A Travellerspoint blog

Lourdes

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When we left San Sebastian we had vague ideas of reaching Toulouse by nightfall but a journey of over 600 kilometres while stopping along the way for sightseeing wasn’t really realistic. As we made slow progress along the French highways we came to that realisation and changed plans. We decided to visit Lourdes approximately half way between Biarritz and Toulouse and another famous city of Christian pilgrimage. For much of its history Lourdes was a small regional town whose most notable feature was the impressive castle overlooking the old town. Then in 1858 a peasant girl called Bernadette saw a vision of the Virgin Mary in a cave. The Virgin gave her a secret message that she passed on to the Pope. That message so impressed the Pope that he certified that Bernadette had recieved a true vision of the Virgin. Bernadette went on to become a nun but died young. Her body was embalmed in the same way as Lenin’s and her tomb became a shrine. Nowadays her body is no longer on display (as that would be a little bit tacky).
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Bernadette’s vision transformed Lourdes from a sleepy town into a centre for pilgrimage. A magnificent church was built on the rocky outcrop above the cave. The cave remains much the same as it was a 160 years ago, except for the addition of a statue of the Virgin high up in one corner and a concrete floor to ease access for the elderly and infirm. And of course the elderly and infirm make up the majority of pilgrims. Long queues of people in wheelchairs, walking frames, and hospital beds roll, shuffle and are wheeled past the grotto hoping, praying for a cure from a myriad of ailments. Elderly and middle aged women made up a large proportion of the pilgrims. There were plenty of Irish accents in the crowd, while religious tour groups unfurled banners proclaiming their various pilgrimages. Each night at 9pm a procession winds its way from the church around the grounds to the grotto to the accompaniment of hymns and prayers in various languages. The scale of the procession is astonishing - we visited on a Tuesday night and there were about 5,000 people marching. On Fridays and Sundays the crowds are much bigger.
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People believe what they want to believe, but I doubt many of the people here would have thought too deeply about the origins of the rituals they perform. While religions themselves might change, religious practices often reach down to something much deeper, much older. The cult of the earth mother has origins predating history itself, but four millennia ago that the Great Goddess makes her first recognisable appearance in western history amongst the Hitties in central Turkey. Two millennia later the Hittites passed the Great Goddess onto the Greeks, who knew her as Artemis. The magnificent temple of Artemis at Ephesus would later become one of the Seven Wonders of the World and drew pilgrims from all over the Middle East. Later still the Romans would know her as Diana and her shrines were erected throughout the Empire.
