Have Bag, Will Travel
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A visit to any castle is not complete without a descent into the dungeons. Alicante is no different and the visitor route includes a visit to a dark chamber where as many as fifty prisoners were held during the Spanish Civil War. The information boards are not specific but they most likely were Nationalists because Alicante was a Republican stronghold and the last city to fall to Franco’s forces in March 1939.
One by one it is said that these prisoners scratched their names into the stone using a single nail which they passed around (must have been a strong nail) – graffiti which can now be found set into the floor of one of the castle’s highest terraces.
As a student of the past it is always an experience to come across something like this – genuine history left behind by the people that made it.
It was mid-November and the weather was just perfect. Shirt-sleeve weather in fact with sunshine and big sky so after breakfast we were away to the nearby city of Alicante which I was sort of surprised to discover is the eighth largest in Spain.
The short drive north took us through a wild landscape of lagoons and wetlands and for me this was another surprise. I would have to say that it is hardly the Camargue in the South of France but away from the urbanizations and the towns it wasn’t what I was expecting and it turns out that this is a region for bird spotters and wild life photographers and I could see why as flocks of vermillion flamingos strutted through the shallow waters like statuesque flamenco dancers.
We arrived in Alicante and found plenty of room in an underground car park – plenty of room because Spanish drivers object to paying for car parking in the same way they boycott toll roads and would rather drive around in ever decreasing circles wasting time and fuel until they disappear up their own exhaust pipe looking for a free spot than spend a couple of euro to leave the car in a secure place.
As we emerged blinking into the sunlight, even though I have never been to Alicante before I had a strong feeling of Déjà vu. We were on the Esplanade de España where the coloured floor tiles undulate like a rolling sea in a storm and I knew that I had seen them before. It took me a moment or two to drag up the memory but then I remembered – I have a picture of my granddad in this very avenue, perhaps even this very spot taken nearly sixty years ago.
In the photograph below my grandparents whose names were Ernie and Olive were probably about fifty years old or so and they were clearly having a very good time sitting at a bar enjoying generous measures of alcohol, the same sort of good time that I like to enjoy when I go travelling.
I’m guessing of course but Granddad, who looks unusually bronzed, seems to have a rum and coke and Nan who looks younger than I can ever remember her appears to have some sort of beer with a slice of lime and that’s about forty years before a bottle of Sol with a bit of citrus became anything like fashionable. With him is his brother George (no socks, very impressive for 1960) and his wife Lillian. Nan and Granddad look very relaxed and with huge smiles that I can barely remember.
We walked first around the marina and stopped briefly for a drink and then on to the beach, abandoned today because although the sun was shining it was perhaps a little too cool for a dip in the Mediterranean so we bypassed the opportunity of getting into our bathing costumes and made our way instead to the castle which sits on a rocky outcrop and looms large over the area.
Finding a castle to visit is not difficult in Spain because, according to the Spanish Tourist Board, there are over two thousand five hundred of them, for comparison there are eight hundred in the United Kingdom but France claims almost five-thousand but it includes a lot of questionable small Chateaux in that number.
It looked like a strenuous climb to the top but fortunately there was an express lift so we took the easy option and in a few seconds were standing at the very top of the city. Alicante castle turned out to be as good as any in Spain, there is a lot of reconstruction and renovation of course but I find nothing wrong with that and we enjoyed an hour or so walking around the battlements, looking at the exhibits and enjoying the elevated views.
We had return tickets for the lift option but walked down instead and at the bottom at around early afternoon we searched for the old town and somewhere nice to eat. We were looking for a tapas bar and found one that we liked in a pleasant square in the last of the Autumn sunshine where we ordered a beer and selected our favourite food.
According to legend, the tapas tradition began when the King of Castile, Alfonso the Wise (if I was King I think I would like to be called ‘the Wise’, so much better than ‘Andrew the Fat’ or ‘Bad King Andrew’) visited a tavern in the town of Ventorillo del Chato in the province of Cádiz, and ordered a glass of sherry. There was a gusty wind, so the innkeeper served him his glass of sherry covered by a slice of ham to prevent the sherry from getting dirty. The King liked it, and when he asked for a second glass, he requested another tapa or ‘cover’ just like the first.
This developed into the practice of using slices of bread or meat as a practical measure meant to prevent fruit flies from hovering over the drink. The meat used to cover the sherry was normally ham or chorizo, which are both very salty and activate thirst and because of this, bartenders and restaurant owners began creating a variety of snacks to serve with sherry, thus increasing their alcohol sales.
