Category Archives: Cathedrals

European Capital of Culture 2012, Guimarães, Portugal

When I woke I was encouraged to see strong sunlight leaking underneath and around the sides of the curtains and I turned over and slept a while longer confident in the certainty of a good day.  When we finally got up however there was some cloud and by the time we had finished breakfast and set out for the day it was overcast and threatening to rain.  We should have got up earlier!

On the advice of the nice lady at the car hire office we planned to drive thirty kilometres or so inland to the city of Guimarães which is ranked second in the country’s most livable cities survey published annually by the Portuguese newspaper Expresso.  As might be expected Lisbon is rated first and Porto is third.

We joined a deserted motorway and with the weather less than promising I drove at an appropriate Sunday morning pace because there wasn’t any need to rush.  I encouraged everyone to have ‘blue-sky thoughts’ and it must have worked because by the time we arrived and parked the car (free on Sundays) there was a brighter sky and little hints of sunshine.

Castle of 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.

Today Guimarães is a busy and important University city with an industrial base of textiles and metallurgy.  It was quite relaxed this morning with groups of men chatting on street corners and waiting for the wives to leave the churches scattered in little clusters along the streets. The city is clean and smart and since Portugal and Slovenia and were selected to host a city as the European Capital of Culture in 2012 Guimarães was chosen by Portugal to represent the country.  Slovenia chose the city of Maribor.

Guimares Castle Portugal

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 castle where there were some musicians playing tradional songs inside the delightful leafy gardens.  In 1881 the castle was declared the most important historical monument in this part of Portugal and in the 1900s a lot of work has gone 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.  In the middle of the castle was a keep where there was a stiff climb to the very top which was slightly perilous and hard work but the reward for tackling it were some excellent views of the countryside and the city including the football stadium where Rio Ave had narrowly beaten their neighbours only two days before.

Guimares

After the castle we visited the Palace and without 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.

The sun couldn’t quite manage to make a full appearance but there were bits of blue sky here and there and the weather was pleasant and warm enough to sit outside in the garden terrace of a trendy little restaurant selling fair trade products and local handicrafts and we had a drink in a charming shady garden surrounded by herbaceous plants, herbs and fruit trees and with the relaxing sound of a water fountain close to our table.

Guimares Portugal Castle

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 old Town Hall and the Church of Nossa Senhora da Oliveira, with a Gothic shrine erected in 1340 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 it then sprouted immediately.  We walked right the way through the streets of the old town and then reluctantly left Guimarães and returned to the car.

An Alternative Independence Day

I love my blogging pals in the USA but every 4th July there is a emotional patriotic outpouring about American Independence that is like a lava flow of double sticky Maple Syrup.  What is there to be that proud about?  Three hundred years or so later the USA has Donald Trump as President!

In England we have to National Day, no Independence Day, in fact we tend to celebrate a day when we were invaded and lost our Independence.

1066 is probably the most memorable date in English history.

On October 14th (now officially Hastings Day) that year Harold, the last Anglo-Saxon king of England and most of his army with him were cut down at the Battle of Hastings, and William, Duke of Normandy earned his nickname “William the Conqueror”. William, who was using Hastings as his base, then claimed the crown and changed the way England was governed forever.

Unlike the Scots who sing national anthems (unofficial) about fighting the English and the Welsh can’t get over the military campaigns and begrudge the castles of Edward I (even though they generate lots of tourist revenue) it is a curious fact that the English actually celebrate and embrace the 1066 Battle of Hastings. I suppose this says a lot about the nature of the English because instead of sulking behind a defensive nationalist barrier and bristling with rage and resentment we have actually hijacked the event and reorganised our subsequent history around it.

After the successful invasion William the Normans set about imposing their military domination and completely reforming the previous Anglo Saxon administrative and political  regime and they were so successful that modern English history really starts from that date.  The subjugation and the transformation was so completely successful because the English (except Hereward the Wake of course) recognised the benefits of this, allowed it to happen and simply got on with their lives.  They didn’t sit in caves watching spiders or retreat to Anglesey to brood and get angry about it.

