Category Archives: Hotels

Corfu and the Achilleion Palace

Achilleion 04

In the afternoon we visited the Achilleion at Gastouri, squeezed in between Perama and Benitses.  It is a museum now but was once a summer Palace built in 1890 by the Empress Elisabeth of Austria who was a curious woman obsessed with the classical Homeric hero Achilles and with all things beautiful (including herself by all accounts).

The Palace with the neoclassical Greek statues that surround it is a monument to platonic romanticism and escapism and is filled with paintings and statues of the tragic hero Achilles, both in the main hall and in the gardens, depicting heroic struggles scenes of the Trojan War.

The dazzling white Palace has a wedding cake like appearance and the beautiful Imperial gardens on the hill look over the surrounding green hill crests and valleys and the azure blue Ionian Sea.

I had visited before of course and this was the Palace in 1984…

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The centre piece of the gardens is a marble statue on a high pedestal of the mortally wounded Achilles stripped of body armour and heroic bravado and wearing only a simple cloth and an elaborate Greek hoplite helmet.  This statue was fashioned by German sculptor Ernst Gustav Herter and the hero is  without rank or status and seems notably human though tragic as he is forever trying despairingly to pull the poisoned arrow shot by Paris from his unfortunate heel.

His classically depicted face is full of pain and he gazes skyward as if to seek help from Olympus.

Achilles Heel

In Greek mythology when Achilles was a baby it was foretold that he would die young. To prevent this his mother Thetis took him to the River Styx which was said to offer powers of invulnerability and dipped his whole body into the water, however, as Thetis held Achilles by the heel, his heel was not washed over by the water of the magical river and was therefore tragically vulnerable.  I have always thought of this to be rather careless.

Dying Achilles

Oddly today there was no arrow on the statue, it seems to have been removed, maybe stolen or perhaps for preservation and repairs, it was certainly there in 1984…

Achilles 1984

and in the souvenir tile that I bought several years later, on the island of Santorini if I remember correctly…

Achilles

In contrast to the painful death of Achilles at the great staircase in the main hall is a giant painting of the triumphant warrior full of pride.  Dressed in full royal military regalia and erect on his racing chariot he pulls the lifeless body of Hector of Troy in front of the stunned crowd watching helplessly from inside the walls of the City.

The Achilleion must have been an idyllic holiday home but in 1898 at the age of sixty the Empress was assassinated when she was stabbed by an anarchist whilst walking in a park in Geneva, Switzerland.  After her death the palace was sold to the German Kaiser Wilhelm II who also liked to take summer holidays on Corfu and later, after World-War One it was acquired by the Greek State who converted it into a museum.

Empress Elisabeth of Austria

It is a beautiful place with grand sweeping gardens befitting royal ownership and we enjoyed the visit and even went back later to see the sunset from the Kaiser’s chair which is an area at the highest point in the gardens where Wilhelm would go in the evening to enjoy the end of the day.

On the way out we passed Kaiser’s Bridge which is just two stumps of brickwork now but was originally built for the Kaiser so that he could leave his yacht and walk to his palace without crossing the road. How self-indulgent was that?  The road can hardly have been busy or dangerous in 1900!

Two stumps of brickwork now because in 1942 it was ironically blown up by the occupying German troops because it was too low for their tanks to pass below.

Kaiser's Bridge

And so we returned to Kalami and our short holiday was over, we packed our bags and cleaned the apartment, I always like to clean an apartment in case we get a bad reputation as untidy guests and then inevitably we returned to the same beach side taverna for a final meal.  It had been a very good week, beaches, sunshine, long walks, a boat ride and a lot of history.  Corfu remains one of my favourite places in Greece and all of Europe.

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Travels in Portugal, Return to Algarve

Algarve map

We left quite soon after breakfast because we had a long drive ahead of us now back to the Algarve.

Once again we had a pleasant journey across the Alentejo region as we headed south along mostly empty roads gliding effortlessly across the wide open plains.  Compared to the Algarve it is a largely undeveloped region where hillsides are as important as beaches, Roman ruins are celebrated as much as golf resorts, rural vineyards promoted as well as luxury marinas – it is, I suggest, a more varied experience.

