Category Archives: Spain

Hotel Don Juan, Benidorm 1977

Hotel Don Juan

We could have gone practically anywhere we liked, so long as it was within our restricted budget of course, but we choose to go to Benidorm on the Costa Blanca for two whole weeks and we selected the Don Juan hotel on Calle Gerona, just behind the Levante beach because Linda had been there some time before with her parents and had liked it.

Once in Benidorm we went through the tedious process of dropping people off at their hotels and as the Don Juan was at the far end of the eastern Levante beach we had to wait quite a while to arrive there.  Forty years or so later the Don Juan isn’t there anymore and I might be mistaken here but it might now be the refurbished Diplomatic Hotel.  It has a bigger swimming pool area and is dwarfed now by giant skyscrapers but it certainly looks similar and it is just about the right location.

The Don Juan was a typical 1970s Spanish seaside resort hotel with a cavernous reception and public area, a dining room that was little more than a school canteen and an entertainment room for evening activity.  The hotel was a six storey concrete and chrome building and we had a room on the front about half way to the top with a good view out to sea.  In the 1970s rooms could only be described as functional because these were the days before mini-bars, TVs, internet wifi access and complimentary cosmetics in the bathroom but it was nice enough and it was going to be our home for two weeks.

Read the Full Story…

Hotel Don Juan Multipic

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Portugal and Spain, So What’s the Difference?

Portugal Postcard Map

Just recently, John* a blogging pal of mine asked me what is the difference between Portugal and Spain.  It reminded me that I once wrote a post on the very subject.  It was quite some while ago and I don’t believe anyone read it so I repeat it here again now.

On 13th February 1668 at the Treaty of Lisbon Spain finally recognised Portugal as a separate and independent state and since that time they have lived peacefully together as reluctant neighbours.

I have visited Portugal a number of times, in 1986 and 1994 to the Algarve, twice in 2008 to Viano de Castelo in the far north and twice again in 2009 to Porto.  I returned again in 2017.  Only on the final visit after a train journey through the centre did it really occur to me that although it shares the Iberian Peninsula with its larger neighbour, Portugal really isn’t Spain and on the flight home I was ashamed of my previous ignorance about the country.

I had always assumed that because of its geography that it must be a lot like Spain with perhaps a few minor differences, sherry and port for example, but I had come to understand that Portugal, its people and its culture and heritage is very, very different indeed.

So what are the differences then I hear you ask?  Observers point out that the Portuguese national character is more sentimental, ironic and mild and these characteristics are often held up as the total opposite of Castilian culture just as melancholic Fado music is in complete contrast to the high drama of the Flamenco.  As different as the poetry of Fernando Pessoa and the novels of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (header picture).

Fado or Flamenco

I have visited both Portugal and Spain several times and there are fundamental differences between the countries and the people that you perhaps wouldn’t expect between two such close neighbours but then again Spain itself is dramatically diverse with the people of Galicia for example having little in common with those from Andalusia or the people of the Basque Country sharing no characteristics with those from Extremadura.  In Portugal the people of the Algarve have little in common with the people of Porto.  Are we English anything like the Welsh?  Why then should Portugal be like Spain?

I feel the difference but cannot adequately explain it but I have found two pieces of work which might help.  These learned scholars have dealt with this question at length find both cultural and geographical factors at work.

Pierre Birot put it this way:

‘…thus, the typical characteristics that so gracefully distinguish the Portuguese soul from its peninsular neighbours, were able to ripen in the shelter of frontiers which are the oldest in Europe. On one side, a proud and exalted people (the Spaniards), ready for all kinds of sacrifice and for all the violent acts that inspire them to be concerned with their dignity; on the other hand a more melancholy and indecisive people (the Portuguese), more sensitive to the charm of women and children, possessing a real humanity in which one can recognize one of the most precious treasures of our old Europe.’ (Le Portugal; Etude de Geographie Regionale, 1950).

These two countries once ruled much of the World but their Empire building was in a different style, Portugal had Henry the Navigator a methodical explorer seeking out new trade routes with maps and charts and Spain had Conquistadors like Francisco Pizzaro swashbuckling their way through the New World with swords and gunpowder in search of gold.

Explorers

Oliveira Martins, the Dean of Portuguese historians assessed the difference like this:

There is in the Portuguese genius something of the vague and fugitive that contrasts with the Castilian categorical affirmative; there is in the Lusitanian heroism, a nobility that differs from the fury of our neighbours; there is in our writing and our thought a profound or sentimental ironic or meek note…. Always tragic and ardent, Spanish history differs from the Portuguese which is more authentically epic and the differences of history are translated into difference in character.’ (Historia da Civilizacão Ibérica, 1897)

In Medieval times intense Spanish pressure and forced dynastic marriage compelled the Portuguese to follow the Spanish example of expelling the Jews in 1497, a step that deprived Portugal of many of its best merchants, diplomats, mathematicians, geographers, astronomers and cartographers. Feelings of resentment were aggravated by Spanish attempts to absorb Portugal, which temporarily succeeded from 1580-1640 (a period known as ‘The Spanish Captivity’). It was a political mistake that only encouraged a strong and proud reaction that cemented the identity of an independent Portuguese nation, a separate state and culture.

