South Wales, Port Talbot and Famous Movie Stars

Aberavon Swansea Bay

“I would like to go back to Wales. I’m obsessed with my childhood and at least three times a week dream I am back there” – Anthony Hopkins

After a comfortable night in the caravan and a full English breakfast in the morning I tentatively raised the subject of plans for the day.

I hope that he won’t mind me saying but my travelling companion is rather eclectic by nature and I knew that he had a lot of things that he wanted to show me but I was certain that he didn’t really have what you would call a schedule  to follow.  It was a tough thirty minutes or so putting a sensible itinerary together but this was essential because without a set route we would almost certainly have been driving all around South Wales in a completely ragged and hopelessly disorganised way and contributing thousands of tonnes of CO2 towards global warming.

To begin with we drove west towards Swansea because our first destination was Aberavon close to the steel town of Port Talbot and we come now to the question of the Welsh language because as an Englishman I confess that I am seriously confused about the naming of Port Talbot.

The Welsh Language Society (Cymdeithas yr Iaith) has spent several years obsessively insisting on using Welsh place names instead of English; for example Cardiff is now Caerdydd*, Swansea is Abertawe and Merthyr Tidfil has amusingly become Merthyr Tudful and this is why I am confused because Port Talbot stubbornly remains Port Talbot, curious because it is named (wash your mouth out) after an English landowning family, the Talbots, who built the port there.

Let’s think about it.  What used to be Portmadoc in North Wales has become Porthmadog  and just west of Swansea Burry Port is Porth Tywyn, so following that line of logic Port Talbot should surely be something like Porth Turbot but whilst Cymdeithas yr Iaith have zealously removed as many English place names as possible Port Talbot curiously remains Port Talbot. But then, who wants to be called after a fish in any language

steel-works-sign

Welsh is a noble ancient language but the absurd thing is that Cymdeithas yr Iaith are so opposed to anything remotely English that when there is no equivalent (traditional) Welsh word they just make one up (except for Port Talbot).  Last time I identified Tacsi and Ambiwlans, two completely unnecessary new words that have been added to the lexicon of Wales and now I present further evidence such as  ffacs (for fax), garag (garage) and compiwter (computer) but driving along today I came upon possibly the best example of all.

We drove past the entrance to a GOLF course.

The game of golf originated in Scotland and is played all over the World.  All over the World it is called GOLF, every country in Western Europe calls it GOLF (check it out if you don’t believe me – Catalan, Basque, Galician) if Scotland had a language it would almost certainly call it GOLF, but in Wales they have decided to call it GOLFF which is surely language revisionism at its most absurd.

I laughed so much I almost had to pull over and stop for fear of crashing the car!

Port Talbot Steel works from Aberavon Beach

After  some confusion and an unnecessary detour through the town we eventually arrived at the seafront and a stunning three-mile wide beach, perhaps one of the best beaches that you could ever hope to see, magnificent golden honey-comb sand only just separated from a burning blue sky by a foaming white surf, certainly one of the finest that I have ever set foot on and I walked to the shoreline and admired the views that perfectly combined natural and built environment with the Port Talbot steel works to my left and the docks of Swansea to my right, a pair of modern industrial pincers surrounding the idyllic Swansea Bay and the Bristol Channel beyond.

I could have stayed much longer, but…

… of course my pal hadn’t brought me here to see the beach because there were more important things to tell me about. Film actors!  Because Port Talbot is blessed by being either birthplace or nearby birthplace or the home to some of the film industries most famous people.

Burton Hopkins Sheen

Richard Burton was born in nearby Pontrhydyfen, Anthony Hopkins was born in Margam and Michael Sheen (born in Newport) was bought up in Port Talbot.  My friend likes these bits of information and we spoke about our visit to a local man on the promenade.  “A shame you weren’t here three days ago”, he said, “Anthony Hopkins was here shopping in the pie shop”.

