Have Bag, Will Travel
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Everyone I know that has been to Lisbon said that we should take time out and visit nearby Sintra. I watched the celebrity chef Rick Stein on TV and he said visit Sintra but what I forgot to take into account of course is that Rick Stein has a backroom staff of researchers and can always be guaranteed a place at the front of the queue and later a table at a top restaurant.
After breakfast in our temporary studio home we made our way to the railway station and set about purchasing some tickets. In Lisbon this is not an easy process let me tell you. It is probably the most inefficient ticket purchasing process that I have ever encountered. There is no ticket office, just a row of automatic self-service metal monsters. Half of them are out of order and there is a rugby scrum around those that work and the single overworked assistant who is there to try and help.
Everyone needs a personal travel card so you have to buy that first and then every passenger has to individually purchase their own ticket. I cannot buy a ticket for both of us and a family of, say five, cannot make a single purchase. Every travel ticket has to be bought individually so if customers are paying by credit card this is probably the most frustrating travel experience on the entire planet. I could probably solve a Rubik Cube puzzle in the time it takes to acquire a train ticket in Lisbon.
Eventually I made it to the ticket machine and after going through the tedious ticketing options proposed to pay with a €20 note but the machine won’t give change for anything over €10 so I have to dig around in the bottom of my pockets and in the inner recesses of my rucksack for some loose change and by the time that I have done that the transaction has been timed out and cancelled. I could sense frustration and fury in the line of people behind me, I know how they feel, I felt exactly the same way just a few hours earlier when I joined the queue.
Buying a simple railway ticket in Lisbon is like the eternal labour of Sisypus.
Tickets eventually purchased we boarded the train and set out with five million other people to Sintra. When we arrived the train doors opened and all five million passengers spilled out onto the platform like a people tsunami. I hadn’t expected this and the next challenge was to get past the ticket touts and taxi drivers waiting outside the railway station like fishing trawlers with gaping nets.
I had no idea that Sintra was going to be this busy, the queue for the bus to the National Palace was five miles long, it was cloudy, dull and cold and eventually I gave in and allowed us to be talked into a tour taxi ride to the top. It was only €10 so I didn’t stress out about that for too long.
As we climbed through a pine forest to the top of the mountain the cloud cleared and ahead of us was the fairy tale pastel painted Royal castle all pink and yellow and glowing brightly in the sunshine.
The Tourist Information guide describes it like this … “The town of Sintra is Europe’s greatest example of the whimsical and colourful Romanticism style of architecture. This elaborate 19th century design style was inspired by the love of art and the mysticism of ancient cultures, to create decorative and flamboyant buildings, of which the Pena Palace is the finest example.” It attracts over two and a half million visitors a year (a genuine statistic by the way) so we should have been prepared for crowds and queues.
We bought our tickets which at €21 seemed a bit expensive to me and then we walked up ten thousand steps to the entrance and joined another queue. It took five years to shuffle our way to the visitor entrance moving slowly forwards as though our shoe laces were tied together and then we spent an hour or so cramped like sardines in a tin as we made painfully slow progress through a succession of rather boring palace rooms. King somebody or other slept here, Prince so-and-so sat on this chair etc. Personally I was just so glad to get out the other end, find a terrace bar and order a cold beer.
We walked back now to Sintra, about two miles or so somehow missing the entrance to the Moorish castle on the way down, I think Kim probably spotted it but distracted me at exactly the right moment to prevent a suggestion that we pay a visit.
In the town we found somewhere for a small salad lunch and then bypassed the overpriced and tacky tourist shops and made our way back to the railway station via the Gothic style National Palace. I confess that I found Sintra to be rather disappointing, a tourist honey trap and an unnecessary diversion to our visit to Lisbon. I wouldn’t go back and I wouldn’t enthusiastically recommend anyone to go there. Go to nearby Belém instead, it is a lot more interesting and much less touristy. I wasn’t that impressed with Sintra as you can no doubt tell.
It was hot again in Lisbon and after we climbed the hill from the railway station to the part of the city where our studio was located we were glad to stop in a shady park for a late afternoon cold drink in a nearby park. Later we dined at the restaurant that we had spotted the day before and we were glad about that because the food was absolutely excellent.
One day left in Lisbon.
We generally take our main annual holiday in September. Sometimes we go to the sea, usually the Greek Islands which are our favourites and sometimes we travel. This year we decided to travel and we chose to go to Portugal.
There are organised guided tours available for this sort of thing but we prefer to make our own arrangements and not be restricted by a holiday company schedule and inevitable stops at shopping centres and outlet factories that suit the Company but not the Traveller.
