Have Bag, Will Travel
- 878,916 hits
Search my Site
I am fairly certain that in 1997 there was a direct bus service from Mellieha to Mdina but this is not so today so we had to compete for space on a bus to Buggiba and then wait for a transfer to our destination.
In 1997 the bus dropped us off at the main gate where there was a flotilla of horse drawn carriages called Karrozzins with pushy drivers waiting to ambush people as they stepped into the terminus and I am not sure how this happened but almost immediately we were sitting in the carriage and taking an unnecessary tour of the city and my wallet was a few Maltese Pounds lighter. Unnecessary because it is only a small place and it is much nicer to investigate it on foot anyway which is what we did as soon as the trip was over.
Twenty years later in 2017 after a couple of tedious waits and changes and a long and circuitous route we eventually arrived and the first thing that struck me was that in twenty years there has been a lot of restoration in Mdina. The once crumbling walls have been repaired and the untidy concrete streets of hasty post war repairs have all been repaved. I preferred it the old way because it seems to me that the Maltese have managed to transform this wonderful place into a sort of Disney World EPCOT interpretation.
Most of the guide books recommend a visit to Fontanella Tea Rooms for a cake and a coffee stop so we found it and made our way to the first floor terrace. We did this twenty years ago but now we were not surprised to find that this place had also had a very extensive makeover.
I am never very keen on wasting money on things like horse and trap rides but Molly caught me in a weak moment and having convinced myself that a 10% reduction on an advertised rate was a bargain I was persuaded to agree to reprise a ride in a Karrozzin and we had an enjoyable twenty minute clip-clop ride through the ancient city.
Mdina is quite small and we soon found ourselves going down the same streets as just an hour or so ago so we headed for the main gate exit and returned to the bus stop. It was ten to three and the bus was scheduled for five past. Ten past came and went, twenty past, half past, I found an inspector who suggested that it might be stuck in traffic (bus inspector’s first excuse every time I expect) and then when one did turn up it turned its destination light off and replaced it with ‘not in service’.
Malta now has a seriously bad bus service so we broke a golden holiday rule and took an expensive taxi ride to Mosta. Don’t ask me how much it was because I will surely start to weep!
The next stop was at Mosta, for no better reason than to visit the Cathedral which was built in the nineteenth century and has a dome that is among the largest in the World – in fact (and you do have to be careful about these sort of facts of course) it is the third largest in Europe and the ninth largest in the World. You can believe that or believe it not but the most remarkable thing about the Mosta Dome is the miracle of the unexploded bomb.
During the Second-World-War it is claimed that Malta was the most heavily bombed place in the World and on April 9th 1942, during an afternoon air-raid, a Luftwaffe bomb pierced the dome (two others bounced off) and fell among a congregation of more than three hundred people attending early evening mass. It did not explode. Apparently it rolled down the aisle and into the street outside so it was a good job that the doors were open!
I suspect that that part of the story may not be completely accurate and has been embellished and corrupted by the passing of time but this is the way they like to tell it. I am sceptical if only for the reason that with a bomb crashing through the roof I imagine that there would have been quite a lot of panic and congestion in the aisle as people rushed for the door. There would have been a mad dash and a tangle of bodies that would make modern day bus stop queues look like a Royal Garden Party and the bomb would be most unlikely to get through.
One version of this event states that when a bomb disposal squad opened the device it was found to be filled with sand instead of explosives and contained a note saying “greetings from Plzeň” from the workers at Škoda Works in the German-occupied Czechoslovakia who had allegedly sabotaged its production.
A nice story but not necessarily true.
Anyway, not much has changed except that the statue outside used to be sandstone and is now graphite and the statue’s halo used to be graphite and now it is sandstone.
The plan now was to drive just a little way north to the City of Braga and visit the park of Bom Jesus do Monte and although this was only a short journey this wasn’t nearly as straight forward as it should have been.
