Category Archives: Travel

Hark, when the night is falling, Hear, hear, the pipes are calling……..

We all have preconceptions of a place and its people before we go there, based on things we learned at school, television programmes, books we’ve read, sports we follow or even films we’ve watched.
Take Scotland. I’ve never been there but I know all about it ! How?
Well……………………………
at every New Year’s Eve party – even south of the border- I’ve linked hands with people and belted out a rousing chorus of ‘Auld Lang Syne , penned originally by Scottish poet Rabbie Burns, who died quite young but not before writing some of our best loved poems.
I’ve watched the film ‘Braveheart’ (three times!) It stars Mel Gibson. Who can forget his blue warpaint as he galloped across the Scottish countryside as William Wallace, the fearless leader of the Wars of Scottish Independence.

The real Wallace met a grisly end of course, hanged, drawn and quartered as he was, but let’s not dwell on that.
 
I’ve seen documentaries about the breathtaking Scottish landscape. Scotland is divided diagonally NE to SW into the Highlands and Lowlands. The Highlands lay claim to Britain’s highest mountain, Ben Nevis – standing at 1,344 metres above sea level –  in global terms not much more than a hill – after all,  Mount Everest is 8,848 metres high , Mount Toubkal in the Atlas range measures 4,165, and even Spain easily beats it with Torre de Cerredo in the Picos de Europa at 2,650 metres  and Aneto in the Pyrennes at 3, 404 metres.

But what mountains anywhere all have in common is the exciting (not to say hare-brained!) range of winter sports that have grown up around them and Scotland has its fair share of those, and also the more sedate sport of curling – and they’re not half bad at it -remember the 2014 Winter Olympics ?  Eve Muirhead captained the Great Britain team to a bronze medal.
Highland Games – one of my earliest memories of anything Scottish is watching a TV programme (I was about 8 at the time). I was flabbergasted to see a huge bear of a man dressed in a skirt and vest, every muscle straining and every vein bulging as he hoisted the end of a tree trunk skyward and it fell with a crash – he was obviously delighted at the outcome but what was he doing?    I later learned that he was ‘tossing the caber’ – this was one of the Herculean tasks participants of the Highland Games were required to perform; at least this particular task was not just to show off the contestants’ strength – in lumber jacking they sometimes needed to toss logs across narrow chasms to cross them.
I’ve read that ……there’s lots of incredible wildlife up there – 70 % of Scotland’s population live in the Lowlands, leaving the Highlands to creatures like grouse (the capercaillie being the largest of them) red deer, which no longer have any natural predators and so numbers now require ‘managing’ by us humans (oh, no!) and all manner of sea birds such as gannet, puffin and the majestic white tailed eagle  – Mull is a good place to see those, I’m told.
 

And if you venture out onto the water you might see dolphins, seals, even basking sharks – and if you’re really lucky – there’s Nessie – the Loch Ness Monster.

I’ve worn a tartan kilt  and  – who hasn’t heard a rousing band of Scottish pipers at a military tattoo?   Immaculate down to the last detail, marching resolutely  in perfect time or marking time outside the gates to some castle or other, tartan kilts swaying, and sooner or later you know they’ll play the evocative  ‘Scotland the Brave’ whose stirring lyrics and haunting pipes would reduce anyone to tears, Scottish or not.

