Tag Archives: Life

Northern France, The Blockhaus d’Éperlecques

The Blockhaus d’Éperlecques

The Blockhaus d’Éperlecques was a giant bunker built by Nazi Germany between March 1943 and July 1944 and was originally intended to be a launching facility for the V2 ballistic missile.

It was designed to accommodate over one hundred missiles at a time and to launch up to thirty-six a day all destined to land and explode on London and the South-East of England. The facility was designed to incorporate a liquid oxygen factory and a bomb-proof train station to allow missiles and supplies to be delivered from production facilities in Germany.

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Travels in Spain, One Balcony Three Ways

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Travels in Spain, Wall Tile Decoration

Cudillero Wall Tile 2

The tiles in Spain often tell a story, theses were taken in the town of Cudillero in Asturias on the North Coast.

Cudillero Wall Tile 1Cudillero Wall Tile 3

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Travels in Spain, The Origin of Tapas

According to one legend, the tapas tradition in Spain began when the King of Spain, Alfonso XIII, visited a tavern in the town of Ventorillo del Chato in the province of Cádiz, and ordered a glass of sherry.  On this particular day there was a gusty wind, so the innkeeper served him his glass of sherry covered by a slice of ham supposedly to prevent the sherry from getting dirty but more likely because he didn’t want to have his head cut off!

The King finished the sherry and ate the ham, and when he asked for a second glass, he requested another tapa or ‘cover’ just like the first.  This evolved 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 bodega owners began creating a variety of snacks to serve with sherry but, more importantly, increasing their alcohol sales as a consequence.

There are alternative stories about the origin of tapas but so far this is my favourite.

 

Travels in Spain, The Royal Palace of San Ildefonso o La Granja

San Ildefonso o la granja 1

“I came on the Royal gardens of La Granja – acres of writhing statues, walks and fountains rising from the dust like a mirage. A grandiose folly, as grand as Versailles and even more extravagant” – Laurie Lee – ‘As I walked out one Sunny Morning’

After breakfast we checked out and were reunited with the little Chevrolet Matiz that we hadn’t used for two days and we set off on our planned route back in the direction of Madrid.  We could have used the new motorway link that tunnels through the mountains but our plan was to use the mountain roads and go over the top.

We left the town and headed south towards our first destination of San Ildefonso o La Granja about ten miles away in the foothills of the Sierra de Guadarrama and the location of a fabulous Royal Palace.

After driving through Nuevo Segovia we soon arrived in the town where there were a lot of road works and building activity, which made it difficult to find where we were going but we parked the car just outside of the town and walked through the gates into the Baroque streets and sauntered in what we supposed to be the direction of the Palace.  Kim wasn’t feeling so well this morning and she had a stiff neck and vertigo from watching the Storks so we found a little café and as the streets were still quite cool sat inside and had a coffee and an early slice of tortilla.

The town was wonderfully quiet, no coach tours and very few visitors as we walked to the Palace through the front garden and to the pay desk where admission was free on Wednesday if you could demonstrate European Union citizenship so we flashed our passports and avoided what was actually a very reasonable €4 admission charge.  Won’t be able to do that after March 2019, I should have taken that into consideration when I voted LEAVE!

San Ildefonso o la Granja x 3

The Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso is a palace set in extensive gardens in the French style of Versailles that was built for King Philip V in the early eighteenth century and remains today an official residence of the King of Spain.  The Spanish Royal family used to like to leave Madrid in the baking hot summer months and take up residence in the mountains where the climate is cooler and more agreeable and looking around the place it was easy to see why.

Inside the dark rooms it was quite chilly and an attendant in woollies and a topcoat looked at me in my shirt sleeves as though I had escaped from an institution and gave a surrogate shiver as we examined the exhibition of Flemish tapestries before moving through a succession of state rooms all of which had magnificent views of the adjacent gardens and the snow capped mountains beyond.

Best of all was the Royal bedroom with a perfect balcony vista overlooking the fountains in the garden.  I didn’t get a sense that the present King, Felipe VI actually uses this room anymore and he probably has an apartment somewhere hidden away, which has a twenty-first century specification with wireless Internet access and Sky TV that this one certainly didn’t have.

In fact the King of Spain has eight Royal Palaces to choose from but I suspect he doesn’t stay at any of them very often, most are close to Madrid and one is on the island of Mallorca.  By comparison the Queen of England also has eight Royal residencies but only one is officially a Palace (Buckingham of course).

It was nice inside but when the sun is shining I prefer to be outside so I suppose I rushed us through the rooms a bit hastily and after finishing in the predictable shop selling lots of Royal souvenirs that we didn’t want we emerged into the gardens and the very pleasant sunshine.

From the Palace we walked through the King’s back garden along the row of fountains all of which represent various themes from classical mythology, including Greek deities, allegories and scenes from ancient myths. They are cast in lead to prevent corrosion, and painted over to simulate the nobler material of bronze, or lacquered over white oxydised lead to imitate marble. Amazingly the original waterworks and piping are still functional: they rely purely on gravity to project water up to the forty-meter height of the fountain jet of Perseus and Andromeda because an artificial lake, El Mar, lies secluded at the highest point of the park, and provides a reservoir and sufficient water pressure for the whole system.

