, one patiently waited for the opportunity to shuffle forward to get an unimpeded view of tempestuous seas, sinking ships and sea battles in full fury. Curiously, visitors were very, very quiet … there wasn’t even murmuring. Visitors closely observed the works, exchanged looks with their companions, nodded sagely (perhaps discretely whispered a brief comment), and shuffled along to the next work.

The Royal Observatory, in Greenwich, contains an new exhibition on Time, its importance to the Navy and to society. Here one can learn the story of  the creation of an accurate time piece for determining longitude. Prior to the creation of such a chronometer, thousands of men perished at sea from scurvy and starvation because landfall could not be found. Then the expansion of the rail system across England in the 19th century necessitated the standardisation of time across the country – and eventually the world – because until the introduction of the railway system, time was determined locally. Hence the presence of a clock tower in each town. Chronometers have now been developed which will only require the correction of one second in one billion years!


Living in London

The past fortnight in London provided the opportunity to observe living in London from Catford through to Sloane Square.

Catford, the location of the airbnb flat, is composed primarily of endless, brown brick, two-up two- down Victorian terrace homes whose heyday is long past. Each has been subdivided into three or four flats, providing affordable accommodation for new wave immigrants from the Middle East and Africa. There’s a dreariness to it all. The facades are in need of maintenance, front yards have been crazy paved for car parking, and wet rubbish piles up around wheelie bins and against crumbling fences.  When people heard the flat was in Catford, there would be a pause, a certain stillness and looking into the middle distance, followed by “aaah”. It is apparently in one of two areas in London you want to avoid. I know you can’t buy a sharp knife in Catford – the kitchen lacked one – because sharp knives are not allowed to be sold in the area.

However, it was a well appointed, cosy little flat and only a half hour walk from the relatives. The half hour walk, which takes you across a stream, a railway line and through a park, sees a complete change in the housing. There are still endless rows of terrace homes, but they are maintained, with neat box hedging, polished brass door knockers and letterbox flaps.

A double-decker bus ride (45 minutes to Greenwich) provides a low-cost opportunity to see really run-down, tiny terrace homes abutting railway lines; countless terrace houses in various states of repair; imposing towers of council flats; and exquisite Georgian buildings and high-end shops at the end of the line.

A train ride (45 minutes to Blackfriars – a station over the Thames) provided views of back yards, of more endless terraces, of more towers, into modern glazed apartments, of the  Shard, the London Eye, the Gerkin (really the Swiss Re Building but no-one calls it that), some new building that looks like a gigantic refuse receptacle, and Tower Bridge.

Amble around London and the glass towers of the banking district, the imposing edifices of the Victoria and Albert, the Natural History Museum, and the National Art Gallery press down. Get to Sloane Square with its immaculately presented Georgian homes and find a place so privileged that the beautiful green at its centre can only be accessed by a pin code in the security gate in the wrought iron fence.

London is still the city of Charles Dickens. It’s all about poverty and privilege.

T’was the night before Christmas @ Gatwick

Gentle Reader,
Take the advice of your writer when she advises you to be nowhere in the vicinity of Gatwick Airport the day before Christmas!

The drive along the M3 from Stoford to Gatwick  to drop off the hire car was fine. Picked up some essential supplies (packet of English sausages – note that these do not comply with  EU regulations for sausages, loaf of bread, cheese and a bottle of Australian wine) just in case the shops were shut before getting to the Airbnb flat. Smugly noted the traffic exiting London was heavy.

Efficiently drop off car at 1.00pm. Still feeling smug. Tootle into Gatwick Airport Railway Station to note there was some congestion and some delays going to Victoria Station. No problem, that stop was not on the itinerary.   Then discover every rail service was either delayed or cancelled.

Spent the next six hours being misinformed by Southern Rail. Thousands of people were stranded – flights had been cancelled, but people weren’t told until hours after their flights were supposed to depart. People were charging their mobile phones at information desks in order to keep in touch. Generally travellers were remarkably patient. When someone challenged the misinformation, everyone else looked the other way because ‘he was making a scene’!

After a couple of hours standing around, a notice came over (via a fellow standing on a bulkhead hollering at everyone and consequently causing a crush at barriers) that a train was leaving for London – go to platform 2. Everyone charged for the train, bundled on and sat down. The driver gave us an update that there was a bit of a delay. Then a further update that there was a bit more of a delay owing to a landslide on the line. Then another update that buses would be coming to move everyone from Gatwick because the landslide was worse than expected. We return to the waiting area, where the fellow is still on the bulkhead hollering out misinformation. There were no buses departing from Gatwick. We had to get on a train to Three Bridges, from which buses would take us to East Croydon, and then we could board a train to Victoria Station, from where we could move on to our destinations.

We were again allowed through the barriers, in control batches of 100. There had been some thinning of the crowd – people had given up and gone home, resigning themselves to not be able to spend Christmas with their families.

At last the train pulled out of Gatwick… and it was the last train out of Gatwick. At Three Bridges, another crush of people trying to get on to the fleet of buses. And it was raining. Heavily. Awww shucks. What more could you ask for? Finally got to East Croydon only to discover that the last train to Victoria Station was pulling out, after which British Rail was closing down until 28 December. What city shuts down a major transport system for 48 hours?

The only travel option available to Catford was a cab, which cost 30 pounds!

Never imagined that English sausages, bread, cheese and Australian wine would be Christmas Eve fare.



Winter Solstice at Stonehenge

The Winter Solstice at Stonehenge seemed like an auspicious day to visit this ancient and mysterious place.

Only trouble is that a howling storm has swept in from the Atlantic to flood most of the south of England. The stream across the road from The Swan is running high and fast. The swinging sign of The Swan can’t drop to the vertical, and the grassed picnic area and car park next to the stream are covered with water. However, as this is the only opportunity to visit Stonehenge before heading to London for Christmas with family, the excursion proceeds.

Under a leaden sky, the drive along the narrow country roads to Stonehenge is slow. The roads don’t have shoulders, which means water runs off the higher fields, which are totally saturated, across the road to the lower fields. Wherever there is a dip in the road, it is flooded. Vehicles coming in the opposite direction send sprays of muddy water over the hire car. Bare branched trees whip around in the strong, gusting wind. Everything is sodden and grey. Including my mood. Misting rain becomes suddenly heavy, reducing visibility, then returns to misting rain again revealing the famous stones on a nearby hillock.

There’s a huge car park and a brand new visitor centre some 150m from it. And the sky opens again. Oh joy of it all! Manage to pull a spray poncho on before getting out of the vehicle and heading down to the visitor centre. The wind is relentless, gusting to 45mph.

The brand new centre is a kilometre from Stonehenge. It has a shop and cafe on one side, exhibition space on the other and  a covered central space which includes the ticketing booth, creating a massive wind tunnel. The ticket sellers, even behind the glass windows, have trouble holding on to tickets and cash when the wind whips under and through the pay dish. They are clad in extreme weather gear.

The exhibition is impressive – spacious, informative, interactive – with a considerable collection of artefacts. Then out into the storm for the 4WD ‘train’ ride to the archaeological site. Only trouble is – where do you catch the ride? There are no signs. What’s the difference between the green train and the red train? One’s faster than the other i.e. 10 minutes versus 3 minutes. What the? To add to the confusion there is a group of young Korean travellers who are getting their ‘bunny ear’ photo moments every few yards – in front of entrances, toilet doors, exits or thoroughfares.

Finally into a carriage for the trip to Stonehenge proper, stopping in a flooded gravelled turning area. The rain is hammering down and the wind has not abated. A cheerfully stoic young Englishman, in wet weather gear, bare headed and with rain running down his face, indicates the path to follow to the site.  Then the wind really picked up! The rain was horizontal, blinding and stinging one’s skin like needles. It was only possible to walk on a short concrete path. The full circled grass path was closed because it was utterly sodden.

IMG_0402You had to lean at 45 degrees into the wind to prevent yourself being blown off your feet!  Furthermore, you are no longer able to enter the stone circle, there was no possibility of finding shelter there. Managed to get to the Heal Stone and look across the axis of the site, something that very few people did that day. Glad to have seen the place from that angle, because it gives a better understanding of the site than does the concrete path. After a short while, returned to the 4WD pickup point, waited in the pouring rain (there is no shelter) before returning to the car, sodden and needing a hot shower and stiff drink back at the pub.


Ships and sails and sealing wax

“The time has come”, the walrus said, “to talk of many things. Of ships and sails and sealing wax and cabbages and kings.” (Lewis Carrol) All these things and more can be found at the Maritime Museum at Portsmouth (‘Pompey’ to locals).

Portsmouth was a massive naval station and shipyards. At one time 25,000 people worked there. There is only a minor naval presence now. However, three very special ships are on display: the Victory, on which Nelson won the Battle of Trafalgar and was mortally wounded ; the Mary Rose, Henry VIII’s flagship which sank in careless circumstances – she was sailing out to battle, left the lower gun ports open, was unbalanced and a swell flooded her; and the Warrior, the first iron clad warship, for a time the most threatening warship in the world which never fired a shot in anger and quickly became redundant because she had both sails and steam engines.

