Category Archives: Europe

A Challenge Accepted

Just recently a blogging pal of mine challenged me to tackle these three questions. I don’t usually respond to challenges but in this case I have made an exception.

1. Which philosopher do you most admire and if they were alive today in your country/town how would they focus or direct their main theory and to what end?

Thomas Paine Thetford Norfolk

I immediately thought that I might go for John Locke “The Father of Liberalism” because I think that “Two Treatises of Government” is where nearly fifty years ago I formed my own views on politics and society.

I then considered Voltaire, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” (not Voltaire himself of course even though it neatly sums up his contribution to the principle of Free Speech.

But I have decided to choose Thomas Paine. My interest in him was rekindled when I visited his birth town of Thetford in Norfolk.

Thomas Paine Hotel

Paine supported both the American Revolution (one of the Founding Fathers no less) and the French Revolution and his most important work was The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen which became the basis for a nation of free individuals protected equally by the law. In 1792 he was elected to the French National Convention. In all of the turmoil of the revolution he was arrested. He only narrowly escaped the guillotine during the reign of terror and was then (not being welcome in England) allowed to travel to the USA.

The Declaration is important, it is included in the beginning of the constitutions of both the Fourth French Republic (1946) and Fifth (1958) and is still current. Inspired by the philosophers of the French Enlightenment like Voltaire and Rousseau, the Declaration became a core statement of the values of the French Revolution and had a major impact on the development of freedom and democracy in Europe and Worldwide.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen is so significant that it is considered to be as important as Magna Carta, the English Bill of Rights, the United States Bill of Rights and inspired in large part the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

If he was here now I’d like to think he would have a solution to the crisis of democracy in the UK which has been brought about by the whole BREXIT fiasco.

Thomas Paine Memorial

If he was here now I’d like to think he would have a solution to the crisis of democracy in the UK which has been brought about by the whole BREXIT fiasco.

2. If you could completely “remove” three things from this planet what would they be and why? By “things” I don’t mean poverty, disease, discrimination etc, I mean tangible items, goods, or artefacts that really bug you. 

Dogs

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In the UK you need a licence for a shotgun or to keep poison or even weed killer but not for a killer animal!

Apologies here to my canine loving friends but I really don’t like dogs, I suffer from Cynophobia – I am scared of them, and this isn’t completely irrational because they really don’t like me either – but they are not frightened of me!  As soon as people with dogs realise that I have an unnatural and unexplainable fear of them then they seem to take sadistic delight in subjecting me to the terror of their company.

I don’t like dogs because I see no redeeming features in them. They sweat, they are greasy, they smell, they have bad breath, they foul the pavements and they piss up my garden wall.  What is there possibly to like about them?

My dislike for them started as a boy when I was taken one day for a walk by my granddad and on a piece of waste land opposite my parent’s house in Leicester an Alsatian dog knocked me to the ground, pinned me down and stood on my chest.  The inconsiderate owner had let it off its leash and I was absolutely terrified.

I couldn’t sum it up better than in the words of Bill Bryson…

“It wouldn’t bother me in the least…if all the dogs in the world were placed in a sack and taken to some distant island… where they could romp around and sniff each other’s arses to their hearts’ content and never bother or terrorise me again.” 

I wasn’t always frightened of dogs…

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Garlic

I hate garlic, I mean I really, really hate garlic. I hate the taste, I hate the aroma, I hate the way that it dries your mouth out and I hate the way that it makes you smell for twenty-four hours after eating it. I know that it is useful for warding off vampires but that is all I really have to say about garlic.  I am not even going to post a picture.

Plastic

truckers rubbish

I wish plastic had never been invented.

I have recently become more upset than ever before about litter alongside roads and paths. While littering of the oceans is now at the forefront of public concern, general littering of the countryside and communities is barely on the national radar. Yet the amount of eyesore litter, not just plastic, is increasing exponentially on roadsides, in rivers, in public spaces and in the countryside and has a hugely negative impact on our lives.

Litter ruins people’s enjoyment of the countryside and makes open spaces feel like waste grounds. In Lincolnshire, where I live, many road verges are strewn with plastic sheets and bags hanging from trees, discarded meal containers and sacks of general rubbish.  Rubbish collection, or lack of it, compounds the problem. Bins for public use are relatively scarce, and litter collection is less frequent as councils simultaneously promote recycling and cut budgets.

This is me  at work in 1990 trying to tackle the litter problem with local school children…

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3. Magic wish …. you can visit and see anything or any place on earth for a week, what is it, where, why?

Easy, my garden with some bottles of fine wine and a plate of my favourite nibbles!