Today the French irreverently refer to the English as Anglo-Saxons (in the same way that we refer to them as Frogs) but their description is entirely incorrect because for a thousand years we have been Norman-English whereas the French do eat frogs!

In 1966, I was twelve years old and England went into a frenzy as the 900th anniversary was celebrated and it was such a success that Hastings Borough Council decided to mark the date every year as Hastings Day.

On the build up to the event there were commemorative stamps and gold coins, tea towels, pencil sets and mugs and everyone got in on the act: “Battle of Hastings 1066—Bottle of Guinness 1966” frothed a thousand billboards. ‘Whoosh! It’s another big breakaway conquest,’ proclaimed the makers of Bri-Nylon clothing in advertisements showing mounted Bri-Nyloned models setting out against the Saxons and another alternative version of the battle showed the Norman warriors armed with Desoutter Power Tools.  Heinz offered a chance to enter an archery contest in which the first 1,066 winners would be rewarded with Kenwood Chef food mixers.  Every English town that could claim the remotest connection with either Harold or William beckoned tourists with such  attractions as Conquest puppet shows, town-crier contests and battle re-enactments by grown men who still liked dressing up and playing soldiers.

  

Naturally, in the forefront of all this  was Hastings, which, as its local newspaper proudly pointed out, ‘is better known internationally than almost any other town.’  To give the anniversary its deserved importance and promote tourism, the Hastings Town Council spent a small fortune building a triple-domed exhibition hall called the Triodome.  The principal exhibit was intended to be the great Bayeux Tapestry but the tapestry is the property of the town of Bayeux in Normandy, which, fearing damage to the precious artefact, refused to lend it for the occasion, and so, rather than sulk,  like the Greeks and the Elgin Marbles, Hastings produced its own.

The Hastings Embroidery was made by the Royal School of Needlework in 1965. It took twenty-two embroiderers ten months to finish and it was intended to be a modern day equivalent of the Bayeux Tapestry.  It consists of twenty-seven panels, each nine by three foot, and shows eighty-one great events in British history during the nine-hundred years from 1066 to 1966.

The Embroidery is worked in appliqué by hand, with the addition of couched threads and cords in the same way as the Bayeux Tapestry.  It incorporates tweed from Scotland, fabrics from the Victoria and Albert Museum, and feathers from London Zoo.  When completed it went on public display in Hastings, firstly in the Town Hall and then at the White Rock Pavilion.  The Embroidery is currently in storage, and, despite local campaigns to have it brought out of the bottom drawer, apart from two panels on permanent display in the Town Hall, it is not on public display.  The reason given is that to preserve the cloth and appliqué that special storage displays would have to made and the cost would be prohibitive.  I can’t help thinking there may be another reason – perhaps it isn’t that good?

I began this article by trying to rise above patriotic smugness but I cannot finish without reminding the French that, in a delicious twist of fate, less than three months before the 900 year celebrations of a French victory over the Anglo Saxons, England beat France in the World Cup group stages by two goals to nil.  France finished bottom in the group, England finished top and went on to win the Jules Rimet trophy!

Hull, UK City of Culture – Postcards

“ … (Hull is) a city that is in the world, yet sufficiently on the edge of it to have a different resonance” – Philip Larkin

Hull - The Deep

Vikings in the USA, Leif Ericson and the Axe Factor

Viking Longship

Outside Hallgrímskirkja, Reykjavik’s Lutheran Cathedral, is a statue of Leifur Eiriksson who was an Icelander born about 970 and who explored the oceans and the lands west of Iceland, establishing colonies in Greenland and Newfoundland and who according to legend reached America long before Christopher Columbus or Amerigo Vespucchi.

The statue was a gift from the American Government in 1930 to mark Iceland’s 1,000th anniversary and in the United States October 9th is commemorated as Leif Ericson Day.  The date is not associated with any particular event in Leif Erikson’s life, it was chosen because the ship Restauration sailing from Stavanger in Norway, arrived in New York Harbour on October 9th 1825 at the start of the first organized immigration from Norway to the United States.

