Spotted on a nearby beach constructed by two children with the same imagination as Antoni Gaudi.
Have Bag, Will Travel
- 927,126 hits
Search my Site
Spotted on a nearby beach constructed by two children with the same imagination as Antoni Gaudi.
A year ago I spent a week in Northern France with family and friends. Click on an image to scroll through the pictures…
“… Spain, so long obsessed with the unity of authority, will loosen itself one day into a federal state… this redistribution of its powers will prove to be the most distinctly Spanish contribution to the progress of the nation states.” – Jan Morris – ‘Spain
I had been to Catalonia before but on that occasion without knowing as much as I do now I had a lot to learn. That within the Spanish Constitution it is defined as a ‘Nationality’ and enjoys significant regional autonomy it has its own distinct language and is culturally very different to the Spain of Castile. There is no mention here of El Cid or Don Quixote but rather of Antoni Gaudi and Salvador Dali and in 2012 the Catalan parliament even banned the iconic Spanish sport of bull fighting.
A bit of quick history – Catalonia was created by Charlemagne as a buffer state to protect the northern Frankish Empire from the threat of further northern expansion by the Moors and like all buffer states that has meant a turbulent history, squeezed between more powerful neighbours, its borders frequently rearranged, dismantled, absorbed and passed back and forth like a baton in a relay race depending upon the prevailing balance of power.
In 1492 Catholic Spain was united through the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella and the new power based in Madrid favoured Seville and Cadiz over Catalonia for monopoly of the New World trade routes and sea there power gradually declined, later there was conflict with Madrid again during the Thirty Year’s War and then The War of The Spanish Succession when Catalonia seemed to have an unfortunate tendency to back the losing side and then suffer the inevitable consequences when it came to peace and settlement.
During and after the Spanish Civil War Catalonia was one of the last Republican and Socialist areas to fall to the Nationalists of General Franco and then paid the price through years of recriminations, subjugation and suppression of its language and culture as the fascist government in Madrid set out to stamp the authority of Castile on its troublesome region.
The most recent conflict came very recently. A controversial independence referendum was held in October 2017, declared illegal one month later and suspended by the Constitutional Court of Spain because it breached the 1978 Constitution. In October, the Court suspended the Catalan Parliament after President Carles Puigdemont signed a declaration of independence.
In response the Prime Minister of Spain, Mariano Rajoy dismissed the Executive Council of Catalonia, dissolving the Parliament of Catalonia. The referendum led to the arrests of several pro-independence politicians and Puigdemont fled into exile in Belgium.
Today the concept of independent Catalonia is not recognized or supported by the European Union or the international community, which regards the region as an integral part of the Kingdom of Spain.
Everywhere in Barcelona there are a lot of buildings draped with the red and gold flag of Catalonia, some already anticipating a successful transition to independence and rather prematurely announcing themselves as ‘A New State for Europe’. Everywhere there are Catalan flags and symbols, Catalan always comes first in guide books and menus, shops don’t sell King Felipe souvenirs, on official guides the flag of Spain is almost always defaced and the away team colours of FC Barcelona are the red and gold of Catalonia.
Here in Barcelona the hotel staff told me that they considered themselves to be Catalan first and Spanish second although they feared that any referendum for independence would ultimately fail because of the inherent conservatism of the older generation and because, whatever the outcome of a vote, Madrid would simply never allow it.
I have to conclude that Catalonia certainly doesn’t feel like the classic Spain of Castile but then again Andalusia doesn’t actually feel like the classic Spain of Castile either. I have now visited fifteen of the seventeen Autonomous Communities and I would find it very difficult to choose one that I might then suggest is most representative of the usual English vision and expectation of Spain. Castile must come close, or perhaps Valencia or even Extremadura, certainly not Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria or the Basque Country and I am yet to travel to La Rioja or Navarre so cannot offer an opinion on these.
As well as history, economics is a major driving force behind the independence movement because Catalonia is one of the most prosperous of the Spanish Communities and although it enjoys considerable autonomy it resents contributing almost 20% of revenues paid to Madrid and feels hard done by in terms of inward investment in their region in return.
It is the sixth largest region, has the sixth largest coastline and is sixth largest by population density (second overall after Andalusia). If it were to achieve independence it would be the twelfth smallest state in Europe just slightly larger than Belgium but a bit smaller than the Netherlands, it would have ninety of Spain’s five hundred and fifty blue flag beaches (16%) and six of its forty-four World Heritage sites (14%).
