Galicia-1

Towards Galicia the land becomes flat, and the fields run down to the sea’s edge. The port of Ribadeo, on a rather fine estuary, was obviously once a rich port. It now looks washed out, but the town hall is a rather fine building with an amazing roof, and a cupola supported by four angels. The main windows contain stained glass. The secret would seem to be next door: the customs house. Presumably a lot of useful dosh was made from import duties. But I have no guide book to enlighten me.

There’s a big house right on the cliff edge of town just waiting to be returned to a fine dwelling.

It is beginning to get dark as we cross another range of hills towards Corunna. All across the north I have been reminded of Austria, with the way the roofs are built, and the way the wide steep valleys fan out around one.

The further we get, the more the language seems to slip into dialect. Great chunks of Spanish words are missed out. La Coruña becomes A Coruña. Los becomes os, and so on. Ciudad becomes cidade. The language is morphing into Portuguese. As we cross the watershed a wet red sunset fills the western sky above the city, and we descend into the early evening dark.

The weather is dull damp and boring. There are clouds everywhere, threatening rain, but the Corunna penninsular is really beautiful.

There are lots of little coves in amongst the estuaries. I must come back in finer weather and explore. I would think spring here would be wonderful. Everywhere is a strange mixture of plants. It’s as if the seasons are all muddled up. We have the leaves dropping in sudden lurches under an erratic gust of wind. And in one street there is a line of camelias just coming into flower. There are geraniums still blooming, date palms are laden with thick dates, and the ferns are going rusty on the hills.


There are a couple of interesting properties which intrigue me. One is the old army barracks. And round the corner is an abandoned church overlooking the cove below.


There are ruins in amongst the wooded hills overlooking the rias (estuaries). They would probably cost a fortune to redevelop.

Everywhere in these estuaries are platforms, which apparently consist of a series of drums linked together by wooden planks (young trunks of eucalyptus trees), which are strapped to the drums, with decking on top. These platforms are simulating rocks, so that mussles will grow on them. From these structures dangle ropes, on which more crustacia are encouraged to grow.

Of course, whenever we stop for food I go for the absolutely amazing shellfish. They are huge and delicious, and cheap.

We drive on down to Cambados, with its 11th century church and square, and a group of Spanish tourists with guide. This is a charming town, which boasts the official title of Most Noble Town, and the guide books boast about the white wine that is made locally. The town certainly does have a kind of stateliness in its architecture, and obviously boasts an important past.

A festival is held on the first Sunday in August based around the Albariño wine. The grape is noted for its distinctive aroma, very similar to that of Viognier, Gewurztraminer and Petit Manseng, suggesting apricot and peach. The wine produced is unusually light, and generally high in acidity with alcohol levels of 11.5-12.5%. The thick skins and large number of pips in the grapes can cause residual bitterness.

In the beginning of the 20th century, Albariño vines could be found growing around the trunks of poplar trees and in bushes along the outside margins of a field. When grown in a vineyard, the vines need to be wire trained with large canopies to accommodate the 30 to 40 buds per vine that is typical.

We stayed the night in a small town overlooking one of the rias. The next day we drove down to Santiago de Compostella to look at what lay at the end of one of the most famous pilgrimages of the middle ages. But that’s another story.

Cantabria

Cantabria

As you move towards Santander you cross into Cantabria. Things will be very different from now on. You are entering a largely rural, agricultural area. The countryside is green with hills and valleys, small coves, pretty towns, and picturesque harbours.

There is a new motorway which goes from the frontier right the way to Oviedo, but there is no need to take that. This is an area that cries out for a slow erratic meander.

Back in the sixties I wandered all around this area on foot. I stayed with families who housed me, and often fed me in return for me reading stories from books about the lives of the saints, and over the years I have been back many times to this friendly and simple part of Spain.

Just west of Bilbao the little town of Castro-Urdiales sits by a small sheltered bay, with some old houses, but very little to show that the town was first built by the Romans.

