Category Archives: Beaches

Sicily – I like a Kettle but Kim prefers a Washing Line

When travelling to Europe We have given up on hotels and preferred instead to stay in apartments.  They are generally cheaper, offer more space and are chock full of facilities.

I especially like that they have a separate bedroom from the kitchen and living accommodation because I generally wake first , sometimes over an hour or so before Kim and in a hotel room I am reluctant to get up and make a cup of tea for fear of disturbing here.  Many hotels in Europe don’t even have tea making facilities, so there is another consideration but in an apartment there is always a separate kitchen and a kettle.

The apartment  in Ortigia was brilliant for this even though I felt a little guilty that this was suitable family rooms converted to tourist accommodation.  A different debate that I won’t go into here.

Anyway, to get to the point, Kim especially likes washing machines and if the apartment has one makes a point of washing our clothes and hanging them out to dry in the Mediterranean way even if they don’t really need it.

Sicily – A Sunset and Trouble with a Mosquito

“Sicily was a gift from the gods to the Greeks.” – Salvatore Furnari

It was a glorious afternoon, a big blue sky, a burning yellow sun and unexpectedly high temperatures so we left the balcony and returned to the labyrinth of streets below.  

I was no longer panicking about being lost in the maze and I immediately liked the place with its unique combination of cultural heritage which was evident everywhere we turned and along every sinuous street that we explored.

Sicily, probably more than any other part of the Mediterranean, maybe even all of Europe, has been subject to so many invasions and waves of migration over the centuries. From the Greeks, Phoenicians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, French, Spanish, to finally becoming part of Italy only with the unification of Italy in 1860 makes it a melting pot of cultures and we had five days ahead of us to explore it all so we were in no real rush this evening.

Some areas were surprisingly run down.  What was surprising was that in some of these part derelict buildings there were clearly family apartments with people living in quite appalling conditions, their occupation of inadequate accommodation given away by the laundry left to dry over rusting balcony railings and from washing lines stretched out randomly across the streets.

After only a few minutes we came across the shop that I had used earlier and I immediately realised my earlier geographical mistakes, I had simply selected the wrong turning and that had disorientated me completely.  I was happier now and a lot more confident on account of having a map and mobile phone with Google Maps.

We walked as far as the centre of the island of Ortigia to Piazza Archimede named after the famous Greek mathematician and all round clever dick who was born here in approximately 287 BC and which now hosts an impressive collection of statues and a spraying fountain.

Towards the end of the afternoon the  main square was beginning to get busy with a tsunami of people coming in waves into the old town and then just walking backwards and forwards like an Atlantic tide. The pavements were flowing with people like lava spilling from a volcano, the piazzas were packed, the pizzerias overflowing and the gelateria noisy with babbling chatter. 

This was the  passeggiata, an Italian tradition where local people descend on the town at dusk and just walk and sometimes stop to talk. Some people had bought fold up garden chairs and were just sitting and chatting, others were playing cards, some were hanging around the bars but mostly they were just walking up and down and around and around and they were still coming in as we battled against the flow and made our way to the seafront just a few yards to the west.

At the fishing harbour men were still going about their daily chores and preparing their boats to put out to sea later and this gave way to a long elegant promenade, Foro Vittorio Emanuele II where people were beginning to gather in expectation of a sunset.  As local people they will all have seen this sunset many many times over but it still draws them in like a moth to a flame.

We finished at the Fountain of Arethusa, a natural fountain and according to Greek mythology the fresh water fountain is the place where the nymph Arethusa, the patron figure of ancient Syracuse, returned to earth’s surface after escaping from her undersea home in Arcadia.  The Fountain of Arethusa is the only place in Europe where papyrus grows (allegedly) which explained why the gift shops nearby all had postcards, book marks and fridge magnets made from the stuff.

The sunset came and went, we returned to the apartment and thoughts turned to evening dining.  The owner of the apartment had earlier made a recommendation so based solely on that we returned to Piazza Archimede and discovered a charming trattoria with a traditional menu and enjoyed a vibrant plate of Sicilian pasta.  We knew instinctively that we would be returning.

