Category Archives: Knights of St John

Portugal, Tomar and the Aqueduct of Pegões

Tomar Portugal

The day began with breakfast.  Nothing unusual about that of course, most days begin with breakfast, but this breakfast was unusual.

I have to say that I did not have very high expectations about eating at Conde de Ferreira Palace but I was soon to be proved wrong. The food and the service itself was excellent but it was the ambiance of the dining arrangements which set it apart from other places that we have stayed.

There was only one large dining table and hotel guests all sat together; this sort of arrangement can be uncomfortable at first but within only a very short time everyone was chatting away to each other.  When I say chatting I really mean struggling because around the table there were several different nationalities rather like a meeting at the United Nations but without the interpreters.

The French Canadians from Quebec couldn’t speak to the Germans, the Flemish Belgians couldn’t speak to the Dutch because the French couldn’t understand German, the Belgians couldn’t understand the Dutch and vice versa.  No one except the Portuguese could speak Portuguese.  But this didn’t matter one jot because everyone could speak English, except for the Americans of course, so everyone was able to satisfactorily communicate with one another.  I am forever ashamed of my linguistic ineptitude but today English was the universal language and we all got along rather splendidly.

It was a bright start to the day and we planned a walk out of the town to visit a nearby aqueduct about three miles away that had been recommended to us at the Tourist Information Office..

Tomar Aquduct

The small city of Tomar is situated on the river Nabão, a short but swiftly flowing river that carves its way through a deep valley and consequently the town is situated at the bottom of a steep hill which rises quickly away from the banks of the river and requires considerable stamina to make the trek.

The ascent seemed positively endless, every time we were certain that we were at the top of the hill the road tricked us into climbing even further, even Sisyphus would have despaired and we walked out and past edge of town houses that got bigger and grander the further we went.  Each one had a big dog that barked like crazy as we passed by and with my cynophobic nerves shattered I wondered why?  Why do people keep these obnoxious animals I wonder?

The Aqueduct of Pegões is, it turns out a little known monument and therefore very little visited, totally free access and no tourists.

It was built to bring water to the Convent of Christ in Tomar and is an amazing monument just over about four kilometers long and in some parts reaching a height of a hundred foot or so and made of one hundred and eighty arches and fifty-eight arcs at the most elevated part.  The construction started in 1593 and finished 1614 and it is the biggest and most important construction of the Philip I kingdom in Portugal.  Wow, who knew that, even the Tourist Information Office doesn’t give it a lot of headline space.

It was a quite astonishing place, no one there but us and some occasional ramblers.  There was no entrance fee, no safety barriers and nothing to stop visitors from climbing to the top and carelessly falling over the edge.  We climbed to the top and walked a short way out along the elevated section until we realised that this was quite dangerous so after walking out further than was really sensible and clinging desperately to the stones for security we groped our way back to safety and returned to ground level.

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This was the sort of place that I am reluctant to leave but after a while it was time to concede that this was the end of the visit and we debated the route back.  Should we return by the road and the way that we had come or perhaps take what appeared to be the walking route back along a narrow dusty track?

We were momentarily confused, we had no idea, no map, no SatNav and no clue about the track and bear in mind here that I was with Kim who generally suffers from a chronic lack of direction but who was urging a reckless walk into the woods.  I surrendered my common sense approach to these sort of situations and we followed some optimistic signs and set off down the track.

To our surprise, before very long we were in a blackened wilderness of post forest fire devastation.  Earlier in the year central Portugal had suffered a scorching summer followed by devastating fires which had wiped out acres of trees and caused several deaths.  This was one such area and as we walked now through charcoal and ash we reflected on the power and terror of such an event.  Sometimes I am grateful to live in a country where it rains rather a lot.

Eventually we emerged from the blackened wilderness, stumbled across a road back into town and made our way back to the main square where we were ready for an afternoon drink at a pavement bar.