Further west is the inlet at Barcena; ideal for the sailing enthusiast. Further still you come to the bay of Santander. The town is new, clean, open, pleasant, friendly, and not too busy. The harbour shelters a port at which the Plymouth ferry docks most of the year. But the interesting towns lie even further west.

One of the most interesting and picturesque is Santillana. It is an old town, and was obviously a place with pretensions back in the middle ages. The houses are quaintly bent, the stone is warm and attractive. The upper floors have their walls rendered and painted white. The windows are of dark stained wood, and so are the balconies, making for a very attractive street-scape. The entire town is a national monument and living museum of a medieval 9th century village.

One other attraction is the family escutcheons which are set into so many walls. Here, everybody seems to have been an hidalgo. The word stands for someone with a pedigree. The word is an amalgamation of the words ‘hijo de algo’, son of someone (of importance).

There are charming restaurants, a quiet town square surrounded by sixteenth century houses, each with its wooden balconies, and massive stone walls. Beyond is the gently undulating countryside of small fields and grazing cows. But the main attraction is under the fields: the caves of Altamira, which you can no longer visit. However, you can visit the museum, which has a representation of the caves. So you can see copies of the famous cave drawings of bison.


12,000 years ago the area was inhabited by Stone Age man, and the caves are covered in black and red drawings of bison. Unfortunately a build up of white mould, the result of people breathing in the caves, led to the deterioration of the paintings in the fifties and sixties, and the caves were re-sealed.

Further along the coast is the town of Comillas with its large university building on the hill. This is now lying disused, and seemingly abandoned. It is, like so many official buildings in Spain, large, solid, and forbidding, more like a prison with a flashy frontage.

Further west are salty marshes where the trees have died, leaving white stumps sticking up from the shallow water behind great dunes of sand.

If you turn inland you are immediately engulfed by the steep rocky defiles of the Picos de Europa. They are snow covered in winter. Another twist and a turn and you are in a mountainous maze with only a tiny patch of sky visible above. There are no houses here. There is no room to build. Then you turn another double bend, and there, right by the side of the road, its back against a massive cliff, is a three storey house. What crazy person lives here with the road beside his window, the rock crowding his back, and the river roaring just below the road?

Another bend, another twist, another rough sentinel standing ominously on a hairpin bend, and the road opens out. The valley must be 150 yards wide. There is obviously plenty of room for a village, and the street is lined with houses. What do these people do? There isn’t even room to graze a goat in these mountains. There is certainly nowhere to grow anything.

We are right on the border between the two provinces of Cantabria and Asturias. Asturias is one of the most rural of Spain’s provinces, with only a couple of large towns up on the northern coast; Oviedo, the provincial capital, and its port of Gijon. The rest of the province is deeply rural.

The gorge is narrow, with rock lurching up on all sides. You wind around and around until you reach the village of La Hermida, which is a few kilometres along the gorge, and gets no sunlight from November to April. There is no land to cultivate, and no industry except for the occasional hotel and bar, but the village is a respectable size, and seems to be thriving.

Once thru the village you are immediately back in the defile of precipitous rocks. But as you approach the town of Potes the valley widens considerably, and the town sits in the middle of a mini-plain which is set right in the centre of the Picos.

Potes is a charming, alpine-style town which is the centre for walking and climbing trips in the Picos. It dates back to before the middle ages, and there are several old wooden houses and many twisty narrow streets only large enough to take a loaded donkey. There is a bent and crumbly eleventh century church, and a large medieval tower.

The town sits astride a deep gorge, with the river tumbling along the bottom. There is even a medieval bridge across the river, and just beyond the huddle of houses the alpine fields with sheep and cows. It is a charming country idyll, and a homely town.

The bars sell a raw-tasting cider, something akin to farmhouse scrumpy from Somerset. Even I found it a bit hard to take and I am used to scrumpy. It’s very much like the home made scrumpies you can get, many of which are sold too young and hence are rather raw, and so they give your stomach a hard time.