The Alentejo is also linked to many of the most important chapters of Portuguese history. It saw the birth of Vasco da Gama at Sines and the death of the ‘Holy Queen’ Isabel at Estremoz. It was at Atoleiros that the celebrated knight Nuno Álvares Pereira achieved his first victory in the battle for independence from Castile and it was at Vila Viçosa in February 1908 that King Carlos spent his last night before being shot down and killed by republican activists in Lisbon’s Praça do Comércio the next day.

After an hour or so we left the flat plains behind as we began to climb steadily into the mountains that separate the two regions.  We knew when we passed into Algarve because the roads immediately improved and became busier as we entered the Portuguese poster region.

We planned to have an easy two days before travelling home and had chosen a rural location in a village called Vale Judeu quite close to the busy town of Vilamoura.  We were too early to check in so we went straight to the resort town for lunch.  We immediately wished that we hadn’t.  The official guide boasts that “Vilamoura is unlike any other Portuguese town, gone is the dilapidated charm, replaced with striking perfection, which is simply expected by the super-rich who frequent the marina.”

It is a modern purpose built tourist resort completely lacking in any sort of character.  We prefer ‘dilapidated charm’ and are certainly not ‘super-rich’ so stayed no longer than half-an-hour before quickly leaving without a single glance in the rear-view mirror.  I should have carried out better research.

After arrival at the hotel we took a stroll into the village where we found the dilapidated charm that we like and instead of roving packs of British golfers in between golf courses found an untidy bar full of locals in between food courses so stayed for a while and had a simple lunch.

Portugal Cock

Close by was a restaurant that came highly recommended so after a quiet afternoon around the swimming pool we returned for evening meal.  We shared a simple starter of grilled sardines and a main course of monk fish stew with beans, both delicious.  We had walked eight miles today.

For our final day we made plans to drive east to the town of Tavira, the last big town on the Algarve before crossing the Rio Guardiana into Spain.  We were meeting my blogging pal Jo who I have been friends with now for several years through our web sites.

I was looking forward to Tavira.  In 1965 the artist David Swift who wrote a travel guide to the Algarve said this … “For my money Tavira is the most enchanting town of Algarve.  It stands on two hills on either bank of a river, the Segua which is crossed by a seven arched Roman bridge.  The hills are crowned with castles and churches yet from the middle green fields can be glimpsed in one direction and the sea in the other”.

Roman Bridge

Fifty-five years later I wasn’t expecting it to be quite the same as described but I was delighted to find that Swift would almost certainly have recognised the place that he recommended so highly.  A wide fast flowing river, steep hills, whitewashed shops and houses, terracotta roofs and cobbled streets and still with its thirty-seven churches and a ferry service to the beach islands to the south.  What a delightful contrast to the dreadful resort town of Vilamoura.

ilha_tavira-ferry_boat

We spent a splendid afternoon in Tavira with Jo and husband Mike as our expert guides and as we drove back to our hotel we were in agreement that Tavira is a place that we need to see some more of.

For our final night we returned inevitably to the same restaurant, Kim had a beef steak and I had a salted cod stew.  The Portuguese love cod and it is said that there are three hundred and sixty-five different recipes, one for every day of the year so I thought it was time to try one of them.  I enjoyed it, the fish was firm and meaty but maybe just a little too salty for my taste.  We had walked seven and a half miles today.

In preparation for an early departure we packed before going to bed, I was quite glad actually, it is exciting to travel but it is nice to go home as well!

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Travels in Portugal, The City of Évora

Evora Street 01

We arrived at our accommodation way too early to check in so we simply abandoned the car and made our way towards the city centre across a wasteland car park and a punishing steep hill which lead to the Praça do Giraldo, the main square of the city and where brisk but expensive business was being done in pavement restaurants and bars.

It was rather pricey (well, I thought so) in the swanky city bars so we moved quickly through to an adjacent artisan square and a bar that was busy with local people enjoying good food so we found a table and ordered a simple lunch with prices much more suited to our budget.

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 center with a fortress and a mosque.

Évora was captured from the Moors through a surprise attack by Gerald the Fearless in September 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.