The day finished with a night of terror.  It was a hot night and in the early hours I pushed the duvet back to cool down but as I lay there a heard zzzzz, zzzzz, a bloody mosquito and we had foolishly travelled without insect repellent.  It simply hadn’t occurred to us.  Not taking any chances we pulled the duvet up to our necks and checked for bites because we had been lying out of the sheets laid out like an all-you-can-eat buffet table for creepy-crawlies.

I don’t like all-you-can-eat buffets much myself because I invariably overload the plate and eat too much and the mosquitoes suffered from the same lack of self restraint and sure enough we had been attacked. 

I had only a couple and considering how many glasses of wine I had drunk the previous day took I pleasure from imagining that the little blighter that got me would most likely be suffering from a monster hang-over! I had a vision of him in my head sitting there with his pals, rubbing his head and saying “never again. never ever again…!”

The next day we made it a priority to buy insect repellent.

A to Z of Postcards – T is for Tenerife

I visited Tenerife in 1989 and stayed in the tourist resort of Los Christianos near Playa de Los Americas in a hotel complex called the Parque Santiago.  One day I took a coach tour to the Teide National Park.  It wasn’t a long trip in terms of kilometres but the bus left early because it happens to be an awfully long way to climb to the top.

Read the full story Here…

Portugal – Lisbon to Setúbal

 

So after four days and nights we prepared to leave our city centre apartment in Lisbon and move on to our final stay south of the River Tagus in Setúbal .  This should have been straight-forward but obviously wasn’t.  I could have predicted that.

The cobbled streets are not good for drag bags and Kim lost a wheel after only a few yards so we had to find the missing parts amongst the stones and then put together some sort or temporary repair and cross fingers and hope that it would hold out.  We made the train station and then a two stop ride to the transfer station to Setúbal. 

Now, buying a train ticket in Portugal is not easy but when using the national rail operator the automated ticket machines all have an option to use the process in English.  Not so the service from Lisbon to Setúbal which is run by the only privately operated train service in Portugal and which obviously doesn’t consider the translation service to be essential.  That is the private sector for you of course, private profit rather than public service.

So, after a wait of glacial proportions I made the front of the line but was quite unable to interpret the instructions so with a queue forming behind me and beginning to feel slightly awkward I had no alternative but to  abandon the quest and stand back and observe.  I watched a few  local people to get some tips. 

The first man was far too quick for me  and he galloped through the process but the second and third were thankfully  a bit slower as I tried hard  to remember the sequence.  Eventually I felt mentally prepared and optimistically rejoined the queue.

After twenty minutes I was back at the machine and I sailed through it  this time like a local expert who had been doing it all of their life.  Insert cash now it said and I offered a twenty euro note that was immediately rejected so I tried again and was instantly rejected once more.  I tried a different note and was instantly rejected.  A line was beginning to form behind me again and then someone tapped me on the shoulder and helpfully informed me that the machines only take a maximum 0f  a ten euro note.

Now I needed change so I went to a cafe bar who said that they were unable to help but then discovered that they could help if I was to purchase something.  So I bought a small bottle of beer, drank it quickly and returned to the ticket machine line.  Twenty minutes later I had the tickets to Setúbal  but by this time we had of course missed the train so with fifty minutes to spare we went back to the cafe bar for another beer and spent the change that they had just given me.

After that it was all plain sailing.  The train crossed the 25 de Abril Bridge, the forty-seventh longest suspension bridge in the World (a long way behind the Humber Bridge near where I live at twelfth) and then carried on towards our destination.  I was looking forward to crossing the bridge but it was an inevitable disappointment because from on board the train there is nothing to see.  It is much better to view the bridge from a good viewing point with a train crossing over it than to be on the train crossing over it with nothing to see but flashing girders.  Anyway, I have done it and I was glad of the experience.

This is the Ribblesdale Viaduct in Yorkshire, much better to see a train crossing it than to be on the train crossing it.

On the positive side rail travel in Portugal is very reasonable, no, it is better than reasonable it is cheap, and the benefit of being over sixty-five, the fares are half price.

After the rail delays we arrived in Setúbal  around mid afternoon, stopped immediately for a pavement glass of wine and then proceeded to our city centre apartment which turned out to be quite excellent. 

I think I mentioned before that on this trip we had chosen apartments instead of hotels and we were so glad that we did, so much better value for money and so much space.  I generally wake first in the morning and in a hotel room this means lying still and not being able to make a cup of tea.  In an apartment I can get up, close the bedroom door and enjoy a brew in the kitchen.  We will be doing it this way again.

