Tag Archives: Culture

European Capital of Culture 2002, Salamanca

Salamanca Province

“And nothing in Europe better expresses a kind of academic festiveness than the celebrated Plaza Mayor…. Its arcaded square is gracefully symmetrical, its manner is distinguished and among the medallions of famous Spaniards that decorate its façade there have been left spaces for heroes yet to come.”             Jan Morris – ‘Spain’

If the evening meal at the hotel Conventa Spa was exceptionally good then so too was the breakfast the following morning with a full spread presented with no expense spared for only a handful of guests.

Today we were making a second visit to the city of Salamanca to follow up our first in November 2009 when a misty overcast day had not presented the city in the best light.  We were hoping for blue skies today as we drove south along theruta de plata the old Roman road, the silver route, so named because this was how Rome moved its precious treasure north from the silver and tin mines further south.

Besalu Catalonia Spain

The road bypassed Zamora and then there was nothing of great interest to tell you about for sixty kilometres or so because the truth is that the landscape of this part of Castilla y León is rather tedious and quite forgettable with vast dry plains stretching away into infinity in all directions.

It seems that we are destined not to see Salamanca in fine weather because this morning it was grey and rather cool as we approached the city with its backdrop of snow capped mountains, the Sierra de Gredos and then made our final approach to the city and made our way to a car park close to the Plaza Mayor.

It was still misty even though the sun was struggling to break through as we walked through cobbled streets and buildings of rich caramel coloured Villamayor stone and directly to the centre of the city.  From there around the University buildings and through the public library and after that the centre of the city and the inevitable Plaza Mayor where, because it was too chilly to sit at a pavement café, groups of men were wandering around deep in conversation discussing the important matters of the day.  They were all elderly men of course because just as Gerald Brenan explained in ‘South from Granada’ “…almost every Spanish peasant becomes wise when he passes fifty.”

Salamanca Plaza Mayor

The Plaza is located in the very centre of Salamanca and was built in the traditional Spanish baroque style and is a popular gathering area. It is lined with bars, restaurants and tourist shops and in the centre stands the proud city hall. It is considered the heart of the city and is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful plazas in Spain.

Previously I had not really appreciated its grandness or beauty but now that I was made aware that it is one of the most important Baroque monuments in Spain and the city’s historical timeline I was able to reassess my previous judgement and it might now get into my top ten but I will come to that in a later post.

As we sat at a pavement café with a coffee the weather began to improve, the cloud lifted a little and some weak sunshine started to leak through the white shroud but we still did not consider it fine enough to climb the cathedral tower, as was our intention, so after we had finished we walked to the 1st Century Roman Bridge across the River Tormes, which was flowing north towards the Duero and from there back to the city centre stopping on the way at the site of the archives of the Spanish Civil War.

The original documents were assembled by the Francoist regime, selectively obtained from the administrative departments of various institutions and organizations during the Spanish Civil War as a repressive instrument used against opposition groups and where today there was a temporary poignant exhibition of children’s drawings depicting the conflict.

Salamanca Roman Bridge and Cathedrals

It was lunch time now so the next task was to find somewhere amongst the huge choice of bars and bodegas to find somewhere suitable but we didn’t have to concern ourselves too greatly with this because our minds were made up for us when a young student stopped us and forced a card into our hands and directed us to a bar down an old town side street.  There was something in her smile that said if you present this card I will be paid some commission and it was impossible to refuse.

After a pavement lunch of beer and complimentary tapas we were forced to concede that the weather was not going to improve any further so there was no putting off the visit to the cathedral any longer.  I should say cathedrals because Salamanca has two, an old one and a new one that are joined together into one massive structure.  We paid €3.50 each for tickets (no increase since 2009) to visit and then commenced a tour of the towers and the balconies that involved an awful lot of spiral staircases.  It was a spectacular building and well worth the money but it was a pity about the weather because the drab overcast sky and persistent patches of mist spoilt what would certainly have been spectacular views from the top.

Salamanca Cathedral SpacemanBack at street level we circumnavigated the Cathedral looking for one of its most famous stone carvings.  Built between 1513 and 1733, the Gothic Cathedral underwent restoration work in 1992 and it is a generally a tradition of cathedral builders and restorers to add details or new carvings to the façade  as a sort of signature. In this case the Cathedral authorities gave the go-ahead to add some more modern images  including an astronaut floating among some vines. Despite there being clear documentation of the astronaut being a recent addition, the spaceman has already fuelled wild ideas of ancient space travel, and medieval alien interventions.  We found the astronaut but not the other recently added images of a dragon eating ice cream, a lynx, a bull, and a crayfish.