Outside some of the bars you will find a strange contraption fixed to the wall. The idea is that you buy a bottle of this cider, take it outside and fit it into the pump; push the plunger, and some of the contents are sucked out of the bottle and squirted into a glass that you have set in the holder at the bottom.

This area is mainly national park country. Here’s an extract from a local guide book:

“Parque del Macizo de Peñacabarga, which includes within its borders the Cábarceno karst, a spectacular reddish geological formation, encompasses a nature park with partially free roaming animals. The Parque Natural de Oyambre is a scenic park amid marshes and meadows with the Picos de Europa mountains as a backdrop. This is the place where the most diverse ecosystems co-exist. The Parque Natural Saja-Besaya sits between the basins of these two rivers and preserves considerable forests of beech and oak trees, where animal species threatened with extinction such as the brown bear and golden eagle can still be found. The Reserva Natural de las Marismas de Santona y Noja is a nature reserve around one of the most valuable estuaries ecologically in northern Spain. There are regularly more than 80 species of birds in the marshes .The Parque Nacional de los Picos de Europa, a national park containing the highest peaks in the Cantabrian mountains, has elevations exceeding 2,500 meters (8,200 feet) and landscapes of long narrow canyons and deep valleys.”

This would be ideal country to buy somewhere that you could live in yourself and rent out to tourists. There is skiing in the winter months, mountain climbing all year, and it is ideal for walking holidays from early spring till late autumn, with a summer season based around the coast. It must be the only part of Spain which is not over-subscribed with places to let.

I’d forgotten how much I like this area. I must go back this autumn.

john

Basque Country

Bilbao used to be the capital of the Basque country, nowadays the capital has moved south to Vitoria. Bilbao is a old industrial town. Back in the twentieth century this was one of the premier industrial towns of Spain. Now it is moving towards service industries. There is a vibrant port, which includes a passenger terminal where car/passenger ferries from the UK regularly berth. There is also an airport in the hills behind the city which is served by low-fare international airlines.

These days it is probably most famous for its art museum, the Guggenheim, which looks like a berthed ship made out of crumpled up silver paper.

To the east are the very scenic rolling hills that are the foothills to the Pyrenees. The border town of Irun is built on a collection of these steep hills fronting the sea.

A few miles west of Irun is the more sophisticated city of San Sebastian, where the royal family have traditionally spent the summer months away from the searing heat of Madrid. It is a charming city set round a conch-shaped bay, with fabulous restaurants, a great night life, and everything you could wish for. The climate is mild in the winter, and pleasantly hot in summer. It’s also a rather expensive place to live.

Forty or so miles to the south-east is the city of Pamplona, which I first visited in the sixties when it was a sleepy provincial town. Now it is a hectic modern monstrosity, but it still hosts that great piece of insanity, San Fermin’s fair, with its running of the bulls.

For this year, the dates of the fair are the 6 -14th July.

This fair dates back before the 12th century. The religious festival which pays homage to San Fermin marks the date he entered Amiens (France). Cattle fairs have also been held on this site since the reign of Carlos I in 1324. Bull fights first took place in the Plaza del Castillo on October 10th in the same year via Calle Chapitela which leads to the main square.

These days the festival is a mega-event, not just with the running of the bulls through the streets, but as a fully-featured family entertainment, with traditional music & dance, cultural sports, fairgrounds, and firework displays every night. It is simply nine days of fiesta!

You can check out the festival website:

http://www.sanfermintravelcentral.com/

Or watch the running of the bulls through the streets of Pamplona:

And if you want to watch a totally different approach to bulls in the corrida, have a look at this: No weapons, just the simple skill of man against beast, and nobody gets hurt. Some pretty neat acrobatics.