The facilities were so good that we thought we might stay in tonight and cook for ourselves so we took the short walk to the nearby Pingo Doce supermarket and thereby hangs another tale which I will tell you about next time…

 

Portugal – Belém and the Age of Discovery

I like Lisbon, everything about it.  Really, there is nothing not to like about Lisbon.  Even the graffiti.  Even the graffiti.  It is a little understated and has no pretensions like other European capitals. This was my second visit and I would happily go back for a third.

I am always interested in place names and how they travel. There are sixteen place in the USA called Lisbon over fourteen States (Maine and Wisconsin have two each)  most are in the east and the most westerly is in Utah.  Portuguese ethnicity in the USA is thirtieth in a long list but the Portuguese language is thirteenth most spoken.

What I find even more interesting is that there are no places in Brazil called Lisbon or in a lot of other ex-Portuguese colonies.  There are however  four in Columbia and one each in Peru, Bolivia, Equatorial Guinea and Mozambique.

The Portuguese Empire…

I immediately liked Belém, it was a little more relaxed than Lisbon city.  Our plan was to visit the centre and visit the UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Jerónimos Monastery and the tomb of Vasco da Gama but the queue was huge and I am not good with queues and Kim is not good with UNESCO World Heritage sites so we abandoned the plan.

The  Jerónimos Monastery is a World Heritage site that I have seen from the outside but not the inside.

I didn’t get to see the tomb but there is a large statue of him in the adjacent gardens.  One of the early explorers European Vasco da Gama discovered the route to India via the South Atlantic around Africa and the Cape of Good Hope and he opened up the trade route in spices from the east which made Portugal temporarily fabulously rich.

From the centre we made our way to the River Tagus and the UNESCO listed Belém Tower, a fortification built on an island in the river to provide protection for the city and a launch site for the explorers in the Age of Discovery.  I had to queue for tickets  of course but it didn’t look too busy so I didn’t mind waiting.

But then it began to get difficult.

The Belém Tower was built five hundred years ago and was designed as a fortress without any allowance made for accommodating thousands of tourists hundreds of years later. 

The rooms and stairways are small and tight and can only accommodate a few people at a time so there was a lot of waiting about as the flow of visitors was managed by a team of patient staff.  This made the whole process rather tedious and what was even more frustrating was that there was nothing to see in any of the rooms where we were continually kept standing and waiting for the one way system to flow.

The Belém Tower is definitely a World Heritage Site better seen from the outside rather than the inside.

Close to the Tower is the modern  Monument to the Discoveries.  Located on the edge of the north bank of the Tagus, the fifty metre high slab of concrete, was erected in 1960 to commemorate the five hundredth  anniversary of the death of Henry the Navigator. The monument is sculpted in the form of a ship’s prow, with dozens of figures from Portuguese history following a statue of  Henry looking out to the west, perhaps contemplating another famous voyage of discovery.

Portugal and Spain once ruled much of the World but their Empire building was in a different style, Portugal had Henry the Navigator, a methodical explorer seeking out new trade routes with maps and charts and Spain had Conquistadors like Francisco Pizzaro swashbuckling their way through the New World with swords and gunpowder in search of gold and conquest.

Lisbon was an important port during the Age of Discovery when Portugal was a major maritime nation as it built a World empire.  It competed primarily with neighbour  Spain to make discoveries in the New World and in 1494  after years of squabbling  a Treaty was signed which divided the World in two along an arbitrary line of latitude roughly half-way between Cape Verde Islands (Portuguese) and Hispaniola (Spanish) effectively giving Spain the whole of the New World and Portugal with bits and pieces in Africa and the Far East.

The treaty was signed at the castle of Tordisillas in Castilla y Leon which is somewhere that I visited several years ago in 2010…

For Spain this might have seemed like a very  good deal at the time but it rates as a serious negotiating disaster  as they failed to take into consideration the South America eastern bulge which gifted Brazil to Portugal and it gave up the Amazon rain-forest and all of its riches for the barren Andes of Patagonia. 

Some historians suggest that the canny Portuguese already knew about this when quill was put to parchment.