This is me with two life size figures dressed in Catalan National Costume…
We walked through arches and buttresses, past turrets and balconies and occasionally here and there a little oasis of green amongst the dusty streets and then interesting narrow roads and every one with a surprise around each crooked turn.
In the late afternoon we walked to the top of the town and climbed to the top of the restored clock tower next to Sulliman’s Mosque for some good views of the town and the harbour. There was an entrance charge of €5 but that turned out to be good value because the price included a drink in the roof top bar terrace where we sat and enjoyed the views.
“Rome is stately and impressive; Florence is all beauty and enchantment; Genoa is picturesque; Venice is a dream city; but Naples is simply fascinating”.– Lilian Whiting
On the way back to Ercolano railway station we had a little bit of a misunderstanding about coffee and cake. Kim wanted coffee and cake and spotted a café and I rejected it because it was on the shady side of the street confidently predicting that there was sure there would be another one further along in the sun. As it turned out there wasn’t so we stopped instead at a bar with a pushy waitress and had an alternative beer. We should have been eating gooey cake but I was in a sticky situation!
The train ride back to Naples was less crowded and a little more comfortable than the outward journey and thirty minutes or so later we arrived at the railway terminus and our plan now was to walk directly to the harbour and the sea of the Bay of Naples.
The direct route was along the arterial Corso Umberto I (an unfortunate king who was assassinated in 1900) and brought us to a magnificent statue of King Victor Emanuel II, his father and the first King of United Italy in 1861. This was not a pleasant walk I have to say, too much growling traffic and a rather featureless route, I preferred the noisy and chaotic back streets.
We reached the sea at the Castel Nuevo and the Palazza Reale, once a royal palace but now a museum and an opera house. We originally planned to go further but we now agreed that after a long day this was rather ambitious so we turned our backs on the seafront and made our way back to the accommodation passing again through the crumbling architecture of the back streets.
I had a mind to visit an underground exhibition of a subterranean archaeological project called ‘Underground Naples’ but Kim wondered why we might go underground to look at Roman houses when only this morning we had seen them on the surface on in the sunshine. I had to agree with her logic so we went for a drink at a pavement bar instead before going back for a short rest and preparation for evening meal.
There was no debate to be had about this and we returned to the pizzeria that we had enjoyed last night but this time we had double helpings of the buffalo mozzarella starter and we shared a pizza with a house red in a cracked pot to compliment it.
The following morning our plan was to finish what we started yesterday and make the long walk to the seafront and we set off soon after breakfast and after only thirty minutes arrived at Piazza del Plebiscito (the header picture) an elegant square first commissioned in the memory of Napoleon Bonaparte but famous most of all because in a public vote in 1860 this is where the Kingdom of Naples agreed to become part of United Italy. a sort of reverse Brexit as it were!
As we walked north along the side of the Bay we knew that we were in an altogether different area of Naples, no grime here, just swanky yachts to our left and grand expensive hotels to our right. I recall reading once, some time ago, that the Bay of Naples was the most horribly polluted part of the Mediterranean Sea but someone has been clearing it up and not any more it isn’t. The water was crystal clear and people were swimming in the sea and fishermen and a procession of boats were making their way to the shell fish harvesting areas.
At the Castel dell’Ovo admission to the once mighty fortress was free (which is always a bonus) so we climbed to the top and enjoyed views of Vesuvius on one side and the waterfront of Naples on the other. Let me say, no one should miss visiting Naples, it was once part of the Grand Tour of Europe and surely it should be again. Just my opinion.
It was busy today so after the castle we strayed back inland back towards Piazza del Plebiscito where it was time for a drinks break and this is where we suffered the indignity of being thrown out of a restaurant.
It advertised bargain price beer and wine and as we examined the menu a waiter gathered us up like a shepherd and insisted that we go inside. He showed us to a table and provided us with menus. We told him that we only wanted a drink and this tipped him over the edge. His eyes began to swivel, his arms began to flay and he lost all sense of volume control. This is not a bar it is a restaurant, he yelled, withdrew the menus, dragged us out of our seats, pushed us towards the door and slammed it shut behind us with a resounding crash that almost took it off its hinges. I looked back, the staff were sniggering, they thought it was amusing so I gave them a sarcastic smile and a tossed them a dismissive wave to tell them that so did I.
I haven’t been thrown out of a restaurant since 2004 in the Old Town in Prague for exactly the same reason.