As we finished lunch the sun slipped behind the tall buildings and cast long shadows across the square so as the temperature quickly dipped we paid up and left and strolled for a second time around the marina before returning later to the town of Quesada where we were staying and spending an hour or so in the garden before preparing to go out for an entertaining evening meal.
Malta is the most religious country in Europe…
…it has more religious public holidays than any other in Europe and 10th February is especially important because this is the The Feast of St Paul’s Shipwreck which was bad luck for Paul but good fortune for Malta because it brought Paul to the island in the year 60AD and he then went promptly about converting the island to Christianity.
Saint Paul is the Patron Saint of Malta.
In a survey in 2010 95% of the population of Malta said that they were practising Catholics. Nearby Italy (where the Pope lives) only registered 74%. The least religious countries are all in the north where over 80% of respondents in Estonia, Norway, Denmark and Sweden all said that religion isn’t important!
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%
There have been four Papal visits to Malta, the last in April 2010 to celebrate the 1,950th anniversary of the shipwreck of St Paul on the island. His ship ran aground in St Paul’s Bay (obviously) and I give you my word that I am honestly not making this up but in 1997 I too suffered the same fate. Taking a speed boat ride with Tony Oki Koki ‘Mr Crazy’ Banis the boat broke down and we were stranded on the very same rock in a storm for twenty minutes or so until thankfully rescued.
Last year I visited the town of Rabat to visit his grotto next to his church where he is supposed to have spent his time on Malta in hiding from the Roman soldiers who were searching for him – rather like Saddam Hussein, two thousand years later hiding from the American troops – also in a cave.
“I distrust camels, and anyone else who can go a week without a drink” – American comedian (if there is such a thing) Joe E. Lewis
The beach at Essaouira in Western Morocco stretches for a couple of miles or so and about half way along there are camels, lots of camels. Once they used to carry trade goods from the Sahara to the port but now their job is to provide rides for visitors and tourists.
I have always thought that some things should only be done once in life and for me a camel ride is quite high on this list.
I took a camel ride in Lanzarote in 1984…
Having very quickly forgotten my lesson in the boat yard about being easily hustled I suddenly and unexpectedly found myself negotiating with a camel owner for a one hour ride along the beach and before I could say Lawrence of Arabia I was sitting on a shaggy carpet on the back of a dromedary and being hoisted into the air! It is a long way up on a camel so once on board there is no realistic opportunity of changing your mind that won’t involve a sprained ankle or a broken leg!
To be fair I was happy with the price – 150 dirham (£12) for one hour and one mile which compares very favourably with £2.50 for a five minute and two hundred yard donkey ride at home on Cleethorpes Beach, near where I live.
And so we set off at a leisurely pace along the beach with the camel man persistently trying to persuade me to spend more and extend the ride to two hours. I refused, I was certain that an hour was long enough and I held out. I was proud of myself for that.
In my pocket I had brought with me some pages from a note book so that I could make a record of the day and at one point I thought of something so brilliant, so Bill Bryson, so Hemingway, so Laurie Lee, that I felt I needed to write it down immediately in case I forgot this potential literary gem and I reached inside my pocket for pen and paper.
Unfortunately it was quite windy and as I clung on firmly to the wooden saddle with one hand I was surprised by a strong gust that separated me from the paper and it went back-flipping across the sand like an Olympic gymnast and it was lost. Now I would have to rely on memory.
As it happens, this was rather like Lawrence of Arabia himself. Lawrence kept extensive notes throughout the course of his involvement in the First-World-War and he began work in 1919 on the manuscript of his book ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’. By December it was almost complete but he lost it when he misplaced his briefcase while changing trains at Reading railway station sometime in the following year. It was never recovered and he had to start all over again.
At least Lawrence still had his notes but he did have to rewrite four years of memoirs, I only needed to recall four days!
Another famous loss is the story of Thomas Carlyle and his book ‘The French Revolution: A History’. In 1835 he finished volume 1 and gave it to his friend John Stuart Mill to read for his comments.
Unfortunately it was the only copy of the work and Mill’s servant allegedly mistook the book for household rubbish and used it as a convenient source of material to get the kitchen fire going one morning!
Unlike Lawrence, Carlyle apparently kept no notes at all and had to completely rewrite the first volume entirely from memory.