So that is my challenge completed.  It is my job now to pass it on.  I have decided not to nominate anyone specifically but to invite anyone that has a care to, to think about and answer my three questions…

1 Most disappointing place ever visited

2 Which King or Queen of England would you invite to dinner and why and what is on the menu

3 Should the World build walls to restrict free movement of people

If you don’t like my questions then you could always use Brian’s…

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Check out his amusing and informative blog pages right here…

https://thetwodoctors.wordpress.com/

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Travels in Spain, Mérida in Extremadura

Extremadura

“Sometimes the Spaniard will resent your attempts to use it (Spanish).  Sometimes he believes it to physically impossible for an alien to understand it.  Sometimes he cannot actually convince himself that you are speaking it…”   Jan Morris – ‘Spain’

Mérida is the capital city of the Autonomous region of Extremadura and is set in the heart of the Province of Badajoz. One of the most important Roman capital cities at the height of Roman occupation of Spain, the city today has one of the best preserved collections of Roman monuments anywhere in Europe and UNESCO World Heritage status.

This is why we were here of course but right now all we wanted was a table in the early evening sunshine, a drink and a plate of olives so after we had approved the room we left immediately to the Plaza Mayor right outside the front door.

The Plaza was vibrant and busy with families enjoying the weather (it had rained the day before, the receptionist told us), young boys playing football and girls running and skipping.  In the centre was an extravagant fountain and it was surrounded by arcades, shopping streets leaking away into shadows and tall colourful buildings decorated with palms and exotic plants.  At each corner was a covered café so we choose one in the sun, next to some boys playing football who were using palm trees for goalposts and sat and simply enjoyed the atmosphere.

What was noticeable was how well behaved the children were, how well dressed everyone was and how this seemed like one giant drawing room where an extended family was meeting up at the end of the day and having a sociable hour or two together before dinner.

As the afternoon slipped effortlessly into early evening we remembered that we needed some supplies for the room because being a five star hotel there was no way we were going anywhere near the mini-bar and its inflated prices.  There were no shops around the square so we finished our drinks and joined the crowds of people walking through the main shopping street of the city.  There were all kinds of shops but no mini-markets and we walked until we came to a busy main road where we were certain there would be a shop because we had seen people with carrier bags, but being unsure which we to turn, left or right, it was time to ask directions.

There was a man on the pavement just watching the world go by and minding his own business so I asked him a straightforward one word question, “¿Supermercardo?”  He took a step backwards as though he thought I might have an infectious disease and his face went curiously blank.  He looked around for help but there was none so he shrugged his shoulders and rattled off some words in Spanish at machine gun speed which I took to mean that he wasn’t sure, he was uncomfortable being accosted by foreigners and that we should leave him alone.

We decided to walk on and within twenty metres we were outside a huge ‘Discount Supermercardo’ and I don’t think I could have been so unintelligible that he couldn’t have understood that this was exactly what we were looking for.

It was getting late by the time we had finished off a bottle of Rioja and were ready to go out so being unfamiliar with the city we didn’t walk too far and found a restaurant close by that seemed just about right.  Actually it turned out not to be very thrilling and there was an elderly English couple in there complaining about the food and the service and although I wouldn’t have gone back it really wasn’t that bad and I enjoyed a Extremadura lamb stew and Kim a beef steak.  We declared it delicious, there were no complaints from us!

One of the reasons that I like Spain so much is its diversity, no region, city or town is much like another, each has a special unique quality and Extremadura and Mérida was proving to be no exception.

Extremadura Map

Even in Spain Extremadura has a very distinct character, in the summer it is sun-baked and unforgiving, in the winter it is cold and unrelenting.  Much of the land has no agricultural value, there are no industrial centres.  Bordering to its west is Portugal and it is and has long been the poorest region in Spain, in the past, its poverty led to many of its population fleeing elsewhere in search of better fortune.

Geographically it is the fifth largest of the Autonomous Communities of Spain but it has the lowest population density of all.  There is no international airport and no AVE high speed train link, it is the least visited region in Spain by tourists.  Mérida is the smallest of all seventeen capitals of the Autonomous Communities.

As we left the restaurant we strolled through the Plaza Mayor which was still vibrant and busy. As so often in Spain, there was a sense simultaneously of gravitas, fragile grandeur and impending festivity. Spanish people really know how to colonise urban space, and at all hours. We liked Mérida.

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Tea Towel Souvenirs – St. Mary’s Lighthouse at Whitley Bay

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In 2018 the most viewed photograph on my blog pages was a picture of a tea towel that I took in a shop in Puglia in Italy.