This Treaty was an example of extreme European arrogance of course.  Spain and Portugal conveniently ignored the fact that there were already people living there with a completely legitimate claim to the land.  Later as Spain and Portugal went into decline other countries like France and Britain simply ignored the Treaty (endorsed by the Pope no less) and went on a colonisation spree around the World.

Portuguese expansion continued and by the mid nineteenth century Portugal had the fourth largest European Empire but at only 4% of World territory was way behind France (9%), Spain (10%) and Great Britain at a huge 27%.  That is a massive amount of land grab but I wonder if the Roman Empire might have been even greater given that the known World was much smaller two thousand years ago. 

Thanks to Empire,  Portuguese, by the way, is the eighth  most common language in the World. 

Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa…

A to Z of Postcards – S is for Sorrento in Italy

Sant’ Agnello itself is a completely separate municipal commune from what is strictly speaking the town of Sorrento and walking the other way was another separate municipality of Piano di Sorrento, which was a working fishing village without the trappings of modern tourism.

The famous Victorian poet Robert Browning, who, it is said, adored Italy lived in this area and mentioned the countryside of Piano and other localities of the Sorrentine peninsula in his poem ‘The Englishman in Italy.

Read the full story Here…

Portugal – Cabo da Roca and Geography Lessons

 

Disappointed with Cascais we looked for something else to do, somewhere else to visit.  After consulting the guidebook we agreed on nearby Cabo da Roca.

Cabo da Roca is the most westerly point of mainland Europe.  The Dingle Peninsula in Ireland is marginally further west and Iceland is way further west but they are not part of continental Europe.  It doesn’t really matter because if you include the Portuguese Azores then Portugal is undisputed furthest west.  I do like to be clear about these matters.

It was a pleasant drive but the road was surprisingly busy and when we arrived we understood why.  There was a massive car park and a line of tourist coaches out of Lisbon.  I immediately told myself that this was going to be something really good.

I was spectacularly wrong.

There is nothing there except the Atlantic Ocean, a lighthouse station and an average overpriced gift shop and café.  It is a mystery to me how places like this can become a tourist attraction, I imagined that I would be standing here alone with the Atlantic wind tugging at my shirt and rearranging my hair in some sort of personal spiritual moment but no, there were literally hundreds of people. 

As a visitor attraction it ranked up there with the Dark Hedges in Northern Ireland but at least that had been a filming location for ‘Game of Thrones’.

It must surely rate as one of the most pointless places to visit ever.  I am not trying to put you off visiting but honestly, only go if you are really desperate for something to do.

I was intrigued by a monument stone which announced the geographical facts but was so badly designed that it might just be the worst ever.

But then I remembered this one in Caerphilly in South Wales which easily takes the gold medal …

I have been to the most northern capital city in Europe and that was well worth a visit – Reykjavik in Iceland and to the most easterly point in the UK at Ness Point in Lowestoft which wasn’t. There is no visitor centre, no souvenir shop and it is difficult to find located as it is on the edge of an industrial estate and close to a sewage treatment works and a massive wind turbine called Goliath (it was once the biggest in England).  There is only a circular direction marker known as Euroscope, marking locations in other countries and how far away they are.

Which brings me conveniently to the Four Corners monument where four US States meet at one intersection and it is possible to be in all of them at the same time by standing in two and reaching down and touching the others.  To get there we drove across a featureless landscape where distant mountains stood like islands in an ocean of desert and through a landscape scoured by erosion, a skeletal land stripped of all but the most minimal vegetation.

Utah and Colorado we had already visited and we would be spending the rest of the day in Arizona but we were able to make a very brief visit to New Mexico as well and although we only went a few yards  across the border it still counts as another State visited.

When I was young I was always always intrigued by the clinical layout of the USA into a chessboard pattern of States that contrasted so noticeably with the irregular boundaries of the English Counties.

I know now that the man responsible for this was Thomas Jefferson who before the became the third President of the USA came up with the idea of strict regulation that subsequently imposed this orderliness upon the western territories.  Quite simply the State and County boundaries completely disregard sensible topographical features like rivers and mountains that make natural geographical boundaries, in favour of the straight-line solution.  Although it seems odd this seems to suit America because even the boundary of a place like the Yellowstone National Park is a convenient rectangle with straight-line borders and I would have thought that would be almost impossible to sensibly achieve.