Little wonder he looked so glum…
Anyway, the camel ride continued until it reached a block of stone in the sand – a ruined red brick fortress, battered by the years into submission and collapse by the unrelenting waves. At some point in the late 1960s Jimi Hendix visited Essaouira and stayed a while in a nearby hippy village and they like to tell you around here that it was during this sojourn that he was inspired by the ruin to write his song ‘Castles in The Sea’ but sadly the dates don’t quite correspond and it turns out that he actually wrote the song two years before ever setting foot in Morocco.
And so the camel ride had reached its turning point and then returned me as promised to the start where I was mugged for a second time today when the owner told me that we had been out for an hour and a quarter and that I owed him 200 dirham. Another lesson learned!
“This is a land where the wind can knock you off your feet, where the smell of sulphur from your taps tells you there is invisible fire not far below your feet….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, Folklore Professor at the University of Iceland
Sightings of Elves are like sightings of Elvis – frequently reported but never confirmed!
In a land of fire and ice, a wild and magical place, where the fog-shrouded lava fields offer a spooky landscape it is possible that anything out of the ordinary is possible and stories abound about the “hidden folk”.
Hidden people are special In Iceland and it is said often appear in the dreams of Icelanders but if you ask me that could just be the result of too much home-brew.
They are usually described as wearing nineteenth century Icelandic clothing, and are often portrayed as traditionally wearing green. One of Iceland’s most famous people, the singer Björk was asked one time in an interview on US TV if people in her country believed in Elves; she explained. “We do….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.”
We stopped now and then to photograph the real people houses and I reminded everyone to be careful where they walked in case they stepped on one of these tiny alternative inhabitants because Icelanders prefer big people to be careful and even frown upon the throwing of stones in case you inadvertently hit one of these small invisible folk.
These are the thousands of elves who make their homes in Iceland’s wilderness and coexist alongside the 320,000 or so Icelandic humans. Iceland is not alone in this and Scandinavian folklore in general is full of elves, trolls and other mythological characters. Most people in Norway, Denmark and Sweden haven’t taken them seriously for several years now but elves are no joke to many in Iceland and in a survey conducted by the University of Iceland in 2007 it found that sixty-two percent of the respondents thought it was at least possible that they exist.
Even previous President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson seemed taken in by this and explained the existence of Huldufólk tales by saying: “Icelanders are few in number, so in the old times we doubled our population with tales of elves and fairies.”
Huldufólk are believed to live close to humans and are often blamed when things go missing rather like the plot of the 1952 book ‘The Borrowers’ by the English author Mary Norton.
“…Borrower’s don’t steal.”
“Except from human beings,” said the boy.
Arrietty burst out laughing; she laughed so much that she had to hide her face …. “Oh dear,” she gasped with tears in her eyes, “you are funny!” She stared upward at his puzzled face. “Human beans are for Borrowers – like bread’s for butter!”
To illustrate how seriously Icelanders take the issue of elves in 1982 a delegation of Icelanders went to the NATO base in Keflavík to look for “elves who might be endangered by American Phantom jets” and in 2004, Alcoa (the World’s third largest producer of aluminium) had to have a government expert certify that their chosen building site was free of archaeological sites, including ones related to Huldufólk folklore, before they could build an aluminium smelter in Iceland.
More recently Elf protectors have joined forces with environmentalists to urge the Icelandic Road and Coastal Commission and local authorities to abandon a highway project because it might disturb them and their homes. The proposed highway would offer a direct route from the Alftanes peninsula where we had been earlier this morning to the capital Reykjavik but the project has been halted until the Supreme Court of Iceland rules on the case. The activists cite a cultural and environmental impact – including the plight of the elves – as a reason for regularly gathering hundreds of people to block workers from bulldozing the area.
And it’s not the first time issues about the Huldufolk have affected planning decisions. They occur so often that the road and coastal administration has come up with a stock media response for elf inquiries, which states that “issues have been settled by delaying the construction project at a certain point while the elves living there have supposedly moved on.”
Apparently there have been quite a few noticeable instances of construction projects being postponed for fear of building on land occupied by hidden people and a medium is often called in to negotiate with the elves to ask their permission to build.
As we drove the final few kilometres I kept a careful eye out for any signs of the elves but of course this was pointless because you can’t see them unless they feel like showing themselves to you so all I could imagine was – where they watching us as we approached the spiritual heartland of Iceland at Þingvellir?