Those who like to see the bull get his own back might like to watch this, as some poor blighter gets his tights pulled off by the bull:

Hey guys, that’ll do for this week.

john

Northern Spain: Basque country

Why not move to Northern Spain?

This is the first part of a small series of articles about Northern Spain, or Green Spain as it is sometimes known. It is an under-rated area. I recommend it both as a holiday destination, and as somewhere to live.

Spain and France have overlapped at both ends of the Pyrenean mountain range. At the eastern end Catalonia has traditionally straddled the modern border. At the western end the Basque country similarly straddles the more modern political frontier. You enter the Basque region well before you get to Irun.

Basque place names are unpronounceable, and the spelling is something else. I am currently looking over a charming village set in the foothills of the Pyrenees. For the last twenty miles the place names have all been signed in French and Basque. St Jean de Pied de Port is known in Basque as Donibane Garazi, and we are eating in a jatetxea (restaurant). Most of the menus are in French and Basque, but I dont hear anybody speaking Basque. I suspect this Basque thing is all a bit of a fraud.

I suppose I had better be careful what I say about this subject as it is a political hot potato. It is undoubtedly true that the Basque language is original. There is nothing like it anywhere else, so the folk around here obviously have a very individual heritage. On the other hand, when I go to Galicia I hear the people speaking their own brand of Spanish/Portuguese, and no-one makes any fuss about it. In the Basque lands no-one seems to be speaking the language yet they make a big noise about it.

I also note that no-one made much fuss about Basque nationality until about 100 years ago. I suspect it is simply an excuse for politicians to create havoc and seek an extension of their own political power. I dont suppose there is much in the nationalist movement for the average guy in the street, but then, what’s new?

I’m still officially in France so the local tourist guides are strong on the local grub. They wax lyrical about the pigs, the charcuterie, the fresh water fish, especially trout, and of course, cheese.

As you drive along the roads there are signs everywhere inviting you to stop and taste the cheeses. There is even an Artzaintza eta Gasnaren Euskal Erakustokia, which to you and me is the local museum devoted to cheese.

Naturally there are also the local wines. I dont rate most of them. The rosé I had with my lunch wasn’t up to much, neither was the red. The local rosé vins de tables are thin and cloudy, with a sour under-taste. They are refreshing, but that is about all you can say for them. However, I am pleased to be in an area where the shops stock the wine of Jurançon.

The taste is similar to a smokey sauvignon, but it is made with grapes I am not otherwise familiar with: Lauzet, Petit and Grand Mansengs, and Courbu.

The bottle currently on my desk comes with a label celebrating ‘Le Bon Roy Henry’. I was amused at the spelling of the word for king, which should be ‘roi’. I assume roy is an old spelling. The allusion is to the baptism of King Henry IV (that’s the French Henri Quatre, not Shakespeare’s Henry). The wine acquired its celebrity after being used for the celebrations for the baptism of the king.

We drive through village after village. Some sport the ocre coloured walls standing close to a village square where the locals play Pelota.

When I was bumming around Spain when I should have been studying for my A-levels, I was puzzled to find adults playing this game, as it was a game we played at school, and I’d always thought of it as a kid’s game. We called it Fives. Here it is quite popular. Unlike the version we played at school the Basques play it very aggressively with speed and strength.

Here are a couple of You Tube video links:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XkEqs8QK6gU&feature=related
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nYyj_7ozBYw&feature=related

On the road to St Jean we passed through a quaint little village dating back to the fourteenth century. Let me quote you from the guide book:

“La Bastide Clairence is classified as one of the Plus Beaux Villages of France. This is a bastide with a Basque flavour. The houses are painted white and all have shutters painted in the deep red colour, occasionally green, typical of this region. (These are the traditional Basque colours.)

The bastide was founded in the XIV century by Louis I of Navarre, the future Louis X of France.

The church is more ornate on the outside than most in the area. Inside it has the wooden galleries around the edge which are often found in Basque churches which give them a warm, welcoming feel.”