IMG_0390Each ship is special in its own way. Do click on the links! Particularly poignant are personal items of the sailors from the Mary Rose – leather shoes, a jerkin – the ribs of the wearer impressed into the leather, a skeleton, nit combs, a wooden tankard with an illiterate man’s mark carved into it.

Museums aside, you can meet the most interesting people if you are open to the possibility. Whilst having a conversation with the chap at reception in the hotel – solving the financial problems of Great Britain, and making commentary on the current move being driven by some in Scotland for independence – a wilder and thinner version of Billy Connelly checks in, hearing the end of the conversation. Where is he from? Glasgow! Oops!

Shortly after, dinner at a nearby pub brings the Billy Connelly lookalike back on the radar. He’s in a good humour … and hadn’t been back to ‘Pompey’ for 20 years since he left the Royal Navy. Neil’s been around the block more than once, and was just checking out some of his favourite haunts from the past before considering catching up with some mates he’s not seen for a very long time. At first glance he’s not the sort of person you might ordinarily have a conversation with, but in the breakfast room the next morning he’s quite chirpy although hobbling (immediate thoughts – bit of a dust up?). Turns out he has a degenerative condition of the spine – the conversations you have over a full English breakfast – and is doing a bit of a walk down memory lane before major surgery.

Old Bosham

Spent a delightful day with friends Simon and Siobhan and their little boy Charlie.

Old Bosham, the place where (according to the tradition) King Canute intended to show his power over the tides and failed dismally, is a charming little coastal village. Tiny white cottages, some thatched, stand cheek by jowl. Carefully trimmed hedges, carefully painted front doors, polished brass door knockers and letter box flaps, swept steps, meandering narrow streets, seagulls and ducks create an idyllic setting.

A road sweeps around the bay, signs advising you to not park on it because it is tidal i.e. one metre tidal if you care to look at the wet high water mark on the sea wall. At this time, boats are resting on the muddy flats, waiting for the tide to return which, when it turns, happens rapidly. We amble around the bay, followed by lunch in Chichester.

The grey sky, chill wind and soggy ground are a sharp contrast to sunny Seville.


Welcome to English weather

The sun sets around 4.00pm in England meaning that the drive from Gatwick Airport to Bosham, a small seaside village just south of Chichester, was conducted in rapidly gathering dark, along narrow country roads and in pouring rain.  Having a Tomtom to find the B&B was helpful only to a point. Fastest route or shortest route? The Tomtom decided that a diagonal zigzag across the countryside was the optimal journey.

Furthermore, many properties on country roads don’t have numbers. In addition to that challenge, there is minimal street lighting, so trying to spot the B&B at night in slashing rain was impossible. In desperation, stopped at a garden centre and received advice to look for the place a bit along the road with a small boat out the front. Had passed it several times going up and down the stretch of road that registered as being in Bosham. Easy to miss in the dark given that it had no external lighting on and no sign out the front.

Fortunately the venison pie with roast winter vegetables, rustic mash and a glass of very nice red at the White Swan, an inn more than 300 years old – mind your head – hit the spot.






The Parasol

IMG_0375The newest iconic building structure in Seville is the Parasol, a massive wooden structure which looks like five enormous mushrooms. It’s huge – modern – and utterly unlike anything surrounding it.  Unsurprisingly it is surrounded by controversy, not only because of the design but also the cost blow outs. No two pieces of the structure are the same. link


It has three levels – a lower level the Antiquarium which is a roman town (and more mosaics) uncovered when the foundations of the Parasol were being dug. That messed up the construction timetable something serious! Then there is the ground level in which a fresh produce market is located: jamon (ham), queso (cheese), verduras (vegetables), pescado (fish), carne (meat), pan (bread), frutos secos (nuts), vinos and – of course – more varieties of aceitunas (olives) than you can imagine!



IMG_0370Then there is the top level – with a restaurant and bar, and an organic walkway, reminiscent of an Escher drawing, meandering across the top of the structure. The views of the city and the distant countryside are spectacular.



Sevilla: La Catedral

IMG_0173_2La Catedral dominates the landscape. La Giraldillo, the windvane on top of its spire, can be seen for kilometres. The Cathedral is built on the foundations of a mosque, and the bell tower was formerly a minaret. It is worthwhile climbing the bell tower, but keep your eyes on your wristwatch. The viewing platform is directly under a considerable set of bells- and different bells chime to mark the parts of the hour.  Then there are the enormous bells which mark the hours.

Emerging from the core of tower a whisker before 1.00pm and right under one of the enormous bells was unfortunate. It only chimed once,and everyone ducked from the volume of the chime. The reverberation of the chime explodes through your body.IMG_0005

The Cathedral is an extraordinary space: massive stone columns, sweeping stone arches, more chapels than you can count, the grand mausoleum of Christopher Columbus’ is held aloft by four huge stone figures, and the carved seating for the choir is amazing. Regrettably, the gold leafed timber Capilla Mayor was closed for restoration – painstaking work which you could see underway through the windows of sealed workrooms in the Cathedral.









El Patio de los Naranjos, 60 orange trees in a cool patio bordered by fortress-like walls and water channels creating a neat grid pattern.

Alcazar – a Muslim jewel

IMG_0337The Alcazar is a sumptuous former Muslim palace which commenced as a fort in 913. It was further developed over successive centuries. The Real Alcazar is now the official residence of the King of Espagna when he is in Sevilla. It is filled with follies, courtyards, pools and fountains, all of which would have brought a pleasing cool relief to the scorchingly hot summers.


One can only imagine the intrigues that occurred under the exquisite archways, in quiet  plazas, in the labyrinth hedge, or on balconies overlooking carefully clipped hedges.  Amusingly, there is a pair of peacocks in the gardens – the male being closely followed by a male duck. Wherever the peacock went, the duck dutifully followed.

The ceramics museum within the Alcazar contains several centuries of the history of ceramics. The ceramic mosaics are utterly beautiful. The hours required to do the perfectly designed patterns which have large repeats provides an insight into a time when craftsmanship was really appreciated.


Sevilla – a City of Culture

15 days in Sevilla barely allows one to touch its cultural richness. The Oficina de Information Turistica provides an Horario Monumentos Sevilla Capital – containing a list of 40 sites.  Then there are the out of town options to add to these. Narrowed the options down to arts and archaeology, with no more than one site a day.

Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporaneo (hmmm – modern portraits and some inscrutable works), the historical Museo de Bellas Artes de Sevillia (centuries of classical works) and the Museo de Artes y Costumbres (unfortunately the costumes floor was closed for conservation works, but there was un exposicion temporal of flamenco costumes createdby Lina, a famous costumier). Check this link ( IMG_0004 IMG_0003 IMG_0002 IMG_0001A whole room is devoted to exquisite handmade lace – from the simplest (comparatively speaking!) of lace trims right through to collars, cuffs and mantillas. By way of contrast, daily life in pre-industrial trades – in a series of vaults accompanied by old film footage, each set up as a real working space: olive press, barrel making, tanner, bakery, castanet maker, iron forge and so on – providing a glimpse into the intensively manual labour of the ordinary working person.

Archaeology was a covered by visits to a couple of sites – Carmona and Italica, and the Museo Archaeologico and Antiquarium.

Carmona is a one-hour bus ride out of Sevilla. 2500 years ago, it was a centre of Roman culture, commerce and activity; December 2013, it was closed for maintenance. So quiet in fact, that the owners of tapas bars around the tiny plaza almost argued with you to get you into their premises! The archaeology museum there is renowned. Regrettably, on this day, it was closed for repairs to the entrance, with a sign “No molestar los trabajoras”.  There were no intentions to molestar anyone, let alone los trabajoras, but the side entry could not possibly be used either. Even the cathedral was closed! At least the Prioral de Santa Maria was open – it was a pretty little church … although its most outstanding feature was that it was open. After that, settled for a walk around the town … and from one end to the other. All 800m of it. And zigzagged across it several times just for interest. Found the south entry gate and, looking back at it, one could appreciate the strategic positioning of the town.  IMG_0156_2The highlight of Carmona was a magnificent Roman mosaic now located in the centre of the Ayuntamiento (Town Hall).

The mosaic was discovered in the 1920s, left in situ and was incorporated into the new building.


Italica, the birthplace of Roman emperors Trajan and Hadrian, is located in Santiponce, a small town on the outskirts of Sevilla. There is an impressive roman theatre – closed – but you could look through the chain mail fence. A reproduction roman house – closed. And then there’s the townsite of Italica – open and impressive (although I am of the view that the primary school children were enjoying the little train ride more than the ruins). The site was a rich source of artefacts – most of which have been removed to the Museo Archaeologico in Sevilla! However, the remaining mosaics were impressive – better than anything I’ve seen in Italy. IMG_0354IMG_0353An amphitheatre, capable of holding 25,000 spectators, is in sound condition – but sections were closed for safety reasons.

