Tag Archives: Culture

Travels in Spain, Guadalest and Benidorm (A Blast from the Past)

After simple breakfast at Pensión El Pirineo I persuaded the others now to join me on a voyage of personal nostalgia and rediscovery.  I visited this part of Spain forty years ago when I went on a two week holiday to Benidorm and I thought it might be fun to revisit the places that I had seen in 1977.

First we went to Guadalest (picture above, 1977) a small mountain village with a castle which is a short bus trip drive out of Benidorm and a day trip that I took all those years ago.  It hadn’t really changed a great deal, except it had had a few coats of fresh paint and the local ladies selling genuine lace products had been replaced by tourist shops selling junk.

We stopped for lunch and a walk around the narrow streets but it was much smaller than I remembered and it didn’t take long to refresh my memories and soon we were on the road into Benidorm.

Mick wasn’t looking forward to this at all, I think it is quite low down on his list of places to visit in Spain but I was really happy to be revisiting the place that I had hated in 1977 and Mick hates in 2017.

Back then 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 my girlfriend, Linda (later my wife) had been there some time before with her parents and had liked it.

Iglesia de San Jaime y Santa Ana near the Balcón del Mediterráneo in 1977..

And again in 2017…

Benidorm is one of the most popular tourist locations in Europe, today six million people go there each year on holiday but in 1977 it was even more popular and that year attracted the most holidaymakers ever and over twelve million people poured into the city.  That peak in numbers has never been matched since and it is unlikely that it ever will be.

Arriving in Benidorm we left the motorway and found an underground car park with surprising ease (underground car parks are always empty in Spain because the Spanish refuse to pay parking fees) and with the anticipation of severe culture shock rising to near boiling point we made straight for the old town.

Almost immediately it was a huge let down.  We had been expecting tat shops and British pubs, the distinctive smell of Hawaiian tropic, fat bellied lager louts with tattoos and peroxide Essex blondes with fake designer sunglasses and massive boob-jobs but there was none of that sort of thing at all.  No rampaging bands of tourist hooligans just a pensioner choir singing on the beach.

It was a very a very civilised affair with predominantly elderly Spanish people sedately enjoying the sun and a few British left-over’s from the winter Saga tours where the length of stay could be measured directly in degrees of orange tan.  Not even any ‘looky-looky’ men to pester us!

I have to say that Benidorm in 2017 was nothing like what I was anticipating at all but was really rather pleasant and the beaches were immense and spectacular with beautiful clean sand and blue flags flapping proudly in the breeze.  It is an interesting fact that Spain has more blue flag beaches than any other participating country with five hundred and eleven in five thousand kilometres of coastline, the United Kingdom by comparison, has only one hundred and twenty-five in nearly eighteen thousand kilometres.

Balcón del Mediterráneo in 1977…

And again in 2017, now with a tiled pavement and terrace…

In the old town itself there were more Spanish tapas bars than British pubs and there was a notable absence of those awful places with tacky pictures of the food on the menu.   There was not a bit of it and after wandering around the old town searching unsuccessfully for cheap souvenir shops we had to finally admit defeat and sit in a bar on the seafront and have the first beer of the day.

If Benidorm was a surprisingly nice place then the old town was an especially nice place with a blue domed church, reminiscent of those in the Greek islands, and a pedestrianised area that was positively delightful.  I remembered this from my visit forty years ago but not much else I have to say and with refreshment time over we walked a short way along the Levante in search of what we were sure was the real Benidorm from the television series but without success we called a halt to the expedition and retraced our steps back to the car.

Although we were disappointed not to see what we had come for it was a pleasant surprise and we left with the confirmation that despite the tourists that flock in every summer that Benidorm is a very real Spanish town, with Spanish culture and a Spanish history of tuna fishermen and merchant sailors that was actually quite plain to see.

I wished that I had grasped that in 1977 because if I had then I am sure that I would have enjoyed it more then.