We had decided to use the Portuguese railways so we plotted an itinerary that started in the capital Lisbon and then worked north through the town of Tomar, the city of Coimbra, the seaside at Ovar (Furadouro) and then finished in the second largest city in the country at Porto, a couple more days by the coast at Vila do Conde, visits to the cities of Guimarães and Braga and then back home.
In preparation for travel I carried out my usual research and used my favourite benchmarks to try and understand the country that I was visiting.
I started as usual with the Human Development Index which ranks countries by level of ‘human development’ and the statistic is composed amongst other criteria from data on life expectancy, education and per-capita gross national income. Portugal is ranked forty-first which is quite low, especially for Europe but it is improving and is up two places from the previous year.
Although it is in Western Europe (in fact it is the most western mainland European country) Portugal did not begin to catch up with its neighbours until 1968 after the death of the dictator António Salazar, the Left Wing Carnation Revolution of 1972 and eventual entry into the European Community in 1986.
Unhappily, the European economic crisis has had a negative effect on Portugal’s position in the Europe Happiness Index and it is rated at only fifteenth out of thirty which is one place behind the United Kingdom. Finland is the happiest and Albania (no real surprise) the least jolly.
The Country has fifteen UNESCO World Heritage Sites and our travel itinerary was going to take us to six – The Tower of Belém in Lisbon, built to commemorate the expeditions of Vasco da Gama, the National Palace of Sintra, the Convent of the Knights Templar of Tomar, the University of Coimbra, The Historic town of Guimarães and The Historic Centre of Porto.
Portugal is famous for its Atlantic beaches which stretch for one thousand, one hundred and fifteen miles and along this coastline are three hundred Blue Flag Beaches which is the fifth highest amongst all participating countries but looking at the statistics in a different way they get even better and dividing length of coastline by number of beaches, Portugal is way out in front and storms into first place with one proud blue flag flapping away every three and three-quarter miles or so.
My next measure is always the Eurovision Song Contest and Portugal has participated in the annual contest forty-nine times since its debut in the 1964. Up until recently the country held the unfortunate record for the most appearances in the contest without a win but they put that right in 2017 when they won in Kiev with Salvador Sobral’s entry, “Amar Pelos Dois”.
In my research I have discovered some more impressive statistics: Portugal is ranked third in the Global Peace Index, just behind Iceland and New Zealand. The index gauges global peace using three measures – the level of safety and security in society, the extent of domestic and international conflict and the degree of militarisation. Portugal for example was one of only a few European countries that escaped involvement in the Second-World-War, the others were Spain, Switzerland (only in theory of course because they did a lot of Nazi banking and gold trading), Sweden and The Republic of Ireland.
On the subject or war and peace, the Anglo-Portuguese Alliance (Aliança Inglesa) ratified at the Treaty of Windsor in 1386, between England and Portugal, is the oldest alliance in the world that is still in force – with an even earlier treaty dating back to the Anglo-Portuguese Treaty of 1373. England (UK) and Portugal have never been on opposite sides in any military conflict which is a very impressive statistic when you consider that in that time England (UK) has at one time or another been at war at some time or another with almost every other European country.
We arrived at Lisbon Airport early in the afternoon and took the metro into the city centre. A rather odd journey as it turned out because the automated on board information system curiously announced arrival at the stations one after the one we were stopping at next so we had to be careful not to get off one stop too early. Anyway we negotiated the journey and then after a bit of map confusion which we sorted out over a beer at a pavement café walked the final half a mile to our accommodation.
We had selected a studio apartment for our four nights in Lisbon and it turned out to be most satisfactory. The Travel and Tales rooms were situated in a domestic block of apartments so we were going to spend our time in Lisbon rubbing shoulders with real locals and we were happy about that.
We were allocated the Fernando Pessoa apartment who according to Wikipedia turns out to be… “a Portuguese poet, writer, literary critic, translator, publisher and philosopher, described as one of the most significant literary figures of the 20th century and one of the greatest poets in the Portuguese language”.
I apologise immediately for my ignorance in this matter but I have to confess that I had never before heard of him.
It took about half an hour to drive to Jedburgh and I liked it immediately, free parking and complimentary wifi – what a wonderful example to every other town in the UK who choose instead to fleece the casual visitor at every opportunity.
The weather was improving rapidly now and I went first to the Tourist Information Centre and arranged a speed sightseeing visit of the Abbey, Mary Queen of Scots House and the Castle Museum.
First the Abbey, an eleventh century Augustinian Church with much later additions in response to natural disasters and the consequences of border warfare, a magnificent soaring structure with both a bloody and peaceful history in almost equal measures. Augustinians were priests who lived a secluded and contemplative life, but who went out into the countryside from their cloister to minister to the people and Jedburgh eventually possessed about twenty parish churches.