Too much of a skinflint to pay motorway toll charges I decided to take the old road instead which runs close by and often parallel. What made this so difficult was the curious system of road signs that the Portuguese have. One minute you are happily following signs to a destination and then suddenly, usually at a critical roundabout or busy junction where you have to make a quick decision, they simply disappear and taking the right option becomes a bit of a lottery. It was all too confusing so after only a short while I abandoned the old road and found a way back to the motorway instead.
There was no traffic on the motorway of course because Portuguese drivers resent paying tolls and prefer to sit in the traffic queues on the old roads instead. I am often quite good at getting pictures with no people in them but a motorway with no traffic is a first…
Braga is the third largest city in Portugal (or maybe the fourth because Coimbra claims third place as well, I think it depends on whether they are measuring population or area) but we weren’t planning to visit the Episcopal capital of the country and instead we used the ring road to swing to the east out into the country and towards the religious sanctuary on top of a high hill on the outskirts of the city.
Many hilltops in Portugal have been places of religious devotion and the Bom Jesus hill is 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 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.
Around 1781, Archbishop Gaspar de Bragança decided to complete the sanctuary by adding a third segment of stairways and a new church. The third stairway also follows a zigzag pattern and is dedicated to the Three Theological Virtues: Faith, Hope and Charity, each with its own fountain. The old church was demolished and a new one was built following a neoclassic design. In the nineteenth century the area around the church and stairway was acquired and turned into a park and in 1882, to facilitate the access to the Sanctuary, the Bom Jesus funicular was built linking the city of Braga to the hill.
This was the first funicular to be built in the Iberian Peninsula and is still in use today.
We stood at the top of the steps and debated whether or not to go to the bottom but after we realised that true penitent visitors climb them on their knees we agreed that a gentle stroll would be quite easy by comparison so we did just that and we were pleased that we did because the view from the bottom looking up the towering black and white stair case made it worth going to all the trouble.
We spent a lot of time at the bottom of the staircase waiting for picture opportunities without people and this took some considerable time. Just look how selfish this chap was…
In the heat of the afternoon it was a long slog of a climb back to the top where the park was beginning to fill up with visitors from the city. There was a curious blend of attractions in the park, with the church itself, gardens that had a touch of Antoni Gaudi and Park Guell in Barcelona, the inevitable tourist train and children photographers. Everyone was having a good time including a quartet of elderly lady singers who were being enthusiastically orchestrated by a fifth member of the party who was in charge of random song selection and keeping everyone in some sort of time.
Leaving Bom Jesus do Monte I got rather lost getting to Braga and then through to the other side and I was pleased when we eventually groped our way to the motorway and with one eye on the dashboard warning light I drove gently back to Vila do Conde and made for the seafront where we found a bar overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Rather annoyingly it was calm and gentle this afternoon which was the first time we had seen it that way but it was too late now to go swimming so we ordered drinks instead and sat and made an assessment of our Portugal holiday.
Later we spent a last few minutes at the Santa Clara Monastery, admired the views over the River Ave and the Ocean beyond, walked for a while in the shadow of the Aqueduct before returning the car and preparing for our return to UK early next morning.
Early next morning I picked up the hire vehicle, a small black Smart Car and once I had become more or less 10% accustomed to the secrets of the automatic gear box we set off east out of Vila do Conde.
On the advice of the nice lady at the car hire office we planned to drive twenty miles or so inland to the city of Guimarães which in a survey published annually by the Portuguese newspaper Expresso is ranked second in the country’s most liveable cities. As might be expected Lisbon is rated first and Porto only third. As the first capital of Portugal, Guimarães is known fondly as the place where the country was born – ‘The Cradle City’.
I was enjoying driving this nifty little car but after just a few miles there was a problem. I always get a problem with hire cars. I am the most unlucky car renter ever. No one gets as many issues as I do with hire cars.
A warning light started to wink at me.
I am never completely sure what all these dashboard symbols mean, my first car in about 1974 had just two warning lights – one red one for an overheating engine and another orange one for low oil pressure but now there is a dashboard with as many flashing lights as the control panel of the Starship Enterprise. I looked around for the road map to place over it so that I couldn’t see it!