Evora Roman Temple 01

With two days in Évora we didn’t plan do a lot of sightseeing today so after lunch we wandered through some colourful streets and collected pictures of doors and then strolled back to the hotel where we squandered the afternoon around the swimming pool and drank some beer and wine and played cards.

During the walk we had spotted a promising looking restaurant for evening meal, a simple, rustic sort of place popular with local people so we had no hesitation walking back there in the evening.  We enjoyed a medley of starters and the Kim had roast lamb Alentejo style once again and I had a salted cod with vegetables.  We had walked eight miles today.

Next morning after an average hotel breakfast we set off again into the city and before going anywhere interesting started, at Kim’s insistence, with a haircut because she complained that my thatch had become wild and untidy and I had to agree that she was absolutely right.

Shock over (the haircut an the bill) we went first to the a first-century temple, dedicated to the cult of Emperor Augustus and which unlike the rest of the Roman city has survived for two thousand years because five hundred years ago the structure was incorporated into a medieval development.  That building has gone now but the Temple remains.  It is not especially outstanding for a building of antiquity but remarkable simply because it is still there.

Evora Cathedral Roof

Close to the Roman Temple is the Gothic Cathedral of Évora and we purchased a combined ticket for the interior, a climb to the very top and to visit the cloister.  We made straight for the top where there were expansive views across the Alentejo and beyond, next we went to the cloister where there was a lecture from a cross Frenchman.

There were two sets of steps to the top and we started to climb.  Suddenly the Frenchman was ahead of us coming down.  He insisted that we were using the wrong set of stairs and that we should turn around and go to the bottom and let him continue his descent.  There was no official indication that he was correct but to avoid a diplomatic incident we did as he asked.  This however wasn’t good enough for him and he insisted on following us and giving a lecture on stair lane discipline.  He was wrong, he was definitely wrong and Kim told him so but that just provoked him to carry on.  I wanted to explain to him that I needed no advice from a Frenchman on lane discipline when they can’t even drive on the left hand side of the road, which is of course the right side of the road.

Evora Street 02

From the Cathedral we explored the narrow streets, stopped for lunch and then made our way out of the old city walls to see the Aqueduto da Água de Prata a six mile long sixteenth century aqueduct which once supplied water to the city centre.  Not as picturesque as the aqueducts of either Elvas or Tomar but impressive nevertheless.

By mid-afternoon we were tired of walking so we followed the city walls back to the hotel where we spent the afternoon at the swimming pool with a bottle of wine.

In the evening we returned to the same restaurant where there was an odd incident with an Eastern European lady diner who was dressed for a fine dining experience but finding herself in a rustic Portuguese restaurant with nothing on the basic menu that suited her she had a vociferous argument with the owner who eventually ran out of patience, invited her to leave and received a round of applause from all of the satisfied diners.

I had artichokes and cod stew and Kim had a salad and Portuguese slow cooked chicken.  We had walked nine miles today.  We had enjoyed our two days in Évora but tomorrow we would be packing up and heading back south to the Algarve.

Evora Roman Temple at Night

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Thursday Doors – Santorini in the Greek Islands

Santorini Greek Door

More doors from Santorini here.

Thursday Doors is a weekly feature allowing door lovers to come together to admire and share their favourite door photos from around the world. Feel free to join in the fun by creating your own Thursday Doors post each week and then sharing your link in the comments’ on Norm’s site, anytime between Thursday morning and Saturday noon (North American Eastern Time).

More Greek Doors…

Entrance Tickets – The Royal Palace in Warsaw

Warsaw Royal Castle

At the ticket office the clerk explained that the whole of the castle was not open today but by way of compensation entrance was free.  This seemed like a good deal, no money changed hands and only half a museum for Kim!

Read the Full Story…

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Travels in Spain, A Walking Tour of Madrid

Madrid Bear

“To go to bed at night in Madrid marks you as a little queer. For a long time your friends will be a little uncomfortable about it. Nobody goes to bed in Madrid until they have killed the night.” – Ernest Hemingway

According to official statistics, after London, Paris, Rome and Barcelona, Madrid is the fifth most visited city in Europe (in that order) but I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.  Compared to London, Paris and Rome it only achieved capital status relatively recently, and there is no iconic building to define it, no Eiffel Tower, no Colosseum and no Westminster Abbey and no famous cathedral or castle either so I was curious about what we were likely to see.  Hemingway liked it so I was sure that I would too.