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In the first century AD, the Apostle Paul made his way across Asia Minor and stopped at Ephesus. His preaching against Artemis upset the Ephesians who not only loved their goddess but also made a lot of money from the pilgrimage trade, and Paul was run out of town. Four centuries later though, Christianity was in the ascendant and the Ephesians converted to the new faith. The Artemesion was converted into a church and the statues of Artemis were carefully buried (to be discovered again in the 19th century). With the change of religion it seemed the Ephesians had done themselves out of a trade, but the Ephesians had found a surprising replacement for their missing Goddess - the Virgin Mary. Not only did they claim that the Apostle John had written his gospel in Ephesus but that Mary, the Mother of Jesus had retired to and died in Ephesus. Her tomb outside of town became the new centre of pilgrimage. Not only that, but in 431AD a church council was held in Ephesus and Mary was proclaimed not only to be the Mother of Jesus but to be the Mother of God. And so, Artemisia, Diana, the immortal Great Goddess had inserted herself into the heart of the new religion and the great candle lit processions that had once wound their way around the Artemision in her honour now carried a statue of a Virgin Mother as their centrepiece. Of course, the Catholic clergy don’t quite take their vows of celibacy as seriously as did the priesthood of Artemis - they had showed their devotion by castrating themselves!
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We watched the procession winding its way around the massive processional field. If the weather is bad there is a second, underground processional way that can accommodate 20,000 worshippers - it’s amazing. We cut across the path and into the main town, now lit up like a Catholic Las Vegas. Every shop was filled with tacky Chinese-made faux religious….. shit. Mary snow domes, Mary statues, Mary lampshades, tea towels, spoons, those pictures that change depending on the angle you look at it from - now Mary, now Jesus. All of it crap and yet still so popular.
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Along the outskirts of the cathedral grounds and in the margins where the shops’ neon lights began to fade loitered the gypsies. The good Christians and nuns brushed past them as they hurried to and from the cathedral, barely casting them a second glance. Once again my ire towards the gypsies was in full flight. As we walked to the cathedral at dusk there was a man sitting, begging at the foot of the bridge with a miserable filthy child in his lap. They were still there were when we walked back to our hotel at 11pm and they were there again at 10am the next morning. These children, and there were many, should be in school and getting an education, but they aren’t. What future do these children really have when they are forced by their parents to beg; to learn to live a life of exclusion, misery and poverty. The Roma may claim they are trying to preserve their culture but if this is what it means then it isn’t a culture that’s worth preserving.
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The pilgrimages and prayers go on all night, every night, so cafes, restaurants and the ubiquitous souvenir shops are open all night. We stopped at a pleasant café for dinner a little after 11. Strangely, the staff were Muslim. I had a fabulous cassoulette and Shelly an average pizza. We didn’t drink. The next morning we wandered back into town with the intention of going inside the cathedral, but when we reached the entrance to the cathedral grounds we decided we really couldn’t be bothered all that way again. Besides, the pilgrimage circus was already starting. Amongst the crowds of elderly were several youth groups from Ireland. We overheard one group talking their day - the cathedral, the grotto, the museum, the tomb, dinner at a restaurant and then a night of booze and debauchery at the local Irish bar. Some things never change.