Given most of the interesting stuff had been removed to the Museo Archaeologico that necessitated a visit there. The curation is impressive – focussed on Seville and its surrounds – and the collection from Italica, including many superb mosaics and sculptures.  The museum covers the neolithic, paleolithic, phonecian and roman eras in the Guadalquivir River valley in such a manner that one can appreciate the evolution of civilisation and the influences of different cultures in the region.



Christmas lights

IMG_0171_2Sevilla does superb Christmas lights –  every road leading to La Avenida de la Constitucion was strung with beautiful lights that were but a hint of the splendour of the lighting in La Avenida.  Being 10.00 pm on a Friday night, everyone was making a party of the lights going on. The streets were packed with people of all ages, moving around in family groups with babies in prams, toddlers, young children, parents and grandparents. Other than trams, no traffic is normally allowed on La Avenida, a broad and gracious boulevard in the centre of Sevilla. Night trams were cancelled, allowing La Avenida to be taken over by sightseers and it was heaving with people. It seemed as though everyone wanted to go in the opposite direction of everyone else, and the air was filled with the dull roar of friendly conversations.

Moving through the crowds was a challenge, additionally so in the side streets. Every bar and restaurant that could set up tables on the pavement was packed and surrounded by people standing patiently waiting for a table to clear. Young children ran around excitedly, or howled, or slept through the noisy chaos, snugly cocooned in designer prams. After walking all around the central area for more than an hour, headed back to a little bar not 50m from the apartment to succeed in getting some stylish and tasty tapas and a vino.

Flamenco in a coal shed

La Carboneria (the Coalshed), according to the bar staff at Los Colonales, is a place to go to get authentic ‘spontaneous’ flamenco (as opposed to tourist performance) – but it all depends on who turns up and how they feel on the night. And don’t go before 10.30pm because the doors don’t open until then – maybe.

Followed the line the bar staff drew on the Sevilla map – and ended up behind a church facing a set of garage doors where a louche young man was smoking outside the smaller door in one of the garage doors. “Perdon, perdon,” squeeze past smoker and enter a heavily timbered bar area out of the 1800s with a roaring open fire (yes!! warm the cold bits whilst taking stock of the surroundings). A small group of people are sitting around a guitarist playing something inscrutable very intensely, while on the other side of the room a man is playing Billy Joel’s ‘Piano Man’ badly on an upright piano. No-one’s at the bar.

Move further into the space and around a corner and you discover you’re at the top of a rough set of concrete steps leading down to another bar and a crowded space full of slab timber tables and benches. Rough concrete floor, fluorescent light fittings hanging from steel frame girders supporting a fibreglass roof, rough brick walls (the place really was originally a coal yard). A glass of paint-stripper red (and don’t look too closely at the smudges on the glass) cost 2 euros. 

A general burble of noise filled the area. Glassware littered the tables and people were squeezing up on the benches. Eventually a woman in a blue spotted flamenco dress (sporting a terrible cough) and two men, one with a guitar, put some chairs onto the low makeshift stage area. No microphones or sound system. Then they walked off. Next, the tuning of the guitar. Then the performers came back and sat down. The cantaor started a slow clap, shortly after joined by the bailaora, and the tocaor finally got the tuning right. The audience figured that something was happening and started to quieten down (in Espana constant loud conversation is the way things are), so there was much shushing and hissing at the talkers who hadn’t caught on something was about to begin. 

There was much agonised singing (I think I understood the words for ‘heart’, ‘car’ and ‘crying’  –  so maybe he was upset about his car being stolen?) to the sound of staccato clapping and seated foot stomping, accompanied by frenzied guitar. Then it stopped. The audience showed effusive excitement in their appreciation.

Next the bailaora stepped up and there was much clapping and stomping and skirt flicking and attitude, accompanied by rhythmic clapping by the cantaor and more frenzied guitar work by the tocaor. Occasional outbreaks of rhythmic clapping and ole’s from the audience would bring a smug expression onto the bailaora‘s face. Like – of course I’m good!  Suddenly it was all over and the crowd surged out into the chill night. The pianist in the other room has moved onto another tune – unrecognisable, but being played badly. The guitarist is alone and playing softly and intently to himself.


Seville – a city of orange trees

A short bus ride connected Tarifa and Sevilla – a city with orange tree-lined wide boulevards, and trams! There’s a sense of civic pride here; and whilst some old buildings are being gutted, the facades are being retained to maintain the streetscape.

This apartment is reminiscent of a maiden aunt’s: stuffed full of polished timber furniture (with white cut-out embroidery chair covers); pleated lampshades and frill-edged cushions; the walls covered with carefully framed original works, prints and mirrors; lace curtains; an assortment of old clocks (none in working order) and bric-a-brac; along with several vases brimming with fabric blooms. And all this in a small one bedroom L-shaped apartment. It’s amazing what clever camera angles can do – it looked much larger in the photos! Strip out all of the furniture and there’s comfortable space located in a fully renovated block of nine, three on each level, surrounding a beautiful marble floored, glass roofed atrium containing several potted palms. And there’s a lift. And it’s not needed because this apartment is on the bottom floor!!

The heavy timber door to the atrium opens directly a narrow street which appears to be the main thoroughfare across the historical centre of Seville. The pavement is fully 40 cms wide – sort of. In places there’s only kerb. So it’s a case of being as calm as possible and strolling nonchalantly up the middle of this one-way thoroughfare like the locals do, or pressing oneself into doorways so that a stream of taxis can pass.

Teresa the owner spoke no English, but she was hospitable and organised (map on hand) and provided recommendations for, and directions to, some quality tapas bars in the vicinity, and the market. Dinner for the first night solved at El Colonales (great bar staff and fabulous food). Grocery shopping for the next day in the pipeline.

The trouble with Tangiers …

Given that Tangiers is just across the strait, taking a guided tour seemed like a reasonable way to be introduced to it. But from the minute we met the Spanish agent in the departure terminal things went steadily downhill. Passports were whisked away (I always get uncomfortable when I can’t see mine), green and yellow forms were thrust into our hands accompanied by a torrent of instructions (in Spanish) as to what to do with them (the forms were in Spanish and French), stickers were slapped on us for the guide on the other side to identify us, tour receipts were issued (for payment of the guide), and we had to go through that door…

The fast ferry ride across was fine.

We were jumped by guides at the terminal in Tangiers, none of whom were with our tour company. Our guide, Abdullah, clothed in a long brown robe,  was nonchalantly waiting outside the terminal area. He didn’t look particularly official…later realised he was not an accredited guide because they are allowed into the terminal area to meet clients. He was supposed to be fluent in English…he spoke some, but preferred french, spanish or arabic.

Into mini bus, quick drive through the diplomatic end of town where government officials’ and various Middle Eastern princes’ summer holiday palaces (high walls, bored guards and no-one home) were pointed out. As in Spain, gum trees are everywhere. No commentary about Tangiers. Abdullah mostly chatted to the driver.

The coastline is quite rugged and picturesque, with grey sandy beaches in between the headlands. Came to one section of road by the beach where a dozen or more camels were sitting around. Did we want a camel ride? Not included in the tour fee. No gracias. The Cave of Hercules, into which the sea surges, slurps and sighs, would be quite a lovely grotto except for the fact that it has been extensively carved out to accommodate vendors of tourist stuff.

Back to the old town town which, at a distance, looks pixellated: lots of little squares of white, cream and yellow, with some grey and orange highlights. Off the bus and follow Abdullah. The contrast of the old town with the top end of town is pronounced. Narrow winding streets, into some of which the sun can’t shine; small groups of young men dressed in rapper clothing, sitting around smoking and eating sunflower seeds; rickety hand carts; comparatively few women. Goods laid out on the dusty road, the vendors reclining on cushions or perched on chairs from the 50s. People in your face, offering packets of cigarettes or bottles of water.

A traditional style lunch was part of the deal, and we were led upstairs to a room covered in tiny mosaic tiles from floor to ceiling. IMG_0149_2It was an absolute riot of colour and pattern, together with gold braided cushions on the banquette and traditional patterned carpets.  Tired shutters opened out onto a narrow balcony and the noisy street below. The packet of ‘Wet Ones’ was very handy to clean the cutlery and crockery. The food wasn’t worthy of mention.

Next activity: the Kasbah. Alleyways branch in every direction, but Abdullah was more interested in catching up with friends rather than offering commentary. Areas of the Kasbah are dedicated to various trades, so you travel through alleyways of tiny shops all selling the same thing. A bread maker squatted in a cave-like space not high enough to stand in, cooking flat bread over an open fire. Cooked bread placed on old timber shelving to cool. His eyes glittered in the glow of the fire, his face and body gaunt. Further along a haunted-looking man picked up discarded cigarette butts, sucking a few draws out of each one, whilst looking for another to light from the glowing end of the one he was finishing off.  Around the corner an herbology – filled with jars of lotions and potions and oils and powders and herbs. The scent of the place heady. Further on, a carpet vendor, happy to ship anywhere in the world. Next, a bicycle wheel spinning, twisting three cord twine to make fringing. Leather stores selling copies of European labelled handbags. And then Abdullah is saying ‘I’ll be back in an hour’ and he disappears.

