Paris -2

Paris

We were supposed to be visiting the Eiffel Tower at night so we could see it lit up. That went also for the Flame of Liberty, a copy of which became the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbour.


It’s a long time since I went up the tower, and surprisingly it seemed bigger this time round. It does look impressive with all the lights ablaze, and even more so when they flash on and off, and the crowd bursts into applause as the lights run up the metalwork.

It’s a lot of steps. And then we’d only arrived at the first balcony. To be quite honest the view isn’t much better the higher you get. Paris is largely a low level city.

It’s a lot more steps up to the second balcony. For those who are clapped out at this stage there is a lift, if you’ve previously taken the precaution of paying for it and have the requisite ticket. Good luck.

It took us over an hour to get back down again because the girls refused to use the steps, and millions of us queuing for the lift down was not fun. By the time we hit the metro the darned thing had closed so we had to flag a taxi home, and arrived back at quarter to two.

Now you know why last week’s bulletin was a bit delayed.

The bridge of locks is back close to Notre Dame.

We tried to see the Flame of Freedom the following day, but it was dreary and misty. Also, lunch was a bit disappointing because I couldn’t find a restaurant selling a meal of frog legs. Somehow a KFC isn’t quite the right alternative.

Next week I shall be back in my beloved Spain, travelling through that largely unknown area of Murcia, and getting stuck into some serious wine tasting.
john

Paris -1

Paris

I’ve just got back from a jaunt around Paris and the Pas de Calais. I was taking two teenage girls to see the delights of France, and they walked me off my feet.

I must admit to finding their view of life to be frighteningly different from mine. When I was a kid we made fun of the typical American tour, which maybe took in six capital cities in a week. I remember a couple of comedy sketches about that particular phenomenon.

“And there coming up on the left is Florence. That’s Florence in Italy…… Yes ma’am, we crossed over into Italy last night….. You didn’t notice? That’s because it was dark madam. And now we are heading for the capital city of Rome. Florence? Oh, that was back there. You missed it.” And so on.

It seems that’s no longer funny, that is how things are. When I was a kid we used to go to Stonehenge and the girls dressed as white witches, and we had mystic rituals on the sacred stones. Now you walk round the outside close to the barbed wire and take photographs to prove you’ve been. Stonehenge? Nowadays it’s just a photo. We used the place for its original purpose. Life has changed.

The girls had a list of things they wanted to see. I think I ought to rephrase that. They had a list of things they wanted to photograph. Rameses II, the girl without her arms, the Mona Lisa, the Eiffel Tower at night, and so on.

Armed with a metro map, I thought we should get through quite easily, but I’d forgotten just what a tangle the Paris metro is. They need a better map, and they need a better way of highlighting the interchange stops.

The Louvre has changed a bit since I was last there. We didn’t have the central Pyramid before, nor did we have a rush-hour of tourists. I remember ambling around the place having the rooms almost to myself. There certainly wasn’t another soul in the snuff-box room. I’d warned the kids that it was large so they had this list of things to photograph. That means painting was ‘done’ with la giaconda. By the way can anyone tell me what the big attraction is? I cant see it at all. It’s just a boring old bat with no eyebrows who looks as if she’s just farted at someone she doesn’t like.

Anyway, after miles of corridors and staircases we managed to cover all the essentials on the list and the requisite number of photographs was achieved while I sneaked views of some very nice cuneiform writing, some especially old and brightly coloured Egyptian artwork, and some ancient coffins. I didn’t see anything from my hero Aknaten, but then I have visited the Cairo Museum and Tel el Amarna, so no worries. But I have to admit that every time I see that amazing stuff from four or five thousand years ago I’m blown away.

Next we went across the road to the Cathedral. I was going to hire a pedal taxi but €20 to go a mile is a bit steep. He brought it down to fifteen, but I wasn’t buying that either.

Once again it was like the metro at rush hour. I cant see what the attraction is. It’s just another church with columns and a few stained glass windows, but not particularly special. The rose window was nice, but…. when you’ve seen six hundred and forty two rose windows, this one is just number six hundred and forty three.

I lost the girls, and had to sit in the cold outside the exit waiting for them to finally appear. Then we went up to Monmaitre to photograph the Moulin Rouge. The metro runs under the main road, and there are grills which give a nice updraught, and you can stand on the grill and do a Marilyn Monroe, that is if you’re wearing a dress. All the girls were wearing trousers. How boring can you get? This is bohemia. This is fun country. This is sex city. Huh, trousers!

We were too tired to climb up to the Sacre Coeur but no problem, the pictures from the road up the hill were just fine.

That’ll do for one day. Part two next weekend.
john

Ronda

Ronda

Apparently the Spanish government is planning on developing the area around Ronda.