Quite frankly this sounded rather unlikely to me and I thought straight away that it was a little joke at our expense.  I did some research when I returned home and it turns out to be entirely true, he was indeed in South Wales just a week before our visit.  Nevertheless, call me a sceptic if you like but I somehow doubt that Anthony Hopkins, who lives in Malibu, California and enjoys a life of fine dining experiences, has any sort of fantasies about tucking into a Peter’s Pie!

anthony-hopkind-dreams-of-pies

We left Aberavon and Port Talbot and made our way north-east towards the Rhondda Valley stopping on the way at the village of Pontrhydyfen to see the house where Richard Burton was born and the pub The Miners Arms which proudly displays old photographs of the actor on his many visits home including a famous return in 1972 when he took Elizabeth Taylor to meet his family while filming the movie “Under Milk Wood”.

It must have been great to be in The Miners Arms the night Burton turned up there. Drinks all round and all of it charged to Richard’s bar bill!

I thought about this.  Everyone has to come from somewhere, however remote, however grubby, however humble.  I guess if I were rich and successful and married to one of the most famous woman in the world I’d probably want to take her back to my home town to meet the folks just as Richard did.

After Pontrhydyfen we drove to the Rhondda an area consisting  made up of two valleys, those of the larger Rhondda Fawr valley (mawr large) and the smaller Rhondda Fach valley (bach small).  We reached Rhondda Fawr and after an argument about the route headed north towards the Brecon Beacons.  My route because I was driving!

burton-visit

An interesting picture, Richard looks likes he wants to get it over with and Elizabeth looks as though she is ready to bail out – “I’m a celebrity get me out of here!”

* I wonder if the Welsh Language Society are aware that there are five towns in the USA (in Alabama, California, Illonois, Maryland and Tennessee) called Cardiff and none of them are referred to as Caerdydd.  If I were Cymdeithas yr Iaith I would be urgently taking that up with The United States Board on Geographic Names!

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Monday in Malta

Valletta Malta

“Valletta equals in its noble architecture, if it does not excel, any capital in Europe. The city is one of the most beautiful, for its architecture and the splendour of its streets that I know: something between Venice and Cadiz.”  Benjamin Disraeli

Read the Full Story…

South Wales, Taking The Fosse Way to Trecco Bay

porthcawl-has-everything

“My studies have satisfied me that a gifted person ought to learn English (barring spelling and pronouncing) in thirty hours, French in thirty days, and German in thirty years.”  –  Mark Twain, ‘A Tramp Abroad –That Awful German Language’

Just a few months ago I went to mid Wales and stayed in a caravan in Borth, near Aberystwyth.  Naturally I wrote about the experience.  In one post I talked about some things I find amusing about the  Welsh Language. I find things amusing about most languages, even English.  Just a bit of fun, nothing remotely malicious. Rather like Mark Twain I like to think.

I received a lot of negative response.  The really gross stuff with the dreadfully bad language and the most appalling racist personal abuse I deleted but some of the less offensive comments I allowed to stay attached to the post just to demonstrate how some half-wit ignorant people have no sense of humour.

Salvidor Dali once said, “Each morning when I awake, I experience again a supreme pleasure – that of being Salvador Dali.”  and I rather feel like that about being English!

One responder accused me of being a “cultureless, uncouth, knuckle-dragging racist” and warned me never to visit Wales again because I would not be even half-welcome in the hillsides.  I saw the funny side in that comment because in spitting out his obnoxious bile he must surely have been looking in a mirror when he wrote it.  As his blood boiled and his brain fried I am certain that the irony was lost on him!

I ignored him and risking assault with a deadly dictionary set off in October for another caravan holiday this time in the south, to Porthcawl and the holiday village at Trecco Bay.

Undeterred, I will return to the issue of the Welsh language again later…

dictionary-attack

It was a long difficult two hundred and seventy mile journey from Lincolnshire to Porthcawl but as soon as I arrived I knew that I was going to like it there.