Did you know it is possible to make a glass of impossibly sweet mint tea last an hour an a half? And still have half a glass left? Spent the time watching the passing parade of people. Yes, he was late (possibility of a tip had well and truly evaporated by this time). He whisked us back to the terminal, leaving us with a three hour wait for the ferry. Spent the time watching young men try to illegally board boats to get to Spain.

The return trip began after sunset, and soon after a storm wind warning was issued. Sea-sickness bags were distributed in anticipation of the effect of rough seas on a boatload of travellers. The ferry corkscrewed in the strong winds and heavy seas, making it a tough ride. The absence of a visible horizon meant it was totally up to you as to whether you could keep everything down…a challenge when people around you are tossing up in spectacular fashion. It was a relief to disembark.

The day was a disappointment, and served as a reminder to avoid guided tours.





Getting to Gibraltar from Tarifa at an hour of the day which allows adequate time for exploration of ‘The Rock’ requires two buses: Tarifa to Algeciras; Algeciras to La Linea. Once in La Linea, you have to pass through border control – passport necessary but a bit of a charade really – and suddenly you are in British territory, starting with a walk across the runway (they put boom gates down when planes come in to land).

It was such an odd feeling being there. My grandmother spoke of stopping in Gibraltar on her way to Venice to marry my grandfather during WW1. The vista of the sheer drop, probably the most instantly recognisable image of ‘The Rock’. Red telephone boxes. British bobbies. The Union Jack – draped everywhere. Pie and chips and mushy peas. Warm beer. Streets with names straight out of English history.  Winston Churchill Avenue was packed with duty free shoppers over from Spain doing their Christmas shopping and a load of tourists from a cruise ship moored in the harbour. The English accents sounded so awfully English in contrast to the Spanish accents to which I have become accustomed these past weeks.

IMG_0144The cable car provided a quick ride to the uppermost accessible part of the island. The  docking area is filled with notices warning you that the Barbary apes are wild animals, don’t touch them, don’t feed them and put away any plastic bags because they associate them with food and will grab them. What did people immediately do upon emerging from the dock? Go up close to the apes and pose. The animals were indifferent to the attention.

The views are spectacular. You can see the Mediterranean stretching away into the distance, blurring with the horizon and dotted with scores of freight ships. Across the Strait lies Morroco – Cueta was also visible; and behind rolled the mountains of Spain.

IMG_0160_2The Rock is riddled with tunnels that are an integral part of the fascinating history of the place. Strategic openings in the rock wall provided magnificent vantage points for cannon to blast away at enemy ships. The display is very effective, and the tunnels are labyrinthine. Many are closed because of the more urgent blasting style used during WWll which created a lot of fractures. Needless to say, the views from every gun emplacement were impressive, and enabled The Rock to be impregnable to this day.

The descent to Winston Churchill Avenue is steep all the way, with narrow roads zigzagging across the landscape until you reach the built up area, after which roads continue to zigzag their way down the hill, occasionally supplemented with flights of stairs. The buildings reflect English origins.

Going to Gibraltar was a timely reminder that Great Britain does not work on Spanish lunch hours. Trying to get a hot meal at 3.00 pm was almost impossible – everywhere was closing – but found the Lord Nelson, a bar located in a bunker just off the main square, decorated in a nautical theme. Pot pie, chips, peas and gravy and a pint of Caffrey’s served by a Londoner whose accent was a thick as the mushy peas provided ample sustenance for the return trip to Tarifa.

Tarifa – the windy town

The bus trip to Tarifa traverses semi-mountainous country side dominated by massive wind farms…dozens of  wind towers, their blades slowly spinning in the breeze, strung out along the ridge tops for as far as the eye can see. Spain is serious about seeking alternative energy sources, and several huge solar farms were in evidence as well.

Glimpses of the Atlantic can be seen between the peaks – then suddenly you come around yet another bend and realise there’s a new landscape beyond the water. Africa.

Tarifa, on the edge of the Strait of Gibraltar, is on the southernmost tip of Europe, it’s also the nearest town to Africa (Gibraltar is further into the Mediterranean). Its constant winds make it a popular surfing, parasailing and windsurfing site. Being end of season, most of the camping parks were closed and only a few die hards could be seen ripping along the tops of the waves and occasionally taking off.

The apartment, located in a small barrio, literally abutted a corner of the ancient wall of the city. A visit to Pepe Lopez, proprietor of the local corner shop which sells everything, soon revealed that everyone knows everyone else. He was effusive in his service (no English) – and had chicken and fish to sell as well – just come into the kitchen of his home next door. He bustled past his wife and dived into two packed freezers. Some fish and chicken drumsticks later, and back in the shop, he’s emptying a 500ml water bottle and filling it with olive oil because he had no small bottles of oil for sale. And recommended two wines. And handed over a scoop of olives, some bread sticks and slices of chorizo – with his compliments – to go with the wine. What a welcome!

Had a delicious paella for lunch in the plaza…everything cooked just the way it should be, no burnt or sticking bits.


A ferry ride across the bay from El Puerto sits the old port city of Cadiz.

As in El Puerto, orange trees grow in plazas, amazing glazed ceramic tiles cover public seating, the walls of old buildings, and the floors of courtyards – glimpses of which can be seen through wrought iron barred entrances when their massive timber doors were open.

The historical centre of Cadiz invites ambling – and stopping for un cerveza or una copa de vino tinto y tapas is an integral part of the experience: pulpo, gambas, albondigas, and always a little plate of olives. The variety of olives, and the diversity of styles of preparation, means every little plate is a newly flavoured surprise!

Ambling also means happy accidents – like finding a modern art gallery not mentioned on the tourist map – holding a photo exhibition by Miguel Trillo, a photographer who took so many of those iconic photos of bands, musoes and disaffected youth, from the late 70s through to the last decade. And he’s a local lad from Jerez de Frontera! 

IMG_0152Art galleries and archaeological museums aside – the city itself is a living museum with most of its original fortress walls intact (walked along most of it) – Cadiz has some huge civil engineering works. A huge new suspension bridge is being constructed across the bay to handle the  traffic which clogs the current bridge that only allows one lane of traffic each way. A  massive floating dock for making concrete barges dwarfs most ocean going vessels which pass it. Two massive high tension power cable towers standing on either side of the bay dwarf the towers of the new bridge. The city itself, however, is low rise with eight storeys being about the highest of any buildings (mostly apartment blocks on the city edge).

Parque nacional de Donana

IMG_0136Donana National Park, a private park accessible only via ferry and 4WD is an important ecosystem, particularly wetlands, in Spain.  Apart from a range of bird life, including the Spanish imperial eagle, it also is home to wild boar, iberian linx, several types of deer and wild horses.

The only way to get in is via the tour company, which meant you get shepherded onto the ferry, bundled onto the bus, bundled off the bus for smoko half way through, and bundled back onto the ferry to Sanlucar de Barrameda.

Apart from a Swiss woman, everyone else on the bus was Spanish – the tour guide delivered the commentary in Spanish, fortunately at a measured pace so I could get the gist of things. Plastic bags are a huge problem for sea life – especially turtles who mistake the bags for jellyfish and suffer fatal consequences.

IMG_0135Fellow travellers were very excited as we tootled up sandy tracks, saw a wild horse, deer and several wild boar. Most of the birds have gone south for winter, although we did see one eagle hovering overhead. The area has also been invaded by eucalyptus trees, brought to Spain for paper pulp.

The marshes, dunes and natural pine forest didn’t move me as much as my fellow travellers whom, I believe, must essentially be city dwellers whose main experience of the natural environment is an avenue of trees or small manicured park in their home town. We’re privileged in Australia to have the amazing national parks that we do, with the extraordinary wildlife that we have.

Plankton and sherry in El Puerto

The  Lonely Planet guide has an ‘eating’ recommendations for each place. As good fortune would have it, just around the corner from the apartment is a Michelin starred restaurant “Aponiente” (€€€). It’s a seafood fusion place created by a leading Spanish chef Angel Leon.

One’s experience began with the warm welcome by besuited staff, into a tastefully decorated room that takes only 24 covers. The kitchen has a staff of about 10, whom one could see through the glass wall in the entry foyer. Everyone looked terribly serious.

A menu was presented, with two choices – the upper half of the page had an entree, mains and dessert list, and the lower half of the page had the same, but slightly shorter. Hmmm. How does one order here? The maître d clarified everything in a flash: two degustation menus, the upper one has 21 courses, the lower one is a shorter version of that one having only 14 courses. With matched wines? Si! The 14 course version seemed to be the sensible option considering the dining experience was starting at 9.00 pm (the time the restaurant opens).