Puglia T Towel Map

On account of that I thought that I would begin an occasional series of posts of tea towel souvenirs that I have brought home from my travels and I begin with St. Mary’s Lighthouse in Whitley Bay in Northumberland.

“To me a lighthouse was meant to be lived in. It was part of working life. And ships passing, day or night, knew there was somebody there, looking at them.” – Dermot Cronin, the last Lighthouse keeper in United Kingdom

Since 1998 all of the UK Lighthouses including this one are fully automated.

Click on an image to scroll through the gallery…

This is my post on pointless souvenirs in Spain –

Travels in Spain, Pointless Souvenirs

Travels in Spain, Cáceres in Extremadura

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“Extremadura was pre-eminently the country of the adventurers for many of them went to the New World… and often returned rich and the region is full of their memorials…. The old part of Cáceres is embellished everywhere with the heraldry of imperial nouveaux-riches”, Jan Morris – ‘Spain’

As we walked into the city we passed into the old town through one of the eight-hundred year old Moorish gates.

The city has an eclectic blend of Roman, Islamic, Northern Gothic and Italian Renaissance styles, the result of many tug-of-war battles fought here throughout history.  Precisely because of this Cáceres was declared a World Heritage City by UNESCO in 1986.

Saint George is the patron saint of the city and the story goes that he knew that there was a dragon terrorising the population of Cáceres, so he captured it and brought it to the city; he told the citizens that if they all converted from Islam to Christianity then he would kill the dragon. Fifteen thousand men converted on the spot (the women weren’t so important it seems) so he slayed the dragon and Cáceres lived in peace.

St George

The route from the splendid gate took us to the immaculate Plaza Mayor which had recently been resurfaced and tidied up in preparation for a submission to be considered as Spain’s representative as the European capital of Culture. (Ultimately not successful as it happens – pipped at the post by San Sebastián in the Basque Region).

It was hot now under a clear blue sky so after we had walked the circumference of the square we took a table at the Meson ‘Los Portales’ and ordered drinks and tapas.  Because of a communication problem (We can’t speak Spanish, the waiter couldn’t understand English) we didn’t get the one that we ordered but it was nice enough and we enjoyed it anyway.

After Alfonso IX of Leon conquered Cáceres in 1227 it flourished during the Reconquest and the Discovery of America as influential Spanish families and nobles built homes and small palaces here, and many members of families from Extremadura participated in voyages to America where they made their fortune and then returned home to enjoy it.

The colour of the walls was of the richest golden brown to be found anywhere in Spain, as though drenched, steeped, saturated with all the sunlight of centuries of summers.”  –  Ted Walker – ‘In Spain’

The old quarter, with its numerous palaces, churches and convents is enclosed by the city wall, most of it Moorish in construction, many of the defence towers are still standing and there are even a few Roman stone blocks visible.  From the Plaza Mayor we walked up the steps and through the Estrella de Churriguer archway.

From there to the Plaza de Santa Maria where close by is the Palacio De Los Toledo-Moctezuma, which is a vivid reminder of the importance of Cáceres in the conquest of the Americas because it was built for Techichpotzin  by one of her three Spanish husbands.  Who was  Techichpotzin? I hear you ask, well, let me tell you, she was no less than the daughter of the Aztec ruler Montezuma.

Dominating the square is the Iglesia de Santa Maria so we slipped inside and took a look around carefully remembering to avoid the image of the Cristo de los Blázquez, also known as the Cristo Negro or Black Christ which, tradition has it, brought death to all those who looked at, or touched it.

It cost just €1 to climb to the top of the bell tower so we paid and took the stone spiral staircase to the top where there were good views of the old town and beyond which we shared with all of the Storks that had built their untidy nests at the highest possible points.

Click on an image to scroll through the gallery…

From here we walked the old narrow streets. Past the Palacio De Los Golfines De Abajo, with its spectacular and architecturally important façade in a style that was widely used in Spain and in South America throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. This Palacio was where the house the Catholics Kings stayed when they visited Caceres as guests of the Golfin family, the most important people in town, and the royal crest is carved above the doorway to prove it.

From the old town we came back to the square and walked into the shopping streets and around the old town walls from the outside and then with the afternoon slipping quickly away we returned to the Plaza Mayor and to the car.  If I was planning this trip again I would have stayed for a night in Cáceres but it was too late now and our accommodation was booked in Mérida about thirty miles to the south.

We estimated that we would be there in a little under an hour and at first all went according to plan until suddenly the motorway was closed and there was a diversion.   I took a decision to take the Badajoz road because although it wasn’t on the route to Mérida it was at least going south and I was confident that there would somewhere be a minor road to make the necessary correction.