Monastic life was mostly routine, boring probably, but the abbey’s location close to the border with England inevitably brought it into the conflict between the two countries that blighted the later Middle Ages. During the Wars of Independence in the fourteenth century, the canons had to evacuate the premises several times and watch the place being sacked and plundered. Further attacks in the 1400s were followed by major raids in the sixteenth century. These and the Protestant Reformation of 1560 led to Jedburgh’s demise as a monastic institution.
I liked the Abbey, so much so that my strict timetable was beginning to slip like fine sand through my fingers so I hurried through the final stages, skipped the visitor shop and made my way to the house where Mary Queen of Scots lived for a month in 1566. She may or may not have stopped there of course, both England and Scotland are littered with houses that claim a royal visit but as I approached I got a feeling that this claim might just be genuine.
The day was getting better and better – free admission! A house/museum on three levels that told the story of one of history’s tragic victims of circumstance, Mary Stuart, and in my opinion one that was well worth an admission charge so when I had finished I left a generous £5 donation.
The attendant at the museum told me that it was just a ten minute walk to the castle museum but what she didn’t tell me was that it was up a massive energy sapping hill so after just a few yards I gave up, went back to the car park to get the car and drove to the top instead.
This was another free museum. Brilliant. It wasn’t a real castle however because sometime during the wars of independence the Scots pulled it down and destroyed it so that invading English armies couldn’t use it anymore which was a solution that seemed a bit extreme to me.
Today the castle is a prison museum experience with a history of imprisonment and hopeless incarceration and an explanation of life in a Victorian correction establishment. It was good, I liked it, but not as much as Mary Queen of Scots House so I only left a £2 donation this time. Actually I was running out of coins.
Reluctantly I left Jedburgh, I would have liked to have played golf today but I wasn’t disappointed that I had been sightseeing instead. I drove back to Galashiels but on the way stopped off at Abbotsford House, the home of Sir Walter Scott.
To be honest I had imagined this to be a simple place, a crofters cottage and a small garden but it turned out to be a magnificent stately home with acres of grounds that would have taken far more time to look around than I had available today. So I have been to Abbotsford House but I haven’t visited Abbotsford House and that will have to wait until the golfing holiday next year.
Every year thirty or so members of my golf club go for a week away golfing in Scotland and after three years on the reserve list I finally got an invite.
Unfortunately the week prior to departure I entertained my three grandchildren and one of them left me a parting gift of a very heavy cold so when I set off one Sunday morning I was sniffing and sneezing and relying on cold relief capsules to help me through the journey north.
Actually I think it was probably ‘man flu’ and I digress here for a moment to explain that this is a condition that this is a strain of flu so powerful and so deadly that it can only be matched by the Bubonic Plague. It is an incurable virus, which has adapted to only effect the “XY” gene found in men. The virus attacks the immune system ten thousand times more seriously than an average flu and causes excruciating pain and discomfort for the victim.
For all of the week I felt awful but I played golf for four days but on Friday I woke to grey skies and persistent rain so on account of the fact that I was due to go on holiday to Wales a couple of days later and I didn’t want to get worse and spoil that I decided against putting on the leaking waterproofs and dragging myself around the fifth course of the week and thought that I might do a little bit of sightseeing instead.
I was staying in the town of Galashiels in the Scottish Borders which is so far south in Scotland that it is even nearer the equator than the town of Berwick-on-Tweed, the furthest town north in England but what a wonderfully scenic and historic part of the country.
This is Walter Scott country where the great man of Scottish literature chose to live and receive his literary inspiration and the land of William Wallace and the marcher lands that separated England from Scotland and was the scene of much medieval warfare and fighting.
And so it was in Galashiels where I came across memorial called “The Raid Stane” the site of an incident in 1337 when a raiding party of English soldiers were picking wild plums close to the town and and were caught by angry Scots who came across them by chance and slaughtered them all. It seems that they were picking and eating sour fruit and they were so unwell that they were unable to fight back.
Today the town’s coat of arms shows two foxes reaching up to eat plums from a tree, and the motto is Sour Plums pronounced in Scots as soor plooms. Every year in June there is an event in the town called the Galashiels Braw Lads Gathering which celebrates the event and by all accounts if you are English you really don’t want to be in town that particular night.
I spent a half an hour or so in the granite town of Galashiels and with the rain getting heavier returned to the car and with the stubborn grey skies refusing to clear away planned a route south towards the town of Jedburgh and followed a route through sweeping hills, purple with heather and decorated with the ragged stumps of the ruins of castles and derelict lookout towers, testimony to its turbulent history.