There are some interesting caves further down the valley at Les Grottes de Sare. An underground river has hollowed out the rock, and produced some caves that were occupied way back in the stone age. There are also some reconstructed dolmens, and a museum. The village itself is another of those ‘plus belle villages de france’.

Finally we drive into St Jean de Pied de Port. It has grown very busy since I was last here. I remember a small town, almost empty, and a bit gloomy. It was on the way to nowhere. The main frontier town is Hendaye. No-one passed this way. I took a photo of the river, and drove up the hill to the pass of Roncevalles.

On this visit the town is bustling. The town spreads across both sides of the old walls, which are still clearly visible. Houses have been built alongside, and the old town is pretty much like all those old walled towns; a criss-cross of streets, with plenty of tourist shops.

At the bottom of the hill is the river, with a few balconied houses jutting over.

If I remember correctly the place was pillaged by Richard the Lion Heart. I dont remember why. Perhaps there was no real reason, only that someone annoyed him that morning, or perhaps he was showing off. I find it hard to get a grip on why these guys did what they did back then, and I’m only glad that I didn’t live in those times. I doubt whether I would have survived very long.

We stop for a meal. It isn’t that special. It is supposed to be local ham cooked in a pesto mix, with a special sauce, which is really just chopped tomato. It’s washed down with a very indifferent rosé. But the tablecloth is rather nice.

In the next article I will cross into Spain, and follow the old pilgrim route to Santiago de Compestella.

Meanwhile, for those of you who are not members of the Unique Property site, I do have some rather nice ruins for sale on the members’ section, with prices starting at €20,000. Well worth a look! You can join here:
http://www.property.org.uk/unique/index.html

john

National Poetry Month-2

Here’s a poem for those of you with mother problems:

 

What Mother Says

     I’ve forgotten
     I carefully folded my memory away
     in the proper place at the back of my brain
but mother is whittering on again
and now everything’s got in the way

          Whatever I put in my memory
          Mother puts something in front

Whenever I try to recall
anything, however small
the first things I see as I look inside
are the lists and instructions and advice she provides

          Whatever I put in my memory
          Mother puts something in front

     Knowledge is something you read on the page
          or is it
               what mother says?

     Wisdom is something you gain
          or maybe it’s just
               what mother says

     Life is something you reach out and
          if you dont get stopped
               by what mother says

     Freedom is something that’s precious to clasp
          and it disagrees
               with all mother says.

Can no-one hear the tortured scream
of a frantic growing boy?

     I’m shutting my ears
     and running away
     to a fantasy world
     far far away
     where mothers just smile
     and have nothing to say

          What mother says
          what mother says
          I wish I had never heard
          a single word
          of all that mother said.

          What mother says
          what mother says
          she tucked me up
          and fucked me up
          and left me all but dead

     I want somewhere quiet
     I need space and I need time
     so I can clear out the attic
     for the things that are mine
     If i can get rid of mother
     everything will be fine.

© john clare 2011

Gypsy Stew

Algeciras bay is seriously built up these days with a massive petroleum complex right in the middle of the crescent. This is a bone of contention in the area as it is alleged the spillage of petroleum is affecting the marine life, which of course includes the dolphins that have fun in the waves across the straits.

Getting out of Gibraltar is a bit of a hassle, and there is a long tailback of vehicles. There is a fierce customs routine at this border as taxes are low in Gib, and there is a constant stream of Spaniards going into Gib to take advantage of the cheap prices of petrol and cigarettes, and so on. You can exit with only one packet of cigarettes and one box of tobacco. Anything over that limit and you get a hefty bill.

Let’s assume you make it unscathed, so it’s away into the industrial complex, down the motorway, and then take a right up into the hills. There’s a nice country road going up to the village of Almoraima. The valley is pleasant with a meandering river, a railway line, the nice new road, and relative peace and quiet after the bustle of the bay. Just before the village is a roundabout, and just before that, on the left, is a secluded hostelry serving excellent tapas, full meals and excellent wine. It’s just the place for a very pleasant lunch break.

