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“Tinos, where the little hanging offerings of crutches, bandages and paintings, testify to the miracle having taken place, and remind one once again that here, as in the ruined and forsaken shrines to Aesculapius, healing and divination are one.” – Lawrence Durrell – ‘Reflections on a Marine Venus’
The ferry from Syros took us first to the intriguing island of nearby Tinos which is a secretive place that doesn’t feature very often on holiday itineraries. As we approached the port we could see that not being a holiday island it wasn’t going to any special effort to become one and the harbour front was rather functional and utilitarian and without the ribbon of colourful bars and tavernas to which we had become accustomed.
Actually, although it didn’t seem a tourist hot spot to us as we approached the harbour, it turns out that Tinos, a large island just northwest of Mykonos, is in fact the most visited of all Greek Islands. Not with overseas visitors however because 90% are Greek and since Greeks come looking for an authentic experience even the most tourist friendly places retain a feeling of originality and visiting the island is a more genuine and unique experience than say Mykonos or Santorini.
One of the reasons so many Greeks visit Tinos is that it is an intensely religious island famous most of all for the Church of Panagia Evangelistria which holds a reputedly miraculous icon of the Virgin Mary and is the venue for an annual pilgrimage that is perhaps the most notable religious pilgrimage in the region of the eastern Mediterranean.
Many pilgrims make their way the eight hundred metres from the ferry wharf to the church on their hands and knees as an extreme sign of devotion. It was extremely hot and it was hard enough work just walking up the long hill to the church so I imagine that you would have to be seriously determined to do it on all fours, although to be fair there is a ragged strip of dusty red carpet at the edge of the pavement to stop pilgrims ripping their hands and knees to shreds or getting stuck in the melting tarmac.
On the way to the church there were old fashioned stores selling various sizes of candles to take to the church and instead of postcards there were racks of cards each with a picture of a part of the body.
The shopkeepers could speak little English so couldn’t explain what these were but we eventually worked it out for ourselves. If you have a bad limp then you buy a leg picture, a poorly arm an elbow picture, a hangover a brain picture, if you are going to crawl to the church you will probably need a knee picture and so on and then you take this to the Church and ask for a cure and secure it to an icon and when you leave just to be certain so that God doesn’t just simply forget about it shortly after you have gone light a candle to remind him. The bigger the candle the better and some of these monsters, without exaggeration, were easily four feet tall and a real fire hazard I can tell you!
We reached the brilliant white Renaissance style Church, gleaming like a fresh fall of snow and went inside to see the miraculous icon which according to tradition was conveniently found after the Virgin appeared to the nun, St. Pelagia, and revealed to her the place where the icon was buried.
By suspicious coincidence the icon was found on the very first days after the creation of the modern Greek State and henceforth Our Lady of Tinos was declared the patron saint of the Greek nation. Inside the church it was hard to find because in contrast to the bright sunshine outside it was dark and oppressive with the sickly aroma of incense exaggerated by the heat of the burning candles but eventually we found it, almost completely encased in silver, gold, and jewels, and with a line of people waiting their turn to admire it and place a gentle kiss upon its base.
All of this icon kissing means quite a lot of unwanted spit and saliva of course so to deal with this, cleaning ladies with spray cleaners and dusters circulated constantly to deal with the slobber and the germs on a continuous and never ending polishing circuit of the church.
After we had seen the church and wandered around the gardens for a while we walked back down the long hill and back to the harbour where we walked rather aimlessly until we came across the best of the bars that we could find and stopped for a drink while we waited for the ferry to Mykonos.
“Everything about it is perfect – its cobbled streets, its placid bottle-green canals, its steep roofed medieval houses, its market square, its slumbering parks, everything.” – Bill Bryson – ‘Neither here Nor there’
We were driving to neighbouring Belgium today to visit the town of Bruges in the north of the country and by the time we had packed the car and set off there were big spots of rain falling on the windscreen.
This didn’t last long and it was one of those days when there were different weather conditions in all directions and it was a bit of a lottery about what we were likely to get. It was about a hundred kilometres to drive and on the way we passed through a variety of different weather fronts so we were unsure of just what to expect when we arrived.