It was now late afternoon and time to leave the ancient university city of Salamanca, the city that is regarded as the true home of the purest form of the Spanish language and we dawdled a while through the Plaza Mayor for a second time today before returning to the car and moving on.

Salamanca

A Competition, Compostela, Cahors and a Chateau

In the early summer of 1998 the Times Newspaper ran a daily competition one week to win a prize of an all expenses paid trip for two nights in an up market Relais and Chateau Hotel somewhere in Europe.  One day the competition required answers to three questions about Santiago de Compostela in Galicia and the Way of St James.  I was confident of the answers and telephoned them in several times over the course of the day.

Over the following couple of weeks I forgot all about the competition but one day was surprised to receive a letter from the Times telling me that I was the winner and that the prize was first class air travel to Toulouse in South West France, car hire and two nights all-inclusive at the Château de Mercuès just outside the provincial town of Cahors.

Chateau de Mercures Cahors

Early in the Autumn we flew with British Airways in a first class cabin that we shared with the actor Robin Ellis (Ross Poldark) and his wife (his real wife not Demelza)and enjoyed a silver service meal and complimentary champagne.  When we arrived at Toulouse in the early afternoon we picked up the Renault hire car and set off in a northerly direction on our way to the Chateau.

On the way we stopped at the town of Cahors and after we had walked around the centre, sitting within a protective loop of the River Lot, we found a traditional patisserie and sat and gloated about our unusual good fortune.

The village of Mercuès was just a few kilometres west of the town and eventually we set off again following the course of the river as it swept through the countryside and soon in front of us we saw a splendid castle with soaring towers and blue slate conical roofs and we imagined that it looked somewhere interesting to visit.

After only a short distance there was a sign to our hotel and we took a narrow road that climbed high away from the river and after one final turn we were confronted with the entrance to the very same magnificent building.  This was the Château de Mercuès and way beyond the standard of any hotel that we had ever stayed in before.

The car had hardly come to a halt before a porter rushed through the front doors and took our luggage from the car and indicated that we should follow him to the reception.  Inside there were wonderful furnishings and treasured artefacts and I worried that we were in the wrong place.  But no, it was true, this was prize for winning the competition.

After registration we were shown to our room at the very top of the tallest tower with stone walls, wooden beams and an external walkway on the outside with long distance views over the Lot valley, the Chateau gardens and the raging River Lot rushing by below swollen by days of heavy rain and carrying fallen trees and other debris hurriedly downstream.

Chateau de MERCURES

Our room at the top of the tower with personal balcony!

It took a while for all this to sink in but fortunately there was a complimentary bottle of Cahors wine to help us and when we had settled down we took some time to explore the castle and its gardens, its wine cellars and it public rooms.  Dinner off of an expensive menu was included and I remember that this was the first time that I ever tasted Foie Gras and feeling guilty about it because I was certain that my vegetarian teenage daughter would certainly not approve.

For our full day in France after breakfast we chose to drive the thirty-five kilometres north to the tourist town and Christian pilgrimage centre of Rocamadour.

At first the road was straight and driving was easy but the final few kilometres were on twisting bendy roads that swooped through gullies and over ravines as we got closer.  Rocamadour is one of the busiest tourist sites in France because the picturesque town is built almost vertically into the side of the mountain with its golden houses overhanging a rocky gorge and the River Alzou below.  The car park was at the bottom of the mountain and to get to the entrance gate of the town required an ascent up several flights of wooden steps that eventually brought us out at the main tourist street.

It was quiet today because this was October and outside the main tourist season but the summer months bring thousands of visitors to this place daily.  Years later I visited Carcassonne and Mont St Michel and found them rather similar in a touristy sort of way.

It didn’t help matters that the weather was rather poor and although it wasn’t raining it was misty and rather damp and the honey coloured stones looked disappointingly dull and lifeless today, the place was full of tourist shops that weren’t doing enough business to justify being open and we had the streets and medieval staircases almost to ourselves as we wandered past churches and chapels on ancient streets punctuated with shops and restaurants every few metres.  We stopped for lunch and then made our way back down the steps and drove back to the Chateau where we enjoyed a second gourmet meal in the expensive dining room.