But I have seen this one before in a hire car in Ireland. One of the tyres was suffering from low pressure so we pulled into a service area, I had a look round and in the only engineering procedure with which I am familiar kicked each of the tyres in turn as you do in these situations and as they all seemed fine to me we just carried on and ignored the irritating little light as though it was an itch that couldn’t be reached and scratched!
I was glad to arrive in Guimarães without the embarrassment of having to call the emergency services and heading for the old town we eventually found a street with some vacant parking spaces. To be honest, I am not very good at parking at the best of times, the next time I change my car I am going to get one that does it for you, intelligent parking I think it is called, but the Smart Car at only nine feet long and with no boot and no bonnet is surely the easiest car in the entire World to park.
If it is I did my best to prove that it isn’t. I don’t like reverse parking, I especially don’t like reverse parking up hill and after I had found a space that I was confident that I could get into I proceeded to make a complete dog’s dinner of the simple procedure.
Lurching, lunging, backwards, forwards and after five minutes or so a small crowd of bemused bystanders were starting to form an audience, people were calling friends on their mobile phones to come and watch, newcomers were using doorsteps as terracing, people were peering over their balconies and I worried that soon we would need crowd control barriers. It was only with Kim’s assistance that I eventually managed to squeeze it into a space that I have to admit would easily have accommodated three Smart Cars.
I nonchalantly acknowledged the assembled crowd with a casual nod of the head as though to say ‘that’s how to do it’ and the giggling subsided and it started to disperse and then I tried to explain to Kim that the problem was that parking an automatic car without any form of clutch control was almost as difficult as landing a lunar module on the moon. She wasn’t listening, she was unable to communicate on account of suffering a fit of uncontrollable laughter. She said that next time I park a car she is going to make sure that she is wearing a corset so that she doesn’t split her sides. Kim is always helpful and supportive like this in these situations!
After she had calmed down and recovered her composure we walked through tidy streets and open green spaces without high expectation of Guimarães but we found a street map that indicated a Castle, a Palace and a UNESCO World Heritage site in the old centre and so we walked to the top of the city and into the grounds of the twelfth century fortress.
In 1881 the castle was declared the most important historical monument in this part of Portugal and in the 1900s a lot of work went into its restoration. We went inside and were struck by the fact that they hadn’t spent a lot of the renovation budget on basic health and safety. The Castle is a disaster waiting to happen, with uneven surfaces, irregular steps and almost completely without handrails or safety barriers to prevent visitors accidentally slipping off of the high battlements and becoming a permanent addition to the rocky foundations below.
After the castle we visited the Palace and without any explanation there was free admission today but where an officious attendant still insisted on issuing tickets and someone else insisted on checking them. Inside the Palace of the Condes de Castro Guimarães there was a small museum containing family portraits and other paintings, as well as furniture, china, silver and gold objects and local prehistoric finds. At just half an hour to walk round it was the perfect size for a museum and without crowds of other visitors to slow us down we wandered from room to room practically by ourselves.
From the castle we followed the cobbled Rua de Santa Maria, that didn’t look as though it had changed a great deal since the Middle Ages, down into the heart of the old town, where there are superbly restored historic buildings including a former sixteenth century Baroque convent of Santa Maria, now serving as the City council offices.
At the end of the street were two delightful squares with outdoor cafés and balconied houses, Praça de Santiago and Largo da Oliveira. At Largo da Oliveira is the Church of Nossa Senhora da Oliveira, with a Gothic shrine standing in front of it. There are many legends about its origins, but a popular story says it marks the spot where Wamba, elected king of the Visigoths, refused his title and drove a pole into the ground swearing that he would not reign until it blossomed and then as if my magic it sprouted immediately into spontaneous bloom whereupon he happily accepted the crown.
We walked right the way through the delightful streets of the old town and then reluctantly left Guimarães, one of the nicest places to visit in Portugal and returned to the car. Fortunately it was a whole lot easier getting out of the parking space than it was getting in and we drove out of the city and made our way to nearby Braga.