We found the monument and it struck me as rather strange for an Anglo-Saxon to be visiting a monument that commemorates the Vikings and a possible starting off point for long ships full of heathen bullies on their way to the British Isles to rape and pillage a part of England where I now live.

Lief Ericson Reyjkavik Iceland

The Vikings were Norse explorers, warriors, merchants, and pirates who raided, traded, explored and settled in wide areas of Europe and the North Atlantic from the late eighth to the mid eleventh century.  These Norsemen used their famous long ships to travel as far east as Russia, as far west as Newfoundland and as far south as modern Spain in a period known (not very imaginatively) as the Viking Age.

Whilst we tend to retain the school boy image of them it actually becomes increasingly evident that Viking society was quite complex and popular conceptions of them are often in conflict with the truth that emerges from archaeology and modern research.  A romanticized picture of Vikings as noble savages began to take root in the eighteenth century and this developed and became widely embellished for over a hundred years.

The traditional view of the Vikings as violent brutes and intrepid adventurers is part true, part fable and part exaggeration and although if these guys paid a visit it is probably true to say that you probably wouldn’t want to put a welcome mat by the front door or get the best china out, no one can be absolutely sure of the accurate ratio of good and bad and popular representations of these men in horned helmets remain for now highly clichéd.

But now it seems historical revisionism has gone too far for some people  especially for Professor Simon Keynes, an Anglo-Saxon historian at Cambridge University – ‘There’s no question how nasty, unpleasant and brutish they were. They did all that the Vikings were reputed to have done.’

They stole anything they could. Churches were repositories of treasure to loot. They took cattle, money and food. It’s likely they carried off women, too, he says. ‘They’d burn down settlements and leave a trail of destruction.’ It was unprovoked aggression. And unlike most armies, they came by sea, their narrow-bottomed longships allowing them to travel up rivers and take settlements by surprise. It was maritime blitzkrieg at first.’

It is now widely believed that Norsemen from Greenland and Iceland were the first Europeans to reach North America in what is today Newfoundland in Canada when Leif Ericson reached the Continent via Norse settlements in Greenland around the year 1000.  Nearly a thousand years later many Norwegian immigrants went to the United States primarily in the second half of the nineteenth and the first few decades of the twentieth century.

According to the most recent United States census there are more than four and a half million Norwegian Americans and most live in the Upper Midwest and currently comprise the tenth largest American ancestry group. In Minnesota, nearly a million claim Norwegian ancestry, 16.5% of the population of the State.

No wonder then that in professional football the team from Minneapolis was officially named the Minnesota Vikings on September 27th1960 a name that is meant to reflect Minnesota’s importance as a centre of Scandinavian American culture.

The association between Vikings and sport is not surprising because physical strength, speed, resilience and endurance were important qualities for a Viking. As in the USA, England has its own Vikings with the Widnes Vikings Rugby League Football Club.  Widnes was one of the original twenty-two rugby clubs that formed the Northern Rugby Football Union in 1895, making them one of the world’s first rugby league teams.

epcot-norway-viking

It probably also explains why Norway features at World Showcase at EPCOT in Disney World in Florida.

In actual fact however there is no real evidence that Ericson actually discovered America at all  and rather curiously his statue in Reykjavik faces east as though gazing back to the Old World of Scandinavia rather than the New World of America.

Today he looked out over Viking skies full of Icelandic drama with mountainous clouds as big and as grey as a medieval cathedral that closed around the city like a soggy cloak.

Steinunn first Icelandic cSettler

European Capital of Culture 2011 – Tallinn

tallinn-unesco-08-08-2013

Before dining however we walked through to the opposite side of town and along the ‘wall of woolens’, so called because here there were more market stalls cut into the arches of the original city wall and then we were tempted to part with thirty Eeks each to climb to the top of the tower for a two hundred metre elevated walk looking down over the rooftops and the narrow medieval streets below.

Back at street level we wandered down the delightful St Catherine’s Passage in between fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth century buildings where artisans and craftsmen and women were preserving medieval crafts such as glass blowing, intricate iron work, jewellery and leather work.  At  the end of the passage was a basement restaurant where we stopped for a bowl of soup and a glass of beer and we successfully negotiated the potential crisis moment when Sue and Christine both found something on the menu that they could order with confidence and enjoy.