 
Scottish gastronomy – well, for me it’s porridge, haggis and whisky! I love porridge, can pass on the haggis, though I’m not averse to a bit of offal, but I don’t like whisky  – or know anything about it, even though it is legendary north of the border. I understand there are literally hundreds of distilleries in Scotland, although I’m not sure how many are still Scottish owned (like every other industry on these islands some distillery owners have been forced to close or sell out to foreign companies  –  I believe Bacardi has taken over some distilleries – is nothing sacred!!) I’m sure there’s more to Scottish cuisine than this (Italian fish ‘n’ chips, for example, if you see what I mean!) but nothing comes to mind.
But famous Scots, well, that’s a different story. I’ve already mentioned two – Rabbie Burns and William Wallace, but what about other popular heroes? There’s Stephen Hendry, snooker ace, Billy Connolly AKA The Big Yin, who played John Brown in the film Mrs. Brown opposite Judi Dench’s Queen Victoria.  The story goes that John Brown, who started off as a humble gillie and servant on the Balmoral estate, became a  source of great comfort to the Queen whilst she was grieving for her dear departed, Prince Albert. And a source of great DIScomfort to those around her as they deemed his friendship inappropriate. Connolly proved his worth as an actor in that film. Another literary figure was Sir Walter Scott, the historical novelist, who was a contemporary of Rabbie Burns, a few years younger. His works include ‘Ivanhoe’ – ring a bell? Set in the Middle Ages – knights, crusades and all that,  you know.
And what of the Scottish character. Anecdotally,  the Scots are said to be ‘careful with their money’. It’s also said that the Scottish accent is one of the most popular and that people more readily trust a Scot in business negotiations.  I don’t know enough Scots well enough to comment. My Spanish husband worked with lots and their accent proved impenetrable to him. On the occasions he could get someone else to interpret he said they had a great sense of humour.
My favourite Scot?  Well, at the moment I think it’s Paolo Nutini –

 

obviously, descended from Italian immigrants and didn’t fancy going into the family business. I’m assuming that’s his real name, of course, it could be Alistair Stewart, but that wouldn’t matter – I’d still like his songs.

For me it would be a shame if Scotland became independent, not for any clearly defined political reason – simply because I ascribe to the ‘United we stand, divided we fall’ philosophy – if the U.K. fragments into 4 small states it would be like a family of 4 separating  and not seeing each other again – all four members would be weaker and poorer in every way.
I’m looking forward to my trip to Scotland – I feel my education is sadly lacking !! Time to make amends.
 

Water Works in Barcelona

My recent trip to Barcelona featured ‘water‘ in a variety of forms:

Nemo3 tiburoneelFirst of all I went to the aquarium to see its weird and wonderful residents, for whom water is, of course, their natural environment.

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Then a stroll round the marina (not quite as easy to enjoy as it used to be due to the sturdy metal security fence that was put round it a while ago).marina
Next a walk along the city beach front in La Barceloneta, looking a lot smarter these days to keep pace with the Hotel W, rising – seemingly – out of the sea, sleek and shiny and majestic – and expensive! – hotelW,  and costing around 220 euros a night. But us ordinary mortals can still enjoy the simple pleasures – paddling in the sea – it’s certainly a good way to cool off from the heat wave that has swept through most of Spain this summer, with sweltering temperatures of 40º plus from Madrid down to Sevilla.
paddling
 
thermoThis is the giant thermometer in Portal de l’ Angel, just down the road from Plaza de Cataluña in the centre of Barcelona, marking 29 º – positively chilly in comparison, you might think – but this was taken at 10 o’clock at night – so not much respite even after sundown!
Next it was time for a turn round Ciutadella Park , which this year has attracted a bunch of Bob Marley lookalikes, lounging on the grass and occasionally getting to their feet, wreathed in clouds of smoke (no idea what that is!)  to sing a bit of reggae  (other years it’s been bongo drummers or fitness instructors bellowing at their charges – prefer the reggae myself.) The park is a great place for locals and tourists alike to ‘tomar el fresco’ – take the cooler evening air –  and get a bit of exercise, if you must! It’s only a small park but it has everything you’d expect – benches, flowers, shade, ice cream stalls, a few oddballs, but best of all a lake with some very  exuberant fountains, shooting sprays of cooling water up into the air.
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runners
Continuing with the water theme, one day we took up an online offer to loll by the pool at the plush Catalonia Barcelona Plaza hotel, near Montjuic. They were offering non residents access to the swimming pool on their  fantastic, panoramic roof terrace (four poster sunbeds, no less!) and some great photo opportunities from a vantage point high in the sky. fromhotel2towerfromHotel1though I don’t suppose they are too keen on the neighbour who provided the view belowshanty   – if you look carefully, you will notice quite a lot of buildings in Barcelona with shanties like this one on the flat roof  – of course, you’re not usually high enough to see them but they’re there, and unfortunately for the powers that be, once they’ve been there long enough they acquire squatters’ rights and are very difficult to shift. This one’s definitely got an air of defiance about it – maybe the occupier is another victim of the ‘crisis’ – or maybe he’s an ex-bank manager!
I stayed with the water theme for the middle weekend of my stay but spent it ‘down country’ in Deltebre – a village in the Ebro Delta, about 2 hours train  ride south of the capital, in an area which produces a lot of the rice grown in Spain – Valencia is the other main rice growing area.
The Ebro delta is a refuge for many species of  water fowl and, as it turns out, THOUSANDS of dragonflies!  I was hoping to see more birds but we would have needed to stay longer and plan better – I realised that it takes a determined and knowledgeable guide  to track down the more spectacular breeds  – so next time I’ll go prepared.
Nonetheless, it is a beautiful area away from the madding crowds.
boats
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paddy   dragonfly
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Countdown to 2026 and the completion of La Sagrada Familia