On the first day we could have taken the option of a city bus tour but I really do dislike them with most of the time spent in long lines of slow moving traffic or at red lights with nothing much to see and then flashing past places of interest with only a split second photo opportunity, so on our first day we decided to take a ‘free’ walking tour of the city.  I knew that it wouldn’t be ‘free’ of course but everyone else seemed to think that it was a good idea.

We joined the tour in the appropriately named Plaza de la Puerto Del Sol because the sun was blazing and in this wide open space the rays reflected off the buildings and the paving slabs and the temperature was rising steadily as we walked past the statues of King Charles III and the Bear and the Madroño tree, which we learned is the heraldic symbol of the city (top picture).

Madrid 04

Interesting I thought as only a month previously I had been in the city of Berlin which also has a bear as a city symbol and I was also reminded now that as a boy I grew up in Warwickshire which has a County symbol of a Bear and an Old Rugged Staff.  I expect lots of towns and cities adopt the bear as their symbol.  In the USA California has one on its flag and the bear is of course the symbol of the country of Russia.

This Berlin…

I Love Berlin Bear

This is my old Boy Scout badge Warwickshire Bear …

Warwickshire Bear

There have been no wild bears in England since William Shakespeare was a lad and none in Germany for nearly two hundred years but there are still some in Spain in Cantabria and Asturias in the north of the country.

The Plaza is the very centre of Madrid and the hub of the radial network of the city’s roads and from here we walked a few streets to the Plaza Mayor.

The Plaza Mayor is the original city square, impressive but not the largest in Spain because that honour belongs to Salamanca in Castilla y Leon.  In the centre stands a grand statue of King Philip III and this place has previously been a market, a bull ring and a place of gruesome public executions but now it is a large cobbled pedestrianised area, grand buildings, temporary exhibitions and pavement cafés all around the sides. We stayed for a while and then left to continue our tour.

The route weaved its way eastwards, stopping every so often to explain points of interest, a Flamenco Bar (where tickets were available for later) the oldest restaurant in the World (where tables were available for later) an expensive indoor market (where tables were available immediately) and a fast food place selling calamari sandwich which the guide explained is a popular lunch time snack in Madrid.

Madrid Calamari Sandwich

The tour took us as far as the Palacio Real de Madrid, which with an area of one hundred and thirty-five square metres and over three thousand rooms is the biggest Palace in Europe and more than twice as big as Buckingham Palace in London.  It is larger even than Versailles in France (sorry Versailles). It is the official residence of the King of Spain but he doesn’t live there, probably because it must be a bugger to heat in the winter and it is only used for official State Ceremonies.  King Felipe VI and the Royal Family choose to live instead in the more modest Palacio de la Zarzuela on the outskirts of Madrid.

We decided that we would come back to the Palace later when the tour was finished.

We walked around the outside of the white stone Palace and admired the views over the royal gardens and then visited the adjacent Plaza de Orient a spacious and well laid out pedestrian area with an extravagant fountain and equestrian statue of Philip IV surrounded by immaculate gardens and lines of ugly face statues of former Kings celebrating the period of the Reconquesta.

The walking tour finished close by with a selling pitch for more tours and a fee, I just knew that it wouldn’t be ‘free’ but to be fair it had been very good and we enjoyed it and we happily handed over a contribution to the guide.

It was time for lunch so we thought it might be a good idea to sit in the Plaza Mayor but when we arrived there the prices were higher than we generally like to pay so we abandoned this idea and returned to the Plaza de la Puerto Del Sol and looked for a tapas bar.  We selected one in a side street and instead of tapas all decided that we should try the calamari sandwich which I personally hoped might be similar to a nice fish-finger sandwich.  When it came it wasn’t and we wished we hadn’t so we washed it down with a beer and returned to the streets.  It was so bad that I can honestly say that I would have rather had a McDonalds Filet-O-Fish!