AponienteThat’s when the sherry began, a different one matched to each dish … and nothing like the tipple grandma would have on a special occasion! Chilled, dry, sweet, straw, syrup like … a new glass with each course … And not the usual tablespoon sized serve in the bottom of a voluminous glass that one expects with a degustation menu, but regular servings.

The food was exquisite. Beautifully presented, every dish provided a unique palate experience. Instructions were provided on how to eat each course, to ensure the blending of the flavours and textures as the chef intended. And the sherry kept coming. Plankton (didn’t realise there were so many things classified as plankton) featured in wafers, in sauces, in custard together with octopus caviar, fermented mackerel, something not quite an oyster … And the sherry kept coming. The wine waiter described himself as ‘El diablo’ (the pointy beard and wicked grin confirming the self assessment, together with the volume of sherry he served)!

Rolled out the door at midnight, thankful the apartment was just around the corner.

Bachelor pad in El Puerto

El Puerto De Santa Maria is across the bay from Cadiz. It is low rise (most places less than three storeys), labyrinthine, packed with bars and slightly down-at-heel. Collapsed or crumbling buildings, overgrown with weeds, adjoin smartly renovated hotels or apartments. Specialising in seafood, and boasting a couple of long beaches (by European standards), the place heaves with holidaymakers from northern Europe in the summer season.

But back to the apartment. Why is it that every time a day of travel which requires an early start and three trains to get to – has to end with stairs? Although the apartment is only on the second floor – the building, being old, has very high ceilings. The result being that there are more stairs to climb to reach the apartment here, than the apartment in Caceres which was on the fourth floor.


Why call it a bachelor pad? Well, there was beer in the fridge and coffee in the cupboard…what more do you need? And then there’s the shower  – wow – although it should come with operating instructions. Figuring out how to operate the thing so that you don’t get icy jets hitting you most unexpectedly, or a total deluge, was a challenge. Once figured, it is really a lovely indulgence.



As to the rest of the apartment it is light-filled, spacious, renovated throughout (refer to shower and bathroom), with modern furniture,  well-appointed (proper wine glasses, a sharp knife, a wok) and has a lot of mirrors.

18 km walk around Alcantara

Nuria (owner of the apartment) belongs to a walking group, and she extended an invitation to participate in what she understood was to be a gentle 15 km country walk in forested country side. A walk in the countryside with a bus load of Spaniards sounded like a brilliant idea. Its the sort of experience you only get when you connect with a local.

Sunrise is not until 8.15am, so it meant getting up in the dark at 7.00am to catch the bus from a park 1.5 km away. It was bitterly cold, and the three layers of woollen clothing, a windbreaker, beanie, scarf, gloves, woollen socks, hiking boots and jeans barely kept the chill at bay. The streets were dark and quiet, except for Nuria nattering away merrily.

It was easy to find the group – from the noise – they were all conversing at the tops of their voices! There was so much interest in the walk, 115 people had signed up and two busses were required. People were decked out in their flashy walking clothes, hiking boots, poles and backpacks, and it seemed that everyone had to greet everyone. Surprisingly we left on time…and the volume of the conversations continued unabated for the 75 minute journey to Alcantara.

Its harsh country. Occasionally sheep and cattle could be seen grazing in dry stone walled fields. Kilometres and kilometres of these walls, every stone placed by hand, the stones taken from the land out of which broken slate or granite outcrops rear.  In some places, the landscape was dotted with irregular rows of small round-crowned trees, mostly olives but also oak, planted hundreds of years ago. Crumbling isolated fincas (farmhouses) stand abandoned, the new homes’ orange tiled roofs and white walls a stark contrast to the drab olive- and grey-green of the landscape.

Alcantara is a mere 15 km from the border with Portugal. Arrival in the tiny town plaza meant the two coffee shops had to go into overdrive: everyone needed coffee and madalenas, or hot chocolate and churros before starting the walk. Serving everyone took about three quarters of an hour before we could head off…after the group photo moments. And everyone talking at the tops of their voices.

The walk began easily enough, and we stopped outside a traditional thatched and stone round shepherd’s hut to pose for photos. IMG_0134We headed off again…everyone still conversing  volubly. The road rapidly grew steeper and the group spread out up the side of the mountain, with the ‘walk fascists’ (Nuria’s definition) in the front and the slower amblers to the rear. We were sort of in the middle. Next thing we’re all heading off down a rugged goat track to view a cave with paleolithic signs and symbols in it – only discovered in 1980. The last part of the ascent required rock scrambling. Again, more photo opportunities and a big squeeze to listen to the guide explain everything (with everyone telling everyone else to be quiet), before heading back along the goat track, down the mountain and up along another trail.

This is where things started to come undone. The front walkers, of which we were now part, headed off  along a ‘shortcut’, but didn’t leave anyone at the point where the trail split to tell the slower walkers the way to go. The further along the trail we walked, the more side trails emerged and the more opportunities for people to head off in all directions.

Aside from people scattered all over the mountainside, it was fascinating to see considerable stands of eucalyptus everywhere. Some had been planted, evidenced by the trees being in rows. The rest had simply spread. Gum trees are regarded as an invasive weed here.

The group of which we were a part became more spread along the trail, until the only way we knew we were on the right track was the occasional sighting of a brightly coloured jacket in the distance. We’d been walking for three and a half hours, getting occasional glimpses of the village below, when the trail reached a mirodor (a roofed ‘looking place’ with some coarse benches) and turned up the hill and away from the village. There was no one in sight. Then we spotted a brightly coloured jacket move between two stone walls down the side of the hill. Path or no path, that was the way we decided to go. After a short way, we found a trail – barely visible and ancient – judging by the stone walls on either side. It was a rough decent, and the next challenge was going to be to find the plaza. Actually, that was the easy bit – follow the noise!

Many people had arrived ahead of us, having taken a down trail early in the piece, so they didn’t do the full walk. A further 45 minutes passed before everyone made it to the plaza…wanting a beer! The bars were flat out again and everyone was still talking…which continued all the way back to Caceres. Then everyone had to say goodbye to everyone else.

And what was there to look forward to at the end of this very long day? An uphill walk concluding with a four-storey stair climb!


Ticket to Trujillo

Trujillo, a small town 40 km from Caceres, is the birthplace of Pizarro. It seemed like an interesting option for a day trip.

With only four buses running daily, at rather odd hours, and the travel blurb cautioning that the buses can be full, decided to get to the bus station in good time to ensure a seat on the first bus. But no, there were to be no ticket sales until 15 minutes before the bus departed.  Was the ticket seller just being difficult to a foreigner?

Before long there was quite a gathering of people around the ticket window – and – as the bus goes all the way to Madrid, the thought emerged that perhaps the bus company sells the long trips first and the short trippers (or foreigners) get the leftovers. I felt so much better when I heard a local denied a sale as well.

10.00am on the dot, tickets went on sale. But you couldn’t purchase a return ticket. You had to get that ticket in Trujillo! There is no apparent reason why ticket sales couldn’t start earlier. It was the only bus departing for the next two hours.

The bus station in Trujillo was truly a dreary place – vile green tiles, flaking paint, cracked concrete pavement and rusting metal columns. Where to from there wasn’t at all clear…so took the uphill option – the old parts of these towns are always on top of the hill – and found Plaza Major, washed in sunshine and surrounded by a proliferation of baroque and Renaissance stone buildings, and towers, many of which were topped with stork nests.

The Officina del Turismo was in the square (together with a bronze statue of Pizarro) so, armed with suggestions for spending a few hours in town, headed off for Alcazaba – a 10th century castle of Islamic origin. On the very, very top of the hill. It is a rather stark structure, and you can ascend to the battlements (via a stone staircase) and walk the circumference of the inner castle,IMG_0132_2 as well as clamber even further up narrow, uneven stairs to the top of several watch towers. There are no safety rails, no ‘mind your head’ signs (on the narrow passageway down into the cistern hewn out of the rock), a precipitous drop from everywhere, an icy wind and magnificent views across the landscape. Caceres was just visible in the distance. One of the towers afforded another ‘sketching moment’, so I sat down in the sun, shielded from the wind by a battlement, and lost myself for a while.IMG_0129

Trujillo is a pretty little town, full of interesting little ‘calles’, but there is a mixture of restoration and serious decay in the old quarter. A 15th century convent had seen mixed fortunes, including being stripped of stone for other building works over the centuries. It has been beautifully restored and is now an arts and cultural centre. Small two-storey cottages, smartly rendered, painted in brilliant white, and with beautifully varnished timber doors and shuttered windows stand next to cottages with collapsed roofs, crumbling masonry and rampant weeds. A once-magnificent palace, with an amazing stone facade now blackened by lichen, is for sale, its grounds overrun by prickly pear and bamboo.

Back to the bus station – to discover a notice advising that the ticket office didn’t open until 15 minutes before the bus was due to arrive. Sigh. The partaking of cerveca and tapas was therefore necessary.