Posted by paulymx 07:27 Comments (4)

The Basque Country

The next morning we were up and out by 8.30am. During the night a mist had settled over the land and it didn’t dissipate until well after 10. It was so dense that trucks and cars on the motorway were simply swallowed up in front of us. The morning’s drive was a little bit tense.
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We were in a bit of a quandary about our next destination. We were unsure whether to go to Bilbao to see the Guggenheim Art Museum or the seaside resort town of San Sebastian. I had little interest in seeing San Sebastian so we decided to head towards Bilbao as it was slightly closer. The drive though took us right through the heartland of old Castile & Leon and although we didn’t plan on making any detours we ended up popping into Leon for lunch. Leon was one of the original old Spanish kingdoms and the city has some very old monuments from its glory days in the 10th century. In the 12th century Leon was merged with the Kingdom of Castile and kind of lost its identity. It became something of a backwater, which perhaps helped preserve the remains of the old Roman city. The cathedral, which is built right into the ancient Roman walls was reputed to be one of the great Romanesque cathedrals of Spain, but seemed quite small and regional in comparison to the imperial monuments of Granada and Seville. We didn’t stay long though before we pushed on. As we regularly discovered, a 'quick' detour into a city never turns out to be quick. Roadworks on the ring road into and out of the city made for an additional challenge and we lost almost three hours.
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It was late afternoon when we reached the turnoff to Bilbao but we'd lost so much time in Leon we decided to press on to San Sebastian. San Sebastian is on the south western edge of the Pyrenees, in Basque country. It is less than an hour from the French border and the town feels distinctly different from the rest of Spain. This may have something to do with the Basque influence. The Basques are a unique people in Europe and their language is completely unrelated to any other human language. Some people have speculated that they are in fact the descendants of the first “modern“ Cro-Magnon people who left their enigmatic cave paintings all across the Pyrenees and southern France. The Basques have long resisted all attempts at integration and some have been fighting for an independent homeland since… well, since before the Romans. In alleyways all through San Sebastian graffiti announced to travellers that “You are NOT in Spain. You are NOT in France. You are in Basque Country.”
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We almost didn’t get to stay in Basque country at all. We arrived in the middle of the San Sebastian film festival and almost all the budget accommodation was gone. After walking down every street in the old town we eventually snagged a room in the ‘new’ town, a ten minute walk from the centre of town. We quickly tidied ourselves up and headed back into the old town as we were quite keen to visit the many tapas bars we’d seen. San Sebastian is renowned for its tapas culture and it didn’t disappoint us. Seville had had a great tapas bar culture too but it was much simpler fare - olives, beans, cheese, bread and ham. In San Sebastian the spreads were way more elaborate with a large emphasis on seafood, which turned out to be something of a problem as neither of us really eat much seafood. Instead we feasted on potato and cheese crockets, salami, bread, olives and little empanada things (no idea what was in them) all washed down with lovely Spanish wine. We tried to visit as many bars as we could but after the first two we found that the tapas in all the bars was all basically the same. In fact it was prepared commercially and distributed all over town.
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All bars that is except one. One tiny, hole in the wall bar still prepared its on tapas and the massive queue of locals lining up outside showed that its efforts had not gone to waste. We determined to visit the bar on our first pass but there were simply too many people. We came past half and hour later and it was still packed. An hour later the crowd had begun to dissipate so we managed to squeeze in. The tapas were all very simple, as was the service. If you wanted a drink, you asked. If you wanted to eat, you helped yourself. When you finish, you simply told the staff how much you’ve had and paid. Unlike the other bars where the tapas ranged from 1 to 16 euro a serve, all the tapas cost 2.50 euro. It was great and we ate a lot. Much to Shelly’s disgust I had a blood sausage (which was fairly disgusting!). After exhausting the tapas bars we ended up at a nightclub where we had beers and mohitos, talking enthusiastically about what a great place San Sebastian is.
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We were up early the next day as there was urgent business to attend to - washing. I took the clothes to the only laundrette in town and worked on the blog while Shelly went shopping and sight-seeing. The laundrette was run by a Basque woman who had lived in Australia. Two more Australians arrived while I was there (you can always find Aussie tourists at the laundrette; it’s just a fact).
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In season San Sebastian is awash with well heeled tourists who come to work on their tans and shop; the wide, moon shaped bay would be packed with sunbathers. Today however, only a few hardy old souls braved the grey skies to catch the last dying rays of autumn. Surrounding the bay was an old fashioned boardwalk and beautiful 19th century buildings and parks. Unlike many seaside towns, San Sebastian retains its charm and elegance in winter.
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At lunchtime we bid adieu to lovely San Sebastian and headed north through the narrow passes into France. These passes were once witness to an event as monumental to the early middle ages as 911 is to our era. In 778 Charlemagne, the King of France and Germany, embarked on a ambitious invasion of Spain. He got as far as Zaragossa but the city would not surrender and, as his army’s food was running out he was forced to withdraw to the Basque city of Pamplona, where the Running of the Bulls is held each year. Finding that the Christian Basques were not as excited to see him as he expected, he burnt the city to the ground and took his army back to France through the passes north of San Sebastian. The Basques of course were extremely unhappy and mobilised their own army. They waited in the mountains until half his army had crossed the passes before they attacked. Charlemagne's army was cut in two and the rear guard was slaughtered to a man. It was the worst defeat of Charlemagne’s career and he never ventured into the south again.