Filet O Fish

Or, even better, an English Fish Finger sandwich…

Fish finger sandwich

What would you choose, Calamari Baguette, McDonalds Filet-O-Fish or a Fish Finger Sandwich?

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Some time ago I wrote a post about my favourite Plaza Mayors in Spain.  You can read that post here.

Yorkshire – Seaside, Countryside and a Train Journey

Whitby Abbey 01

We started the second day in Yorkshire by returning briefly to the town of Whitby which at mid-morning was beginning to stir briskly into English seaside action.  Day trip busses growled into the car parks, breakfast cafés were doing energetic business and noisy amusement arcades were clattering with early coin action and temporary lost fortunes.

I like Whitby, personally I think it is the best of the Yorkshire East coast seaside towns, just edging out Filey and Hornsea but better by a mile than scruffy Scarborough and the really dreadful Bridlington.

Whitby is a fishing town and the harbour was busy this morning as tired working boats came and then rested went and sorted the catch at the quayside before the men on board went about their maintenance duties under the watchful eye of the visitors who wandered without purpose along the quay as they waited for the dozen or so fish and chip shops in the town centre to open at lunchtime.

I would happily have stayed longer at Whitby but we had a very full day ahead of us so we left the town and made our way to nearby Robin Hoods Bay, a charming place which was once a busy fishing village but is now a thriving tourist magnet with narrow picturesque streets, quaint houses, seaside souvenir shops and a wide sandy beach liberally punctuated with rock pools.  The sort of place that I remember from family holidays when I was a boy and where I wished I still had myI-Spy at the Seaside’ book.

Northumberland Seaside Painting

The origin of the name is uncertain, and unless he was on holiday it is highly doubtful if the famous outlaw Robin Hood was ever in the vicinity because it would be a long walk from Sherwood Forest. An English ballad and legend tell a story of Robin taking on French pirates who came to pillage the fishermen’s boats and the northeast coast. The pirates surrendered and Robin Hood returned the plundered loot to the poor people in the village in his most famous way.

errol-flynn-robin-hood-archery

We walked down the steep hill to the sea, stayed a while and then walked back through green fields and a herd of inquisitive cows because our plan now was to take a steam train ride on the North Yorkshire Moors Railway.

The train runs from Whitby to Pickering but car parking is difficult and expensive in Whitby so we started instead at the next station along the line at the village of Grosmont from a railway station that has been restored faithfully in the style of 1950s British Rail.  I am always amazed at what lengths people will go to in England to recreate the past.  We certainly love our history.

The eighteen mile North Yorkshire Moors Railway carries more people than any other heritage railway in the United Kingdom and even claims to be the busiest steam heritage line in the World, annually carrying more than three hundred and fifty thousand passengers.

We purchased our (expensive) return tickets and waited for the steam engine to tediously make its approach to the station, hissing, spitting, burning and growling like an angry beast. I like steam trains and like a lot of people lament their passing (I am of course old enough to remember steam engines running regular services) but it is easy to see why there is no place for these dirty, temperamental monsters in modern Britain.

IMG_0108

The train advanced ponderously and took an hour or so to cover the short fifteen mile journey so it was looking to break any speed records but it was a pleasant journey through the countryside and through a succession of attractive villages along the way before finally arriving in the market town of Pickering.

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Pickering is a gentle sort of place, I doubt that anything especially exciting ever happens there but I found it pleasant enough and we climbed the hill in the High Street, found a place for afternoon tea and a cream scone.  Having recently been to Cornwall I enquired that is a Yorkshire cream scone eaten in the Cornish (cream on last) or the Devon (cream on first) way and was emphatically told cream on last which I was also politely informed was more correctly known as the Yorkshire way.  Cornwall? Where’s Cornwall?

The train journey back to Grosmont was just as painfully slow and several of our party fell asleep but at £25 return fare I was determined to stay awake. Later we dined at the pub restaurant where we were staying, I was presented with a surprise sixty-fifth birthday cake and a celebration balloon and we all declared the few days in Yorkshire a great success.

Yorkshir Railway

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