Once you have seen the monument, climbed the viewing platform, walked through all four States and had your photograph taken there isn’t a great deal left to do at Four Corners and it wasn’t long before we were back on the coach and heading deep into Arizona towards Monument Valley, a journey that took us through the extensive Navajo reservation in the north east of the State.

There really wasn’t a lot left to do at Cabo da Roca so we left and returned to Cascais.  Despite the geographical experience I am happy to nominate Cabo da Roca as the most pointless place to visit ever, even above Vaduz in Liechtenstein and Swan Lake in Moscow, the Troodos Mountains in Cyprus, even above Four Corners in USA, Ness Point in East Anglia (UK) and Land’s End in Cornwall.

Someone with a perverse sense of humour or alternatively a very long stretch of imagination designed this postcard…

I have dealt with the subject of pointless places to visit in a couple of previous posts…

Worth a Detour (Part One) and

Worth a Detour (Part Two)

Portugal – Mafra and World Heritage Sites

Taking a break from the beaches we took a short ride to the nearby city of Mafra which is an unremarkable sort of place except for a very good cake shop and the magnificent Royal Palace which is enormous and can be seen from several miles away. The palace is huge and  covers an area of almost two and a half square miles and has one thousand two hundred rooms.

It is part Palace, part Cathedral and part Convent and is one of the fourteen UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Portugal.

It is the biggest Royal Palace in Portugal and  makes it even more famous is that the last King of Portugal, Manuel II spent his last night in Portugal at the Palace after being deposed in October 1910.  He escaped the next day by Royal Yacht from Ericeira and lived the remainder of his life in exile in England, in Twickenham.

I am guessing that the lady with no bra on is the Portuguese equivalent of the French Madame Liberty…

I am afraid that I am quite unable to explain why Republican icon Madame Liberty has no clothes on. It is an interesting fact however that when the French built the Statue of Liberty for the USA they made sure that she was more discreetly attired so as not to offend New World sensibilities.

There is nothing else to tell you about Mafra or Madame Liberty.  So… 

Just like Brooke Bond Tea Cards I am a collector of World Heritage Site visits, if there is one close by then I just have to go.  Here are some more that I have been to in Portugal…

Coimbra

Built in the eighteenth century, the University is a National Monument and has priceless historical value being the main tourist attraction in Coimbra.  The building has three floors and contains about two hundred and fifty thousand volumes and being someone who loves books this place is a little bit of heaven.  The collection dates from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries and represents the finest works from Europe at the time on the subjects of medicine, geography, history, science, law, philosophy and theology.

Tomar

Tomar is one of the most historically important cities in all of Portugal with a history that stretches back to the Romans and probably even before that.   Fast forward a thousand years and after the capture of the region from the Moors in the Portuguese Reconquista, the land was granted in 1159 to the Order of the Knights Templar. In 1160, the Grand Master in Portugal, Gualdim Pais, laid the first stone of the Castle and Monastery that would become the headquarters of the Order in Portugal and from here they pledged to defend Portugal from any subsequent Moorish attacks and raids

Elvas

Turns out is the biggest fortified town not only in Portugal but all of Europe. Inside the fortress town we walked through the ancient whitewashed streets, cobbled streets which were painful to negotiate in tourist sandals.  Along narrow passages lined by houses with blistered wooden doors,  Shutters thrown back like the wings of butterflies basking in the midday sunshine.  Sagging washing lines groaning under the weight of the dripping laundry.  The rich aroma of lunch time cooking seeping out from open windows.  Outside of the front doors pots of flowers in various stages of bloom and decay.

Guimarães

As the first capital of Portugal, Guimarães is known as the place where the country was born – ‘The Cradle City’.  In 1095 Count Henry of Burgundy, who had married princess Teresa of León, established in Guimarães the second County of Portugal and on July 25th 1109 Afonso Henriques, son of Count Henry of Burgundy, was born here and it was where Duke Afonso Henriques proclaimed Portuguese independence from the Kingdom of León, after the Battle of São Mamede in 1128, declaring himself to be Afonso I, King of Portugal.