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The next morning when it was time to check out I suddenly began to panic in case I had to pay for any of this unaccustomed extravagance and finery that we had enjoyed and the thoughts got stronger as I waited behind an American guest who settled his obscenely large bill and then made a dreadful fuss about being charged a couple of Francs for a postcard that he picked up while waiting.

My hands were sweating and I avoided the postcards but I needn’t have worried of course, the whole bill was taken care of by the Sunday Times and with the sun shining now we had one final walk around the delightful gardens before setting off for the return journey to Toulouse airport.

East Anglia, Great Yarmouth and Not Many Holiday Memories

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The following morning the weather was surprisingly spectacular for mid May with a big burning sun in the sky and my plan was to see more of Norfolk and to stir up some dormant memories.

We started with the town of Great Yarmouth and I have to report that as we entered the town I didn’t even feel a twitch of nostalgia and I have concluded since that Great Yarmouth was probably not on my Dad’s holiday itinerary most likely because there were amusements and attractions and involved handing over cash.

My dad wasn’t mean it was just that he was careful with money and he wasn’t going to waste it in penny arcades when we could all visit a church for free.

I confess that I have inherited this from him and I too will go to great lengths to avoid such places, those that children are drawn to like bees to nectar but which I cannot wait to pass through as quickly as I possibly can. I especially dislike those pointless children’s rides that do nothing in particular and cost a disproportionate amount of money to the pleasure they seem to provide. I hate them outside supermarkets and in shopping malls and if I were Prime Minister the first thing that I would do is pass a law to make them illegal.

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We began the visit at the site of the old docks where there is a National Trust Museum called the Elizabethan House on what is now called the ‘Historic South Quay’ a name change that is representative of the lengths towns and cities will go to these days to make them sound more interesting and it seems to work because adding the description historic or quarter to a previously run-down area seems to successfully drag the visitors in.

Anyway, it was quite a good museum, quite small really with rooms restored to show how people lived in two important historic times – the Stuarts and the Victorians. It didn’t take long to walk around and I am glad that I didn’t have to pay to go in on account of the fact that my pal is a member of the National Trust and he sneaked me in using his wife’s membership card.

The best feature in the house was the conspiracy room where it is alleged that during the English Civil War the leaders of the Parliamentarians, including Oliver Cromwell himself, met one day and agreed on regicide and pre-determined the fate of King Charles I and there is even a copy of a signed document to prove it.

Across the road from the Museum was a fishing boat museum with free entry, my dad would have liked that and so did I so we made our way to the gang plank entry.

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This was the Lydia Eva the last working steam drifter that is seaworthy and working out of Great Yarmouth.  Now a tourist attraction, not a working boat.  A drifter was a fishing boat that steamed out to the fishing grounds and then turned off the diesel engine, lofted a sail and simply drifted through the a shoal of silver darlings and scooped them up. Simple. Eighty years ago it used to fish for herring in the North Sea but without modern day regulations and quotas and massive over-fishing the Lydia Eva and a fleet of similar boats the fishing industry in Great Yarmouth shot itself in both feet and within just a few years these efficient trawlers had landed so much herring, it is estimated at two million fish a year, that there was simply none left.

It is a similar story to the town where I live, the once great fishing port of Grimsby which was once recognised as the largest and busiest fishing port in the world. The wealth and population growth of the town was also based on the North Sea herring fishery but this collapsed in the middle of the twentieth century and so the ships diversified to distant water grounds fishing targeting instead for cod in the seas around Iceland.  The concessions that Britain made to Iceland as a result of the Cod Wars eventually put these fishing grounds off limit destroyed the fishing industry in the town.  To this day the people of Grimsby don’t particularly care for cod and have a preference for haddock which they consider to be a superior fish.

Large Cod

Consequently the docks are a rather sad and forlorn place now, abandoned and decrepit, as though everyone left the place one afternoon and left it in a time warp of crumbling buildings, pot holed roads, streets of empty houses, redundant warehouses and a giant ice making factory which is now a listed building that no one cares for as it is slowly demolished by the passing of time

It is a sad story and it is said that many men who survived perishing in a watery grave at sea came home without jobs and drowned instead in beer.