Mercado medieval de las tres culturas Caceres

Bright medieval banners and flags are strung from balcony to balcony through much of the old city in preparation for the medieval mercado noviembre del 14 al 17. Each little plaza has a number of stalls and the vendors are all in costume. There’s a lovely festive feeling to the town.IMG_0131_2

Roving minstrels add to the atmosphere, together with street performers, stilt walkers, a rambling yak (being lead by an equally hairy handler), a lost llama with a saddle (if you cared for a ride – or a photo), a collection of raptors – rather fat and sleepy (you could have your photo taken with one perched on a leather glove on your arm for 10 euros), perfume, soap and candle vendors, leather goods, food (local delicacies, pulpo, chorizo and blood sausages, crepes, sangria (don’t go near that stuff!), wooden artefacts, sweets, jewellery, 20 types of olives, huge wheels of cheese, more food …

To my ears, all of the people ambling around were Spanish – not a foreign word to be heard. There was just a gentle burble of voices – apart from the school students on excursions! The primary children, marching along crocodile-style, sound as though they have swallowed whistles. Teachers look as focussed as their colleagues in Oz, keeping an eye on all the little wrigglers.

In between doing the medieval wander, which meant three circuits of the old town to ensure no stall or event had been missed, visited the Museo Provincial de Caceres, which has an 11th Century Muslim cistern located in its bowels, an interesting collection of archaeological pieces, a collection of some impressive contemporary art and an Exposition Temporal by photographer Ouka Leele…massive images.

After all this culture, a glass (or two) of wine and some tapas were required. Calenda, a modern tapas bar, in an old building served simply fabulous tapas. The delicious wine Nadir was from the Estremadura region. Will go back for more of both.

Putting pencil to paper

Having spent some days ambling around the old part of town, and surveying the rooftops of Caceres from the apartment balcony, I decided it was time to start something that I haven’t done for years: to sketch.  I had asked the apartment owner when we did the tapas tour where could I get drawing materials – and she was so excited because she’s studying fine arts here as well as teaching English. Anyway, found the papeleria she’d pointed out  that night and made my needs known to the proprietors. “Hablo espangol un poco” is always a helpful opener, although my experiences in making needs known to locals have always been received with patience and good humour.

The old part of town has so many interesting angles and alleyways, towers and arches, I spent quite some time looking for a scene where I could sketch uninterrupted and without  people standing around watching my attempts. Controlling a pencil requires a completely different way of working with your hand, being aware of it and controlling it as compared to rattling away on a keyboard.


At last I found what I was looking for: a narrow alleyway curving away to the right, with a sense of depth and interest but not too complicated. Getting the perspective right was not an issue: bulging walls, crooked rooflines and windows at all heights and angles enabled me to get the sketch looking quite reasonable. An elderly fellow, whose gummy observations were difficult to understand (he was carrying his upper dentures in one hand along with his walking stick, and gesticulating with the other hand) decided that I had to be from Alemagnia – why else would I be sitting on the ground drawing? Shook his head in disbelief when I said “soy australiana” and tottered off down the alleyway.

imageMy next sketch was of a little carved elephant ornament, which has a smaller carved elephant within it … just to make it interesting. I was happy with that too. Now I’ll be carrying my sketching materials with me all the time.


Walk to Santuario Virgen de la Montana

Gloriously sunny day – splendid sunrise at 8 am behind el Santuario Virgen de la Montana, the patron of the city.  This is the destination for the day – a 3 km steady uphill walk guaranteed to provide  spectacular views.

Caceres is located on a river which flows between two sizeable mountains, an excellent strategic site from which to survey the surrounding flat landscape across to distant mountains, including Portugal in the west. The dawn light presents pale layers of soft grey farmland  stretching into a misty distance.

Skirted the walls of the old medieval city and descended to the old bridge (single lane each way) that crosses the river in the heart of the city. The river has long been reduced to a concrete-lined drain; but there was evidence of a baths to one side of it. Then the climb began – up narrow winding streets, past small cottages the fronts of which were entirely clad with glazed ceramic tiles. Front doors open directly onto the footpath, and occasionally one could get glimpses of the interiors – again walls and floors completely clad with glazed tiles. Then suddenly, you’re in the countryside.

It was a hard walk and a series of granite crucifixes lined the way. It finished with a serious stair climb (doesn’t take long to lose fitness level). The view was spectacular, offering glimpses of villages and small towns dotting the distant landscape, as well as a complete view of Carceres – 100,000 people clustered together in 4 to 7 storey high apartment blocks.  No urban sprawl here. The return walk was also demanding owing to the decline, because your toes were constantly pushing down into the front of your boots. The round trip took two hours…finishing with an uphill walk, followed by a stair climb, to the apartment.

Caceres, Estremadura – deep Spain – zombie walk

Really glad to leave Salamanca. Two weeks sharing-an-apartment-with-students was long enough. The need for a clean, private space had well and truly bubbled to the surface. Hauling the suitcase 2 km to the bus station, up hill, was a joy. Begin with the end in mind – Caceres.

The bus from Salamanca went off the freeway, because it services small towns along the way and so that meant the view was interesting. Saw many Camino signs, and a number of walkers doing the Silver Caminio – quite a hike from here. The countryside was mainly open treed rolling hills, and olive or orange groves. Dry stone walls going back centuries checkered the landscape. A few sheep and plenty of cattle, the occasional horse or donkey. Numerous ‘jamon’ processing plants, but no other indicators of pigs. Unlike the sandstone of Salamanca, granitic and slate formations dominated the landscape.

The fourth floor apartment in Calle Alfonso IX has wonderful views across yet another UNESCO world heritage site. And no lift. But not to worry, travelling with only 20 kg of luggage meant it was do-able at the end of a three hour bus ride. The owner of the apartment is most hospitable – an American woman who has lived in Spain for 25 years teaching English. Not too many foreign tourists make it to Caceres, which means it is quiet. So quiet in fact that one can hear one’s ears ringing in the silence (in between the ringing of church bells in the medieval city).

She offered to provide a little guided tour of the  town (and to recommend some great tapas bars), so we headed down to the Plaza Major and came across a great ruckus – zombies! Bloodied nurses holding up drips and wheeling patients in wheelchairs (I’m sure the drips were filled sangria, which can be lethal depending on who mixes the stuff); scores of teenagers on roller blades looking like they’d seriously wiped themselves out with a fall or two – torn jeans, bloodied faces and limbs, bruises, black eyes and lank hair; together with blanched face, black-rimmed eyes children in prams – truly a picture of their blanched face, black-rimmed eyed parents! ‘World War Z’ party time. Any excuse to dress up!


Museo Art Nouveau y Art Deco

An exquisite collection of decorative arts donated to the community of Salamanca by a private collector  and now installed in a palace built at the beginning of the 20th century in the style of Art Nouveau.  Porcelain, enamel – a beautiful pair of enamel vases by Limoges, glass – including perfume bottles, a huge doll collection, some furniture with superb marquetry work, fans, paintings and other collectables.


The most stunning pieces were figurines and statuettes made out of bronze or a combination of bronze and ivory (called chryselephantine, and able to be made because of the huge amount of ivory stock available from the colonies at the end of the 19th century).  Over one hundred pieces, some with classical inspiration, but many reflecting the epochs fascination with the exotic  and mysterious Middle East. Dancing girls, cavorting acrobats, members of the Russian ballet company of Diaghilev – usually one only sees a solitary piece or two such as at the recent NGV Art Deco exhibition. To see so many pieces – beautifully displayed –  illustrated the superb skills of the sculptors and showed the demand and taste of the high bourgeoise of the time.

The museum shop had a wonderful range of items for sale, especially jewellery and books.  In fact, the shop itself is worth a visit – it is a mini version of the museum, the difference being that you can buy lovely reproductions of the originals inside!

Food glorious food

There are dozens of different types of tapas and pinchos to be found here in Salamanca, and it seems that every bar claims they serve a local speciality. And how many delicious specialties there are! Try mussels (stuffed, crumbed, topped with red peppers and a vinaigrette), octopus, squid, tripe (burp), pork trotters (glutinous), crispy pork crackling, 50 different sorts of jamon, sea worms (look like 10cm long pieces of grey pasta and eaten with great gusto), any number of other sea creatures and crustaceans, roasted red peppers, chicken, fish, cheeses, blood sausage, chorizo sausage, potatoes half a dozen ways, croquettes made out of just about anything you might imagine, prawns every which way, Russian salad, fried zucchini … Usually served on a generous slice of crusty bread or in a small dish. Price range 0.70€  to 1.60€.  A glass or two of very nice Rioja and a couple of these delightful dishes and you will still have change out of 5€.

Student digs in Salamanca

Salamanca has the oldest university in Europe, founded in 1218. It is a university city catering to an international student body.  What a great location to study the language! Do the whole learning immersion thing, enrol in a two-week intensive Spanish course in the Tia Tula language school, and live in shared student accommodation with a group of 20-somethings from around the globe.

