Category Archives: Natural Environment

A to Z of Statues – C is for Tommy Cooper

When I was at Cardiff University in 1972 to 1975 I used to regularly take the train on the Welsh valley line to nearby Caerphilly. I used to like Caerphilly, especially the castle.

I didn’t know then that it was the birthplace of the comedian magician Tommy Cooper who was born there in 1921.

Hands up if you knew Tommy Cooper was born in Wales.  Overseas readers are excused the exercise.

After leaving University I didn’t return to Caerphilly until I visited the town with my travelling pal Dai Woosnam in 2016, We weren’t looking for Tommy Cooper especially but came across his statue. Actually we were looking for a landmark commemorating another famous Welshman with an association with the town – Guto Nyth Brân.

Read The Full Story Here…

A to Z of Balconies – Quarteira in Portugal.

In the 1980’s my brother Richard worked in a car sales garage in Rugby for a man called Gordon Pitcher who owned a villa on the Algarve in Portugal that he used to rent out for holiday lets.

The property was in what was then a rather remote location called Quarteira, included in the deal was the use of a car for getting about.  Quarteira is now an adjacent resort to busy Vilamoura.  I visited Vilamoura again in 2019 but I didn’t like it. 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.

Anyway, back to the story of the balcony, Gordon was a businessman who didn’t like unnecessary expenditure so as the car was UK registered he had to remove it from Portugal by a certain time each year so that he didn’t have to pay local vehicle tax and insurance.

Late in 1986 he asked Richard if he would do the job for him in return for a few days rent free holiday at the villa and Richard agreed so long as he could take his pals along to help with the long drive back.

This was Villa Estrella and its balcony.

Read The Full Story Here…

A to Z of Balconies – Pedro Bernardo in Spain

Pedro Bernardo is a village located in the province of Ávila, Castile and León high in the Sierra de Gredos.

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.

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.

Click on an image to scroll through the Gallery…

Memory Post – Danger, Railways and Canals

In my occasional series of memory posts I link to my second (now discontinued) blog “Age of Innocence” .  In this two part post I look at growing up and playing dangerously…

Play places didn’t get more dangerous than the London to Birmingham railway line  It was relatively easy to get up on the tracks and put half pennies on the line for the trains to squash and expand to the size of a penny in the optimistic hope that this would double the value of the coin and shopkeepers wouldn’t notice.  (This never worked by the way).

This was rather like in 1969 trying to tile the edges off of a half crown coin to double its value to make one of the new 50 pence pieces.  (This didn’t work either).

Read The Full Story Here…

Entrance Tickets – The Village of Peretellada in Catalonia

We were heading for the village of Peratallada which it turned out is a heavily visited tourist bus destination for holidaymakers having an afternoon away from the beaches but it was quiet this afternoon as we pulled into the car park and grudgingly paid the entrance fee before walking into the village.

Read The Full Story Here…

On This Day – Guadix in Spain

In the previous post I told you that I visited Granada but stayed outside of the city in the village of Romilla. We regretted that so two years later returned and stayed in an apartment in the City centre.

After three days in Granada we left the city on 25th April 2018 and drove to the town of Guadix…

Guadix was quiet, almost as quiet as Puerta de Don Fadrique and we needn’t have worried in advance about car parking because the streets were empty, the shops were closed and there was almost no one about. We found the hotel easily enough, checked in, unpacked only what we needed for an overnight stay and then went back out into the centre.

I liked it, it wasn’t Trujillo in Extremadura or Almagro or Siguenza in Castilla-La Mancha, it wasn’t Santillana del Mar in Cantabria but it was authentic and rustic, Spanish and Andalusian and I was glad that we had chosen to spend some time here.

We walked around the centre, along the banks of the crusty dried-up river bed and through some lush public parks but in late afternoon there was never much sign of life. I looked for a shop to buy some wine but I had forgotten my corkscrew key-ring thingy that I can smuggle through airport security and there were no screw cap bottles anywhere in my price range so I was forced to buy a carton of Don Simon Vino Tinto which is really cheap and tastes just the same.

The product manufacturers make this extraordinary claim… “Don Simon Vino Tinto Wine offers an expertly and exquisitely manufactured wine with fruity aroma; light fruit flavour, crisp acidity, light body and dry, tart finish. Good for every occasion. Best when served chilled. It looks as good as it tastes.”