South Wales isn’t new to me of course, I studied history at Cardiff University between 1972 to 1975, worked a summer season at Butlin’s Holiday Camp at Barry Island and I have visited several times since but on this occasion I was travelling with my good friend who hails from the Rhondda Valley and he had promised to show me some things that I might not otherwise have expected to see.  A privileged insider’s view as it were and I was looking forward to that!

The Parkdean holiday site was neat and tidy and the caravan was equipped as though it were my home, central heating, cooker, fridge/freezer etc.  It is a big site, once, it is claimed, the largest in the United Kingdom which was once host to hundreds of holidaymaker families from the South Wales valleys.  To assist with orientation it is divided into sectors, all named after trees.  Finding the caravan was rather like being lost in a forest.  We were in the Cedars district.

trecco-bay-caravan-park

This reminded me of a weekend trip to Haugesund in Norway a few years ago.  I stayed at the Hotel Amanda which is home to the annual Norwegian film festival and the whole place had a movie theme with every room named after a famous film.

I would have liked to have been allocated the Gladiator suite but we were given Shane, named after the famous 1953 Alan Ladd western (one of my favourites by the way), which although not as exciting as Ben Hur or Spartacus was a whole lot better than the Rosemary’s Baby room on the opposite side of the corridor because I could have guaranteed nightmares if we had been sleeping there.  Actually, I might have refused to attempt sleep in there at all!

This is Marilyn Monroe in Haugesund

Marilyn Monroe Haugesund Norway

It had been a long day, my pal had recommended a rather curious route which I should have challenged but was foolish enough to agree to which took us along the Fosse Way, an ancient Roman Road, almost two thousand years old and complete with all original hazards, then through the crowded and always overrated Cotswolds, a tedious crawl through Cheltenham and Gloucester with a hundred or so red lights to negotiate and then a drive through the frankly uninspiring Forest of Dean.

I am not saying the Forest of Dean is uninspiring in general you understand, just this bit of it where the road carves through.  Before going on I want to clear that up because I don’t want the good folk of Gloucestershire getting upset with me.  I am likely to have enough trouble in Wales!

fosse-way

I am not usually that enthusiastic about motorways but boy was I glad to reach the M4 for the final thirty miles and vowed there and then to take the motorway option back home at the end of the week.

Oh, I nearly forgot to mention – on the way (about two hours previously) I had taken a short detour through the town of Rugby in Warwickshire which is where I had grown up as a young boy and a teenager but I failed to generate much interest in that, not even a short walk to see a statue of the poet Rupert Brooke or to visit the Gilbert Rugby Ball Museum.

As a consequence of dashing through Rugby and then failing to find anywhere suitable for a lunch stop on the Fosse Way (since the Romans left nobody uses the Fosse Way any more so there are no pubs or service stations, not even for a Caesar Salad) we arrived in Trecco Bay a little earlier than I had imagined we would.

fosse-way-service-station

An odd thing was that it wasn’t raining.

If you have ever been to Wales then you probably won’t believe that so I will say it again, in fact I will shout it out loud – it wasn’t raining!  It always rains when I go to Wales but this evening there was blue sky and the prospect of a good sunset so after allocating rooms and settling in I made my way to the beach and waited for a Welsh Dragon to breathe fire and turn the sky red and after only a short while I was not disappointed.

Wales Porthcawl Sunset

Greek Islands, Final Days and a Last Walk

cyclades-postcard

“… but God’s magic is still at work and no matter what the race of man may do or try to do, Greece is still a sacred precinct – and my belief is it will remain so until the end of time.” – Henry Miller, ‘Collosus of Maroussi’

Leaving Tinos the Blue Star ferry made its way to neighbouring Mykonos where we would be spending the last two days of our trip before flying home.

Usually we choose to stay in traditional accommodation with average prices but for the last two days we had selected instead to stay at a more expensive boutique hotel just outside the Chora.  Actually, it wasn’t that expensive just a bit more than we like to pay and the result was that we were allocated a very nice room with a balcony and a Jacuzzi and a glorious view over the town and the bay.