Amongst the dead of the rear guard was Roland, the Duke of Brittany. Within a hundred years, tales and legends began to spring up around his name, as if he were a kind of medieval General Custer. These eventually crystallised into the Song of Roland, one of most important epic tales of medieval Christendom. Of course, in creating the myth a few things had be changed. The Christian Basques were transformed into Muslim Saracens; Roland’s death became a noble sacrifice to protect his liege lord and - most importantly - Charlemagne didn’t slink off to Aachen never to return, but returned to conquer Spain and threw the Muslims out of Europe forever. The Song of Roland was more than just a store recounted around a fireside; it transformed the medieval mindset. It lifted the struggle between Islam and Christendom from one of territory and power, to one of good versus evil. Roland himself came to embody the ultimate chivalric ideal of martial valour and unquestioning sacrifice and monuments to him were raised all over the Europe - there was even a 3 metre high statue of him in the town square of Bremen!
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Across the border we made a quick stop at Biarritz. Biarritz exudes an air of expensive indulgence but it lacked the cool, laid back sophistication of San Sebastian. But we had places to go so we hit the road toward Lyon.

Posted by paulymx 19:40 Comments (0)

To Santiago!

The Bizarre life of a Dead Saint

From Portugal we were travelling against the clock as we‘d agreed to catch up with a couple of our friends who were holidaying in the Dordogne in France. It seemed like a good idea at the time, I mean it’s just over the Pyrenees! But when we looked at the map we suddenly realised it was quite a bit further than we thought and it looked like there were three quite long driving days ahead, so we didn’t tarry in Porto too long. Driving due north we soon bid adieu to Portugal and entered northern west Spain. The province of Galicia in Spain was a revelation - mountainous, heavily forested and nothing at all like central and southern Spain. These mountains provided the Christians sanctuary from the invading Muslims when a Visigoth prince called Pelayo and his small band of refugees fought off pursuing Muslim cavalry in a skirmish that would be later be elevated into one of Spain’s epic national myths. News of his ‘victory’ would draw together the disillusioned resistance but could not in the long run reverse their meagre fortunes. The trouble was, as it always had been, that few people were really that eager to fight or die for the Visigoths. Something else was needed.
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Around 800, King Alfonso of Asturia stumbled on the solution. The Apostle James came to him in dream and revealed the whereabouts of his grave in the churchyard of Compestella. The grave was duly opened and the Pope certified that these anonymous bones did indeed belong to James. Exactly how James, who lived and died in Palestine, ended up buried in a Spanish churchyard was a question that did not bear asking, but no sooner than his bones were raised out of the ground than they began working miracles. In a battle with the Muslims James appeared in silver armour and riding a white horse, slaughtering Muslims left and right while hurling scallop shells (yes, it makes no sense). St James the Moor-slayer became The Symbol that united the forces of Christian Spain in a way that the Visigoths never could and “For Santiago!” became their battle cry. Soon pilgrims from all over Christendom began to make the long and arduous journey to the shrine of Santiago (as the Spanish called St James). The Camino de la Compostella is still a popular trek and we passed plenty of tourists and pilgrims walking the path. I must admit some of the legs seemed particularly dangerous, including long stretches along the shoulders of highways and main roads. In the process Santiago became very rich and a lavish gothic cathedral was built to house his relics.
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We arrived during mass and but were still let in regardless. The interior wasn’t as impressive as I had expected, especially given that this is one of the top five pilgrimage churches in Europe, but in the early 13th century the Andalusian warlord Al Mansor “the Victorious” had smashed the Crusaders sworn to defend St James, pillaged the city of all its treasures and burnt the cathedral to the ground. St James tomb however was left intact as the Muslims would have considered its destruction just as sacrilegious as the Christians.

Behind the altar a silver and gold reliquary statue of St James, incongruously dressed like a 10th century prince, sits facing the crowd. Under the altar there is a narrow passage with streams of tourists filing through. So we joined them. All I had expected to see was maybe a glimpse of a coffin hidden behind curtains, but instead the passage leads right up to the statue. Obviously we did not show the appropriate devotion to the Saint as an attendant slipped into the tiny room and demonstrated how we should revere it. He approached the statue (which is about life size) from behind, threw his arms around the statue’s shoulders, pressed his head against its neck, kissed it, and made the sign of the cross. As an atheist I find all this devotion completely incomprehensible.
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It was now late afternoon and we wandered around the old city centre. It was a pleasant and neat city, but not very large so we covered most of the sights within an hour. Perhaps ironically we had kebabs for dinner from an Iraqi Kurdish restaurant and then decided it was time to push on. We still had a lot of ground to cover if we were going to reach the Dordogne before the weekend. We drove until nightfall and stopped at anonymous roadside hotel. It was newly built and almost empty and we had a blessed night sleep.

Posted by paulymx 00:58 Comments (0)

Portugal

The Citroen world tour continues

Driving west from Seville we crossed the southern edge of the Extremadura, the great desolate region of south western Spain that divides it from Portugal. Across the border we entered the northern Algarve. It was dry, dusty and red; reminiscent of outback Australia or northern Mexico. The villages of the northern Algarve were grim and poor. It was a particularly long drive that day and Shelly slept most of the way because she is very lazy. But she did wake up when we reached the tollway about 20kms south of Lisbon. This was probably because I almost caused an accident when the highway split from 3 lanes into a 27 lane free for all. Of course the cash only lane was the farthest lane from where I was, requiring a nerves of steel dash across lines of traffic. There was some screeching of brakes, bibbing of horns and a little screaming but we made it.