We squandered away the rest of the day, did a bit of exploring through the back streets, enjoyed an hour or so at the Conde de Ferreira Palace and then dined again at the same place as the night before.  Once we have found somewhere that we like we are always reluctant to give it up and go elsewhere.

Tomar Forest Fire aftermathTomar Portugal Forest Fire

Red Pictures from Portugal

Tomar Portugal ParadeCoimbra PortugalPortugal Red DoorPortugal Sunset

France, Cinderella and Joan of Arc

Pierrefonds Castle Postcard

“This enchanting landmark is an architectural blend of many European styles, from 13th Century French Fortress to late Renaissance Palace.  Since it was inspired by no single structure, Cinderella Castle represents them all” – Disney Official Souvenir Book

Finding a castle to visit is not difficult in France because, according to the Official Tourist Board, there are almost five-thousand but it seems to me to includes a lot of questionable  small Chateaux in that number. For comparison there are eight hundred in the United Kingdom and just about two thousand five hundred in Spain.

In the 1960s, so the story goes, Disney ‘imagineers’ travelled throughout Europe looking for the perfect castles on which to model Cinderella’s Castle in Walt Disney World.

Cinderella's Castle Walt Disney World Florida

The lead architect for the project was a man called Herbert Rymanand and what makes this story a bit of a mystery is that there is no documentary evidence to establish exactly which castles he visited and indeed which of them became the inspiration for the Disney Magic Kingdom centrepiece.  Disney themselves do no more than confirm that Cinderella Castle was ‘inspired by the great castles of Europe’, but they never explicitly say which one.

Pierrefonds France Picardy

I mention this because today I was planning a visit to the nearby town of Pierrefonds which is famous for its castle.  Actually that is just about all that it is famous for and without the castle I doubt that very many people would take the detour to go there.

The castle itself is rather magnificent, statuesque and grand, stout walls and conical turrets and if the Disney architects had stopped by Pierrefonds on their fact finding tour of Europe then I suggest that they would have gone no further in their search for inspiration for Cinderella’s Castle.

Pierrefonds

After Pierrefonds we continued to nearby Compiègne which turned out to be another attractive but rather unremarkable town but my reason for visiting was to see just one thing.  A statue of Joan of Arc.  There are statues of the Maid of Orleans all over France but I especially wanted to see this one because it has some special significance.

A bit of background: Joan was born in about 1412 into a relatively well-off peasant family in Donrémy in northern France somewhere near the border of Lorraine.  At this time English troops were running riot through France and at one point raided and plundered the village of Donrémy and the d’Arc family had to flee into exile.  During this time Joan convinced herself that she had a visitation of saints and angels and heard patriotic voices that told her that she was chosen by God to save France.  Joan kept hearing the voices for a further three years and when she was finally convinced she left home and presented herself to the authorities as the saviour of France with a mission to put the Dauphin on his rightful throne.

 

Word of Joan quickly spread and it was claimed that she was the embodiment of a prophecy made by a mystic called Marie d’Avignon, that a ‘virgin girl from the borders of Lorraine’ would come to save France.  To test whether Joan was genuine the Dauphin had her questioned by a committee of clergymen and asked a group of respectable ladies to test her virginity.

She passed both tests and with religious sincerity and sexual inexperience being considered more suitable qualifications than an education at an appropriate military academy she was given a suit of made (maid?) to measure white armour and an army of forty thousand men and sent to fight the English at Orléans.

joan_arc-capture

Joan rejected the cautious strategy that had characterized French leadership and attacked and captured the outlying fortress of Saint Loup, which she followed the next day with a march to a second fortress called Saint Jean le Blanc, which was found deserted.  The next day with the aid of only one captain she rode out of the city and captured the fortress of Saint Augustins and two days later attacked the main English stronghold and secured a stunning victory that took everyone by surprise.