No grape variety information or expert tasting tips and in truth it is the sort of wine that at about €1.50 a litre, if you have got some left over you don’t mind pouring down the sink when you leave if you are not too concerned about environmental damage or taking the risk of destroying the hotel plumbing system.

We sat for a while in the lonely Plaza Mayor which was abandoned and quiet but decided anyway to return later for evening meal. Two hours after it was transformed, the square was busy and there was fierce competition for tables but we swooped on one and the owner talked us into a Menu Del Dia which, as it turned out was a brilliant bit of salesmanship by him although not a brilliant decision on our part, but we had a hearty meal which filled us up including a truly enormous portion of Tiramasu for sweet for Lindsay which arrived just as she was explaining her planned dieting schedule.

I liked Granada and I liked Guadix, two completely different places which all adds to the richness and diversity of Spain and keeps me wanting to go back again and again.

The following morning we had a good breakfast at the hotel and we cleaned them out almost completely of tomato for the tosta and then we checked out and drove a short distance to the cave houses.

This is the main reason for visiting Guadix. It is like Bedrock and the Flintstones. People still live in caves.

People still live in caves!

Just outside of the City old town there is a community of residents who cling to and persevere with the old ways which includes digging a hole in the limestone cliffs and then setting up home inside. Not just any old cave however and today the mountain homes have brick façade and all of the modern home conveniences inside.

After a walk to the top of the village to an observation platform and then down again a man asked us in to his cave home and invited us to look around. People in Andalusia used to live in cave houses because they are cool in summer and warm in winter and they are cheap to build. Some people, like those here in Guadix still do!

We spent an hour or so investigating the intriguing village and then we left and set off back east towards Rojales and the Mediterranean coast.

On this Day – Puerta de Don Fadrique in Spain

As we wait for good news about travel opportunities I continue to look back.  On 22nd April 2018 I was in Andalusia in the South of Spain…

The sun was shining when we left the Spanish east coast town of Rojales just south of Alicante in the Province of Murcia.  It is close to sea level so it didn’t occur to me to take a rain coat or even a pullover in the event that it might later turn cooler as we drove inland and into the mountains.

We were in Spain and the sun always shines in Spain – doesn’t it?

We were driving inland towards Andalusia on the way to the city of Granada and just a few miles after we left the clouds began to build and the temperature began to drop. Kim worried about this and concerned for my welfare asked if I needed to stop and put on something warm. I shivered but didn’t own up to not packing anything that might usefully be described as warm so this wasn’t an option. She pulled a cardigan out of her bag and wrapped it around her shoulders. My sister, Lindsay did the same.  I had no cardigan.  I tried to look brave.

Shortly after bypassing the city of Murcia there was some promising improvement and we took a planned detour through the Province of the same name towards Andalusia and towards the town of Puerta de Don Fadrique which is a small village that makes the extravagant claim to be the prettiest in all of Spain.

The approach to Puebla de Don Fadrique was indeed stunning set against the backdrop of the Sagra mountain range and we continued to climb to three and a half thousand feet before eventually arriving in the town.  As we parked the car I couldn’t help noticing that everyone was wearing pullovers and coats.  By necessity (not having a pullover or a coat) I declared it warm enough to walk around in shirt sleeves!

It was time for refreshment but the first café was closed and so was the second and then the third.  The whole place was completely desolate as though there had been a nuclear accident and the place had been abandoned in a dreadful hurry.  Maybe everyone was just cold and staying indoors.

Everywhere was shuttered and closed which led me to speculate that maybe Puebla de Don Fadrique was suffering from a collective hangover from a Festival the day before, which is usually just my luck,  or maybe it just doesn’t open on a Monday.

It was a pretty little place for sure, whitewashed houses and black metal grills in the Andalusian style but without people it lacked any sort of vibrancy or interest, no bars, no restaurants and no shops.

We walked through the streets half in anticipation and half in disappointment and made our way back to the car and suddenly there was signs of life as a group of men in coats and pullovers were sitting at a street corner debating the big issues of the day and at the end of a street about a hundred yards away we finally spotted a bar that was open.

So we made our way towards it, alarmed the owner by sitting down and ordering a coffee and then slightly bemused by all this left and drove out of the village and resumed our journey towards Granada.

As we drove further west the weather continued to rapidly deteriorate.  Ahead of us we could just about make out the Sierra Nevada Mountains, at eleven and a half thousand feet the highest in Spain and the third highest in Europe after the Caucasus and the Alps.  But the storm clouds were gathering, the sky turned black and it started to rain.  The temperature sank like a stone and I began to plan my first task in Granada, – to find a shop to buy a coat.  I wasn’t especially looking forward to that because I am not what you would call an enthusiastic shopper.  I might have mentioned that before.