I first went to Ronda many years ago when the place was supposedly riddled with bandits. Whenever I got on a bus it would stubbornly sit in the yard for ages waiting for what was pompously called the army detachment. This usually consisted of two seventeen year old conscripts looking scruffy and bewildered, and nervously fingering rifles. Luckily they pointed the guns at the roof of the bus otherwise I think most of the passengers would have got off, preferring to walk home.

I never encountered any of these bandits either while walking the roads, or travelling by rickety bus.

Occasionally I would be met by peasants along the dusty tracks and invited back to their homes. Way out in the campo people lived in caves. These were not hollowed out of rock, but simply dug into the side of a low hill, or even set inside a small bank by the side of a dried up water course.

When I went wandering around this area twenty years ago I noted that no-one lived in any of these caves any more. Instead they had been turned into places for growing mushrooms.

I never found Ronda particularly attractive. Sure, I walked across the bridge and looked down into the gorge, but so what? I also remember an interesting day out with a couple of sisters who lived in a dusty concrete box on the edge of town. And a terribly hot day spent looking for a doctor because my travelling companion was ill. Usually I was glad to get out of town.

Nowadays the government is putting in a motorway up from the coast. At the moment the road winds through a sturdy mountain range, and the journey is a trifle jerky. On the other hand, what is the problem here? Does one really need a motorway to get to Ronda?

In one of the valleys is the tiny village of Jorox where I stopped to film the Molino del Rey, which is for sale on the Unique Property site. Do have a look.

I suppose I might as well drop in a plug here, and mention that I do movies of homes for sale, for a price of course, so if you have somewhere unusual to sell and think a movie might make your ad stand out from the crowd, do talk to me.

There’s a comfortable eatery on the Ronda bypass where I had a nice meal of pork in tomato sauce, chicken livers, and potato salad with small snippets of onion and a hint of tuna, with some fried aubergine in honey to finish.

This fried aubergine and honey is on several of the menus these days. I thoroughly recommend it.

Not much partridge on the menus though, despite the fact that the birds are everywhere. There were several scurrying up the track by my hotel in the misty morning. It had been raining, and was very chilly. Southern Spain this spring has not been a congenial place to be. But the tart morning air was refreshing as we had breakfast in the courtyard with the sound of the gamelan of cows down the valley, while in the distance on the slopes of the mountain we could hear the sheep bleat and the new lambs plaintively cry.

The river was dry despite the rain, but the bushes were full of frogs chirruping merrily.

Ronda may be a dusty dump but the surrounding countryside is lovely. However, I was en route for Valencia, so, after breakfast, we headed north.
john

Own a Pub

I dont know what’s going on. Pubs are still closing down at a rate of knots. Most of them are in the North of the UK. What’s the matter with you guys up North? Why aren’t you drinking more beer?

I haven’t been North of Lincolnshire for a long time so I dont know what the beer‘s like these days, but there used to be some splendid ales for sale. Whenever I went through Yorkshire I used to make a special detour to Ripon to put as many crates as I could get into the boot of the car from that excellent wine shop on the corner of the square. Ripon Jewel was the one. It was my favourite beer bar none. Unfortunately it doesn’t travel very far south.

On the other hand I have been tasting some excellent beers in the south recently. One that is well nigh perfect is Kohinoor by the Windsor and Eton brewery which is currently for sale in my local Wetherspoons pub. I’ve been popping in there every morning for a working breakfast, which has included a glass of that splendid brew.

What this is supposed to be leading to is that the latest Unique Property members’ bulletin contains a selection of pubs currently going to auction in Liverpool. There’s a nice looking three storey pub going with a guide price of only £60,000. Keep the bar going, but look at all that accommodation upstairs. You’ve got a home, maybe a spare flat to rent out, and a comfy business on the ground floor.

There is another pub for sale at Runcorn. It’s a large comfortable looking building with a four bed flat upstairs and a price tag of £96,000. I dont know Runcorn at all, but surely it’s not a bad place to live?

Meanwhile, I’m sorry to say that, the excellent beers apart, and of course the superb cheeses, which I shall miss, I shall be glad to get home. I’ve just spent two and a half weeks in the UK and it has not been pleasant. Every day it has not only rained, it has fairly chucked the stuff down. A couple of days back I was driving to the West Country and I could hardly see where I was going. The trucks in front were just a darker shade of grey in the swirling rain and spray.