Opposite was a pavement bar which also suggested cheap drink prices so we stopped there instead but when I called for the bill it seems the drinks that we had ordered were not included in the offer. I wasn’t going to argue, I should have read the small print – another travel lesson learned!
“See Naples and die. Well, I do not know that one would necessarily die after merely seeing it, but to attempt to live there might turn out a little differently”, Mark Twain – The Innocents Abroad
A few weeks ago I suggested to some regular travelling pals that we should go to Naples in Italy for a few days. They were horrified by the suggestion because of the city’s reputation as being quite dangerous. They said that they would prefer to go to Barcelona in Spain even though I pointed out that the Spanish city is the pickpocket capital of Europe.
So we made plans to visit Naples, the third largest city in Italy (after Rome and Milan) by ourselves.
In preparation for travel I carried out my usual research and used my favourite benchmarks to try and understand the country that I was visiting. I started as usual with the Human Development Index which ranks countries by level of ‘human development’ and the statistic is composed amongst other criteria from data on life expectancy, education and per-capita gross national income. Italy is ranked twenty-seventh which is quite low, especially for Europe but it is improving and is up two places from the previous year.
The European economic crisis has had a negative effect on Italy’s position in the Europe Happiness Index and it is rated at only twentieth out of thirty which is some way behind the United Kingdom at thirteenth. Finland is the happiest and Albania the least jolly.
Not surprisingly Italy is the country with the most UNESCO World Heritage Sites; it has fifty-three, seven more than Spain which has the second most sites in Europe. I have visited half of the sites in Spain but when I reviewed the Italy list I was disappointed to find that I have been to less than a quarter. The historical centre of Naples is on the list and although I have been there before it was a long time before it was added to the list.
Italy has a lot of coastline which stretch for four and a half thousand miles and along this coastline are three hundred and forty-two Blue Flag Beaches which is the fifth highest amongst participating countries. The Bay of Naples is not very famous for beaches and there are none at all along this particular stretch of coastline.
My next measure is always the Eurovision Song Contest and Italy has participated in the annual contest forty-three times since its debut in the very first contest in 1956. They have won the contest twice but the most famous Italian entry made only third place in 1958. “Nel blu dipinto di blu” or most popularly known as “Volare” by Domenico Modungo.
Despite its success the entry surprisingly only came third in the 1958 competition after France and Switzerland but was later translated into several languages and was covered by a wide range of international performers including Al Martino, David Bowie, Cliff Richard, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, Luciano Pavarotti, The Gipsy Kings and my personal favourite Dean Martin. I might be wrong here but I don’t think any of these musical giants ever recorded cover versions of ‘Waterloo’?
Flying even short distances can be a tedious business, not much to see or do but there are one or two exceptions and flying south across the Alps is one of them. The aircraft seems to come across them so suddenly and even flying at thirty-seven thousand feet, the earth suddenly gets an awful lot closer and suddenly you are only twenty-thousand feet high. And the snow covered black granite peaks rise like soft meringue peaks below. It is a wonderful sight and I never tire of it but it doesn’t last long and just as dramatically as they rise in southern France they fall away rapidly in Northern Italy.
I always enjoy flying over the Alps, it reminds me of my very first flight and continental holiday in 1976 when I visited Sorrento just south of Naples.
We arrived in Naples around mid-morning and the only sensible way to reach the city and the hotel was by taxi. I hate taxis, I am a very nervous taxi passenger, I am petrified of the metre which seems to rack up charges at an alarming rate and I spend any taxi journey fixated upon the clock. I am almost as afraid of taxi drivers as I am of dogs, but that is another story.
My friend Dai Woosnam once challenged me on this point when he commented: “… there is a contradiction between someone who avoids taxis like the plague, but is happy to spend £100+ a night on a hotel !! It is such contradictions that make people interesting!” Well, here is my rationale: A fifteen minute, €30 taxi ride costs €2.25 a minute, a €120 hotel room for twenty-four hours costs .10 cents per minute so it is a simple question of economics and value for money. If I hired the taxi for twenty-four hours at these rates it would cost me €3,300!
I loathe spending money on taxis especially when the flight here cost only £20. Kim tells me that I should look at it in a different way – because we got the flight so cheap then we can easily afford a taxi.
As usual in Italy we managed to get a driver who looked like and drove like Bruce Willis in an action movie car chase, the type where the cars scatter dustbins and demolish vegetable stalls, and he rattled through the streets at break neck speed, occasionally using his mobile phone and cursing any two second hold up or inconvenient red light and I was thankful when the journey finally ended.