Welcoming us through the tollway of death loomed a giant Cristo Redemptor statue. We passed beneath his welcoming arms and onto the bridge that crosses the enormous gorge separating Lisbon in the north with its commuter satellite cities in the south. The bridge was shockingly high and just driving over it gave us vertigo. To say that Lisbon is spectacularly situated is an understatement. The city is built over and around a series of mountains and gorges that drop dramatically away to the waterfront. Bridges, overpasses, tunnels and viaducts connect the various districts. It was quite an overwhelming arrival but we managed to navigate ourselves to our destination just outside the old centre of town without any problem. We parked in an underground carpark for about 24 euro a night - not the cheapest parking we’d paid but certainly not the most expensive. We found another carpark in Lisbon that charged 235 euro for overnight parking!!! It was a short walk from the carpark to the Tourist Information office to pick up a map and then to our chosen pension, which fortunately had a vacancy. We were right in the heart of the old city.
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Old Lisbon had its charms but had a definite run down and seedy feel. We couldn’t walk ten paces without someone offering us hashish or something harder so we were pretty much stoned the whole time we were there (ha ha!). Many of the old buildings were covered in tiles. Depending on the choice of pattern and colour the effect was either charming or reminiscent of a 1970’s toilet. Big hills loomed on either side of the old town - on one side the old castle, on the other a ruined monastery and the Barrio Alta, a former slum area now housing charming bars and restaurants (and lots of drugs!).
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The path up to the monastery is exceedingly steep and at the turn of the century an elevator was installed to take people up what is effectively four storeys. The elaborate old iron structure is an elegant feature of the city that would not look out of place at the Eiffel Tower. There was always a queue of people riding the elevator just for the view. Around the old town there are two elevators and three funicular tramways.
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Indeed, the city is positively criss-crossed with tramlines. Big new trams seem to run through every boulevard while the narrow, winding streets of the old town are serviced by tiny, old fashioned trams, some of whom have probably been rolling along those tracks for over a century. I am very fond of trams. They give a city a genteel kind of charm that other forms of public transport simply cannot provide.
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Most of the buildings of Lisbon date from the 19th century. In 1755 an earthquake swept most of Lisbon off its hillsides and into the sea. The old cathedral above the port is probably the only survivor of the old Lisbon and even that remains partly in ruins. The castle offers good views over the city but doesn’t have much else to recommend it as there is an entry fee just to take in the view. There were a few rooftop bars in buildings nearby which offer the same view for the price of a coffee or beer.
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A 15 minute tram or bus ride from old Lisbon brings you to the portside district of Belem. Look in any book about great architecture and you will find the Tower of Belem listed but I cannot for the life of me understand why. It may have been built as a fortification but today its little more than another 19th century folly with its all elaborate turrets and faux medieval features. Point for travellers - don’t get off the tram at the Belem stop but continue on at least two stops. The Belem stop is over a kilometre from the tower (which is not signposted - as it’s a kilometre away). The walk along the waterfront isn’t exactly the best.
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About 500 metres back from the Tower of Belem is the Monument to the Navigators. It’s a large white marble sculpture depicting the Portugals great explorers. In the Age of Exploration Portugal punched way above its weight for such a small country. Nowadays, Vasco da Gama is probably the best known but pride of place in this pantheon of great men is Prince Henry the Navigator. A younger son of the royal family, Henry had no chance of inheriting the Portuguese throne so instead dedicated his life to the study of science and exploration. He sponsored the collection of Arab manuscripts and maps and investigated their navigational equipment and mathematics, which was centuries ahead of Christian technology. When the first (Western) explorers sailed around Cape Horn to India they were not - as is often claimed - sailing into the unknown. They were sailing towards well known and well documented destinations and they had Arab maps and navigational instruments to guide them. Whilst this little bit of history has been neglected (or deliberately distorted) elsewhere, Portugal rightly acknowledges “the important contribution of the Muslims to Portugal.”
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This small statement marks a significant difference in the Portuguese and Spanish national characters. A Brazilian author once commented that the Portuguese forged their empire by “f*cking everybody they met” while the Spanish became obsessed with racial, class and religious purity. The Portuguese today are a diverse melting pot of different peoples - Europeans, Africans, Indians and Asians. Which possibly explains why Portugal seems to have no specific ’national’ cuisine. Maybe I’m being harsh but to be frank the ‘Portuguese’ restaurants in Lisbon were uniformly sh*t. Every day we had to walk through a gauntlet of restaurant touts to and from our hotel every day (it is ALWAYS a sign of a BAD restaurant if you need to have people out the front haranguing passers by) and swore we’d steer clear of such dodgy establishments. On the recommendation of our hostel we went to an area further from the old town to ‘where the locals go.’ It proved to be simply more of the same - same haranguing bullsh*t, same sh*t menus. However, after hours of fruitless searching we decided to cut our losses and chose a restaurant that seemed to be serving more locals than tourists. Not only were both our meals awful but the b*stards tried to rip us off. They were all pretty standard tricks and are probably common to all the dodgy restaurants in downtown, so for the benefit of other travellers -
1. Undisclosed service charges but also insisting on a tip;
2. Not providing a drinks price list and then claiming to have served you the most expensive wine or beer on their menu;
3. Dual pricing trickery - having a cheaply priced menu board on the street that the tout talks to and a separate menu with higher prices when you sit down.
Needless to say when we got the bill and noticed the price of the meals were different to the board we’d ordered off we refused to pay. They initially tried to claim they were lunchtime specials but as we were beginning to cause a scene they adjusted our bill. We still paid way too much.