And I am bloody cold. I’m sitting here with pullover and jacket on while writing this. Back home I would be in shirt sleeves. And I bet my nispirus are all ready to eat, and the peaches should be ready as well. Hey ho, sweet dreams!
john

Hurdes

Las Hurdes

Las Hurdes is a strange region of Spain. Historically it has been one of those places where the maps read “here be dragons and strange beasts”. The area was locked in grinding poverty, and the buildings were shabby and stinking. The people were riddled with disease and all the mental problems that develop from inbreeding.

There was one priest in the 1930s who tried to bring fresh blood into his village, but no-one would follow him to the region. Las Hurdes had such a bad reputation no-one wanted to venture there, so in order to try and bring fresh blood into the stock he ended up seducing most of his female flock and ending up fathering about 100 children.

The area is mountainous, and heavily wooded in parts, and travel was difficult before modern roads were pushed through, and indeed, up until the mid seventies the place was virtually unknown. I travelled all over Spain in the sixties, and even I completely missed the whole region. At the time I got as far as Trujillo and was so depressed I refused to go any further. So the whole of the region beyond the old silver road was unknown territory.

From about 1975 onwards Las Hurdes has gradually been improved. The towns are now much the same as any in Spain. The countryside, though wild and rugged, is filled with goats, and a certain amount of prosperity. Goats and bees are the mainstay in the economy.

I could see no vestiges of the disease, hereditary idiocies, filth and squalor that was formerly the case. If the region is still poor, it is only relatively so. The small towns (really overgrown villages) are, generally speaking, about 25 kilometres apart, and in between there are few or no villages, just alquerias, or hamlets. No wonder there was so much inbreeding.

On the other hand, the smaller places are currently getting smaller as there is a steady move to the larger towns. Casares de las Hurdes is experiencing a continuing fall in numbers, down to less than 500 at the last count. It is still difficult to get around. I got lost and lost again. The roads are marked on the maps, but they dont seem to be marked on the ground. I’m sure half of them dont actually exist, unless they are overgrown dirty tracks.

There is some tourism, and the rivers have been dammed in the south to produce a sizeable reservoir. I think it’s worth going back there, but it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. It’s very much a zone for those who are happy to get lost among lonely mountains and woodlands.

john

Salamanca

Salamanca

Leaving the Landes area of France we pressed on to Spain, stopping briefly for breakfast at the border where I bought an odd shaped baguette, which I’m told is traditional in these parts.

Basque Bread

I shan’t be doing this journey across Spain in the hot weather again. I suppose it is my own fault. I didn’t realise that for the AC unit in the car to work I have to top it up with something, so we roasted and sweated across Spain, arriving seriously dehydrated at Salamanca.

Salamanca is always worth a stop. It has a very old cultural history, one of the world’s oldest and most respected universities, and that amazing square right in the middle of the old town, once described by someone as Europe’s greatest drawing room. It is completely enclosed by these buildings.

Salamanca central square

We swooped round Salamanca on the autovia, and turned onto the A66, the Autovia Ruta de la Plata. It’s named after the old Silver road. Silver looted from the Americas was brought back to Seville, or preferably unloaded in Sanlucar because you could trust a man from Sanlucar, but of course you couldn’t trust those crooks up in Seville. Then the loot was carried north up through the old towns of Estremadura. This was the land of the conquistadores.

Estremadura was the poorest part of medieval Spain, and it is no surprise that men from this region went to find a better future across the Atlantic. The palaces of the conquistadores can still be seen around the square of the old town of Trujillo. And of course Pizarro is on his horse.

Trujillo Square and Pizarro

Hmmm….. I ought to erase all that. I have just found out that what I have been told over the years by Spaniards isn’t true at all. According to the all-knowing Wikipedia, confound it, the name is a corruption of the Arabic word balata, which means paved. Mind you, I dont believe a word of it. All Roman roads would have been paved, not just one going through Salamanca. I’m sticking to my story. Anyway, the road passes close to the ancient mines now known as the Rio Tinto Mines, to the north west of Seville. These mines were full of copper and silver, and date back to Phoenicean times, 2000 years BC.

When I first visited the old town of Trujillo back in the sixties it was a ruin. Goats lived in the palaces, and most of the old houses had no doors, and half the walls were down. The road was potholed, and almost impassable, and there were miles and miles of deserted land in all directions. Life here was grim.

This time I wanted to explore the more western corners of the region. There is a region known as Las Hurdes, and I wanted to look around. But first we needed to recover. We stopped just outside the small town of Mozarbez, which is about eight miles south of Salamanca. There is a rather nice hotel just off the A66. I collapsed into the swimming pool, and Julie lay in a cool bath.

I can recommend the hotel. It’s clean, cheap, pleasant, and the food is okay. And it is very convenient for Salamanca as it is just a quiet short ride back into town, with great views over the city as you drive in.

john

Landes

The Landes

We drove south from La Vienne, down the A10 to Bordeaux, and then onto the old N10 where it cuts a swathe through the pines in the Landes.