Tallinn Estonia Old Town

By mid afternoon when we left the subterranean restaurant it was already starting to get dark because thanks to the ‘polar night’ phenomenon, in the Winter, Tallinn, on the same line of latitude as the Shetland Isles, enjoys only a few short hours of daylight. It has late sunrises and early sunsets, which creates incredibly short days and endlessly long nights.  On an overcast day like today the effect was even worse and it is little wonder that Tallinners have been known to have a tendency toward seasonal depression as a result.

We needed some beers and a bottle of wine but we didn’t pass any shops so as it was still early Mike and I walked around the city ring road in search of a mini market.  The route we chose took us towards the railway station and this wasn’t any real surprise because is a railway man by profession and enthusiasm and after about a kilometre or so we were outside the ticket office and an impressive Soviet Steam Engine, the L2317, a 2-10-0 locomotive built in 1953 in Russia at a factory in the Moscow railway suburb city of Kolomna.

The Russian L-series locomotives were one of the more advanced steam locomotives built in the former Soviet Union.   It was a mighty black iron beast with red wheels of almost ninety tonnes that really deserved a name rather than just a number, which during its working life pulled mostly freight trains between Russia and Estonia and after it was decommissioned was rather ignominiously used as a static boiler to heat nearby houses.

It has been externally restored now and sits tall and proud outside the railway station, which was where we went next.

Tallinn Russian Railway Engine Soviet Steam Engine L2317

We were now in the working part of the city and a long way from the Christmas market and the students dressed in medieval costumes and the overpriced restaurants.

The station felt tired and past its best and next to it was a tram station that conjured up dreary images of the old days of the Soviet Empire and what was surprising was that the passengers on board looked grey and tired and firmly locked permanently into a 1960s Tallinn time warp.  The trams whirred and screeched and sounded bells to warn of their approach as they drew up and pulled off, setting down and picking up and clattering away again between the rows of old wooden houses and out towards the proletarian flats of the city suburbs.

Next to the station in an ugly 1970s concrete shopping mall we came across a two-story traditional food market selling fish, meat, vegetables and everything for the working class weekly shop.  Everything that is apart from alcohol so we were about to give up when we came across a small kiosk with cans of Estonian beer in the fridge and a screw cap bottle of blossom hill red wine.  Not exactly traditional but without a corkscrew we were severely limited for choice.

Later we all met up in reception and wrapped up in hats, scarves and thermal gloves walked back into town making our way past the skating rink that we decided to leave until tomorrow, towards the Raekoja Plats where we were surprised to find the market closed.  It was only eight o’clock and I would have thought a Times listed top twenty Christmas market would still be open in the evening.

We dealt with the disappointment as best we could and then began the search for a suitable eating establishment.  We didn’t take too long over this and agreed upon one of the medieval banquet houses, the Peppersack, that was located in an old building not far from the Town Hall Square.  There was a good menu of hearty food and we enjoyed meat skewers and fillets and best of all plenty of Estonian beer and wine to wash it all down.

All we needed now was some snow but sadly there was none as we left the restaurant and walked back to the hotel with the objective of a final nightcap.  There was no hope of that at the Von Stackleberg because the bar was closed so we wandered across the road instead to a modern glitzy hotel that was still open, and our final drink and made our day one assessment of Tallinn, which we agreed we all liked, before calling it a day and agreeing to meet at nine o’clock in the morning for breakfast.

Tallinn Christmas

A Competition, Compostela, Cahors and a Chateau

In the early summer of 1998 the Times Newspaper ran a daily competition one week to win a prize of an all expenses paid trip for two nights in an up market Relais and Chateau Hotel somewhere in Europe.  One day the competition required answers to three questions about Santiago de Compostela in Galicia and the Way of St James.  I was confident of the answers and telephoned them in several times over the course of the day.

Over the following couple of weeks I forgot all about the competition but one day was surprised to receive a letter from the Times telling me that I was the winner and that the prize was first class air travel to Toulouse in South West France, car hire and two nights all-inclusive at the Château de Mercuès just outside the provincial town of Cahors.