Today, only a few fountains are active each day and only during the real tourist season but twice a year, on the feast days of San Fernando and San Luis all twenty-six fountains are set to work, providing what must be a truly memorable aquatic show.  To try and imagine just what it might be like I have to rely on the account of Laurie Lee:

“A hundred fountains were playing filling the sky with rainbows and extraordinary dreamlike clamour. Marble Gods and wood-nymphs, dragons and dolphins, their anatomies studded with pipes and nozzles, directed complex cascades at one another or shot them high over the trees…. Lakes, pools, jets and falls, flooded grottoes and exotic canals, all throbbed and surged at different levels, reflecting classical arbours, paths and terraces, or running like cooling milk down the statuary.” 

It didn’t really matter to us, the effervescent snow on the mountains completely compensated for a lack of fountain action.

San Ildefonso o la Granja 2

Other Royal Palaces in Spain:

Palacio Real Madrid

Arunjuez

Palace Real Alcázar, Seville

Travels in Spain, Balcony Flowers

balcony-and-single-flower.jpg

In Spain some people go to a lot of trouble to decorate their balconies with blooms.

This on the other hand is the minimalist approach to window gardening.

Travels in Spain, The Alcazar of Segovia

Segovia Spain

“The finest sight in Castile, is how Segovians sweepingly define the first appearance of their city and I agree with them: there are few urban compositions on earth to equal the impact of Segovia….” – Jan Morris – ‘Spain’

After we had finished our drink in Ávila it was reluctantly time to leave.  We had liked it here but it was time to go and drive to our final destination, Segovia, about thirty miles away to the east.  This involved a drive along the line of the Sierra de Guadarrama, the central mountain range of the Iberian Peninsula which effectively splits Spain in two, north and south.

The approach to Segovia was truly wonderful and still some way out we could see a golden city on a convenient rocky outcrop rising majestically from the plain with a spectacular mountain backdrop and the Cathedral and the Alcázar reaching dramatically into the blue sky.

I was determined not to repeat the parking difficulties of Ávila but this plan went spectacularly wrong after I drove through the gates into the old city and tried to guess a way to the Plaza Mayor where our hotel was waiting for us.  We made a couple of circuits stopping here and there to consult an inadequate map and then by chance arrived at the main square where our path was blocked by one of those steel retractable bollards and my dramatic entrance raised the eyebrows of some nearby pedestrians.

Some men in a bar directed me to another entrance and this had a bollard in the down position and an intercom to request permission to enter.  There was no answer and I was nervous about driving across it in case it raised up without warning and the CCTV cameras would catch the moment and I would forever be shown on television repeats of the Spanish equivalent of ‘Caught on Camera’.  I could sense that a bus driver behind was getting impatient so I had to go and I revved the engine and popped the clutch, spun the wheels and dashed across as quickly as I could.  Nothing happened – the bollard stayed down of course.

We were staying at the Sercotel Infanta Isabel and we had one of the best rooms on the second floor with a perfect view of the Plaza Mayor lined with cafés and bars and with the Cathedral directly opposite.

Segovia x 6

As it went dark it was nice to sit and watch the square melting from afternoon into evening with plenty of street activity.  There were lots of Segovians walking out in families and we joined them in the busy streets and looked for somewhere to eat.  We walked further than planned and ended up at the Aqueduct, which we were really saving until tomorrow so finding ourselves at the bottom of the town we walked back and by my choice found a little restaurant that turned out to be quite disappointing.

The next morning after breakfast we walked out into the sociable main square and followed a street adjacent to the Cathedral and walked in the direction of the Alcázar, which according to visitor statistics is the most visited castle in Spain.

The route took us through narrow streets, past craft shops and churches and eventually brought us out at the north of the city on the top of a rocky outcrop that was the location of the fortress that was begun in the twelfth century and was subsequently occupied by a succession of Castilian monarchs from Alfonso X to Phillip II and Charles III.

Alcazar Segovia

Segovia and the Spanish tourist board would have us believe that the Alcázar was the inspiration for Walt Disney’s Cinderella’s Castle at Disneyland and Disneyworld but there is no real evidence for this.  In fact it is more likely that the famous icon of the Disney empire was inspired principally by Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria and several picturesque French palaces, most notably Louis XIV’s Versailles although it is also quite possible that the Alcázar in Segovia may also have been an important influence.

We purchased tickets to visit the Alcázar and paid a little extra to climb to the top of the Torre de Juan II (total price €6 each).  The castle was busy with a coach full of Japanese tourists and several school visits so we had to try and arrange our journey through the rooms and exhibits to try and avoid the busy sections and the crowds.  After visiting the state rooms and the armouries we ended our visit with a climb of three hundred and twenty steps up the spiral staircase to the top of the tower where we were rewarded for our efforts with fabulous views over the city and the surrounding countryside.

It had taken most of the morning to visit the Alcázar and after we were finished we walked back to the Plaza Mayor for a drink and a tapas and selected a bar with tables in the sun and sat and enjoyed watching the residents of Segovia as they went about their business of the day in probably the same way that they have for a thousand years.  A walk around the square, a sit down, a chat, a walk around the square, a sit down, a chat and so on and so on.

It was hot now and we were enjoying the sun so when the bar owner pulled down the canopy for shade we moved on back into the side streets to find a photo opportunity of a medieval door that had inspired us from a description in a guide book that we had purchased at the castle.  With mission accomplished and pictures in the can we returned to the square and stopped at a different bar for more drink and more tapas and then left and walked in the opposite direction towards the Roman Aqueduct.

Segovia 02