Evora

Évora is an interesting city and has a busy history.  The Romans conquered it in 57 BC and built the first walled town.  During the barbarian invasions Évora came under the rule of the Visigothic king Leovigild in 584.  In 715, the city was conquered by the Moors and during this period the town slowly began to prosper and developed into an agricultural centre with a fortress and a mosque.

Évora was captured from the Moors through a surprise attack by Gerald the Fearless (what a fabulous name) in 1165 and the city came under the rule of the Portuguese king Afonso I in 1166 and then for a few hundred years or so it then flourished as one of the most dynamic cities in the Kingdom of Portugal.

The River Duoro

At five hundred and sixty miles long  the Douro is the eighth longest river in Western Europe (the eighteenth in all of Europe) and flows first through Spain and then Portugal and meets the Atlantic Ocean at Porto.  This part of the Douro Valley, and for about sixty miles towards Spain, has a microclimate allowing for cultivation of olives, almonds, and especially the grapes and the hillsides are scattered with picturesque quintas or farms clinging on to almost every improbable vertical slope dropping down to the river where tourist boats were making the daily return trip to Porto.

Bom Jesus do Monte

Many hilltops in Portugal have been places of religious devotion and the Bom Jesus hill was one of these. It was an ancient site where in 1629 a pilgrimage church was built dedicated to the Bom Jesus (Good Jesus), with six chapels dedicated to the Passion of Christ.  The present Sanctuary was begun in 1722, under the patronage of the Archbishop of Braga, Rodrigo de Moura Telles and under his direction the first stairway row, with chapels dedicated to the Via Crucis, were completed.  He also sponsored the next segment of stairways, which has a zigzag shape and is dedicated to the Five Senses of Sight, Smell, Hearing, Touch and Taste and each is represented by a different fountain.

Porto

The historical centre of Porto is a declared UNESCO World Heritage Site and we were now approaching one of the six bridges across the River Douro, the Ponte Dom Luis I, which is an iron bridge designed by a student of Gustav Eiffel and built on two levels. From the top elevation there were unbeatable views of the river, the old town and Vila Nova de Gaia, a sister city on the other side of the river. 

I will tell you about Sintra and Lisbon in later posts, the three that I haven’t got around to yet are the Coa Valley, Batalhia and Alcobaca.  Watch this space.

More from Mafra…

Portugal – Fishing Street Art

As a country that eats so much fish it is hardly surprising to find so much aquatic street art.

People in Portugal eat more fish than any other in mainland Europe, fifty-seven  kilograms per head per year which is like eating your way through an average sized cod or tuna,  Norway is second, Spain third and then France and Finland.

Beyond mainland Europe, Icelanders eat more fish than anyone else in the World at an average of ninety kilograms per person which is two average sized cod or tuna or a medium sized shark.

In the UK we like to think of ourselves as fish eaters and we voted to leave Europe on the basis of getting our fishing fleets back but we only eat cod or haddock or anything else from the same genus ( hake, colin, pollack etc.)  and on average we eat a miserly fifteen kilograms per person per year.

Staying in mainland Europe, those who eat least fish are Albanians at only five kilograms followed by people from Serbia and North Macedonia and what is surprising is that none of these are really that far from the sea.

The most poplar fish in Portugal is Tuna ( I was surprised by that) followed by cod, sardines, squid and mackerel.  The most popular fish in the UK is cod and in the USA it is prawns (shrimp), Canada and in Australia it is salmon; in France it is sea bass and in Spain hake.  The most popular Christmas Day meal in Australia is prawns (shrimp) Throw another prawn on the Barbie Bruce.

All of these obscure facts are worth jotting down and remembering if you are in a pub quiz team.

To be fair a lot of Australia, Canada and the USA is a long way from the sea.  Not surprising then that the United States accounts for 30% of the World consumption of canned Tuna.

At only one hundred and fifteen miles Miranda do Douro on the Spanish border is the Portuguese town furthest from the sea.   In the USA Lebanon in Kansas (the geographical centre of the country) is six hundred miles from the Gulf of Mexico, in Canada Calgary is three hundred miles from the Pacific Ocean and in Australia Alice Springs is about five hundred miles from the Gulf of Carpentaria so I guess the supply of fresh fish from the coast can sometimes be a bit of a logistical problem.

 

Portugal – Doors and Windows of Ericeira

Ericeira is a very fine town with some interesting doors…