The next night we went to Barrio Alta and found an Italian restaurant that served us an absolutely superb meal.

Porto
Is there any Port left?

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The fortified wine we know as Port originated in the town of Porto in Portugal. It was quite long drive from Lisbon to Porto and we only made a brief stop at Navarre on the Atlantic coast. Navarre is quite dramatically situated on a beach at the bottom of a cliff. The town earns its living from fishing and tourism. It does have very nice sandy beaches and although it was a little cool there were a couple of brave souls out on the beach. We stayed long enough to dip our feet in the Atlantic, take a couple of pics, have a drink and fend off the old ladies offering us rooms (oh, unless I completely misunderstood that conversation!)
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Porto was huge and due our inadequate Lonely Planet map and VERY POOR road signage we had to drive around and around for quite a while until we found a landmark we could recognise. Funnily enough, the carpark we pulled into was right around the corner from our hostel - another lucky fluke!
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As in Lisbon, there are no flat streets in Porto - it’s all up and down - and although Porto seemed more run down than Lisbon it also seemed to have more character. Nevertheless, when we got down to the old port we had no better luck finding a decent restaurant. This wasn’t because the restaurants were sh*t - some were very nice - but they were all seafood and/or expensive. After much wandering and hand wringing we settled for a toasted baguette. It was also a Sunday and about 9pm a public PA system somewhere in the streets began broadcasting the mass. It was ear splittingly loud and went for almost an hour followed by religious music. That was enough for us. We took the hint and went home to bed.
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The next day we ventured back to the port for some sight seeing. On the main boulevard just outside the old town however we encountered a massive traffic jam. All the streets into and out of the centre of town had been blocked for a rally by the Portuguese Citroen owners club. There were hundreds of them. The funny thing was the Citroen CV2 had become the unofficial mascot of our holiday. We spotted them everywhere, especially in Germany (but strangely NO VW beetles!). We kind of went mad and took lots of photos which I will email to my mother later. When I was 18 and looking for my first car the only car I could think of that I actually liked was the Citroen DS (I used to have a little matchbox toy). My mother told me in no uncertain terms that if I ever brought one I was NEVER ALLOWED TO RETURN HOME EVER AGAIN. To this day she’s never explained this pathological dislike of Citroens.
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After the Citroen frenzy, Porto kind of paled into insignificance. The old port is very beautiful however and we did sample the ubiquitous port of Porto, which was very very beautiful. But as the morning turned into afternoon we decided it was time to push on. We were driving north back into Spain to... SANTIAGO!
Here is a link to some of the photos we took of the Citroen rally
http://heinkelscooter.blogspot.com/2009/12/portuguese-citroen-club-rally-20.html

Posted by paulymx 14:59 Comments (2)