Portugal Tiles Postcard

One major thing that separates them is sherry and port.  Sherry is from Spain and Port is from Portugal as we discovered on a visit to a Port Lodge in 2008.

We learned that under European Union guidelines, only the product from Portugal may be labeled as Port and it is produced from grapes grown and processed in the Douro region. The wine produced is fortified with the addition of a Brandy in order to stop the fermentation, leaving residual sugar in the wine and boosting the alcohol content.

So what is the difference…

Simple!  Sherry is fortified after completion of the fermentation process as opposed to port wine which is fortified halfway through the fermentation process

All of these differences and traditional rivalry go some way to explain why there were gasps in the room when Spain and Portugal were drawn together in the same first round group for the 2018 Football world Cup Finals.

Portugal River Douro

* You might like to visit John, I think you might enjoy his blog…

Paol Soren

 

A Look Back at 2017

Beer Drinking in WroclawSpain 2017aEast Anglia 2017Ireland 2017France 2017Kim in PortugalMellieha Bay Hotel 4

Portugal, A Walking Tour of Ovar

Ovar Portugal Azulejo

The plan for our three days at the seaside in Furadouro was to take a break from travelling and the trains, the drag-bags and the packing and unpacking and to spend some time relaxing on the beach.

Unfortunately our plan was scuppered by the weather because when we woke the next day there was a thick sea mist which would have challenged anything that the North Sea can throw at us back home.

Trying as best we could to be optimistic about the situation we hoped that it would be blown away by the time we had finished breakfast but it was still there like a damp shroud when we left the hotel and ventured onto the streets.  By mid morning it was getting even worse and our clothes were getting damp so we finally admitted defeat, took our swimming costumes and towels back to the hotel and tried to think of some alternative entertainment for the day.

Then I remembered that the nice lady in the Tourist Information Office next door had yesterday tried to persuade me to take a walking tour of the nearby city of Ovar on a trail of the ceramic tiles.  This didn’t seem too exciting to me at the time but it was now getting rapidly more appealing.  It was only €2 each which seemed rather a bargain so we quickly made a return visit to enquire if there were still places available and there were so we signed up.

We considered ourselves fortunate about that because there is only one official tour like this every month and this was the last of the season.

Portugal Tiles Postcard

Now we had to make our way to Ovar so being too mean to take a taxi we walked to the bus stop and when it arrived we were glad to be going inland away from the sea mist and we were encouraged to see some welcome brightness in the sky.

To be honest there isn’t a great deal to do in Ovar, at midday the street market was beginning to close down and we didn’t want to explore the streets in case this was the route of the tour and we might spoil it so instead we found a pavement café, ordered a drink and counted down the minutes to the start of the walk.

This seemed to take a long time, the pace of life in Ovar is rather slow, not nearly as fast as our consumption of beer and wine so we had a second drink and then made our way to the assembly point at the Tourist Information Office where we were separated into two groups, those that spoke Portuguese and those who didn’t.

Our guide was proud to begin the tour with an explanation that Ovar is considered to be the City Museum of the Azulejo since it has a rich collection of tiles on the facades of the buildings, more so than anywhere else in Portugal apparently and for this reason the Museu Nacional do Azulejo in Lisbon has declared Ovar to be a city of historic national importance.

Azulejo Ovar

Azulejos first came to Portugal in the fifteenth century, when parts of the Iberian Peninsula remained under Moorish rule.  Although many assume the word is a derivation of azul (Portuguese for blue) the word is Arabic in origin and comes from az-zulayj, which roughly translates as ‘polished stone’.

Nowhere in Europe has tiles like Portugal, not even next door Spain, they are everywhere and have become one of the iconic symbols of the country and are used to clad buildings both internally for decoration and externally as an essential component of construction for insulation in winter and for reflecting away the heat of the sun in summer.

It seemed to me that Ovar is a city desperately seeking a tourist identity, every town needs tourists after all and Ovar is exploiting the heritage of the Azulejo.  The walk began with a pleasant stroll through the streets of the city centre with frequent stops for information from our tour guide and took forty minutes or so.

I liked Ovar and I hope it succeeds.

Ovar Portugal Tile Painting

Overflowing with unexpected new knowledge we walked now to a ceramic factory on the edge of the city where we were invited to have a stab at painting our own ceramic tile.  We applied the paint, tried to remove the smudges (unsuccessfully as it happened) and then left them behind for the oven baking process and a promise that they would be delivered to us later in the day.  It was all rather like being back at school.

Now there was a bus trip to the nearby village of Válega and the church there which is a true masterpiece of tile painting art and surely one of the remarkable churches in all of Portugal.  A golden temple that sparkles with amazing tiles of many colours especially now that the sky had cleared and the sun was illuminating the towering facade.