Olwen the younger cautioned against such accommodation, suggesting the other students may be challenging with their nocturnal activities. However, the Airbnb options in this area were expensive. Besides its all part of the student immersion experience. Señora Maria, the dueña, has an arrangement with the language school to provide basic student accommodation: five two-person bedrooms, two bathrooms, one kitchen – with shared fridge, small sitting room with trestle dining table and assorted chairs. Cost: 14 euros a night.

Fellow students included girls from Trinidad, Korea and the USA, and a guy from the Netherlands.

I took one look at the kitchen and fridge and hit them! There were alien life forms everywhere – or experiments in decay. There was no way I could endure preparing food or even storing it in such an environment. I asked the longest resident, the Dutch guy, whose stuff was whose in order to claim a shelf in the fridge and clean the fridge out. Once that was established I started…mouldy cucumbers, rotting broccoli, brown lemons, swollen milk cartons and past use-by-date yoghurts…and found a couple of containers at the back of the fridge with unidentifiable substances in them. So cleaned them out – only to discover several hours later that the Korean girl had brought this stuff in from Korea because you can’t buy it in Spain (she neglected to declare it on arrival).

No amount of apologies were acceptable; she shut herself in her room and began to weep and wail and howl and scream on her phone. It was a relief when the Trinidadian advised that the Korean was a bit strange, doing things like  drying her hair and doing her teeth in the kitchen – even though they’d all asked her not to – because she doesn’t like bathrooms. She also had no social skills and didn’t want to be in Spain but her parents insisted. Nevertheless, the prospect of sharing  14 days’ accommodation with her was not a pleasant one as she moved into silent treatment mode. Truly, grow up! 24 hours later she moved out and the rest of the residents breathed a collective sigh of relief. I didn’t feel so bad after that.

The language classes run from 4.00pm to 8.00pm, meaning “despues las classes, una copa de vino tinto y tapas o pinchos estan muy necesitos. Vale.”


Its quiet in them thar hills …

“Hills?” I hear you ask. “But you’re in oh-so-flat-Edmonton…” Yes indeed. Off to Jasper in the Rockies, a three-hour drive away. Olwen the younger and her husband Jason’s treat. The trip started in a drive-through place. Jason needed a ‘lurge double double’. Translation: pint of coffee with two serves of cream and two serves of sugar. But it’s not real coffee like in Melbourne (we have established an international reputation for being coffee snobs: YES! Life is too short to drink bad coffee, so I skipped that option). Fried sugar thingos served in paper bags accompanied the coffee (I skipped those too, having had a proper breakfast).

The road was long and straight, with very wide, separate carriageways (the total width of the two-way upgrades on the Hume are as broad as their one-way). Most of the vehicles are big pick-up trucks, and they really move.  The road trains are big too. They really move as well.

A major rail freight line wended its way along side much of the road. They haul freight (mostly lumber or oil) big time here – two locomotives and 145 freight wagons was the norm; saw one with four locomotives – two at each end and lost count of the number of wagons – my eyes went blurry trying to count them at 120km an hour.

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The Rockies are spectacular. We went to a place just outside Jasper called Maligne Falls, a 4km round walk from the car park. The Rockies are sedimentary, and this area in particular is riddled with underground channels and caves through which an incredible volume of water flows. Add the sound of rushing water way down below the footbridges, add an extraordinarily sculpted water course, add aboral forest and you have a scene from a Disney movie – but without cutsie bluebirds. The colours of the surrounding forest were limited to the blue-grey of fir, or the bare speckled grey of ash. Mosses and lichens held the most colour. Because we were a couple of weeks after Fall, we  had missed the brilliant reds and oranges of the beginning of the season.

Once you walked deeper into the forest, and away from the river, the quieter it became. Utterly silent. Even my “cooee!” was muffled. At one point, we espied a squirrel (Jason is enamoured of the little critters). It was about three meters away from us, chomping on a nut. We could hear every nibble because there were no other sounds.  Utterly unlike the Australian bush where you hear trees creaking, the rustle of leaves in even  the smallest of breezes, the raucous cries of an assortment of native birds, the crash of an occasional branch, and the whirr of some passing bug.


Bonuses: saw a couple of magnificent male elk by the roadside, along with a number of does. No moose. 


Edmonton Burlesque Festival

The First Annual Edmonton Burlesque Festival, chaired by Olwen the younger, who was ably assisted by some wonderful Canadians – a number of whom we had the pleasure to meet – was simply fabulous sweetie sweetie dahling! The audiences just loved the shows, and I was as amused watching the audiences’ reactions to the performances as I was watching the performances. Never seen so many tassels, tattoos, tushes or corsets in one place in such a short time! Bought one myself – a corset that is.

Back to the daylight hours – Edmonton is the most sprawling, flat city I have ever experienced. Copenhagen is flatter, but you don’t need a pick-up truck to get to the other side of the street. Without a vehicle here, you are totally stymied. In fact, I felt as though I was travelling through a Hitchcock movie – no pedestrians, all the houses pretty much identical with a basement, two storeys above that and a peaked roof; unless you’re in a condo, then its four storeys, flat roof and neighbours watching the comings and goings because there’s nowt else they seem to do. The furniture in the entry lounge  – accessed through two security doors – was securely fastened to the floor. Right.


The locals were also gearing up for Halloween. They take it really seriously here – saw skeletons emerging from front lawns, cadavers swinging from porches or trees, more tombstones at crooked angles than in the local graveyard, cobwebbing draped everywhere by the meter, and there had to be a special on pumpkins. The bigger the better. Including inflatables. With lights. The Edmonton Art Gallery (an amazing building in itself) had  a special exhibition ‘The House of the Spider Lady’ … an artistic installation that one wandered through: part horror house, movie set, sculpture, gloomy lighting … the most impressive section was the vermin extermination stall, with a string of desiccated rat corpses. The staff were trying to argue that the timing of the exhibition had nothing to do with Halloween. Hmmm. Try convincing someone else … I found it a bit try hard. One redeeming feature of the gallery was a lovely exhibition of watercolours from the Victoria and Albert in London. Just as well I saw them here, because they won’t be there at Christmas when I’m in the UK.

Madrid to Edmonton – on foot

But surely one has to fly?

Indeed that is true for some of the legs of the journey – but remember that the journey started with a suitcase and cabin luggage at the top of ten flights of stairs at 2.30 am. The challenge of getting all one’s clobber down 83 creaking timber stairs quietly, and finishing the decent with a reverberating bang of the massive timber front door because one didn’t quite turn around fast enough to catch it once the luggage is on the footpath, followed by the trundle of suitcase wheels on the cobbled pavement echoing upwards.

The nearby taxi rank had a vehicle so the journey to the airport was fast. In fact, it was the fastest part of the whole trip. However, could have had another hour’s sleep! It was not necessary to leave three hours before take off … and one hour before check in opened, because Madrid to Frankfurt is not an international flight.

Didn’t enter the check-in queue area, just in case the check-in point was changed, so parked luggage near its entry point.  Another traveller pulls up behind with his luggage, and within a short time, a line of people and luggage was stretching to the terminus entry (the mostly German payload was far more orderly than Italians and Spanish when it came to queues). A young woman entered in front of us all, because we weren’t actually in the check in area, looked around, apologised to everyone and moved to the back of the line. Check in opened exactly two hours before departure and we all shuffled forward. Then had to walk to the far end of the terminal to go through security, up escalators, down escalators, stuck behind wandering travellers who can’t control their cabin bag trolleys  and who have to make sudden stops, get to the gate lounge and discover that a bus ride out to the plane awaits us. We couldn’t have fallen over in the buses because we were jam packed. Aah, the intimacy of travel.

The two hour gap between landing in Frankfurt and departing for Calgary was action packed. Frankfurt is a very large international hub, and serious walking started here – at least 2.5 km from the point of disembarkation at the very end of one terminus (are there really that many gate lounges and no travelators), to the beginning of a long tunnel (is it really that long – thank goodness it has some travelators), through the tunnel, to embarkation at the very end of another terminus (and more wandering travellers getting in the way). Toss in a slow passport check in the middle of the journey, because the biometric scanners weren’t working, and one’s sense of equanimity in anticipation of a ten-hour flight to Calgary fades.  Didn’t stop to buy any hot German sausage because of a sense of urgency to get to the the gate lounge an unknown distance away.

The view of the Rockies was impressive. (It almost made up for the airplane food – the sort that jokes are made about, and you’d laugh if you could, but for the fact it’s so bad. Thoughts of the missed sausage frequently drifted back). We are disembarked … yes … at the end of the terminus furthest possible from the luggage area and passport control. Another long walk. In answer to his question, “Where are you staying in Canada”, the answer “Edmonton” left the passport officer genuinely amused. “Why? there’s nothing there!” was his response.

To reach the plane for Edmonton, one had to cross the icily cold windswept tarmac.  The flight  was in a Dash 8 (a twin prop, everything vibrating, deafeningly droning plane which takes a payload of 46 passengers – most of whom were wearing checked shirts and baseball caps).