We needn’t have worried because as we parked the car the sun came out and the skies turned a settled shade of blue and without a map we let instinct guide us down sun-dappled mazy cobbled streets towards the city centre.
I had visited Bruges before in 1981 so I thought I knew what I was looking for but over the years I must have got mixed up because the place looked nothing like I remembered it. I knew that we were looking for a large square and I had in mind something classical like St Marks in Venice so I was surprised when we reached the famous market square to find nothing like that at all.
Bruges is the capital and largest city of the province of West Flanders in the Flemish Region of Belgium. In the middle ages, thanks to the wool trade, it was one of the most important cities in Europe and the historic city centre is an important UNESCO World Heritage Site because most of its medieval architecture is intact. The Church of Our Lady has a hundred and twenty metre high spire making it one of the world’s highest brick towers.
The sculpture Madonna and Child, which can be seen in the transept, is believed to be Michelangelo’s only work to have left Italy within his lifetime, it isthe most famous landmark is its thirteenth century belfry and also a pivotal part of the George Clooney film “Monuments Men”. The church is also home to a municipal carillon comprising forty-eight bells where the city still employs a full-time carillonneur, who gives free concerts on a regular basis.
The city is also famous for its picturesque waterways and along with other canal based northern cities, such as Amsterdam in the Netherlands it is sometimes referred to as “The Venice of the North”; but this isn’t a title that it holds uniquely because it has also been applied to Saint Petersburg, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Hamburg, Manchester, Birmingham and Edinburgh amongst others.
Bruges is a fine place and we really needed more time to appreciate all of this but the price to be paid for convenient close to the centre parking was that we were restricted to just two hours. Even though I didn’t remember it quite like this the city square was delightful, fully pedestrianised except for the odd horse and carriage and surrounded by bars and cafés all around the perimeter. We liked the look of the Bruges Tavern which had tables surrounded by pretty flowers tumbling effervescently from boxes and containers and a vacant table with a good view of the square.
The official language in this part of Belgium is Flemish, which is similar to Dutch and the man who came to take our order identified immediately that we were English and spoke to us in that delightful lilting sing-song voice that Dutch and Belgian people have when they speak English. He made us feel welcome and we enjoyed a glass of beer sitting in the sunshine.
The girls wanted to shop so whilst they went off in the direction of the main street we finished our drinks and then took a leisurely walk around the square overlooked by brightly painted houses with Dutch style gables and facades and then disappeared down the warren of quiet side streets that had something interesting to stop for around every corner.
Making our way back to the car we stopped in another, more modern, large square for a second drink where the service was slow and there was an amusing exchange between a flustered waitress and an impatient diner. ‘Alright, alright, the food is coming’the waitress snapped in a reproachful way when she was asked for a third time when it would be served.
Our beer took a long time to come as well but we thought it best not to complain.
As we left Bruges to drive back towards Boulogne the sun disappeared underneath a blanket of cloud and we drove through intermittent showers along a road cluttered with heavy trucks all making their way to and from the Channel ports. This was not an especially interesting journey through a flat featureless landscape and although we had taken our passports with us there wasn’t even any real indication that we had passed from Belgium back to France except for a small EU sign that could be easily missed.
Past Calais the weather improved and by the time we returned to the gîte the sun was out again but it was still quite windy. Richard complained about this several times but it was really not so bad and it didn’t stop us sitting in the garden.
Interested in Belgium – take a look at this website – https://discoveringbelgium.com/
When we went to bed the sky was clear but at some time during the night the clouds must have rolled in because when we woke the sky was heavy with mist and weather prospects looked desperate.
We hoped that it might improve during breakfast but we had to admit that this was most unlikely especially as the clouds thickened and the rain began to fall even more steadily. Postponed from day one we were planning to visit the beaches today but it seemed pointless to wander aimlessly from damp town to damp town getting thoroughly wet and feeling miserable so we agreed instead to change our plans and return to Porto where at least there would be churches and museums where it would be dry inside and if the worst came to the very worst probably a shopping centre or a covered market and we could look at shoes and sparkly things.