We started to travel south-west and because this is such a sparsely populated region of Spain it turns out that there are not a lot of roads at all so we just kept going relentlessly towards Badajoz and further and further away from our intended destination. Eventually after quite a lengthy detour we came across a road that was so new that it wasn’t even on the map but it said Mérida so we trusted to luck and took it and started to drive in roughly the right direction

The journey that should have taken under an hour took nearly two and it was very late afternoon/early evening when we arrived at the Hotel Mérida Palace, parked the car and presented ourselves at reception for check in.

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Travels in Spain, Cuevas El Aguila in The Gredos Mountains

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“Wherever he saw a hole he always wanted to know the depth of it. To him this was important.”  Jules Verne –  ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’

After a perfect undisturbed sleep in the quiet village we woke to an immaculate blue sky and wide sweeping views over the expansive countryside and the surprisingly green fields sweeping down towards the city of Talavera de la Reina and beyond that to the Montes de Toledo rising slowly through the dispersing cloud.

Breakfast wasn’t served until half past nine so we had time for a walk into town where we were expecting to see a market in the Plaza de Torres but we must have got our days mixed up because the Plaza was quite empty.  We wandered lost around the streets that were beginning to stir into life and saw the same old men who had been there the previous night and clearly have nothing more to do all day in this tiny place than hang around the main square.

Perhaps they don’t even go to bed.

Breakfast at the El Cerro was excellent, just a simple affair of Iberian ham, Manchego cheese and toast with olive oil and tomato but it was quite perfect.  One of the hotel staff was very friendly and spoke good English and was interested in our travels around Spain and intrigued that we picked out of the way places like Pedro Bernardo instead of the well known tourist towns.  He told us that he wanted to move to Madrid and we assured him that we liked it better this way.

We told him that we were driving to Cáceres and he became quite insistent that we should take a short detour from our route and visit the Cuevas El Aguila, the Eagle Caves, in the foothills of the Gredos mountains but we had a long way to go and were not sure if we liked caves enough to go to the trouble.  When we checked out a few minutes later he reminded us again to make the visit and assured us that we would not be disappointed so it seemed rude not to go so we set off in the direction that he carefully marked on our map.

I liked Pedro-Bernardo, it was the sort of place that could go on a ‘must go back to one day’ list but I won’t go back because I fear that if I did it will have changed dramatically from how I remember it.  I’ll just keep it locked away in my memory.

The drive out took us to the  Sierra de Gredos which is a mountain range in the centre of the Iberian Peninsula, located between Ávila, Cáceres, Madrid and Toledo and has been declared a regional park.  We were on the road to Cáceres anyway so it wouldn’t delay us too long to visit the caves and when they began to be signposted we turned off and took a succession of minor roads to the attraction.

We followed a quiet rural road, a track really to a large but empty car park and parked close to the entrance and still not convinced that this was a good idea made our way to the kiosk and paid €7 each entrance and waited five minutes for the guide to take us inside.

As soon as he appeared and escorted us underground we were immediately glad that we made the detour because this was an awesome underground cavern, over twelve million years old and inside a great hall of six thousand square yards and over half a mile of pathway to walk through the great stalactites and stalagmites that rose and fell in majestic multi-coloured columns throughout the cave.

The guide apologised several times for being unable to speak English but we reassured him that this didn’t matter because so much of his narrative would have been superfluous anyway and we could imagine for ourselves what he was telling us.  As usual in underground caves he kept pointing out natural sculptures that, with a lot of imagination, had a resemblance to familiar icons – the Madonna and Child (several times), Bulls, Matadors and famous Spanish Kings and Queens.

The temperature inside the cave is constant throughout the year, with an average of twenty degrees celsius and it was this that led to its discovery in 1963 by a group of children who noticed water vapour escaping through a hole in the ground caused by the difference in temperature of the caves and the outside.  They crawled inside to investigate and discovered the Aladdin’s cave with all of its natural treasure and a year later the owners of the land, obviously sensing that there was gold in them thar hills, made it accessible and opened it to the public.

It took about forty minutes to complete the circuit of concrete paths and various viewing platforms and when we emerged back into the daylight we were so pleased that we had taken the advice to visit because this was one place that was certainly worth a detour.

The original plan was to drive to Extremadura and stop at the town of Trujillo but the combination of the later than usual breakfast and the unscheduled visit to the caves meant that our original timings now had to be reworked so we decided to miss Trujillo and drive the hundred and twenty miles straight to Cáceres instead.