After that there was a seemingly endless run of French victories as the English and their Bugundian allies fled from the field of battle whenever challenged by the invincible Maid of Orléans fighting, it seemed, with God by her side.

From here however things started to go wrong for Joan and she was betrayed by the King, Charles VII, who was beginning to find here her to be a bit of a nuisance and to get her out of the way he dispatched her on a hopeless mission to fight a Burgundian army right here at (which brings me conveniently back to) Compiègne, where she was defeated by a much stronger army, captured and taken prisoner and so began her sad journey towards the bonfire.

You can read my story of Joan of Arc right here.

I found the statue and with nothing else to detain me in Compiègne I headed back to the campsite at Vic-Sur-Aisne.

Vic Sur Aisne Picardy France0

Ireland, Holy Shrine of Knock – Pictures

800px-Knock_ShrineLoaves and Fishes KnockKnock Religious ShopKnock Holy Shrine 02Knock Apparation MosaicKnock Shop SouvenirsKnock Signpost

Religion, Hillmorton Chapel and St John The Baptist Church

When I was a boy I used to like stories from the Bible and  although a lot of the learning bits about going to school I found thoroughly uninteresting and a bit of a chore I did enjoy religious education and especially used to look forward to morning assembly when once a week the Minister from the Methodist Chapel nearby used to attend and tell a story or two in a children’s sermon.

Some of my school reports from this time revealed quite stunning results in religious education and at the same time as I was without fail picking up a disappointing sequence of Ds and Es for the important subjects like Arithmetic and English I was consistently being awarded As and Bs in religion.  In 1963 I scored an unbeatable 100% in the end of year exams.

Knock Shop Souvenirs

Strictly speaking we were a Church of England family but the Parish Church of St. John the Baptist in Hillmorton was in a sorry state of neglect and significant disrepair on account of the fact that the Vicar had little interest in his parish or his congregation because he preferred his drink.  People use to say that you always knew when he was coming because the beer bottles used to rattle in the whicker basket that he had attached to the handlebars of his bike.   More charitable folk said that it was communion wine.  He didn’t hold many services in the Church, well, certainly not as many as he was supposed to, and there was definitely no Sunday school.

For this reason I was sent to the Methodist Chapel where the Reverend Keene and the Sunday school teacher Christine Herrington made us feel most welcome.  I liked the Reverend Keene, he was down to earth and amusing and later he also came to secondary school to teach religious studies and take a weekly assembly there as well.

I remember that he smiled permanently and had a most pleasant disposition that was appropriate to a minister of the church.  He had one leg shorter than the other and wore a corrective shoe.  One morning in 1969 without any warning the Headmaster announced at morning assembly that following an operation he had died suddenly and I was really sad about that.

I don’t suppose so many children go to Sunday school any more but I used to really enjoy it.  The origin of the Sunday school is attributed to the philanthropist and author Hannah More who opened the first one in 1789 in Cheddar in Somerset and for the next two hundred years parents right across the country must have been grateful to her for getting the kids out of the way on a Sunday morning and giving them some peace and quiet and a chance of a lie in.

In contrast to the Hillmorton County Junior School I seemed to be learning something at Chapel and what’s more I was being really successful.  Every year we used to take an exam, well, more of a little test really, and if you passed there was a colourful certificate with a picture of Jesus and signed by absolutely everyone who was anyone in the Methodist Church hierarchy.  I was awarded a first class pass three years running and even though the school headmaster had written me of as an educational no-hoper I wasn’t in the slightest bit concerned because I was becoming convinced that I was going to be a vicar.

I must have inherited this from my mother…

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I had heard it said that people went into the clergy after getting a calling from God and I used to lie awake at night straining out listening for it.  It never came.  I also understood that it might alternatively come as a sign and I used to walk around looking for anything unusual but this never happened either.