After checking out we drove a couple of stops down the metro line and found an empty car park and left the car all alone without any sort of automobile company while we waited for the tram to arrive. The driving rain slowed to a drizzle but it stayed with us for the entire journey into Porto first through farms with irregular shaped fields, no doubt the result of years of complicated inheritances, then wild meadows, pine-woods and copses of eucalyptus trees on a journey frequently punctuated with stops at every village en route.
Nearer to the city the farms shrunk to smallholdings and on the urban outskirts further still to allotments and gardens but everywhere there was an abundance of fruit and vegetables.
The tram arrived in Trindade and we could see outside in the street that it was still raining and people were hurrying by sheltered under umbrellas so we stayed underground and changed lines for a couple of stops to San Bento. It only took a few minutes but when we emerged from the subterranean metro system it was a whole lot brighter and there was only the odd spit of rain. We visited the train station, which today was being used for its more traditional function and then we walked towards the direction of the river down the Rua de Flores.
Here there were small shops and traditional bars and cafés side by side with derelict and decrepit buildings with rotting timbers, rusting balconies, cracked tiled facades trying in vain to disguise years of neglect and so many washing lines that laundry could almost be a national pastime. The road channels were grubby and the buildings were grimy but it wasn’t without a certain charm and the defiant message from the residents seemed to be “Come and visit us if you like, we know it’s untidy but this is the way we like it!”
This lady seemed especially pleased to welcome us to her city…
As we walked to the end of the street there were spreading patches of blue in the sky and things were beginning to brighten up. We were heading for the City’s covered market but when we arrived there it had clearly been closed and unused for some time and on the map we located its modern replacement but it was back in the direction that we had walked so we abandoned the idea of visiting it.
Miraculously the sun was out now, which was good news for Micky because it meant that we didn’t have to take the church visit option (Micky doesn’t like churches) as we passed underneath Igrija de São Fransisco, one of the few medieval buildings in Porto, ignored a multi-lingual beggar and continued on to the Douro.
Not only was the sun out now but it was hot and as we walked along the side of the river shutters were being thrown back in the apartments and more washing was beginning to appear on the balconies. This change in the weather cheered us up no end and on the Ribeira near to the Ponte Dom Luis we selected a restaurant with outside tables for a drink and a convenient place for an application of sun lotion. Now it was really hot and the waiter was encouraged enough by this to begin fussily laying the outside tables for lunch and brought out table cloths, plates, cutlery and menus and then began to look for customers.
He should have looked up because just out to sea the sky was blackening with alarming speed and it was obvious that we were in for a drenching. Sure enough the cloud rolled in like a fleet of water bowsers and the heavens opened. He had to clear the tables a lot quicker than he had laid them and without the attention to detail either and soon the rain was bouncing off the pavement like shrapnel. The patio umbrellas proved little protection against this Atlantic squall as the rain drove in sideways and soon we were forced to take shelter inside.
It passed by however and as quickly as it had started it stopped again and the blue sky advancing from the west chased the clouds away inland and within only a matter of minutes the sun was shining, the pavements were steaming and the washing was coming back out again. That was a close shave because rain could well have meant an afternoon around the shops but at the bridge we were able to take the fair weather option and we crossed once more over to Vila Nova de Gaia.
On April 11th 1936 Billy Butlin opened his first Holiday Camp at Skegness in Lincolnshire and although I worked there one summer season in 1973 I have never stayed at Butlins as a holiday maker I have, on family holidays, stayed several times at the NALGO Holiday Camp at Croyde Bay in Devon.
NALGO stood for National Association of Local Government Officers, a white-collar Trade Union that along with Cayton Bay in Scarborough owned and operated Croyde Bay Holiday Camp for its members. Dad was branch secretary of the Rugby Rural District Branch so I suppose it was inevitable that we would holiday there and we went for the first time after he had learned to drive and had his first car in 1964.
It was a long drive from Rugby to Devon and without motorways this meant an early start. Dad didn’t like stopping much once he had got going but I am fairly certain at some point he would have been required to pull up by the side of the road so that we could have the obligatory picnic. Mum had prepared the spam sandwiches the night before and we were going to eat them whether anyone wanted them or not!