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Anyway, back to Great Yarmouth.  Today the Lydia Eva wasn’t at all busy so I was fortunate enough to enjoy a personal guided tour by an ex-fisherman and sailing enthusiast called Malcolm who escorted me around the ship and introduced me to every single rivet in the boat. It was a very fine vessel, sleek and elegant and with more curves than Marilyn Monroe. It was so good that although it was a free visit when I left I felt compelled to leave a contribution.

We had almost finished with Great Yarmouth now and had an appointment in the nearby city of Norwich but there was an hour or so to spare so we found a pub called ‘Allen’s Bar’ which was run not by Allen but by a man called Gareth who just happened to originate from a town quite close to the birthplace of my Welsh pal so we spent an easy hour down memory lane before moving on.

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East Anglia – Norfolk and Suffolk

Travels in Spain, Boat Trips

In 1977 I had a two week holiday in Benidorm on the east coast of Spain. I’d like to tell you that I had a really good time, but I can’t because I didn’t enjoy it that much.

About two miles out in the bay between Levante and Poniente beaches was the little island of Isla Benidorm, a triangular shaped wedge of inhospitable rock, a mountain top I guess,  with a regular bright red ferry boat called the Bahia de Benidorm running across the short stretch for just a few pesetas each way.

Forty years ago I failed to fully understand the opportunities of travel and with limited imagination at my disposal there was so little to do that we made the trip twice and really once would have been quite enough.

It was advertised as ‘Peacock Island’ but I don’t recall seeing any on either visit and all we found there were a few scraggy chickens trying to get by in a very hostile landscape without any vegetation or water.  Fortunately there was a bar on the island with really good views back towards the mainland so at least there was somewhere to sit and have a drink while we waited for the ferry to return.

Forty years on Isla Benidorm is an uninhabited bird sanctuary and diving centre for those interested in marine life and today we were going to visit another off-shore island which is a bird sanctuary and diving centre, the islet of Tabarca about six miles from the port town of Santa Pola which fortunately sounded a lot more promising than Isla Benidorm because it has a census population of about seventy whereas Isla Benidorm has none.

We just about made boat departure time, which was a good thing because the next one wasn’t for about two hours or so (in high season they run a lot more regularly) and after purchasing our tickets we made our way to the top deck and selected seats in the sun ready for the short thirty minute crossing and after being invited to view the marine life through the glass bottom in the boat (really not worth it) we arrived in the small port and disembarked.

Before 1700, the island was known as Illa de Sant Pau or ‘Saint Paul’s Island’  on the basis that this is where Saint Paul was washed up about two thousand years ago. He must have got around a bit because he seems to have been washed up in quite a lot of places in quite a short space of time which begins to make him look very unlucky and me sceptical about the whole thing.

Personally, if I was inclined to believe any of it then I would come down on the side of the story of St Paul’s Island in Malta. The Acts of the Apostles tell the story of how Paul was shipwrecked on an island (somewhere) while on his way to Rome to face charges. You can call me a coward if you like but I wouldn’t have been going back to Rome to face charges that might result in crucifixion or beheading and I would have been inclined to stay on the island wherever it was but to be fair you don’t get to become a Saint by hiding in a cave!

Drogarati Caves, Kefalonia in 2000…

Anyway, with or without Saint Paul, Tabarca turned out to be a whole lot interesting than Isla Benidorm.

In the eighteenth century it was used as a convenient base for Berber pirates from North Africa who regularly raided the mainland coast so in 1760, to put a stop to it, Charles III of Spain ordered the fortification and repopulation of the Spanish island.

A group of Genoese sailors who had been shipwrecked near the coast of Tunisia, mostly coming from the islet of Tabark, were rescued and considered convenient settlers and the islet was renamed Nova Tabarca. The Genoese were moved to the island together with a Spanish garrison.

The King ordered a fortified town and as a consequence of Royal Decree walls, bulwarks, warehouses and barracks were built. The garrison was removed in 1850 and the buildings began to deteriorate and collapse through lack of maintenance but the Genoese stayed put and now a hundred and fifty years later it is a tourist destination and a thriving fishing community.