Travels in Spain, Alcoy and the Festival of the Moors and the Christians

I do like Spanish carnivals and I have always been keen to see a Festival of Moors and Christians which take place regularly throughout the year mostly in the province of Valencia in the Levante region of Spain.

Earlier this year I was trawling the airline web sites and reconciling these to suitable events and came across the perfect combination; cheap flights to Alicante and one of the most famous of all these festivals in the nearby town of Alcoy near to Benidorm and with dates that matched perfectly,  I didn’t take a lot of persuading to book the flights.

Finding a hotel was a lot more difficult, Alcoy gets rather busy during the three day festival and the nearest that I could find at a price that suits my skinflint budget was twenty miles away in the village of Confrides near to Guadalest.

The Festival of Moors and Christians celebrates the seven hundred year period between 722 and 1492 which has long been known to historians of Spain as the ‘Reconquista’ and the Spanish have organised and interpreted their medieval history around the drama of this glorious event which over time has become an established feature of the self-image of the Spanish people.  It has become embellished into a sort of organised Catholic national crusade but it is a confusing story because Spain has largely embraced its Muslim occupation as a proud part of its history.

In popular culture the reconquest has been raised to the status of a crusade and the expulsion of the Moors as liberation from an occupying army but this is not strictly the case and it would be wrong to interpret it in this way.  At this time Córdoba became the largest, richest and most sophisticated city in Western Europe.  Mediterranean trade and cultural exchange flourished.  Muslims imported a rich intellectual tradition from the Middle East and North Africa and Muslim and Jewish scholars played an important part in reviving and expanding classical Greek learning in Western Europe.

The period of Moorish occupation was to last nearly four hundred years and in eastern Iberia the Moors created the landscape of the region. After irrigation they planted citrus groves and peach and almond orchards. The terraces seen on the hillsides throughout the region are an everlasting Moor legacy.

As it is essentially a celebration the people of the town and the surrounding villages split themselves equally into Moors and Christians and then organise grand parades and mock battles to tell the story of the ‘Reconquista’.

After meeting Mick and Lindsay (my sister and her husband) we began by driving from the airport directly to our hotel and when I say directly I use this term in the loosest possible sense because the mountain drive from Alicante to Confrides is anything but direct with roads that sweep and climb and rise and fall around the contours of the pepper grey mountains decorated with sprawling orchards and fruit trees.

Just a few miles out of Alicante and we noticed something pretty dramatic – suddenly, almost within the turn of a corner, the landscape changed from brown and arid to green and mountainous; the high-rise concrete hotels gave way to pretty villages and we found myself in lush valleys of oranges, almonds and lemon groves.

We were delighted with the hotel, a simple place on a bend in the road that provided excellent views along the fertile valley.  There is nothing boutique about Pensión El Pirineo just a down-to-earth place with unpretentious rooms and a promising menu so we booked a table for later and made our way to Alcoy.

The town was busy and parking was difficult but eventually we squeezed into a spot along a dusty track and made our way on foot to the Plaza Major which was anticipating the procession of the Moors.  The Christians had arrived earlier this morning so we had missed that already.  The procession was timed for five o’clock and as the event got closer the square was filled to bursting with people taking up their positions ready for the parade.

It was mad, chaotic and disorganised.  In my last job once a year I helped organise a street parade in Spalding in Lincolnshire but by the time it stopped forever the police and the health and safety fanatics had squeezed the life out of it but this was not a problem in Alcoy I can tell you as people pushed and shoved and wandered around unrestricted on the parade route.

I didn’t know exactly what to expect but it was wonderful. The Moors arrived on horseback and in marching columns some in historically accurate uniforms but others with a very loose interpretation of Moorish costumes. – rather more carnival theatre than history.

The Festival lasts for three days and is all rather intense so we were happy with our one afternoon, this year we saw the parade, maybe next year we will return for the final day siege.  As it happened we had to battle our way out of the town as people filled the streets and the bars and the festivities continued on every street corner and we felt happy to have shared a happy slice of Spanish life and culture.