The old Austin couldn’t go very fast and this combined with dad’s steady driving meant a journey that today would take no more than three hours would take five or six squashed in the back seat with my brother and sister and grandparents, because they generally came along on family holidays as well. Naturally therefore we were all thoroughly relieved when shortly after passing through Barnstable we could see the signs for Croyde Bay and we were really glad when we pulled into the camp off Croyde Road and dad went to the office to register our arrival and be allocated our holiday chalets, which would be home for the next week.
The cost of a chalet for a week in the late 1960s was about £14 which was not an inconsiderable sum and probably just about a week’s wages for my dad.
There were approximately one hundred and fifty semi-detached chalets, all pebble-dashed and painted green and white, each having its own tidy front garden full of rose bushes and standing in neat regimented rows around the various open green spaces. Inside they were sparsely furnished with none of the facilities that today would be regarded as basic essentials. A lingering smell of tobacco smoke of course because this was in the days before smoking was frowned upon.
Floral curtains at the windows and two single beds, a wardrobe and a bedside table was just about it but they did have a separate bathroom with a gas hot water geyser system so at least it was a notch up from caravanning with communal wash rooms and toilets.
The camp was nicely laid out with a big central green area where all the events were carried out – sports day, Miss Croyde Bay competition (my sister won the competition in 1972), knobbly knees and so on. The prizes weren’t very thrilling – vouchers that had to be spent in the camp shop.
Later on they built an outdoor swimming poll in one corner but it wasn’t there the first time that we stayed. In other parts of the grounds there were grass tennis courts (later converted to clay), mini clock golf and a bowling green exclusively for adults.
The main communal areas were basically a series of wooden huts and here was the dining room and the concert hall where there was a full programme of events, a couple of dances, a camp concert and a cinema evening. There was no bar (until 1971) so if adults wanted a drink they had to walk to the village which is where my granddad disappeared to most days.
The Camp of course had its own Ted Bovis (Hi-de-Hi) who had the nickname‘Sporty’ and his job was to provide all of the non stop entertainment for the week. This must have been a tedious ‘groundhog day’ sort of job going through the same routine week after week after week. Actually everyone was obliged to have a camp nickname which had to be written on a cardboard badge and pinned on our shirts and blouses.
All of the guests were allocated duties to help the camp run smoothly and every day began at some ungodly hour when someone with the ‘wakey wakey bell’ walked along the rows of chalets with an early morning alarm call. By the end of the week this was the most popular man in the camp!
Breakfast and evening meal was served in the dining room where everyone sat in rows at wooden tables with plastic table cloths and selected from the menu (take it or leave it) and I don’t remember it being a fine dining experience!
You didn’t want to be late for dinner either because whenever anyone entered the dining room late everyone shouted “BOX” at them as a reminder of the late fine and they had to put some change in the box that hung on the door. Dinner was a secular arrangement without grace but I remember everyone singing out loud the song “always eat when you are hungry” every meal time. Not sure who started it off each day!
The events started soon after parents had put the children to bed and this was a bizarre thing that I couldn’t imagine happening now but people volunteered to do baby listening patrols and parents were entirely comfortable with this arrangement. I mean these people hadn’t had CRB checks or anything to confirm their suitability for such responsibility. They would walk around the camp with a wooden baton as a symbol of their responsibility and if they heard a baby cry or came across a distressed child they would run back to the concert hall and chalk a message on a blackboard to alert the party going parents who may or may not have rushed back to sort the problem.
The best thing about Croyde Bay was the location squeezed in between a pretty Devonshire village and a magnificent crescent-shaped sandy beach. In the village there were quaint houses and cream tea shops and on the beach the sea rolled in and crashed onto the sand in big Atlantic breakers. A path from the camp led down past the tennis courts and through sand dunes, across permanently soft dry sand above the high tide line and then an endless stretch of hard wet sand that was just perfect for beach cricket and football, flying kites and making sand castles.
There wasn’t really any need to leave the camp so the car stayed locked up resting in the car park while we spent sunny days on the beach or wet ones being entertained in the concert hall. Most people joined in on sports day and there was a prize giving night sometime towards the end of the week. I liked going to Croyde Bay Holiday Camp and it was a good job I did because we returned several times over the next few years in 1967, 1972 when I met and fell in love with a girl from Edinburgh, Jackie Grieg, and finally in 1974 when I was really too old to be hanging about with my parents on a holiday camp vacation. In between we went to Cayton Bay in 1970 but I didn’t like it there quite so much.