Mykonos Street 1

By comparison the mini-bar and restaurant prices were ludicrously astronomical so it didn’t take us long to make a decision to take a walk back into the centre for an afternoon stroll, search for a sunset and then find a reasonably priced taverna for evening meal.

Now at the end of our holiday we challenged each other to record the highs and lows of the three week trip.  We didn’t agree entirely with each other but I think this list of highlights is safe enough to share…

  1. Amorgos was our favourite island
  2. Homer’s Inn on Ios was, as always our favourite hotel
  3. The gyros in Syros was our favourite meal
  4. Mountain tracks on Amorgos were our favourite walks
  5. The seven hour ferry journey from Ios to Syros (Andrew)

We struggled to make a list of low-lights but these were suggestions…

  1. Car hire in Amorgos
  2. Cruise ships in Mykonos
  3. The seven hour ferry journey from Ios to Syros (Kim)

The list complete we thought about our last day and agreed that it might be a good idea to try and break our walking record and see if we could crash through the ten mile barrier so we decided to start early and walk to Ornos where we had stayed two weeks previously and then on to Agios Ioannis and then return.

Walking in Mykonos

So, next day we did just that and immediately after a rather chaotic hotel breakfast we packed our rucksacks and set off.

It was late October now and the scorching summer weather was on the glorious tipping point into Autumn and there was a welcome breeze, well, wind actually, which made it a pleasant walk to the south of the island.  Once there we thought about a swim in the sea but the beach was still crowded with sun-worshippers cluttering up the beach so we passed straight through and on to Agios Ioannis where we stopped to swim for the last time this year and then to have a drink before retracing our steps stopping in Ornos on the way for a light lunch.

The taverna was next to the bus stop and there a middle-aged shabbily dressed American with grizzled grey hair and an extravagant pony tail was giving Greece travel advice to a younger woman who had admiring doe eyes and was hanging on to his every word as though he was Ernest Hemingway or Henry Miller or Rick Steves.  Some of the advice was quite useful as it turned out but it dried up when the bus arrived and they climbed aboard and left.

We left shortly after and walked the two miles back to the hotel where we sat in the sun, arranged our suitcases ready for the journey home and enjoyed some time in the Jacuzzi.

mykonos-jacuzzi

For evening meal we had chosen a beach side taverna a little way out of the town (we needed the steps) and we presented ourselves at the agreed time of eight o’clock.  It was a busy restaurant and we were obliged to share a table with a couple from France who arrived shortly after us and were both clearly very drunk.  They ordered several starter plates and a bottle of retsina and then nibbled at the food and got seriously stuck into the wine.  They were generous with their food and invited us to share but I noticed they didn’t offer any wine.  They ate almost nothing but very quickly ordered a second bottle.

As we ate the American and his adoring companion walked by and although I am certain they had only recently met they were now holding hands.

It was a good meal, perhaps the best of the holiday? I don’t know, I can’t really be sure, but we enjoyed the musicians who played traditional Greek music throughout the evening and the amusing company.  He danced, she chatted, they were clearly local celebrities and when it was time to go we said goodbye and as we left they ordered their third bottle of retsina!

Greek Dancing

We walked back and saw the American and his friend who were now walking arm-in-arm – the old man of the sea had clearly been hooked.  Back at the room we checked the pedometer – 10.35 miles, we had broken our record and we were self-congratulatory about that.

On the final morning I was surprised to see no cruise ships in the harbour or the bay so anticipating that this might make a difference I made a final visit to the town.  It was charming, empty, quiet, unhurried and delightful.  Without hordes of cruiser invaders the little streets of the town had a whole different ambience and improved quality.  I liked it so much I did at least two full circuits of the town and I was so happy to see it like this in the last few hours before returning back home.

We had enjoyed the Cyclades and agreed that we certainly wouldn’t leave it another five years before returning to one of our favourite places.