We maybe could have done with another hour on the island but if we missed the next ferry back we would be there for another four  which was too long so we made our way back to the small fishing port of the island and boarded the boat back to Santa Pola where we had previously found a nice pavement restaurant with a vey reasonably price Menu Del Dia and we simply sat and let the afternoon slip through our fingers.

Later we sat on the terrace and drank wine and ate pizza and just wasted the rest of the evening away as well!

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More cave stories:

Blue Lagoon, Capri

Cueva El Guerro, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Altamira Caves Santillana del Mar

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Travels in Spain, Valencia to Alicante

There was just one short morning left in Valencia. After breakfast we went our separate ways. Kim went to the shopping centre (don’t ask me why) and I returned the streets of the old town to catch anything that I might have missed.

And I had missed quite a lot…

…. It is only a small old town area but I have learned from experience that there is always something new to discover. While Kim went to the modern shopping Mall I went to the old Market District.

Monday morning must be big market day in Valencia because the place was crazy with stalls and buzzing with activity – locals and visitors, stalls selling rubbish, pickpockets eyeing a wallet snatch opportunity, beggars rattling jars and tourists looking obvious and confused. I guess I was a tourist so I left the street stalls and made my way to the Market Hall and not really wanting to buy anything found a vacant stool at a tapas bar and ordered a beer.

Drinking alone you can get through a beer quite quickly so I left soon after and returned to the streets.

Nearby was the Llotja de la Seda  a late Valencian Gothic-style civil building, a previous silk exchange and now included in the UNESCO World heritage List as  “a site of outstanding universal value as it is a wholly exceptional example of a secular building in late Gothic style, which dramatically illustrates the power and wealth of one of the great Mediterranean mercantile cities.”

It is hardly surprising that with forty-seven listed sites Italy has the most UNESCO World Heritage sites but for those who think of Spain as nothing more than a country of over developed Costas with concrete condominiums, aluminium and fibreglass marinas and pampered golf courses it might be a shock to learn that Spain has forty-three sites and is second highest in the exclusive list of places to see and visit and I was delighted now to visit this one.

With time running out I dashed through the streets, gobbling up heritage as I went, the city hall, the post office, the nineteenth century market and The Llotja de la Seda.

I then made my way back to meet Kim after her shopping expedition and to check out of the hotel. Kim hadn’t bought a single thing but I had added to my overflowing cultural reservoir of knowledge.

There was still a couple of hours to wait until our train departure so we returned now to the city market hall, much busier today than previously and we wandered through the stalls selling meat and fish and delicacies and regretted that it wasn’t really sensible to buy anything except for two bottles of cheap wine but surprisingly good wine that we would now take to my sister’s place.

We had been in a rush but now time seemed to surprisingly slow down so we stopped for a last drink in Valencia before collecting our bags and making our way to the train station. We were reluctant to leave but we had made our plans and now we were travelling south to Alicante.

We had booked reasonably priced tickets with the Spanish State railway provider RENFE but as the engine and carriages pulled in we wondered if this was a wise decision. RENFE maintains that it has a focus on improving traveller comfort and increasing the efficiency of its fleet of trains but as we climbed aboard and found our worn out seats I wasn’t so sure.

As it happened it wasn’t so bad, it was slow, almost glacial at times, the landscape was flat and boring as the train took a looping inland route away from the coast and towards the brooding grey mountains of the interior. There were frequent length stops next to vast citrus groves as our transport made way to give way for faster trains and the buffet car was absurdly expensive but eventually we were only twenty minutes late when we arrived at Alicante Terminus and a good job too because I had given wrong instructions to my sister and she was waiting at the wrong station.

Eventually they collected us and we made our way south out of Benidorm and to their house in Quesada just south of Alicante.  I had enjoyed our time in Valencia but now we could slow down and relax .

Travels in Spain. Tiles of Valencia

If I was recommending a city in Spain for tile and ceramics I would suggest Talavera de la Reina.

During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Talavera achieved great recognition, thanks to its ceramics. Wonderful pieces of pottery and Talavera tiles are found in the main museums all over the world and in the most luxurious palaces all over Europe.  The city is internationally known for its products, which King Philip II used as tiled revetments in many of his works, such as the monastery of El Escorial.  The nickname of Talavera de la Reina is ‘The City of Pottery’ and Mexico’s famous Talavera pottery was named after the place.

But, having said that Valencia has some interesting wall tiles of its own…