We shared another slice of Spanish life later that evening back at Pensión El Pirineo where local people came and went through the bar and the restaurant and we savoured an evening of local cuisine and Murcian wine – it was delightful!

Entrance Tickets – Ephesus, Turkey

turkey-ephesus

I am not a great one for ruins.  Generally it requires an enormous outlay of imagination and patience for scant reward but the site at Ephesus is so rich that I can walk on 2000 year old flagstones with recognisable buildings on either side…” – Michael Palin – ‘Pole to Pole’

Historically inspired by the visit to the Temple of Apollo at Didyma we were looking forward now to our bus trip to Ephesus and to Heirapolis (Pamukkale) to visit more ancient Hellenistic and Roman sites.

The bus was to collect us at eight o’clock so we woke early and after a modest breakfast made our way down to the appointed rendezvous point outside the apartment and then being the first to be collected began the tedious job of picking up our fellow travellers.

The problem with bus trips is that you cannot choose your travelling companions – it is a game of chance!  I imagined that we would be accompanied on this trip by middle aged historians in crumpled linen suits and battered panama hats, ladies in pencil-pleat skirts, archaeologists carrying trowels and leather bound notebooks and the entire cast of a Merchant Ivory film but at the first pick up we were joined by a Geordie and a noisy Lithuanian family and then horror of horrors by a misbehaving bunch of women who looked as though they should really be going to a market rather than one of the World’s finest archaeological sites.

You can call me a snob if you like but I couldn’t for the life of me understand why they were going on this trip.

It got worse.  It turned out that they were a darts team from Dagenham.  We were on a bus with an octet of middle aged women with inappropriate tattoos and piercings who were loud and embarrassing and behaved like escapees from a medical research centre.   I was horrified – we were going to spend two days with these people and as the journey started I looked out of the window and tried to block it from my mind.  I would rather have been travelling with a bus load of people suffering from an incurable tropical disease!

Ephesus Turkey

It took around about an hour to reach Ephesus and we passed through interesting countryside of agriculture, forests, villages, medieval castles and ancient temples but mostly through acres and acres of cotton fields which started at the side of the road and disappeared towards the horizon on all sides.  There was an awful lot of cotton out there and it turns out that Turkey is actually one of top world producers even though the product is of inferior quality to that of Egypt for example.

Eventually we arrived at Ephesus and ran the wallet robbing gauntlet of the hawkers and the unofficial guide book sellers and after a short break made our way inside the excavation site. It was busy of course but I expected that because this is one of the most visited tourist attraction sites in all of Turkey and we competed with bus tours and cruise ship day trippers from Kusadasi as we elbowed our way through the entrance and into the beginning of the tour.

Temple of Diana at Ephesus

We started at the top of the excavations and over the next two hours made our way down the ancient streets to the lowest point of the city which in previous times was the harbour which was difficult to imagine today because Ephesus is now a considerable distance from the shore of the Mediterranean.

We passed through hundreds of years of history, Greek theatres, Roman baths, ancient houses and even the public latrines and made slow progress towards the finest building on the whole site, the library of Celsus, which archaeologists have discovered doubled up bizarrely as a brothel!

TURKEY - Ephesus - The Library of Celsus

Ephesus was once one of the most important cities in Asia Minor, a natural trading crossroads between east and west and for a while enjoyed a status second only to Rome.  There is a lot of reconstruction of course but I am not averse to a bit of sympathetic reconstruction because without it it is difficult to imagine what it might have looked like.

After considering the issue I think I agree with Henry Miller who (writing about Knossos on the island of Crete) wrote in the ‘Colossus of Rhodes“There has been much controversy about the aesthetics of Sir Arthur Evans’s work of restoration.  I find myself unable to come to any conclusion about it; I accepted it as a fact.  However Knossos may have looked in the past, however it may look in the future, this one which Evans has created is the only one I shall ever know.  I am grateful to him for what he did…”

The guided tour through Ephesus was concluded by a visit to the Greek Theatre, which was later used as a Roman gladiator fighting venue and then we were out of the southern gate and heading back to the bus.  I could have spent longer at the site but our itinerary was determined by the restrictions of the tour bus timetable and it whisked us off now for an instantly forgettable lunch, which would have been alright in an emergency but not out of choice, at a tourist dining treadmill.