Chateau de Mercures Cahors

Early in the Autumn we flew with British Airways in a first class cabin that we shared with the actor Robin Ellis (Ross Poldark) and his wife (his real wife not Demelza)and enjoyed a silver service meal and complimentary champagne.  When we arrived at Toulouse in the early afternoon we picked up the Renault hire car and set off in a northerly direction on our way to the Chateau.

On the way we stopped at the town of Cahors and after we had walked around the centre, sitting within a protective loop of the River Lot, we found a traditional patisserie and sat and gloated about our unusual good fortune.

The village of Mercuès was just a few kilometres west of the town and eventually we set off again following the course of the river as it swept through the countryside and soon in front of us we saw a splendid castle with soaring towers and blue slate conical roofs and we imagined that it looked somewhere interesting to visit.

After only a short distance there was a sign to our hotel and we took a narrow road that climbed high away from the river and after one final turn we were confronted with the entrance to the very same magnificent building.  This was the Château de Mercuès and way beyond the standard of any hotel that we had ever stayed in before.

The car had hardly come to a halt before a porter rushed through the front doors and took our luggage from the car and indicated that we should follow him to the reception.  Inside there were wonderful furnishings and treasured artefacts and I worried that we were in the wrong place.  But no, it was true, this was prize for winning the competition.

After registration we were shown to our room at the very top of the tallest tower with stone walls, wooden beams and an external walkway on the outside with long distance views over the Lot valley, the Chateau gardens and the raging River Lot rushing by below swollen by days of heavy rain and carrying fallen trees and other debris hurriedly downstream.

Chateau de MERCURES

Our room at the top of the tower with personal balcony!

It took a while for all this to sink in but fortunately there was a complimentary bottle of Cahors wine to help us and when we had settled down we took some time to explore the castle and its gardens, its wine cellars and it public rooms.  Dinner off of an expensive menu was included and I remember that this was the first time that I ever tasted Foie Gras and feeling guilty about it because I was certain that my vegetarian teenage daughter would certainly not approve.

For our full day in France after breakfast we chose to drive the thirty-five kilometres north to the tourist town and Christian pilgrimage centre of Rocamadour.

At first the road was straight and driving was easy but the final few kilometres were on twisting bendy roads that swooped through gullies and over ravines as we got closer.  Rocamadour is one of the busiest tourist sites in France because the picturesque town is built almost vertically into the side of the mountain with its golden houses overhanging a rocky gorge and the River Alzou below.  The car park was at the bottom of the mountain and to get to the entrance gate of the town required an ascent up several flights of wooden steps that eventually brought us out at the main tourist street.

It was quiet today because this was October and outside the main tourist season but the summer months bring thousands of visitors to this place daily.  Years later I visited Carcassonne and Mont St Michel and found them rather similar in a touristy sort of way.

It didn’t help matters that the weather was rather poor and although it wasn’t raining it was misty and rather damp and the honey coloured stones looked disappointingly dull and lifeless today, the place was full of tourist shops that weren’t doing enough business to justify being open and we had the streets and medieval staircases almost to ourselves as we wandered past churches and chapels on ancient streets punctuated with shops and restaurants every few metres.  We stopped for lunch and then made our way back down the steps and drove back to the Chateau where we enjoyed a second gourmet meal in the expensive dining room.

004

The next morning when it was time to check out I suddenly began to panic in case I had to pay for any of this unaccustomed extravagance and finery that we had enjoyed and the thoughts got stronger as I waited behind an American guest who settled his obscenely large bill and then made a dreadful fuss about being charged a couple of Francs for a postcard that he picked up while waiting.

My hands were sweating and I avoided the postcards but I needn’t have worried of course, the whole bill was taken care of by the Sunday Times and with the sun shining now we had one final walk around the delightful gardens before setting off for the return journey to Toulouse airport.

Travels in Spain, Balearic Islands in Postcards

Ibiza Island Mapp PostcardMinorca Island Map Postcardmajorca-postcard