Croyde Bay Holiday Camp is still there but it has been reinvented as Croyde Bay Holiday Village, my Mum went there a couple of years ago and she said that it hadn’t changed very much at all. I thanked her for the tip-off and went immediately to the Ryanair site to look for a cheap air flight to somewhere exciting in Europe.
On arrival in Prague we joined others in a mini-bus taxi that took us efficiently to the city and our hotel for a very reasonable rate. A good taxi ride, most unexpected, what an excellent start!
The hotel was first class and we had an interesting room in a converted attic that was clean and spacious but with a lot of what I thought were unnecessary instructions on how guests shouldn’t move the furniture around, I mean, unless they were practising Feng Shui and were particularly picky about the bed facing a special direction or something why would anybody want to?
The receptionist was very helpful but gave far more information about the city than anyone could possibly cope with in one go and forgetting most of it almost immediately as it went in one ear and straight out of the other left the hotel to find somewhere for an evening meal.
Because it was late we decided not to go too far and found a charming little restaurant in an adjacent street and sat outside on an uneven pavement at a dangerously unstable table and ordered a first meal in Prague.
After a generous beef Stroganoff (always one of my favourites) we walked around for a while had another drink and then went back to the hotel. We found the way back without a problem, but once inside the labyrinth of stairs got completely lost. We had missed the correct route in the confusing warren of corridors and were in completely the wrong part of the hotel. We sorted it out after a while, went to bed and slept well.
In the morning there was a good breakfast with the usual cold buffet full of continental offerings but with some unusual hot items in addition. There were sausages but unfortunately they were frankfurters and I am afraid that I just do not like frankfurters because of that horrible rubbery chewy consistency. Not much chance of a superior Lincolnshire sausage here because it is close to Germany of course and clearly under the Teutonic influence when it comes to bangers.
The weather was overcast but seemed to be ever so slowly improving so we left the umbrellas behind and went out into the city. Our first planned destination was the City’s old town, which was reached by crossing the Charles Bridge and I know that it was overcast and there was no sun to help cheer things up but the famous statues were dull and grimy and seemed to me to be desperately in need of a good scrub. There must be enough tourist revenues pouring in to fund the process and I am sure that the city authorities are thinking about it but they really need to get on with the job.
I have an idea to help them. One statue, St John Nepomuk, is supposed to bring luck to those who touch it and it is polished bright where tourists rub their hands on it. If the City spread the word that touching any statue would bring similar good fortune then they would all be gleaming clean in no time at all.
Actually I found this statue a bit surprising because poor old John Nepomuk didn’t seem to have a great deal of luck himself in his lifetime as he was a Jesuit priest who was tortured and killed by King Wenceslas in 1393 and his body was thrown into the river. Because of his aquatic final resting place he is regarded as a protector from floods but he must have been off duty in August 2003 when the city endured its worst floods for two hundred years and forty thousand people were evacuated and the cost of repairing the damage ran into billions.
The streets were busy and we walked until reaching the old town, which opened up into a spacious and welcoming central square and it was free of traffic so we were able to wander aimlessly around looking ever upwards and admiring the buildings that surrounded it.
In the centre is the Jan Hus monument, a religious reformer who was burnt at the stake for his beliefs. I was beginning to detect a gruesome pattern here. In the Middle Ages there always came a time where persisting with a point of view became dangerous to life and limb and poor old Jan obviously did not get his timing right, a bit like Thomas More and his out of touch views on King Henry’s wedding plans.
It was about half past ten so we sat at a pavement café and had a Staropramen, which is an agreeable Czech beer and surveyed the sky and speculated about whether the sun would come out. Although it was early I don’t think anyone in Prague would have found this early drinking unusual because according to the Economist, in a poll in 2006, the people of the Czech republic are the biggest alcohol consuming nation in the World.
The weather didn’t look very promising but we strained my eyes searching for spreading patches of blue. They appeared sometimes but always to be cruelly snatched away just when things seemed to be improving. We optimistically assured ourselves that it would definitely be out by the afternoon.