Ios Unique Restaurant

Greek Islands – Tinos, St Pelagia and Pilgrimage

tinos-pilgrim-statue

“Tinos, where the little hanging offerings of crutches, bandages and paintings, testify to the miracle having taken place, and remind one once again that here, as in the ruined and forsaken shrines to Aesculapius, healing and divination are one.” – Lawrence Durrell – ‘Reflections on a Marine Venus’

The ferry from Syros took us first to the intriguing island of nearby Tinos which is a secretive place that doesn’t feature very often on holiday itineraries.  As we approached the port we could see that not being a holiday island it wasn’t going to any special effort to become one and the harbour front was rather functional and utilitarian and without the ribbon of colourful bars and tavernas to which we had become accustomed.

Actually, although it didn’t seem a tourist hot spot to us as we approached the harbour, it turns out that Tinos, a large island just northwest of Mykonos, is in fact the most visited of all Greek Islands.  Not with overseas visitors however because 90% are Greek and since Greeks come looking for an authentic experience even the most tourist friendly places retain a feeling of originality and visiting the island is a more genuine and unique experience than say Mykonos or Santorini.

Greek Doors 2016 (3)

One of the reasons so many Greeks visit Tinos is that it is an intensely religious island famous most of all for the Church of Panagia Evangelistria which holds a reputedly miraculous icon of the Virgin Mary and is the venue for an annual pilgrimage that is perhaps the most notable religious pilgrimage in the region of the eastern Mediterranean.

Many pilgrims make their way the eight hundred metres from the ferry wharf to the church on their hands and knees as an extreme sign of devotion.  It was extremely hot and it was hard enough work just walking up the long hill to the church so I imagine that you would have to be seriously determined to do it on all fours, although to be fair there is a ragged strip of dusty red carpet at the edge of the pavement to stop pilgrims ripping their hands and knees to shreds or getting stuck in the melting tarmac.

On the way to the church there were old fashioned stores selling various sizes of candles to take to the church and instead of postcards there were racks of cards each with a picture of a part of the body.

The shopkeepers could speak little English so couldn’t explain what these were but we eventually worked it out for ourselves.  If you have a bad limp then you buy a leg picture, a poorly arm an elbow picture, a hangover a brain picture, if you are going to crawl to the church you will probably need a knee picture and so on and then you take this to the Church and ask for a cure and secure it to an icon and when you leave just to be certain so that God doesn’t just simply forget about it shortly after you have gone light a candle to remind him.  The bigger the candle the better and some of these monsters, without exaggeration, were easily four feet tall and a real fire hazard I can tell you!

pelagia-of-tinos

We reached the brilliant white Renaissance style Church, gleaming like a fresh fall of snow and went inside to see the miraculous icon which according to tradition was conveniently found after the Virgin appeared to the nun, St. Pelagia, and revealed to her the place where the icon was buried.

By suspicious coincidence the icon was found on the very first days after the creation of the modern Greek State and henceforth Our Lady of Tinos was declared the patron saint of the Greek nation.  Inside the church it was hard to find because in contrast to the bright sunshine outside it was dark and oppressive with the sickly aroma of incense exaggerated by the heat of the burning candles but eventually we found it, almost completely encased in silver, gold, and jewels, and with a line of people waiting their turn to admire it and place a gentle kiss upon its base.

All of this icon kissing means quite a lot of unwanted spit and saliva of course so to deal with this, cleaning ladies with spray cleaners and dusters circulated constantly to deal with the slobber and the germs on a continuous and never ending polishing circuit of the church.

After we had seen the church and wandered around the gardens for a while we walked back down the long hill and back to the harbour where we walked rather aimlessly until we came across the best of the bars that we could find and stopped for a drink while we waited for the ferry to Mykonos.

 

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One Door Closes….

Spain Door Catalonia

Greek Islands, Old Doors of Syros

Syros Mansion WindowsSyros delapedated windowsSyros Greece Old DoorSyros Greece Old Door