A to Z of Balconies – Milan in Italy

I came across this interesting high rise building in the business district of Milan.

It is called The Bosco Verticale or vertical forest and is the brainchild of Milanese architect Stefano Boeri and  uses more than twenty thousand trees and plants to adorn two high-rise buildings from top to bottom.

They certainly look good but their practical purpose is to absorb CO2 and help tackle city pollution.  It may be spectacular but it looks like a maintenance headache to me.

On This Day – Naples

Hopefully life is making slow progress towards getting back to normal. Until it does I am still going through my archives. On 20th April 2018 I was in the Italian city of Naples…

“See Naples and die. Well, I do not know that one would necessarily die after merely seeing it, but to attempt to live there might turn out a little differently”, Mark Twain – The Innocents Abroad

We had suggested to some regular travelling pals that we should go to Naples for a few days. They were horrified by the suggestion because of the city’s reputation as being quite dangerous. They said that they would prefer to go to Barcelona in Spain even though I pointed out that the Spanish city is the pickpocket capital of Europe.

There is the famous phrase that says ‘See Naples and die!’ which originated under the Bourbon regime and means that before you die you must experience the beauty and magnificence of Naples. Some, less charitable, now say that the city is so mad, dangerous and polluted that death might possibly be a consequence of a visit there.

To be fair not everyone is so pessimistic and gloomy about Naples and in 1913 George Bradshaw wrote in his guide ‘Great Continental Railway Journeys”…

“Naples is a bit of heaven that has tumbled to earth.”

I liked it immediately. At the Centro Storico the warren of alleys with peeling sepia walls were vibrant, chaotic and gloriously dilapidated, the architecture was glorious, the locals loud and boisterous, the balconies bannered with laundry and the driving was appalling. This was a glorious place, the beating heart of the city, raw, passionate, crumbling, secret, welcoming and corrupt.

Naples, we learned, is considered dangerous for a number of reasons. Most obvious of all is its perilously close proximity to Vesuvius that looms large over the city. Naples is the most densely populated volcanic region in the world and is regarded as potentially one of the most dangerous volcanoes on earth because there is a population of three million people living so close to it.

The second reason is lawlessness because Naples has enormous problems with Mafia style organised crime. The Naples equivalent of the Mafia is the Camorra, which is a loose confederation of criminal networks in control of crime, prostitution, arms dealing and drug-trafficking and the gang wars result in a high number of deaths.

The network of clans has been described as Italy’s most murderous crime syndicate, preying on the communities around it by means of extortion and protection rackets. Rival factions wage feuds as they battle to control the drugs trade.

Most dangerous in my opinion is Italian drivers, a problem that is not restricted to Naples. Italy it has to be said has some insanely different driving rules to the rest of Europe and the traffic was murderously busy and dangerously hectic in this part of the city.

Traffic lights are a good example of these different rules because each one resembles the starting grid of a formula one grand prix. At an Italian traffic junction there is an intolerant confusion of cars all impatiently throbbing with engines growling, exhaust pipes fuming and clutch plates sizzling like a red hot grill plate whilst behind the wheel the drivers blood pressure reaches somewhere several degrees beyond boiling point. A regard for the normal habits of road safety is curiously absent in Italy so although the traffic light colours are the same as elsewhere they mean completely different things.

Red means slow down, amber means go and green means mass homicide. At a junction an Italian driver simply points his car at the exit he is aiming for and five seconds before the lights go green, he shuts his eyes, presses the accelerator to the floor then races forward and may God have mercy on anything or anyone in his way.

Anyway, we had a good four days in Naples, Vesuvius didn’t erupt, we didn’t get gunned down by the Mob and we didn’t get run down by a mad driver. We declared it a big success and would happily return.

Click on an image to scroll through the Gallery…

A to Z of Balconies – Korčula in Croatia

Korčula is like a scaled down version of Dubrovnik with the same white Dalmatian stone buildings and red tiled roofs but sadly it is completely eclipsed by its more famous close neighbour and there has been little investment since the 1990s war that split old Yugoslavia apart.  Dubrovnik was the priority after that but the local authorities are now campaigning for Korčula Old Town, which is a gem of Venetian architecture to be awarded UNESCO World Heritage status.