Actually I found it to be overly showy and gaudy in its appearance but the tour guides seemed to like it and we spent a few minutes inside and out.

Válega Church Ovar Portugal

We were beginning to wonder what was happening next on the itinerary when we were driven to an artisan workshop and museum and I began to sense the commercial part of the tour was fast approaching. I was wrong to be sceptical however because this was where the €2 was going and some enthusiastic ladies in traditional costume baked for us and then served up the local specialty of orange loaf bread which was quite nice but to be honest I found a bit stodgy, a touch under baked and rather too much of it.

This was the end of the tour, the coach took us back to Ovar and we caught the bus to Furadouro where the sun was belatedly shining and we hoped for better weather tomorrow so that we could revert to our original beach plan.

Later we went to the Tourist Information Office to collect out painted tiles and were surprised to find that the baking process had seemed to surprisingly improve them.  We use them at home now as oversized coasters.

Ovar Portugal Orange Bread

A Ghost Story for Halloween

Posada San Telmo

We picked up a hire car at the Sol-Mar desk and after completing the formalities found the vehicle and headed west on the Autovia to the tourist town of Santillana de Mar and the nearby village of Ubiarco where our accommodation was booked.

It was an odd thing about the accommodation but when I checked the web site a few days before I couldn’t find the hotel again and I had worried that perhaps my booking had been cancelled or the place might be closed for the winter.

Eventually I found it through my booking reference number and everything seemed to be in order so I stopped worrying. I was perplexed however that when I entered alternative dates just to check, there was never any availability and there were no more rooms available for this weekend either. I convinced myself that the place must surely be full of people all enjoying £10 flights just like us, but there was another odd thing because there were no customer reviews posted to the site, which has to be a little bit strange.

image_room_double_1

It took only about thirty minutes to get to the village and most unusually for me, we found the place almost immediately and drew into the car park. There was only one other car there and the place was in almost complete darkness except for a creepy light seeping through the cracks in the curtains at a downstairs window. It was locked but when we knocked on the door a kindly elderly couple opened a heavy creaking door and invited us in.

They explained that they had been waiting all day for us to arrive and I was surprised by this because I was certain that I had advised my late arrival time when I had booked.

Now, here was a peculiar thing because it was immediately obvious that there were no other guests and the man took us to our room on the first floor. We asked about restaurants and bars but he told us there were none close by and as it was about half past nine we weren’t in the mood for driving any more so we decided to settle in, have a bottle of wine and play cards in the lounge.

The lady melted into the shadows in the room and we didn’t see her again but the man was downstairs and most attentive, he seemed to know instinctively when we needed something from his small bar. First we ordered beer and later a bottle of wine and he was always available when we needed him but at this stage I didn’t find that especially strange even though he seemed to appear from the same dark shadows.

The wine said 1974 and I hoped it wouldn’t be expensive, on the coffee table were a pile of very old magazines and the television programme was an episode of something like Dallas dubbed in Spanish and the place began to feel more and more unusual and curious the later it became.

We finished the wine and went to bed and I went to say goodnight but the place was deserted except for us so we went straight to our room via the creaky staircase and settled down.

After a minute or two we heard soft footsteps in the corridor and whoever it was stopped outside our door for a second or two and then moved on.  I felt a shiver dart down by spine but I told myself that it was just the owner making sure we were all right and I thought that was a nice touch and that I should be sure to mention it in my hotel review.

ghost Wales Cottahe Llanuwchllyn

I had a restless night full of wild dreams, nightmares almost and at some point I heard the footsteps for a second time but I had no idea what time it was. The room was pitch black and although we were on the village main road there wasn’t a single sound to punctuate the total silence that lay on us like a thick blanket. Wild thoughts raced through my brain, I thought about the web site, why were there no guest reviews? Why was no one else staying here? Why did the room go cold and the lights dim when the man bought us the wine?

And then I heard the footsteps again and Kim stirred and heard them too, we were too scared to investigate so we pulled the sheets over our heads and prepared to meet an apparition..

I struggled top get back to sleep for straining to listen for strange noises but eventually it was morning and when we looked outside there was a promising clear sky and an unexpected view of the sea. We made a cup of tea and then went downstairs for breakfast but were surprised to find the place deserted and all of the furniture draped in dust covers.

It was cold and eerie and no one responded to our holas! I didn’t like it at all so we went outside and down the street there was a lively little café that was full of customers so we went inside. I asked for the breakfast menu and told the owner that we were staying at the Posada San Telmo next door.

He turned pale and gave me an odd stare and when I looked surprised he said ‘Senor, you must be mistaken, no one has stayed at the San Telmo for thirty years, the house has been abandoned since 1976’.

My blood turned to ice and froze and the hairs on the back of my neck stood to attention and I suddenly understood about the empty web site and the ghostly footsteps and we were anxious to get away so we drank our tea and left rather quickly…

halloween-witch

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.

IMG_7860

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

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.

L'hôtel de ville de Compiègne et la statue de Jeanne d'Arc (Oise, France).

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