Seville

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Seville, Cordoba and Granada form something of triangle with Cordoba in the north, Seville in the west and Granada in the south. We were heading west towards Portugal so we needed to backtrack a little along the same highways we’d travelled from Cordoba to Seville. Seville was another old Roman city that had risen to prominence under the Muslims. Seville retains its old cosmopolitan atmosphere and feels ‘more Spanish‘ than either Granada or Cordoba. We stayed in a simply but cute hotel cum restaurant in the middle of the old town, one street back from the cathedral. It was all whitewashed walls and blue tiles.
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Seville had been one of the leading cities of Al-Andalus. It’s mosque rivalled the capital Cordoba’s in size and beauty and its minaret, the Giralda, was the tallest building in the world in the 11th century. The Giralda, one of the few remaining Muslim monuments left, is the symbol of the city and appears on its coats of arms. It was converted into a bell tower immediately after the conquest. In the cathedral itself there is an icon with two angels guarding the Giralda. As in other cities, the mosque was quickly torn down and replaced by a gothic cathedral. The demolition however was not quite complete. The Sevillians decided to retain the outer garden courtyard of the mosque with its fountains, orange trees and horseshoe gates, although they did erect a statue of a triumphant Christ driving out cowering, terrified Muslims over the gate, just to drive home the point. The garden provides a pleasant respite from the grim, earnestness of the cathedral interior.
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Christopher Columbus' tomb resides in the cathedral under an elaborate monument. There is some doubt however that it's actually his body but that of one of his sons. He undertook four voyages of exploration. On the last trip he was arrested by his crew for cruelty and mismanagement and sent home to Spain in disgrace. Despite his modern fame, Columbus resolutely refused to believe he'd discovered a new continent, insisting to the end that he had reached some islands east of Japan.
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We climbed the Giralda for a view over the city. The climb wasn’t as arduous as it might have been however as the tower features an internal sloping ramp up to the top rather than stairs (very convenient!).
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From the cathedral we wandered around to the Alcazar, but did not go in. The royal palace features some Islamic pavillions that rival the Alhambra for extravagance, but we were kind of over acres of tiles.
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We walked to the riverside to check out the Golden Tower, part of the old city fortifications and the bull ring. Some giggling Japanese ladies were having their photo taken next to a life-size bronze statue of a matador who’s ’manliness’ seemed definitely larger than life-size!
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We wandered aimlessly through the winding streets of the old town. Many of the old houses do not have actual front doors so you can peer into their courtyards and view their elaborate tiled halls, fountains and gardens, which are very pretty. The brochure from the tourist office presents this as a quaint and scenic feature of the city “originating in the 19th century” when people began replacing their doors with gates. Once again this statement is pretty far from the truth and in fact has a much darker origin. The Inquisition’s paranoia about Muslim and Jewish backsliding resulted in bans on all potentially ‘Muslim’ behaviour, such as reading Arabic and bathing. But it wasn’t enough for them to burn the public libraries and destroy the public baths (cleanliness may be next to Godliness but it could also get you burnt at the stake in these times). Inquisition might not be able see into peoples hearts, but they could demand to see into peoples lives. Front doors were banned so that Inquisitors could burst in upon people unannounced. It wasn’t until the 19th century people were allowed to put gates across their entrances.
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Seville is renowned for its bar culture so in the late afternoon we went on a bit of a bar crawl. Part of the enjoyment of drinking in Spanish bars (apart from drinking in Spanish bars) is free tapas. Of course you have to pay for proper tapas, but every bar also provides plates of olives, bread and beans. After a few bars we hardly needed to eat, although we eventually a plate of chorizo, Serrano ham and local cheese at a very local bar where nobody spoke any English. At the end of the night we ended up in the courtyard of a cathedral which doubles as a bar. Although it was a weeknight the courtyard was packed with people drinking, eating and socialising. It was almost as if we’d returned to Dusseldorf and its long bar (except that the wine was nicer and the people were better dressed!).
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The next morning we debated going to the Alcazar and visiting the palace but decided instead to avoid the queues and visit the Plaza Espana. Plaza Espana was built in 1929 as part of the Ibero-American Exhibition. The World Exhibition phenomenon started with the London Exhibition of 1851 which showcased English inventions and technology. It was such a hit that every other country held its own. The plaza is an enormous semi-circular arcade. It was far too large to capture in a single photograph. Around the outer arcade individual mosaic fountains highlighted important scenes from Spanish history. Of course they present the ultra-nationalist view of history and 700 years of Muslim Spain are reduced to the surrender of several key cities, such as Seville, Cordoba, Almeria, Granada and Avila, to victorious Reconquistas. The building is grand of course but is now something of a white elephant. Some government departments have their offices there, such as the Dept of Road Transport, so people applying for a drivers licenses jostle with tourists in the broad, empty corridors. The building is probably most famous for providing the setting for the British High Command scenes at Cairo in the movie, “Lawrence of Arabia.”
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