I passed through the town of Melrose with its ruined Abbey which is said to be the secret burial site of the heart of Robert the Bruce but I didn’t stop there because I calculated that I only had time for one ruined abbey and that was going to be Jedburgh.
I did however make detour into a valley of the River Tweed and stopped for a while at Scott’s view which is a place where allegedly he liked to stop by and reflect on life. I am not disputing this but it this rather remote place is about ten miles or so from where he lived so in days before automobiles this would not be something that the average person, or even the great Sir Walter Scott, would be able to do on impulse. It was a nice view all the same and apparently his funeral cortege stopped off here for a short while on his way to his burial spot in the grounds of nearby Dryburgh Abbey.
One of my favourite Scott stories is how he saved the Scottish bank note. In 1826 there was a proposal to abandon Scottish notes and adopt the English notes instead. Under the pseudonym Malachi Malagrowther Scott campaigned hard against the proposal and was eventually successful. In recognition of this a picture of Scott even today appears on every Bank of Scotland note.
Instead of visiting the Abbey I sought out a massive stone statue of William Wallace standing solitary and magnificent in half armour and kilt, a massive claymore hanging menacingly from his belt and leaning on a giant sword fully fifteen feet tall.
Thanks to the hopelessly historically inaccurate Mel Gibson film ‘Braveheart’, quite possibly the most aggressively Anglophobe and historically inaccurate film ever made, William Wallace remains a burning symbol of Scottish nationalism but the truth is that his fame is based on one lucky victory against the English and a conveniently overlooked string of subsequent defeats.
I thought he looked rather sad and forlorn stuck out here abandoned on a ridge overlooking the river wondering what might have been and with nothing to detain me here for more than a few minutes I swiftly moved on towards my intended destination.
The campsite where we were staying in the village of Berny-Riviere was about a mile away from the nearby town of Vic-Sur-Aisne. Not many people from the campsite seemed to go there because everything that a family needed was provided for on site.
I didn’t want to go on a trampoline, or a rowing boat, go fishing or play laser-quest and I didn’t want to pay for Wifi when it should be free so I got into the habit of after breakfast taking myself off to the town where I found a rather agreeable bar with pavement tables and free internet access. After a few days my granddaughter Molly began to join me and I liked that.
Vic-Sur-Aisne turned out to be a rather interesting town. During the First-World-War it was almost permanently on the front line with fighting never far away. It sits equidistance between the major battle sites of the Somme to the north and Verdun to the east. What made it important was that it was a major railway interchange where troops would be transferred back and forth to the battle lines in between front line duty and periods of rest or to be hospitalised.
This meant that it came under regular enemy fire and even today the older buildings in the town show pock-marked battle scars where shells and bullets had picked away at the stones and the bricks. A few years ago I visited Bosnia and Herzegovina in old Yugoslavia and twenty years after the civil war I wasn’t surprised to still see the evidence of fighting in damage to the buildings but here in France I was somewhat taken aback to be examining shrapnel damage from a hundred years ago.
Vic-Sur-Aisne is situated on a linear historical site called the Ligne Rouge, which is a walk (a long walk) or a drive along a route which more or less represents the approximate Front Line of the war. Approximate because it did move back and forth a little bit over the four years of the conflict. Every village has a war memorial which honours the fallen in both World Wars and every village has a military graveyard gruesomely disproportionate to the size of the village.
Vic-Sur-Aisne is no exception, it has a population of under two thousand but in the military graveyard there are over three thousand memorial white crosses as headstones. I visited the graveyard one day to pay my respects. On another day I visited the nearby graveyard at Ambleny where there are nearly eleven thousand graves and I was struck by the enormity of the War and the appalling number of casualties.
Ambleny is the largest military graveyard in Picardy and contains the graves of two French soldiers who were caught in civilian clothing in a bar and were shot as deserters to set an example to others. There was no such thing as PTSD in 1917. They were posthumously pardoned in 1923. I bet they were glad about that!
I liked the town of Vic-Sur-Aisne, I liked the Wednesday street market where I bought Toulouse sausage to make a cassoulet, I liked the friendly local people in the bar who made me feel welcome, I liked the boulangerie that sold tempting pastries, I liked sitting on the pavement outside the bar beneath the tower of a medieval castle where I daily reflected on the history of the region and thanked my lucky stars that I have never been involved in such horror as previously took place here.
I daily thanked the soldiers that died here protecting freedom and democracy so that one hundred years later it was possible to come here with my family and friends to enjoy a lovely holiday…