Temple of Apollo Didyma

Lunch over we now drove to the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, although you would have to have a very good imagination to be able to understand how wonderful it was but could do no better than rely on the description by Antipater of Sidon, a Greek poet of the 2nd century BC:

“I have gazed on the walls of impregnable Babylon and on the Zeus by the banks of the Alpheus, I have seen the hanging gardens, and the Colossus of the Helios, the lofty pyramids, and the gigantic tomb of Mausolus; but when I saw the sacred house of Artemis that towers to the clouds, the others were placed in the shade, for the sun himself has never looked upon its equal outside Olympus”

So it must have looked quite magnificent I imagine but except for one solitary column there is nothing there today and it turns out that if you want to see more, guess where you have to go, yes, the British Museum.  This was a staggering disappointment, it really needed some Arthur Miller approved reconstruction and interpretation and I for one was glad when it was all over and we were back on the bus and we could continue the drive to Pamukkale about three hours away to the east.

Ephesus Turkey

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Related Posts:

Spartacus the Gladiator

Rome

The Roman City of Pompeii

The Roman City of Herculaneum

The Roman Amphitheatre at Pula

The Aqueduct of Segovia

The Roman Buildings at Mérida

The Roman Ruins at Segóbriga

Diocletian’s Palace at Split

The Roman Buildings at Arles

Verona

The Greek and Roman Ruins at Empuria, Catalonia

The Palace of Knossos in Crete

Athens and Ancient Greece

The Acropolis Museum in Athens

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The Huldufólk of Iceland

“This is a land where everyone is aware that the land is alive, and one can say that the stories of hidden people and the need to work carefully with them reflects an understanding that the land demands respect” –  Terry Gunnell, a folklore professor at the University of Iceland

We have moved on from Wroclaw in Poland and its street dwarfs so I thought you might like some pictures of the Huldufólk. the “hidden folk” of Icelandic folklore who live in a mystical landscape of mountain passes with peaks lost in the clouds, of arctic chill, windswept valleys, gnarled volcanic rock, wild moss and winter scorched meadows.

“It’s sort of a relationship with nature, like with the rocks. (The elves) all live in the rocks, so you have to. It’s all about respect, you know.” – Icelandic Singer Bjork.

In a land like this. of fire and ice, a place that is wild and magical, where the fog-shrouded lava fields provide a spooky landscape in which it is possible that anything out of the ordinary might lurk, stories flourish about the “hidden folk”.

According to Icelanders these are the thousands of elves who make their homes in the wilderness,  supernatural forces that dwell within the hallowed volcanic rubble and coexist alongside the 320,000 or so Icelandic people.

People in Iceland do not throw stones into the wilderness just in case they carelessly injure an Elf!

“It has caused a lot of arguments, as it’s something that’s very difficult to prove. Iceland is full of álagablettir, or enchanted spots, places you don’t touch – just like the fairy forts and peat bogs in Ireland. They’re protected by stories about the bad things that will happen if you do” – Terry Gunnell

If you are wondering where the Huldufólk are in my pictures? Well, according to Icelandic lore they are hidden beings that inhabit a parallel world that is invisible to human eyes, and can only be spotted by psychics and little children, unless they willingly decide to reveal themselves to people.

Sometimes however you can see their houses…

Have you been to Iceland – Have you seen the the Huldufólk?

Entrance Tickets, Wroclaw – Three Church Towers

In a survey in 2010 75% of the population of Poland said that they were practising Catholics.  Nearby Italy (where the Pope lives) only registered 74%.  Malta had the largest positive response at 95%. The least religious countries were all in the north where 80% of respondents in Estonia, Norway, Denmark and Sweden all said that religion isn’t important.

Rather odd that bearing in mind that they believe in Elves and Fairies and Goblins.