The following day we were leaving Porto and taking the metro to Vila do Conde. We thought it might be a good idea to hire a car so I used the Internet and booked a vehicle through Europcar , who in my experience are usually quite reliable and efficient and arranged to collect it from Porto Airport on our way north.
We had a final couple of hours in the city so we took a walk around the local area near to the hotel, a park, a convent and a church, quite different to the busy centre and then approaching midday we made our way to Trindade metro station.
It took about thirty minutes to travel to the airport on the Bombardier Flexity Outlook low-floor dual-carriage ‘Eurotram’ and it stopped every few minutes to pick up and drop off more passengers and it stopped fifteen times before we reached our destination.
I thought using Europcar with an office in the airport arrivals hall would be easy but I was about to be disappointed. There was no office, just a reception desk and after waiting around for an eternity while the desk clerk dealt with a difficult customer we were directed to a shuttle bus to drive us a mile or so off site.
When we got there the office was ram-jam full and there was a forty-minute wait to get to the front of the line and during this time my patience tank was completely drained dry. Eventually it was my turn to sign documents and pick up keys but I became uneasy about this simple process when the clerk began to shake his head and sigh.
It turned out that I had reserved a car using Europcar.com when I should have used Europcar.co.uk so I had made a reservation that is only for people from North America. OK, so what, I suggested that he just amend the booking and we could take the keys and be away. So he tapped away at his keyboard and scratched his head and told me the price would be higher, almost 50% higher and he was unable to explain to me to my satisfaction why citizens from the USA and Canada could get a better rate for hiring a car in Portugal than those from Europe.
I was so angry that I told him to poke it, reported the news to Kim who was unhappy about this unilateral decision and then we made our way back to the metro station where we queued for thirty minutes to get a ticket to get to Vila do Conde. Kim was beginning to overheat. It was like waiting for Vesuvius to erupt!
Another thirteen stations later we arrived in Santa Clara and negotiated a steep climb up a pot-holed cobbled street to our hotel, the Santana Hotel and Spa. We had been here before so we knew all about it and we especially liked the restaurant but bad luck hadn’t finished with us today and the fine à la carte that we were looking forward to had been replaced by a tourist buffet menu and I began to sense another disappointment coming our way.
As I didn’t have a bucket of cold water to hand it was probably best that we spent some time apart right now so while Kim stayed in the room and went to the spa I took a walk down into the town.
My plan was to climb the hill on the other side of the river to the Santa Clara Convent which was once the largest in all of Portugal but is now no longer used for its original purpose and after spending some time as a prison is now rumoured to be being converted into a Pousada hotel, which is the Portuguese equivalent of the Spanish Paradors.
Next to the convent and snaking north away from the town are the extensive remains of the Aqueduto do Convento, a sixteenth century structure that was built to supply water to the Convent. At four kilometres long it is claimed to be the second largest in Portugal after Lisbon but I have been to Tomar and their aqueduct is measured at six kilometres.
I am not taking sides, I am just saying!
To put things into perspective the longest Roman Aqueduct served the city of Constantinople and was two hundred and fifty kilometres long. The largest existing aqueduct in the world is the Thirlmere Aqueduct in North West England built between 1890 and 1925 and running one hundred and forty kilometres over and through hill and dale of the English countryside in pipes, streams, tunnels, dams and aqueducts.
The United States has the largest ‘water tunnel’ with a storage capacity of five hundred and fifty billion gallons and providing fresh water to the New York City’s eight million residents. Also in the US, the Central Arizona Project allows passage of water from the Colorado River to central and southern Arizona and at five hundred and forty kilometres it is the largest aqueduct ever constructed in the United States.
I admired the views from the Convent, walked a section of the aqueduct, found a mini-market for supplies and when I judged it safe to return to the hotel I walked a weary walk back up the hill to the Santana. Oh how I wished that I had got a car!
Evening meal didn’t turn out to be too desperately disappointing and over an overflowing plate and a jug of cheap wine we made plans to go to the beach in the morning.