On the second day of our visit to Krakow there were two groups with very different plans. Micky, Sue and Christine were going to visit Auschwitz but as we had been before Kim and I chose Mike’s Crazy Communist Tour instead.
We had seen this on a Michael Palin travel programme and it looked like fun so we were keen to give it a try.
To be honest, we were all a bit surprised that Christine wanted to go to Auschwitz because when we had visited Seville the previous year she refused to visit a bull ring because animals had been killed there but she didn’t seem to mind visiting a Nazi concentration camp where over a million and a half people were abused, tortured and murdered.
After an early breakfast the Auschwitz group set off in their taxi and with an hour to spare before our trip we walked around the streets of Kazimierz, through buildings that were little more than empty shells with rapidly deteriorating structures, through the grounds of a grand church and into the main square that used to be even more important than the market square in Krakow itself.
Without a street map we inevitably became confused and ever so slightly lost and only made it back just in time for our scheduled nine-thirty pick up.
The feature of the tour is that the transport is in an original ‘communist’ Trabant car with the promise of a ‘crazy’ driver and sure enough outside our hotel was the vehicle and the driver who presented himself as Eric and who immediately introduced us to the features of the car.
The Trabant (which in medieval German was a foot soldier or personal guard) was an automobile that was produced in former East Germany and was the most common vehicle in that country but was also exported to neighbours inside the communist bloc and sometimes even to the west.
It was called the People’s Car and was so popular and production was so inefficient, that it could take up to fifteen years to deliver after placing the order. The main selling point was that it had room for four adults and luggage in a compact, light and durable shell, which western critics mocked and suggested was made of cardboard but was in fact a sort of fibreglass/plastic.
There were four principal variants of the Trabant, ours was the 601 Station Wagon model, hand painted in black with socialist red trim and finishes. Eric explained that the engine was a small 600cc two-stroke power unit with only two cylinders which gave the vehicle a modest performance with a top speed of seventy miles per hour and zero to sixty taking twenty-one seconds at full throttle ( for a rather pointless comparison a modern formula one car will achieve 0 to 60 in under two seconds).
There were two main problems with the engine, the smoky exhaust and the pollution because the car was responsible for producing nine times the amount of hydrocarbons and five times the carbon monoxide emissions of the average modern European car.
Eric explained that the car had no fuel gauge so even though there was a small reserve tank getting to a destination could be a bit of a guessing game and require a large stroke of luck. Because there was no fuel pump in the car the petrol tank was placed high up in the engine compartment so that fuel could be fed directly to the carburetor by way of gravity. As the engine does not have an oil injection system two-stroke oil has to be added to the fuel tank every time it is filled up, which I imagine is a bit of a chore.
This all sounded rather dangerous to me because you have to open the bonnet to refuel and after a run to the petrol station it would be almost certain that the engine will be hot so I imagine it takes a great deal of concentration and Indiana Jones type nerves of steel to visit the filling station!
Keeping a car like this roadworthy probably requires divine intervention but once on board Eric carefully negotiated his way out of Kazimierz and towards the main road that would take us to our destination, the communist model new town of Nowa Huta, to the east of Krakow.
Inside, the car was basic with rudimentary controls and dashboard. The four speed gear box was operated by a column mounted gear change which looked quite tricky to me but Eric seemed to know his way around the gears well enough and he guided us effortlessly through the early morning traffic. One of the problems he pointed out was that other drivers didn’t often show a lot of respect to the little Trabant and this sometimes made progress slow and difficult.
I was moderately relaxed even though I knew that if the inefficient drum brakes ever failed and there was an accident that my legs were effectively the crumple zone and just a few centimetres in front of my face was the fragile little petrol tank ready to burst into flames and there was a couple of occasions when I found myself operating an imaginary foot brake and Kim admitted later that even though she was in the back seat that she was doing the same.
It took about twenty minutes to drive to our destination and in between dodging the gaping potholes and keeping an eye out for discourteous fellow road users, in preparation for the tour and over the clatter of the engine and the creaking of the chassis, Eric kept up an informative narrative about the history of communism in Poland.
It was great fun especially as we rattled over tramlines and Eric fought with the steering controls to negotiate some tight bends but eventually we arrived at our destination, left the car and began our visit to Nowa Huta.