Just to the north is a large reservoir which, depending on the rain, reaches right up to the main road. On the right as you go north are a couple of cortijos, or large country estates, with a few bulls which are bred for the corrida.

Further north we come into the area famous for its white towns. It seems as tho every hill which boasts a steep escarpment sports a white crown of houses, and remnants of a castle. And more often than not the town names include ‘de la frontera’, showing how much the line between Muslims and Christians changed backwards and forwards in the middle ages. Some of these towns changed hands half a dozen times over a period of 150 years.

The river sweeps round to the left of the town, we head round to the right, and back up towards Ubrique and El Bosque. They are charming little towns, with the locals sitting at tables under the trees with a coffee or a vaso de vino.

We are now quite high, and there are more reservoirs, the occasional monastery, and more cortijos. This isn’t just bull country, it is also one of the main grain producing regions of Spain, and a premier cattle-rearing area.

The town of Utrera is clustered around the 14th century castle, which overlooks the surrounding valleys, with distant views of some of the big peaks the other side of Ronda.

Once again I seem to hit the town at the wrong time. The time to visit is during the Potaje Gitano on the last saturday in June. Gypsy Stew? Oh well, it makes a change from calling a festival after some long departed saint. It is a festival of song, and was established by the local gypsies in 1957.

Have a look at this page on the web (http://www.potajegitano.com/videos.html), and click on the entries to the left of the page for video selections. Farruquito is pretty hot; a splendid vocal, and a fun bit of stamping and clapping. Hmmm, I think I need to get down there for the festival. I’ve been missing out on a few things.

If there are any of you out there who want to take this a bit further have a look at this page, (http://www.hermandadgitanosdeutrera.com/) which is dedicated to The Brotherhood of the Gypsies of Utrera. You can even keep up to date by following their blog (links on the site). I may well try and go down there for easter, it seems just the place to be.

john

I Hear Irina Cry

Somebody told me that it’s National Poetry Month, whatever that is. So, just for fun, here is a poem I wrote some years back for all those artists who work so hard, and try to be good at their art, and maybe they are good at it, but no-one hears or sees, and very often even if they do come across it, they dont really care. That’s hard to live with.

I will try and put up a poem a day for the whole month. Let me know whether something like this appeals to you. This poem was written at the time of the imprisonment in Russia of the poet Irina Ratushinskaya, hence the title. Here it is:

I Hear Irina Cry

She
starves

Deep december cold

she eats

eats her

hour by mind-forced onward-going hour

In her head

once clothed so prettily

she manufactures life

driving the pulses on

in the numb

ice

Outside it falls

from roofs

in fat prison bars

Inside a dandruff of cold

grows across her skin

Ah yes

i hear Irina cry

she is less fortunate than i



Her poems

the breath she made to fill her lungs

are nailed to posters in the square

as students wearing gloves and heavy overcoats

denounce again

another list of crimes against the soul

The words are stark

the poetry is in the pity

and i hear them cry

she is less fortunate than i



I have my food

my freedom and my

fingers warm

and so i cannot cry

My bitterness, my broken dreams

are nursed by money that i earn

i’m pampered, spoilt and rich

and laze on sandy beaches in the sun

while others fight the cold

But is the blizzard in my mind

so very different?

Each day i build a careful poem

that is the very breath i take

Each day i have to make

my backbone

to help me stand

to make me certain there is something i should stand for

I cry because i work

i cry because i dream

and quietly i cry

because there is no-one to buy

the things i make

and i am dumb

because there is no-one who cares

to listen

I am invisible because

there is no-one who wants

to see

But i cannot show you

shackles on my wrists or

blood across my back

merely the dying ember of a soul

that spoke so brightly

what no-one wished to hear

that made with loving care

the things that no-one wanted.

© John Clare 1987-2011