The drive was effortless along a delightfully spacious motorway as we drove in a relentless straight line across Spain’s Central Plateau at some point crossing into the Province of Extremadura, the fifth largest in Spain.

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Other Cave Stories:

Drogarati Cave and Blue Lagoon, Kephalonia

Altimira Caves, Spain

Blue Lagoon, Capri

Krakow, Wieliczka Salt Mine

Lanzarote – Cueva de los Verde

Cave Houses of Guadix

Llechwedd Slate Caverns, Wales

 

Click on an image to view the gallery…

Travels in Spain, Pedro Bernardo and the Tipping Point of History

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The drive north from Talavera de la Reina took us into the neighbouring Province of Castilla y Leon and through the little town of Buenaventura, which was closed, towns like this are often closed in the afternoon I have found and then the climb became more dramatic as we reached almost six hundred feet when we made the approach to the mountain village of Pedro Bernardo.

We managed to stay just short of the cloud and the sun was still shining as we drove through several tricky corners and into the village and easily found the Hostal El Cerro on a dramatic bend in the road overlooking the valley below.

Although only two star it was an excellent hotel with a great room, a wonderful view and with excellent weather the ideal place for an hour or so of  enjoying the sun on the very private terrace.  After a while the grey sky started to muscle in and there was a drop or two of rain but inside there was a Jacuzzi to experiment with and after a half an hour or so it had blown over and the blue sky reasserted itself and there were good views over the rural hinterland with forests of elms, pines, chestnut and hazelnut trees and waterfalls and rivers making the town a scenic paradise.

The origins of Pedro Bernardo are not clear; the original name of the village was Navalasolana and there is a popular local legend that talks about the leaders of two groups of shepherds, Pedro Fernández and Bernardo Manso. They started to fight and struggled to get the control of the village and finally the feudal lord of the council tired of it all came up with a solution and decided to change the name of Navalasolana to Pedro and Bernardo to achieve peace and stop the struggles between the two squabbling bands.

This sounds very much to me like the spat between Steve McQueen and Paul Newman over who should get top billing in the film ‘Towering Inferno‘ and where there was an equally sensible solution – to provide dual top billing, the credits were arranged diagonally, with McQueen lower left and Newman upper right. Thus, each appeared to have “first” billing depending on whether the credit was read left-to-right or top-to-bottom.

What a silly argument and they are both dead now anyway!

Towering Inferno

In the early evening we walked into Pedro Bernardo, passing first through the Plaza de Torres and then the Plaza Mayor where groups of mainly old men were sitting in small groups and discussing the big important issues of the day.

Through the twisting narrow streets flanked by crumbling buildings with rotting timber and decaying plaster walls,  Precarious wooden balconies and barely inhabitable houses we wandered aimlessly through the streets until we arrived at the church somewhere near the top of the village.  It was nothing special and really hardly worth the walk at all so we made our way back down and stayed for a while in the main square and had a drink at a bar where there was reluctance to serve us at an outside table on account of the fact that the owner and bar staff were watching a bull fight from Seville on the television in the bar which demanded all of their attention.

I formed the impression that Pedro Bernardo was a town on the precipice, about to tip over in an avalanche of change that will achieve an instant transformation and erase a hundred years or so of history in the blink of an eye.  It is rather like one of those penny drop machines in a games arcade, one shove and it will all tip over.  One day it will all be gone.  It is a shame but it will be ultimately it will be impossible to cling on to the crumbling rotting wreckage of an old town like this and everyone despite their objections will eventually be obliged to move to the nearby featureless modern new town instead.

Old people will weep, young folk will smile.  Old people will lament, young folk will rejoice.  Property developers will move in behind them and there will soon be a new old town of modern swanky apartments and boutique hotels.

I am so glad that I saw Pedro Bernardo as it once was.

The Hostel El Cerro was a perfect place, a rare mix of rustic charm and modern sophistication and we had no hesitation in eating in the hotel dining room.  It was only eight o’clock which seemed to surprise the staff but the chef was already there (in the bar as it happened) and we tucked in to an excellent Chuletón de Ávila, an excellent cut of prime beef steak that we had enjoyed only last year on a visit to that city.

Although it was still quite early, we had been a long day and had had an early start so after the evening meal we went back to the room and sat on the balcony with a final glass of red wine and from our elevated position watched the stars twinkling overhead in the sky as though from the prow of a ship and stared into black emptiness except for the lights of the distant villages, Lanzahita, La Higuera and Ramacastanas lying like constellations in the vague immensity of Spain.

Travels in Italy, Updated

I have got a few gaps in the map, so I will have to get travelling…

Italy Visited