This is an unusual area, with very few towns, and villages hidden in among the trees. There is a long coastline of dunes stretching from Arcachon right down to the Spanish border. Mostly these dunes are deserted, except for a couple of months in high summer when they are deluged with bodies soaking up the sun.

Holiday beach in the Landes

Inland are the pines interspersed with hardwood forest and a few fields. The main industry in the Landes is logging and the production of charcoal. The villages sleep their way through the year to burst into activity during August, when you can hardly move along the roads for walkers, cyclists, and a line of cars making for the nearest campsite and beach.

Chalet in the Landes

We stayed in the charming little village of Mazos. There is a late medieval church built to withstand a siege, with a charming wooden spiral staircase up to the belfry. There is the only shop for miles, and a huddle of houses. Opposite the church is a restaurant where you can collapse under spreading trees to savour a rather nice cuisine as the evening gradually gets cooler.

Chalet in the Landes

Living in the Landes presents you with a different way of life. You are secluded, you are almost cut off from the rest of the bustling world. It’s a major operation to get into the nearest town. You can walk, dream, commune with nature, and maybe make a few euros every summer by renting out the spare room to a deluge of tourists.

Hampshire-Alton

As I am back in the UK I am going to continue with my occasional series of Clare’s Counties.

Last week I travelled down to The New Forest to see a friend I’ve known since my schooldays. Having cleared the western straggle of London I hit the A31. This is quite an interesting road.

Between Guildford and Farnham it runs along the crest of a ridge for several miles with wide-reaching views on both sides. It’s called The Hogs Back.

The other side of Farnham the road runs down to Alton, over the border in Hampshire. It’s just another small country town, but it does have a special interest for me. To show why, I have to go back to when I was about nine years old.

My cousin and I were keen fans of ancient record players. We amassed quite a collection, and I’m only sorry that it seems to have been lost over the years. We had a nice wind-up gramophone which was shaped like an attaché case. Another was quite large, and had an enormous detachable horn. Another was so old that it took records shaped like jam jars. They came in highly coloured containers. Unscrew the top, slide out the jar, and slip it over something shaped like a shortened rolling pin so it revolved vertically. In short, this machine played cylindrical records instead of disc-shaped records. This machine was called a graphaphone.

Graphaphone

I’ve managed to find a picture of one. As you can see, it’s pretty old. They were first invented in 1881, and were originally worked by a foot pedal. Later versions were powered by a handle.

With these machines came masses of ancient records. We had a whole heap of Victor Silvester, the Savoy Quartet, loads of Harry Lauder, and the prize item, a one-sided shellac recording dating from 1908, made by the then Lord Mayor of London, Sir William Treloar, which was a plea for donations to help him start up a hospital and school for crippled children in Alton. The museum at Alton has a copy, and I have a copy. I dont think there are any others in existence.

Just off the A31 is the village of Selborne, made famous by the eighteenth century vicar who wrote his Natural History of Selborne, which was first published in 1789. It is believed to be the fourth most published book in the language after Shakespeare, the Bible and the Oxford English Dictionary.

But I’m going to leave Selborne to next week’s episode as there is The Rare Plants Festival being held there next weekend (18/19 June). If the weather can get itself together I shall be there. Maybe we’ll meet. You cant miss me with that tangled hair-style of mine, and I wouldn’t say no to an offer of a cream bun.

john

Back in the UK

I am back in the UK for a short stay. I’ve been here a week and initially the culture shock was severe. I was frozen, and went about wearing a pullover and a coat. The weather briefly improved, but my garden is now soaking and I am going to have to put the heating on this evening. I cant face UK weather any more.

I have a place on the edge of London which backs onto a four acre pond, so it is very secluded, and is pure joy in the summer. (If we get any summer. Summer seems to come in spring these days.) It can be a bit damp and dismal in the winter. But the wild life is great. There are hedgehogs, very rich bird life, and of course foxes, and a small muntjack deer.


Unfortunately the neighbour wants to put up a fence. Maybe I can cut a hole in it to allow the deer and the foxes to get through, otherwise I shall miss them.

I am seriously thinking of selling this place. So if you are interested, there is a two bed bungalow on the western outskirts of London, very secluded, up for sale. You cant see another house, but the property is 500 yards from the nearest road, so it is access on foot after that. If you’re interested, email me.

Next week I shall start travelling around to see what’s happening here. The main news seems to be that London at least is thriving, but we shall see. I will try and gauge the property market, but most of the news is that rentals are good and sale prices in the South-East have stabilised, and they are rising in London.

john

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