One night, some time in 1966, I think God dialed a wrong number and got dad instead because overnight he suddenly got religion in a very big way and we all started going to St John the Baptist which by now had got a new vicar.  His name was Peter Bennett and he was starting to deal with the problems left behind by the previous man who had retired somewhere into an alcoholic stupor.

At twelve years old I was too old for Sunday school and went to church now instead, I was confirmed in 1967 and joined first Pathfinders and then the Christian Youth Fellowship Association or CYFA for short which was (and still is) a national Christian youth club.  The good thing about CYFA was that I got to go away to youth conferences and camps and there were lots of girls there too.  The girl in the middle was called Elizabeth and even though she was taller than me was my first girlfriend.  To her right is her sister Heather and I dated her a couple of times later on as well.

I auditioned for the choir but was rejected on account of being tone deaf but to compensate for this disappointment the Vicar appointed me a server which meant that I got to wear a scarlet cassock, which I thought made me look like a Cardinal and had the important job of carrying the processional cross down the aisle at the beginning of evensong and putting the candles out at the end.

None of this could last of course and with no sign of the calling (there is no such thing as a sign unless you want there to be) and with dad’s religious fervour waning, my attention began to drift off in other directions such as pop music, girls and woodpecker cider and gradually I just stopped going to Church and to CYFA, left the bell ringing group and all of my scripture exam certificates were put away in an envelope in the family memory box and simply got forgotten.

In 2012 I visited the city of Padova in Northern Italy and dropped in to the Basilica of Saint Anthony (A Basilica is technically a double Cathedral because it has two naves) and inside there was a pile of postcards in different languages with an invitation to write to the Saint with a request.  I assume this could be like writing to Jim’ll Fix It Father Christmas or to ask for a cure for a gammy leg or something but I thought that I might use the opportunity to enquire why that elusive call never came?

Once again I didn’t get a response from the Big Man!

Craggy Island Parochial House

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Related Articles:

Mary Jones’ Bible

Childhood and Religion

Picture Stories From The Bible

The Miracle of the Feeding of the 5,000

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Travels in Spain, Icons

Don Quixote and Sancho PanzaRonda Bullring 1paellaFrancesco Pizzaro Trujillo Extremadura SpainConsuegra Windmills SpainEl Cid Burgos SpainEl Quinque Flamenco Show

Malta, The Feast of St Paul’s Shipwreck

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Malta is the most religious country in Europe…

…it has more religious public holidays than any other in Europe and 10th February is especially important because this is the The Feast of St Paul’s Shipwreck which was bad luck for Paul but good fortune for Malta because it brought Paul to the island in the year 60AD and he then went promptly about converting the island to Christianity.

Saint Paul is the Patron Saint of Malta.

Valletta Malta

In a survey in 2010 95% of the population of Malta said that they were practising Catholics.  Nearby Italy (where the Pope lives) only registered 74%.  The least religious countries are all in the north where over 80% of respondents in Estonia, Norway, Denmark and Sweden all said that religion isn’t important!

Interestingly this survey didn’t seem to include the Vatican State where there is a population of only about five hundred official citizens and three-quarters of these are clergy so I imagine the response would surely have been no less than 100%

There have been four Papal visits to Malta, the last in April 2010 to celebrate the 1,950th anniversary of the shipwreck of St Paul on the island.  His ship ran aground in St Paul’s Bay (obviously) and I give you my word that I am honestly not making this up but in 1997 I too suffered the same fate.  Taking a speed boat ride with Tony Oki Koki ‘Mr Crazy’ Banis the boat broke down and we were stranded on the very same rock in a storm for twenty minutes or so until thankfully rescued.

saint-paul-shipwreckMalta waves

Last year I visited the town of Rabat to visit his grotto next to his church where he is supposed to have spent his time on Malta in hiding from the Roman soldiers who were searching for him – rather like Saddam Hussein, two thousand years later hiding from the American troops – also in a cave.