Edmonton (pop 750,000) was even colder than Calgary. Its architecture looks very sixties. 60 km of  urban sprawl, comprised of mostly three-storey high grey and white metal clad houses, massive pick-up trucks, wide concrete roads and no people, characterised the journey from the airport to the condo. This is a city heavily characterised by motor vehicles. Big ones.

Comprar un ‘electric toothbrush’ en Espana

Step one: visit Museo Centro de Arte Reina Sofia. Good time to get there is around 11.00hrs. It’s just before the tourist buses and the school groups arrive. That meant the room displaying Guernica only had a small crowd of around 25 personas (last visit in 2012 there were around 80 personas plus a scissor lift for curators doing a close inspection of the work). Today there was plenty of time and space to see works by Miro, Dali and Picasso. Fantastic and interesting. The lifts at the Museo are a challenge: all they do is go all the way down, and then all the way up. There is no way that they will go down a level and then return. The stairs were a very attractive alternative option to lifts – particularly when you’re trying to get out of a lift and others are trying to get in before you get out. Tourists!

But back to the toothbrush. El Corte Ingles is the shop for most things. But don’t expect its layout to make sense. One may purchase an electric toothbrush in the basement supermercado. But there are no spare brush heads. Spare brush heads, one discovers, are in the para-perfumerie upstairs. Which is actually a para-farmacia. The para-farmacia has the same electric toothbrush that is downstairs. But the electric toothbrush costs less downstairs that the one in the para-farmacia. Back downstairs to purchase electric toothbrush of choice, and back upstairs to  purchase spare brush heads. Did you know there are four sorts of toothbrush heads that can be fitted to an Oral B Braun? The Germans  seem to think of all the options ( well – there are four with this toothbrush).

Purchasing the toothbrush took at least an hour. Una copa de Rioja was necessito to recover from the experience.

Museo National Centro de Arte Reina Sofia

Note to self: check days that it’s open. Hmmm – why was there no queue? Because it’s closed on Tuesdays!

Resort to back up plan: Museo Naval. Let’s take the short cut through the Real Jardin Botanico. Fantastic! Only one entry – at the other end of the gardens – which is a good kilometre away. Who didn’t read the map?

Museo Naval – which is supposed to be free to holders of the Tarjeta Annual de Museos (year long entry to a whole number of museos, priority entry – just love queue jumping with a quiet smug smile), is not free today because there’s a special exhibition commemorating 500 years in the Pacifico. Bale, 3 euros is affordable. The museum was a fascinating place – loads of model ships (my dad could have spent days in this place) – which were constructed to inform the design and construction of the real thing. A considerable collection of weaponry as well – nasty stuff designed to cause maximum damage to the poor bastard on the receiving end of the pointy part.

Back to the apartamento: a two-element cooktop requires a creative response with chicken, potato, onion, fungi and cayenne pepper seeds (the only condiment in the apartamento other than sal). Several glasses of Rioja make everything taste just marvellous. Note to interested drinkers of red wine in Espana: a bottle of very drinkable Rioja costs about the same as a glass of paint- stripper house red at the local bar.

Substantial lunch and bottle of Rioja later, a visit to the Museo del Romantico is required (still making up for the Reina Sofia being closed). This time fast entry with Museo card and smug smile works. Bored museo employees make sure one stays on the grey carpet (protecting original rugs). It was a delightful journey through the home of a very well-to-do family in Madrid in the 19th Century. Gorgeous doll houses with miniature furniture and tiny chess sets carved out of ivory give one a sense of the wealth of the well-heeled. As to the life of those who kept the household functioning – the ‘downstairs employees’- one can only guess. And that’s the thing that is essentially missing from all of the art: the life of the common people. It is inferred rather than made visible. The lives of the wealthy are clearly recorded in their commissioned portraits (skilful artists captured arrogance or disaffection with life in their subjects through tiny details in the eyes or curl of the mouth).




Each day begins with a cafe solo in a local bar, and a deep inhalation of the warm,freshly baked fragrance of amazing arrays of pastries and biscuits.  English Breakfast tea just doesn’t hit the spot in Spain.  A local mercado provides ample opportunity to practice basic   Spanish and purchase great local produce – jamon, quesos, olivas, vino, pan.

Madrid invites walking and people watching – but the diversity of nationalities appears to be far less than Melbourne. Chueca, as it turns out, is the gay heart of Madrid. Many of the bars are overtly directed to gay clientele – and there’s an unusual lingerie store just down the calle from the apartment. Itsy-bitsy dogs are de rigeur, and one of the residents in the apartment block has two yappy toilet-brush breed pooches. Their carefully groomed coats contrast with his carefully shaved pate.

But back to World Heritage listed Sergovia…a fast train trip out of Madrid…and featuring a 2000 year old Roman Aqueduct, still standing, built without mortar, and originally 15 kms long.  It’s a masterful piece of engineering construction, being over 28 meters at its highest point. The holes in the stones where the scaffolding was inserted so that the blocks could be raised into place bring a sense of humanity to the structure and cause one to think about the slaves who suffered and died as a consequence of its construction. Children now run along an accessible part of the water channel.


The city itself sits on a strategic vantage point in relation to the countryside. The city walls reflect a time when fear of attack was a constant reality. The power and presence of the Catholic church is everywhere, with the highlight being the Nuestra Señora de la Asuncion y San Frutos Cathedral. The builders who started it never saw the finished product – it took 200 years to build.  The skill of the stonemasons is breathtaking. Around the cloisters the arches are filled with stone lace; every column is topped with an individually carved capital; the keystones in the curved stone ceilings are individualised stone rosettas. The overall effect is one of light and space, as well as reflecting the wealth of the church. Leaving the gothic majesty of the cathedral aside, Sergovia itself invites ambling off the main tourist shopping drag. One building is on the verge of collapse, and a four storey high Meccano-like structure is stopping the bulge from bursting. If it goes, at least one other building down the hill from the compromised building will be taken down as well.

By contrast, the bus route to the station traverses rather brutal dormitory  suburbs.

Getting started

I’ve always kept a travel journal whenever I’ve gone overseas, and a collection of journals sits in a square wicker basket in the Ikea 4×4 bookshelf in the study. I have had good intentions of compiling them into a travelogue, but doubt that I will. All the little bits and pieces – tickets, cards and such – dutifully pasted onto the pages, make the journals special to me.

Those journals covered no more than a month or two of travel. This journal will cover a nine month journey. If I stick to keeping it. Once I decide the voice and point of view. And the focus…and the target audience.

October 2013: the beginning of the adventure.

7 October: Tullamarine International Airport. Lucky me! Not only am I checked for explosives (happens every time I travel), my carry-on luggage is searched and my passport doesn’t scan properly.  All this does not put me in a good frame of mind for a long haul flight to Madrid via Dubai.

Emirates makes economy travel as comfortable as one can hope for at the price.  The food is fine (all those lids and packets to keep one busy) and there was plenty of it, there is some space between one’s knees and the seat in front, and the in-flight entertainment  is good. But 22 hours in the air is still 22 hours of confined space and restricted movement.

Diversions included: spotting the pyramids – the urban sprawl of Cairo presses in so close to them (to achieve shots of pyramids with a desert backdrop, the angles must now be carefully considered); crossing the coast of North Africa and seeing small settlements clinging to the Mediterranean shore and pressing in on all sides the vastness of the desert; crossing over the islands of Formentera and Ibiza and shortly afterwards, the coast of Spain.

Having a British passport meant Entry at Madrid International was a breeze. Then having to wait an hour for the luggage to emerge was tedious. But that’s travel for you. Hurry up to wait. Taxi was the travel choice for the last leg of the journey – public transport required three train changes, would take two hours at least and was just too complicated to bother with at such a time.

Whenever I land in a new city, I like to get a sense of place as fast as possible (which way is north is always helpful), but I was too tired to have a sense of where I was. The cab seemed to go around in circles (the following day I realised that was necessary because many of the narrow streets of the centre of Madrid are one way).

Nice cosy apartment in Malasana-Chueca. The driver found the street, but the instructions were confusing as to which portal: was it number 3 or number 6? Couldn’t contact the owner because the phone wasn’t set up for international roaming. Luckily a nearby bar was open and the bartender – a tall, louche young Spaniard and a solidly built older chef – were most helpful, pouring over the Airbnb travel document, as if reading both sides more than once would clarify where the place actually was. They kindly allowed use of their phone to contact the owner. Two cervesas and 40 minutes later Luis arrived and entry was possible.


To access Piso 5 meant ascending ten flights of stairs. 18 kgs of luggage became much heavier the further one clambered. “Nine days of stair climbing will do wonderful things for fitness levels,” I gasped encouragingly to myself. “Think positively girl. Next time the luggage is handled is on the way down!” The apartment is a lovely little attico in the roof space of a very old building. A clever renovation has created a neat bathroom and compact kitchen built in under the roof. Watch out for the beams in the sloping ceiling. The sleeping area is mezzanine, accessed by ladder. Again, keep an eye on the beams and stay on your knees. A comfortable living area with parquetry flooring and a small dining area to one side completes the space.