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

I wasn’t surprised by this high response in Poland because there are twenty churches on the map of the old town area of Wroclaw and three of them have towers to climb and I do like climbing towers and we set about tackling them in a sort of church tower triathlon!

We started first with the Cathedral of St John the Baptist, Ostrow Tumski, on the Cathedral Island which at ninety-seven metres Island is the tallest of the three.

The most common Christian Church dedication is to Saint Mary but dedications to St John the Baptist are also quite common.    There are almost six hundred in England alone and I used to go to this one every Sunday in the village of Hillmorton, near Rugby in Warwickshire where I grew up…

Yes, I did go there every week – honestly, that’s me third from the right, about 1970…

During the Siege of Breslau in the last days of World War Two the Wroclaw Cathedral was very badly damaged with about three-quarters of the building being destroyed by heavy bombing by the Red Army  in what amounted to the Russian contribution to the end of war demolition of Poland.

The initial reconstruction of the church lasted until 1951 and in the following years, additional aspects were rebuilt and renovated. The original, conical shape of the towers was restored only as recently as 1991.

Although it is the highest of the three church towers it is also the easiest to ascend (I say this with hindsight of course) because after only a few steps there is a small museum of African Art (a bit weird) and a lift to the top.

It is one of those curious lifts that you can still find in Europe with an open space next to a blank wall which flashes by as you ascend to the top and would cause serious injury if you were to lean against the moving brickwork.  Luckily there was an attendant who stood perilously near (in my opinion) to the wall and stopped visitors from getting too close!

After a couple of circuits of the top the chill wind sent us straight back down again and before we left we walked around the interior of the Cathedral and enjoyed the decoration and the stained glass windows.

Next stop was the Mary Magdalene (a follower of Jesus, but not a Disciple, because only men could be Disciples) church near the Market Square which is quite ordinary except for the tower and the  Penitent Bridge (Mostek Pokutnic) which is a footbridge between the two towers of at the height of forty-five metres.

According to the legend it is possible to see the ghosts of young women, who, instead of taking care of their homes and children, preferred to go out on the town and party with men.

As a penitence, they had to cross the bridge between the towers.

Legend also says that if an unmarried couple walk the length of the bridge while holding hands, their love for one another will never fade and they will marry, which for me is a lot better than a nasty love lock on a bridge!

This was the shortest of the three and an easy walk to the top up modern concrete zig-zag steps and we walked the bridge taking care not to hold hands and after looking out over the market Square we returned to ground level and made our way the short distance to nearby St Elizabeth’s Church.

Saint Elizabeth was the mother of John the Baptist. The church dates back to the fourteenth century. The main tower was originally one hundred and thirty-six meters tall and from 1525 until 1946 was the chief Lutheran Church of Breslau and Silesia. In 1946 it was expropriated and given to the Military Chaplaincy of the Polish Roman Catholic Church which I suppose accounts for its rather plain and austere interior compared to the Cathedral of St John the Baptist.

The reconstructed main tower is now ninety two meters tall and with three hundred and four steps up and down a stone spiral staircase is the most difficult of the three to reach the top.  But the climb is well worth the effort because the reward is the best view of all from all three with a panorama of the surrounding countryside and a bird’s eye view of the Market Square.  Well worth the 5 zloty fee!

After three towers we agreed that we had earned a beer so we retired immediately to the Drink Bar and prepared ourselves for our final night in Wroclaw and an early morning flight home the next day.

We had enjoyed out time here. Wroclaw doesn’t have the historical swagger or confidence of Krakow or the raw edge and the buzz of Warsaw but it has a quirky charm of the more manageable city.  When it comes to Poland whilst I might consider returning to Krakow and Wroclaw, once in Warsaw I think is probably enough.

More Towers…

Trogir (Croatia) Tower of Terror

The Leaning Tower of Pisa

Church Tower, Riga

Blarney Castle, Ireland

Torre Dos Clérigios, Porto

Wroclaw, Dwarf a Day (10)

The last one – I promise

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Wroclaw, Dwarf a Day (9)