St Paul's Grotto Malta

Entrance Tickets, The Red Tower at Mellieha, Malta

red-tower-mellieha-malta

The Red Tower, or to give it its proper name St Agatha’s Tower, is a large imposing watchtower in Mellieħa,  the sixth and most important of a coastal defence system of fortifications and small castles built by the Knights of St John during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

St. Agatha’s Tower turns out to be the last large bastioned tower to be built in Malta to provide early warning of attack and to alert the defence of the city of Valletta.

Knights of St John

The city of Valletta was built by the Knights of St John who were granted the island in 1530, seven years after being expelled from Rhodes by the Ottoman Turks.  Trouble with Turks however continued to follow the Knights and in 1565 the Ottomans laid siege to their new home on Malta with the intention of establishing a base from where they could conveniently advance into Europe.

But as in Rhodes and at Bodrum the Knights proved a tough nut to crack and the Great Siege of Malta which lasted from May until September ended with the defeat and retreat of the Turkish army.

The rest of Europe was so grateful for this stoic resistance that it began to provide funding for the Grand Master of the Order, Jean Parisot de Valette, to plan and construct a new fortified city that was to be called Valletta in his honour.  Although it was designed principally as a fortress city with great battlements and armed bastions the architects also found time and paid attention to good design and within the walls they built a Baroque style city with churches, palaces and fine mansions, laid down gardens and designed grand plazas at the intersections of the grid pattern of the streets.  It was certainly worth protecting.

Mellieha Malta Red Tower

Saint Agatha’s Tower was built between November 1647 and April 1649 and consists of a square castle with four corner towers.  Cannon ports in the turrets gave interlocking fields of fire commanding the base of the walls and the gateway, with other large artillery ports in the faces of the main tower.

The tower is situated in a commanding position on the crest of Marfa Ridge at the north west end of Malta, overlooking the natural harbour and potential enemy landing site of Mellieħa Bay, with clear views over to Comino and Gozo, and also eastward to the line of watchtowers along the north shore of Malta that linked it with the Knights headquarters in Valletta. It was the primary stronghold in the west of Malta, and was manned by a garrison of thirty men, with ammunition and supplies to withstand a siege of forty days.

It continued to have a military purpose throughout the British period, and was manned during both World Wars. From the British period it continued its military function being used as a radar station by the Armed Forces of Malta.

The Red Tower Mellieha Malta

Although the children would have preferred to stay at the hotel and spend all day in the swimming pool I thought it was important for them to get out a little and learn something about Malta.  The girls weren’t too keen and Patsy (the clever one) feigned a stomach ache to get out of it, Molly (not so clever) didn’t think fast enough to find an excuse but William is rather fond of forts and castles so luckily he was enthusiastic about the visit.  Molly was dragged along complaining.

St Agatha’s Tower on a previous visit to Malta in 1997…

Red Tower 1991

It was just a short walk but it was all uphill so, in the heat, it did become rather a drag by the time we reached the steep flight of steps which took us to the entrance.

There are some good displays inside and some imaginative reconstructions but the best bit is the climb to the roof and the reward of sweeping views in all directions as far as Victoria on Gozo to the north and Valletta to the south and it was easy to understand why they chose this spot for the tower – no one was going to slip in unnoticed that’s for sure.

It didn’t take long to see all that there was to see and with the promise of an ice cream down at the beach after the stroll back there were a lot less complaints on the return walk.

The children celebrate the end of the walk and return to the swimming pool…

Celebrating Mellieha Malta

Postcards of 2016

Essaouira PostcardAndalusia Postcard 2Cobh PostcardYorkshire AbbeysCosta Del Sol PostcardBorth PostcardDelos Greece PostcardCosta Calida Postcard

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Monday in Malta

Valletta Malta

“Valletta equals in its noble architecture, if it does not excel, any capital in Europe. The city is one of the most beautiful, for its architecture and the splendour of its streets that I know: something between Venice and Cadiz.”  Benjamin Disraeli

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