The basilica of the Sagrada Familia was one of the first places I visited in Spain way back in 1969. It was and still is, a ‘must see’ on any excursion to Barcelona. It’s easily the most unusual church you’ll  ever see and, despite the fact that it’s STILL unfinished, it’s a fantastic sight.
Rumour has it that it’s due for completion in 2026 to coincide with the centenary of Gaudí’s death – a more realistic estimation, according to some, is 2028.
Most people know at least two facts about Antoni Gaudí, the catalán architect  – 1) that the Sagrada Familia is his magnum opus and 2) that he was killed by a tram. He was, of course, responsible for many other great constructions, most of them in  Barcelona – like the Casa Batlló in the beautiful thoroughfare of El Paseo de Gracia, or Parc Güell, inspired, as are all his works, by his love of natural forms.
León boasts two of his creations – the Casa Botines and the Palacio Episcopal de Astorga and in Comillas, Cantabria, stands El Capricho. a summer house of oriental design, commissioned by Máximo Díaz de Quijano and just as wacky and beautiful as all Gaudí’s other designs.
At the time of Gaudí’s death the construction of the Sagrada Familia had really only just got underway. His plans were complicated, inspired and ambitious, but it seems his disciples were more than willing to continue his work, although controversy has always surrounded their interpretation of his designs. Vociferous critics claim that what we now see deviates from his ideas and, as the original plans seem to have been lost or destroyed, it’s difficult to know if that’s right.
Personally, I prefer the original  art nouveau, free, organic  style, with its naturalistic forms to the stark and angular style of, say, the Passion Façade.
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If you’re lucky enough to find yourself staring up at this magnificent building take a few minutes to study it – the more you look the more you see:  figures, animals, plants all interwoven to create a masterpiece of such incredible detail and workmanship.
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Some of the colours used in the interior are more gaudy than Gaudí  – but whatever you think of it you won’t forget it!
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In 2010 the nave of the church, which had been open to the elements,  was covered and a magnificent organ installed. This allowed it’s consecration by Pope Benedict XV1 at a ceremony on November 7th, attended by thousands. Religious ceremonies could now be conducted. Ignoring the ever present cranes and scaffolding,  the most striking thing about the church are the many spires – they dominate the skyline and from inside afford an unrivalled view across the city.  Gaudí wanted 18 spires – 12 to represent the Apostles, 1 for the Virgin Mary, 4 for the Evangelists and the tallest for Jesus Christ.  The spires are also bell towers and Gaudí had done some very specific studies of the acoustics to get the sound of the bells just right – he thought of everything, didn’t he?
He didn’t think of the AVE, though. Around 2009, much to the consternation of those responsible for the Sagrada Familia, it was revealed that the engineers developing the expansion of the AVE network (Spain’s high speed train) planned to construct an underground tunnel  at the Barcelona end of the line between Madrid and Barcelona, very close to the Sagrada Familia, or even right underneath it! Now, wouldn’t that be ironic? After spending more than a century trying to finish the building, that it should be undermined – quite literally –  by a machine not unlike the one that had finished poor old Gaudí off all those years ago! ! Would the Sagrada Familia disappear in a cloud of dust – reduced to a pile of rubble by the AVE as it  whistled by at 350 kilometres an hour on it’s way to France!!
Let’s hope that doesn’t happen! To see how the church will eventually look go to :